XPLORA: the child-tracking smartwatch straight out of Black Mirror

XPLORA is the newest wearable technology for kids aged five to ten, with current features and future ambitions to rival a dystopian drama.

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We open on Rosemarie DeWitt in an operating theatre, giving birth via caesarean section. She has a baby girl, all is well, and then we cut to that baby girl as a happy little toddler. DeWitt’s character takes her young daughter to the park; the daughter gets temporarily lost, and then found – again, unharmed. However, DeWitt’s character decides she never wants to ever risk losing her daughter again, so she signs up to a free trial of a “child-monitoring system” that implants a tiny machine into the child’s head that tracks her location, monitors her health, and lets the parent see (and limit) what the child sees in real life.

In “Arkangel”, the second episode of season four Netflix’s Black Mirror, things go south relatively quickly. The child leads a sheltered life, isn’t prepared for the real world, and ultimately (and violently) cuts ties with her mother when she discovers that she’s been tracked and bounded her entire life.

The episode struck a chord with viewers, even among the other, equally zeitgeist-y episodes that Black Mirror is known for. Many commented that the Arkangel technology didn’t feel too far from our present day.

And it turns out, it wasn’t. Enter XPLORA: the wearable for children that geotracks them at all times (oh, and alerts you every time they leave the house).

“Everything is more or less connected...Your refrigerator, your car, everything is or will be connected,” Sten Kirkbak, co-founder of XPLORA, explains to me. “So why are we talking about being connected to your refrigerator but not about being connected to your kid?”

As in Arkangel, Sten’s inspiration for creating XPLORA was losing his kid, temporarily, in a shopping mall, eight years ago. However, his background is steeped in tech, working at Telenor and KPN, both telecommunications companies, in the mid to late Nineties and, more recently working in advertising and trend analytics. He tells me that, in fact, he spotted wearables (ie technology you actually wear on your body, such as smartwatches) as a trend years ago, and knew it was something he wanted to work on.

Sten tells me that, after briefly losing his son Filip, he wanted to give him something to carry with him so he could be reached easily. But, he felt his son, at five years old, was too young for a smartphone. So he invented the XPLORA. The wearable smart-watch style device has “sophisticated” technology to track where your kid is at all times, and allows them to receive calls and messages from a predetermined list of numbers. Its more unique feature, however, is “safezones” – geotagged locations where the child is allowed to go to that will notify the parent the second they leave.

Although Sten mentions early on (and repeatedly) in our conversation that XPLORA wants to focus on health, and enabling children to be outdoors more, it is hard not to be reminded of the unhealthy helicopter parenting of “Arkangel”. But Sten argues that, in the age we’re currently living in, parents will realistically be obsessively tracking their children at all times.

“We have seen that the alternative is not nothing, the alternative today is most likely a smartphone,” he says. Sten argues that parents of children aged between six and eight want to be connected to their kids, and that rather than stay “unconnected” to their children, they'll give them a smartphone instead (even if the parent feels they're too young for it). 

He continues: “What we have seen, particularly in the States, is that, because of that fear, a lot of parents instead of allowing their kids to go out and participate if they knew they were not able to reach them, the alternative was that they instead keep them inside.”

According to Sten, XPLORA has observed a correlation that showed kids who could not be reached by their parents if they went out, went outside less, whereas kids who could be reached, went outside more. I ask if he is actually tracking this data and if he has a study to prove this claim. He replies that they have not and did not. (XPLORA does not hold data after 72 hours, and parents can delete any captured data from their child’s device at any time).

It is evident that Sten’s ambition is to integrate the technology with kids’ health and activity, in the same way, as he put it, health monitors and running-trackers do. However, he seems unaware how dystopian some of his ideas may appear.

“We have been approached by one of the larger gaming manufacturers…” he tells me, “And one of our joint visions is that we can actually, like step-counters and running-trackers, monitor and capture how active a child is on a personal level. The motivation for one of the largest gaming manufacturers is that, if we can have a solution where we actually could encourage kids to be outside and active and then take those credits, and incorporate them into the gaming experience.”

Yes, you read that right: one of XPLORA’s ambitions for the future is to game-ify children’s health. As Sten explained, children would be able to use their real-life activity, tracked and monitored via their device, as credits in a game; a fun double-edged sword of incentivising children to go outside with the promise of getting to spend more time in front of their gaming system.

Sten says XPLORA is actively encouraging physical activity through its sponsorship deals, pointing me to a partnership with the Hamburg marathon’s kids’ race last year, in which 9,000 children ran a half-marathon. Sten explains that it was XPLORA's biggest sponsorship deal, pushing the idea that XPLORA's real goal is to get kids active. However, Sten later said it was actually the Berlin marathon they had sponsored, clarifying via email that he misspoke. Although this was probably an honest mistake, it does beg the question: how is a company's alleged biggest sponsorship forgotten by its co-founder and CMO?

Sten repeatedly, throughout our conversation, insists that XPLORA’s core message was not about limiting what children do, but encouraging kids to go out and be as active as possible.

“We have tried to make it as clear as possible [we] do not play on fear,” he says.

Despite this, XPLORA’s main company blog features little about encouraging kids to be outdoors, and, in fact, doesn't mention the Hamburg marathon. Instead, it is rife with Instagrammer partnerships, YouTuber partnerships, and guest writing on mummy blogs. All of which, it must be noted, play on fear for promotion. None of them talk about freedom for the child but all of them mention fears of places such as such as festivals, being outside generally, and “Scotland”. They include phrases like “maintain full control”, “you know kids like to push boundaries”, and cautious warnings like “long gone are the days when I was younger and you'd hear your parents shouting you [sic] name over the streets [at dinner time]”. 

One that particularly stuck out was a sponsored video from the Fizz Family, a family YouTube account with over a million subscribers. A conversation has been going on for months, if not years, around the ethics of family YouTube accounts (ie documenting every intimate moment of children’s lives when they’re too young to understand what’s actually happening; essentially, some people argue, turning your child into a product). And this video didn’t just feature the XPLORA product casually, but went for an “unboxing” – a style of YouTube content where the a package is opened for the first time on camera, typically containing a treat or surprise.

“It caused a lot of debate, that film,” Sten tells me, wearily. And he appears to be right. On the YouTube video itself, the comments have been disabled and no suggested videos show up, a step normally taken by YouTubers when one of their videos is receiving rampant criticism. 

In defence of the video, and in defence of using the controversial family YouTubers, Sten argues that XPLORA “doesn’t have the marketing budget of Apple or Samsung” so they can’t go around with large marketing campaigns. He insists that the Fizz Family was right for their brand values and, ultimately, right for hitting their target audience.

In all fairness, many parents may see this product as a relief. It provides the safety of tracking your kid that a smartphone does, but at a lower price, and without giving them access to the internet or, as Sten puts it, “pornography”. However, it’s hard not to read, see, and use XPLORA without thinking back to Black Mirror.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.