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I Tried To Design The Perfect Night’s Sleep. Here’s What Happened

Sleep tracking wearables, smart alarms, and fancy light bulbs are the future of a good night’s rest. But how much can they achieve?

I have one goal in life: to achieve the perfect sleep. I’m neither a morning person nor a night owl. I go to bed early; I wake up late. Each morning I invariably engage in a slow, romantic dance with my snooze button.

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So I’ve become obsessed with tracking my sleep in hopes that one day I’ll unlock the key to rolling out of bed at 7 a.m. refreshed. It’s a habit fueled by a roster of gadgets that purport to give you a better night’s rest—or at least that’s how companies sell it.

Sleep Cycle

Sleep tracking is a growing and profitable industry. Almost every wearable fitness tracker (an estimated $330 million market in 2013), collects sleep data. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control calls insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic,” estimating that almost a third of American workers don’t get enough shuteye.

I set out to try as many sleep-related products as I could, from activity-monitoring wristbands, to a light bulb that’s designed to help you wake up, to smart alarm clocks that measure your heart rate and movements to determine the best time to rouse you. Yet after weeks of methodically keeping tabs on my nighttime routines, I still couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep. Are sleep aids a scam?

***
I start my experiment with Sleep Cycle, an iOS app. With your phone placed on the bed, it uses accelerometer data to track the phases of your sleep and wake you up at the optimum point in your cycle. I eagerly tap out data on my caffeine and alcohol intake and exercise regimen. I sleep curled around my phone, delighted to wake up to a graph illuminating what supposedly goes on when I’m unconscious. But recording my sleep habits doesn’t seem to improve them. My Sleep Cycle data informs me that my sleep is terrible when I get drunk and stumble into bed after eating my weight in Burger King Chicken Fries (makes sense). That’s not enough, though, to stop me from engaging in those kinds of behaviors.

Fitbit Flex

Then, I try the FitBit Flex (FitBit, $99.95), an unassuming wristband you can wear to bed. “Sleep is incredibly appealing to some of our users,” Lindsay Cook, FitBit’s director of public relations, tells Co.Design. “Not everybody cares about sleep, but the folks who do are very vocal.”

For six months, I track my FitBit data with an almost religious fervor—although I don’t always remember to tap my wrist before I drift off to sleep or upon waking up to activate sleep tracking. These human errors result in statistical anomalies like a Wednesday in February when I supposedly slept from midnight until 4 p.m. In reality, I was up and working for half that time. It’s not always inaccurate. Ultimately, I notice few measurable differences in my sleep habits, including my will to get out of bed. I’m more aware of the overall picture of my sleep habits–how much sleep I get on a weekly basis, rather than just night-by-night–but trying to go to bed earlier and earlier to get a certain number of hours doesn’t seem to make me any more productive about getting up in the morning.

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What if the problem was not what I do when I sleep, I think, but how I wake up?

Aura

Next I try the Aura smart alarm from (Withings, $299.95). It wakes you up with a bright blue light designed to affect the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps set the body’s internal clock. Short wavelength blue light has been found to suppress melatonin, keeping you more alert. The gesture-controlled Aura, which tracks heart rate and activity through a sensor placed under the mattress, is a beautiful object, like a mini sunrise machine.

“We wanted to build something that really took a natural place in your life, with no extra routine,” Alexis Arquilliere, a product manager at Withings, tells Co.Design. “For everyone, waking up is a painful moment–you do this with very aggressive rings today,” he says. “With Aura we can offer you a very smooth and progressive wake up.”

But the wake up is almost too gentle. On the first morning, I stare deeply into the blue oval of light, only to fall back asleep. On the second day, I forget the gestures that activate the alarm and tap its rounded top repeatedly, inadvertently turning off the next day’s alarm.

S+

Still searching for the perfect wake up call, I try the S+(sleep.myplus.com, $149.99), a radiowave-based smart alarm created by ResMed. Synced to a smartphone app, the rectangular device scores your sleep and rouses you when you’re closest to waking up anyway.

The S+ and the Aura engage in a face-off from either side of my bed. Looking at their separate graphs of sleep data, you would think they were measuring two entirely different rooms. One day, the S+ records six and a half hours of sleep, based on my activity between the time I turned on the alarm at night and turned it off in the morning. The Aura, which senses sleep automatically, tells me I slept for almost eight hours. On another night, when I’m out of town, the Aura claims I got six hours of peaceful sleep at home in Brooklyn. It brings up the question: if the sensor can’t tell the difference between an empty bed and one occupied by a 150-pound body, can it really be trusted to tell me meaningful information about my minor tosses and turns?

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Actiwatch, a medical sleep tracking device

Probably not. Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor at Penn State University who studies sleep, likens consumer sleep tracking technology to snake oil.

As one study in the journal Sleeping and Breathing found, movement-based activity monitors, whether it’s the medical Actiwatch or the average FitBit, “consistently misidentify wake as sleep and thus overestimate both sleep time and quality.” And most consumer devices haven’t been tested rigorously by the scientific community. “While there may be some science underlying it, rarely is it peer reviewed and shared and evaluated” by independent researchers, Buxton says.

Misfit Beddit

If there’s any benefit to sleep tracking, it’s simply that people start paying more attention. “The most important contribution of wearables right now to sleep is increasing mindfulness,” says Matthew Diamond, a doctor of sports medicine and the medical director at Misfit, a maker of activity and sleep trackers. Keeping a record of your sleep habits helps you realize that you’re coming up short on your recommended hours of sleep.

But is that really useful? While I love assembling pages of graphical data on my sleep schedule, none of the apps, trackers, and products I tested helped me sleep better. At no point was I able to drag myself out of bed before 8 a.m., no matter how fancy the alarm clock. I didn’t feel any more rested.

Sprayable Sleep

If anything, sleep tracking made me even more anxious, as going to bed has never been so much work. One night, in the glow of a melatonin-friendly lightbulb (Lighting Science, $69.99), I spritz the crowd-funded sleep aid Sprayable Sleep (preorder on Indiegogo, $15) on my neck, and drift off to sleep. I set both my smart alarms. In the morning, I awake to two apps telling two different stories of my night—one estimates I had three and a half hours of sleep, while the other clocks in at more than five hours. Either way, the Sprayable Sleep, marketed as a way to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, did not help.

Definity Digital

In the end, I rigged a $10 lamp purchased at Home Depot to an outlet timer, allowing me to wake up in the glow of an automatic light that turns on from 6:30 to 9 a.m. each day. Each morning, I shine one of the Definity Digital’s blue-light-tinged Awake & Alert bulbs (Lighting Science, $69.99) at my face, hoping the effect on my melatonin levels will vaguely mirror that of the rising sun. I still can’t get up without hitting snooze first.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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