DOES technology always have to be cold? We've heard the argument a thousand times. Thanks to the wonders of email, text and social media, we're now more connected to each other than ever.
But can technology provide us with a way to reach out to each other that’s a little warmer, a little more human?
In a nutshell, that’s the thinking behind Pillow Talk. Joanna Montgomery originally came up with the concept as a university project, but was encouraged to develop it commercially after a wave of interest worldwide, particularly from the USA. It’s now past the prototyping stage, and is pencilled in for release in the summer.
Pillow Talk allows two people to communicate when they’re miles apart, but in a slightly different way. Each person wears a sensor ring, which measures heartbeat by gauging the density of the finger as blood pumps through it. This is transmitted wirelessly to a flat fabric panel that can be inserted in the pillowcase.
When one person goes to bed, the other’s pillow glows to indicate that they’re there. Using a smartphone app, Pillow Talk also sends the heartbeat information to the other pillow, meaning the pair can hear each other’s heartbeats as they drift off to sleep.
“It’s about feeling a connection with another person without actively engaging with them”, says Montgomery. “There’s something cold and crude about sending an email. I wanted to make something more intimate.”
The idea of being able to communicate with a loved one far away appealed to Montgomery, whose own boyfriend spends a lot of time away working on oil tankers. However, the idea also sprang out of a sense of frustration about the limitations of modern-day interaction.
“Somewhere along the line, interaction become quite unexciting. It’s all 2D and everything involves a screen. To communicate with another person, it always seems you have to use some sort of screen. I wanted to come up with a way to communicate with someone that was more subtle, that gave you an awareness of the person without calling or sending an email.”
While it was meant to be a project for her digital interaction design course at Dundee University, the appetite for her idea was clear when she woke up one morning to an ocean of emails. It turned out that tech blog Gizmodo had picked up on the concept, and she was flooded with emails asking where it might be available to buy.
Currently, the two videos she’s made to demonstrate the system have received more than 500,000 views between them, while she says she regularly receives thousands of emails asking when it might be ready. She’s set up a company called Little Riot to develop the product, and it already has more than 12,300 “likes” on Facebook.
She says. “In November, it was on CNN, and there are about 20,000 people on the mailing list now.
“I think people are starting to expect a little bit more from technology, and maybe they’re not even aware of it.”
Montgomery has raised around £50,000 in funding so far to help develop the project, from sources including the Technology Strategy Board, student enterprise organisation NACUE, Shell LIVEwire and a range of smaller backers.
“It’s been pretty hard going to be honest, as I’m still doing it all on my own,” she said.
“The first bit of funding was proof of concept funding, which paid for the prototype. For the last six months, I’ve been refining it in terms of electronics, maximising the battery life and making it smaller.
“It’s now at the stage where we know it works, and it’s pretty cool. When you lie on the pillow, it’s a similar sound to when you’re lying on someone’s chest and you can feel this thud. You’re hearing the real-time heartbeat of your partner, so no couple is going to have the same experience. But you really get the sense of another person’s presence.”
Montgomery originally headed down to Newcastle to pursue a PhD, but was unable to do so due to funding issues. Nevertheless, she remained in the city to develop Pillow Talk, and is enjoying the atmosphere in the “Ignite100 loft” at Adamson House.
“It’s great here. That’s why I stayed on. There’s not really anything like the loft in Scotland,” she said.
When Pillow Talk hits the shelves, it is expected to cost around £200 for a set of two rings and two pillow panels. Montgomery hopes that, if it proves a success, she will be able to pursue a number of other similar projects.
“The aim is to get the product out first. Hopefully it will sell thousands and give me enough capital to develop more products, and establish Little Riot’s reputation as an international leader in digital presence technology.
“It started as a degree project, but one morning I woke up to all those emails. It’s been pretty crazy since then.”