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All Tech Considered
10:01 pm
Sun February 12, 2012

Apps For Apnea? New Gadgets Promise To Improve Sleep

Originally published on Mon February 13, 2012 6:00 am

Technology is sometimes blamed for keeping us awake at night. The thinking is that devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets may have made entertainment TOO portable, putting games, videos and the Internet close at hand in the bedroom. But a batch of new apps and gadgets tries to push the pendulum the other way, by helping you improve the quality of your sleep.

Problems with sleeping have been in the news here at NPR in recent months, whether the story is about sleep apnea, sleep-deprived parents or sleepy-eyed teens.

Many things can disrupt our sleeping, from drinking coffee in the afternoon to using the computer or watching TV right up until bedtime. Those are the kind of variables that Bloomberg technology columnist Rich Jaroslovsky says he used the new sleep-aid technology to fine-tune.

Here's a list of some popular sleep-monitoring products — both apps and gizmos:

"What they're trying to do is measure how well we sleep, and how long we sleep," Jaroslovsky tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne. "The idea being that if it's something that we can track, we can improve — by adopting healthier habits."

Most of the devices also have an alarm option that tries to time your wake-up time to a moment when you're not in a deep, restorative sleep. They choose any time within a 15-20 minute window to bring you out of your slumber.

Jaroslovsky wrote about three of the gadgets — the Lark, Zeo and SleepTracker — for a recent Bloomberg column.

With a combination headset and app, the Zeo is the most elaborate of those he tested.

"It's detecting things like the electrical impulses in your brain, your eye movements — and it's capturing all this data, and then it will wirelessly transmit it to your phone," he says. "That will allow you to track what kind of sleep, whether it's REM sleep, how much deep sleep you've had, how many times you awaken during the night. And all those things go into calculating the quality of your sleep."

In fact, Zeo uses that data to assign you a "ZQ Sleep Score" — a potentially disheartening number that might keep you up at night. Or, as the company hopes, it might motivate you to adjust your habits, get better sleep — and boost your score.

Over at Wired's GeekDad blog, Curtis Silver wrote about his experiences using Zeo. He also interviewed the company's co-founder, Ben Rubin.

In their chat, Rubin explained how the headband works:

"It starts with small silver sensors, which are conductive, coated over fabric. That silver conducts your brain wave activity into an electronics module, for signal processing and application. Brain waves are about five to 75 microvolts and have to be amplified 5,000 times to be read. That raw brain wave information is transmitted via wireless to the bedside display. The bedside display does the algorithmic signal processing using a neural net."

So, this headband is not really just a glorified mood ring. Still, Rubin admits that the technology isn't as elaborate as what's being used in sleep clinics. But he sees plenty of growth in the future — including the potential for a sleep-monitoring device to emit a low-level current that can essentially tune brain waves to maximize sleep and reduce nighttime anxiety.

As for Jaroslovsky's final ruling on the products he tried, he says: "I had issues with all three. Frankly, I slept better without them." Still, he agrees that devices to aid sleep will only improve.

"The really significant thing about these things is what they augur for the future," he tells Renee on Morning Edition. "They are all part of a trend called connected health, and another trend called wearable technology."

He sees a time in the future when such services will use a tiny wireless sensor to collect much more data, and even automatically share that data with a doctor or medical service.

"But the fact is, we're right now at such an early, early stage that some of these things can be a little bit clunky," Jaroslovsky says. "You've really gotta be dedicated if you're gonna wear a headband to bed every night."

Over at the Lifehacker site, Adam Dachis found some sleep apps useful — for proof, consider the title of his article: "How I Achieved Better Sleep with the Help of Technology."

In particular, Dachis seemed to find the Wakemate particularly useful. For another take on the Wakemate, the Lark and other devices, you can check out Kelly Montgomery's article at Digital Trends from January.

