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Sleepless In America: Zeo's Got Bedroom Eyes

Technology's pervasiveness doesn't stop at the bedroom. The Zeo Personal Sleep Coach combines wireless, the Web, and an intelligent design to bring sleep data and therapy to the masses.
Zeo Sleep Coaching

Nothing in life is free. Zeo costs about $200 and is available at Brookstone or on the company's Web site. But you can't just strap on the headband and sleep your problems away. There's some work to do.

My first week using Zeo was spent just understanding my normal sleep patterns. I wore the headband and uploaded my data, looking at my scores and how they varied each day and the resulting averages. The Zeo comes with a helpful cardboard wheel that lets you look at your score for your age bracket.

Each day I filled in a sleep journal, which asked questions about alcohol consumption (how much and when), caffeine intake after 3 p.m., food consumption near sleep time, and whether I exerted either physical activity or stressful thinking within an hour of sleep. It asked about environmental disruptions, like kids waking up during the night, outside noise, inconsistent temperature, and so on. It asked how I felt about my sleep, and whether later in the day I found myself lacking focus or feeling sleepy. Each day I received an e-mail with tips -- mostly warning about the things that rob people of sleep.

The journal and the tips go pretty much hand in hand. Even in the first week, I experimented by reducing all of the sleep stealers and found that my scores increased tremendously. While it's easy to think that the more time you sleep, the better your score (and it's true, as I learned by sleeping more than nine hours one weekend day), most people sleep that long only when their bodies and minds really need it. Instead, waking up less frequently, falling asleep right away, and getting the proper amount of each sleep phase are the conditions of a good night's sleep. Dr. Wright says that a consistent sleep pattern is best -- not a few good nights of sleep to offset a few bad ones.

In the second week, you can choose several nights from your recorded data and submit them for "coaching." Some of this coaching involves teaching you how to physically and mentally relax. For example, one method introduces an MP3 file which, when listened to in bed, provides a calming effect and eliminates stray (and stressful) thoughts.

When I avoided the sleep stealers, my scores went up. On my best sleeping days, I was far more creative and energetic and focused than I was on days my scores were low (and consequently my sleep stealers were high). Other coaching techniques include light yoga, stretching, training your body to get sleepy, help in setting a consistent bedtime, ideas for drinking caffeine strategically, and how to deal with a snoring bed partner.

Zeo's Donahue cited plenty of other testimonials, like a woman in her late 60s in Montana who raised her ZQ score from 48 to 75. Getting a ZQ score in the 70s is good for most ages, but especially for someone in her 60s. Sleep time, and especially deep sleep, drops drastically as people get older. This woman not only changed her habits, but started doing light yoga to eliminate stress at bedtime. By the way, Donahue said exercise can decrease stress, but generally not when it's done within an hour of going to sleep.

Jet lag is another complicated issue. Body biology adapts to the sun (this is the circadian rhythm) and resets each day. Jet lag disrupts this rhythm. There are techniques for managing it, Rubin said, mostly by adjusting your sleep cycle gradually before you change time zones. Start by moving your bed time back a half hour each successive night. Using something like a blue light or a cold spectrum light for 20 minutes each morning can help when traveling East, and the same technique can help in the afternoon when traveling West. Bright light therapy helps adjust your circadium clock. You can also take an herbal form of melatonin before bedtime; melatonin makes you drowsy, and the light prevents its creation.

Rubin and Donahue have spent a great deal of their young lives devoted to this mission. While they won't talk numbers, Zeo's gaining credence with sports franchises trying to get an edge, for instance. The company has a following on Twitter (@Zeo) and Facebook, where people often share their data. There's an iPhone app, so you can look at your sleep data on a mobile platform (not that you couldn't just go to your MyZeo on the Web). And Zeo says it's even working with Polyphasic sleepers (those who minimize sleep by only taking naps).

My only real beefs: The headband falls off at times -- one night I slept more than eight hours and felt great, but the headband fell off twice, making my total ZQ score a pathetic 31. You can adjust and tighten the headband, but sometimes there's just no remedy -- perhaps an audible alarm to let you know (say, if it's ceased getting brainwaves), but then that too might simply interrupt good sleep. Also, since the device is wireless, why does it need a memory card -- I'd like to be able to just zip that data from the headband straight to MyZeo. Today, it doesn't support WiFi standards, and the company says it's working on making this happen. Also, since I travel constantly, I'd love for the unit to be a bit more portable. I have traveled with my clock, but a travel edition, maybe with a few less bells and whistles, would be much better for the road.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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