The shrill scream of an infant isn't just a nuisance, Dr. Harvey Karp argues; it's a health problem for new parents battling stress and physical and mental exhaustion wrought by sleepless nights. The entrepreneurial author, pediatrician, and sleep expert has built a cottage industry of books and videos around his method of mimicking the sounds and motions infants experience in the womb to calm crying fits and lull infants into a deep slumber. Now he's taking the Happiest Baby brand into products courtesy of Snoo, a robotic bassinet developed with the design consultancy Fuseproject.
"This was a product we developed with Harvey from the ground up," Fuseproject founder Yves Behar says. "It wasn't technology looking for an application, but a human problem we’re trying to solve."
The heart of Fuseproject's challenge involved translating Karp's technique into a bassinet that would soothe babies and making the product inviting enough for parents to welcome the technology into their homes. The bassinet's automated audio and motion sensors detect when a baby begins to fuss and cry and responds by gently moving and playing white noise. The artificial intelligence in the system senses how much the baby moves and cries and attempts to modulate the sound and motion to the a level that will calm the baby. For example, it emits soft, rumbly sounds to lull babies to sleep and produces louder, high-pitched sounds when it's trying to calm a meltdown—sounds Karp believes are effective for soothing babies (just one pediatrician's opinion as there's no guarantee the technique works on every infant). Parents can also control the bassinet via an app.
Behar began the design process by coming up with the bassinet's ideal form—essentially the platform for the AI and robotics in the product. It's a clean-lined bassinet with wood accents and hairpin legs—tailor made for parents happy to fork over $1,160 for something that'll play nice with their mid-century furniture. A hefty sum considering that Snoo is meant for infants under six months old and shouldn't be used if the baby can push herself up on her hands and knees. The maximum weight it can hold, per the user manual, is 25 pounds. A special swaddling suit keeps babies wrapped up tight and firmly in place so they don't roll onto their stomachs while asleep or get tangled in blankets. (One Co.Design editor called it "a haute Rock 'n Play.")
"One of the big decisions was to place all mechanical parts beneath the mattress," Behar says. "We isolated the tech and Wi-Fi completely from the baby and the baby’s matters. Then finding a smooth and silent way to create the swinging was the next order."
With the silhouette set, Fuseproject and Karp's team needed to invent the machinery embedded within the product, which involved five years of research, development, prototyping, and refining. Figuring out a way to produce the right type of motion was the hardest code to crack. The crib needed to move at a variety of speeds and traditional motors couldn't produce the subtle changes without being too noisy or clunky. Nina Montée-Karp, Karp's wife and business partner, contacted a friend who worked in automotive engineering and he suggested creating a drive train beneath the mattress and using a Gimbal motor—a type of motor that runs smoothly and doesn't involve clunky gears—to achieve the speed and amplitude of the crib's motions.
Since the crib would be moving side to side, Fuseproject had to come up with a material solution that would ensure nothing slipped between the mattress and sides but still allowed the mattress to have a wide range of motion. Mesh—which can stretch, distort, and recover—proved to be the right material and was something that Fuseproject was already experimenting with in the Herman Miller Sayl chair it was designing at the same time.
"We spent a lot of time sourcing materials that had the right flexibility so the motor wouldn't have to work too hard against and also be translucent enough to allow parents to have a view into the crib," Behar says.
Behar and Karp hope the design and engineering make Snoo robust and long-lasting enough for parents to keep it for a second or third child. But is an automated night nurse in a handsome package enough to convince parents to bring into their babies' lives or will the $35 Rock 'n Play suffice?
"A big part of what’s really important designwise with robotics and AI is the human aspect of any type of product and the type of service they deliver to us," Behar says. "The fact that [Snoo] doesn’t look like a robot—or what you think a robot looks like based on engineering lab or Hollywood [stereotypes]—is important. It has to be a cozy, beautiful, lasting visual product. Harvey was very adamant—and so were we—that this was going to be a product that beautifully integrates into your home and doesn’t make you think of a robot at all, even though it is one . . . It's a departure for what robots should look like in a domestic environment."
Parents have calmed their infants without robots for thousands of years. Some may dismiss this as yet another too-techy commodity for anxious one-percenters frazzled enough to buy a $1,160 baby bed that's only good for six months, and they may be right. But Snoo signals a broader cultural shift: One in which robots and AI look and feel like the stuff we already have in our homes.