Stress and sleeplessness are meeting their match with a range of new technologies aimed at helping users rest more easily.
With the coronavirus sweeping the world, more Australians than ever before are working from home. But despite possibly having more time on our hands thanks to the lack of a commute, or possibly having been stood down or made redundant, it seems harder than ever to switch off our minds, rest our bodies and replenish our energy.
There is another way, though. Technologies are being developed that help us deal with stress.
Tech that we can use at home, but which doesn’t require us to be on our mobile phones or computers.
A French start-up called Neural Up has developed a Bubble Zen pod. It looks like a giant egg, and you sit in it, cut off from the outside world, while listening to sounds designed to enhance your emotional balance. It’s a bit like listening to Tibetan singing bowls with your eyes shut.
The company said that their technology works by boosting the processes that already happen in our brains.
“It triggers the nervous system and creates an illusion that you are relaxing,” said Neural Up Product Manager Dr Gil Borelli, who invented the technology to help him relax while he was playing volleyball and studying at university.
Borelli added that, in this state, our nervous system can fight stress, boost concentration and assist sleep. He thinks now that the technology could be used in hospitals, medical centres, fitness centres, and even in post-operative treatments.
“It has a variety of different acoustic sounds and music, so there is something that everybody can use,” he said.
Another similar technology is called NuCalm. With that, the user wears a mask that blocks outside distractions while a bio-signal processing disc on the left wrist at an acupuncture point delivers electromagnetic frequencies to help the brain interrupt adrenaline and cortisol release.
Neuro-acoustic software, accessed through an app, delivers frequencies to the brain that induce theta brainwave lengths for deep relaxation and recovery. It also has a topical cream or chewable dietary supplement to counteract adrenaline.
“This technology helps slow the heart rate and puts us into a state that reduces excitement and conserves energy,” said engineer David Poole, Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, with Solace Lifesciences, Inc., the company that produces NuCalm.
“It stimulates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system, which puts us in rest and digest mode.”
NuCalm attempts to mimic what naturally occurs in your brain right before you fall sleep. More sleep and less stress sounds simple enough, but the relationship between sleep problems and stress is very much chicken-and-egg.
We can’t sleep because stress keeps our brain in a state of high alert. Then, during the day, we get stressed because we’re not sleeping properly and, as a result, can’t function properly. Then we can’t sleep, because we’re worried that things are not going as well as we would like.
The sleep tech industry is growing as quickly as society’s insomnia problem — smart pillows, mattresses, even beds.
A recent addition is the Somonox sleep robot.
Developed by a team of Dutch engineering students from Delft University, the robot acts like a teddy bear, small animal, baby or sleeping partner.
The robot pulsates softly in and out, slower than our usual breathing rhythm, while an accompanying app plays calming noises: forest or fireplace sounds, whale calls or white noise.
This, the company said, subconsciously influences the user’s own breathing rhythm. The slow-paced music encourages slow brainwaves, bringing the user to a meditative state of mind and helping them reach the steady and slower breathing rhythm necessary for sleep.
“Your breathing slows down like you’re doing yoga or meditation — helps you sleep,” said mechanical engineer Stijn Antonisse, Somnox’s Chief Technology Officer.
The robot is heavy and soft, so it feels organic, and is cushioned with foam and a soft thick fabric. Somnox worked with Royal Auping, a Dutch manufacturer of circular mattresses and trialled various materials to get the right level of softness.
“The main challenge was to make the breathing motion silent,” Antonisse said.
“In the bedroom the robot needs to be silent. In an office or a laboratory where you test it, the room might seem quiet, but the air conditioning, which you don’t normally notice, is actually drowning out the sound.”
To ensure this silence, the engineers put a plastic-metal composite casing around the robot’s internal motor. They also made the breathing tech parts smaller, and used fewer components so they could reduce the size of the robot to make it easier for people to sleep with.
Antonisse added that since the original prototypes were released early last year, Somnox has refined the “breathing” technology to sync it with the user’s breathing.
“Originally the user had to set the breathing rhythm manually with an app,” he said.
“We found, though, that most people didn’t know what their breathing rhythm was, or where they needed to get to. We’ve now added a motion sensor, which detects movement from which a person’s breathing rhythm can be worked out and then slowed gradually to bring them to sleep.”
Neural Up, Nucalm and the Somnox robot seek to trigger our own internal processes to help us relax.
So, perhaps we should turn off our phones and the internet, shut down our social media accounts, and use some of our newly discovered spare time to switch off our minds, rest our bodies and replenish our spirits.
This article originally appeared as “Electronic Relaxation” in the April 2020 issue of create magazine.