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Image credit: Daniel Cooper / Engadget

Owlet's wearable SIDS alarm isn't ready for the real world

It's a great idea, but the hardware needs to be better before it's worth spending $250.
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Daniel Cooper / Engadget

The first thing every new parent does is worry: If you make a mistake, the consequences can be fatal. Biology has made our children resilient creatures, sure, but as a parent you never lose that constant, low-level panic. It's one of the reasons there's a cottage industry of baby gadgets designed to offload the burden of worrying onto an appliance. Owlet's smart sock is one such device, a wireless pulse oximeter that you strap onto your rug rat before she goes to bed. Should her heart rate and oxygen level suddenly decrease in the night -- a potential indicator of trouble, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) -- the nearby base station will wake you up. It's designed to help you sleep a little sounder, at least in theory.

The actual hardware is a curved piece of plastic with a pair of optical sensors installed on either side of the bend. Hanging on one end is a small, thick disk that holds a battery and wireless transmitter, which remain in contact with the base plate. The Owlet is inserted into a cloth sock, which is then strapped onto your baby's left foot and held in place with two velcro straps: one across the plantar fascia and another around the heel. You're meant to strap it on to your little one in the moments before you put her to bed, letting the device monitor her breathing while you sleep.

The base station, meanwhile, can operate independently of a WiFi network, as long as it's close enough to the Owlet sock. It pulls the data from the wearable; should it notice a dip in oxygen and pulse levels, it will begin to flash red and squawk loudly. That information will also be pushed to the internet, with the data becoming available for use on your smartphone via a companion app. If the connection is lost, most commonly because your kid has decided to repel the foreign invader on her foot, you'll be informed of that too.

As soon as you take the sock out of the box, it seems clear that at some point, the sock is going to come off. Following a cursory Google search, I've already disabled the disconnection alerts, given that being rudely awoken at 3 AM is the last thing I need. Once everything was set up, we embarked upon our first night with Owlet, taking slightly longer than expected to get it seated neatly on my four-month-old daughter's foot. Those worrying about their kids outgrowing the device should note that there are four different socks in the box, with the largest measuring roughly 12cm (4.7 inches) from the big toe to the heel.

While the base station looks like it's also a wireless-charging plate, the sock itself actually recharges over micro-USB. Each morning, you attach it to the base station using a short cable and then pull it out in the evening. There's nothing particularly wrong with this state of affairs, although it's hard to see why the base station needs to take up so much space on your nightstand given its limited purpose. But more on that later.

Getting the sock onto your child's foot is only as difficult as your kid is wriggly, but ensuring it's in the right place for a good connection is a different matter. The company seems to be aware of the obvious limitations of the hardware and includes a detailed leaflet in the box as well as a video tutorial in the app. Despite this, I wasn't able to get it working each evening, and when I did, it didn't always continue to work through the night. Babies have a habit of kicking off anything they consider to be an uncomfortable invader, and I'd frequently wake up to find the sock discarded at the foot of the cot.

The company sends several emails to its customers, and while I can't fault its commitment to customer service, this too began to grate. Mostly because after our first night, the missive said that we would be feeling quite smug after getting a great night's sleep. Except neither my wife or I did, thanks to the base station's hideously bright night-light. The green induces such eye-watering that we struggled to sleep at all, eventually resolving to drop a thick towel over the base station. Scrolling down that "first night" email, there's a prominent note revealing that you can dim the base station's light. But even then, it's still so bright that you'll prefer to throw a towel over it rather than feel like you're living in an alien's bedroom.

As much as I like Owlet's product and appreciate its founder's goal of combating SIDS, there are problems. The base station doesn't seem to have been built with any concessions to how sleep-deprived parents behave in the real world. If I'm throwing a towel over its status light, even when dimmed, then I'm probably taking the shortcut that most tired parents would take. If the sock gets kicked off, I'm not going to risk waking a sleeping baby -- especially at night -- to get it back on.

I've written before that a lot of parenting is about developing acceptable tolerances of risk, and Owlet simply doesn't provide enough reward. It's too fiddly to use on a regular basis, it fails too easily and it works better on paper than on your baby's foot. Not to mention, of course, that using a gadget might make you less responsive to your child's actual distress in the middle of the night. Then there's the price, because $250 is a lot to spend on a product that requires so much attention for very little return. I'll just have to keep sleeping lightly with one ear open and hope for the best.

In this article: gear, video, wearables

After training to be an intellectual property lawyer, Dan abandoned a promising career in financial services to sit at home and play with gadgets. He lives in Norwich, U.K., with his wife, his books and far too many opinions on British TV comedy. One day, if he's very, very lucky, he'll live out his dream to become the executive producer of Doctor Who before retiring to Radio 4.

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