This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
Sleep is no longer boring. For decades, this traditionally slow-moving industry innovated at its own pace. Perhaps the last big innovations – the Tempurpedic memory foam mattress and the Sleep Number adjustable bed – occurred decades ago. But very large portions of the population have not gotten to sleep quickly, stayed asleep well, or woken up easily. For something so fundamental to human well-being, this has been a curious exception to the rapid pace of innovation occurring in so many other corners of the economy.
Not any more. Industry giants and upstarts alike have turbocharged the rate of innovation and are betting that you will pay premium dollars for significant improvements to your sleep. I recently visited Las Vegas Market, one of the industry’s biggest trade shows, to understand what’s happening. I saw five main vectors of innovation:
New Frontiers in Comfort
Historically, mattresses offered a trade-off. You could either have soft comfort for easy sleep, or firm support for better posture, but not both. Innovators are now breaking that old proposition.
Purple is one of these innovators, inventing a hyper-elastic polymer grid that stretches to support areas of pressure while cradling sleepers in the mattress material, providing overall support which also conforms to body shape. Other firms, like Nectar, are using more familiar gel tops to mattresses to provide new cradling sensations.
Taking Adjustability to the Next Level
For years we’ve seen TV commercials about bed frames that move heads and feet up and down, and well as adjustable firmness mattress from companies like Sleep Number. But now things are getting much more advanced. Malouf has a mattress which constantly senses users’ movements and can automatically adjust in real-time, changing pressure or head position to combat tossing-and-turning, snoring, and a host of other issues. Tempurpedic can also adjust the user’s head elevation if its base detects snoring; it can even tell you if your sleep seems better or worse on different sleeping schedules or when, for example, you exercised earlier in the day. Personal Comfort has engineered a bed which compensates for some of the limitations of the old Sleep Number platform, such as avoiding a depression in the middle of the mattress even when both sides of the bed are set at different firmness levels. Ergomotion, a maker of adjustable bases, is also in the game, providing massage functions, a rise-to-wake function which gently starts a sleeper’s morning, and embedded sound systems to play white noise or apps like Calm. These players are spotting Jobs to be Done which sleepers have usually coped with through awkward solutions that they just assumed to be par for the course.
Making Sleep Cool Again
Next to snoring, the number two reason why people have a poor night’s sleep is that they get too hot. This can be a particular issue for some sleepers, such as pregnant or menopausal women. Companies are tackling this challenge from a variety of angles. The Purple grid that sleepers lie on is mostly air, and so the ventilation is outstanding. MLily offers a perforated mattress with fans underneath. Casper has a graphite layer in the mattress construction which is meant to conduct heat to the outside of the mattress. Bedgear has patented a foam of varying density which uses physics to funnel heat from the mattress to the ambient environment. Some of these approaches, such as MLily’s, can automatically respond to an increase in temperature or humidity detected by bed sensors, so the sleeper never needs to think about what’s happening to ensure an easy rest.
A few companies are also pushing for more environmentally sustainable solutions. A few, like Purple, boast CertiPUR certification that their products avoid environmental issues such as emitting substantial amounts of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which can cause breathing issues. Bedgear has a mattress whose individual components can be swapped out and upgraded, avoiding the need to dispose of the entire product. Awara is a mattress brand boasting stuffing made of New Zealand wool and a cover made of organic cotton.
Aromatherapy is on the Frontier
We’re also seeing a handful of mattress companies introduce aromatherapy solutions. Malouf offers a mattress infused with non-hallucinogenic CBD oil, for instance, which is said to promote restfulness. The company also offers a range of pillows infused not only with CBD but also with other relaxing scents such as chamomile or lavender.
Betting on the Future
Do consumers value all these advances? Judging by some of the prices, they must. These products can cost upwards of $5,000, and retailers at the show seemed keenly interested in stocking many of these products. They can be a lot more expensive than a traditional mattress, but for a product where you likely spend most of your nights for years at a time, the industry thinks it’s a bargain. One thing is certain – the pace of innovation isn’t slowing down. The next few years may revolutionize an activity as old as human existence.
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