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Sleep tech on test: Smart lighting, pillows and sensors to improve your sleep

We take the smartest sleep tech to bed

Smart home sleep tech on test
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Technology and sleep – it sometimes seems an oxymoron. After all, we know we spend too much time engrossed in technology and not enough time sleeping, and we know bright, artificial light from computer screens, tablets, and smartphones at night aggravates this. So, for our best sleep shouldn’t we keep technology out of the bedroom?

Yes and no. While TV screens and smartphones (yes, even with Night Shift mode on) aren’t best suited for bedtime, there is some tech worthy of a spot in the bedroom. These are devices that promise to help promote better sleep by using technology to overcome the problems technology created.

Read this: The best smart alarm clocks

We decided to put a variety of sleep tech through its paces to see how unobtrusive and helpful it was, and if we could make it work with our smart home to bring us a better night’s sleep. We tested five different devices from varying categories in a quest to solve our specific sleep problems (which we doubt are unique). Here's what we found.

The problem

I used to be famous for my ability to fall asleep anywhere and on anything (I once slept next to a speaker at Camden’s Bubblicious club), but two children and a husband who snores have drastically eroded my God-given ability to sleep soundly. My husband has long struggled with good shut-eye, and even underwent a sleep study where he was told he had REM apnea – thankfully not the form of apnea that leads to significant health issues, but unfortunately one that causes him to feel exhausted. This, combined with his job as a paramedic/firefighter, which keeps him up at all hours, means that a good night’s sleep is a real struggle for him.

Sleep tech on test

We tested a variety of smart home tech sleep solutions to tackle our combined issues of light sleeping and heavy snoring. After doing extensive research in the space, we decided to test five devices that promised to track, promote and aid our sleep. We settled on Casper Glow nightlights, Philips Hue White Ambience bulbs, Withings Sleep Mat, a Zeeq smart pillow, and the Smart Nora anti-snoring device.

In addition to how these tech solutions helped with our sleep problems, we also looked at the smart home connections of these gadgets and how they could sync and interact with our home as a whole, to better promote our sleep.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Sleep tracker: Withings Sleep Tracking Mat

$99.95, Amazon.com | withings.com

The obvious place to start is with a sleep tracking device. If you have a problem to solve you need data, right? We eschewed the myriad of wearable sleep tracking devices because a) our sister site Wareable has already got this space covered, and b) our attempts thus far to use our Apple Watch to track our sleep had failed miserably, primarily because every time we rolled over we got a bright light in our eyes.

We decided the least intrusive, non-wearable gadget to test was the Withings Sleep Tracking Mat. This slides under your mattress around chest level and plugs into power via a USB cable. You then pair it with Withings HealthMate app and forget about it. It tracks your sleeping pattern every night automatically, just by you laying down. There’s nothing to turn on, calibrate or fiddle with. It just sits there quietly until you opt to check your sleep score in the app.

How the smart home can help you sleep

That score is pretty insightful, and after a few nights of using it I had a whole new perspective on how my nights were spent. In particular, as to when I was woken up (which was regularly), and how that was impacting my overall sleep score. It was pretty easy to correlate those wakeful moments with my partner’s snoring (although to be fair I didn’t need a sleep monitor to tell me that).

The one thing we found tricky with the Sleep Mat is while its hands free operation is wonderful, if you happen to lay down on your bed before you go to sleep it starts tracking at that point. I was thrilled to wake up and find I had a near perfect score and 10 hours of sleep, until I realized it thought I went to bed at 6:30pm. You can go in and edit that though, so it doesn't mess up your long-term trend tracking.

Withings smart home syncs

One of the best features of the Withings Sleep Mat is that it is a sensor. I am a firm believer that sensors are the soul of a smart home; they make everything work together without you having to use an app or your voice – two things we are trying to avoid in our bedroom. Using the Withings Sleep IFTTT channel you can link it into your smart home to better help with sleep.

Two things I struggle with while sleeping are temperature and leaving the lights on. We know that bright light disrupts sleep, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, the deepest sleep occurs in a room that's around 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. So while I can just ask my voice assistant to turn the lights off and the temperature down, sometimes I’m too sleepy to do that, or don’t want to wake my husband.

