2014 has been a great year for sleep medicine and digital health. In January, Basis introduced a software update to provide advanced sleep analytics for its Basis Band. In mid-July, Misfit rebranded a sleep monitor tracking peripheral, Beddit, to work with its Shine activity tracker. Finally, sleep has earned top billing in new health-focused ventures from Google, Apple, and Samsung.

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9 months after Beddit raised $500k via crowdfunding on IndieGogo, a new sleep device named Sense has become the top funded health peripheral on Kickstarter by raising over $1.5M with a beautiful design and the promise of sleep analysis using audio recording and motion, light, temperature, humidity, and particle sensors.

While Sense impressively touches on certain principles of “sleep hygiene” which physicians constantly preach to our patients, it falls short when it comes to the biggest culprits of decreased sleep quality: sleep scheduling, caffeine, and bright electronic displays from personal electronics.

What is the Sense System?

Based on their Kickstarter page and introduction video, the Sense is a gorgeous hardware peripheral that rests on your nightstand. During the day, the Sense uses its temperature, light, and humidity sensors to monitor conditions with which you sleep best. While you are sleeping, the Sense can record sudden noises and detect ambient lighting to help identify the cause of sleep interruptions, which are detected via the Sleep Pill, a motion sensor that clips to your pillow.

In addition to monitoring, the Sense includes a speaker that can play peaceful sounds both to help you fall asleep and wake up.  In the morning, the Sense also functions as a smart alarm clock which can help wake you up at the time when your body is starting to naturally stir.

The Medically Proven Treatment for Insomnia: Proper Sleep Hygiene

When it comes to improving sleep, physicians have three primary recommendations: 1) sleep hygiene 2) sleep hygiene, and 3) sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene broadly encompasses a variety of behavior modification techniques to improve sleep. Proper sleep hygiene includes: 1) consistent sleeping schedules, 2) warm showers or warm fluids prior to bedtime, 3) avoiding bright lights (such as electronic displays and TV’s) in the hours leading up to sleep, 4) restricting time in bed to sexual activity and sleep, 5) limiting caffeine intake after noon, 6) cutting out daytime naps, etc.

While it might not be the magical solution patients hope to receive, the reality is that enforcing proper sleep hygiene will likely address most sleep issues. I’ve had many patients complain about their insomnia, who reveal that they drink 5-6 diet cokes every day or watch hours of TV right before bedtime.  Jawbone recently ventured into sleep hygiene with their caffeine-tracking iPhone app UP Coffee.  Desktop software and mobile apps like f.lux automatically adapts your screen’s colors to prepare you for bedtime.

The Sense System Only Addresses Part of the Problem

First things first, I actually backed the project on Kickstarter. I found the overall nest-like design impressive, and am intrigued to see what the overnight audio recorder might pick up. I was impressed by the Sleeping Pill concept, which clips to your pillow so that multiple bed partners can have their own profile.

With all sleep analysis products such as those included in offerings from Basis and Jawbone, there’s likely some value in even the most basic metrics, such as duration of sleep. Without a sensor, it’s hard to know exactly when you actually nodded off and woke up. Furthermore, movement during sleep likely corresponds with decreased sleep quality, and a night full of tossing and turning should warrant further investigation.

The Sense’s additional sensors for audio recording, ambient light, temperature, and particulate analysis are intriguing, yet incomplete. The largest culprits for decreased sleep quality are likely behavioral: sleep scheduling, exposure to electronic displays (iPhones, iPads, monitors), and caffeine intake. The Sense falls short in all three.

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The Sense’s crowdfunding success highlights a recurring concern within digital health.  While beautiful design, an excellently-produced product video, and virality propel many technologies to the headlines, they often fall short when it comes to evidence-based practices.  Hopefully the Sense will introduce further features such as caffeine tracking or sleep hygiene education along the way with companion apps or 3rd party support.

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In the same way activity trackers don’t cause your body to expend more calories, the Sense system won’t automatically allow you to get better sleep. But for those looking to make the necessary changes to improve their sleep, the Sense can provide metrics to reinforce positive behaviors, and will make a beautiful ornamental piece for your nightstand.