Feature Story

Smarter shut-eye

by Anne Field

smarter shut eye

More companies and researchers are using IoT to monitor, track and improve sleep.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called lack of sleep in the U.S. a critical public health problem. And for good reason: While researchers have found many adults receive less than the recommended seven hours of shut-eye a night, they’ve also established that insufficient sleep is associated with an alarming array of illnesses, such as depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Another unnerving statistic: Almost 5% of the 75,000 adults studied in the CDC’s recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey reported nodding off while driving.

It’s no wonder startups, more-established companies and researchers are turning to digital technology--specifically, sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), along with mobile apps--to help monitor, track and improve our sleep. That includes everything from systems on the market able to combine data from wearables with environmental metrics, to apps used by researchers in large-scale studies.  

See also: Startups embrace the Internet of Things (Part 2)

“This technology is letting us do work that can really change the ball game in understanding sleep,” says Carl Stepnowsky, associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego and chief science officer of the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA).

Targetin​g beds

Fitness wearables like Fitbit and Jawbone already track sleep patterns, but other monitors specifically target only sleepers, zeroing in on where they live: their beds.

For example, a Finnish company by the name of Beddit sells a sleep tracker using a thin film motion sensor that sticks to your mattress. The sensor sends data back to your smart phone about not just, say, whether you’ve fallen into the deep sleep phase of your rest, but also your heart rate. Your phone’s microphone allows the system to listen for whether you’re snoring, and a built-in smart alarm clock can determine the best time for you to wake up.

Integrating data

It’s no wonder startups, more-established companies and researchers are turning to digital technology--specifically, sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), along with mobile apps--to help monitor, track and improve our sleep.Another group of companies has products that measure environmental factors, like noise and light, and allow you to integrate that data with information from other sleep trackers. The result: You can understand whether events in your exterior world are affecting how well you slumber. 

Take Koto Air. Developed by a three-and-a-half-year-old startup based in Slovenia, its sensors measure air quality and other factors; the platform also can integrate data about your sleep and figure out whether there’s a correlation between restless sleeping and, say, a higher-than-usual room temperature or changes in early morning light. A graph depicts what’s happening, but you also get recommendations for how to address the problem.

See also: Air quality and the Internet of Things 

Startup Sevenhugs sells hugOne, a system that tracks sleep and environmental factors and connects to Nest’s smart thermostat and Philips Hue lights. Thus, it will lower the temperature of a room at night or dim the blue portion of lights that can impair the ability to sleep well. Another wrinkle: Aimed at families, parents can put a sensor on everyone’s bed, so they can review how their children are sleeping. Plus, a light changes from blue to pink when it’s time for bed, an incentive for parents to accomplish the difficult feat of getting the kids ready to sleep. A light also blinks when air quality is bad.

Research applications

Such technology is also being used by researchers. Consider the SleepHealth Mobile App Research Study. Sponsored by the ASAA, it’s aimed at researching sleep disorders, using Apple’s recently introduced open-source ResearchKit and CareKit to develop apps and share data. “We’ll be able to potentially reach thousands of people—a much larger trial than we could have conducted otherwise,” says ASAA’s Stepnowsky. Participants can share data via the CareKit app about their sleep history; then that information is pulled into the research app. So far, over 6,000 people have agreed to take part in the study.

San Diego-based startup iWinks, is developing a headband that consists of sensors that are able to measure not only sleepers’ heart rate and body movement, but brain waves, as well. It’s now working with sleep clinics to validate the device’s slumber tracking accuracy. But it’s also gathering data anonymously to help further study the factors that affect our shut-eye. “Sleep is one of the pillars of good health,” says Co-founder Daniel Schoonover. “This is important.”

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