Somnox Sleep Robot Review
In seven years of covering the nascent consumer sleep-tech industry, one product has stood out in terms of hype, buzz and curiosity – Somnox, the Sleep Robot.
A lot of media coverage has centred around the novelty aspect, with plenty of jokes about sex robots and the Terminator thrown in for good measure.
But when you get past the headlines, there’s still a great deal of confusion and scepticism, even from insiders within this burgeoning market. What exactly is the function of a sleep robot? Why does the world need one? Can a robot cure insomnia? It’s only after spending some time with the device that answers to these questions began to crystallise, but now I think I understand the vision a bit more.
Thing is, Somnox is such a unique proposition that it requires a different mode of thinking about how to tackle sleep problems. Whilst most sleep technology products emphasize features and functions, Somnox aims first to be your ‘companion’, and only when you’ve established a good ‘relationship’ does the clever gadgetry play an effective role. The more you anthropomorphize, the more likely you are to have sleep success with your robot.
Right now Somnox is pricey, there are no clinical trials supporting its efficacy, and there’s still a big battle to win over the public imagination. But despite all these challenges, we think soft robotic technology, is a very promising new intervention to add to the panoply of existing sleep therapies.
The Somnox experience is a subjective one, and it’s all about physicality, so it’s not the easiest thing to distill into words. But we’ll try to do our best in this review.
Somnox is an award winning sleep technology product which uses robotic technology to help you doze off naturally, fall asleep faster, sleep deeper and wake up refreshed.
To achieve this effect, you hold Somnox close to your body like a pillow, to experience the physical sensation of the robot ‘breathing’. This makes you subconsciously adjust your breathing rate to a meditative state, relaxing the body and mind, to help you fall asleep faster and wake feeling refreshed.
Somnox began life as an engineering project at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. Seeing the potential in their ideas, the founders decided to turn the project into a startup, and in 2017 launched the ‘world’s first sleep robot‘ into the world. Since then the company has grown from strength to strength, including a partnership with mattress manufacturer Royal Auping, and attracting investment and interest from all corners of the globe. For more background, read our interview with Somnox co-founder Julian Jagtenberg here.
Who is the Somnox sleep robot for?
Somnox is for anyone who suffers from stress, anxiety or other worries that impact on their sleep. It’s ideal for those who struggle to fall asleep at night because of worries and ruminating thoughts that prevent them from naturally dozing off. Also, Somnox can be used in cases when you suffer from night awakenings and find it hard to get back to sleep. The sleep robot is intended for people who are looking for a non-pharmacological alternative to achieving a better night’s sleep.
How does Somnox help you fall asleep?
The principle behind Somnox is based on your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ system, which is responsible for all the bodily activities that take place when an animal is at rest. Slowing your breathing helps to engage the PNS which helps regulate unconscious bodily actions that help you to relax, which puts you into a state conducive to sleep.
This technique, as well as being validated by extensive scientific research has also been used for centuries in Yogic practice, and is known as Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath. Somnox combines these ancient methods with the latest in robotic technology to bring controlled relaxation practices into the 21st century. Read more about the science behind Somnox.
As well as assisting with your breathing, Somnox also features a built in speaker which can play back relaxing sounds which can further help to relax. Somnox features a range of specially selected soundtracks that are conducive to sleep, including music, nature sounds and white noise.
In addition, if you like to fall asleep listening to your favourite podcast, or any other audio content, you can upload your own audio files to the robot’s microSD card – more about this later.
Somnox Technical Specifications
|Size||355 x 203 x 127 mm (14 x 8 x 5 in)|
|Weight||1.9 kg (4 lbs)|
|Battery Type||Li-ion 2900mAh|
|Estimated Battery Life||10 hours (in out breathing 1:1)|
|Bio Sensors||Accelerometer (movement), CO2 sensor (breathing)|
|Storage memory||16GB microSD card included|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.0 BLE|
|Software Compatibility||iOS and Android|
|Charger||100-240V (50/60Hz), Output 18V, 1A|
|Main Features||Breathing Simulation, Relaxation Audio|
|Fabric||Auping materials - recycled fabrics and foams|
- Unique, tactile sleep aid suitable for everyone
- Effortlessly helps to lower breathing rate
- Options for falling asleep, napping, relaxation/meditation
- No EMF (Wifi or Bluetooth) emissions whilst you sleep
- Audio uploading feature could be improved
- Breathing motor is not completely silent
Price and availability
It comes with free international shipping and a full 30-day money back guarantee should you wish to return it. Somnox has lifetime support and a 2 year warrantee.
