Friday, February 11, 2011

App Review: Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock for iPhone

"Good morning!"
To me, on most days, that simple phrase is the most oxymoronic way for someone to greet me. I'm certainly not a morning person. In fact, often the hardest part of my day is getting out of bed on time. Granted, part of the blame should fall to me because I frequently stay up later than I should on 'school nights', but mostly I blame my bed for being so darn comfy. I should preface this review by saying that I typically set 3 alarms every morning and usually only get up after the third. On many occasions where I've only had a few hours of sleep before I have to get up again, my brain will decide all on it's own not to consciously register the sound of the alarm, but rather turn the alarm off and continue sleeping. This presents me with a rather obvious problem, and so to deal with the issue I of course opted to find a technological solution to my problem versus just going to bed a littler bit earlier because after all, even Nas knows that sleep is the cousin of death.
Sufficed to say, I need all the help I can get in the morning to get out of bed, so when I heard about this app I was very excited to try it out.

Before getting into the app, there are a few things you should know about sleep cycles. This is a little excerpt from a study by Applied Cognitive Studies.
"For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less than 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes). If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes–for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes."

Essentially, what this tells us is that it's actually better (will leave you feeling more well rested) to get LESS sleep provided you're asleep for a multiple of 90 minutes and that the key to being well rested is not how much you sleep, but how many complete sleep cycles you complete.

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock is a really nifty app that unlike most other apps on the market, has only one main purpose; to get you up on time. Though simple in premise, the way this app accomplishes the task is a bit more interesting than simply buzzing away incessantly when the time comes. After setting a 'wake-up window', Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock monitors your sleep patterns all night long as you move between lighter and more deep sleep cycles and will wake you up when you reach a point of light sleep within your target 'wake-up window'. The benefit of this system is that you're never startled out of a deep sleep by your alarm; leaving you feeling better rested right when you wake up and allowing you to get up out of bed after the first alarm.

How does it do this you ask? Sleep Cycle doesn't attach to your body in any way, nor does it scan your brain with some sort of patented Apple mind ray. The app works by tracking your movement as you sleep by way of the accelerometers built into your iPhone. Simply plug in your iPhone's power adapter and place it face-down on the corner of your mattress (not under your pillow or mattress). Plugging the phone in before bed is a must in this case as the app is constantly monitoring your movements, and consequently, using up battery power. As you move into a period of light sleep, you tend to toss and turn more than when you're in a period of deeper sleep. The app records these movements and over the course of the night, builds a graph of your sleep patterns and wakes you up when you reach a point of light sleep within your target time. If you don't reach a period of light sleep within your target window, the app will sound the alarm automatically at the end of the window. The developers recommend a period of at least 30 minutes to ensure you'll be at a point of light sleep when the alarm goes off.

Sleep Cycle lets you choose from the app's list of calming and soothing alarm sounds, or you can customize your sound by choosing a song from your iPhone's library. Recently I've been waking up to the sultry sounds of Phoenix's "North" but the possibilities are endless and half the fun of setting the alarm is choosing what song you think will serenade you out of sleep the best. The app will also track your sleep patterns and you can view daily graphs that show you how your sleep patterns change throughout the night.


It's very interesting to have a look at what you were up to while you were asleep. As you can see from the screenshot above, I had a much more restless sleep on Wednesday compared to Tuesday and I can remember feeling much more well rested on Wednesday morning than I did on Thursday morning. When using this app, it almost feels as though you're already awake by the time the alarm goes off, and it's much easier to get out of bed.

I highly recommend this app to anyone who has trouble getting up in the morning or to those of you who tend to feel tired throughout the day even though you're putting in the hours under the sheets. The app is available from th iTunes App Store for $0.99, and in my mind is quite the bargain.

Have a look at the developer's site here for more info.

Sweet dreams!