Smart wake up solutions: How to use your Amazon Echo as an Alarm Clock

With the Withings Sleep Matt I could set up an IFTTT applet that adjusts a Sensibo Smart AC unit (attached to my mini-split heating and cooling unit in my bedroom) to turn the temperature to 67 degrees as soon as I get into bed. I also set up an applet that turns all my Hue lights off when the Withings senses pressure between 8pm and 11pm, and one that turns the living room lights on when I get out of bed between 5am and 10am. The latter is a great convenience, but the former is super helpful for making sure there's no light to disturb me while I’m sleeping.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Sleep Lighting: Casper Glow

$129, or $229 for two, casper.com

The concept behind sleep lighting is that it helps your natural circadian rhythm stay in sync. As humans we are biologically programmed to sync with the sun. We wake up to the gradually brightening light that moves from warm hues to bright blues and energises us so we’re ready to work. Then, as the day starts to draw to a close, the sun becomes dimmer and warmer and our body responds by preparing to sleep – eventually producing the hormone melatonin that helps us achieve consistent sleep.

I've ditched my alarm clock and just use Glow to wake me up.

Only now we spend 90% of our time indoors and the sun doesn’t really get a chance. Enter LED light bulbs. These contain the technology to change the light in the bulb from warm white to cool white, enabling you to use them to mimic the sun's light indoors. Smart lights can do this automatically, based on a schedule or other connected tech.

I had tried a number of smart lighting solutions for our sleep situation, mainly revolving around putting smart bulbs in our bedside lamps. We’d used Philips Hue, C By GE and tried a variety of scenes, apps, scenarios, and setups – including voice control, timers, and so on. While these are great solutions, our problem is we have very erratic sleep schedules, and while you don’t have to have your phone to use these light solutions, using voice wasn’t always ideal either. We needed something that was more straightforward and didn’t involve having to speak, switch off the light, or reach for an app.

Enter Casper Glow. A smart lamp developed by a mattress manufacturer, these lights are designed with sleep in mind. The Glow is a wire-free, oblong-shaped, battery-powered lamp that emits 2700 kelvins of LED light. It sits on a charging pad, plugged into a regular outlet and is operated by touch gestures – flip it to turn it on, twist it to adjust brightness, wiggle it for a gentle glow. There were two things we liked about Glow right off the bat: it comes in a set of two, which can sync with each other; and they are small and unobtrusive on your bedside table (unlike a lot of the other devices we looked at).

The concept of Glow is that it helps you wind down at bedtime with the minimal amount of fuss or interaction – you flip it over and it gradually grows warmer and dims to off as you fall asleep (from 90 minutes to 15 minutes, you choose). Conversely, it can help you wake up more gradually in the mornings, using increasingly brighter, whiter light and replacing the need for ear shattering alarm clocks. (While I woke up every time with the Glow lights, my husband set an alarm as a backup).

Casper Glow smart home syncs

The biggest disappointment is there are no smart home integrations, although to be fair the only thing I might want would be voice control and as discussed that's not ideal in a sleep situation. Plus, the way Glow is designed it shouldn’t be necessary. Its major smart feature is its app, which is well-designed and very simple, so if you do need to use it to turn off the light you just need one tap on the home screen. Ultimately, this is the epitome of sleep tech designed to blend into your environment, using its technology to help you without inadvertently harming you.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Casper Glow: In use

The light the Glow gives off really is quite special; with one on either side of a bed it can easily fill the whole room but as it’s a warm, diffuse light, emanating from a lower level it’s calming and comfort-inducing. I find myself using our overhead lighting far less, always preferring to flip one Glow over and have the room light up (you can sync the lamps so both turn on when you activate one).

The light is customisable too. You can adjust the brightness in the app and set different time windows; if you prefer to have them turn off in 15 minutes or 60. But you don’t need the app once it’s set up other than to set your wakeup light. My husband and I wake up at different times so we can each set our Glow to turn on at a different time. Since Glow launched Casper has improved the alarm settings and now you can tailor your alarm to weekdays, weekends or specific days of the week.

I've completely ditched my alarm clock and now just use Glow to wake me up – and it works. I also find the light really does help to wind me down at night, and doubles as a great reading light. The other feature we love is that each Glow is portable, so when one of us is up earlier than the other we can take the Glow with us as we move around the room and can get ready without having to turn on the overhead lights.