4.3 out of 5 Stars
Check Somnox Sleep Robot reviews on Amazon
Somnox Review – first impressions
I’ve tried out Somnox before at a trade show about a year ago, so I knew more or less what to expect. But taking the thing out of the box I was again struck by its most noticeable quality, the sheer weight of the product.
From the outside, Somnox, with its two-tone grey fabric covering, looks like some kind of pillow, albeit a strangely shaped one. So you would expect it to be relatively lightweight, but its hits the scales at around 4 pounds or nearly 2 1/2 kilos.
This I’m guessing is an intentional part of the design. Whereas most gadgets cherish being compact and lightweight, Somnox is different, and the founders have described their goal to create ‘life-like companions’. This mass of the sleep robot helps towards this by giving Somnox a sense that it’s a living, breathing ‘organic’ thing.
Me speaking to Somnox co-founder Julian Jaktenberg at the Somnox Sleep Show in 2018
Buttons, interfaces and connections
Fittingly, for a gadget you’re supposed to hug at night, Somnox is pretty minimal in terms of buttons, connections and interfaces. There’s only one connection port, a DC power socket which unfortunately isn’t a USB connector – presumably this is because the robot’s breathing motor is more power hungry than most gadgets.
There’s also an on/off button, up and down volume controls which double up as skip/rewind, and a micro-SD memory card slot.
In terms of lights there are four small status LED lights for the battery, and a larger, pulsating ‘heartbeat’ light which activates in synchrony with the robot’s ‘breathing’ rate.
Ergonomics, comfort and feel
A lot of consideration has gone into the shape and feel of the robot. The original prototype was much larger, but after user testing the inventors decided to reduce the size to be more ‘huggable’ and also less intrusive if you share your bed with a partner.
The robot is primarily designed for side-sleepers and essentially you’re supposed to hug, or ‘spoon’ the robot at night, as you would a loved one. Whilst I suppose you could use it if you’re a back sleeper, you’d most likely miss out on the whole point of Somnox, which is to synchronize your breathing via bodily contact with the robot.
The shape, based around two connected spheres, is designed to accommodate the fetal position that most sleepers instinctively adopt during the night. The ergonomic design helps to maintain a natural sleeping position without deviating from the proper neck and shoulder alignment, and the dimensions have been chosen carefully to allow you to comfortably place Somnox against the chest and hug it with your arms, the most important regions of the body that should be in contact with the robot.
The attention to detail to ergonomics and dimensions means the robot feels extremely comfortable to hold. However another key comfort aspect is down the choice of materials.
Materials and fabrics
Somnox is made in partnership with Auping, a Dutch company a highly regarded mattress manufacture that’s been in business for over 130 years. Somnox’s outer cover, is made of the same sustainable, recycled ‘ticking’ fabric used across the Auping product range, which makes sense as it’s a tried and tested material already in use in thousands of thousands of mattresses.
If you unzip the cover, hidden inside you can see a thick layer of memory foam surrounding the hard shell of the robot containing all the mechanical and electronic components. If you carefully look beneath the memory foam, you’ll see the hard shell of the robot itself – a large black bean shaped object which isn’t at all cuddly. Looking at the robot’s innards reminded me of one of those sci-fi films where the robot’s outer layers are peeled back to reveal its true nature.
In the box you also get a washable fabric sleeve, which is essentially a set of pyjamas for your robot to stop you passing on sweat, dirt and god knows what else, as you spoon your robotic companion during the night. Considering that out of the box, the robot is generally quite nice to look at, the plain grey sleeve is somewhat of a detraction from the arguably attractive aesthetics.
Acknowledging the risk of anthropomorphisation, I would say it’s kind of like the equivalent of your attractive partner wearing sweatpants around the house. Anyway… ahem…. moving on, I guess for hygiene’s sake, it makes sense to use the sleeve, especially if you’re a sweaty sleeper.
So overall, the form and the design are very pleasing, so let’s move on to the set up procedure.
Setting up Somnox
Before you climb into bed with your robot you need to jump through the obligatory hoops of installing the companion app, registering an account and make sure you’re using the latest firmware update. Somnox is continually being updated to add new features and improvements so you’ll want to make sure you’re fully up to day
You’re also asked to scan the serial number into the app, which links your personal robot to your account. Using the robot’s Bluetooth 4.0 connection, I was able to connect easily to the app, which is available for both iOS and Android devices.
