Somnox Sleep Robot Review
In seven years of covering the burgeoning sleep-tech market, 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 the nascent consumer sleep technology industry.
What exactly does a sleep robot do? Does the world need one? Can a robot cure insomnia? It’s only after spending some time with the device that answers begin to crystallise, and now I think I understand the vision a bit more.
What’s clear is that Somnox is such a unique proposition that it requires a different mode of thinking about how to tackle sleep problems. Somnox aims first to be your ‘companion’, and it’s only when you’ve established a good ‘relationship’ that the clever gadgetry can 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, and there’s still a battle to educate and win over the public imagination. But despite all these challenges, and some minor usability gripes, we think soft robotic technology, is a very promising new intervention to add to the panoply of existing sleep therapies.
The Somnox experience is very subjective, and 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‘. 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 you are in a state at rest, as opposed to activity. Slowing your breathing engages the PNS which activates bodily functions that promote relaxation, which in turn puts you in a state that’s more 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 relaxation soundscapes, including music, nature sounds and white noise.
In addition, if you like to fall asleep listening to your favourite podcast, or indeed 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 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 of a living, breathing ‘organic’ thing.
Me speaking to Somnox co-founder Julian Jagtenberg 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 LEDs 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 as this would minimize the amount of 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 the ergonomics 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 highly regarded Dutch 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, and 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, but houses all the clever proprietary technology that sets Somnox apart.
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. The plain grey sleeve (Update – you can also get in blue) is somewhat of a detraction from the arguably attractive aesthetics of the ‘naked’ robot. At the risk of anthropomorphisation, I would say it’s kind of like the equivalent of your partner wearing sweatpants around the house. Anyway… ahem…. moving on, for hygiene’s sake, it makes sense to use the sleeve, especially if you’re a sweaty sleeper.
Overall, the form and the design is very pleasing, and the product feels solid, well-engineered, and of premium quality.
Setting up Somnox
Before you climb into bed with your robot you need to jump through some obligatory hoops; installing the app (available on both iOS and Android), registering a user account and firmware updates. Somnox is continually being updated to add new features and improvements so you’ll want to make sure you’re fully up to date.
You’re also asked to scan the device’s serial number , which links your personal robot to your account. Using the Bluetooth 4.0 connection, connection was easy and without hiccups,
The Somnox app
Keeping with the theme of relaxation, the app has a simple and well laid out design. In the settings pages you can do things like view/update the firmware, check battery life, and manage the Bluetooth connection, but most of the action centres on the home screen where you’re able 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 an important distinction. Unlike a sleeping pill, Somnox promotes sleep indirectly by creating the conditions for optimal sleep – ie engaging you parasympathetic nervous system. However, this means that the robot also has utility for general relaxation purposes.
So, inside the app there are 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 differing breathing ratios for inhalation and exhalation. For instance, the Sleep program 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, outlined in a validation whitepaper which provides more details about Somnox’s breathing regulation features.
Choosing your sleep preferences
Once you’ve decided between Sleep, Nap or Relax, you can go on the customize your preferences. 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. There’s a simple switch to enable/disable the audio component of Somnox plus a 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 including white noise, plus range of nature and ambient soundscapes. Interestingly you can choose multiple sounds, so if you want to fall asleep to a blended 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 minor 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 easily in a software update.
Uploading your own audio files
Although it’s not immediately apparent, if you prefer to fall asleep listening to something of own choise – an audiobook, a podcast, ASMR soundtracks, 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. 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 in comparison with the otherwise excellent design achievements, feels a little under-accomplished.
For a start, you have to purchase 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 a lot of people haven’t. I don’t know why Somnox didn’t bundle such an adaptor in the box, but maybe it’s telling that they didn’t – almost as if they’re trying to downplay this feature.
More worrying is that when you connect the SD card into your computer, as well as the list of audio files, you can also see a whole host of technical stuff – system files, databases etc 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 your robot into a soft, cuddly lifeless brick.
Considering it’s such a premium product this kind of implementation doesn’t feel right at all and I hope this is fixed soon – either with a Bluetooth file upload feature, or indeed a slicker way to drag and drop MP3s.
On a more positive note, those concerned with EMF (electromagnetic field) emissions from Bluetooth and Wifi during the night need not worry. The app is only used to select the settings for your sleep program. Once you’ve chosen your robot’s sleeping preferences you can disconnect the app and it will remember everything – ie breathing ratio, timers and of course, your music selection plays directly from the cards, so there’s no streaming going on at all.
All the settings are stored locally on the device, which is handy if you suffer from night awakenings, as you can really easily restart the robot with a simple press of the power button, without having to reach for your phone.
One last app feature to mention is adaptive breathing. This 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. Although in the early stages, adaptation, machine learning and AI is very much in the roadmap for Somnox, so over time, your robot will get to know you more, and be better able to improve its abilities to help you sleep.
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.
This makes sense. Whilst the robot excels in the comfort stakes, let’s face it, it’s not a teddy bear., it’s an odd futuristic, technologically advanced robot designed to mimic a living, breathing thing. So unsurprising you’ll probably need time to adjust to this new experience.
According to Somnox’s user tests some people 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.
I imagined Somnox would be completely silent experience, but as others have reported, the robot does make a very distinct, albeit soft sound. 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 obvious 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 was certainly noticeable.