This is a very well-designed, well-thought out piece of unobtrusive sleep technology. But, at $129 for one light and $229 for a pair, it's pricey considering there aren't a lot of bells and whistles.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Smart lighting: Philips Hue

$149.99, Amazon | meethue.com

While smart bulbs weren't a good solution in our master bedroom, they did work in the rest of the house to help sync our circadian rhythms. As part of our sleep experiment, we installed Philips Hue White Ambiance lights in our main living spaces and the children's rooms and set two 'Go To Sleep' routines in the Hue App that switches any lights currently on, to a warm glow at 7:30pm and 9:30pm. They then gradually fade out over 60 minutes (the maximum time) until they turn off completely.

Read this: Philips Hue super guide: How to set up and use your Hue lights

It’s a simple smart home routine and occasionally we’d find ourselves reaching for the Hue Wireless Remote we have to pump up the brightness as we aren’t ready for sleep yet, but we definitely noticed a calming effect in this set-up, a gentle way of our home suggesting we might need to start winding down.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Sleep solution: Zeeq Smart Pillow

$169.99, Amazon | zeeq.com

Now that we had created an ideal sleep environment, and had gone some way to identifying what was causing our sleep problems, we set about finding smart ways to solve them.

My husband struggles to fall asleep at night. There are a few causes for this but the most obvious one is stimulation. As a firefighter he responds to calls in the middle of the night and then struggles to fall back asleep.

After researching some solutions, we decided the Zeeq Smart Pillow offered a good variety of options that could work. A bluetooth-enabled, battery-powered pillow, Zeeq has small speakers and vibration motors embedded in it that can play soothing sounds, and helps you stop snoring by gently vibrating. It also tracks your sleep.

Zeeq smart home syncs

Like the Withings Sleep, Zeeq can act as a trigger for IFTTT connections, although it’s not using a sensor. Instead the trigger is when you hit Start Sleep or Stop Sleep in the app. These actions can connect to smart home systems such as SmartThings to turn your lights off and lock your doors, or connect to a smart plug to start your kettle in the mornings.

You can also set up applets to turn connected lights off or drop your thermostat to an optimal sleep temperature. However, you have to interact with your phone for this to work, unlike the sleep mat which responds to your movements. Zeeq also integrates with Alexa so you can ask the voice assistant for your sleep score or how much restful sleep you got.

Zeeq Smart Pillow: In use

In concept this was very promising; in execution it was severely lacking. My husband loved the pillow itself – adjustable memory foam with a Tencel Lyocell fabric cover that inhibits bacteria growth – and actually said it's one of the most comfortable pillows he’s ever slept on. And while he also really liked going to sleep to the soothing nature sounds the pillow offered, the overall experience wasn’t a good one.

The best feature is the built-in speakers. Yes, you can play soothing nature sounds on a phone or with a bedside smart speaker, but that noise will be heard by anyone nearby (not ideal in a fire station or with an already sleeping partner). With Zeeq you can only hear the music if you are lying directly on the pillow. Its app has a library of sleep tracks, but you can listen to your own music, audio books or any audio content through the pillow (make sure to silence notifications on your phone however, as they will play over bluetooth as well – not very relaxing!).

What he didn’t like was how finicky the technology was. The Bluetooth connection from phone to pillow dropped constantly, leaving him with no sleep tracking or anti-snoring sensations (the music would keep playing, however). He spent lots of time just before bed fiddling with the app to get it set up – something we’ve already determined is not a good way to fall asleep.

How the smart home can help you sleep

He did like that the app asks you to complete a small sleep questionnaire before you activate its sleep mode, focusing on your exercise, eating, and drinking habits to help you build a picture of your sleep influencers over time. But the app was slow, buggy, and crashed frequently leading to unneeded pre-bedtime frustration. (You can avoid the app and activate the sleep mode from the device itself using its attached remote control, but you don’t get the music this way.)

