BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
1. Field of the Invention
This invention relates to a system and method for increasing access to child care training materials and services, including demonstrations and lectures, by child care service providers and parents, as part of an integrated child care network which also provides for increased parental involvement with child care personnel, including the ability of parents to observe classroom activities in real-time during the workday.
The invention also relates to a system made up of either a local area network (LAN) or a closed circuit television network (CCTV) that connects video cameras situated in child care classrooms with a multi-media computer for digitizing and compressing the video feed and supplying it to a regional broadcast server capable of delivering multiple broadcast video streams on a live or delayed basis to subscribers, either through direct Internet connections or over a secured network connected to the Internet via a firewall, for use in increasing interaction between child care providers and parents, and in providing educational and training services to subscribers of the network.
In addition, the invention relates to a method of distributing child care related information and training materials, for enabling parent subscribers to monitor their children from any Internet connection, and to a method of limiting unauthorized access to such a child care monitoring system.
2. Discussion of Related Art
While child care is a central concern in the lives of millions of parents, most parents have little knowledge of what goes on at a child care center, and no way of gathering information despite the numerous sources available. Lack of communication between child care workers and parents increases anxiety on the part of the parents, which in turn affects the morale of the workers, and possibly the quality of care received by children at the centers. Most child care centers cannot afford a comprehensive training program, and continuing education provided by state agencies reaches very few workers. When an incident occurs at a center, it is often impossible to verify child care worker's explanations, which can lead to such problems as legal difficulties for the center and workers, a loss of confidence on the part of parents, and a decrease in the number of qualified persons willing to enter the child care field.
The present invention seeks to address these and other problems, using currently available technology combined in a unique manner, by providing an integrated network which can provide information to the public and training materials to child care workers while increasing interaction between parents and the children's caregivers, and which can provide a record of activities that can be used to increase the confidence of parents and prevent misunderstandings.
In order to achieve its objectives, the system and method of the invention makes use of a technology known as streaming video, in which a single video feed from a camera is compressed and split into multiple streams for delivery over the Internet, on demand and in real time, to computers with access to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). By using streaming video technology, the system and method of the invention enables live monitoring of child care centers, including audio, and also recording of activities for playback during quiet times and, upon further compression, for archiving purposes. The use of streaming video in an integrated network of the type described in detail below also allows live demonstrations for use in training and accreditation programs, and in addition can serve as a medium for dissemination of pre-recorded training and information materials.
Even though individual elements of the technology used in the system and method of the invention are known, the combination of elements and results obtained by the system and method of the invention have not previously been achieved. There have been prior attempts to set-up child care center monitoring systems, but each has clear disadvantages relative to the present system and method, as explained below.
The real-time monitoring aspect of the present invention is related to the field of remote surveillance systems, which involves linking of multiple video cameras located at different sites to a central monitoring station, but there is a fundamental difference between such remote surveillance systems and the type of monitoring with which the present invention is concerned. This difference relates to the fact that conventional remote video surveillance systems are intended for security purposes, such as for use by a security service in monitoring a bank, convenience store, or parking facility, or for monitoring by a healthcare provider of the elderly and those with particular medical needs (an example of the latter type of surveillance system is found in U.S. Pat. No. 5,441,047, issued Aug. 15, 1995), and therefore generally are free to use dedicated communications lines between the facility being monitored and the central station. While the communications lines can be in the form of an RF, cellular, or satellite link, or even by modem over a telephone line as described in the afore-mentioned U.S. Pat. No. 5,441,047, none of these systems provides for subscriber access, nor is it in general desirable to provide subscriber access in surveillance systems of this type.
The type of monitoring with which the present invention is concerned, in contrast, involves a monitoring entity which is not located at a central station, but rather to portions of the general public, including parents who have children in a daycare center and child care is workers seeking continuing education. In that case, while security is still desirable, access cannot be limited to a central station, but rather must be provided to subscribers at their workplaces or homes.
