Somnox sleep robot – like being in bed with a baby Darth Vader
The kidney-shaped cushion comes with a birth certificate and mirrors your breathing patterns to help you nod off. I would rather spoon a fork
Tue 15 Oct 2019 02.00 EDT
‘A witchetty grub herald of post-human dystopia’ ... Rhik tries the Somnox sleep robot. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
"There are two types of people who would
utilize a device like this;
those who are totally mental morons and those
who are 100%
Read On Folks
Once you cyborg, you never go borg? We’ll see. This week I am testing a sleep robot (£549, meetsomnox.com) that aims to banish insomnia, aiding natural rest and reducing stress. It is an example of soft robotics, and could be revolutionary in the field: most tech is hard-edged, and many overnight devices merely track sleep rather than promoting it. Somnox describes itself as a “sleep companion.” The kidney-shaped, possibly sentient cushion breathes softly in and out, and plays calming noises. The idea is that users hold it close to them in bed, building up an emotional bond over time. Every night, you breathe together in time until you fall sleep, perchance to dream of electric sheep.
There is obvious industry and sophistication here. The product is made of high-quality material, with nothing extraneous in the design. It is heavy – like organic-material heavy. It is the weight of a baby. And it is comforting, cushioned with foam and soft, thick fabric. We climb into bed and I switch it on. A warm light within the fabric comes to life, pulsing in and out. The robot has a soft belly part, which gently expands and deflates, with a noise like a discreet ventilator. I start getting a strange feeling in my belly, too. “Creating life is our design philosophy” is the chilling strapline printed on the “birth certificate” included with each purchase. “It took us nine months to create your new sleep companion, just like a real baby.” (I hope the process wasn’t exactly the same.) It is a weird timeframe. Nine months to R&D, prototype, test and market a complex robot sounds insufficient. Unless they are talking about the manufacture of the specific item I am holding, in which case that is way too long. You couldn’t scale a cookie business if each biscuit took a month to make.
Creating life may be Somnox’s focus; I wish it was creating apps. Their one doesn’t work, at least not after the firmware update I installed. The Bluetooth pairing with the robot dropped a few times, and needed to be reinstated; eventually, the app and device stopped recognising each other completely.
While it was working, I tried the deep sleep exercise: essentially a timed breathing pattern of longer exhalations. (The other options are nap and relaxation modes.) I selected a few of the soothing musical options, which include “forest walk”, “pink noise” and “cosmic moon” but they didn’t work. Each time, an identical mechanical wheeze emerged from the speaker in perfect sync with the breathing. Like being in bed with a baby Darth Vader. The robot has CO2 sensors in its head, which adapt to the user’s breathing to help slow it down. But I had to cover the device with the duvet to muffle the maddening noise. My breathing was getting more and more rapid with irritation anyway, until I turned the thing off. This happened the next night, too, and then the app packed up entirely. I was quite relieved, as it had been keeping me awake.
Without the in-app exercises, the device still works. Is it nice? It’s more … odd, this breathing baby-weight. More useful in the daytime, when noise issues aren’t so big an issue. I don’t have a cat, so used this as a substitute, sitting it on my lap with a bowl of minestrone while I watched Friends – I am aware how lonely this sounds; can we not focus on that? – and the weight was soothing. The delicate rasp could be purring. If anything, it is slightly more affectionate than a couple of cats I could care to mention, and didn’t wake me up with a claw to the nostril. But frankly I would take the claw, or the empty bed, over this witchetty grub herald of post-human dystopia.
The sleep robot feels like an uncomfortable blurring of categories. Soft robotics is not yet a gamechanger in the field of, er, night-time technology and I am glad. I like my robots hard, so they have no place in my bed. Others will have different needs. They may come to rely on Somnox for comfort. I would rather spoon a fork. Not the other way round, I stress.
The Times They Are a-Brandin
It is weird to have a product that comes with a birth certificate AND a manifesto. But maybe all babies should have a manifesto? Never too soon to gain that competitive edge.
Wellness or hellness?