The growing boom in sleep technology

Waking Up To A Sleep Revolution

Growing public awareness about sleep health is fuelling a boom in consumer sleep tracking technology

Thomas Edison famously branded sleep as a ‘criminal waste of time’. The electric light bulb, he predicted, would herald a new era of productivity and prosperity, literally bringing us out of the dark, ending our slavish reliance on nature and its daily rhythms.

A century later, the inventor’s prophecy was set to unfold. Whilst Ted Turner was rolling out 24 hour news coverage for the first time, Tim Berners-Lee was building protocols to link all of the world’s information. And when the masses embraced the web, the deal was signed for good. 24/7 society had arrived in style.

But the brave new ‘always on’ world came at a cost. Boundaries began to blur. IM and email allowed work to seep into our ‘play’-time. Amazon, Netflix and social media provided round the clock distractions. We forgot how to switch off. And we forgot how to sleep.

The war on sleep

In his celebrated polemic, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary describes sleep in the 21st century as ‘an incongruous anomaly”. He argues that “with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation and consumption, sleep will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe”.

Crary believes that sleep is under attack because “nothing of [commercial] value can be extracted from it”. Whether or not you buy into his ideology, it’s clear that in modern times sleep doesn’t always get paid its dues.

For instance, we’re constantly bombarded by about the great and mighty, who achieve so much on so little sleep. And we’re expected to marvel at the sleepless elite  – individuals born with ‘short-sleeper’ genes. As if getting out of bed at 3am was aspirational.

Tech startups are particularly prone to the sleep-when-I’m-dead’ mindset. But whilst fresh-faced entrepreneurs strive to mimic Marissa Meyer’s 130hr/week schedule, others argue that sleep deprivation itself may be the cause of the high failure rate of new tech businesses. You do the math.

A modern epidemic

Thankfully, the marginalisation of sleep has not gone unnoticed. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even gone as far to declare insufficient sleep as a public health problem. The CDC lists several factors to substantiate their claim:

  • drowsy driving – 100,000+ car accidents per year are caused by nodding off at the wheel)
  • industrial accidents – sleepiness played a part in both the Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez disasters
  • chronic disease – sleep deprivation increases the risk of a scary list of chronic health conditions including heart-disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer

But even if the public health warnings don’t scare you, some of the new findings from sleep science might. Only a couple of years ago researchers found that one of the vital functions of sleep is to ‘flush away’ toxins that accumulate in the brain during the day. These include beta-amyloids, the sticky proteins that scientists think may be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Whilst we don’t yet have enough evidence yet to say that binge-watching Game of Thrones through the night will rot your brain (no jokes please), a new wave of sleep science, drawing on brain imaging, genetics and increasingly available large data sets, is changing our views about the exact role and function of sleep in human health, highlighting the challenges sleepers face in modern society.

The rise of sleep tracking

Whereas governments have been slow to respond to this new zeitgeist, the same cannot be said of the private sector. The sleep industry has indeed awakened. The sector as a whole – including pills, bedding, medical devices, gadgets and apps – grew 8.8% year on year between 2008 and 2012, and growth looks set to continue.

Tech firms are particularly well poised to take advantage of this growth. Emerging technologies such as IoT, wearables, consumer health platforms (Healthkit, Google Fit), are creating a ‘perfect storm’ of innovation and competition in the sleep technology arena.

Paying witness to this effect is the rapid rise of consumer sleep tracking. Once dominated by a single company (the sadly demised, but ahead of the curve Zeo) sleep tracking has gone mainstream. Big players like Samsung are entering the market. Sleep startups are giving unicorns a run for their money. And the innovation is not just coming from Silicon Valley. Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Reston are already big players in the international sleep tracking market.

Part of this trend is due to the recent fitness tracking craze. Spearheaded by the quantified self movement – a bunch of geeks, fitness freaks and biohackers seeking self-knowledge through bio-sensing technology – millions have jumped on the fitness-tech bandwagon, easing market leader Fitbit towards its flotation on the NYSE last year.

Fitbit (along with competitors like Jawbone, Misfit and a thousand generic copycats) produce of range of smart, sensor-packed hardware gadgets, designed to translate your body’s vital signs into detailed data about your activity levels, calories burned and general fitness. And from fitness tracking, it’s a very small leap to sleep tracking.

