Google's next-gen Nest Hub debuts with contactless sleep monitoring and analysis features

The new Sleep Sensing feature integrates with Google Fit and is the first health or wellness use of Soli, Google's low-energy radar sensor.
By Dave Muoio
09:00 am
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Google headlined today's announcement of its second-generation Nest Hub smart display with a breakdown of its newest features: contactless sleep monitoring and data-driven personalized recommendations for those struggling to get a good night's rest.

When placed on the bedside and calibrated, the Nest Hub's Sleep Sensing feature uses Google's Soli – a low-energy radar sensor previously tapped to enable gesture commands on the company's Pixel 4 smartphone – to observe the sleeper's movements and respiratory rate from a distance, the company explained in its announcement.

These data are combined with the device's microphones and sensors to detect interruptions in normal sleep and, potentially, identify disturbances such as snoring or light and temperature changes occurring within the bedroom.

The other half of the Sleep Sensing feature comes with how Google communicates its observations. In addition to displaying an on-screen summary each morning or when prompted by a voice command, users can connect their device to the Google Fit app to view their short- and long-term sleep trends alongside their fitness and activity data.

Here, Google's approach focuses on three primary components of healthy sleep: duration of sleep, consistency of sleeping habits and the quality of that night's rest. Ashton Udall, senior product manager for Google Nest, said that the design team homed in on clearly outlining the results of these three categories, and then delivering actionable recommendations when applicable.

For instance, he said, the interface will encourage users if they hit the mark in one category like duration, but highlight other areas such as consistency if they've been falling short. Thanks to existing partnerships with the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, as well as a new collaboration with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the app will provide research-backed guidelines on what those metrics mean to "help people make meaning of the numbers," he said.

From there the system will provide personalized suggestions for improvement, again built on guidances from the health organizations.

"It's kind of connecting the dots for people: ... Here's the insights. Here's why these are important. Here's things that you can do, and here's tools to help you do them," Udall said during a press briefing. "That's the sort of breadcrumb of trails that we're trying to help people [follow] on the path to positive changes in their sleep."

With all of that being said, the company stressed that Sleep Sensing is an opt-in feature privacy-minded users can disable at any time, or only partially if they're interested in tracking individual measures such as snoring. All audio recordings are processed on the device itself so that only sleep-event data is uploaded to servers for analysis, the company said, and recent or long-term data can be deleted at any time.

Further, an on-screen indicator will be present whenever tracking is activated, and the Nest Hub includes a hardware switch on the back of the device that deactivates its microphones.

The Nest Hub still has something to offer sleep-focused consumers who aren't on board with Sleep Sensing's data tracking, Udall noted. The device will wind down its display brightness in the evening, can play relaxing sounds to help users fall asleep and has a "Sunrise Alarm" that more gently increases display brightness and alarm volume when it's time to wake up.

And as for its other offerings as a smart home device, the second-generation Nest Hub includes a seven-inch screen and onboard Google Assistant voice commands. The smart display boasts higher quality speakers than its predecessor. It has video app support, Quick Gesture commands enabled by the Soli chip and on-board machine learning that will adapt to the owner's instructions in order to complete tasks faster over time, the tech company said.

The Nest Hub is available for preorder, and will run customers $99.99 to buy. The Sleep Sensing features will be free on a trial basis for the first year, implying that Google intends to charge for premium sleep tracking at some point down the line.

WHY IT MATTERS

Google's first iteration of the Nest Hub wasn't designed for any particular room in the home, but Udall said that the tech company was surprised to learn that about 20% of its customers placed the device in their bedrooms. This led Google to prioritize updates like the Sunrise Alarm for their first-gen device over the past year, but its market research suggested that customers "resoundingly" wanted even more from the smart home device.

"People were looking for better quality sleep, and it turns out when we surveyed this in general, quality of sleep was becoming the number one concern for adults in health and wellness in the home," he said.

"As we started to dig away further, we found some really astounding stats out there for how big of a problem this is. ... One in three adults are sleep deprived; one in seven adults have a sleep breathing disorder, that's a billion people worldwide; one in two adults, myself included, have trouble falling asleep frequently."

