Apple’s watchOS 7: Go to bed, please

The journalist takes a deep dive into the intricacies of watchOS 7’s sleep tracker, available on Apple Watch Series 3 and up

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Wearables have gone from being a novelty of expensive toys to technologies of the future. Some of what we don’t know about how our body works, we can be told in a tiny monitor strapped to our wrist — and that breadth of information is continually growing as technology develops.

That said, Apple’s new watchOS 7 now features sleep tracking, to help users hone data on how well they sleep through the night for how long.

Apple had been working on a sleep tracking feature for years, having started thinking about sleep back when they first started working on health features. Sleep, after all, “Like nutrition and physical activity, is a critical determinant of health and well-being,” says the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. That said, sleep health education has become a prioirty for many technology companies, not just those in the wearables market. However, it is evident from the diversity of case studies the science of sleep has not been fully explored nor understood.

‘Supportive details’

Does the sleep tracker keep a digital eye on one’s REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycles? There are no distinct features that show how many REM cycles the user is going through in a single night’s sleep, though it is known that the average REM cycle episode is 90 minutes. Kevin Lynch, Vice President of Technology at Apple, says, “We found that too much sleep data can be overwhelming for people, and the relevance of the information isn’t super clear right now. Instead of overwhelming people with too much detail, we want to look forward to how we can support them.” He adds, “We wanted to be seen as a helpful addition, rather than another source of frustration and anxiety.”

As a result of users gathering this data and understanding more from it, Lynch says, “While you might not transform your sleep habits in one week, over time, you may find that making small changes like using some of our Wind Down Shortcuts will aid in improving your sleep. You can later look back at how you were doing a couple of months ago and hopefully see some improvement. This measurement points to longer-term trends and your overall health.”

How it works

For Wind Down, Apple Watch users can set up a pre-bedtime routine through the Health app which includes automatically playing a soothing soundscape or dreamy playlist, or pairing with an app to kick off a yoga or meditation routine, or even get some journalling or next-day planning done — ultimately readying your mind and body for a seamless transition into sleep.

Importantly, Apple Watch requires at least 30% of battery power to sustain itself through the night. If the device is at less than 30% an hour before your scheduled bedtime, you can receive a reminder to charge your watch before bedtime. The Watch uses minimal battery resources overnight because of system optimisations designed for the sleep experience, such as eliminating Wake Screen on Wrist Raise with Sleep Mode.

After Wind Down, the Watch enters Sleep Mode, simplifying the screen on your devices to help minimise distractions — think of it as an enhanced Do Not Disturb. The breath and heart rate sensors in the Apple Watch then employ a Machine Learning model that senses your motion and interprets micro-movements caused by the rise and fall of your breath, providing signals for when you’re awake and when you’re asleep. So yes, for those who have inconsistent sleep patterns and find themselves waking up, this is tracked by the Watch.

Screenshots of the Sleep Tracking feature in the Health on the iPhone
| Photo Credit:
Divya Kala Bhavani

Sleeping with an Apple Watch or any wearable is not easy for the first couple of nights, so be sure that you are wearing a strap that does not chafe or dry out the skin on your wrist because the Watch is only effective if you wear it snugly with your wrist pressed against the back sensor.

Waking up is also quite an experience. For those who absolutely detest a blaring alarm with sharp vibrate, Apple Watch releases gentle haptics with no sound to lure the user awake. It then shows the device’s battery level when you wake up, so you can remember to charge in the morning if you need.

Finally, to know your progress and sleep patterns, the Health app on both Watch and iPhone can infographically show you. Sleep charts take your sleep goals into account and weighs them against the actual full sleep schedule, as well as your Sleep experience options. It also shows your heart rate through the night, how consistent you are over a period of a few days or weeks, and even displays gaps in your charts for those times of bathroom breaks or waking up from a particularly odd dream.

The sleep-tracking feature on watchOS 7 may not be for everyone but it is insightful to know how rested we may be through the night. The Watch is obviously no substitute for a sleep specialist but gathering this data kay be helpful during consult with one.

Sleep tracking on watchOS 7 compatible with Watch Series 3, 4 and 5, as well as the Watch Series 6 and SE which come watchOS 7-ready. watchOS 7 was launched globally on September 16, 2020.

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