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Michigan dad invents app to limit kids' use of mobile devices

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - A Forest Hills father's passion for limiting time children spend staring at screens led to the development of a smartphone app.

Tim Smock partnered with engineering groups at Grand Valley State University to develop "Test 4 Time," a smartphone app for Android. The app limits how much children use certain apps, making them answer math problems in Test 4 Time before they can play their favorite games.

The app became downloadable on the Google Play store for Android users on July 1, and has since received at least 50 downloads so far, Smock said.

"I wanted to make some sort of dent in the issue of screen time and kids getting wrapped up in that, while improving their mastery of math facts," Smock said.

The idea behind the app came from almost every day when Smock waited for the inevitable question from his six-year-old son - if he could play games on the Wii.

It was summertime in 2011 and Smock felt uneasy that his son, Braden, always wanted to play video games, so he decided to come up with a system to make him "earn" screen time. He wrote out 20 math questions that he made Braden complete before he was able to spend an hour on the gaming system.

After the paper stack of answered math questions grew, Smock's entrepreneurial spirit made him recognize an opportunity to automate and patent his idea.

Smock's initial prototype didn't start out as an app, it started out as a box that plugged into the TV and Wii console and let his son earn time by answering math questions. If his time was up, it would shut down the game.

When Smock connected with engineers at Grand Valley, they made the suggestion to turn his idea into an app instead of a hardware device and make it the subject of a senior capstone class in GVSU's School of Computer Science.

From there, the applied Medical Device Institute at GVSU ran with the idea, eventually helping Smock finalize the app that is available in the Google Play store today after the group helped develop it for six months.

"We turned a classroom project into a real commercial product," said Brent Nowak, the founding executive director of the institute. "There were lots of people involved, but it shows that (not only industry or hospital systems) but the whole community can tap into university resources."

The applied Medical Device Institute was founded by an effort led by Nowak about a year ago, and is a non-academic unit within GVSU. The program is financially sustainable through external funding, so they can move at the pace of industry, Nowak said.

"I've just used vendors and contractors the whole way and worked great with (the applied Medical Device Institute)," Smock said. "I haven't written a line of code myself. But it was so fun to see the vision I had be replicated."

The app can be downloaded for a seven day free trial, and costs $1.99 per month. Parents can select which apps they want controlled by Test 4 Time. There are also settings to control how advanced math problems are, from a kindergarten through sixth grade level.

The default of the app is sixty questions answered earns an hour of screen time, which can be "saved up" at a maximum of two hours. Parents can change the amount of time questions earn.

"This is supposed to compliment what (children) are doing during the day in the classroom," Smock said. "Time outside of the classroom can be just as important, but there are so many distractions."

Smock still wants to pursue introducing the set-up box that would control screen time on TV and gaming consoles to the market, but it is a longer process, he said. Right now, he also has the goal of adding more subjects other than math to Test 4 Time and possibly adding SAT and ACT prep questions for older kids.

"If you don't have kids you don't (understand) that little feeling of being uncomfortable of seeing their face buried in the screen," Smock said. "This makes parents feel a little better about kids grabbing a tablet."

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