Poor sleep can lead to short-term impacts on daily life such as sour moods, low energy, increased stress and bad food decisions, Udall explained. Research has also suggested long-term trends tied to poor sleep, such as biological aging in older adults or increased risk of heart failure.

There's little shortage of consumer devices with sleep-tracking features, particularly in the wearables department, Udall said. However, Google's research found that consumers who didn't stick with these products often cited the same few complaints – either they were forgetting to charge, use or check their device; they didn't find them very comfortable to use each night; or they just didn't find the devices and reports to be very useful.

"If we were going to crack this problem and make sleep tech available to way more people who need the help, we realized that we needed to focus in on these things," he said. "We had to make sleep tracking effortless [and] take all the work out of it for people, and we have to gear the experience to actually help them make improvements in their sleep."

The contactless design and evidence-driven recommendations speak to these goals, but not to be lost is the framing of Sleep Sensing as a complement to the broader Google Fit ecosystem.

"We're really excited about that integration because it brings some of Google Fit's great assets. One is the partnerships that they've established with leading health organizations in the world," Udall said. "Google Fit also has a really great level of integration with the most popular fitness and health apps in the ecosystem, so you can bring [and] sync your data from those apps and those experiences into one place in Google Fit and see it alongside your sleep data for a one-stop shop."

On a similar note, Google and Udall said that the company was looking to integrate Sleep Sensing with the sleep-tracking capabilities of the newly-acquired Fitbit at some point in the future. But more than just living side by side, the integration could eventually open the door to data insights that combine sleep with activity or other metrics for a more whole-person wellness approach.

"Where some of the really rich insights might come for people is, for example, when people understand that you're active at certain times of the day," Udall said. "Does that contribute to sleepiness at the right times? How are these things playing in sync with each other?

"That'll be an area that we look to dive into further, to develop more insights for people, so that they can find those hidden gems of what kinds of activities or habits are the keystone things that can set in place all the other kinds of health-and-wellness benefits they're looking for."

Udall was also bullish on other opportunities for the Nest Hub. For one, the Nest Hub could eventually be integrated with other smart devices for a smart home approach to health and wellness. Here, he took time to note the Nest Hub's support for the Project Connected Home over IP [Project CHIP], an industry working group that also counts Amazon and Apple among its supporters.

On the medical device front, the company stressed that the Nest Hub and its Sleep Sensing features are not currently intended for medical or diagnostic use. Still, the Soli sleep tracking algorithm was validated against polysomnography and, according to Udall, was on par or better than other clinical-grade sleep trackers. This kind of accuracy from an unobtrusive, continuous monitoring device is a strong starting point for its potential use in health monitoring or clinical research, he said.

"We've kicked off a partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center ... to run a study for cough data collection, and to understand if collecting coughs through the night could be useful in actually understanding more about chronic conditions that people might be experiencing," Udall said.

"This is an example where we think what we're launching today can set a great foundation. Of course, we can clue people in on that with just the features we're launching today. But when you start stepping into that federally, clinically regulated space, we want to make sure that the research is there and we're in a good place. So we're at the beginning of that."

THE LARGER TREND

News of the new Sleep Sensing features comes a month and a half after another big wellness update for its Google Fit offerings – camera-based heart and respiratory rate monitoring. Now live for Pixel devices, the tool use machine learning to observe subtle changes in chest movement or blood coloration, and requires no additional hardware other than the smartphone itself.

Of note, Sleep Sensing marks Google's first formal use of Soli in a health or wellness capacity. Previous proof-of-concept work by researchers from the University of Waterloo outlined a system where the radar-based gesture tracker could measure the concentration of glucose within a solution – a hypothetical implementation that would have clear benefits for diabetes management.

Gesture tracking sensors at large have also had their time in the digital health spotlight, often in the context of physical therapy or, again, noninvasive monitoring.

But Google isn't the only name to jump on contactless sleep monitoring. EarlySense announced a D2C product called myEarlySense that it marketed with Samsung back in 2015, and a couple of years ago generated data supporting the use of its technology in hospitals as an alternative to nighttime vitals checks.

In 2017, ResMed-backed SleepScore labs launched a bedside device that measured respiration, body movement, duration, temperature and light to deliver a one-to-100-point rating. And just a couple of months ago Amazon was said to be working "Brahms," a similar millimeter-wave radar designed to track sleep apnea.

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