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'Mommy tech' gets its own home at gadget show as market expands

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 9:28 PM

LAS VEGAS - The world's biggest tech show primarily focuses on gearheads and businessmen, but this year it put at least one spotlight on another market that's proving just as eager for the latest gizmos: moms.

The Consumer Electronics Show hosted a "Mommy Tech" section with gadgets geared for fitness, online safety and ways to better organize the household. It was a recognition of research showing that moms spend half of a family's budget for consumer electronics, creating an estimated $822 million market that is only expected to increase as women seek more ways to stay in touch with the family and get more organized while on the go.

"Online moms are a particularly important consumer segment as they are both active on social media sites and possess substantial buying power and influence," said Ben Arnold, a Consumer Electronics Association research analyst.

According to the association, mothers are careful researchers who often buy off of online reviews and make purchasing decisions through suggestions on social networking sites.

CES, which wrapped up on Sunday and drew more than 140,000 attendees, still catered to its traditional audience of tech geeks and business executives, with much floor space dedicated to 3-D televisions and software for big computer servers. And some of the show's attempts to appeal to families seemed a stretch: Will a mom really want to tweet from her refrigerator when she grabs a yogurt?

But in and beyond the designated mom zone, there was much to appeal to frenetic moms in search of ways to help ease the morning breakfast and carpool rush, entertain the family and keep it safe and healthy.

"This was the first year where CES wasn't a scavenger hunt for things related to moms," said Monica Vila, who writes a blog, Theonlinemom.com. "There were so many useful things for the family with real, practical implications."

Tablets such as those from Motorola, Toshiba, Dell and Research in Motion will be popular with mothers, who are adopting smartphones and other mobile devices faster than computers and televisions.

At school, waiting in carpool lines and at sports practice, mothers can update family calendars on cloud-based software or retrieve a child's latest vaccination report, using a tablet screen far bigger than that of a smartphone.

Indeed, the biggest theme at CES this year was how wireless Internet connections will change business and the lives of consumers.

Televisions with Internet connections allow parents to organize family calendars and order eggs and books for delivery while watching the evening news. The walkie-talkie merged with video baby monitors so dads can soothe a little one to sleep from a different room. When "The Backyardigans" finishes streaming to the back seat, moms can tell the car to load up the next episode while keeping both hands on the wheel.

EBay wants to get moms to spend more money while on the go and showcased the free mobile app RedLaser, which allows smartphone users to snap a photo of a shopping bar code and then either buy the product on the auction site or compare how much it costs at local retailers.

"For a lot of parents, getting the chores done can't wait until they are at home in front of a computer. They want to shop and research while waiting in line or at a red light," said Steve Yankovich, vice president for eBay Mobile.

Beyond shopping, manufacturers focused on family safety.

Neer showed off its iPhone application that lets parents track where others in the family are through GPS technology on smartphones. Unlike public location tracking sites such as Foursquare, Neer limits searches to a chosen three to five people and keeps that information private.

OnStar put its safety communications system for GM cars onto the rearview mirror for use with other car brands. Starting in spring, OnStar will sell the mirror for $299, but you'll have to install it at a retailer such as BestBuy for an estimated $79 more. Service will cost $18.95 a month for the automatic crash response, navigation help, link to emergency services and a service that lets you find your stolen vehicle.

And for safety at home, baby monitors got a major upgrade this year.

Withings unveiled a baby monitor that will snap photos and video of hopefully resting baby and send it to an iPhone. Available in March, the French company's Smart Baby Monitor also has LED infrared lighting for viewing in the dark and can detect the room's temperature and humidity to feed to your phone. Motorola combined its two-way radio technology with the baby monitor so parents can not only view and hear their child but talk back, too.

All this information on the go needs to be organized in one central place at home. That's one way all the Internet-connected televisions could be useful for families. LG, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony all introduced new Internet TVs that operate more like smartphones. Users can scroll screens for Internet applications such Amazon, Google Calendar and Netflix along with watching regular television.

It's difficult to tell whether users will shop for bread and milk while watching streaming episodes of "The Office," but high-speed wireless and home Internet connections make that a possibility. Family technology experts such as Vila said televisions will likely be used for video and photo slide shows of the family when a sports game or program isn't on.

And there was no shortage of family fun. Microsoft's Kinect will get the family boxing and knocking tennis balls back and forth without controllers. For a brainier game, two researchers from MIT came up with Sifteo, wireless 1.5 inch cubes that sense each other and whose color screens change for puzzles and brainteasers.

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