Leave it to the tech set to tinker with something so perfect as the nap.
Not a group to leave well enough alone, they are coming up with new gadgets — from high-tech masks to wearable pillows to portable pods — to improve on the daytime snooze, bring it from the couch at home to a quiet place in the office, and encourage more people to steal a few winks every afternoon.
These new gadgets are coming out as the nap itself is enjoying a new appreciation by professionals and amateurs alike. Scientists who study sleep habits say napping makes people more alert and productive, while workers at tech startups have come to look forward to an afternoon snooze the way they do to a weekend hackathon.
In fact, sleep is getting an entire tech makeover. There are apps, smart watches, and intelligent alarm clocks that can monitor sleep patterns. Even Apple Inc., which makes an electronic device for seemingly every aspect of our waking life, has reportedly hired a sleep expert to help in the development of its rumored iWatch, the company’s long-awaited debut into the wearable computer field.
There is nap fashion, too. A British design firm sells a wearable, portable Ostrich Pillow — a space-age fashion accessory that lets users “take a comfortable power nap in the office, traveling, or wherever you want.”
One of the newest entrants to the nap marketplace is Cambridge’s Napwell, which recently raised $51,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to begin making high-tech sleeping masks. Inside the mask is a timer that triggers a built-in sunrise light, which gradually brightens to gently rouse someone from sleep so they do not wake up feeling so groggy.
“If you happen to wake up in dead sleep, you are going to feel really bad,” said Napwell’s inventor, Justin Lee, a PhD student studying health technology at a joint MIT-Harvard program. “Napwell came out of that. It was the simplest thing to build that would solve that problem.”
The 27-year-old Lee has been a regular napper since he was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is something his professors encourage.
“I work in a lab,” Lee said. “So we do a lot of research and work pretty hard, so it’s tough to get enough sleep. I nap pretty often.”
The Napwell is for people like him, he said, who work “weird hours.”
Beta versions of the Napwell mask will be available to its earliest Kickstarter supporters this spring. Lee is working on honing the mask’s design and materials and plans to run several sleep studies next year.
Annabeth Carroll, senior support engineer at the Cambridge startup HubSpot, took a nap in the company’s Van Winkle Room. The company opened the nap room at its offices in January. The room has a hammock, mood lighting, and walls painted with tropical island scenery. It is used about five times a day.
Overall, the role that sleep plays in a healthy lifestyle has been the subject of several recent scientific studies. Those papers have lauded sleep as contributing to overall better health, smarter decision making, sharper brain activity, increased productivity, and a stronger immune system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lack of sleep is a “public health epidemic,” with 35 percent of adults getting less that seven hours daily, and almost 40 percent reporting that they unintentionally nod off during the day.
“We know that when you are better slept, so many things work better,” said Jo Solet, a sleep specialist at Harvard Medical School. “One of things we need to do as a culture is give more respect to sleep, and recognizing there are times when a nap really can make a difference.”
Even though the nap is catching on with the tech set, it may be most important for medical professionals or others working in high-stress jobs where a mistake can have deadly consequences, Solet said.
When workers are well rested, “they are likely to be safer, more productive, and healthier,” said Solet.
Christopher Lindholst has been trying to persuade people to nod off at work for a decade. He is the cofounder of MetroNaps, a New York company that produces a sleek, $8,000 sleeping pod used in the offices of Google Inc., the Huffington Post, and Cisco Systems Inc. The pod can be best described as an elaborate lounge chair tucked inside a curved shield.
“When we started in 2004, people thought we were pretty crazy to get people to sleep on the job,” Lindholst said. But in the past few years, he said, more companies are spending more time and money on improving overall employee health, and that includes encouraging better sleep habits.
The key, said Lindholst, is to keep it short and sweet: “a 15-to-20 minute nap that boosts your productivity and alertness. If it’s OK to go out and take a smoke break, it should be OK to take a nap break.”
Last year was the best sales year ever for MetroNaps’ sleep chambers. Based on research from NASA, the lounge chairs in the MetroNaps pods are posed in the so-called “zero gravity” position, which raises the feet above the heart. It is similar to the way astronauts sit during take off and is intended to equally distribute body weight across the chair. The pods also come with a privacy visor, built-in music players, and an alarm.
So far, it seems that mostly tech and Internet companies — businesses that relish rejecting buttoned-down corporate culture — have embraced a workday where employees are free to doze off.
“We care a whole lot less about the hours people work,” said Katie Burke, a spokeswoman for Cambridge software startup HubSpot Inc., which opened a nap room at its offices in January. The room has a hammock, mood lighting, and walls painted with tropical island scenery, and is used about five times a day.
“Executives are using it, too,” Burke quipped. “We are leading by example.”
Michael B. Farrell can be reached at email@example.com.