Voices, Associate Editor, All Things Digital

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WakeMate Finally Ships–Will You Sleep Better Now That It's Watching You?

Let’s get this out of the way right now–WakeMate co-founder Arun Gupta said the start-up is finally shipping all pre-orders of the long-awaited sleep tracking gadget.

Gupta said, “Our goal is to fill all pre-orders by Christmas.”

And I can even verify that the unit exists, since I have been using one for a week now.

So why all the skepticism?

Because WakeMate–which began as an idea for a smart alarm clock back in 2006 and graduated out of the Y Combinator incubator in summer of 2009–has had more than a few delays in delivering product.

To be fair, the tiny company might have bit off a fair amount to chew. WakeMate chose a solution to the sleep-tracking problem that required it to build original hardware, a main Web application, as well as apps for Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry.

Thus, Gupta describes the first version of its product as “really, a public beta.”

And, WakeMate is indeed a little rough around the edges.

For example, the unit itself–with its semi-exposed electronics and shrink-tube wrapper–looks a little more like something hacked together on top of one of the mini DIY Arduino boards than it does a finished consumer electronics device.

But if you have any experience programming microcontrollers, you might appreciate the sort of sophistication that goes into coordinating this sleepy symphony of data gathering.

(Pardon us for a minute, while I get a little über-geeky and explain how the WakeMate wristband works. If this doesn’t concern you, feel free to fast-forward a few paragraphs to get to Gupta’s predictions for WakeMate’s future.)

When you flick the small switch on the WakeMate wristband, just prior to going to sleep, the device connects via Bluetooth to your iOS, Android or BlackBerry device.

You then open the WakeMate app and enter a 20-minute window during which you’d like to be woken.

The app talks to the wristband and transmits that time information. Then, both app and device enter a sort of low-power state. At this stage, the WakeMate becomes little more than a data logger.

There is a fairly standard, solid-state, three-axis accelerometer on board, much like the one that allows you to “shake to shuffle” your iPhone.

WakeMate then spits out three fields of data–X,Y and Z axis readings–40 times per second, which are stored in its flash memory all night.

That means an eight-hour sleep cycle will produce about 3.5 million unique data points, not including metadata.

The onboard clock–for the computer, not for human time-telling–waits until your pre-selected 20-minute window and then figures out, based on frequency and severity of wrist movement, when you are closest to being awake on your own.

When that moment comes, it wakes the Bluetooth connection, connects to the phone, sounds the alarm and starts uploading the data it collected all night directly to the phone and immediately sends the information to WakeMate’s servers.

And, not to worry, if the WakeMate dies mid-sleep, the phone knows to sound the alarm anyway.

It is quite a concert that needs to be played flawlessly for connectivity and battery life to remain intact.

Impressive data tricks aside, the world in which WakeMate was conceived looked a little different from the one into which it has been born, and that means a different set of competitive realities.

When WakeMate left Y Combinator, the world of iOS device-connected movement sensors was limited to the Nike Fit, which links running performance via a shoe-attached device.

It was also a world without Fitbit, another popular activity and health tracker.

And, unlike now, there were no sleep apps claiming to do what WakeMate does.

But now, even with all the new rivals, Gupta believes WakeMate still has the edge.

He explained: “In the early days of sleep-tracking studies, doctors decided to monitor non-dominant wrist movement as part of the data collected to determine sleep state. That continues today, so there is a ton of research that has been collected over the years on correlating wrist movement with sleep cycle.”

He added that WakeMate has built an algorithm that fits the data collected by its wristband to these medically relevant sleep-cycle models and spits out graphs mapping your sleep states, your waking moments and even times when you were in deepest sleep.

“All the competing tools out there aren’t at all based on any kind of accepted research–no one is studying pillow movement or waistband movement or anything,” Gupta said. “But we know how you are sleeping when you move your wrist.”

The major questions facing WakeMate as a company revolve around what one might expect from a start-up with such a complex beta product.

Gupta said it will focus on innovating and revising its wristband, as well as doing more interesting things with the data it will collect.

“On the macro level, we’re really doing the biggest sleep study that has ever been done,” he said. “We’ll be able to tell you how people are sleeping in San Francisco versus New York, based on seasons and all kinds of things.”

Gupta added that while he doesn’t know what the next step is, WakeMate is prototyping ideas where it could correlate sleep data with other metrics about health, occupation and stress to provide a more complete tool set.

But as more companies work on the problem of digitizing the analog data of human life, the harder questions to answer are really in front of the consumer.

Gupta said he doesn’t know what a world would look like if a health insurance company could access your sleep data, or when information about your apparent insomnia is grabbed by some hacker.

What WakeMate hopes for, he said, is a world where more people have access to the kind of medical data collection that has previously only been collectable by trained technicians in controlled settings.

But more data is better, as far as WakeMate is concerned–it is hoping that its vision puts its products at the center of an all-day biometric data collection future.

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