App Aims To Design Your Dreams, But Can't Wake Up

A new iPhone app encourages very specific lucid dreaming. It doesn’t seem to work.

Have you ever had a dream in which you knew you were dreaming and tried to take control? It’s only happened a handful of times in my own life, but each was memorable. The prospect of lucid dreaming isn’t just to fulfill some escapist fantasy, but to actually explore your own mind with no visible bounds.

Dream:ON is an app designed to encourage lucid dreaming while helping you record and share the experience. Before going to sleep at night, you choose a "soundscape"—I chose to take "the ride of my life" on a space shuttle (for a $1 in-app purchase), but others might choose anything from the relaxing sound of the ocean to a Wild West adventure complete with shootout.

Then you set your phone on the corner of your bed, and the app tracks your movements through the phone’s accelerometer. "It can tell when someone is dreaming by looking for REM sleep which has a characteristic movement that we can detect most of the time," product designer Liam Houghton tells me. So once you enter REM, the soundscape plays as an audio cue that, at best, signals lucid dreaming (think Inception) or, at worst, maybe just influences your dreams subconsciously while it wakes your spouse.

I tossed and turned all night, half-excited about my space adventure, half-terrified that I’d knock my iPhone off the bed, cracking against my nightstand. But nothing happened. I never heard any cosmic voyage (and I wake easily). The shuttle was grounded for unknown reasons.

"We have tested the product as much as possible in house—simply by using it as much as possible, however, you cannot test everything with a small team, and so it needs to go out into the wild," Houghton writes, "especially when this is all about biology—there is no 'average’ person when it comes to this."

Sadly, what affected my mission doesn’t appear to be a design flaw, but a bug. Most comments on Dream:ON, as polished as an app that it appears to be, lament that their downloaded soundscapes never played. It’s possible we’re all sleeping through them, but it’s far more likely that the app actually just doesn’t work. Dream:ON’s designed approach to lucid dreaming seems perfectly considered, but the crux of the product isn’t working well enough to test it out.

The app is free. The add-on soundscape was a buck. It was no big loss. But the real cost is Dream:ON’s potential: One of the project’s backers is Hertfordshire University psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, who intends to use the app’s social discovery—what I’ve been told could be the largest mass sleep study ever conducted—for scientific publication.

In the morning, Dream:ON woke me with a gentle alarm. It was supposed to coincide with the optimum moment of my sleep cycle to wake me, but it just went off at 6:45am—the exact time I’d set it for. I don’t remember what I dreamed about that night, but at least it wasn’t a nightmare.

Download it here.

[Hat tip: Design Taxi]

[Image: Bayanova Svetlana/Shutterstock]

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  • Liam Houghton

    That isn't actually a bug at all.

    Soundscapes are designed only to play during REM sleep. It detects this by monitoring your movement and looking for the correct characteristic. If you have a restless night's sleep (exactly as you described in your article) you are less likely to enter this phase. There is no guarantee that a soundscape will play each night as clearly it is biology dependent, as described in the sales notes and on the website. There are free soundscapes supplied so that users can test and see if it works for them personally before committing to new soundscapes.

  • Maple Kuo

    To my understanding, a sleep app will look for the best time to wake you during your REM cycle, but if it doesn't find any, it will wake you up at the time you set it for (so you don't oversleep). If you have a restless night, there isn't really an "optimal" time to wake you, and the app will just wake you at the set time.