Plug in, Drift Off: The World of Hyperconnected Smart Sleep Devices

A woman sleeps in a bed surrounded by electronic monitoring equipment.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I spend my day glued to a laptop, squinting, often taking breaks only to walk around scrolling through Instagram and suffering bouts of distraction sickness. If you’re like me, you probably know that after a day of being extremely online, the rule for getting a good night’s sleep is hard and fast: no screens before bedtime. You probably also break this rule.

We’re supposed to log off and disconnect before bed. That’s why it’s so strange that smart sleep technology has made sleeping more connected and quantifiable than ever before. The New York Times coined the term vamping in 2014, referring to teens’ proclivity to binge on social media late at night. But it’s not just the teens — in 2017, the Sleep Foundation reported that 90 percent of people in the U.S. are vamping before bed, which has been proven to throw off your body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm) that tells you when to feel sleepy and awake.

But even without the screens, sleeping smarter through the use of smart-home connected devices is all about making sleep hyperefficient — even if you risk improving what little sleep you’re getting by bogging it down with more screen time and gadgets. Productivity-obsessed people are losing sleep researching the best sleep-tracking apps in the same way they research deep work or polyphasic sleep schedules — whatever it is we’re doing, we should optimize it to be the most productive. And if you’re already struggling with sleeplessness, this kind of obsessive sleep-related anxiety doesn’t feel great.

What Is Sleep Science, Exactly?

From sleep-tracking apps that record your snores to wearable, clunky, brainwave-sensing headbands that connect back to your other smart devices. There are countless products backed vaguely by “sleep scientists” that promise to knock you out more efficiently. But do we really need to send Alexa and IFTTT our anxiety-induced sleep graphs?

It’s easy to self-diagnose and self-medicate bad sleep because, well, you know it when you feel it. When you’re up late at night Googling “What to do when you can’t sleep,” you’ll likely come across lists of magical apps and devices that promise to help. But Dr. Lev Grinman, a New Jersey–based neurologist who studies sleep disorders, says that most smart sleep technology “isn’t necessarily what a sleep physician would use to gauge how well somebody is sleeping.”

“Everybody wants the do-it-yourself kind of thing,” he says. “A lot of these things are geared toward just the general consumer. Even though they say they’re backed by sleep science, they’re not robustly accurate.” Grinman, like many who study sleep, says we track sleep through movement, sound, heart rate, breathing patterns (snoring), and measuring your actual brainwaves using an electroencephalogram (EEG). But measuring each of these factors alone isn’t accurate enough to determine whether or not your sleep is “bad” or “good.” “Good” sleep, says Grinman, correlates with good habits.

“The trackers can help to some degree, but the most effective treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy. We’re talking about sleep hygiene,” Grinman says. The same way you brush your teeth so they don’t fall out, Grinman suggests you do the same things to keep your sleep healthy — don’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime, don’t use bright lights, and reserve your bed only for sleep. If you can’t sleep, the combination of these behaviors (or lack of them) affects you much more than the things sleep trackers can measure.

Sleep-Tracking Apps

There are a ton of tracking apps that monitor your sleep, but most only track sound and movement: two small components of sleep. Sleep Cycle, one of the most popular sleep-tracking apps in the Apple App Store, promises to wake you during your “lightest” sleep phase. The app uses your phone’s microphone to identify sleep phases by listening to your movements in bed from up to ten inches away, filtering out any “non-sleep movement sounds,” like sirens outside or a baby crying.

“That, to me, is not very accurate,” Dr. Grinman says. “There’s just too many confounding variables. You’re really not going to be able to tell how deep your sleep is based on sound alone.”

Tracking apps like Sleep Cycle will describe your sleep. But it won’t tell you exactly what to do to get proper sleep. Plus, Grinman says, there’s a bit of a placebo effect involved. If you know that the app is supposed to wake you up during a lighter sleep, you’ll make the assumption that it did, and maybe even feel more well-rested. However, an app like Sleep++, which is built for the Apple Watch, may be more accurate since it tracks heart rate along with sound and movement.

Still, Grinman points out the obvious. “It’s almost ironic that these technologies are all based on the phone, whereas sleep doctors are always telling patients to put your phone away. It can totally drive your insomnia. If you’re texting with different people too close to bedtime, you’re just not going to be able to relax.”

Smart Sleep Mattress Trackers

Sleep trackers that operate sans smartphone are a step up in accuracy, and take away the distraction of a glowing screen. The third incarnation of the Beddit sleep tracker, for instance, is a $149 small strip that lives on your mattress under your sheets and records sleep quality, breathing, snoring, heart rate, room temperature, and humidity.

The recently debuted $99 Nokia Sleep works similarly, plus it boasts the kind of crazy connectivity that we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of. Not only can it use IFTTT to turn your smart lights off, mute your phone, and adjust the temperature when you get into bed, it also automatically tracks your sleep stats in Google Docs. As if that wasn’t everything, it can then connect to Alexa so you can ask how you slept the night before.

Sleep-Tracking Wearables

The so-called “gold standard” of clinical sleep-tracking technology is EEG (electroencephalography), a method of recording the electrical activity of the brain. And if you can find a wearable that tracks your brain waves while you sleep, Grinman says, “it will probably give you a better estimate of light sleep versus deep sleep.”

The Philips SmartSleep headband, debuted in 2018, is the exact kind of efficiency-based design that has the right tracking capabilities, but there’s an elitist catch — it’s made for those who simply won’t give up working late or sleeping too little. It has been clinically proven (so far) to enhance slow-wave sleep, and uses bone-conduction headphones to deliver quiet audio tones. It also happens to look pretty goofy. Mark Michels, business leader of Healthy Sleep Solutions for Philips, says the SmartSleep is specifically for someone who can’t sleep over seven hours due to “lifestyle choices.”

“Those could be a host of different things,” Michels says. “They love to read; they binge-watch Netflix; they’re working very long hours; they have children and a job. So to balance out those things, they just end up not getting enough sleep.”

According to the Philips website, what it doesn’t do is “help you fall asleep, help you stay asleep, prolong your deep sleep, or help with existing sleep conditions such as insomnia, restless legs, or sleep apnea.” With a hefty $400 price tag, though, wearables of this caliber aren’t exactly readily available for everyone. Smarter sleep, in this case, is for those with a certain lifestyle — and a disposable income.

But when it comes to sleep therapy, Michels emphasizes that one device does not fit all. “Think of it like a lavender-scented pillow,” he says. “If it makes you sleep better that’s great. It’s all based on the individual.”

Michels says that as smart homes get smarter and more interconnected, sleep technology will constantly evolve. “I’d take it a step further and say that the future may not even be a wearable,” he says. “That kind of intuitive interaction with your device is the type of thing we’re looking for. Whether that engagement is with one device or your overall home, that’s definitely the future we’re seeing.”

The Search for Smarter Sleep Is Full of Bad Gadgets