Tech to help you sleep better has been around for years. And a recent boom is resulting in more people putting faith in questionable science

Who counts sheep these days? Among all the easy cooking apps and activity trackers that can be found in the wild world of the Apple App Store, there is one app that outshines them all... with its eclectic selection of bedtime stories.

That app is Calm. And in 2017 it was named iPhone app of the year by none other than Apple. It comes with promising assurances that it brings its users better sleep thanks to soothing music, meditation and smooth re-tellings of Cinderella or The Ugly Ducklings.

It all points to a well-known fact of life: sleep is sacrosanct. Yet last year, 40 per cent of 25 to 54 year olds in the USA had less than seven hours of it every night.

From an investor’s point of view, this means that sleep-aid technology ticks a lot of boxes. Frequency of use? Every day. Market size? Everyone. Signs of sleep-tech market success? It was valued globally at $58 billion in 2014 and forecasted to grow to $80bn by 2020.

“It’s an incredibly exciting market that is currently booming,”

says Lloyd Price, co-founder of digital health company Zesty.

“For many big technology players, sleep technology is the next battleground.”

Looking at the past year, it is easy to find justification for Price’s prediction. In January, Nokia launched the Nokia Sleep sensor, a sleep tracking device doubled blind opener, light switcher and other valet-like functions. In May, Philip’s already well-established Sleep and Respiratory Care section acquired Dutch company NightBalance, which offers sleep therapy by improving body positioning in bed. And in June, Bose released its $250 Sleepbuds that purport to deliver noise-masking sounds to lull you to sleep.

And Apple is certainly not missing out on this one. The Apple Watch already allows a degree of sophistication in sleep monitoring through AutoSleep, and in 2017 the company acquired Beddit, which sells a sleep tracking system in the form of sensors placed on top of the mattress.

The industry is doing so well, in fact, that Price classified it as going through the plateau of productivity on the digital health hype cycle. Having peaked and descended into consumer disillusionment, sleep tech is now back on track to being adopted into the mainstream.

“Sleep technology has been around since roughly 2012,” explains Price. “But the market has moved on. Back then, it was all about the quantified self. Products like FitBit would let you quantify how many hours you’d slept. But people quickly realised there was not much value in that data. It was more about understanding the reasons behind it. They wanted more sophisticated products.”

It wasn’t only about levels of sophistication; research actually showed that sleep trackers’ accuracy was highly questionable. “None of the wearable devices that I know of can measure sleep,” says Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at the London Sleep Clinic. “Most measure movement, usually through the wrist, but that is not medically helpful for sleep medicine.”

Nor is it helpful for consumers, who started monitoring their sleep so much that their obsession with achieving good bed statistics led a team of cognitive behavior researchers to investigate on orthosomnia - the scientific name for the anxiety induced by the quest for a perfect night of sleep. In other words, the tech developed to make you sleep better actually created a behavioral disorder. And one that is likely to keep you up at night, too.

And so, people stopped using their trackers. The sleep technology market had to reinvent itself to satisfy customers that wanted to truly unlock the secret to good rest.

For Price, the big change in last couple of years is that the data gathered can now be connected to software that helps consumers understand their sleep patterns.

“Before, there was only hardware, whereas now, the data collected by that hardware is analysed by AI software,” he says. “From heart rates to blood pressure – people now know more about the reasons that they don’t sleep enough hours. The system is much more personalised.”

The latest winner in sleep tech, for instance, is a ring created by Oura Health, a Finnish health technology company that secured €12.5 million last July through private funding to start targeting US markets. The ring’s sensors claim to allow the user to familiarise themselves with their circadian rhythm – also known as the body clock that tells you when you are hungry, sleepy or need to work out.

There is one major challenge. In a tech world increasingly dominated by millennials who enjoy game-like devices, new health systems have to provide an appealing consumer experience while also being medically reliable – something that is not always easily within reach of your typical startup.

“All roads lead back to Apple,” says Price. “They already have the means to come up with devices that are well-designed and comfortable, and they already have a large consumer base. So they are likely to become the big players in the sleep-tech game.”

Yet startups have been popping up in all places with supposedly revolutionising ideas on how to improve your sleep. From Chinese app Snail Sleep, currently selling a smart sleep tracking pillow, to Italian company Balluga, which has released a smart bed that includes an anti-snoring system, through to LumosTech, that will be launching a mask that tailors your sleep to your schedule to avoid the effects of jet lag: there is something for every taste.

And for every distaste. Doctor Ebrahim, for his part, keeps a skeptical eye on the so-called improvements of sleep technology. “Most of your Silicon Valley inventors are 19-year-old entry-level techies with a great idea,” he says. “And the idea really is great – but they don’t know the first thing about human physiology. They get very basic knowledge of it and then they sell it in their app store as a medical device, even though it isn’t.”

Has technology been playing on consumer fascination with and curiosity for sleep? While Ebrahim seems adamant that it has, he also explains that with an industry evolving at such rapid pace, artificial intelligence and robotics may well come to replace doctors in the gathering of sleep data.

Science and technology company LifeQ for instance, claims it is on its way to “take health monitoring to the next level” by developing trackers to measure health metrics accurately enough so that the data could then be used for diagnosis by doctors. Lloyd Price similarly believes that sleep technology will become less consumer-oriented and more concerned with medical accuracy.

And with major players such as Amazon yet to even enter the sleep-tech playground, it seems that the industry is not short of surprises for the near future.