When it did work it helped him fall asleep more quickly, but its vibration efforts to prevent his snoring either fully woke him up (on the higher settings) leading to a terrible night’s sleep, or did nothing (on the lower settings), meaning he woke up feeling rotten because he snored. He also found the sleep tracking info to be limited, as the phone would often disconnect from the app and not actually track his sleep. I liked how the app tracked the noise level of his snoring through the night, informing us that one night that his peak snoring level was 95dB – equivalent, it said, to the sound of a drill.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Sleep solution: Smart Nora

$359, smartnora.com

After all this sleep research, we’d got to the heart of our problem: snoring. When my husband snores all night he feels terrible the next day and I don’t get a good night’s sleep either. It was time to bring out the big guns: Smart Nora. At $359 this is a pricey piece of sleep tech (although not compared to medical grade equipment such as a C-Pap).

The Smart Nora is a three-part device. A box which powers the device sits beside or under your bed; a pillow insert goes in your pillowcase and connects to the box by a plastic tube; and a small microphone called the pebble sits on your bedside table or above your bed (in a mount that sticks to the wall) and connects to the box over bluetooth. Combined, these three devices will activate when snoring starts, inflating the pillow and tilting your head up to open the airway more, thus stopping the snoring.

It’s an elegant looking device, clad in gray fabric so won’t look out of place, and the microphone looks like a small white mouse. Like the Glow, there is no smart home integration here, mainly because, again, it doesn't need it, it just uses bluetooth technology to communicate. Its smart designation comes from its wire-free operation and the fact that it respond intelligently to your movements, as opposed to a traditional CPAP machine. Unlike Glow there is no app, which actually was a problem in our testing. We would have liked a way to see if the device was working, as some nights it appeared not to and we had no way of troubleshooting.

I felt fantastic, like I’d had a really restful night’s sleep

Setup was as easy as just plugging everything in (it will run on an internal battery for up to 24 hours if needed). The pebble charges directly from the unit and should last a few weeks between charges, blinking red when the battery is low. The various blinks on the pebble are the only indications you get from the device, and they were a little tricky to decipher. Once everything is set up you turn on the pebble by pressing a button on the device, and do a test inflation of the pillow to check all is working. You can then set a 30 minute sleep delay if you like, then lie back and go to sleep.

While there is no app, Smart Nora sends you regular email updates from your sleep coach for the first week with tips and advice to help you get used to the device. You can adjust settings like level of snore detection and pillow height on the device itself.

How the smart home can help you sleep

Smart Nora: In use

The first time my husband set up the Smart Nora a loud truck driving past set it off – he hadn’t activated the 30 minute sleep delay and so his head was bopping up and down at any noise, even his own breathing. Once he had the delay set up however things went a lot smoother, and he was much more impressed. He woke up feeling better than he had in a long while.

The problems arose when, for some reason, the device didn’t activate. Every night he would test it to make sure it was working, but doing this when you’re tired and ready for bed isn't ideal. Remembering what the red flashing light means as opposed to a solid white light, or a flashing green light, confused him, and there were at least three nights during testing where it didn’t work. It’s entirely possible it was user error, but here is where an app would come in handy, to let you know everything is connected and working, or if it’s not, how to troubleshoot.

Interestingly, we found that after the nights the device didn’t operate he actually felt worse than the nights he didn’t use it at all, probably because he sleeps on his back with the device (which is recommended) but without the device he has trained himself to sleep on his side, which makes him snore less. However, when the device did work it was pretty transformative for him. “I felt fantastic, like I’d had a restful night’s sleep. I had energy during the day and just felt great,” he says.

Correspondingly, my Withings Sleep score jumped up considerably on the nights he used the Smart Nora successfully (or Snoring Nora as I kept calling it), showing far fewer interruptions.

Does sleep tech work?

Living with sleep tech for these few weeks has been a double-edged sword. When it works, it’s fantastic, but when it doesn’t, it’s almost worse than without it. As with a lot of smart home technology there is a significant learning curve and a fair amount of troubleshooting. We’d love to see some improvements to the reliance on Bluetooth technology a lot of these devices have. Bluetooth can be fiddly, flaky, and frustrating, all the things you don’t want just before bedtime.

Overall the simpler the device, the better it worked, but generally with less impact: the Glow Lamps with their enticing light that fades away, Withings with its unobtrusive tracking. Those devices that were more active also had more issues, but when they worked they were more successful.

Did the smart home help us sleep better? I’m going to say a tentative yes, with a few caveats. But we’ll keep testing these technologies and will report back with a long-term testing update.


TAGGED    smart home    lighting

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