The Somnox app
Keeping with the theme of relaxation, the app has a simple and well laid out design. There are some obligatory settings pages where you can do things like view/update the firmware, check the battery life, and manage the Bluetooth connection, but most of the action centres on the home screen where you can select one of three relaxation programs; Sleep, Napping, and Relaxing.
Sleep, Napping and Relaxation Programs
Although Somnox is primarily marketed for its ability to promote better sleep, it’s worth making a distinction. Somnox works by creating the conditions for better sleep ie engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. Which means it’s also suitable for general relaxation purposes.
Hence, inside the app contains three separate programs, which differ slightly, according to whether you want to fall asleep, take a power nap, or pause during the day for relaxation or a meditative moment
Essentially these programs are very similar except for one aspect – the different breathing ratios for inhale and exhale. The sleep program for instance is focussed on deep breathing with a 1:2 ratio whereby you take twice as long to breathe out as you do to breathe in.
The nap program is focussed on ‘calm breathing’, and has an inhalation/exhalation ratio of 1:1.5. And finally, the Relaxation program is based around ‘Extra deep breathing’ whereby your exhalations are 2.5x longer than your inhalations.
These numbers might seem somewhat arbitrary but they’re based on a considerable amount of scientific literature which is outlined in detail in a validation whitepaper which provides some good details about the methodologies behind Somnox’s breathing regulation features
Choosing your sleep preferences
Once you’ve decided between sleep, nap or relax, you then get to set your preferences which are the same across all the 3 programs.
First you can choose how long you want the robot to breath for. The default is 30 minutes but you can set it to anywhere between 5 and 90 minutes. If you fall asleep and wake up again, you can simply power on the robot again and it will recommence for another session.
Sounds and music
The next bunch of settings control the sound and music options. First you have a simple on/off slider to enable/disable the audio component of Somnox. You also have a separate timer for how long you want the sounds to play. Finally you can drill down and choose exactly which sounds you want to hear through the speaker.
There are around 20 built-in sounds to choose from the obligatory white noise, plus range of nature and ambient soundscapes. Interestingly you can choose multiple sounds, so if you want to fall asleep to a soundscape of whale song around a crackling camp fire, then you’re all set.
The sound design was a result of Somnox partnering with a specialized audio engineering team, Manglemoose, who studied the relationship between sleep and music before creating the library of custom sounds for the robot. The result is a set of high-quality soundscapes made to a professional standard – you’ll be pleased to know that these aren’t like the 5 second sound loops you’ll find on a lot of apps.
One slight drawback is that you can’t adjust the relative volumes of these sounds, as you can with the Dreem 2 headband, they’re either just on or off, but I can imagine this being fixed in a software update.
Uploading your own audio files
Although it’s not immediately apparent, if you prefer to fall asleep listening to something other than the built-in sounds – an audiobook, a podcast, ASMR soundtracks, or your favourite Ed Sheeran album (or whatever the kids are digging these days…) – you can upload your own audio files onto the robot’s Micro-SD flash storage card.
Tucked away in the robot’s control panel there’s a slot containing a 16 Gigabyte Micro SD card, which is where all of the built-in audio tracks are stored. However, if you eject the card, you’re able to use it as a standard removable storage device. This means you can plug it into your computer and transfer any audio files you wish, up to the 16Gb limit.
In theory, this is a really useful feature. Millions of people use music to fall asleep to at night, so undoubtably the ability to choose your own music, or the latest episode of Sleep With Me is undoubtably a selling point.
In practice however, the upload feature is fiddly, clunky, and feels a little half-baked.
For a start, you have to find a MicroSD to USB adaptor in order to plug the card into your computer. I’m a geek so I’ve got tons of these floating around, but I would guess that most people haven’t.
I don’t know why Somnox didn’t bundle such an adaptor in the box, but it’s telling that they didn’t – almost as if they’re trying to downplay this feature.
Eventually, when you get to plug the card into your computer, as well as the usual directory of audio files, there’s a host of system files, databases, and technical stuff which you won’t want to go near to. And according to the Readme file on the robot’s SD card, if you accidentally delete any of the system files you could permanently damage the robot, essentially turning it into a soft, cuddly lifeless brick.
