AMITIAE - Thursday 12 April 2012

Apps for Insomniacs: Sleep Calculator, Sleep Cycle Calculator, Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock and Dream:ON

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Around November of last year I was not sleeping too well. Not many people in the central area of Thailand or Bangkok were. I had seen rising waters at my house, power off and consequent lack of fans, then a difficult rescue from the house by the Royal Thai Navy (my thanks to them again).

After a difficult journey, I arrived at a friend's room where I stayed for almost 2 months. That had its own tensions. My friend is a night owl and played online games when I slept. Or tried.

It was with an obvious personal interest that I seized on the arrival of a number of apps that were aimed at helping the user with sleep problems: Sleep Calculator - Deep Sleep Cycles; Sleep Cycle Calculator; and Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock. To go with these is a more recent arrival that claims to affect the way a person sleeps by stimulating dreams - Dream:ON.

Sleep Calculator - Deep Sleep Cycles

When I first saw the app with the name of Sleep Calculator - Deep Sleep Cycles, I seized on it like a drowning man grasping at straws. We are told that a good night's sleep consists of 5 or 6 sleep cycles and waking at the end of a cycle is better than at the end.

This $0.99 app opens with a beautiful shot of the moon with two large ZZs over the image. After a brief moment, it switches to the main screen. The first time, this had an underwater image with gentle movement of what may be small fish or plankton. The next time it was opened there was a snowy mountain scene which went through a complete 24-hour cycle -- day, sunset, night, sunrise. Information on the iTunes Store page for the app tells users the developer, Joseph Russ, is interested in suggestions for new motion backgrounds.

At the bottom of the screen are two items: "Wake up by . . ." on the left; and "Sleep now". The first reveals scroll wheels for selection of the time that we want to wake. The wheels offer 12 hours, minutes in 5-minute intervals and AM/PM. When the scroll wheels are on screen, the left control is changed to "Calculate."

sleep sleep

When the Calculate item is pressed, we are returned to the main screen where the top has the words, "You should try to fall asleep at one of the following times". To the left of the screen is a list of times. In my case, having selected 7:30am these were 10:30pm, 12:00am (midnight), 1:30am and 3:00 am.

The other item, "Sleep now" reveals a screen with information concerning times at which we should wake for the most restful sleep. I checked at 11:44 am and the app informs me that I should try to wake at 1:28pm, 2:58pm, 4:28pm, 5:58pm, 7:28pm or 8:58pm. From this, we might surmise that a cycle is around 90 minutes.

The app is also available for the iPad and is currently still at version 1.0. While I only installed it on the iPhone initially, it does look more impressive on the full screen of the iPad. It only works in portrait mode. Like the iPhone version the controls are at the bottom of the screen. The "wake up by" time scroll wheel displays full width of the screen and the calculated times are shown quite large near the top left. With the screen size, the animations are also more impressive.

Sleep Cycle Calculator

sleep This has a similar approach to providing information as the previous app (Sleep Calculator - Deep Sleep Cycles), but while the interface is a little less sophisticated, it is easy to grasp the workings.

The main screen has three buttons: Begin, Sleep Now and Settings. On the iPad Sleep Cycle Calculator does not look attractive at all with a wide grey border and the fonts scaled up for the larger device. Advertisements are displayed bottom screen.

Begin has two windows. The top is the time the user wants to wake. The lower one shows recommended bedtimes. Tapping the top item (wake up time) reveals scroll wheels for selecting the time and when done, a bedtime is shown in the lower window. This can be scrolled right to show later times, so my usual 0730 gave me 10:15pm, 11:45pm, 1:15am and 2:45am, slightly different from Sleep Calculator, but this factors in a certain amount of time to allow for actually falling asleep. This (15 minutes) may be changed in the Settings, where there is also a button to update to the Pro version.

Sleep Now takes the current time from the iPhone clock and displays in a sideways scrolling window the optimum times for waking up. If I were to doze off at 5:26pm, I would be most refreshed (according to the app) at 10:11pm, 11:41pm, 1:11am or 2:41am.


The app was updated in March of this year with changes to include Retina Graphics, Chinese metadata and Instructions. There is also a Pro version for $0.99.

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock

sleep A different approach is used by Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock which analyzes sleep patterns and claims to wake users when in the lightest phase of sleep. The app opens with the Instructions page. There are 4 other toll icons shown at the bottom of the screen: Test, Settings, Alarm and Statistics. Unlike the other two apps (above) this is not optimised for the iPad so displays in the x1 or x2 modes.

Setting up is relatively critical to the operations of the app and users are advised that the app senses movement during sleep. A photograph of placement is shown so that the iPhone is correctly positioned. To make it clear, there is also a diagram, showing the iPhone to the side of a sleeper's head.

There is other information about sleep and how we react in this Instructions section and also advises that the app cannot be run in the background as the accelerometer is not then accessible. The app may be run in "Flight Mode" which on some phones is called Airplane Mode.

I ran the app in Test mode and was able to position it easily just beside the pillow so that when I rolled over, a tone was emitted. This was gentle and unlikely to cause me to wake. There are 8 alarm sounds to choose from and these are also gentle -- designed to persuade the sleeper into consciousness rather than startle into wakefulness. There were also options for a tune from the iTunes library or a regular alarm clock sound. A Snooze control allows this feature to be fine-tuned and there are three settings: Intelligent; Regular (with a selection of times) and Off.

