“People should value sleep as much, and take it as seriously, as the things we do throughout the day, like eating and drinking,” says Hello CEO James Proud. “Sleep is every bit as important as those. But we don’t devote very much conscious attention to it.” This week, Proud begins shipping the first pre-orders of his Sense sleep-analysis device, his ambitious bid to use high design, Apple-like packaging, and a mix of hardware, software, and sensors to make us think more–and think better–about sleep.
Sleep is a funny topic for a young entrepreneur to obsess about, but Proud, a self-taught coder out of London, saw opportunity in those eight under-exploited hours. It was 2012, he was 20, and the ex-Thiel Fellow had just sold his business (GigLocator, a live-music discovery platform). What next? Surveying a crowded field of sleep-analysis gadgets, Proud saw an opening for something new: Friendlier than strap-on brainwave monitors like the Zeo (which is now defunct); easier to stick with, and harder to accidentally put through the wash, than tiny wearables like Fitbit.
The Sense system is indeed sui generis, and it has a lot to recommend it. The first thing you notice is that it’s beautiful. A small polycarbonate orb (inspired by the “bird’s-nest stadium” built for the Beijing Olympics) sits on your nightstand; wave a hand over it and it offers a subtly glowing color-coded snapshot of sleep conditions in your bedroom: green for optimal, orange for sub-optimal, red for problems. It packs a powerful technical punch, monitoring a broad spectrum of environmental factors that impact sleep: light, temperature, humidity, noise and air quality, via a stacked matrix of four circuit boards. The system combines all these results with a record of your nocturnal movements, as measured by a small motion-tracking “pill” that clips to your pillow and collates its data into a slickly-designed overnight timeline and Sleep Score you can access on a smartphone app. When it comes to a good night’s sleep, says David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures In The Strange Science of Sleep, this kind of information is power. “Data that gives you hard evidence of how you’re sleeping starts a virtuous cycle,” he tells me. “You start caring enough about making those numbers improve that you start doing things you might not do otherwise, like not watching Netflix in bed. The data is like a gateway drug into behaviorism.” This is the basic MO behind every quantified-health solution, from RunKeeper to Sleep Cycle. They trick you into good behaviors, and Sense is as good a trickster as any other.
That said, based on my week with a prerelease test unit, Sense has its problems, too. Some, like the app’s insistence one morning that I woke up 12 minutes after I got out of bed, can be ascribed to software and processing bugs, and Proud says his team is squashing those. Other flaws point towards deeper shortcomings in Sense’s methodology. Its desire to do and be everything when it comes to your sleep sometimes makes it trip over its own well-designed feet. One morning, for example, the app scolded me that my bedroom was “far too bright” in the period before sleep the previous night, a problem I presumably could have remedied by turning out the lights. (Wait: I did.) In general the system relies, and very much wants you to rely, on a theoretical model of a healthy sleep environment that may not correspond to the way you really spend your nights. Do you need white noise to sleep? Tough luck: Your room may flunk (“Far too noisy”). Sense’s results can also be scrambled by a wild card like the two big Labradors who share bed space with me and my wife, but in fairness, I’m a little baffled by that myself. (Check back tomorrow for my story on the pitfalls and pleasures of sleeping with pets.)
These kinks are maddening in a device with such promise, but they may well be combed out as the product matures and its learning algorithms are tuned. Two much more fundamental problems aren’t likely to be. They apply to the whole class of high-tech sleep products, and Sense, as ambitious as it is, can’t overcome them. Like almost every similar device, it’s actigraphic–that is, it relies on motion sensing, and infers conclusions about your sleep from the results. This means that when the Sense reports I’m in “deep sleep,” what it’s really saying is that I’m not moving around very much. That’s not a small distinction. “Periods when you’re awake but relaxed aren’t as restorative as sleep,” Randall says, because they don’t allow the brain to perform the critical cleanup and housekeeping chores it reserves for our sleeping hours.
Moreover, the precepts of good sleep hygiene are well-known, and for all its sophistication, the Sense relies heavily on the simplest and most common-sense of these: Your room should be quiet. It should be dark. It shouldn’t be too hot, or too cold. Color-coded reinforcement is fine, but nothing the Sense prescribes can’t be learned and relearned very, very quickly. It’s hard to see how the real useful life span of the device isn’t about a week.
Proud promises that the Sense will provide deeper and richer insights as time goes on. But at this stage it’s a flawed device in a flawed space. And that presents buyers with a question: Is it, in its current form, worth it? Well, if you have $129 burning a hole in your pajama pockets and a glowing sleep orb is your thing, go nuts.
But consider this: It may be that what the Sense really satisfies–what it measures with even more fidelity than light and noise and particulates–is a cultish enthusiasm for an interconnected universe of gadgets that marry high style, high technology, and the promise of an individually quantified human experience, whether that experience encompasses cardiovascular fitness, music discovery, home security, or life itself. These devices whisper siren songs, and Sense’s is, Only your sleep is YOUR sleep. Let our sleek, sexy orb help you curate it to perfection.
Proud likes to talk about people becoming more mindful of sleep over the last few years, and maybe that’s so. The explosive success of Sense’s Kickstarter pre-order campaign last summer sure speaks to something. But that something may well be a desire even more potent than the one for a good night’s sleep: the desire for a gorgeous, bespoke, artisanally handcrafted good night’s sleep.