How do sleep trackers work?

Most sleep gadgets and tech makes use of a movement-sensor called an accelerometer (the same chip that senses whether your phone should display in landscape or portrait mode). Because sleep occurs in distinct stages, algorithms can make predictions about your sleep behaviour, based on how much you move around at night.

There are broadly three categories of sleep trackers; apps, wearables, and dedicated sleep trackers that live in the bedroom.

Sleep tracking apps

Popular sleep tracking apps include SleepCycle, SleepBot and SleepGenius. Although feature sets differ, all of these apps work in the same way. Before you go to sleep, you place your phone in bed and then let the app do its work. In the morning, if all goes well, you should have a timeline display of your overnight sleep behaviour, and usually some sort of “sleep score” which tries to calculate how well you slept.

Wearables

These work in much the same way as apps, but instead, measurements are taken directly from your body, via your wristband/smart-watch. Although most wearables are in effect glorified pedometers, higher end devices such as the Basis Peak, Jawbone UP3 and Fitbit Surge, can monitor other variables, including heart-rate, skin temperature, breathing and even how much you sweat. These added metrics allow for more sophisticated algorithms and hence more advanced sleep analysis.

The wearables market is extremely dynamic, with new innovations popping up on a frequent basis. Notable products for 2016 include the Oura – a ‘wellness computer’ that’s worn as a ring on your finger, and Kokoon, sleep-sensing headphones that can read your brainwaves.

Bedroom-only sleep trackers

These devices appeal to those who don’t want to strap on a wristband every night and aren’t interested in the extra fitness tracking capabilities of wearables. Again, it’s an extremely dynamic market, with different manufacturers offering different approaches to gathering sleep data. Here’s a rundown of a few of the most popular devices on the market at present:

Resmed S+ uses low energy radio waves, similar to a bat’s sonar to monitor body movement and respiration whilst you sleep. It can also track room temperature, ambient light and bedroom noise.

Withings Aura is a smart alarm clock which, when paired with a mattress sensor can offer advanced sleep tracking.

Beddit Smart is marketed as the ‘invisible sleep sensor’ – a wafer thin strip that attaches to your mattress and detects heart-rate, breathing, movement and snoring whilst you sleep.

Eight is a intelligent mattress cover with integrated sensors that can track your sleep, warm your bed and ‘talk’ to your smart home devices like Nest thermostats.

These are just a selection of the types of products available for bedroom-only sleep tracking. As the market grows we will no doubt see even more innovative products.

No substitute for medical advice……yet

At least for the foreseeable future, consumer sleep tracking is no substitute for the ‘gold-standard’ in sleep testing, polysomnography (PSG). To get genuine clinical insights into your sleep behaviour, you would need to hop along to your nearest sleep lab for a PSG test which involves amongst other things, taping dozens of electrodes and wires to your body. PSG gives you extremely detailed measurements of your sleep physiology, but it’s expensive and hence can be regarded as a ‘one-off’ test – not suitable for gathering long term data about your sleep. Neither is it exactly conducive to a relaxing night’s rest.

So there’s a clear distinction between medical-grade sleep diagnostics and consumer sleep tracking. But that doesn’t mean you can’t glean valuable health insights from your Fibit or in-bed sleep sensor.

For instance, most sleep trackers do a pretty decent job of measuring sleep latency, the amount of time you take to fall asleep. A healthy sleep latency should be around 15-20 minutes. Shorter than this, it’s a sure sign of sleep deprivation. Longer sleep latency times could be an indication of a sleep disorder.

As sleep tracking tech gets smarter, and becoming more accurate at reading our vital signs, it’s likely that the gap between consumer and medical technology will narrow, allowing for more detailed data, and perhaps even actual diagnostics.

Time for change

Media mogul Arianna Huffington has called for a ‘sleep revolution’ in 2016. Apart from public health concerns, Huffington also cites the economic toll of sleep problems, said to cost the US $63 billion every year.

Although there are still some who cling to Edison’s outdated ideals, more and more people are realising the need for a paradigm shift in our thinking. Away from the glorification of sleep deprivation, towards a better understanding of how good sleep habits can make us fitter, stronger and smarter, whilst at the same time building a safer, healthier and more productive society.