Is This the Device That Saves Your Marriage?

CES 2012

We got an opportunity to sit down with Julia Hu and Marcus Wilson of Lark at CES, with a hands-on presentation about their personal sleep coaching system born from Julia's own bout with unrestful sleep, a common result while sharing a bed with a loud snorer. Could Lark be the difference between sharing a bed restfully and suffering?

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Asked what Lark is and CEO and founder, Julia Hu, simply described the device as a system "that helps people, especially couples, sleep better." The idea for Lark was conceived from Julia's own personal struggle with managing and living with her own fiance's sleeping habits. Dealing with the repetitive interruptions of a habitual snoozer, Julia, who previously slept well her whole life, made some alarming discoveries.

"When I didn't get sleep, I started getting much more irritable, started gaining weight, wasn't as creative, and that really got to me," she shared as the impetus for starting Lark.

The Lark Sleep Monitor system aims to solve these dilemmas by introducing a "silent way to wake up using light, dynamic, vibrations to nudge you awake." The folks at Lark claim that this new method of awakening allows you to "wake up more refreshed and snooze 80% less." But best of all, the silent alarm allows people of different sleep schedules to arise brightly and with minimal disturbance to their partner.

I got an opportunity to demo the Lark system, albeit during the busy waking hours of a crowded CES show. The Lark team outfitted me with one of the bands, a watch dial size puck with velcro strap. Comfortable and unassuming, I didn't notice any immediate issues with the idea of falling asleep wearing something relatively unobtrusive. While discussing some of the technology and research behind the system, they set an alarm to demonstrate the wake-up feature (and possibly to cap the time I had to talk to them, maybe?).

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The Lark is designed to be more than a silent alarm clock, a personal sleep monitor and sleep coach optimizing sleep as a means to optimize health and physical performance.

"It's really amazing how much top athletes sleep," Marcus adds. "There's a quote from Michael Phelps that the only thing he does is eat, swim, and sleep. And he's sleeping around 10 hours per day!"

The system was also partially inspired by athletic trainer, Cheri Mah, who developed "a $3000 monitor" to create a [sleep] baseline, and then optimize their sleeping habits in relation to their training requirements. The goal was simple: take the $3000 technology and convert it into a consumer grade $99 watchband monitor and a free smartphone app (iPhone or iPad only for now) we had on our wrist.

Lark establishes the baseline with an initial 7-day assessment. The system looks at sleep patterns and determines if you are one of twelve different sleep types. Once determined what type of sleeper you are, the Lark system can help you sleep better in the easiest way possible.

How does Lark determine what sleep pattern and sleep type you are?
Julia: Actigraphy (the monitoring human rest/activity cycles). The wristband has an actigraphy sensor that senses tiny micro motions. [It takes] 3000 datapoints per minute, and the phone does the data analysis. Actigraphy has been used in sleep science for the last 15 years [and] correlates different types of motion to your sleep pattern.

Can it tell you what time you actually fell asleep vs. the time you went to bed
Julia: Yes. You set your alarm and the moment you wake up you get to see your sleep. The system puts it on a summary on the phone for view.

Julia's showed us the Lark app on her iPhone, using one of her sleep days as an example. A bold, bright summary displays the time she spent asleep and how long it took her to fall asleep.

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The particular night she shares reveals she woke up 14 times, a surprising, but not rare amount for normal people. Marcus added, "It's amazing how many times you wake up without realizing it. When I started [the Lark system] I averaged about 16 wake ups, but if you asked me I would have guessed only a few times a night. I've been able to bring that down from awareness and tips that come from [Lark]."

Wake-ups are defined factoring the maximum amount of movements made without actually waking up. Moving around to get comfortable during sleep also qualify, as these positions changes can disrupt sleep also. Lark adds up all these movements made often unknowingly, then subtracts time spent from the total time in bed to quantify your total time asleep.