This implementation doesn’t feel right at all. For such a premium product, Somnox should make the audio upload feature a lot simpler and more user friendly.
Those concerned with EMF (electromagnetic field) emissions from Bluetooth and Wifi during the night need not worry. The app is only used to pick the settings for Somnox during the night. Once you’ve chosen your robot’s sleeping preferences you can disconnect the app and it will remember everything – ie breathing ratio, timers and your music selection.
As well as benefitting from being EMF-free, having the settings stored locally on the device is handy if you suffer from night awakenings, as you can really easily restart the robot just with the power button, without having to reach for your phone.
One last app feature to mention is adaptive breathing. This feature was introduced earlier this year, and enables a biofeedback feature will allows the the robot to adapt to your own breathing patterns. This feature uses the built-in carbon-dioxide ( CO2) sensor which detects your exhalations and then mimics your own breathing rate before slowly adjusting the rhythm down to a slower pace.
So, enough of the description, what’s the robot like to use? Well, the first thing to mention is that the company recommends that you take some time to get used to your robotic sleeping companion.
It makes sense. Although the robot excels in the comfort stakes, let’s face it, this is not a teddy bear. It’s designed to mimic a living, breathing thing, so you’ll need time to adjust to this new experience. According to testing some take only a few nights to adjust whilst others may need up to 30 days. The main point is that you shouldn’t expect to hit it off with your robot after the first night – take your time.
That said, here are my impressions after sleeping on and off for about a month with the robot.
First off I have to mention the curious and unexpected sound emitted by the robot. I’m not talking about the library of tracks played through the speaker, but the actual mechanical noise when the robot is ‘breathing’.
This isn’t immediately apparent when you first switch the robot on. In fact, if you’re more than a meter away from the robot, both the noise and the movement are barely perceptible. But because Somnox is designed to be an intimate experience, when you’re up close, hugging your robot, you can definitely hear the mechanical sound of the motors operating the breathing mechanism.
Admittedly the mechanical noise is extremely quiet, but it’s definitely there. I’d describe it as a kind of low-frequency pulse on the ‘inhalation’, followed by a soft, almost human-like out-breath on the ‘exhalation’.
Turning on the calming sounds doesn’t mask the mechanical noise, because the frequency curve is lower than that of the in-built speaker. This might not bother everyone, but as someone who previously used their ears for a living ( I was a music engineer/producer in another life…) it took me a day or two to get used to this curious audio artifact.
The mechanical noise isn’t a show-stopper – eventually I got used to it and ignored it. And it’s worth mentioning that it’s perfectly feasible that this noise – synchronised the breathing rhythm -actually has a positive effect, because it’s acting as an additional entrainment cue. Who knows. It’s impossible to separate these things out, but if you have particularly sensitive hearing, be forewarned, your robot is not a completely silent sleeper.
The audio experience
I must admit to being a little disappointed with the built-in speaker. Bearing in mind the physical mass of the robot, I was expecting the frequency response (ie how much lows, mids and highs) to be better. But the speaker sounds quite ‘tinny’ to my ears, no better than what you’d find in a laptop computer.
Maybe I’m biased, I’m a musician and I play the bass, so I like my low frequencies. But listening to the sounds through the speaker is certainly not a hi-fi experience. This is no reflection on the audio files themselves. Browsing the files directly from the robot’s Micro-SD card, and listening on headphones, it’s clear that the Manglemoose guys have delivered high-quality audio tracks throughout. But the fact is, the robot’s speaker doesn’t let these tracks shine to their full extent.
It’s possible that part of the audio experience is down to psychoacoustics, in the sense that because you have a constant. prominent low-frequency mechanical noise (as described above), low-end from the speaker itself is masked
This might not bother everyone – especially if you’re using sound as a masking element – ie white noise, nature sounds, ‘boring’ podcasts.
But if you want to hear music in all it’s dynamic range and clarity, you’re better off with a pair of sleeping headphones.
The falling asleep experience
Once I’d got over the breathing noise, I was ready to appreciate what Somnox could do for my sleep. As I don’t personally suffer from sleeping problems, I thought it might be tricky to see if Somnox could help me, but as it turns out, it didn’t take long at all to recognise the immediate benefits and potential of what Somnox is attempting to achieve.
To get the most benefit you want to ‘feel’ the robot breathing with as much of your body in contact with the robot as possible. I found the optimal position was with my left arm loosely draped over the top of the robot in a kind of a hybrid spooning + cuddling affair.
