Wearables continue to be a hugely popular item across different age groups and even continents. They track steps and sleep cycles, but just how valuable is that information? In reality, this data is only partially useful for the wearer. Without big data to decipher what is more or less healthy, those wearables are borderline useless. More importantly, there is a much bigger game at play. Researchers, developers, and startup entrepreneurs are all using that data to see the big picture. It might now matter how much sleep one girl living in New York gets. But if researchers could track how everyone in New York, or everyone in the world, sleeps, that could lead to incredible insights.
The Wearable Dynasties Have Mountains of Data
Jawbone makes several popular fitness trackers. They’ve sold millions of their “UP” tracker around the globe. While their users were busy tracking sleep cycles for their own purposes, Jawbone was compiling massive datasets. The study of sleep is by no means a new practice. But now, rather than having some hundred or hundreds of test subjects, companies have access to data from millions of individuals in their natural settings. By tracking millions of UP wearers in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and China, Jawbone stumbled upon some weird facts, with large amounts of data to back it up.
Their data found that women, on average, sleep some 20 minutes longer than men. The company has some thoughts on why, including a biological need for women to get more sleep due to the birthing process; the reason might also lie in men being more prone to sleep complications. In reality, Jawbone, as a wearables company, is not likely to crack the complex biological functions that could be at play by themselves—but they’re procuring all the data needed for researchers to move the discussion forward. By discovering which countries’ citizens get the most sleep, they can find links and insight into other areas of life, including major problems like obesity. They’ve even stumbled into other highly specific data stories, like how going to sleep at a later time leads to higher heart rates in the morning, or how folks that commute tend to get less sleep.
Luckily, Jawbone isn’t alone in the field. FitBit, with 9.5 million active users, has gathered more data in one year than early sleep scientists would have seen in their entire careers. Fullpower technologies makes the monitoring software used in several of today’s most popular wearable devices. CEO Philippe Kahn told Fortune that today’s experiments are huge, worldwide endeavors that the field has never seen before. “We have 250 million nights of sleep in our database, and we’re using all the latest technologies to make sense of it.” Data from wearables still suffers from problems with inaccurate sensors and calculations, but it is slowly getting more accurate. Plus, by tracking users in their home environment, the data becomes much more valuable and realistic. Lab studies often involve being hooked up and spied on, and only absorbs a small portion of daily life. If companies can turn billions of numbers and data points into usable information, the future may include anything from smart pillows, to details on how our actions during the day affect our nights.
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In reality, solutions like smart pillows are already taking off. They operate not only by tracking your sleep, but by, hopefully making it better. Studies have shown that certain frequencies can enhance the sleep cycle—so why not have technology that recognizes where you are in your cycle and play the right sounds to enhance it? Data has also shown that waking up during a light sleep phase makes a humongous impact on whether you have an energetic day or a “hit the snooze ten times” kind of day. Now there are tools to help users wake up feeling more refreshed by tapping into that information. Forget waking up at exactly 7:00 AM. Technology can recognize and wake you when you hit a light sleep cycle, which may be around 6:45. Don’t worry about missing those few precious minutes. The body should actually feel better waking up at the right point in its own cycle.
Where’s the Proof?
Who really wants to give up those last fifteen minutes of sleep just because “science” said to? There are actually plenty of success stories surrounding the use of data to achieve better sleep and more energy. One great example comes from Forbes, who shared the story of former Olympian cyclist Sky Christopherson, who was brought in to help the US women’s cycling team in 2012. He used his own “Optimized Athlete” program, where he focused on “data not drugs.” The team members generated huge amounts of data on their workouts, diets and daily patterns. By making seemingly small, data-driven changes, their individual performances went through the roof. One particularly unusual discovery included the role of temperature in the sleep cycle. One of the cyclists discovered that she performed much better if she slept at a lower temperature. So, they traded her ordinary bed for a temperature water-cooled mattress to keep her body at the perfect temperature. “This had the effect of giving her better deep sleep,” said Christopherson. “Which is when the body releases human growth hormones and testosterone naturally.
The elusive good night’s sleep isn’t so far out of reach. While fitness trackers are still mostly used on a small, personal scale basis, the future holds a very different story. If better sleep leads to better health, and also higher levels of happiness as Jawbone postulates, the future of healthcare has a big stake in turning data into good sleep. BCC Research predicts that sleep-aid products will be booming in the upcoming years, and those smart pillows, data-driven alarm clocks, and “data not drugs” approaches will no doubt help the tired, groggy, and grumpy get finally some much needed rest.
Each of the Jawbone studies also include several charts
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