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Health and wellness

Insomnia aids at IFA 2018: ‘breathing’ robots that put you to sleep, eye massagers, brain-hacking headbands

From a cat-sized robot that’s warm, breathes and plays music, to headbands that help you meditate and play tones, ‘sleep tech’ is a growing field

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2018, 12:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 9:47am

Staring at screens all night is affecting the sleep of many. But what if technology actually helped you get some shut-eye? This week’s IFA 2018 exhibition in Berlin, Germany, saw a slew of technological sleep aids to give insomniacs hope, from eye masks and earphones to “sleep robots”.

Yes, the most unexpected sleep device in Berlin was Somnox, a clunky name for what is a delightfully charming “baby robot” that is designed to help sufferers of insomnia get some rest.

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“It helps you get to sleep faster and sleep for longer,” said Julian Jagtenberg, founder of Dutch company Somnox, and a robotics engineer, as he handed over a bean-shaped, cat-sized device.

It’s warm, it’s soft, and it emits dreamy ambient sounds. It’s also breathing. As I hold Somnox to my chest, my fingers naturally rest on the robot’s “lungs”. It's their gentle rise and fall, as the robot mimics soft breathing, that is central to what this sleep robot is trying to do.

“You feel the physical sensation of the falling and rising of the breath, it’s very slow-paced, and it also starts synchronising to your breathing rhythm. It then gradually slows down to a meditative state almost like a Buddhist monk,” explains Jagtenberg, whose T-shirt declares “I Go To Bed With A Robot”.

You feel the physical sensation of the falling and rising of the breath, it’s very slow-paced, and it also starts synchronising to your breathing
Julian Jagtenberg, the designer of the Somnox robot

The accompanying app has lots of pre-recorded sounds within (including a cat’s purr), but it can just as easily play you an audiobook or any music of your choice.

Somnox, which comes with a “birth certificate”, is designed for suffers of stress-related insomnia. “I saw my mum trying to cope with insomnia using chemicals, so I decided to design her a robot to help her instead of chemicals,” Jagtenburg said.

However, do not think that Somnox will stay with you all night. After playing you soft sounds, the robot senses when you’ve gone to sleep, and switches off. It will sell in October for around US$580 (HK$4,555).

Taking a more neuroscientific approach to sleep at IFA 2018 were two “brain hacking headbands”, Philips SmartSleep and Dreem.

A soft-to-touch, though still rather alarmingly shaped headband, SmartSleep is all about improving deep-sleep quality. Since many people do not – and will never – sleep as long as they should, the creators ask, why not just try and make them sleep deeper?

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It has a couple of detectors inside that identify the wearer’s different sleep stages. When it detects deep sleep – also known as “slow” or delta wave sleep – it plays tones that increase the amplitude of those brainwaves.

However, since the battery is on the front, those who sleep on their front might struggle with SmartSleep. It is on sale now in medium and large sizes for US$399.

Another headband that monitors and analyses the brain during sleep is Dreem. Again, this uses audio tones to not only to get a deeper sleep, but enable the wearer to fall asleep faster. It does the latter by offering ambient sounds, breathing exercises and guided meditation.

Once you’re into deep sleep it also sends audio tones into your brain, but using bone conduction technology – literally sending vibrations into the jaw, inner ear, and brain. It sells for US$500.

If lack of sleep can at least be partly attributed to spending too much time in front of a computer screen, two companies at IFA 2018 provided some respite. Shenzhen-based Sleepace presented its Graphene Heating Eye Mask (price to be announced), which uses the conductive graphene material to heat up in just a few seconds to relax the muscles around tired eyes.

A stranger, but very enjoyable experience comes from Aurai, whose water-propelled eye massager, which costs US$239, has a silicone eye mask embedded inside. It gives the wearer six-minute “eye baths”, first with cold water to relieve ocular pressure, then warm to relax muscles around the eyes.

For many with young children, the reason for their lack of sleep is all too obvious. Cue NanIt, priced at US$279, a smart baby monitor and “sleep guru” that measure a baby’s sleeping habits and calculates its sleep patterns.

From a bird’s-eye camera positioned above a cot, each morning the NanIt app presents a sleep score, telling parents how long their baby slept for, and what the temperature and humidity were.

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Perhaps the simplest pro-sleep gadget at IFA 2018 was the QuietOn Sleep, on pre-order for US$159. This is a pair of “true wireless” earbuds designed for people with partners who snore loudly. They’re tiny enough to wear to bed and use noise-cancelling tech to create a digital silence.

Technology may be the reason many a lot of us lack sleep, but it could be the cure, too.