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Apps For Apnea? New Gadgets Promise To Improve Sleep

<strong>Jealous? </strong>If you have trouble sleeping, several new apps and devices promise to help you figure out why. In this photo from January, Huan Huan, a female giant panda, sleeps in a zoo in Beauval, France.
Franck Prevel
Getty Images
Jealous? If you have trouble sleeping, several new apps and devices promise to help you figure out why. In this photo from January, Huan Huan, a female giant panda, sleeps in a zoo in Beauval, France.

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:

  • Sleep Cycle for iOS — $1
  • Sleep Bot Tracker for Android — free
  • Wakemate app — $60
  • Lark — $99
  • Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile$99
  • SleepTracker Elite — $149
  • "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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.