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Location wars - The Battle for your check-ins

2010 saw Foursquare, the location-based social media network, sweep across the mobile landscape dropping little digital signposts across the map as it went. Near the end of the year, social media mogul Facebook introduced an addition to it's mobile platform by adding 'Facebook Places'; a strikingly similar iteration of Foursquare's check-in system that was linked directly to a user's Facebook account; an attractive point of differentiation for Gen Y'ers already paralyzed by the virus-like proliferation of new social networks.

In mid-November 2010, former Facebook employee Dave Morin launched 'Path'; yet another entry into the world of location-based social media. Path featured an iPhone app and a web portal and was positioned as more of a personal network that featured two major divergences from traditional social media; exclusivity and intimacy.

Both of these aspects of Path are interesting because as far as social networks go, none have really linked any of their developments to actual sociological or anthropological data or theories. Path on the other hand, under Morin's direction, saw fit to incorporate ideas pioneered by prominent social thinkers to create a more personal network based on the sharing of intimate snapshots of one's path through life with only the closest of friends. The idea of exclusivity is rooted in anthropologist Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar's work with primates. By studying the neocortex region of the brain, Dunbar found that it's size actually limits the number of meaningful social interactions one can have to around 150; "Dunbar's number". From this, Morin chose 50 as the maximum number of connections available in Path based on a theory he developed while at Facebook that says that people's social circles ripple outwards by factors of three. A close group of friends and family consisting of about 5 people leads to an extended group of around 15 people which then multiplies by three again to get to 45. This rough outline lead Morin to his eventual limit of 50 friends and a network composed of people close enough to the user that updates are viewed as valuable vs. spam. 

The intimacy factor was spurred on by Morin's interest in the work of Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. Morin saw Kahneman speak at a TED conference earlier in the year, and was attracted to his ideas about memories and how they were tied to happiness. For Morin, memories in the social network sense of the word meant photos, and this was to be the sole method of communication for users in Path. By uploading photos of where they are and what they're doing, users share the intimate 'moments' of their day with their 'favored 50' and let the relationships between the users themselves determine how the recipients' understanding, connection and shared happiness is affected. Essentially, because you're so close to your favored 50, simply receiving images of the things that matter most to you will easily convey how you're feeling to those who know you best. Morin uses the example of snapping a photo of a warm mug of mocha, "My friends know how much I love mochas,” he says. “So my friends are happy for me.”

So if 50 is the magic number, and photos are the only way to share, then how come Path is quickly becoming the road less travelled?

This is the question that's been on my mind recently. My thinking is this; Foursquare was the first to let users 'check in' to locations and let people know where you are, Facebook's Places was the first check-in app that linked directly to an existing social network, and so Path, with it's minimalist and exclusive nature, should fill a previously empty void, no?

Apparently not. No one I know is using Path on the regular. Heck, most people I ask about it have never even heard of the thing. Why is it that the only quasi-scientifically based social network has been met with such a difficult beginning? Was it timing? Released too soon after both Foursquare and Facebook's Places to be differentiated in the marketplace? Or was it that in reality, people just want to shout from rooftops, not concerned so much about who hears them, but rather with the mere fact that they're able to yell. It's quite possible that Path was released at a time when our relatively new fascination (and addiction) to social media has left us on the rising side of a steep curve of interest--one that will likely correct itself just as quickly as it was formed. It will be interesting to see in the next 6 months if Path finds traction with users who have been jaded by the ubiquity of status updates and the ongoing stream of check-ins. Many experts see social media moving towards a trend of amalgamation and simplification, and so if twitter's 140 characters are the short-hand blog, then might Path's photo stream be the new Facebook wall? After all, if a picture's worth a thousand words, then Morin's got 860 reasons why people should switch from sharing tweets to moments.

To my mind, each network serves somewhat of a different purpose, yet we only have so much time and interest to devote to being social. Will users from Facebook and Foursquare check-out of their past networks in favour of the more intimate Path? Or as we reach the peak of the curve--the point of social media saturation, will the status and fame associated with being the mayor of 'Bus Stop #50045' trump the value of a shared intimate moment?