Jeff Mann chats via Skype with Julian Jagtenberg, co-founder of Dutch startup Somnox about sleep, design, and robotic bed companions
The robots are coming…..
..to take our jobs, drive our cars…. yadda yadda…. you’ve heard it all before.
But it’s not just sci-fi speculation. In case you didn’t get the memo, they’re already here, and they’re not going way soon.
So if we can’t avoid the rise of the robots, then surely, rather than trying to resist, we should be trying to embrace them?
One startup has taken this concept quite literally. Hailing from the Netherlands, Somnox not only wants us to envision a world where humans and machines become companions – they want us to go to bed with our robots.
The birth of the sleep robot
The brainchild of 4 ambitious engineering students, Somnox a Dutch startup has created a brand new product category in the fast-moving world of consumer digital health – the sleep robot. Co-founder Julian Jagtenberg explains;
JJ: We decided to go for the name sleep robot because first of all we are very passionate about robotics we didn’t want to make another smart pillow or smart mattress. I hate those kind of terms – I like robots.
We want to make sleep robots a new product category just like the iPod or Walkman – we want to end up in the dictionary… and the ‘sleep robot’ becomes a thing.
So how did the idea come about?
JJ:So it all started in 2015 where we were a group of four engineers scattered in the robotics Institute of the University of Technology of Delft and we were facing a personal frustration…. sleep deprivation – so in my case it was my own mom but within the team there were insomniacs themselves.
Therefore we decided since we were in a robotics Institute to challenge ourselves and build a robot to do the job instead of the sleeping pill so that was basically the vision of how robotics and sleep came together.
But considering the bedroom is our most intimate private space, and robots are mostly considered as cold, mechanical, impersonal creations, why did the founders take the gamble that people would want to bring a robot into their beds?
JJ:So first of all robotics in the media are always associated with things that take our jobs, that are harmful … not necessarily positive. If you think of the term robotics you probably think of the Terminator or a metal man. We believe in soft robotics which is a totally different kind of category within the robotics theme.
It’s about robotics that you can cuddle, that you can touch that you can interact with that are not dangerous. It’s relatively new and we think that it’s inevitable they will enter our households and our daily life and in our case we are even making sure that you will go to bed with the robots.
The research process
JJ:So we did an extensive literature review and we found that breathing and soothing audio were proven and effective methods to induce sleep and we took that hypothesis and built prototypes to test with bad sleepers to find out if this is actually working could provide value to the people in need.
And just as a note in between there was no business intention at the time, it really was just an academic project to build a prototype that could potentially help people but after we found that it actually did help – then in my case my mom started telling it to her neighbor and their neighbor told their friends and there was this virality going on.
So after the initial publication at the university we got around a thousand emails in one week – people reaching out saying ‘hey we really want to try [your robot]’ and that’s when we decided, okay let’s not leave it in a dusty basement in the university but let’s bring it to all the people in need and help as many people as we can.
So what does the sleep robot actually do?
OK, so we get the concept – a touchy-feely robot to help us get to sleep, but what does it actually do?
Unsurprisingly the sleep robot is packed with lots of tech and sensors, but the primary function of Somnox is a sleep aid that focuses on your breathing.
This idea has been around for thousands of years, but it’s only now in the 21st century, that science is starting to acknowledge the powerful and complex physiological mechanisms that form the basis guided breathing techniques.
Without going in depth into the research (here’s a good round up if you’re interested), the basic principle is that when you consciously adjust your breathing rate, this influences your autonomic nervous system, which in turn can have a calming, relaxing effect on your body and mind.
With Somnox, the idea is that you can achieve the optimum breathing rate for falling asleep by spooning your robot. Yes. It sounds a little kooky at first, but again there’s real efficacy behind the design.
Whilst Somnox is not the only sleep gadget to use guided breathing techniques as a means of promoting sleep (other sleep tech firms like Dodow and 2Breathe employ the same principles), the sleep robot is unique in incorporating the tactile human touch response to induce relaxation and lull you to sleep. As Julian explains:
JJ:What makes Somnox unique compared to the other breathing products is that you can actually feel it breathe. Breathing synchronization is way easier if you actually feel it, rather than by just hearing it, or if you need to look at a light expanding and decreasing.
You set your personal breathing profiles through the mobile application so you can have a tailored approach for your breathing profile. There are (CO2) sensors in there that can sense when you exhale and inhale. Eventually [via software updates] we want to enable an adaptive feedback loop for breathing as well.
So then let’s say you become you start to breathe very fast very quick like a stress breathing rhythm then the robot will detect that and adapt to that breathing rhythm and then slowly gradually bring you down to way more peaceful and peaceful state of breathing.
More whistles and bells
There’s a lot more under the hood with Somnox than just guided breathing. There’s also an accelerometer (movement sensor) and microphone, and the company is also looking into heart-beat sensors too. This means Somnox can also in some ways measure the quality of your sleep, although the makers are keen to point out that the sleep robot is not a sleep tracking device per se:
JJ:Yes we don’t even mention measuring [sleep] on our Kickstarter page. It’s hidden in between one of the paragraphs because we think the value is not in measuring sleep, but as an intervention of some sort.
So we’re not pitching it as a tracking device we’re pitching it as a sleep companion that can help you sleep. Rather than having insights in the morning , it’s something that helps you at the moment you need it.
The sleep robot also sports an internal speaker which plays back a soothing heartbeat sound or guided meditation audio tracks which automatically shut off once you’re asleep.
It’s fair to say that the makers are focussing more on their vision of a sleep robot rather than as a single piece of technology.
JJ:People won’t buy it because of the technology, [but] because they have some kind of relationship or emotional feeling with it and we want to approach them on that rather than the fact we have AI, sensors etc which is what everyone else [in sleep technology] is doing nowadays.
Dealing with criticism
OK, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Somnox has been designed to be your intimate bed companion, but as you’ve probably gathered by now it has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of sex robots – the disturbingly flesh-like creations of the sex-industry that have received a lot of press recently.
Still, the idea of taking a robot to bed has certainly raised a few eyebrows in the media. More than one commentator has branded Somnox ‘creepy’, implying that a sleep robot might be some kind of surrogate for a human bed partner, or even an expression of millennial individualism.
JJ:Some people have this association with Somnox as the substitute of a partner or a sex robot if you will, but [the term sleep robot] makes them click.. and when they see what it is they realise it’s very different… the best way to compare it is indeed as a teddy bear for grown-ups.
And if you don’t like it then you don’t but the thing is, that it works really well for people. We have test sleepers that perceive Somnox as a companion as a friend – they give it a name and they perceive it as a little child or a pet. They adore it and for me it’s the ultimate goal within design and engineering – to reach that point.
My ambition and vision as a designer is not to create products but to create like living beings – companions if you will, and I think that this robot does that.
Somnox’s sleep robot is not going to be for everyone. For one, the price tag (€499 at launch) will be prohibitive for many. Secondly, some people will never be able to contemplate the concept of intimately spooning up to a teddy-bear sized piece of technology every night.
But in terms of innovation and vision, Somnox have created a product that provides a brand new way of tackling the universal issue of insomnia and sleep disorders , without resorting to pharmaceutical drugs. And that can only be a good thing.
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This interview was originally published at SleepJunkies.com