Mothers are responsible for the welfare of their children. This is something we assume is true and something that guides the behavior of women with kids. They are watchful. They are worried. They set boundaries: Go to bed at such-and-such hour. Eat a balanced breakfast. Follow these rules.
Being an adult is great because you can stay up as late as you want and eat chocolate for breakfast and make up your own rules and generally live free or die hard, but being an adult also sucks because life is hard and sometimes it's easier to be told what to do. That's where Mother, a home and family monitoring program with an objectively creepy name, comes in. You can set it up to record and analyze your behavior, and of your family.
Mother records and analyzes daily life activities, from exercising to sleeping to how often we watch TV, by carrying little self-contained sensors around. It's an impressive system, though it is far less like a real mother than it is like a genderless panoptic self-surveillance gadget. Which makes sense, because it is.
Big Momma's House Is High Tech
The Mother is a sleek system that looks like it was designed by someone who has serious feelings about fonts (and, uh, rather traditionalist thinking about parental roles). Everything seems deliberate, right down to the expensive-feeling matte packaging.
The main device, called Mother, plugs into your router with an Ethernet port and turns itself into a little transmitter. It looks like a cross between a Russian nesting doll and a sex toy, and when you turn it on it has two unblinking eyes and a little red mouth. It is cold and odd, yet weirdly comforting, and people kept picking it up and examining it when they came over to my house. It doesn't make any noise, just watches you steadily.
Look at that weird little mouth.
The Mother comes with four sensors, called Cookies. They're little colorful plastic sticks, about two inches long. You insert button batteries in them, which are included in the package. The batteries are designed to last for a year. They're easy to snap together. This is what the sensors look like:
You can't tell, but you can use sticky tack to make the sensor stay put.
You can use up to 24 sensors per Mother, though the pack comes with 4. To activate these sensors, you need to log in to Sen.se (yes, that's a website) and register your Mother and cookies. Once registered, the cookies work as chameleonic sensors that adapt to the tasks you assign them. If you are walking with them, they measure your steps. If you sleep with them, they measure your sleep pattern. If you attach them to an object, they can tell if you've moved it. All of the data is collected and analyzed by Sen.se, and the cookies hold up to 10 days of data. So you only need to bring them back to Mother every so often.
Your Mother comes with a birth name. Mine was "Elicia Beula."
I changed it to "Alicia Florrick" because The Good Wife rules. You can pick out the color of the Mother's eyes from a palette of pastels. Unfortunately, none matched the velvety brown hue of Julianna Margulies' eyes, so I went with purple because purple is the best color.
After you've set up your cookies and fiddled around with your Mother's birth name, you download an app called Pocket Mother. This is going to be your main alert system. You tap each cookie to give it a new name, just like the Mother, and to register it.
One the cookies were registered, it was app-picking time.
Mother Knows Data, If Not Best
You can connect your cookies to a variety of apps on the Sen.se website. You can monitor how many times the doors in your home are opened. You can monitor how much you walk, how much you sleep, how much you drink coffee, how long you brush your teeth — as long as you have a cookie for each function. Upcoming apps will let you monitor your plants, your water intake, and how frequently you open the fridge.
Here's what part of the list of app options looks like:
Some of the tasks are obviously designed for a family; for instance, there's an app to check who is home, and whether an object (like an off-limits Xbox or expensive vase) gets moved. For some of the functions, you just set the cookie in place (like for sleeping). But for others, you have to stick them to stuff. I used sticky-tack when that happened, though there are also little dongles included in the Mother kit.
As an adult I don't need to keep tabs on my partner this way, as that would be very creepy of me, but for parents testing a new babysitter or parents who just want another way to make sure their kids stay put, this makes sense. (Probably why the device is called Mother and not Childless Life Partner, though the Sen.se website warns that Mother is not a toy and should be kept out of reach of children.)
For my own purposes I decided to monitor how much I walked, and how much I slept. I also used one Cookie to set an alert to take my birth control so that Mother would be the only mother in my apartment for a while longer, and then I used my last cookie to create sound effects, so I could get my prank on.
You can reset and rename your cookies as much as you want, which is convenient if you want to play around with different apps.
Overall, the quality of the analysis for different tasks is high. The step counter seemed accurate (when you actually carry a sensor around with you, more on that in a moment) and it made me realize that I really need to go for walks more. I wouldn't buy this over a wearable fitness tracker if that was the only type of sensor I wanted, but it worked.
