Imagine this: You’re a reporter covering the world’s largest consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, the International CES, otherwise known as that annual assault on the senses. Over five days, you’ve seen a myriad of gadgets, most of which make you simply wonder, Why? Your feet hurt. Your head hurts. Your soul hurts.
And then, through the mazes of booths and the crowds of people, a light appears. It’s not an ordinary light, nor is it one of the millions of glittering casino lights. It’s a glowing oval, like an alien’s face. It’s whispering something to you. It is promising — more sleep? Yes. Yes, please.
Fast-forward 10 months, and that strange device I saw at CES, called the Aura, is now available. The Aura is a $300 two-part sleep system made by the French wellness company Withings.
The first part of Aura is a white plastic module that sits on your night table, emits sound and colored light, helps lull you to sleep and then eases you out of it.
The second part of the system is a sleep pad that goes under your mattress and sends data about your movements in bed to an iPhone app. (And no, I didn’t test it like that. Get your mind out of the gutter, Re/code reader.)
After a week with the Aura, the soundtrack actually grew on me. And while I felt like I had stumbled into “Poltergeist” the first morning I used the Aura as an alarm, the eerie blue light it cast in my bedroom woke me up much more gently than the boop-bada-boop-dee-doop-dee-doop alarm of my iPhone.
But the sensor pad … well, just call me skeptical. The data it shared to Withings’ Health Mate app didn’t always seem accurate. I have an informed theory as to why, and it involves a bed partner (again, not like that).
And even though the app breaks your sleep down into cycles, the Withings health app doesn’t yet say what that really means.
So, here we have another “quantified self” product that shows you a bunch of data, but doesn’t exactly tell you what to do with it. Is the Aura helping me sleep better? Possibly. But what should I be doing differently tomorrow night, and the night after that? Should I be striving for an earlier bedtime, or setting my alarm for earlier? I’m still not sure.
Here’s a basic guide how the Aura works. The white plastic module, which bears a striking resemblance to a nautical air vent, gets plugged into a wall outlet and sits on your nightstand.
This device is equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and is also touch-sensitive. So if you press your hand on top of the dome, it kicks off a sleep cycle, beginning with 20 minutes of soothing sound and red light (the music and sound fade eventually). Swiping your hand up and down on the side of it adjusts volume and the intensity of light.
Then there’s the sleep pad, which connects to the Aura via cable. This sensor-filled sleep pad is just over 27 inches long, and goes under the mattress on the side of the bed you most frequently occupy. Withings claims that this pad monitors your heart rate and your breathing patterns, even when it’s stuffed under a thick memory-foam mattress like mine.
And finally, there’s the free Withings Health Mate app. This app is not just for sleep — it also passively tracks things like daily steps, provided you give it permission to do so, and personal health data like weight and blood pressure, provided you’re using Withings’ other products. While this app is available for both iOS and Android, the Withings Aura only pairs with iOS devices.
When you start a sleep cycle by pressing on the Aura, it launches the sleep section of the Health Mate app on your phone. This is where you can select from four different sleep soundtracks and set your alarm. One worthwhile habit the Aura got me into: Rather than mindlessly browse through apps on my smartphone before bed, I would put the phone down and close my eyes once the Aura’s glow took over the room.
When the “alarm” function goes off in the morning, the Aura fills the room with a deep blue light and a low sound. Double-tapping the Aura shuts it off, just like tapping an alarm clock.
The whole system is part oddball, part clever design. For example, the bottom half of the module consists of a “smart” display, which means that the time disappears when you fall asleep. The app, while limited, is straightforward, and has a neat scrolling option for setting the alarm.
But the sleep data it mined wasn’t especially useful. Last Sunday, I woke up at 4:50 am. Why? I don’t know! I’m not a great sleeper. And at around 5:20 am, I stopped fighting it, got up and made coffee. The app later showed my wake-up time as 6:49 am. A similar thing happened on Thursday morning.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the sensor was likely picking up on my partner’s movements. Withings says it plans to introduce a second sleep pad for bedmates, which would help give a more precise reading.
On other occasions, the sleep data was much more accurate. On Saturday morning, I got out of bed at around 7:50 am, and the app showed as much. The night after my 4:50 am wake-up, I slept soundly, and the app indicated that I got a whopping three hours and 10 minutes of deep sleep. Health Mate shows this by color-coding the sleep cycles, from light to deep to REM-stage.
However, the app didn’t offer any guidance beyond that. The app’s Help Center offers some recommendations for sleep based on data from the CDC, but these tips are widely available; the app hasn’t given me personalized tips yet.
Keep in mind that there are a few (understatement!) lightweight activity-trackers out there, as well as apps, that claim to track your sleep patterns. Withings, in fact, has an activity tracker called the Pulse that tracks sleep in addition to other health metrics. But even Withings says that the sleep-tracking feature of this wristband isn’t as precise as the Aura’s, since the Aura is said to track heart rate and breathing.
So, should you buy the Aura? I liked it as a sleep aid, or as an alternative alarm clock. But the fact that Withings has yet to introduce the sleep pad for bedmates, and is still improving the app, makes me think you might want to sleep on this one for a bit.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.