Does Lark suggest what time of day you should fall asleep?
Julia: Yes. [After the 7-day assessment] we look at your biological clock — when you should be sleeping and when you should be waking up. The training [the system offers] helps you shift your body clock to make it easier to wake up in the morning. The coach may suggest you go to bed an hour earlier with targets. [For instance,] I got a ping [on the iPhone] which at the beginning was 1am, and then it moved me back after a week. Then the next week it moved be back a little bit more. And so on and so on.

So you're slowly getting eased into a new, healthier sleep schedule?
Marcus: Exactly. Lark asks you how you feel when you wake up in the morning.

A moment later we glanced at the iPhone app where Lark queries users how well they slept upon waking. Tags for "woken by someone", "caffeine", "TV/computer before bed", "sick", etc. give users an array of factors to input.

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Julia: Then you can start looking at what effects you most. I now know when I'm sick I sleep an hour and a half less than when I'm normal. For some people, alcohol or caffeine doesn't effect them as much. So seeing what in your life actually impacts your sleeping and having that awareness helps.

When the alarm finally goes off, a gentle buzz emits from the writs unit, a light vibration, almost like the feeling of those handheld massagers from Sharper Image. Marcus explains the alarm helps create a consistent wake-up pattern in all their tests. And of course, there's an option to turn off the alarm or snooze, like your regular alarm clock.

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Once deactivated through the app, the sleep data from the wrist sensor is transferred to the iPhone. You can then see this sleep data on the phone or the web dashboard. The dashboard is very thorough — letting you know how your sleep ranks amongst the population, what sleep type you are, your biological clock, etc.

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Lark also provides detailed explanations behind the terms displayed, alongside a wealth of information gathered from the training programs of Cheri Mah, the research from Dr. Solet [one of the top sleep experts and faculty at Harvard], and consumer behavior studies results from Lily Cheng [Stanford].

Marcus: Lark takes all this knowledge and and brings it basically to your wrist. It's amazing the role that sleep plays in everything from your overall health and wellness. If you sleep less than 6 hours 45 minutes you're 30% more likely to be obese. So think about that from a dietary perspective. All the dietary programs out there try to be easy, 'take this pill' or 'do this one thing' and you'll lose weight. There's nothing easier than sleeping!

These are the things we're working to get out to the world, and how Lark can help you improve your life. Whether its helping with weight loss, helping to be more creative at work, helping to be more attentive, its something that is just fundamental to everbody"

And since sleep is such a large part of our day, we might as well maximize the time.
Julia: Exactly. I had no idea what sleep meant, how important it was. My fiance would say "I can power through. I'm just as good with 5 hours as I am with 8. So I should just do 5." And it's been amazing to watch him move past sleeping in the day, and just becoming a happier person.

Let's talk about that 8 hours of sleep statement. Should I really be aiming for 8 hours of sleep or is that an outdated myth?
Julia: 8 is a pretty good number. We like to say 7-9 hours. Biologically we believe there's only about 1% of people that can function as well as they could on 6 hours of sleep compared to 8. REM sleep has direct impact on memory, empathy, and how you function.

And to be clear, the sleep we're discussing here is active sleep. Not just the amount of time we're in bed.
Marcus: Absolutely.

What about customer reaction and feedback?
Julia: That's been really great. It's so cool to get emails saying "you've saved my marriage!" But there's also [reaction] from different groups. People who have insomnia or sleep apnea have been using this and the awareness has helped them not feel as helpless. We actually even found a group of hard-of-hearing people that never were able to wake up effectively before.

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Marcus: The other thing is the usage rates. The reality is that a lot of times when people buy new technology they try it and then it falls off. That is not the case with the Lark system. Nothing speaks to the success we're having more than the fact that the majority of our users still use Lark at least 3 times a week. The data is there to show that people are actively using Lark and Lark is actively helping them sleep.

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The people from Lark really impressed me, not only with the amount of research they've put behind this device but with their positive attitude throughout our conversation. It must have been all the excellent sleep they've been getting.

Images: Chris Perez