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In search of ‘Big Sleep’? Technology wants to help you get some rest

Paul Gilster, technology and computers columnist
Paul Gilster, technology and computers columnist

I hope you sleep better than I do. It’s now 3:25 a.m. and, because lying in bed with insomnia makes a night interminable, I’m in my home office writing this column. Writing at this hour isn’t unusual for me because insomnia has dogged me my entire life. The irony about what I’m writing now is that my subject is how digital technology can help people sleep better.

I didn’t choose the topic because of my own situation but because of the flurry in activity in this market sector, which turns out to be larger than I had realized. Did you know that industry forecasts for the size of the sleep-aids market reach as high as $80 billion by 2020? And this year, the annual tech blowout called the Consumer Electronics Show set aside an exhibition area just for sleep technology. Get this: They’re already calling the sector “Big Sleep.”

To me, “The Big Sleep” is the title of a Raymond Chandler novel and the wonderful Humphrey Bogart film that grew out of it. In my current bleary-eyed state, the idea that tech can get me off to dreamland seems like an idle fancy. I did, however, pick up a Kobo Aura One e-reader in the hope that its adjustable light – screening out blue, working in red tones as the hour got later – would make a difference. If that had worked, I wouldn’t be writing at this hour.

Can Beddit make a difference? Beddit makes a sleep monitor that connects to an iPhone. It’s in the form of a long strip of fabric that goes onto the mattress, positioned under the bottom sheet so that your heart rate can be picked up by it. Apple liked Beddit enough to buy the company, which implies to me that it will emerge as part of Apple’s broader play in the health care market. Beddit ($150) in now available in most Apple stores.

If raw data can put you to sleep (sort of like counting sheep?), maybe Beddit has an edge. It will send enough information to your iPhone to give you a painstaking readout of your night’s activities. That would include sleep time (about an hour for me tonight), how long it took you to fall asleep (right away, but then a quick wake-up), the amount of deep vs. light sleep and numbers like “sleep efficiency.” But hey, I knew almost all that without a Beddit.

So what do you do with all these data points? Technology has completely outrun utility in some areas, and this is surely one of them. Because users can take notes on the Beddit app, it can remind them that a yowling cat kept them awake between 11 and 12, something that was presumably obvious. Beddit’s graphs are slick, but do I really need to be told that I spent a lot of restless time in bed before getting up this morning? Or is it still night?

My own recommendation, not that anything works for me, is Rain Rain. It’s a wonderful app that lets you select from a vast selection of white noise choices like ocean waves or trains. I’d also recommend keeping an eye on new mattresses. Casper is a young online company now negotiating with Target over how best to sell its mattresses, part of a wave of mattress startups with innovative ideas. At the top end, the Sleep Number 360 mattress provides a “smart bed” with biometric sleep tracking, foot warming and snoring detection.

Did you know there is a National Sleep Foundation? I always assumed a conference with these guys would be a pretty quiet affair as they tried out all the new gadgets, but I notice they paired up with CES in the recent tech show. Maybe the sector really is getting ready to pop.

We know that the tech world is, if nothing else, trendy and the entrance of Apple, the trendiest company of all, tells me that we’ll soon be quoting our “sleep efficiency” numbers to our envious friends. Brace yourself for a market onslaught. The people who buy all this stuff are probably not going to be insomniacs themselves, but early adopters afflicted with the big data bug.

So does collecting all that data really induce sleep? “Big Sleep” may help us find out.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at