Both Montgomery and Dachis back the idea of keeping a kind of sleep log, something that will let you cross-reference the data you get from your electronic gadgets with details about what you were doing before you went to bed, and your impressions of how you slept.

Identifying good and bad elements, they agree, is the key to maximizing a night's sleep.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, if you're not already out of bed, maybe this will help you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM CLOCK)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (as Mr. Senor Love Daddy) Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Up you wake. Up you wake. Up you wake. This is Mr. Senor Love Daddy. Your voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Samuel Jackson in the movie, "Do the Right Thing," with quite a wake-up call. Maybe Renee and I should try that. But if you still feel sluggish and drowsy after you're up, do not blame us, because it could be the quality of your sleep.

New technology devices are available now, all claiming to help improve your sleep and your health.

Rich Jaroslovsky has been reviewing them for Bloomberg News. He's a technology columnist there, and he talked with Renee about those technologies.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Welcome to the program. And I'm going to start by saying: Are you like everybody else? I mean, do you have sleep problems?

RICH JAROSLOVSKY: I think I am. In my case, I can get to sleep, but I never get enough sleep. And I think millions of Americans feel the same way.

MONTAGNE: So let's talk about these new devices. What are they supposed to do? What magic are they supposed to deliver?

JAROSLOVSKY: Well, they take advantage of all the technology that already surrounds us, whether it's our smartphones or our personal computers. And what they're trying to do is measure how well we sleep and how long we sleep - the idea being that if it's something that we can track, we can improve by adopting healthier habits.

MONTAGNE: I have a couple of these devices sitting here with me on the table. And one of them is called Sleep Tracker, and it looks like a big watch. It looks like almost an underwater watch. And what it promises to do is to help you wake up at the ideal moment in your sleep cycle.

JAROSLOVSKY: Exactly. The idea is if you wake up from a deep sleep, you're going to feel groggy. So what you do with these devices is that you give them a time that you say I want to wake up by, you know, 6:45, for example. And because they're monitoring your sleep cycles while you're asleep, they will look for a time in the window - 15 minutes or 20 minutes before that set alarm time - where you're in a light sleep phase, where you are more likely to wake up refreshed.

MONTAGNE: Right. So you have to put a device, though, on your wrist. There's another one here you put on your forehead, sort of like a sweat band, with something stuck to it on the front. Tell us about this one.

JAROSLOVSKY: This is the Zeo. And what you're seeing here, there's a device that's about the size of a money clip, and the sensor is in that. And it's attached to this headband that you put on, which makes you look pretty ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, this will keep your partner up all night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAROSLOVSKY: Well, it's a - it's certainly - I don't know that you want to look in the mirror when you're wearing this one. And you wear it over your forehead. So it's detecting things like the electrical impulses in your brain, your eye movements, and it's capturing all this data. And then it will wirelessly transmit it to your phone, where there's a free app that Zeo provides that will allow you to track what kind of sleep, whether it's REM sleep, how much deep sleep you've had, how many times you awaken during the night. And all those things go into calculating the quality of your sleep.

And the idea is if you can track it and quantify it, you can improve it.

MONTAGNE: Now, none of these technologies are very streamlined, and certainly none of them are invisible. What, though, might they tell us about what we might see down the road?

JAROSLOVSKY: The really significant thing about these things is what they arguer for the future. They are all part of a trend called Connected Health and another trend called Wearable Technology. So you can imagine when one of these things might be shrunk down to the size of a button on your pajamas that is wirelessly communicating with a mobile device that's plugged in next to the bed, providing you with much better data and much more data, and allowing you to share that data wirelessly with a doctor or a health care provider. So you can kind of see where this is all going. But the fact is we're right now at such an early, early stage, that some of these things can be a little bit clunky. You've really got to be dedicated if you're going to wear a headband to bed every night.

MONTAGNE: Rich Jaroslovsky is technology columnist for Bloomberg News and a regular guest on our program. Thank you very much.

JAROSLOVSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.