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Innovation Economy

On the cutting edge - in the arms of Morpheus

By Scott Kirsner
August 21, 2011

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Personal computers first found a perch in our dens. They were followed by mobile phones that nested in our pockets and tablet computers that accompanied us to the breakfast table. Now, technology wants to cuddle close and join us in bed, to help us sleep better - and perhaps preserve domestic peace.

Companies like Zeo, Nyx Devices, Lark, and WakeMate - all with links to Boston - are designing a new category of devices that I call slumbertech.

Their belief is we might soon start paying attention to a good night’s rest (and spending money to achieve it) in the same way we go to the gym or watch what we eat.

But, observes Zeo cofounder Ben Rubin, “Sleep is different from fitness or weight loss. In those businesses, there are big existing companies like Nike or Curves. In ours, there aren’t any, and we think you should be as interested in your sleep as you are in the rest of your health.’’

Zeo, based in Newton, was the pioneer. In 2009, it launched its $199 “personal sleep coach,’’ a sleek alarm-clock-size device that communicates wirelessly with a headband you wear to bed.

It monitors your brain activity, charting the time you spend in light sleep, deep sleep, and the REM (rapid eye movement) phase. And rather than rousing you precisely at 6:45, Zeo can sound the alarm five or ten minutes earlier, just as you are transitioning in or out of REM sleep, when the company says it can be easier to wake up. (Zeo won’t wake you later than your preset time.)

The data Zeo collect can also be uploaded to the company’s website, where it offers tips to improve sleep quality. (Some are pretty obvious: Coffee in the afternoon is a sleep spoiler.) Rubin says the company is working on new kinds of sensors for those who may not like wearing a headband to bed, and also on software that can help people adjust to a new time zone, or a new shift at work.

A Boston start-up called Nyx Devices is working on a wearable sleep monitor called the Somnus Sleep Shirt. The form-fitting garment monitors your breathing as you sleep, based on how much the shirt stretches. (Breathing, the founders explain, supplies good information about how well you’re sleeping.) A small “data logger’’ tucked into a pocket on the shirt can be plugged into a computer’s USB port in the morning.

Nyx has been working to raise $500,000. It doesn’t plan to sell the Somnus shirt directly to consumers, but rather to have doctors use them as a tool to diagnose sleep problems. Right now, observes Matt Bianchi, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, asking a patient to stay overnight in a sleep lab can cost $1,500. “The benefit with something like this is that you could collect data over a few weeks or months, rather than relying on the one night in the lab that insurance companies will cover,’’ says Bianchi, who is also an adviser to Nyx.

Julia Hu left the MBA program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management last year to focus full-time on California-based Lark, which began selling its $129 product in June. Worn around the wrist, Lark communicates wirelessly with a nearby iPhone programmed with your desired wake-up time. When that time arrives, Lark wakes you up with quiet vibrations.

“We designed it for anyone who has felt that relationship tension in the morning, when a loud alarm clock goes off because one person needs to get up, but the other one wants that extra half-hour of sleep,’’ says Hu, Lark’s chief executive. But if Lark senses that you’re still snoozing after a few minutes, you can have an audible alarm sound on your phone.

Lark also tracks movement throughout the night - a measurement called actigraphy. That data is uploaded to the company’s Web site and analyzed. “We can explain why you wake up so many times in the night, or how long it takes you to fall asleep,’’ says Hu. Lark has raised $1 million.

WakeMate offers a similar phone-and-wristband system, but for $59. Unlike Lark, it works with Android and BlackBerry phones. But WakeMate’s wristband doesn’t vibrate - the alarm sounds on the phone (which can, of course, be left in vibrate mode). WakeMate’s co-founder and president, Greg Nemeth, left Boston College in 2009 to focus on the company.

Slumbertech isn’t yet as reliable as a bedside alarm clock, and not everyone likes wrapping something around their wrist or noggin before they retire. Cambridge entrepreneur Jeremy Levine bought a WakeMate earlier this summer. “I love the concept, but out of the five days I’ve worn it, the alarm went off once,’’ he says. “Sometimes the app crashes, and sometimes it just doesn’t go off.’’

Anna Chrisman of Carlsbad, Calif., said she tried to use Zeo, but the headband kept her from falling asleep. “That sort of defeated the purpose,’’ she says.

But Mike Hendrickson of Andover says Zeo helped him understand what kind of exercise helps him sleep better at night, and also how drinking wine erodes his sleep quality.

In the past, when Americans have spent money to improve their sleep, it has mainly gone to mattress companies, or perhaps the makers of white-noise machines and humidifiers. The hope in the emerging slumbertech business is that they’ll be able to get a slice of that pie, or persuade the sleepless to spend even more.

“We think we’re creating a product that’s not just for data geeks,’’ says Hu, the Lark chief executive, “but for anyone who wants to get an extra edge through better sleep.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.