The medicine reminder was very helpful. It's easy to set an alarm to take medication and then just shut it off without actually taking the medication. Because my sensor was attached to the bottom of my birth control packet, it knew whether I'd actually picked it up or not and sent reminders to make sure I didn't forget. I got a push notification through the Mother app, but you can get reminders sent through SMS or email, or you can get a call.
For the sound effect thing, I hid that cookie under a bottle of whiskey so that when my partner went to pour himself a drink he'd get startled and I would laugh. I even showed my friend the sensor and told her about the plan and we waited until he got home and when he announced that he was making himself a whiskey drink we looked at each other and smiled and it was about to be a glorious Friday prank but then, guess WHAT, he lifted up the whiskey and the sensor didn't make a peep. Turns out I forgot to finish setting the sound effect up, my bad. The sound effect is actually awesome.
On the Sen.se website you can pick which sound you want to scare people with from a bunch of pleasingly onomatopoetic choices like "TooOOoot" "Dzoing" and "Kling Klong." I chose "Dzoing" because I'm not an idiot. If I wanted to entertain/terrify a child, this would be my favorite cookie.
Overall, the variety of tasks the little cookies worked with was impressive, and Sen.se analyzes and presents data in a visually appealing and accessible way. Plus, Mother was fun to use once I got over being slightly creeped out.
To keep track of your movements for the walking app, you need to carry around a cookie in your pocket or in your backpack. This is annoying. It won't work if you put it in a handheld purse, and there's no way to attach it to your wrist. That's a pretty glaring design flaw, because most workout clothes don't have pockets, so it's awkward to take the Cookie to the gym or for a run. I tried to tuck it against the elastic waistband of my workout shorts, and it fell out when I went running outside. Sen.se recommends that you use its keychain string to attach it to your keys, but I generally just leave my keys in my mailbox when I go running (please don't rob me) so that wasn't much help.
A day later I forgot to put the cookie back in my pants at all and so it was sitting in my workout shorts in the closet. Mother logged me as having clocked a mere 38 steps.
As I mentioned before, you get sticky tack and a few other options included in your kit to affix your cookies to stuff, but for the step-counter, nothing makes a ton of sense. They really need to make a wristlet or something more convenient.
At least the step-counter was accurate, when it was on my person (it told me the length of my strides, which is cool). My sleeping monitor was way off. I share a bed, but it's a queen and I had the cookie under my mattress as it instructs you to do if you share a bed, so it wasn't getting messed up because of that— it regularly said I got out of bed a lot later or earlier than I did. One night it said I woke up at 3:55 AM (I think I must've gone up to pee?) but it didn't re-set itself.
Another night it logged me as sleeping way later than I did and appears to have registered that I was out of bed only when I came back in my room to make my bed. So the sleep monitor isn't very precise, and is probably really easy to trick if you're a kid avoiding bedtime.
ALSO this is a complaint about the marketing, not the product, but the whole concept behind Mother is kinda degrading to actual mothers. The slogan is seriously "She's like a mom, only better." Nah man. This genderless anthropomorphized cylinder is not like a mom at all. It's like a servant and Big Brother combined more than it's like a mom. My REAL mom had magic ninja ears when it came to me rising in the middle of the night to sneak out of my room, which is just one of the ways Mother paled in comparison to the real thing.
Should I Buy It?
Mother has a pretty, quirky design, and the flexible array of trackable tasks is appealing. I can see it being used by some polite young Danish family. If you are a member of a polite young Danish family you might like it. And if you have $300 to spend, because that's how much Mother costs. And if you want to buy an extra set of cookies, that will set you back another $150, so this mama ain't cheap.
If you're really into the whole quantified life thing, the array of apps might make it worth your money, though Sen.se really needs to turn one of the cookies into a wearable to make the step-counting and fitness monitoring feasible.
For now, I'd hold off on bringing Mother home to roost. There are smartphone apps that measure your sleep and steps that are more accurate. The ecosystem has potential, but I don't think it's there yet.
Mother is definitely aimed at families with children, so I'm not exactly the target demo. I'll tell you this, though: If I was a mother, I'd want the Mother to be more accurate, and I'd be worried that my kids would just lose/mess with the cookies. I'd also be annoyed that this has such a dumbass name.