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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 Personal Sleep Coach
(click image for larger view)
Zeo Personal Sleep Coach
The Zeo Personal Sleep Coach is starting to change one third of my life, and that's heavily influencing the rest. What's best: All I have to do is sleep. But that last part can be challenging.

The world is filled with distractions and temptations and even sleep disorders, each conspiring like ghastly nightmares to interrupt or steal that precious life necessity. The health repercussions are dangerous. That's why the best thing about Zeo isn't its ability to measure brain activity in a consumer-friendly device, but the software and coaching that can help its diligent users achieve sleep fitness.

How Zeo Works

The product's simplicity masks its achievement. While it looks like the everyday alarm clock (this is actually the Zeo Bedside Display), Zeo includes a headband with a round Electronics Module placed in the middle of your forehead when you sleep -- it's sort of "miner chic." It measures brain activity and knows when you're in the three different phases of sleep (deep, light, and REM). The headband connects wirelessly with the alarm clock using a proprietary 2.4-GHz technology. If you've set it for, say, 6 a.m., it will detect a nearby time (within a defined parameter) when you're in light sleep and wake you up then -- thus ensuring that precious REM or deep sleep aren't disturbed.

The Zeo headband gets docked (and re-charged) on the alarm clock, and your scores are fed to a memory card. The clock also displays some of your crucial sleep data, including your overall score (called your sleep score, or your "ZQ Score"). You can extract the memory card, put it into a special USB device, and upload the data onto your personal Zeo site (MyZeo), where trends are kept and tracked. The site also includes a personal sleep journal which prompts you for information about your day leading up to sleep, and the day after. More on this in a moment.

Most consumer devices like this simply detect actigraphy, or body activity, including movement and temperature. While those devices can signal sleep phases, they simply aren't as accurate as measuring what's going on in your brain, which is the source of sleep, according to Zeo and other experts we talked with. Brain activity is typically measured only in a lab using a Polysomniograph (PSG), which measures brainwave frequencies (low-frequency delta waves of 0.5 to 4 Hz are present during deep sleep, for example, while during REM sleep there's a decrease in muscle tone (essentially paralysis) and eye movement, both of which Zeo detects. (Sleep spindles occur in light sleep in 11- to 14-Hz bursts.)

For a fun video demonstration, watch this video. However, note that in the video, a sleep doctor at USC's Keck school of medicine incorrectly identifies what Zeo is measuring. A correction is provided in this video.

The ability to get this device into the home became a mission for co-founders Ben Rubin and Jason Donahue while they were sleep-deprived undergraduates at Brown University in 2003. In class, they heard about a U.S. Air Force study in which fighter pilots slept in cockpits, were woken with an alarm, and asked to take off immediately. In the study, the pilots made crucial errors in judgment, the outcome of being woken during the wrong sleep phase.

Rubin and Donahue kept testing, with the primary goal of being woken during the right phase (they called it a smart wake function). They tried carbon fiber and pennies on the forehead but ultimately found that a silver-coated fabric used to dress wounds in the military provided the best results -- silver is especially conductive and "not sensitive to the skin, flexible, and comfortable," Rubin said.

The brainwaves they picked up were real, but "messier than medical grade," Rubin said, so they built an algorithm to train Zeo to act like a PSG. They attached both the Zeo and a PSG during sleep, and the system scored the input from both systems. The algorithm told the Zeo the right answer and mapped that answer to the Zeo's messy signal.

Since finalizing the technology, Rubin and Donahue have had Zeo validated in clinical settings. The complete product (alarm clock, smart wake, sleep coaching) was launched in June 2009, thanks to a couple of rounds of financing, some driven by winning a Brown business plan competition and using the Brown network. Venture funding in 2007 ($5 million from iD Ventures America) produced the financial capital to develop the actual system; Rubin and Donahue received a second round (f$8 million) from Trident Capital in 2008.

Dr. Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep & Chronobiology Lab at the University of Colorado, said that in his own validation testing, the Zeo provided a "good estimate" when compared to a full sleep study with sensors attached to the scalp, face, torso, and chest (to measure respiration). Disclosure: Dr. Wright is now on the board of Zeo.

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