It is 3am and suddenly, unexpectedly, I am alert. Not just mildly alert, but very alert―the kind of alert that comes from hearing an intruder or waking up from one of those nightmares where you are redoing your A-levels.
Beneath me, the sheet feels icy. To my right, there is a humming sound, not loud, but with just enough starting and stopping to ensure I can never quite block it out. I roll over and put the pillow on my head. The noise is quieter, but now my head, deprived of the insulation of the pillow, is icy too. Icy and alert.
That is when, beside me, I hear the voice of my wife. She is also alert. Unexpectedly alert for 3am. To have one alert person at 3am is a misfortune. To have two?
There is only one conclusion. “Did our bed just wake us up?” she asks. In the corner of the room, the bed’s control unit, black and sinister, hums and vibrates, oblivious.
Sleep has become serious. Gone are the days when CEOs boasted of regimens that involved 4am starts and strong coffee. Sleep is back. Eight hours is the new five a day. Good sleep is the new good diet. Or perhaps the new fitness. Or both.
Online, you can find advice on exercise to help you sleep, or sleep to help you diet. We talk about sleep hygiene and sleep fitness. Sleep, says Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and global publishing sensation, is “your superpower”.
There is now a long list of products designed to help you rest easy. Today’s troubled sleeper can buy sleep-easy pillows and sleep-easy mattresses. There are pillow sprays to help you fall asleep and natural-light alarm clocks to help you wake. Your phone offers a bedtime mode to bathe your eyes in warm yellow light, allowing you to select from a range of sleep-tracking apps while not experiencing the blue glare that, some scientists claim, wakes you up.
It feels as if sleep has, like calories and 5k running times before it, become another metric, a daily score to be improved. And if that is indeed the case, then my sinisterly humming mattress cover―or, to give it its full honorific, the Eight Sleep Pod Pro―is the Nike Vaporfly of sleep, the ultimate application of technology to sleepology.
The inspiration for it is simple. “When it comes to beds, nothing has really changed since the Middle Ages,” says Matteo Franceschetti, founder of the company, which now claims 80,000 satisfied sleepers, among them international-standard athletes and the Mercedes Formula One team, including Lewis Hamilton.
Several hundred years ago, humanity came up with a device that was level, that had the requisite squishiness and we believed we had the concept that was “bed” nailed.
Franceschetti thought otherwise. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says, bemused. Many others agree. This mattress cover, probably the world’s most expensive mattress cover at ￡1,545 (approximately 01.5 lakh), is loved by sportsmen and women, as well as Silicon Valley early adopters. Their rationale is simple. Why leave such a crucial bit of technology that we use for a third of our daily life untroubled by the 21st century?
But are they right? Most furniture hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages, but no one is lamenting the lack of Bluetooth connectivity on their table or that there isn’t an app to control their sideboard.
The key difference, Franceschetti argues, is that sleep works best when the thing you are sleeping on adapts.
As all schoolchildren know, body temperature is 370C. This is not the whole picture, though. It is an average. Over the course of a night, your body temperature naturally changes. By evening, it is typically 37.50C. At 4am it is a degree lower, at 36.50C. For women going through menopause, variations can be greater still.
What if a bed could accommodate this and change the mattress’s temperature in the knowledge that the temperature you find comfortable when you are going to bed is not the same as the one you will find comfortable in the middle of the night? Unlike other mattresses that promise temperature controls, and definitely unlike the electric blankets that led to the 1970s fad for spontaneous human combustion stories, Eight Sleep’s version will adjust to you. When you lie on it, it notices. When you breathe, when your heart beats, when you turn over, all these movements, big and small, are logged. The next morning, it will tell you how well you slept, how much was deep sleep, how much dreaming sleep and how variable your heartbeat was, which can be a sign of potential health problems.
It is about more than metrics, however. By attempting to work out your phase of sleep, it will change the temperature accordingly by pumping in hot or cold water to a thin membrane of tubes―and do so differently for either side of the bed.
Or, as Franceschetti puts it, “We actually need different environments, even if we’re sleeping on the same bed. And technology can do that for you.”
With a bit of time, he assures me, it will learn my habits. With a bit of tweaking, the noise will go. And then, “You will wake up more energised and more ready for the day.”
It is, for many, the ultimate promise: that somehow, we can guarantee a good night’s sleep. Sleep is the worry of our age. Most of us get too little. A third of us have trouble getting it even if we are in bed. We all think we can do it better.
Once, we would have turned to pills. Then we looked to habits, to the perfect mix of exercise, diet and night-time routine. Is this the ultimate solution? Is the last piece of the puzzle a bed?
