Google Doubles Down on Sleep Sensing

I have to admit, I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to sleep technology.

Apr 6, 2023

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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

I have to admit, I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to sleep technology. Partially because I find it interesting and like to write about it, but also because I have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea, which is an incentive to monitor and try to improve my sleep.

My most recent sleep sensors are a Google Pixel Watch, and Google’s new 2nd generation Nest Hub with sleep detection. Prior to the Pixel Watch, I wore a Fitbit Sense to bed which actually has even more sleep sensing technology than the watch because it also measures oxygen saturation and reports on atrial fibrillation (A-fib) events during sleep. Google acquired Fitbit in 2019.

In addition to the Google products, I have a Tempur-Pedic smart bed with SleepTracker-AI technology, and on rare occasions, wear an O2 Ring on my finger to record oxygen saturation during sleep.  To treat my apnea, I also use a ResMed 10 CPAP machine, which measures the number of hours of use (a rough indicator of time in bed) and my nightly Apnea Hypopnea Index (AHI) which is the number of apneas or hypopneas per hour, when you stop breathing for 10 seconds or more.

Google is also promoting its Pixel Bud earbuds’ ability to block out noises, provide you with “white noise” to help you sleep and provide “mindful meditation.” The company has also added cough and snore detection to its Pixel 7 phones. Excessive snoring can be a sign of other problems, including sleep apnea, though with all of its sleep sensing products, Google stresses that they are not intended to “diagnose, cure, mitigate, prevent, or treat any disease or condition.”
Listen to “Google wants to help you sleep” on Spreaker.
Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS News Radio segment on Google sleep sensing

Kind of like Mark Twain’s view of weather

All of this technology has given me some insight into how I sleep. It also has helped me learn a few techniques for better sleep, but for the most part, it reminds me of that quote from Mark Twain, “Everyone talks about the weather, and nobody does anything about it.” Twain also said, “Go to bed early, get up early — this is wise.” I wonder what he would have said about sleep-sensing technology?

Because sleep issues occur while you’re sleeping, there’s not much you can do about them in real time. Still, devices like the Fitbit, Google Watch and Nest Hub provide information that can encourage lifestyle changes that can lead to better sleep. For example, these devices indicate how much deep and REM sleep you get each night. And although you can’t control this while you sleep, you can, over the long haul, improve these numbers by avoiding alcohol at night, meditating before bed, getting exercise during the day and refraining from using screens an hour or two before bedtime. They also tell you what time you go to bed and when you got up, which are things you can sometimes control.

When it comes to my habits, I rarely drink alcohol, and I exercise almost every day, but I haven’t stopped looking at screens at night. If anything, all of this sleep technology, along with my awful habit of watching TV news and checking my email at night, is causing me to have more screen time and more anxiety.

Look for trends, not precision

Because I have multiple sleep tracking devices, I am able to see that they don’t always agree with one another. I raised that issue with one of Google’s sleep scientists who admitted that it’s difficult for devices and even medical-grade sleep sensors to get precise data. That’s partially because sleep scientists don’t always agree on exactly what signals to measure and exactly how to measure and interpret them.

But, he said that you can reliably use them to get general trends. It’s not about one night’s data, it’s about how you are doing over time.  The long-term trends from my various devices do point in the same direction, giving me confidence that I’m getting reasonably good summary data that indicate my sleep has improved a bit over the past year or so.

Fitbits and the Pixel Watch connect to your smartphone via the Fitbit app, which not only gives you daily reports, but,  more important, a monthly sleep analysis. A graph shows your typical sleep start time, time before sound sleep, sleep duration, deep sleep and REM sleep along with other data. From this graph, I know how I compare with other people’s “typical range” and how I’m doing compared with the “ideal range.”

The Nest Hub reports the data on its own screen and connects with the Google Fit smartphone app.  It tells you how much sleep you got, how much time you spent in bed, how long it took you to get to sleep and other data. The Nest Hub doesn’t have a camera, but it has radar-like sensors to measure motion, including respiration, and microphones to analyze sounds including snoring and coughing. It can also play soothing sounds to help you sleep, and, like other smart speakers and displays, you can ask it questions or watch video on its screen and use it to control smart home devices. When I’m ready for sleep, I just say “Hey Google, turn off the lamp.” One nice thing about both the Nest Hub and the Temper-Pedic smart bed is that you don’t have to wear anything. Some people have trouble sleeping while wearing a watch.

Too much information

While some sleep data can be useful, obsessive attention to sleep can also cause anxiety, which, ironically, can cause you to lose sleep. Dr. Scott Kutscher, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who practices as a sleep medicine doctor at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, warns that “data can lead to false assumptions or conclusions.” He added, “in sleep medicine, we have the term orthosomnia, which is poor sleep induced by a quest for perfect sleep.”

Kutscher makes a good point that I need to start heeding. Paying too much attention to sleep data can be counterproductive, but these monthly summaries are pretty useful for knowing your long-term trends. Another sleep doctor I spoke with suggested trying to correlate your day’s activities with your night’s sleep. Did you eat or drink late that night? Did you stare at a screen shortly before bed, did you exercise, have a relaxing day, etc.

My Pixel Watch, my Nest Hub and my Tempur-Pedic smart bed all agree that I got up way too early this morning, but I don’t need high-tech equipment to know that I’m a bit groggy. Fortunately, I’ve finished writing this column, so now it’s time for a nap.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

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