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Humans and technology

Sleep Sensor Hides Beneath the Mattress

The device tracks heart rate, breathing, and movement without requiring the user to wear anything.
November 9, 2011

Gadgets and apps that track a user’s sleep are growing in popularity, but they typically require a person to wear a headband or bracelet. Now a startup called Bam Labs is offering a sensor pad that can track heart rate, breathing, and movement to track sleep and other health measures from underneath the mattress.

Sleep surveillance: This thin pad can detect a sleeper’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement from beneath a mattress.

“Using it is as easy as going to bed, and all your data is made available through our Web services and apps,” says Richard Rifredi, president of Bam Labs, based in Los Gatos, California.

The company’s sensor takes the form of a thin, self-inflating mattress pad, like those popular with backpackers. A sensor at one corner of the pad tracks air-pressure fluctuations caused by the tiny tremors caused by heartbeats or the more sizable shaking that occurs when someone turns over or gets out of bed. That data is transmitted by wireless to a box connected to the Internet, which in turn relays the data to cloud servers, where it is interpreted as heartbeats, breaths, and other movements. Processed data can be viewed using mobile apps for iOS devices or via an online dashboard, both of which show trends over time and calculate measures like quality and duration of sleep.

The company recently began offering a version of the product called Touch-free Life Care, or TLC, to senior-care homes, after several months of trials in such facilities. “In 2012, you’ll see us also migrate to more acute-care situations and also to home users,” says Rifredi.

Early customers in the United States and Japan include nursing homes, who can use it for elderly people at risk of falling or getting lost in the night. Should a person get out of bed in the night, an on-duty staff member is notified via a mobile app. “It preserves privacy, because residents don’t have staff constantly checking on them,” says Rifredi. The website dashboard provides more detailed access to data. A nursing home in Los Gatos is using data from TLC devices to track the quality of its residents’ sleep to help staff identify those who may need medical attention.

Rifredi expects future versions of the device to be useful for managing chronic health conditions. “If someone gets a mat and establishes a baseline of when they are healthy, a home user or a caregiver should be able to see changes early and proactively tackle health problems,” he says.

Sleep-tracking gadgets can help people discover and address needs not served by doctors, says Jo Sollet, a faculty member and researcher in Harvard Medical School’s sleep medicine division and an advisor to Lark, a company that makes a sleep-tracking wristband sold in Apple stores. “Our ordinary health-care system isn’t aware of our sleep needs. These devices allow people to collect information that can help them improve sleep and also educate their doctors.”

The fact that Bam Labs’s device can detect sleep apnea—a temporary cessation in breathing—is one good example, says Sollet. “Apnea is extremely hard to detect because the symptoms reported to the doctor are nonspecific, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and fatigue,” she says.

However, Sollet notes, sleeping with a partner or sharing a bed with pets or children could confuse the sensor.

If the technology appears in more medical settings, such as hospitals, Sollet says, the staff will likely appreciate its being safely hidden away under the mattress. Conventional sensors in hospitals that attach to a patient often become dislodged by medical staff, or by a patient’s movement, leading to false readings and false alarms, she explains. Most alarms—over 80 percent—from sensors in a typical intensive care unit are false alarms, says Sollet.

The Bam Labs design could also allow sophisticated monitoring of sleep and vital signs in natural settings that are currently off limits to medical staff—for example, after a person returns home from the hospital, Sollet says. “What’s nice is that it’s unobtrusive, and doesn’t medicalize a person. They can just sleep as normal, but still be monitored closely,” she says.

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