For his part, Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, isn’t convinced that the relentless focus on our dimmer-switched, iPhone-monitored, scheduled slumber is always helping. He hasn’t tried a temperature controlled bed, although he thinks that, theoretically at least, it could have benefits. One of the key reasons people have trouble sleeping is that they start too warm. What seems comfortable when you get into bed is too hot for what you need later on.
Foster, who has written a book about sleep science, Life Time, thinks our general sleep obsession can become counterproductive. “Of course, now there’s all this increased awareness about the importance of sleep,” he says. This is great for his discipline and, he says, he is all for people looking at what they can do better and changing their habits to get a better night’s sleep. “But it’s now come with this massive baggage of anxiety about it.”
Sleep has become a proxy for success, to be measured, ranked, improved. You snooze, you win. I’m not winning.
Night two and I am on my own. My wife, who is not contractually obliged to sleep on a Wi-Fi-enabled fridge lilo, has abandoned the bedroom to sleep in the same room as our toddler, whom she now considers less likely to wake her. Unlike me, she does sometimes have problems with sleep. In that context, she finds the idea of having her sleep tracked or “judged”, as she puts it, deeply unpleasant.
“I don’t want sleep to be a test,” she says. “First, our bed wakes us up, then it tells us how badly we are doing. We are being gaslit by our bed.” So it is that my conjugal relationship is with the bed. It has taken on a persona in my mind. When I first get in, it is a pleasant, warming persona. Warm, but not hot. I feel welcomed by my bed.
I know that very soon it will chill to suit my need for a cooler environment as I enter sleep. Five hours later, when I awake from a dream of sleeping on chilly concrete, I feel less welcomed. Like Hal, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, my bed doesn’t hate me. It doesn’t love me either. It is icily indifferent. If I died, it wouldn’t care.
My previous bed would not have cared either. But then again, my previous bed didn’t make decisions about how comfortable it felt I should be or tell me afterwards that I had failed to sleep in the manner it expected from me. My previous bed was simply a bed. Again, I cannot get the humming out of my head.
When I meet Franceschetti, 40, to talk about this bed, which has had ￡125 million in venture capital backing, it is in the waking dreamlike state I remember from the first few weeks of having a baby, but he has impressive statistics to convince me that I should persist.
Because they monitor everyone’s sleep, he says, they can see how customers progress. Sleep quality, they say, improves by about a third. People experience 10 per cent more deep sleep and fall asleep 44 per cent faster. Heart rate variability improves too. They can see on their app that customers who buy it keep using it.
We are meeting in a London hotel, both of us fortified with a coffee. Alex Zatarain, his 33-year-old business partner and wife, has come over with him, on a visit from their Florida base.
Faced with such persuasive evidence, how can I give up now?
Night three. It is, once again, 3am and I find myself unexpectedly giggling at the absurdity of it all. It is dark. The world outside, a world sleeping on its old-fashioned, medieval, analogue mattresses, is asleep. And me? I am awake. I am rebooting my bed.
Before going to bed I had adjusted the controls to introduce a less precipitous drop in temperature. I had “primed” the bed several times to remove any air bubbles that increased the noise of the pump and the volume did indeed drop.
But I wake up anyway, this time too hot. And now I find I can’t cool the bed because it has lost Wi-Fi connectivity. As a pixel progress bar makes its way slowly across my iPhone screen, as I squint at it through my peripheral vision to avoid the glare, another thought strikes me―the sort of thought that tends to strike in the early hours of the morning.
In my day job I write about science. Just a few days earlier, I had covered a paper that raised questions about the Russian Covid-19 vaccine and the Russians had, in turn, sent a very cross letter threatening to take me to court.
Is it possible to take control of a bed?
Do I want to be in a situation where a foreign state could hack my bed? If Wi-Fi-enabled beds become popular, could they constitute critical national infrastructure? What harm could you do as a state actor able to deprive an entire nation of sleep?
The progress bar passes the 50 per cent point, but I am tired of waiting for the Wi-Fi to reboot. I am just tired, full stop.
I believe Eight Sleep’s data. I believe that, for many people, sleep can be a trial and torment, a torment that can be alleviated through technology. For me, though, the bed is a solution in search of a problem. Worse, just at this moment, it is a solution in search of a problem that has caused its own problem. My wife has explained, sternly but fairly, that it is me or the bed.
It is time to assert the primacy of humanity over robots and exert the ultimate sanction. I walk over drowsily to the wall and pull out the plug. And then I settle down, at long last, for a good night’s sleep.