By Maya Palit
“You have all this technology to monitor your baby in the womb, but as soon as the baby arrives, there is absolutely nothing,” says a frustrated expecting parent, quoted on the website of a company that is hoping to change the scenario for parents-to-be.
Meet Raybaby, the world’s first non-contact respiration and sleep tracker for babies, invented by a Bangalore-based start-up company called RIoT (Ray IoT) Solutions. Founded in 2015 by three women scientists and engineers, Aardra Kannan Ambili, Ranjana Nair, and Sanchi Poovaya, it is the first Indian company to receive support from the multinational Johnson and Johnson (although the details of the support are confidential), as well as the first to get funding from the Chinese ‘Silicon Valley’ hardware accelerator HAX, of over Rs 1 crore.
While there are several devices and apps that monitor babies (and now, a new device called Aristotle can even talk to babies), they usually involve skin contact, chest bands and bracelets, or having to place hands on the baby’s chest, while the wireless ones tend to focus on capturing video and audio of the babies. Raybaby, on the other hand, does more.
It has a camera, but also uses ultrasound technology — ultra wideband (UVB) radar, to be precise, a technology that has been used to monitor the movements of babies in the womb — to track the respiration rate (the number of breaths per minute, with 25-40 considered normal). It uses radio waves that have the same emissions as that of a digital alarm clock or a toaster, to track the tiniest movements of the baby’s body.
And most importantly, it is a wall-mounted device that makes sure there is no direct skin contact or intrusive wiring or batteries, thereby not imposing on the baby or interfering with comfort and hygiene. All the data is sent to a phone-based app, and the inferences apparently have 98 percent accuracy — even when the baby being monitored is hidden under a blanket. And it’s small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.
Aardra Kannan Ambili, a scientist with a background in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, who co-developed the technology, tells me why they decided to focus so closely on tracking breathing. “The four aspects you would monitor for a newborn baby in an emergency room — the ‘vitals’ — are temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Because of limitations in technology, we couldn’t create a product that would monitor all four at the same time. We chose respiration, because disrupted breathing can be a sign of more than respiratory illness. It isone of the most significant medical markers of the onset of serious conditions like epilepsy and asthma. ” she explained.
Neonatologists have expressed a certain amount of scepticism about baby monitors helping parents track babies’ health, or preventing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Also known as ‘crib death’, it is a leading cause of death in young infants under the age of one, which can cause babies to die in their sleep for no apparent medical reason. The British Medical Journal, which focuses on family planning and reproductive healthcare, suggested in a 2014 study that the ‘peace of mind’ that parents hope to get from using baby monitors might be ‘illusory’. However, this criticism was in reference to expensive and wearable monitors, whereas Raybaby appears to have gone a step further through its non-contact feature. According to Sanchi, a mechanical engineer by training who works on Production and Operations for the Ray IoT team, the fact that Ray also monitors sleep patterns is crucial. “Sleep training is a hugely important process and we’ve heard of so many parents complaining about sleep deprivation for the first few months after birth. This way, they can have access to movement data and observe their baby’s sleep patterns without worrying.”
The product being priced at $250 (Rs 17,000) will be steep for Indian consumers (particularly as basic video monitors are available from as little as Rs 550), and Dr Ajay Gambhir, President of the National Neonatology Forum of India, an organisation of paediatricians across the country, clarified that this could be an obvious deterrent for many parents: “Although the device could be useful, the cost-effectiveness of the technology, and whether it will reach the masses is an important factor to consider”. However, it might well be feasible for parents elsewhere: The price, for instance, put somewhat in perspective by research, suggests that parents in the US spend up to $6500 (Rs 4,43,000) on baby supplies prior to the birth.
The team connected two years ago when Aardra became flatmates with Ranjana (the company’s CEO), who had moved to Bangalore, and met Sanchi through her. According to Aardra, Bangalore provided for a great learning environment, where they had access to institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, and were able to engage in dialogues with researchers about electronics and hardware engineering. The women began to discuss how problems could be addressed through 21st century technology and recognition systems. Although initially they were planning to create a device with a panic button to enhance women’s safety, they realised the market was crowded. “We wouldn’t have been able to make a strategic mark in that market as a company. We needed something original, which people didn’t know about, and nobody was doing.”
And HAX, the China-based hardware accelerator certainly agreed on Raybaby’s ‘originality’. A representative from the company applauded the Ray initiative, and told The Ladies Finger, “We pick the best teams across a rigorous selection, and Ray IoT fit our philosophy: a great founding team, an advance in technology and an excellent understanding of their market. The product targets a very important market — concerned parents — and has a worthwhile mission (peace of mind) because parents often check to see if their children are breathing. We are looking forward to seeing Ray IoT’s crowdfunding efforts as well as its innovative business model pay off, considering how much effort the team has put into the building phase.”
But the inspiration for Raybaby, Aardra says, came almost out of the blue, when a parent of one of the team members, also an electronics engineer, warned them against placing electronic devices on sleeping babies. Last year, in Perth, Australia, a mother warned parents about the hazards of baby monitors after one which had lithium-ion batteries exploded near her baby’s cot. These stories led the team to begin researching the potential dangers of battery-powered baby monitors, and they arrived at the conclusion that there should be a way for parents to monitor babies without placing any electronics on their bodies.
The team went to China in September for three-and-a-half months to meet with industry experts and be part of a PR program that ended in mid-December. They introduced the product at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, and at Demo Day by HAX in San Francisco on 10th January. In the meantime, they’re preparing to launch Ray on Kickstarter on 31st January, where they will be collecting pre-orders. They are giving away their products for $99- $150 for early bird adopters.
Aardra feels optimistic about Raybaby, because although the public hasn’t had a chance to use it yet, the feedback she’s received about the idea of the device has been exhilarating. “On one of the demo days, I got into a conversation with a representative from Nestle, who was expecting a baby. I explained the importance of vital monitoring, and non-contact devices. She said ‘Thank god. This is going to address so many of the concerns and fears that new parents have.’ Hearing that from her was more than just validation, and it made me feel like what we’ve created is a genuine contribution to parenthood,” she recalled.
Ray IoT has managed to strike an impressive balance between engineering innovation and consumer needs, and we’re waiting to hear whether it’s a hit with new parents.