KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 19 — Apple was late to the party when it came to adding sleep tracking to its Apple Watch but this year it will be making up for it in a big way with the latest update to its WatchOS.
The current iteration of Apple’s health wearable tracks sleep duration but did not go in-depth into sleep metrics. WatchOS 9 will change that.
To share some insight on what Apple brings to the table where sleep is concerned,
Apple’s vice-president of health Dr Sumbul Ahmad Desai graciously answered some questions I had.
Delving into dreams
As to just why Apple is deciding to take sleep tracking further, Desai said that sleep was undoubtedly essential to good health.
“If you’re not sleeping enough, your health risks rise. Your quality of life declines. You can’t be your best with bad sleep.”
Since the addition of sleep tracking to the Apple Watch, the company has gotten encouraging feedback from users and now the company is taking the experience further by tracking different sleep stages.
What are sleep stages? When we sleep, we go through cycles, each cycle consisting of individual stages. The average person goes through four to six sleep cycles as they sleep, averaging about 90 minutes each though they are not always the same length.
Desai said, “When users have more control of their health data, they can have better conversations about their health — with friends, family and health care providers — and make decisions for their health. That’s what motivates us and gives purpose to our work.”
The update would also allow users to see their sleep patterns on a daily basis, instead of just weekly in the current WatchOS.
Just why would this extra data be useful, I asked?
“Our health is our habits. By making the right choices now — getting enough sleep, going for a walk, even taking a moment to breathe — we can have a positive influence on our overall health weeks, months, even years down the line,” Desai said.
“We could all use a little encouragement sometimes, and Apple Watch can provide that for people no matter where they are on their health journey.”
In the Sleep app, it is not just about seeing daily sleep metrics. “You’ll be able to easily tap into insights across daily, weekly, and monthly trends,” Desai said.
Users would also be able to see how much they’ve been sleeping, as well as see their sleep stages throughout the night.
“The Health app will show you sleep trends over time, and provide information on your respiratory rate and heart rate during sleep,” she said.
Following the science
With how saturated the market is with health wearables, what did Apple see as its key differentiation factor, I asked.
Desai’s answer: “Apple Watch is more than a fitness tracker; it’s your partner in health. Sleep tracking provides great insights, but we want to help users build healthy habits, too. That’s why we built a Sleep app to help users set a sleep goal or get to bed on time.”
She also said that far more than just tracking, the design of the entire sleep tracking feature is about the philosophy of positive reinforcement, which is something that was used on Apple Watch since the beginning.
“Rather than criticise when there is room for improvement, we’ve designed an interface that congratulates people on their successes in meeting their sleep goals,” Desai said.
“This is especially important when it comes to sleep, because anxiety about not getting enough sleep doesn’t tend to help people get the sleep they need — it can make sleeping even harder.”
Desai also emphasised, “Everything we do at Apple is based on science. Research shows that having a routine leads to better sleep quality. So, we offer ways for users to create their own — maybe listening to a soothing soundscape or meditating before bed.”
Apple’s Sleep Mode also helps users enjoy uninterrupted sleep by darkening the Watch screen as well as turning off notifications.
“Our teams have also put in a ton of work to ensure Sleep tracking is accurate. The machine learning models for sleep stages were trained and validated against the clinical gold standard: polysomnography, or PSG, with one of the largest and most diverse populations ever studied for a wearable.”
The future of sleep
“We see so much potential for these new sleep features to do a lot of good,” Desai said.
“With sleep stages, we’re helping users track how they’re sleeping through the night. Using signals from Apple Watch’s accelerometer and heart rate sensor, the Sleep app will be able to show you the amount of time you’re spending in REM, Core and Deep sleep.”
Each of these stages play an essential function, and Apple wants to help researchers, medical experts as well as its users learn more about sleep.
Apple has been working together with the American Heart Association and Brigham and Women’s Hospital on the Apple Heart and Movement Study since 2019, and the new features would give users the chance to share their sleep data with the study.
“Given the large scale of the data, we’re excited about the potential for real breakthroughs that advance the cause of health,” said Desai.
“Sleep is such an important part of our lives,” she said. “We think about it, talk about it, and sometimes even stress about it. But we don’t really know about it, even though we spend about a third of our lives asleep.”
What Desai thinks is going to be really fascinating for our users is being able to see in detail how much and how well they’re sleeping over time.
“When you have that information in the palm of your hands, you can make better choices for better health and a better you. That’s what I’m most excited for, and I can’t wait to see the response from our users.”
WatchOS 9 is set to be available to users in the coming months, and will be supported on models from the Apple Watch series 4 and newer.