BOSTON — Robert Messinger chose his children's day-care center because of its sterling reputation. But just in case, he checks up on his kids twice a day - by computer.
Click, he logs onto the computer Web site for The Children's Corner of Ridgefield, Conn. Click, he selects the camera for the room where his kids usually spend their day. Click, he watches six-year-old Zachary play air hockey and five-year-old Chelsea play a game of make-believe.
It's all part of a computer program called "I See You," being tested in this community of stately mansions and two-career families.
Soon to be marketed around the country, the system uses small cameras set in each room of the center to take snapshots every 30 seconds and display them automatically on an exclusive Web site. With a password, parents, grandparents, and friends can log onto their computers and play a high-tech, one-way version of peek-a-boo.
"The quality of day care is the biggest question facing parents," says Mr. Messinger, a mail-order catalog printer in Ridgefield and a self-professed "computer-head."
"My kids are at that age where they are vocal, boisterous, headstrong, and they'll tell me if there's something wrong. But if they were 2 or 3, that's a different story. I'd be signing on 15 times a day," he says.
For working parents like Messinger, "I See You" is not just a neat gadget. It's a way to get some peace of mind by keeping tabs on an industry that is largely unregulated by the state.
A 1995 study of day care in four states found that 40 percent provided "less than minimal care." Dropping a child off at a relative's house is no guarantee either. Nearly 70 percent of the 226 informal day-care arrangements studied by the Families and Work Institute in New York in 1994 were deemed "potentially harmful to children's growth."
The idea for "I See You" came to Jack Martin in the shower. He envisioned a place where busy parents could monitor their children from the workplace. He and his wife, Patricia, started Simplex Knowledge Co. in White Plains, N.Y., to develop and market "I See You." IBM kicked in $1 million to fund the pilot program.
By selling advertisements on the Web site for "family-friendly" companies like Pepsi, Nabisco, and Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Martin is keeping costs low for the day-care centers and their customers. He leases out the equipment for $50 a week for the first camera and $6 for each additional one. Day-care centers can also sell local advertising on their own to generate income.
Viewership at the Web site for The Children's Corner day-care center has been strong. With 255 children at the center on an average day, the Web site has been receiving an estimated 21,000 visitors daily, many of them friends and relatives who live thousands of miles away. The peak visiting time is around noon, although some parents run the Web site on their computers all day long.
After the test at The Children's Corner, marketing director Robert Bohn expects the company to have cameras in 1,500 day-care centers by the end of the year. The company is also considering offering the service to schools, although civil libertarians may balk at monitoring older students, seeing it as an invasion of privacy.
Nan Howkins, owner of The Children's Corner, predicts that other day-care centers will offer programs like "I See You" to maintain a competitive advantage in a crowded and largely unregulated industry.
"If you don't have that confidence to be watched all day, then you probably shouldn't be in the business," she says.
Some employees expressed discomfort with the service at first, Ms. Howkins adds, but "they forget about it now."
For Paul and Judi Stoogenke, "I See You" would not make or break their decision about where to place their three-year-old, Rebecca.
"I'm busy all day, so I only end up using the program once or twice a month," says Mr. Stoogenke, from his office in Stamford, Conn.
But the Stoogenkes have spent some quality cybertime with Rebecca. This year, they sent her to The Children's Corner with cupcakes for her birthday. At 11:30 sharp, they logged onto his office computer, and Rebecca ate for the camera.