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When it comes to sleep gadgets, the ideas are moving faster than the research

Perhaps we should try to go to bed at the same time each night

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Photo: SleepScore

This is the second year that CES has had a section dedicated to sleep tech and the gadgets that promise to make everything right with the world if you just get enough sleep. Sleep trackers, “three-in-one” kits, and a variety of headsets all dangle the possibility of better rest. But while the tracking technology might be getting more accurate, most scientists agree that more data is not always better.

Sleep is important for quality of life, and sleep deprivation is associated with health risks like increased blood pressure and heart disease. Because sleep deprivation leads to inattention, it can also end up being a public health danger if the sleep-deprived are driving or operating other machinery. Though sleep problems are a legitimate concern, sleep has also recently become a trendy pillar of “wellness.” There’s no shortage of books about the need for sleep, and Dr. Oz had a session at CES talking about the “sleep epidemic.” When Dr. Oz starts shilling for something, you know that it’s become mainstream.

In the category of sleep tech, trackers still abound. (If you didn’t track it, does it exist?) Though there are plenty of apps to use on your smartphones and wristlets, the (Dr. Oz-launched) SleepScore Labs has created Max, a contactless sleep tracker. It looks like a gray speaker and lives on your nightstand. By sending radio waves through the air, it claims to monitor your breathing patterns to give you a “sleep score.” It then provides suggestions on how you can improve your sleep habits. The sell is that you can track your sleep without having your phone in bed, or needing to wear anything special.

Phone apps and wristbands aren’t very good at measuring sleep, and Max is better. The technology used by SleepScore is the same as that of a different contactless sensor, the S+ by ResMed. (ResMed acquired SleepScore.) “I’ve seen the public data on the ResMed device and it can accurately predict sleep and wake better than a wrist-worn accelerometer,” Jamie Marc Zeitzer, a professor of neuroscience and sleep at Stanford University, wrote in an email to The Verge. Of course, he adds, the accuracy of the device isn’t just in the radio waves, but in the algorithm that the company uses to interpret the raw data.

The key here, however, isn’t the details of how accurate the radio waves or the algorithm is. More information isn’t always better if we don’t know what to do with it. Trackers — whether they’re in your mattress or phone or on your bedside — may be getting more accurate, but our research about how to interpret this data just hasn’t caught up. “I do not believe that decontextualized information about one’s sleep is at all useful,” adds Zeitzer. “It might be fun for a few nights, but without other information, it leads to uninteresting suggestions like ‘try getting more sleep.’”

The next step after tracking is companies trying to affect your sleep. My colleague Dani Deahl tried the DreamLight sleep mask, which has a whole slew of moving parts: optical heart rate monitor, infrared sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and four speakers. She was a fan of the mask, though both of us still have questions about how many of these fancy features live up to their promises. For example, DreamLight claims that it can link to 23andMe to give you sleep suggestions based on genetics. Similarly, SleepScore has partnered with SlumberType, another company hawking DNA-based insights. But genetic testing for wellness is junk science, and we should be skeptical of any company making these claims.

When masks aren’t enough, there are headsets, and one of the ones that has received the most buzz and is shipping now is the $499 Yves Béhar-designed Dreem headband. It’s a handsome product with EEG sensors on the inside of the band and at the back of the head. The sensors measure brain waves and then play sounds inspired by biofeedback (using bone conduction, so whoever is next to you isn’t bothered) to respond to your brain waves and help you sleep.

Photo: Dreem

This sort of biofeedback is common — we’ve seen it in companies such as Muse, another CES veteran that makes a headband that helps you meditate — and seems to have a little more basis in science. “Any gadget that provides biofeedback, or provides us with the ability to engage in self-monitoring, is useful in that it helps keep us in check,” Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone Health wrote in an email to The Verge. Plus, its advisory board includes some big names in neuroscience, like David Eagleman and Christof Koch. That said, when I put one on, it took three different tries for me to hear anything.

Then there’s AromaRest, which claims to have a “three-in-one” solution to help you “sleep like nature intended.” Another gadget that sits on your bedside, it has a Bluetooth-connected speaker to play soothing music (either pre-programmed or you can choose your own), a dispensary for essential oils to waft scents, and lighting that can wake you up and help you fall asleep. You can use any mix of the features.

Sleep, scent, and sound all do affect sleep, and such a device isn’t harmful, but it’s hardly on the cutting edge of sleep science, either. “It sounds like they are throwing everything at a person hoping that at least one thing sticks,” writes Zeitzer. “Some people might be helped by the white noise at night, some by the scents, some by the simulated sun. Sometimes this goulash approach works, other times one or more of the interventions will be bothersome.”

Ultimately, companies’ ideas for improving sleep are moving faster than the research. Few of these gadgets are likely to transform your sleeping habits, but they’re unlikely to be harmful to anything except your wallet. Perhaps, the best way to sleep at night is to ditch the tech, try to take the boring sleep hygiene tips, and rest assured that you didn’t waste your money.