Proving how good you are at closing your eyes and nodding off requires a metric. A nice, simple number that can announce whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and there are many commercial and non-profit organizations you can grade. The Washington DC-based National Sleep Foundation has even trademarked their Sleep Health Score so you can be your best slept self (also trademarked).
Among the device makers, Oura Health Oy of Finland has a ring that’s worn 24/7 that claims it’s “like a sleep lab on your finger” and gives you a score of 100. Whoop, a bracelet, tracks your “sleep performance”. – yes, they use that term – and calculate each month to keep track. Garmin Ltd., Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc. watches all offer a similar catalog of data collected during the night to estimate phases such as deep, light and REM. (Although these devices are becoming increasingly accurate, they don’t know exactly what sleep stage you’re in; they use algorithms to make an educated guess.)
How useful such devices are is controversial. Many of the manufacturers claim that customers experience improved sleep and health. However, few offer peer-reviewed clinical data to support this. Some psychologists and researchers dispute whether the data collected is even correct, and if not, then we are faced with the maxim that no data is better than bad data.
While it’s accurate, there’s still a problem: most sleep tracking devices just collect information. You can’t directly improve sleep; that’s up to you. At best, an electronic device connected to an app can offer recommendations based on your own clinical research habits. Often this is generic: sleep earlier, drink less alcohol and caffeine, exercise more, reduce screen time at night.
Of course, it’s possible that these devices have a placebo effect, and if someone thinks they’ve slept better, that might be as good as actually sleeping better. But in reality, there’s little a person can do when they wake up one morning groggy and confronted with a sleep score of 30% – they probably won’t return for another 90-minute nap. Arbitrary numbers and blanket advice aren’t particularly helpful and are unlikely to be followed.
Next in the sleep chain are coaches who provide practical, personalized and easy-to-follow tips, some of which will even come to your home to advise on mattress suitability and assess bedroom light and sound. Among the approaches offered to improve sleep is the R90 technique, which frames the night around 90-minute sleep cycles — the average time it takes a person to go through the stages of light, deep, and REM . Courses are available online that can help.
Some companies want to get into bed with you, or rather want you to get into theirs. ReST, a mail-order mattress manufacturer, approaches sleep with the notion that the right contours and firmness could make a world of difference, with a blend of memory foam and air cells that adjust automatically throughout the night. This might be a good solution for those who have a Goldilocks relationship with their bed, but it might not help everyone.
Eight Sleep, another US-based smart sleep tech startup, takes a slightly different view, instead using water hoses to dynamically cool or heat the bed. With two piezoelectric strips on its smart mattress, the company claims it can sense heart rate, respiratory rate and movement while also calculating heart rate variability. Temperature is known to be a component in stages of sleep, while it has also been found that some stages of the cycle are easier to wake up from than others. A combination of vibration motors and gradual adjustment of heat can be used to wake a person up in the morning. Despite all this practicality, Eight Sleep couldn’t resist the gimmick of offering a sleep grade and telling you how many times you’ve achieved a perfect score. It even ran a social media campaign to pit American cities against each other. (Boston won.)
“You don’t improve what you don’t measure,” co-founder and chief executive officer Matteo Franceschetti told me recently. “It’s very important for most people to have just a proxy and a guide to how well they’re sleeping.”
He’s well aware that the data collected by his mattresses and other devices isn’t perfect — although it gets better with better sensors and algorithms — but says that information is secondary anyway.
“The data isn’t the end point, it’s just the beginning,” said Franceschetti. “Our goal is to improve your sleep, not to report how you slept.”
As sleep technology evolves, this is perhaps the most important thing for developers and consumers to keep in mind. While there’s no shortage of data and ways available to tell you how badly you’re failing, the products that make a difference will be the ones that can actually do something about it.
We live in the most overtrained era in history. With an app or a Zoom call, you have a personal trainer ready to help you with everything from your swimming style to your golf swing, from marriage to parenthood, from sleeping to life itself. In many aspects, improvements are measurable . If your golf handicap goes down, your kid stops throwing peas at the wall, and you’ve averted divorce, the results are pretty clear: That coach was probably a pretty good investment.
Sleep is more internal. Only you know if you slept well last night. While gadgets, sleep timing, and apps can help you improve the duration and quality of sleep, it’s not up to an algorithm to determine whether you won or lost that night’s sleep battle.
So when you get a sleep coach, look for one that can deliver results, not just points.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering technology in Asia. He was previously a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.
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