Advanced settings have several options. The first allows a wake-up phase to be adjusted. 30 minutes is the norm. There are options from 10 minutes up to 90 minutes. A normal alarm clock mode gives a zero minute option. Three settings are available for vibration: As backup (when normal operation fails to wake the user); Never; or Only vibration, with no sound.

A No Alarm Mode is available for analysis to take place. When I examined this, it was set up and the app informs users that the Home button must be used to cancel. Also in the Advanced section was a button for Facebook logout although this was greyed out in my case. Finally, a Reset Calibration button is available if the sleep cycle is erratic and the app needs to be reset.

sleep sleep

The Alarm button has scroll wheels to set the wake time and a slider for the volume: maximum is recommended. When the Start button is pressed, a panel appears giving final instructions which include leaving the power connected at all times. A final tool icon reveals statistics which are collected once the app is used for a full night.

I set it up as per instructions, which include placing it "glass down" and when it went off at my usual 07:30 there was far less grogginess than I had been feeling of late. It would seem to work. Or maybe it is that I want it to work. A look at the statistics show that while I did have some periods where there was less than perfect sleep, at times I do achieve a deep sleep condition, which is heartening.

With the iPhone placed glass down I did not hear the tones for wake, but the vibration worked perfectly and I was awake instantly.


sleep Although there are some similarities in use with Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock (above), the stated intention of the developers with Dream:ON is somewhat different. Sounds are played at critical times during a night's sleep to influence the brain and so produce or stimulate a dream. I had some qualms about this. Most of us do not remember the dreams we have and there is a considerable amount of research (most famously by Freud) about the nature of dreams.

As part of the intent of the app is to share the experiences as a form of research, users are asked to record any dreams that they have (or remember) and these are shared. To allow this, the user must opt in and a blue panel (like one allowing location data to be sent) is provided for the purpose.

The app is set up using a number of items, each activated by pressing a cog icon inside the outline of a head (like the app icon itself): a neat change from usual setups and apt for the purposes here. The items are Settings, Start Dreaming, Dream Store Dream Diary and Information.

dream dream

The app is really quite easy to use as there is little to alter. Settings for example has options for sounds for the alarm and for snooze, as well as access to Facebook and Twitter account information. Start Dreaming has the main controls for Alarm Time, Alarm Tone and the Soundscape. Tapping either the icon or the setting brings up the controls for making any changes.

While the time and the alarm tone are self-explanatory, the Soundscape is intended to be the key to the app. A sleeper's movements are monitored by placing the iPhone on the bed (face down) and the soundscape is played at certain times depending on the sleep patterns. There are 2 dream settings available when the app is first downloaded, but users have the option to buy several more at $0.99 each from the Dream Store as in-app purchases.

The information section has a fairly long text explanation about the workings of the app as well as the Dream:ON experiment. There is more information at the developer website.

dream dream

I set the iPhone up as directed and went to sleep as normal. I woke a little earlier than the time I had set on the app as the nearby temple was in hi-volume speaker-mode. I have no recollection of any dreams during the night, which is unusual for me. I did not hear the Soundscape at all (the app is designed so that Soundscapes should not be heard).

When I woke and moved the iPhone the alarm sound started. I was asked to enter information in the Dream Diary which opened automatically. All I can say was that "I was not conscious of the Soundscape". Like Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock there is a graph display to show how my sleep cycles occurred during the night. On the same panel there is also an icon that allows users to tag Facebook friends who appeared in the dreams. I have also noted the comparison between the Dream:ON sleep profile and the graph created last November in Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock: maybe I am sleeping better.


There is a fair amount of information available online concerning sleep cycles and Circadian Rhythms. The university I work at has a sleep clinic where research is conducted into the subject; and a colleague in the Engineering Faculty where I am is conducting research into this and using brain patterns as a way of communicating.

For us ordinary mortals, however, who just want a good night's sleep, the information available in Sleep Calculator and Sleep Cycle Calculator is useful to have to hand in the form of an app and as a quick reference. These apps gave about the same suggestions (allowing for time to doze off).

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock takes a different approach and detects when we pass through the various stages of sleep to bring analysis to the process and hopefully wake a user at the time in a sleep cycle when we will feel at our best. In my limited experience the results seem to support the developer's claims.

I am in two minds about the Dream:ON app. While I noticed no significant effects, there is no proof that I did not dream. There is also a comparison between sleep a few months ago, which was considerably more disturbed (I am now in a new apartment and alone). Nonetheless, I am a little sceptical. I would also be wary of posting to Facebook information about people I know appearing in my dreams: that way danger lies.

The app claims to have a scientific use, but the site of Yuza that develops and maintains the app claims it is an entertainment entrepreneur, with HQ in Carnaby Street, London. Dr Wiseman, the man behind the app has a mixed background, starting as a magician and ending as a professor at the University of Hertfordshire (formerly Hatfield Polytechnic). He has published several papers and some are available online.

Some may wish to resort to apps like White Noise, Sleep by Lee Sunja, iDream - Sleep Maker by George Talusan, or Sleep by Red Hammer Software, which provide background sound effects that can relax the listener and induce sleep. But these do not guarantee the user will not wake during the time in bed, breaking the cycles.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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