Insomniacs: Beware the Lure of Gadgetry

The Zeo Sleep Manager, a sleep-tracking headband capable of reading brainwaves and transmitting the data to a smartphone or beside monitor, came on the scene in 2009. But last week Zeo, Inc., creator of the Zeo Sleep Manager, went belly up.

Sleep trackers often promise more than they can deliver

Sleep trackers often promise more than they can deliverEver wish you had a picture of what’s going on inside your brain at night?

The Zeo Sleep Manager, a headband capable of reading brainwaves and transmitting the data to a smartphone or beside monitor, came on the scene in 2009 equipped to give you just such a picture and offer tips on how to improve your sleep. But last week Zeo, Inc., creator of the Zeo Sleep Manager, went belly up.

The announcement took me by surprise. Zeo had loads of satisfied customers.

“Works like a dream.” “It’s made a massive difference in my quality of life.” “Using the Zeo, I began to establish better sleeping habits, resting more soundly and getting something closer to a healthy night’s sleep.”

To Buy or Not to Buy

I came close to buying a Zeo myself. When sleep is a problem—and for me it has been over the years—it’s natural to wonder about the causes. Is it that I’m not getting any deep sleep? Just how many times am I actually waking up?

The Zeo was affordable ($99 to $149) and the bar graphs it produced were colorful (I’m a sucker for colorful bar graphs!). At a sleep conference, I picked up a handout announcing the results of a study comparing the recording of brainwaves produced by the Zeo to those produced by polysomnography—the test you undergo in a sleep lab. The data recorded by the Zeo tracked closely with the data from the polysomnograms. So why not buy one and see what it could tell me about my sleep?

For starters, I was skeptical that the Zeo would be as accurate as claimed. The study cited above had only 10 subjects—none of them with sleep complaints. The Zeo might work fine for normal sleepers. But would it work for a person with insomnia?

I looked at customer reviews and saw that the Zeo worked like a charm for people whose sleep was basically OK to begin with. Their graphs showing sleep stages looked fairly normal, and the advice provided by Zeo—lower the temperature of your bedroom, keep your sleep on a regular schedule—enabled them to tweak their sleep so that it was sounder and gave them more energy. Sort of like runners who hire coaches to help them fine-tune their stride.

Another Kind of Experience

But insomniacs and people with other sleep problems often found the Zeo wanting. Accuracy was the biggest problem.

“Although I’m a 59-year-old insomniac,” one user complained, “the machine was giving me the “Z score” [a Zeo rating of overall sleep quality] of a 20-year-old olympic athlete!”

“I’ve had two medical sleep studies done,” another user wrote, “and have been diagnosed with minor sleep apnea. I wake up several times an hour, and Zeo is only sensitive to big wake ups, like getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. But there were a couple of instances where it didn’t even capture that.”

People also criticized the coaching component of the Zeo.

“Frankly,” wrote a third user, “all the advice can be compressed into a thin, 8-page ‘sleep hygiene’ booklet, condensed from any book on insomnia.”

Postmortems are blaming this company’s failure on several things: a poor business model, failing to explain the device to consumers, charging too much for replacement headbands, and more. But surely another factor in the demise of the Zeo is that for those of us most likely to have an interest in using it, it couldn’t do what we needed it to do.

Think twice about buying devices such as Fitbit, Lark and UP (which also have sleep tracking capabilities). They may be great at recording the number of steps you’ve taken and the calories you’ve burned. But they’re less sophisticated than the Zeo at showing what could be wrong with your sleep.

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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