A Dallas company helps parents keep a virtual eye on their children.
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WHEN DAWN CALHOUN returned to work following the birth of her daughter, Danyale, she was a little apprehensive. After three months of telecommuting from her Bedford home, Calhoun, a systems engineer at NationsBank, would be traveling each day to her downtown Dallas office, and Danyale would be miles away in a suburban day care center. “I was a little leery about leaving her, especially after hearing all the horror stories about what can happen,” Calhoun says. But that was before she discovered a computer program called Watch Me! Now, when she arrives at her desk each morning, Calhoun turns on her computer, logs on to a secure Web site, and watches her infant daughter playing with other kids. “It eased my mind because I could see what was going on,” she says. “It allowed me to go back to work.”
Watch Me! is the brainchild of thirty-year-olds Eric Foster and Frank Wagner, who developed it in 1996 while they were students in the master’s of business administration program at Southern Methodist University. Dallas-based Online Video Communications, which owns the rights to the program, has installed Internet-linked video systems in fifteen day care centers nationwide, including ten in Texas (one in Austin, one in Houston, and the rest in the Dallas—Fort Worth area). The concept is simple: Two cameras installed in each classroom take color snapshots that are uploaded to a Web site, which is updated with new images every minute (starting in May, the site will be updated every fifteen to thirty seconds). Parents pay $20 a month to access the site. For security purposes, each classroom has a code name, and parents must know it as well as a user ID number and a password before they can see their child. Only their child’s assigned classroom can be viewed, and classrooms are not identified as being at particular centers. “When the parent sits at the computer,” says Joyce Anderson, the vice president of education for Children’s Courtyard, an Arlington-based day care chain, “there isn’t any way that someone walking by would know what center, what state, or what country that child is in.”
Not all parents are fans of Watch Me! Last December, Dallas attorney Melinda Fagin sued Online Video Communications and Children’s Courtyard, alleging that her family’s privacy had been violated. Although cameras were never pointed directly at changing tables, Fagin objected to their use because her daughter was toilet-training; she was concerned that people on the Internet would be able to see her daughter’s genitals. The suit is still pending, so all Wagner will say is that educating parents and center administrators is key to the success of Watch Me! “One to three percent of parents in every center have concerns,” he says. If that’s true, then the vast majority of parents are receptive to the idea of video day care. Certainly Calhoun is: She checks in on Danyale from four to ten times each day—and she’s not the only one. “A great thing about it is that it’s accessible,” she says. “Her grandmother in Washington, D.C., can dial in and see her. The bonus is that once you pay for it, it’s a family thing.”