Using the Sleep program with the default 30 minutes duration, and speaker sounds turned off, I could feel the rising and falling of the robot’s breaths and started to match the pace with my own breathing.
What happens next is the interesting part…
To explain, I’ll use a comparative example. There are many sleep products on the market now that attempt to help you sleep by slowing your breathing. Some use sound (Dreem), light (Dodow) others incorporate guided meditations (Kokoon).
These products all work well, but the BIG difference I found between Somnox and a guided breathing product that uses light/sound is the direct bodily contact of the robot.
Feeling the breaths rather than seeing, or hearing a pulse or a voice, seems to remove a layer of cognitive load. What I mean is that you don’t have to focus your eyes on a light, or listen to the counting of a voice, you feel the robot’s breathing rhythm via your chest, torso and arms.
Once I’d gotten used to the robot after a few days, I found that I started following the robot’s breaths almost without and conscious effort at all. Although it’s impossible to quantify, without hooking me up to sensors and measuring my sleep onset before, after and during my Somnox experience, what I felt was happening was that as I was spooning the robot, my parasympathetic system was kicking in, and all of the usual night-time thoughts, small anxieties seemed to become much more ‘muted’.
So whereas normally I might lie awake thinking about tomorrow’s list of work tasks, or the shopping list, with Somnox, this didn’t seem to happen. As I said, I can’t quantify this, and it’s perfectly possible that it’s a placebo response, but this was my subjective experience.
Simply, I found that this sleep robot had an uncanny way of making me relax easier at night. By engaging the PNS via controlled breathing algorithms, the robot seemed to have the knock on effect of subconsciously removing distracting thoughts and the mental junk that often gets in the way of falling asleep. Bottom line. At least in my subjective experience, Somnox seems to be capable of doing what it’s designed to do.
Somnox is a pioneering technology product. By taking a leap of the imagination, the founders have conjured a truly unique sleep experience, unlike anything else on the market. But because the concept is so new and unfamiliar, you have to make some mental adjustments to appreciate the company vision, and the potential of soft robotics as a sleep aid.
First, rather than just a passive gadget you ideally need to consider Somnox as a type of ‘companion’ (think ‘favourite teddy bear’ as opposed to ‘replacement for human contact’… ). It might seem odd, even creepy to some – using a machine for psychological soothing – but robotic technology is already reaping rewards in similar ‘therapy’ environments – Japanese care homes for the elderly, and robotic pets that help treat dementia patients.
Next is to realise that Somnox works on a subconscious and that any efficacy comes as a result of ignoring all of the clever science and gadgetry. If you try to concentrate too much on what the robot is doing, you’ll ruin the experience.
If you can manage the above, then there’s immense potential value to be gained. Somnox the sleep robot is a technologically advanced, but essentially effortless means to combat stress, anxiety or rumination which is preventing you from falling asleep. The unique proposition of Somnox is its physicality, designed to slow your breathing and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s natural relaxation response.
Although it’s impossible to say whether Somnox had any direct causal effect, my subjective experience was of a general calming of the mind as I was drifting off – a gently pulsating chill-pill. If I was to guess I would attribute this to an autonomous response of my body naturally synchronising, without cognitive effort, to the optimized breathing rhythms of my robot buddy.
There are some downsides however. Bleeding-edge innovation means a high price tag. If Somnox can solve your sleep problems, obviously it will be worth the investment. But until scale of economies bring production costs down, it’s not going to be something that everyone can afford. Luckily, should you decide to invest and then discover that your robotic relationship didn’t work out, there’s a 100-day money-back guarantee to try it out.
I also got the impression that whilst the hardware is clearly first-class, the software and user experience is playing catch up. Certain features feel out of place or even missing. The micro-SD card implementation for example is clunky. Where’s the ability to upload files straight from your phone? And the app, whilst well designed, failed more than once when trying to update the firmware.
Support was helpful and responsive in dealing with enquiries, but essentially the solutions came via a convoluted process of charging, unplugging, connecting, disconnecting and eventually a factory reset. Big feature request would be a USB port for remote diagnostics – surely this would be more fitting for a robot…!
All in all, truth be had, the sleep robot, with all its quirks and foibles, is a trail-blazing piece of sleep-tech that offers a brand-new potential solution to solve a range of sleep problems.