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
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
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.