Gadget tracks a good night's shuteye
- — 29 April, 2008 12:10
Ironically, Lee Loree loses sleep over his invention, the Sleeptracker.
Loree, 35, gave up a career as a stockbroker in Atlanta about eight years ago to work on the device — a wristwatch and software system designed to record a person's sleep pattern.
The idea came from someone else's dream. Loree remembers staying up late one night with a penlight reading an analyst's report for his job when his wife started a lucid, friendly chat. When Loree later woke her just a few minutes later, her tone had changed.
"The other time I woke her up, she was miserable", Loree said. "It just flashed in my brain that if I can figure out a way to get people up when they naturally want to get up, getting up in the morning can be much easier."
"That has got magic written all over it", said Loree, whose one-man company is called Innovative Sleep Solutions.
Loree set off to create a device that would wake you when you're least cranky. He had no experience designing software, so he contracted with developers to build the software, as well as industrial designers to help create his idea in a watch.
"I wanted to create a business where there were no employees, where there was very little overhead, and where everything was a variable cost based upon scalability", said Loree, who administers a network of suppliers, warehouses and designers, all on contracts.
Loree hit a wall at first. Digital watches use assembly language, which is low-level programming code that few people have expertise in any more, Loree said.
With an orange-and-black band and a thickness that akin to a diver's watch, the Sleeptracker is a beefy wrist companion. In designing the watch, Loree had the same problems that face mobile phone manufacturers: space and power constraints.
The thickness is the result of a heavy load of components crammed inside, including a 3-D accelerometer, a vibrating motor, a Texas Instruments' flash memory chip from its MSP line and the usual mix of resistors and capacitors contained in any digital watch.
For the latest version of the watch, Loree said he wanted to work in a vibrating motor in order to help people wake up. But the motors used far too much power. Putting a rechargeable battery in the Sleeptracker was nearly out of the question, since it would have jacked the cost of the device from $US179 to around $400, he said.
But the problem solved itself when a manufacturer released a motor that dropped power consumption by three-quarters. The latest "Pro" version of the Sleeptracker uses a widely available 3-volt lithium ion battery, which is replaceable, Loree said.
The accelerometer records certain night-time movements. Using an algorithm, it filters out insignificant ones and notes major movements, which indicate a person is in a lighter stage of sleep, Loree said.
The alarm can then be set so that when the watch detects one of these light-sleeping moments during a certain time range, it will go off. If the watch doesn't detect a right moment, the alarm will go off at the default time. If you get up and use the bathroom — thus creating a significant movement — the watch won't record any more data points for eight minutes so as not to skew the collected sleep data, Loree said.
The watch connects to a PC through a USB cable with three fang-like metal teeth that bite into three recessed marks on the back of the watch. The accompanying software, which runs on Windows PCs but will be released within the next couple of months for Apple's OS X, uploads the person's closest-to-awake moments, which are diagrammed.
The software displays an average time between those moments, which is called "Data A". The longer the lapses between a person's almost-awake moments, the better.
The watch and software are relatively easy to use, but I nevertheless managed to screw up. I woke up on Sunday morning dishevelled and unrested, like I'd slept in the back of a donkey cart for a 30-mile ride on an unpaved road to nowhere. I must have set it up incorrectly since the watch didn't record any data.
Sunday night went better. My Data A was more than 53 minutes, meaning that those almost-awake moments were few and far between, according to the guidance in the Sleeptracker manual. The alarm went off a bit before 7 am, on the early side of the window I set, and I felt relatively good for a Monday morning. I want to collect more data, however, especially on weekdays, where I tend to have more consistent to-bed and wake-up times.
The Sleeptracker isn't classified as a medical device since that could entail complying with regulations, so Loree calls it a lifestyle improvement device. "Our customers are not buying it based on studies, they're buying it because they think it's a cool tech gadget", Loree said.
In-depth sleep studies costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, so Loree said he hasn't commissioned one. But he gives a refund within 30 days of purchase, and he says the Sleeptracker has a 5 percent return rate, which is low for retail. Last year, he sold 19,000; this year, he's already sold 15,000, on track for a record year.
So why can't Loree sleep well?
"My sleep has gotten pretty screwed up based upon this business," he said. "I do a lot of conference calls with China and the Far East with either distributors or our manufacturer, and so I end up having to go to bed at weird times, so it's not as applicable."