Best Sleep Tracker: How a Week on Eight's Sensors Taught Me to Use My Data
The pros and cons of sleeping smarter.
Eight’s an app, obviously, that’s connected to an array of sensors that line its companion mattress topper, the Sleep Tracker by Eight. It collects a surprising amount of data, from when I get in bed to how long I sleep to how my body temperature changes over the course of the night.
I first became interested trying out a health tracker after talking to Chris Dancy, a self-proclaimed cyborg and the author of Don’t Unplug: How Technology Saved My Life and Can Save Yours Too. Dancy takes the trend to the extreme by using an array of 700 sensors and smart devices to track everything he does. These insights, he says, changed his life.
“Focus on downloading habits, not apps,” Dancy told me back in September. “That will make [your] life more meaningful.”
As someone with all the bad habits, from being stuck to my phone to too many weeknights out, the comment stuck out to me. But I was also credulous. Nobody has time (or money) for 700 smart devices and sensors. Isn’t all of this data a little bit of overkill? To test myself, and my skepticism, I spent seven days tracking my sleep.
- Product: The Sleep Tracker by Eight Price: $399 Perfect for: Smart home early adopters who want to bring sleep insights into the mix without buying a new mattress.
Sunday: Making My Dumb Mattress Smart
To start tracking your sleep, you basically put a sensor-filled mattress topper in between the top of your bed and the sheets. The pad plugs into its ‘hub’ which you then pair with your home wifi. The mattress topper itself doesn’t really feel like it’s got sensors in it (a spokeswoman clarified to Inverse that this is because Eight only places one small sensor, right around your chest, make it as discrete as possible). The only hiccup is that pairing to your wifi might take a few tries.
Since we didn’t really have any data to work off yet, I started by week by giving the App’s seven-part guided meditation regimen a try.
“As you take your next inhalation, begin to gently slow down your breath,” the app’s coach, voiced by yoga instructor and life coach Anne Douglas, gently instructed. “Feel each inhalation expanding the belly.” Though each segment is around five minutes, we still occasionally fell asleep before they were over.
Monday: Sleeping on Sensors
Once you sync your device, it’ll start collecting your sleep stats automatically. Pretty much the only other step is inputing your partner’s email address so that Eight can send them a code to enable them to start tracking their own sleeping patterns (Eight does not make your sleeping stats available to one another without your permission, a design feature I found particularly tactful).
The app has a lot of features, more than I was able to try (the smart coffee maker integration, for example, allows you to start brewing coffee automatically the moment you wake up, and is probably the coolest). Otherwise everything the app offers, from soothing noises to climate control are pretty intuitive with the exception of its “smart alarm,” a feature that tries wake you up when you’re sleeping lightly (no more than a half hour or so before your actual alarm.) It wasn’t exactly a game-changer for me, since I usually wake up before my alarm anyway, but the warming feature was awesome, particularly on sore muscles.
Wednesday: First Impressions
By the middle of the week, the stats were rolling in. Eight gives you a sleep score between zero and 100 based on a number of different factors, from tosses and turns to how long it takes you to get out of bed. My first sleep score left plenty of room for improvement, a 64, not even a passing grade. When I turned to my coach, it suggested to cut down on alcoholic drinks and food so close to my bedtime. That night, however, was an Inverse party at a bar slash arcade. I quietly hope it won’t be too disappointed in me.
Friday: Patterns Emerge
One of the first things I learned about sleep tracking (or any matter of personal data tracking) is that you do need a fair bit of data in order to start getting anything useful out of it. At first, 64 was pretty much an abstract number. But the more nights I spent on top of Eight, the more the app was able to tell me and I started to notice more useful things.
For one, I very clearly tend to sleep better as the week goes on. My highest sleep score was on Thursday, when I broke into the eighties, even though I still slept about the same number of hours as any other night. I think a trio of factors is at play here, from the dinner I had that night (uncharacteristically healthy, steamed fish and greens), to the mile walk I took around 9 p.m. (dinner with the family, who live almost within walking distance.) I was also probably less stressed, because of what I now call the “hell yeah, tomorrow’s Friday” effect.
Sunday: The Final Verdict
When I first started experimenting with data tracking and behavior modification, I wondered whether this was all a solution in search of a problem. Which is to say, people are producing all this data, and brands want to use that data to sell us things — but shouldn’t we, the user, get something out of all this data collection too?
A 2016 paper in Big Data tried to address this problem, and essentially found that while the tools to track and aggregate our health data were already there, the artificial intelligence needed to actually analyze it and make recommendations was not. Eight was able to make some helpful recommendations, mainly by encouraging me to try and meditate before bed, but the more powerful insights will probably require you to retrace your steps a little bit.
How, for example, can I make every sleep night more like that magical Thursday? The data, and my experiences, suggests that to optimize my weekly schedule, I should make drinks and dinner appointments later in the week, and prioritize extra time for exercise in the beginning of the week.
But the more powerful benefits of sleep tracking may not even be the insights or the data or the guided meditation, it might have more to do with the nudges. Behavioral economics tells us that even when we know we should be doing something, like drinking less at the office party or saving more money, reminders are still helpful, and increase the likelihood of follow-through. They “nudge” us to be better. Eight’s tools were a powerful nudge toward trying to establish better sleep habits, enough so that I’ve decided to leave them on.