The need for such child care center monitoring systems has not gone unnoticed, but implementations to date, while attracting significantly publicity, have been unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. At least three such child care center monitoring systems have recently been publicized, with all three having significant disadvantages relative to the system and method of the invention.
The first of these systems is the Simplex Knowledge Company's I See You! service, which was launched as a turnkey hardware and software system complete with computer, proprietary software, color camera, digitizer, modem, and marketing package. The supplied camera takes a snap shot picture every sixty seconds and continually refreshes the on-screen image with a new photograph, which is digitized and uploaded to an Internet server for access on a subscriber basis by the public. A demonstration of this system can be found on the World Wide Web at http:\\www.skc.com.
The second of these systems is ParentNet, Inc.'s KinderCam service. The KinderCam service uses an Axis Neteye 200 digital still picture camera to take snapshots of a child's daycare classroom for uploading to a server and transfer over the Internet to the parent's desktop. A demonstration of this system can currently be found on the World Wide Web at http:\\www.kindercam.com, while a description of the Axis Neteye 200 cameral may be found at http:\\www.axisinc.com.
The third of the three systems currently being publicized is Online Video Communications, Inc.'s Watch Me! service which provides a website and equipment for uploading snap-shots of classrooms at participating child care centers to the wehsite for access by subscriber parents. A demonstration and schematic of the system can be found on the World Wide Web at http:\\www.ovci.com.
One of the principal differences between the Simplex, ParentNet, and Online Video Communications systems and the present invention, at least with respect to monitoring of centers, is that these systems utilize digitized still pictures rather than live streaming video. The effect of viewing the demonstrations of these systems is similar to watching a slide show, in which images are changed at a rate of about two per minute, and thus a only limited sense of action is provided.
The main problem with such slide show arrangements is that the “slides” or still images are taken without regard to image content, and the slides are unaccompanied by narration, which has a disorienting effect on the viewer. For example, in one frame the hand of a person might be seen entering the image and in the next frame the foot of the person is depicted as disappearing from the opposite side of the image, or in one frame a child might appear to be playing, and the next frame the child might be crying, with no clue as to what has occurred during the interval between images. Aside from being disconcerting to the viewer, the succession of still images without audio is generally unable to capture the nuances of an activity or the actions of individuals in a field of view. Even at a rate of two image changes per minute, downloaded at 28.8 Kbps, the wait for new images in this type of system can seem interminable. In addition, due to the intermittent nature of the image capture techniques used by these systems, they are virtually useless for training purposes, or as a record of activities for use by accreditation, insurance, and legal authorities.
In contrast, the use by the present invention of live streaming video, including audio, for remote monitoring purposes allows more effective training demonstrations, permits parents to see their children actually participating in activities, and provides a record of activities which can be used for evidentiary and investigative purposes.
In addition to the problems resulting from the slide show format, a problem which is barely addressed by most of the current systems is prevention of unauthorized access to the transmissions. Security, if provided at all, is generally in the form of a standard user identification number and password arrangement, which has the disadvantage that, while the password may be changed as often as two times per month, those who present a risk to children, such as ex-spouses, are often known to the custodial parent and may have, or have recently have had, access to the password, and thus can easily obtain access to the system. The present invention avoids this problem by requiring that subscribers register for digital certificates. These certificates, which will reside on the user's computer's hard drive, will be used to authenticate the parent's identity. In a transaction that is not visible to the parent and which validates his or her current subscriber status (by entering the username and password, which is compared to a database of current subscribers), the invention's secure electronic transaction (SET) server requests an encrypted copy of the user's digital certificate. If this certificate matches with the username, the service connection is authorized. If not, the connection is cancelled.