After a couple of days I got used to the noise. It also occurred to me that it’s perfectly feasible that the mechanical noise – synchronised the breathing rhythm -might even has a positive effect, acting as an additional entrainment cue. Who knows? It’s impossible to separate these things out.
The audio experience
To be perfectly honest I was expecting more from the built-in speaker. The sound quality is perfectly acceptable, it’s just not that loud, nor hi-fidelity. The speaker is obviously designed to be used close-up, so the lack of volume is understandable. Perhaps because of the hefty weight of the robot I was expecting a larger, beefier speaker, but the experience is much more like the speaker in your phone or your laptop than a standalone Bluetooth listening device.
This, however 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 allow the tracks to shine to their full extent.
Maybe some of this is down to psychoacoustics, in the sense that the low-frequency mechanical noise (as described above), is somehow interacting with your perception of the speaker sounds. Again, I don’t have the answers. But what I would say that if you’re an audio geek like me and want to hear music in all it’s dynamic range and clarity, you might better off with a pair of earbuds or sleeping headphones. On the other hand, if all you want is some kind of constant audio distraction like white noise, or an inane, drowsiness inducing podcast, then the robot’s speaker will be fine for you.
The falling asleep experience
Once I’d got over the breathing noise, I was ready to appreciate what Somnox could do for my sleep. I don’t personally suffer from any sleeping problems, and I thought it might be tricky to work out if Somnox would benefit me in any way, but as it turns out, it didn’t take long to recognise the unique potential of what Somnox is attempting to achieve.
To get the most benefit you want to ‘feel’ the robot breathing with as much bodily contact 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.
But what happens next is the interesting part…
For context, let me use a comparative example. There are lots of products on the market now that try to help you sleep by slowing your breathing. Some use sounds to achieve this, some use pulsating light (Dodow) others incorporate guided meditations (Kokoon).
These products work well, but the BIG difference I discovered with Somnox, and indeed what I consider to be the unique proposition of a sleeping robot, is the tactile effect of having direct bodily contact with the device.
Trying to rationalise the unrationalizable, my suspicion is that feeling a breathing pulse rather than seeing, or hearing one, removes a layer of cognitive load. Any respectable sleep psychologist will tell you that insomnia and sleeplessness is to a large degree, a mind game. And the key to optimal sleep, is reducing mental activity, rumination and ‘switching off your brain’ to get into the rest and digest mode.
So, with Somnox you can bypass the mental tasks of having to focus your eyes on a pulsating light, or listen to the vocal instructions of a sleep meditation soundtrack. Instead the relaxation entrainment cue bypasses your cognition, and your body automatically feels the correct breathing rhythm via your chest, torso and arms, without you having to do any thinking.
This tactile relaxation response is something we know about instinctively – infants asking for a soothing cuddle, pet owners stroking their cat or dog. And scientists have found that hugs are like drugs, releasing ‘feel-good’ hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. While it’s a big leap to say that spooning a robot can reproduce the same sense of clam and bliss you might get in mums arms, or by cuddling up on the sofa with your labrador, the point, is, Somnox employs our body’s innate intelligence to go some way towards achieving this same primal relaxation responses.
Once I’d gotten used to the robot after a few days, I found that I started synchronising my breaths almost without any conscious effort at all. Although it’s impossible to quantify without hooking myself up to a bunch of sleep sensors, what I exerienced was that all of the usual night-time thoughts, small anxieties about next days’s tasks and activities seemed to become much more ‘muted’.
As I said, I can’t quantify this, and it’s perfectly possible, that it may be a placebo response, but this was my subjective experience and it’s also what other users have reported back in tests with the robot.
Simply, I found that this sleep robot had an uncanny way of making me relax easier at night, which 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.
Somnox in my opinon is a pioneering technology product. By taking a leap of the imagination, the founders have conjured up a unique sleep-promoting experience, unlike anything else on the market. But because the concept is so new and weird, 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’. It might seem odd, even creepy to some – using a machine for psychological soothing – but robotic technology is already has a precedent in other therapuetic environments ie care homes for the elderly, and robotic pets that help treat dementia patients.
Next thing is to realise that Somnox works on a subconscious level and that any efficacy comes as a result of ignoring all of the clever science and gadgetry. Like quantum physics experiments, if you try to observe the process too much, you may ruin the outcome.
If you can manage the above, then there’s immense potential value to be gained. Somnox the sleep robot is a technologically advanced, but has the potential to effortlessly combat any stress, anxiety or rumination which is preventing you from falling asleep.
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, cuddly chill-pill.
There are a few gripes however. Bleeding-edge innovation means a high price tag. And until scales of economy can bring production costs down, it’s not going to be something that everyone can afford. Fortunately, should you decide to give Somnox a try and then discover that your robotic relationship didn’t work out, there’s a 100-day money-back guarantee. I also got the impression that whilst the quality and engineering of the hardware is first-class, the software and user experience is playing catch up. And certain features like the micro-SD card implementation feel clunky.
But my overall impressions were that the sleep robot, with all its quirks and foibles, is a trail-blazing piece of sleep-tech with a unique potential solution to solve a range of sleep problems. With continued development, more features being added and clinical studies in the pipe-line, the future for Somnox and sleep-promoting robotic technology looks very promising.