I had a one-night stand with a sleep robot

How well do you sleep? Do you toss and turn, read for hours, or count sheep in the hopes of visiting the land of nod, but to no avail? If so, perhaps you should try sleeping with Somnox’s sleep robot.

Although its name suggests otherwise, the Somnox sleep ‘bot doesn’t resemble Maria from Metropolis, or The Terminator — thankfully — and actually looks more like a massive peanut. Hug it, and you feel the soft rise and fall of its body, mimicking someone’s breathing. This calming effect is supposed to lull you to sleep, as your own breathing begins to match the slower pace of the robot’s own, while soothing sounds help relax your mind.

Sounds a bit weird, right?

We thought the same, so we arranged with Somnox to spend the night with a prototype of its new creation to really find out. When it arrived, the robot — which had already been affectionately dubbed “spoonbot” —  attracted plenty of attention ahead of our one and only night together.

Strange bedfellows

“Is that what you’re sleeping with?” people would ask, bringing back upsetting memories I’d heard people ask some of my old girlfriends. To appease their concerns, I’d give a quick demonstration. Once people cradled the robot, puzzled expressions turned to surprise, and even happiness. Most who initially thought the breathing would be creepy changed their minds. It was compared to hugging a kitten, which is decidedly better than treating it like a tiny, limbless torso.

somnox sleep robot pillow table
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The sleep robot is decidedly unlike a kitten elsewhere. It’s solid, heavy, and although there is a soft fabric shell, it’s very obviously a piece of technology. It also doesn’t feel particularly big once you’re in bed with it (again, upsetting memories flooding back) despite a bulky look. It’s a very non-threatening design, which is important when you’re trying to convince regular people to take a robot to bed. In addition to the kittenish breathing, the sleep robot has a speaker inside that plays various lullabies. The volume is low, even when maxed out, and having the music playing at all is an option.

An app configures the breathing patterns and the music, plus the length of time the sleep robot stays active during the night. It’s very basic, but we didn’t experience any connectivity problems. Interestingly, for a device you sleep with, it doesn’t provide any sleep tracking data at the moment. It doesn’t have a smart alarm, either. These are two features we consider essential here, especially as sleep data would help us understand if sleeping with the bot was making a difference.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

According to Somnox’s website, the smart alarm is being worked on, and all of the sensors required to enable sleep tracking are inside the robot, ready to be activated in a future update. At the moment, the robot’s functionality is basic, and firmly built around the unusual breathing action. Somnox claims this is all based on scientifically proven techniques that reduce stress and promote good sleep. Members of the team were insomniacs, prompting the development of the sleep robot, so there’s genuine passion behind making it work effectively.

Does it work?

I slept through the night, waking only very briefly once, and certainly felt refreshed in the morning despite only resting for a few hours. However, I tested the sleep robot during CES 2018, in a hotel room, and on a different time zone to usual. None of these things make judging good sleep very easy, as exhaustion may have been a large contributing factor to me remembering nothing about my night’s sleep.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Does this mean sleeping with the robot was disappointing? No, because what the Somnox sleep robot didn’t do was disturb me. The breathing action is very subtle, almost to the point where you can’t feel it. I shifted the robot around several times to establish where the breathing could be felt most, but there really wasn’t one. If you’re expecting it to feel like you’re in bed with some kind of slumbering wild animal, it won’t. No-one needs reminding how pleasant it is to feel the breathing of another person, which makes it easy to see the value of a device like Somnox’s. Even if it’s not for you, we envisage some young people, the sick, the lonely, or the vulnerable, getting real value from it.

Although a sock-like pillow case covers the robot, this won’t stop you from feeling the plastic control panel on the side of the prototype we tested. Somnox told us it’s still working on the final look and feel of this piece, which is 3D printed at the moment. Its controls, we’re told, may end up being made from fabric. At the moment, for all its sleep-promoting tech, the sleep robot doesn’t look like a typical lifestyle item to leave out on the bed either. We do think the design could be enhanced to make it more attractive.

Our one-night stand with the Somnox sleep robot was a fascinating experiment.

It’s also really expensive. It’s sold through Indiegogo at the moment for 500 euros, which converts over to nearly $600. That’s a lot of money for a gadget that may or may not help you sleep better, and doesn’t provide any quantifiable data to establish how much difference its making. You just have to trust it. The final version is expected to ship in September.

Our one-night stand with the Somnox sleep robot was a fascinating experiment. We’re not convinced it’s the ideal sleeping partner, but definitely don’t think it should be written off as just another bizarre piece of useless tech with ambitions beyond its ability either. There are still several months to go before it’s ready for sale, and the team has some very ambitious plans for the future, including artificial intelligence, voice control, and the ability to link more than one robot together.

It’s one to watch, and should our paths cross again, I’d be happy to welcome it back into my bed.

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