James Proud is a man on a mission to fix our sleep. This onetime recipient of Peter Thiel's skip-college-and-build-things-instead fellowship is convinced that building gadgets for the home is the best way to improve our lives through tech. And improving sleep, he’s sure, is the place to start. His company, Hello, makes the Sense, a glowing orb that pairs with a clip that you attach to your pillow and connects with a phone app. The system monitors the conditions in your bedroom and charts them so that, over time, you get a better handle on what helps you improve your sleep.
Proud's sleep tracker is one of the latest devices to tackle what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared a “public health problem”: insufficient sleep. Others have gotten into the act, including Fitbit and Apple, with its Bedtime feature. The desire for us to get better sleep is so great that sleep tech even has its own section at the tech industry’s CES trade show this year, for the first time in the show’s 50-year history.
But Proud envisions something different for Hello. “When looking at all of the wearables, we saw that people were fascinated with their sleep. But for all of these wearable devices, it was tacked on,” he said. “So we said, let’s focus on that foundation. We have to go further than what you would do with a wearable device, and find out what’s going on in the room.”
Sense gives you more information than just the number of hours you spend in bed. Besides tracking your room's conditions, the orb half of the system doubles as a white noise machine and glowing alarm clock. The latest model can even take voice commands that will let you control the smart lights in your bedroom or lower the thermostat.
I decided to try out Proud's tracker, with the hopes of finally waving goodbye to the bags under my eyes.
It’s been working for me, to varying degrees. I’ve used sleeping apps before, which require you to have your smartphone on or near your bed as you sleep — directly contradicting the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t have screens in bed. With Sense, I like that I can set up my alarms and white noise from the app on my phone before I sleep, and then leave my phone outside the bedroom. Plus, having a sensor clipped to my pillow means I don’t have to wear a wristband or headband to bed, which keeps sleep tracking from being uncomfortable.
Sense also helped me figure out the temperature that helps me drift off in peace. Our bedroom was always a little too hot. But Sense explained that opening my windows wasn’t helping because it raised the room’s humidity and worsened its air quality. Through trial and error, I found that switching on a fan in the room at least a half-hour before I hit the hay is a better alternative.
The sensor doesn't always pick up everything accurately, however, though it has improved over time — possibly in part because Sense lets you correct data you think is wrong. Still, just seeing the information about my bedtime habits helped me change for the better. For example, I didn’t realize how often I was lying awake in bed — or lingering in the morning — until I started looking at the Sense data. While I thought I was only loitering in bed a day or two a week, it was actually much more of a habit than I thought it was.
Similarly, I often thought I was only cheating on my unofficial bedtime a night or two a week, but it was four nights a week, a.k.a., most days. Now I’ve moved my target for bedtime back a half-hour and the overall quality of my sleep has gone up. I also found I went to bed later on Sundays, which always made Monday morning hit me like a ton of bricks.
Other changes have been a little more subtle. Sense tells you, for example, when you move around a lot in your sleep. Armed with that information, I started trying to figure out what made me restless, and managed to draw some conclusions by observing my own behavior. Eating too close to bedtime makes me more restless, as does not giving myself at least a half-hour to spin down from the day. Sense tries to help make those finer conclusions as well, for example, suggesting about what time I should stop drinking caffeine at night.
Sense also provides what it calls a relative metric — telling individuals how they rank among their peers — to encourage people to change their habits, said Matt Walker, a sleep researcher and Hello's chief science officer. I personally didn't find knowing, for example, that I woke up at a more consistent time than 68 percent of other people that motivating. But Walker said that telling users how they're sleeping as compared with other (anonymized) users is the best way to change habits. Maybe if I were less consistent than 68 percent of people, I would feel differently.
Of the Internet of Things things I’ve tried to fold into my daily life so far, Sense has done the best job of convincing me of its worth. It hasn't completely fixed my sleep, and I won’t credit Sense alone for changing my habits. It provides good information, but, like every other sleep tracker I’ve tried, I had to act on the information for myself — even with Sense’s little nudges.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated CES's anniversary. This version has been updated.