The training aspect of the present system and method, which allows child care centers to utilize their equipment during non-operating hours for provider education and accreditation training, as well as individual provider peer review and coaching, or to provide a complete program of information and training for both parents and providers, including the availability of institutional videos and live demonstrations, does not appear to have been addressed by the currently available systems noted above. While training programs are available, most are centered at universities and inaccessible to the majority of childcare providers, particularly those involving live demonstrations. Accreditation officials have expressed a desire for a way to improve access to training and provide for continuing education programs, but at present such training is limited to individual classes which, for reasons of time and distance, are inaccessible to the majority of providers.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
It is a first objective of the invention to provide an integrated childcare network that provides improved access to training, system wide training or mentoring programs, and live demonstrations, as well as a convenient way for parents to become more involved with their child care providers, including the ability to monitor their child's classrooms on a live or delayed basis.
It is a second objective of the invention to provide a remote video monitoring system capable of providing live video and audio broadcasts from child care centers to parents at their workplaces, and for use in a system-wide training and education for childcare providers.
It is a third objective of the invention to provide a remote video monitoring system that allows parent subscribers to monitor their children, and child care workers to view live demonstrations, from any computer with an Internet connection, by providing live video and audio broadcasts from child care centers over the Internet.
It is a fourth objective of the invention to provide an integrated child care network which provides live video and audio broadcasts from child care centers to subscriber parents via the Internet, and which also provides child care education services to both providers and parents.
It is a fifth objective of the invention is to provide an integrated child care network which provides live video and audio broadcasts from a child care center over the Internet, but which includes security features which ensure that access to the broadcasts is limited to custodial parents with actual physical access to the child care center or school on the day of access to the system.
These objectives are achieved, in accordance with the principles of a preferred embodiment of the invention, by providing a wire LAN or CCTV network that connects video cameras to a multi-media computer for digitizing and compressing the video feed and supplying it to a regional broadcast server capable of delivering multiple broadcast video streams to parent subscribers either through direct Internet connections, or over a secured network connected to the Internet via a firewall and SET server.
These objectives are further achieved by providing a method of enabling parents to view their children during the workday at child care centers and schools, and for enabling childcare providers to view live training demonstrations and live or recorded training materials, by positioning a video camera at a location at which video of the child can be captured, capturing the video of the child and generating a video stream, supplying the video stream to a regional broadcast server remote from the child care center, optionally recording the video stream for later playback or use in training sessions, splitting the live or recorded video stream into multiple video streams, supplying the multiple video streams to a plurality of subscribers, and displaying a real-time live video image of the child on a subscribers computer.
The invention thus provides a system which enables parent subscribers to monitor their children from any computer with an Internet connection, and also a scalable training network that can provide a variety of information to both subscribers and child care providers originating either from a central video server located at the regional office for pay-per-view on request, or at a training facility for live training sessions using the same type of video camera and server setup found in each participating child care center.
In accordance with an especially preferred embodiment of the invention, a pre-recorded video library and server are provided in addition to the live video broadcast server for providing information and instruction to both parents seeking child care and to child care providers.
In addition, the objectives of the invention are achieved by providing an improved security method according to which access to live broadcasts can be obtained only verification of the parent's subscriber status and identity.
The invention thus provides a secure visual bridge between parents and their children's child care center or pre-school classroom, serving as a powerful tool in helping the parents balance work and family responsibilities by giving them the ability to connect with their children and child care providers during the workday, while also serving as a medium to ensure widespread dissemination of training and educations materials and programs which can be viewed by child care workers at convenient times and locations.
The system and method of the invention has benefits far beyond the immediate benefit of allowing parents to participate in the education of their children. The small cost in time spent viewing their children is more than made up for by allowing parent/employees to be more relaxed and focused on their work responsibilities in the assurance that the child has made a smooth transition from home to the center and is receiving quality care, and thus it is anticipated that the system will be of interest not only to individual subscribers, but also to corporations and other employers as a whole, and thus the videos provided by the system of the invention are arranged to be distributed and administered by corporate or agency LAN servers as well as by direct connection.
While the invention is described in connection with children and parents, it will be appreciated that subscribers with a legitimate interest in viewing the activities at a daycare center or school could include relatives other than parents, as well as licensing authorities and school administrators. The ability of the video streams to be recorded for later playback permits the assembly of archives which can be used for insurance purposes or by legal authorities.