The challenges of building a children's smartwatch
By cuterose

The challenges of building a children's smartwatch

16/08/2022  |   217 Views

Are you a tech startup planning on making a wearable for children? If so, you might want to think again. It’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be difficult. One mistake in safety or privacy and you’ll disappear out of business but, on the plus side, you won’t have to worry about Apple. Most tech giants know better than to get involved with kids.

Some of the bigger players in the wearable space have started to make tentative moves into the junior market. Both Fitbit and Garmin have fitness trackers for kids. The Garmin Vivofit Jr 2 and Fitbit Ace are all about helping children to achieve their activity goals, much as the adult wearables in their ranges do, only with a greater and more appropriate focus on gamification of exercise. But there’s no GPS tracking, and no mobile phone-type features. Why? Because that’s how you open a massive can of worms.

Essential reading: Best smartwatches for kids

“The children’s devices which Garmin and Fitbit are making are very close to the kind of things they already do for adults,” explains Sten Kirkbak, the co-founder of family smart devices company, Xplora.

“They’ve just shrunk the size and changed the colour rather than re-engineer the whole backbone.”

He stops short of suggesting that these companies are scared, but we’d venture they’ve a healthy respect for the difficulties involved.

Complex engineering

Xplora’s proposition, and those of similar children’s smartwatches, is that of a child’s first mobile phone – not a tracker, as such – and, according to Kirkbak, by far and away the most difficult challenge is the complexity of engineering involved in getting that cellular antenna into such a small form factor.

Read this: Best fitness tracker for kids to buy

“An antenna needs a certain size in order to perform,” Kirkbak explains. “The smaller it is, the more power you need to make it work, but more power means more radiation. So, to build a product that is small but is still able to perform is very complex work.”

While the exact health risks from wireless technology are still lacking the data needed to be certain, the regulations around how much radiation your phone or your wearable can emit are set to accepted, and very conservative, limits. Those limits are even more stringent, not only when it comes to children, but also with regards to a device that’s constantly in contact with your skin. Incidentally, if you read the small print on these standards regarding mobile phone safety, it’s based around wearing the handset on a clip on your belt – not on having them in your pocket all day.

The fact remains that making a wearable that acts as a phone and stays on a child’s wrist all day is a tough, tough challenge and an expensive one at that. If it doesn’t meet these standards then it won’t be CE certified, which means that the EU considers it unsafe and it’s up to you as to how successful you’re going to be as a company selling unsafe children’s products. Non-CE marked competitors to Xplora are still sold on platforms like Amazon, though, which presents the consumer with a dilemma which Kirkbak is keen to highlight.

“There are cheap, copy products, typically arriving from China, that don’t necessarily meet all certification and requirements. And up against those, you have good reliable products that are very expensive and difficult to develop. That’s the core challenge for us.

“You don’t really know what you’re buying. In the worst case, you’re buying something that doesn’t meet those requirements and you get too much radiation and that’s something you don’t want, particularly for a child.”

Data safety and security

Omate's X Nanoblock kids smartwatch

These cheap products from the Asian market are also a problem with regards to the second big challenge of making a device for children, which is ensuring privacy and security of the wearable data. In the case of smartwatches, it can be contact phone numbers, location data, the name of the user – all incredibly sensitive with regards to the safety of the child wearing it.

Essential reading: How to buy the perfect wearable for you

“We took six months alone just to make sure we were GDPR compliant, which means making sure that no data is stored or processed outside EU and users could access all the data at any given time, and that there was good procedure should something happen,” says Kirkbak.

The challenges of building a children's smartwatch

“It’s a big threat to data security if someone makes a quick and dirty approach to a child’s wearable. If someone buys something like this and they just put on a new European-friendly brand label but in reality, the data might be stored in China and there are no processes in place should something happen.”

By the same token, Kirkbak is well aware that part of Xplora’s core proposition is absolute security. Should Xplora’s servers or devices be breached in some way, that would be the end of his business and “rightly so” as he agrees.

Norway, from where Xplora heralds, has some of the highest standards in the world when it comes to protecting user data. Kirkbak’s initial dialogue with the data protection agency there caused an enquiry where all major products in the category were stress tested for security. If you couldn’t document the whole data flow, if the data was stored elsewhere or there were security flaws, then the device was declared unfit. In the end, it was only Xplora that was fully cleared, with several other brands such as Tinitell wiped out in the process.

