The Sensing Beds
// Networked Objects, Spring 2003
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Intimate technologies
The Sensing Beds domesticate communications devices by placing them in the intimate space of the bedroom. As an experiment in telepresence, they bridge the physical distance between two people who would normally share a bed, but find themselves sleeping apart. Sensors located in one mattress pad track the position of its occupant and transmit that data to the other bed where the position data is used to activate heating pads at the same coordinates. Each sleeper thus feels the ghostly warmth of the absent partner’s body in the other bed.

Telepresence in long distance relationships is an ever-fruitful source of inspiration for networked projects. There have been numerous examples over the years, from Bill Gaver's Feather, Scent, Shaker (1996) to the Media Lab Europe's One2One (2003). These projects use paired objects as remote surrogate actors. That is, if one partner shakes the object, the remote object also shakes.

Linked objects often communicate not just presence but intention. The Sensing Bed, however, requires no unusual or deliberate action by the user. While we may not use our stoves every day, or sit down in our living rooms, we all lie down in a bed at least once a day, usually at the same time. An unavoidable part of our daily routine, the bed is an excellent site for low-bandwidth, low-effort communication.

Slow-tech devices track processes over hours, not milliseconds. Their effects mimic the pace of daily life: the slow warming of a newly occupied bed; the cooling of an empty one. Designed to frustrate conventional expectations of immediate, obvious interactivity, the Sensing Beds react sluggishly and unpredictably. Their heat can be confused with their owners'; their communication is at best delayed by seconds, even minutes.

How much information is too much? Too little?
The Sensing Beds are deliberately limited in the data they sample. They do not recognize who is in the bed, or whether the bed's owner is in the room. Their heat may be a comforting reminder of a lover's presence — or perhaps create insecurity. Predictable data is comforting, while differences (Why is the entire bed warm? Why has the bed been cool all night?) in routine can bring distrust. Sometimes ambiguous data is more disturbing than no knowledge at all. Knowing more about your partner may not always make you happy.

The beds are not placebo objects; they must work as planned in order to facilitate the real relationships between two people. They are comforting because they physically underwrite other, more active, communications methods: the phone, the email, the IM.
The Sensing Beds derive meaning from people, not the other way around. They echo and amplify a relationship's dynamic. The interpretations built around the project (is it a communications device? a surveillance tool?) reflect the communications - an miscommunications - between partners.

T he uncertain warmth of the bed is a metaphor for the uncertainty of trust over distance. Would you rather trust the technology, or your partner? Whose body warmed the bed? When was it last occupied? Is the heat from another body or one's own? The Sensing Beds give only the vaguest outline of an answer.

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