Sleep trackers dig for better data

Some companies are now monitoring breathing patterns and blood oxygen

How did you sleep last night? What about your sleep over the last week, month, year? The quality of our sleep can have a huge impact on health, with inadequate or poor quality slumber being linked not just to the obvious feeling of being under par but also to increased risk of chronic conditions including heart disease and diabetes.

Sleep quality is a serious issue, according to Michael Wren, senior director of technology and operations at ResMed Sensor Technologies in Clonskeagh, Dublin, a subsidiary of multinational medical device company ResMed.

“Everyone has a good idea about their diet and exercise, and you can measure and modify those,” he says. “But people know very little about their sleep.”

Traditionally the gold standard for measuring sleep quality has been to monitor people in a sleep lab, including the electrical activity in their brains, but this puts the person in unfamiliar surroundings, says Wren. “The best way of measuring someone’s objective sleep is in their natural environment.”


Enter a plethora of smartphone and wearable apps that track your movement as you sleep and deliver a report on sleep duration and cycles when you wake up.

But Wren is not entirely convinced: “The technology out there is not always the best, and with data it is a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.”

Every breath you take

ResMed has developed non-contact technology for consumers called S+ to hone in on sleep by monitoring the breath of the sleeper remotely. The device sits in the room and registers upper body movement as well as aspects of the environment, such as light levels and temperature.

The underlying low-power radio-frequency technology was initially developed at University College Dublin’s school of electrical and electronic engineering and spun-out into a company called BiancaMed (Wren was one of its first employees), which was acquired by ResMed in 2011.

“The S+ was developed completely out of Dublin and the whole product and user experience was our first play in developing a consumer product,” says Wren.

“The idea is that every breath you take is sent to the cloud and, over time, the technology can grow a picture based on the data about the person’s sleep, environment, activity and stress. These all build into an artificial intelligence algorithm in the cloud and the user gets a personalised train of feedback.”

ResMed wants to increase the awareness of sleep issues, according to Wren, and in the US the company recently teamed up with surgeon and television host Dr Mehmet Oz to target the consumer sleep market, running a survey called America's Sleep Score.

Dr Oz may be on board with consumers gathering data about their sleep, but what about the rest of the medical community, who may be presented with sleep data by patients who have been tracking themselves? “They are getting more used to it, but they are playing catch up,” says Wren. “We see it as part of our mission to help people understand more.”

Wearable sensor

Cork-based company PMD Solutions also plans to target the consumer market with its Sleep 3z technology. Unlike ResMed’s non-contact S+, the sleeper wears a Sleep 3z sensor on the torso, enabling it to measure breathing and pick up abnormal breathing patterns.

The company recently CE marked its medical-grade population sleep screener, which helps GPs and sleep consultants to triage patients so the most severe cases can be treated as soon as possible, explains PMD chief executive Myles Murray. "This has enormous quality-of-life benefits for the individual while having substantial cost savings for the healthcare system," he says.

PMD’s consumer-focused derivative, Sleep 3z, does not diagnose problems, but offers a deep dive on breathing patterns by tracking the movement of the chest wall and gut. “It’s comfortable to wear and it is wireless,” says Murray. “By measuring the movement we can tell you the quality of your sleep through the night. We want to help individuals become more insightful about their sleep.”

And Murray notes that the quality of that sleep may be off for many. “Forty per cent of the population has a sleep disorder, and 94 per cent of sleep sufferers are not diagnosed,” he says. “Sleep 3z is targeting the 94 per cent of the people who suffer from sleep disorders that remain undiagnosed.”

Fitbit awakens to sleep

PMD plans to launch Sleep 3z later this year, and wearables giant Fitbit has its sights on more reliable sleep tracking for consumers too. "Sleep tracking has become a lot more mainstream," says Dr Conor Heneghan, director of research algorithms at Fitbit in California.

Heneghan, who was a co-founder of BiancaMed, joined Fitbit two years ago and he is working on technology to enhance sleep monitoring for the wearable devices.

“We can pick up the heart-rate signal from the wrist and movement from accelerometer, and there are additional sensors to estimate oxygen levels in blood,” he explains of the technology, which is still at research and development stage. “We want to get insights based on the pattern of sleep and activity and I think this is a real growth area, to figure out the link between sleep and rest of life.”