After this, Xplora formed a relationship with a company in Germany whose job it was to try to break the products, to stress test them and try to get in.

“It costs a lot of money but it’s for kids so it needs to be secure,” says Kirkbak.

Designing for kids

Octopus Watch V2 Motion edition

Once over the technical hurdles – you’re still looking to launch a wearable for kids, right? – the final big challenge is to make a wearable that children actually want to wear, and the good news is that market research sessions are very straightforward.

You can add step counters, cameras and the ability to make phone calls from your wrist but what children really want to do with their smartwatches is play games

“We’ve spent hours and hours in consumer testing and kids will give you very frank feedback on the product. Of course, physically, children are more attracted to the one with colours and shapes, not the sleek Apple Watch-type designs, but our two primary discoveries were that kids want some added value so that they find the device interesting enough to use every day. The other is that it needs to be comfortable and easy to use.”

While the latter discovery is less of a revelation, the former provides something of a problem. You can add step counters, cameras and the ability to make phone calls from your wrist but what children really want to do with their smartwatches is play games, something which most parents would rather they didn’t have access to all the time. Xplora’s tradeoff is to make the children earn it.

“We knew that we had to have an approach on games but we had to find the right one. It’s hard to get around the point that kids like games. We haven’t launched it yet but we are working to find a good way to include their activity as part of the game. So, if you’ve not moved around, then you’re not allowed to play the game and more activity unlocks new levels and new games as well.”

Talking to Kirkbak there’s also the unshakeable sense that it’s a question of the lowest common denominator too. If you don’t include games in your children’s wearable, then the next company will and that will be the one that the customer requests.

The screen addiction problem

Vodafone's V Kids smartwatch built by Alcatel

According to Dr Bernadka Dubicka, though, Chair of the Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the adverse effects of technology and increased screen time on children and young people is something that should borne in mind when thinking about giving your offspring an old smartphone, or even a children’s smartwatch or fitness tracker, especially if there are games involved.

“If games are going to be included on theses devices, then parents do need to think about the addictive potential,” says Dubicka. “How much time are they spending on screens? How much will these devices be extending that?”

The primary reason why parents don’t want to buy a smartphone for their children too early is precisely because of the access to gaming, along with social media, cyberbullying and the fears over sex and violence one can consume on online video platforms. It’s slightly tragic, therefore, that companies like Xplora have their hands forced around gaming, especially when they position themselves as an alternative to a smartphone. But Dubicka questions whether their target market is too young regardless.

“How often does a 7-year-old need to make a phone call? That’s one of things parents need to think about. How essential is a mobile phone in my child’s life? Why do under 11s need to be tracked? They should be supervised at all times.

“Of course, the older a child gets, the greater the need for tracking but with younger children, parents should consider whether that need really exists. You want to encourage independence towards the end of primary school and it’s around that age that people might wish to start thinking about these devices.”

There are equally important question marks over the gamified goals of child fitness trackers for Dubicka. With eating disorders on the increase in pre-puberty, it would be easy for them to be misused as a way to monitor and burn more calories, and she suggests it’s more important to encourage these activities for their social aspects rather than focusing on individuals and the number of steps they’re doing each day.

If you’d rather avoid games altogether, except perhaps for Snake, then the other option is to buy your child a feature phone. With the Xplora 3S priced at £149.99 compared to a tenner or so plus a monthly SIM, there’s certainly a financial incentive.

“Yes, it’s cheaper on the outset,” admits Kirkbak, “but there’s no opportunity for parents to do location and that’s something people are willing to pay for. Also, you might not care if your child loses their feature phone but you’ll find that will actually happen quite quickly and again again. With a wearable, it stays on their wrist.”

The issues are thorny, and not ones that the big tech players like Apple and Samsung need dirty their hands with. Children’s wearables are niche and not really in their sights – at least until 2021 when Gartner expects these devices to represent 30% of the market. With many parents perhaps predicted to accept that this modulated 24 hour screen access is a kind of balance.

Until then, the space will remain the preserve of small tech startups with deep pockets and strong stomachs. Like all diplomatic CEOs, Kirkbak welcomes any competitors to the space – on the understanding that it helps to expand the market, of course.

For more information on mental health disorders, addiction, sleep problems and other issues for children and young people, head over to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Mental Health and Growing Up hub, where you’llfind help for parents too. MindEdis also an excellent resource for those who volunteer, work or are studying to work with infants, children or teenagers.