Will Technology Make Sleep So Efficient That We’ll Eventually Require Less of It?

'So far, Sci-Fi writers have been pretty accurate.'

(Photo: Getty)
I wouldn’t mind shaving off an hour or two. (Photo: Getty)

Welcome to Future Forecast, a column that will explore the inner workings of our future lives. From music to artificial intelligence and shopping, I’ll consult with experts on different topics and rack their brains about the innovation that will shape our future experiences. 

Today’s topic is sleep. We need it, we love it, we want more of it, but it’s one thing in our lives that hasn’t ever really changed. Until now.

Personal sleep devices from apps and wearables to smart mattresses have recently exploded in popularity. These products are known for tracking sleep data to help users understand their sleep, but as the industry begins to boom, their capabilities are improving in a way that might drastically change the way the average person sleeps.

“People are paying attention to [sleep] and starting to realize that without good sleep and enough of it, it doesn’t matter how good your diet and exercise routine is—you’re going to feel lousy,” Max Hirshkowitz, incoming chairman of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) told me over the phone. “I think it’s a terrific thing that people are getting into [this].”

Sleep tracking devices and apps like Fitbit and Sleep Cycle have generated quite the buzz already, but doctors, researchers and developers of sleep technology say this is only the beginning. Mr. Hirshkowitz—who is also a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and the VAMC Sleep Center—says the market is explosive with dozens of competitors just waiting to be weeded out. He predicts that it’s only a matter of time until we see the big players (Apple and Google) roll out sleep technology. “We know they’re not sitting on their hands,” he said.

With every company wanting a piece of this pie, the bar is constantly being raised. Many people are skeptical about the legitimacy and accuracy of these technologies (especially the apps), but conversations with a number of sleep experts and product developers assured me that these devices are the real deal and are bound to affect the way we sleep in the future.

“I’d say these companies are consulting and taking a responsible approach,” David Cloud, CEO of the NSF said, adding that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has requested several of their sleep experts to help develop standards for sleep technology.

The mattress of the future. (Photo: ReST)
The mattress of the future. (Photo: ReST)

His foundation recently formed a joint group with the CEA, and he said they have a “huge” number of people involved, that they’re fully supportive of the technology and that they’re working closely with the companies developing it.

“We’re interested in sleep devices and what they can do to help people,” he said.We’re championing this. We’re interested.”

These aren’t just silly apps by developers looking for the next gold rush. A significant amount of research is going into this industry and sleep scientists and doctors are actually joining the teams of those developing the technology.

ReST, a truly smart mattress that senses your body’s pressure and position and even adjusts itself accordingly throughout the night, was developed with the help of Dr. Rob Golden, “the Godfather” of pressure sensing technology. He actually pioneered the unique, underlying technology used here when it was introduced into medicine over a decade ago. Now, he has helped the ReST team translate this technology—once used for people with serious spinal injuries—into a patented layer of “smart” fabric that covers the mattress. When the smart fabric detects movement or too much pressure on a specific body part, it uses that data to inflate or deflate the corresponding air chamber (there are five: head and neck, shoulders, lumbar, legs and butt) to maximize comfort.

“Sleep is really dynamic. It’s a series of states, not static. Traditional mattresses are static,” Lloyd Sommers, general manager of ReST said. “One of the main reasons that folks toss and turn throughout the night is the body is natural constricting circulation and blood flow. So now, instead of the person tossing and turning to fix this, the mattress does it for you.”

The product—set to hit the U.S. market in April—recently stole the show at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. The ReST mattress was one of the 40 featured products, and when I asked Mr. Sommers what people said after testing it, he said, Quite simply, they’d lie on the beds then point to a friend and say, ‘You gotta try this! You gotta try this!'”

Smart mattresses may be the future, but sleep tracking apps are currently the easiest and cheapest options in consumer sleep technology. Sleep Cycle, for example, is one of the most popular and uses your phone’s accelerometer to track your movements to identify sleep cycles and wake you up during your lightest sleep within a 30-minute pre-set timeframe.

Although it’s true that any programmer can make an app, Maciek Drejak, the founder and developer of Sleep Cycle, explained to us that Sleep Cycle is actually FDA approved and went through an extensive research period with sleep experts prior to launch.

Photo: Sleep Cycle)
The app. (Photo: Sleep Cycle)

Wearables that track various aspects of health are currently taking off as a way for consumers to understand and improve their sleep as well. Jason Donahue, product manager for UP at the popular wearable company Jawbone, said he’s seeing huge growth in both consumers’ desires to improve their sleep with technology and in the capabilities of these sleep devices. For example, the UP products not only track sleep data, but can also sync with Nest thermostats to maintain the perfect sleeping environment.

The company also recently partnered with Sleepio, a sleep coaching app that’s using data captured by UP to provide personalized feedback and guidance on how to fall asleep faster. The result has been real progress that’s helped customers fall asleep 15 minutes quicker. And this is just one of the numerous sleep groups they’ve worked with; Jawbone has partnerships with several sleep companies and has also collaborated with sleep researchers and labs from major institutions across the globe.

Mr. Donahue, whose background is in both sleep and wearables, said that in the future, we will “absolutely” integrate technology into sleep in our daily lives. The other sleep experts and product developers I spoke to all agreed that this is in the stars for the average person and that there’s still a great deal of room for these devices to improve. I wanted to get a sense of just how far consumer sleep technology could go, so I posed the question: In the future, could these devices improve our sleep so much that eventually, we won’t require as much?

“So far, Sci-Fi writers have been pretty accurate,” Mr. Hirshkowitz said. He absolutely sees this as a possibility, but one that is contingent upon finding a way to address the thousands of tiny functions our brains perform when we sleep in less time. If we can solve those problems, then we might be able to reduce the amount of sleep needed. You gotta keep an open mind about these things,” he added.

Nathaniel F. Watson, MD and president-elect of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, is somewhat skeptical of how well these devices work, but is open to the idea that they could eventually help us sleep less one day.

“Never say never,” he said. “I guess it’s a matter of how far into the future we’re imagining, I like to think anything is possible.” Will Technology Make Sleep So Efficient That We’ll Eventually Require Less of It?