Our common perception of robots is one largely informed by our cultural fictions. The Jetsons, Star Wars, and the various sci-fi blockbusters of the past fifty years have all shaped our collective expectation as to how future technologies should look and function. And while smart devices, home assistants, and wearables are all challenging our preconceived notions as to what exactly constitutes a “robot”, old ideas are hard to shake. The word itself likely conjures images of hard-bodied beings with mechanical moving parts, all gleaming metals and jagged edges.
A specific subfield within the robotics development community, however, is seeking to challenge the stereotypical robotic form. Soft Robotics, as the field is known, is focused on the engineering of robots from compliant materials, similar to those found in living organisms. And for one new Netherlands-based company, this means aiming for softness to the extreme — so extreme, in fact, that the resulting robot is a pillow!
Somnox was founded by four engineers (Wouter Kooyman Van Guldener, Julian Jagtenberg, Stijn Antonisse, and Job Engel) who met while studying in the robotics institute of the Delft University of Technology, the oldest and largest Dutch public technological university. Discovering a shared interest in soft robotics, they formed a team and set out within six months to develop a robot of their own. “We started to think of ways how robots could solve problems and make life easier,” they share on their site. “But we approached it from a different angle: we set out not to develop the stereotypical rough, cold industrial robot, but rather a soft, cuddly one.”
Inspired by direct experience with the effects of sleep deprivation on family members, the team decided to develop a robot with a specific purpose: to help the user sleep. They each paused their studies and sought out the resources of Yes!Delft, the number four tech incubator in Europe. Three months of entrepreneurial workshops and projects, as well as one exciting road trip across the continent, culminated in ten prototypes and a Kickstarter campaign that achieved twice the required funding in a mere thirty days. The team put these funds towards fabrication equipment and the various components of the sleep robot, and those who pre-ordered the product can expect a delivery in March or April of this year.
So — how, exactly, does a sleep robot work?
The Somnox Sleep Robot is designed with a combination of state-of-the-art technology, informed by deep neuroscience experience. It has been co-designed by Auping, a mattress company that has become a world leader in the knowledge of sleep.
Of course, sleep is one of those tricky areas in which needs are highly individualized based on a person’s environmental factors, lifestyle, and physical and mental health; much like skincare, there is no one product that works for everyone. It’s for this reason that the Somnox Sleep Robot is, according to its designers, built with user centred design; extensive product testing and focus groups mean that the Robot is “a product developed by insomniacs, for insomniacs.”
Shaped like a pillow, the Robot is ergonomically built and meant to be held while the user sleeps, while also ensuring that the hugger maintains a neutral position that does not negatively impact neck and shoulder alignment. Its shape, which prompts a warm embrace, is meant to simulate the comfort of human contact.
The Robot maintains a specific breathing rhythm that is slower than the user’s breathing, which forces the user to mimic this pace in a calming synchronicity. Slower breathing means a lowered heart rate and blood pressure, a combination which helps the user enter a deep relaxation mode.
As you may have guessed, the Somnox Sleep Robot wouldn’t be complete without a little audio. Looking to scientific research outlining the positive impact of music in improving subjective sleep quality in insomniacs, the team incorporated a combination of music and sounds to help decrease stress and promote relaxation. “Slow-paced music is known to encourage brainwaves, leading to a semi-hypnotic or meditative state,” explains the team. These audio options are also customizable, with pre-programmed options as well as the ability to upload sounds or music of your choosing.
Curious to try the Somnox Sleep Robot for yourself? The device comes with a free washable sleeve, charger, a sleep/setup guide, and download link to a corresponding mobile app (compatible with iOS and Android). The company currently offers a thirty-night trial with a money-back guarantee — a nice perk, since the robot itself will set you back $849.00 CAD before shipping. But for those seeking alternatives to sleeping pills, or those who have had limited luck with more natural methods like exercise, herbal teas, meditation, and looped audio tracks of rain forest or ocean sounds, it may be time to give artificial intelligence a try. According to the company, one in every five individuals experiences trouble with sleeping; the Somnox mission, it says, is to “help 100,000 people achieve a good night’s rest with the world’s best natural sleep solution by 2025.” Will you be one of them?
Photos via Somnox.