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‘Cuddlebots.’ Space-age masks. How future technology will help us sleep.

Modern science is mobilizing to help us get some rest.

By Glenn McDonald

Humans spend about one-third of their lives asleep — one-sixth if you have small children — and our built-in biological downtime is critical for health and happiness. Sleeping fewer than seven hours a day is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, along with depression and various other mental disorders. And according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in three Americans is clinically sleep deprived.

Sociologists have all kinds of explanations for the crisis, but they all essentially boil down to… life itself. The modern American lifestyle — busy, stressful, powered by 24/7 artificial light and endless Information Age temptations — is the prime mover of sleep deprivation. Bedtimes have gotten later. (Thanks, Netflix.) Wake times have not. (Thanks, boss.) One widely cited 2013 Gallup poll crunched the archival numbers from previous surveys and found that Americans now sleep a full hour less than we did in 1942. 

The good news is that an entire industry of sleep science and technology has developed in recent years to help us get more and better sleep. The future of when and where and how we sleep is changing, driven by shifting cultural priorities and emerging technologies. 

Attitude and Awareness

A twinkly little silver lining to our national sleep epidemic is that we’re finally facing the problem. Thanks to public education campaigns, people are generally more aware of healthy sleep habits now than they were a generation ago. In an influential 2013 study titled “Raising Awareness of Sleep as a Healthy Behavior,” leading researchers concluded that “sleep should be viewed as being as critical to health as diet and physical activity.” 

If quality sleep has a recurring archvillain, it’s snoring. 

This call to arms (or pillows) has had a powerful economic ripple effect. On the consumer end of things, the global market for sleep tech products is expected to reach $76 billion in 2019. 

For previous generations, sleep aids were limited to earplugs and sleep masks and scary prescription drugs. We can confidently expect the 21st century to offer much better options — some of them pretty space-age indeed. 

The Dreamlight includes infrared sensors, an optical heart rate monitor, and various gyroscopes and accelerometers designed to track how well you’re sleeping. Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press.

Technology vs. Insomnia 

The Dreamlight is a good example. A big hit at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, the device combines several different technologies designed to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep. 

Housed in a roomy and overstuffed sleep mask, the Dreamlight uses a network of circuitry to coordinate its many features. Embedded LED panels are designed to shine soft light through your eyelids when you fall asleep and when you wake up. According to the manufacturer’s research, dim orange lights trigger melatonin production at bedtime, helping you fall asleep. Green hues help you wake up in the morning. The Dreamlight mask also features four different embedded speakers, with timer options, for those who like to fall asleep to music or white noise or obscure BBC history podcasts. (Droning British historians are nature’s own built-in sleep remedy.)

The Dreamlight also includes infrared sensors, an optical heart rate monitor, and various gyroscopes and accelerometers designed to track how well you’re sleeping. The data are wirelessly beamed to the companion smartphone app, which offers analysis and suggestions. The company has also partnered with genomics company 23andMe to develop custom sleep profiles based on your genetic information. 

Click around and you can find similar products online. Philips’ SmartSleep headband uses sensors and speakers to reinforce deep sleep via complementary audio tones. The Lumos sleep mask, developed at Stanford University, uses patterned light therapy to overcome jet lag and gradually reset your circadian rhythms.  

Elsewhere, Bose is one of many companies now offering noise-canceling smart earbuds, which are essentially a future-facing iteration of sleep sound machines that have been around forever. (Ocean surf? Forest rain? Ambient dub?) These smart earbud kits go for around $100 to $250 and can include extras like heart monitoring, fitness tracking, and voice control. 

Stijn Antonisse curls up with Somnox, the sleep robot made by the company he founded. Photo by Tobias Schreiner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The War on Snoring  

If quality sleep has a recurring archvillain, it’s snoring — either your own or your partner’s. Happily, anti-snoring technology is moving past the traditional CPAP machines and dental appliances. 

On the low-tech end, nasal dilators have proven effective for certain kinds of sleep apnea, and design advances are making chin straps an option for mouth-breathing snorers. Those dental appliances are getting better, too — more than 100 different designs have now received FDA clearance. This means more medical plans should cover costs in the future, according to the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine

As for high-tech anti-snoring devices, one of the most successful solutions might be termed “artificial nudge technology.” If you share a bed with a snorer, you’re already proficient with the nudge. Elbow the snorer and they’ll usually (but not always!) shift position and stop snoring. (For a while! Maybe!) 

There are now a dozen different products on the market that automate this process. These snort-prevention solutions — available in pillows, mattresses, and other devices — use sensors and microphones to listen for snoring, then automatically nudge, prod, or otherwise adjust the sleeper’s position. The industry veterans at Tempur Sealy recently announced a next-generation riff on the theme with an AI-powered bed that tracks the snorer’s sleep patterns and tries to anticipate snoring before it even occurs. Science! 

Meanwhile, over in the Netherlands, a group of student entrepreneurs has developed what’s being billed as the world’s first “sleep robot.” A soft and “huggable” robotic pillow, the award-winning Somnox uses a technique called breathing regulation. Once you’re cuddled up, your body unconsciously synchronizes its breathing to the slow and steady rhythm of the sleepbot. It sounds crazy, but the Somnox team has published research to back up its claims.

Sarah Ostadabbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, shown with student Shuangjun Liu, has created a large database of sleep-pose data for use in the health care industry. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In the Labs

Now that more people have an awareness of the serious health issues involved, sleep science labs around the world — both academic and commercial — are booming, busy, and expanding. 

A major part of that expansion is taking sleep science into the home. According to a recent report by Johns Hopkins Medicine, future research will be increasingly reliant on technologies such as wearable tracking devices, portable sleep testing devices, and online doctor consultations in the home. 

“The brick-and-mortar model of conducting sleep studies in a medical care center is really going to be fading into the sunset or will be minimal at best,” says Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, in the report. 

This migration out of the labs is already underway. Sarah Ostadabbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, is working on a mobile sleep testing system that can be set up in any bedroom, combining artificial intelligence with different sensor systems to make at-home sleep testing more accurate. 

Using pressure mats and infrared cameras attached to the ceiling or a light fixture, the system tracks the patient’s sleep positions throughout the night. “Thermal imaging allows the system to track body heat even when the sleeper is underneath sheets and blankets,” Ostadabbas says.

Those images are run through a set of machine learning algorithms to create a data set, which allows doctors to diagnose specific sleep behaviors and problems. 

Sleepy Students for Science! 

Ostadabbas’ team recently recruited more than 100 Northeastern student volunteers to create an initial data set of more than 14,000 sleep position samples. They’re sharing the data sets and algorithms online in an open-source effort to help other sleep researchers worldwide. 

The data will help researchers identify abnormal sleep behavior, Ostadabbas says. “Are there specific poses we can see that lead to specific complications?”

Ostadabbas notes that while the system can help the majority of us who sleep 33 percent of the time, it could be a truly critical advance for those in bed closer to 100 percent of the time — infants, the elderly, and patients with severe injury or illness. 

Thermal imaging. LED sleep masks. Smart mattresses. Cuddlebots. From retail shelves to university labs, modern science is mobilizing to help us get a better night’s sleep. It’s a delicious proposition for anyone who appreciates 21st-century irony: Technology may be the greatest single cause of our national sleep epidemic. Can it be the solution, too?  

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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