Tested: Bedside Brainwave Scanner Grades Your Ability to Sleep

What's it like sleeping with a new device that scores your slumber quality, minute by minute, night by night?

Zeo Headband

courtesy Zeo

I'm still waiting for the technology that finally does away with my need to sleep. But since I do need my nightly dose (I've tried going without, and it's ugly), I'd like to make sure I'm doing it as efficiently as possible. A new device called the Zeo promises to help stamp out bad sleep and wasted time in bed, by bringing deep analysis of sleep patterns, formerly the province of professional sleep laboratories, into the home.

The Zeo comes in two parts: a bedside unit that looks like an alarm clock, with a handsome blue-on-black vacuum-fluorescent display; and a headband with a fairly low-profile black box mounted on its front. Strap on the headband before bed, and as you sleep, it wirelessly transmits data about your brainwaves to the bedside unit. In the morning, the Zeo gives you a "ZQ" rating -- a score for your night's sleep ranging from 0 to 120. The concept is simple, but having a quantitative measure of sleep quality that you can keep an eye on over a period of time is a boon to those who want to keep an eye on their nights; one of the traditional problems with sleep, of course, is that you're not conscious to observe it firsthand.

Zeo

courtesy Zeo

In sleep laboratories, a technician wires your head with a couple of dozen sensors to create a polysomnogram (PSG), graphing not only brain-wave activity but also eye movements, heart rhythm, and muscle activation. Since this level of detail is not particularly realistic for a consumer device, the Zeo makes use of a clever shortcut. It scans just brainwaves, but analyzes them with a painstakingly devised neural-net algorithm. In a study in which 10 sleepers wore a Zeo headband as well as a full set of polysomnography sensors, the Zeo's results were substantively comparable to the results of the PSG as read by two separate trained technicians. For instance, in monitoring the 10 sleepers, one human technician scored the group's average number of minutes of REM sleep at 62.4; the other put it at 56.6; and the Zeo's algorithm came up with 59.9 minutes. The Zeo isn't nearly as nuanced as a polysomnogram, but it seems able to fake it pretty well for home-use purposes.

During the night, the Zeo's display shows a real-time graph of your sleep, showing phases of wakefulness, light sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep, and "signal could not be acquired" (this is when the headband fell off). There's something fascinating, and oddly reassuring, about waking up and seeing a nice chart of what you've been doing for the last few hours while you've been knocked out.

Zeo Display

The W|R|L|D graph at the bottom plots periods of waking, REM, light sleep, and deep sleep throughout the night, from midnight till the alarm sounded around 7:00.courtesy Zeo

The Zeo includes a regular alarm clock function, albeit with a rather annoying choice of wake-tones to choose from; and also what it calls SmartWake mode. In this mode, it keeps an eye on your sleep cycles and wakes you at some point within half an hour or so prior to your set alarm time, when it thinks your brain is most amenable to being woken. This may be just the thing for some people, but I'm not a fan. Like the Sleeptracker watch, which I've also tested and set aside, it seems to consistently want to wake me as early as possible: if I set my target time for 8 am, with a 45-minute window, the buzzer sounds at 7:15 every morning. I'm sure it's just me.

All the data can be uploaded to myzeo.com, where a fairly attractive online software package allows you to track and chart all the fascinating details of your sleep. You can plot graphs correlating quality of sleep against day of the week or bedtime; and, if you fill in the optional sleep-journal data, against factors like alcohol consumption and how tired you felt in the morning. Strapping sensors to your head, letting them scan your brain every night, and uploading the data to the web won't appeal to the mind-control paranoiacs among us, of course.

For those who want it, the web site takes the hand-holding even further, with a 7-step personalized "sleep fitness" coaching program that makes specific prescriptions about areas you need to work on in your pursuit of better sleep. (The purchase of the $399 device includes six months of access to the coaching site; if you still need more, $99 buys an additional six months.) As for me, I'm content with the small glow (a glow of pride, I'm sure, not just of well-restedness) that I feel when the machine tells me I scored a 114 last night.

114! Beat that.

MyZeo.com