There are so many things that could go wrong when you’re sleeping with a robot. Your partner might freak out in a burst of 21st century jealousy. Or you could accidentally push the robot off the edge of the bed and smash it into a million pieces. In my case, the robot woke me up at 5AM saying “goodnight” in Dutch and started breathing.
I’m talking about Somnox, “the world’s first sleep robot,” as it’s been touted in pretty successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns. It’s actually more of a peanut-shaped pillow than a humanoid robot that can perform backflips a la Boston Dynamics. But for a machine with no arms, legs, or even a face, it actually feels pretty human. That’s because Somnox breathes in and out to help you fall asleep effortlessly, or so the Dutch company claims.
The robot has soft actuators that inflate and deflate, essentially mimicking breathing. On an app (for Android only right now), you can set how long you want the robot to breathe out — from four to 15 seconds — and how long you want the breathing to continue. The idea is that by spooning Somnox as you would your partner or teddy bear, your own breathing will eventually sync up with the slow and deep breathing of the robot, allowing you to relax and fall asleep faster.
I slept with a Somnox prototype for three nights last month, and I have to admit, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. I sleep with a side pillow every night, so I just used the robot as one — and as such, it’s not that comfy. The robot is a bit too hard and heavy: it weighs 4.2 pounds, which is difficult to move around the bed when you’re half asleep. The battery also lasts about eight hours, so that means you have to charge it every morning, which is a bit annoying. I have no idea whether my own breathing synced up with the robot’s, but it did help me relax. In a way, it reminded me of my boyfriend’s snoring cat Kai.
Daniel Barone, a sleep expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian who wrote a book about improving sleep, agrees. He recommends his patients take slow, deep breaths for 10 minutes before going to bed, a form of mindful meditation that focuses their attention on breathing and helps people relax and fall asleep. “Mostly what happens is that if people — especially in New York City — have difficulty shutting their minds off for a variety of reasons, these techniques can help them to overcome that. It brings them back into the present moment if you will,” Barone says.
Hugging the sleep robot while trying to fall asleep, my hand on its “belly” so I could feel it inflate and deflate, definitely focused my attention on breathing — the robot’s, if not my own. I also used Somnox to listen to the sound of rain one night. The robot has a speaker so you can listen to different relaxing sounds, or use it as a white noise machine that drowns out disturbing noises — another technique that’s known to help people fall asleep, according to Verma.
The robot isn’t perfect: when you choose a new setting inside the app, it’s sometimes hard to understand whether the updates have gone through to the pillow. The prototype I used also had an on and off button that I had to hold for a few seconds to bring the robot to life, but it was hard to tell whether the robot was actually on or off. On my first night, I might have accidentally pressed the button in my sleep, because the robot said “goodnight” in Dutch and began breathing — waking me up two hours before my alarm was set to go off. (On the phone with Somnox co-founder Julian Martijn Jagtenberg a few days later, I found out that the Dutch voice was his.)
Jagtenberg says the robot that will be shipped to crowdfunding backers starting in July 2018, and it will have a light that clearly indicates whether the robot is on or off. Users will also be able to adjust how perceptibly the robot breathes in and out. An iOS app will be ready in two months, Jagtenberg says. In the future, software updates will allow Somnox to become more “smart.” Jagtenberg envisions a sleep robot with a CO2 sensor that will be able to detect a sleeper’s breathing and adjust its own breathing to calm people down, or help them sleep better. “The physical hardware will become more valuable over time through software updates,” he says.
For now, as “dumb” as the robot is, it still costs about 449 euros, or $530. (The company also offers a 30-day trial period so you can see if the robot works for you before spending that much money.) It might help you relax and fall asleep faster, but so will a lot of free techniques like breathing exercises, or you can always buy a white noise machine for 20 bucks. “The gadget is new, it’s exciting,” Virma says, “but I think the free option people can consider as an experiment is do to some research and find a breathing exercise and set a phone reminder for them to do it every day.”
As for me, I’m happy the Somnox I tried didn’t have the CO2 sensors and wasn’t that smart after all. It would have made the experience creepier. Instead, it felt like having a cat in the bed with me — without the noisy purrs and allergenic hair.