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Say "Ah" for Temperature-Taking Tech

I coincidentally got sick while during tests of the Kinsa Smart Thermometer. (Oh, the things I do for my job.)


When I was a kid and wasn’t feeling well, my mom would press her cheek against my forehead for a few seconds, checking to see if I felt feverish. It wasn’t exactly a scientifically accurate evaluation, but it felt much less sterile and serious than when we used the thermometer.

This week, I tested a device that adds some fun and digital smarts to the temperature-taking process — the $25 Kinsa Smart Thermometer, which goes on sale later this month. It works with free apps on Apple’s iOS and Android, aggregating health data so people can keep digital records of illnesses. By June, the app will be able to share this data within local groups so parents can be quickly notified about nearby illnesses.

Though Kinsa is five times more expensive than other thermometers, I think it has a lot of potential with digitally connected parents. As a new parent myself, I’ve been stunned by how many people routinely post details about their own or their kids’ lives in online groups, and I’m convinced that they’d be glad to use a device and app like Kinsa. Unlike larger swaths of aggregated health data, including Google Flu Trends, Kinsa has the potential to work more specifically.

This blue-and-white thermometer also appeals for its playfulness. It plugs into a smartphone’s headphone jack and uses the phone’s screen to display animated floating bubbles during the 10 seconds it requires to take a temperature, giving kids something entertaining to look at. In the future, this screen will be more of a game for kids, aiming to make them even less bothered by the fact that they’re having their temperatures taken.

Results can be saved to each family member’s profile in the Kinsa app, and profiles can include names and ages. Icons can be selected to note symptoms — like chills or earache — that come along with the fever. Illness episodes are automatically grouped together by date, and nearby urgent-care facilities are listed according to what’s open at that time.

Kinsa’s real secret sauce is in its Groups, where many users’ temperature data is anonymously gathered. This information will be aggregated to give people knowledge about illnesses that are spreading in their schools, neighborhoods or within manually created small groups, like one that includes your kid and his five closest friends.

A messaging section in Groups gives parents a place where they can talk about things like kids’ symptoms, discuss which medicines worked well, or share what a doctor said during a visit. They may choose to name their kids here, but it’s not required.

I’ve been testing this thermometer and its app on Apple’s iPhone and the HTC One, and it works well. I even got sick during testing (oh, the things I do for my job), and found using the Kinsa thermometer to be more enjoyable than the old-fashioned kind. When I took one temperature reading during a spell of chills at 1 am, I was glad that the Kinsa app recorded my results, since I forgot them by the next day.

Along with testing on myself, I used my seven-month-old baby and husband as guinea pigs. The thermometer works in the traditional style, as well as under the arm or as a rectal thermometer; we stuck to the mouth and armpit.

I also got an early look at a test version of Kinsa Groups by joining one called Barrow High School. There, I saw that there were 12 group members, five illnesses reported, and three cases of coughs reported. I also read through a list of fake group messages and posted one of my own. By the time Groups launches later this spring, Kinsa’s app will have pre-populated its database with most public schools in the U.S., giving users a quick way to join groups according to schools.

Setting up the Kinsa Smart Thermometer couldn’t be easier. Like Facebook’s recently-released Paper app, Kinsa’s app comes with audio instructions that coordinate with step-by-step visual guidance. The first time you set up the thermometer with a device, you’ll be instructed to plug it into a black adapter that comes with the Kinsa.

A white extension cord is also included in the Kinsa package, and this can be used to move the phone away from your child so he or she can more easily see its screen and the entertaining bubbles in Kinsa’s app. In the case of my baby, I used the extension cord so he wouldn’t see the screen and reach out to grab the phone.

If your child is squirmy, you might have trouble getting a reading. The first time I put the thermometer in my son’s mouth, he was moving his tongue around so much that it didn’t stay in place long enough to get an accurate reading. I had better luck on a second try in his mouth, and the best luck getting a reading from his armpit.

By the time the next flu season rolls around, between October and March, Kinsa plans to release an ear thermometer and a wireless thermometer. Parents with extra-wriggly kids might have an easier time with those form factors.

The Kinsa Smart Thermometer might be a turn-off for its high price, but its digital side is rich with features that will help parents keep track of their kids’ illnesses. As the Kinsa app’s Groups feature starts up in the next couple months, this thin, blue device will become even more valuable — to parents and kids.

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