Aura Smart Sleep System
With automatic advanced sleep tracking, scientifically-validated light and sound sleep/wake programs and built-in ‘internet of things’ connectivity, the Aura has a few minor quirks, but they’re more than outweighed by its strengths.
Of all the sleep gadgets currently on the market, perhaps the most visually distinctive is the Withings Aura. Withings, a leader in the consumer digital health market, produces a wide range of smart ‘connected’ devices which includes activity trackers, bathroom scales, a thermometer, blood pressure monitor and of course, technology to improve your sleep.
The Aura is a premium product, aimed at the type of people who value good product design, and want to take advantage of the latest technology to improve their sleep health.
Hence, the Aura, despite its Apple-like seemingly-simplistic interface, is packed with enough features to satisfy even the most die-hard, sleep-obsessed, gadget lovers.
One consequence however, of the amount of functionality Withings has managed to achieve is that the Aura suffers from a little bit of an identity crisis.
Even though it’s one of the most sophisticated sleep trackers on the market, Withings doesn’t even describe the device as such. On their website, Withings calls the Aura a ‘Connected Alarm Clock’. Amazon lists it as the ‘Withings Aura Sleep System’.
Part of this is because you can buy the Aura either as a standalone device, or alternatively with the accompanying sleep sensor mattress pad. Without the sleep sensor, the Aura doesn’t perform any sleep tracking functions, and indeed falls into the category of ‘alarm clock’ – albeit an extremely sophisticated one.
But paired with the sleep sensor, you can experience the whole gamut of the Aura’s capabilities – including of course its sleep tracker credentials.
As there’s so much to talk about, unsurprisingly this is quite a long review. So sit back, grab a beverage and find out more in our full in-depth review of the Withings Aura.
Although Withings doesn’t shout about their scientific credentials (I had to email a representative to find the relevant data), the Aura has been evaluated in accordance with various studies and independent clinical trials. The Withings data sheet states that:
“These results indicate that the Aura sleep analysis agrees well with polysomnography recordings with regards to the distinction between wakefulness and sleep. Precision and recall also demonstrate reliability of the Withings Aura® Sensor for recognizing wakefulness. Good agreement has been observed between the Withings Aura® Total Sleep Sensor and polysomnography recordings”
But how did the Aura perform in the real world? Well, without undertaking a full $10,000 polysomnography test, I will never be able to accurately challenge the Aura’s scientific claims.
Luckily however, because I’m running several sleep tracking devices concurrently I do have some independent data to use as a comparison.
What I can tell from cross-referencing with data from other is that the Aura’s heart-rate monitor compares very well. Sleep duration on the other hand tends to be slightly over-reported, at least in comparison with the Beddit sleep sensor and other devices.
Sleep staging is a tricky are, as I have no way of accurately knowing how much deep sleep, or REM I got each night. Hence I can only trust in the Aura’s proprietary algorithms to give me accurate feedback on this.
One consistent problem I found however is with Aura’s measurement of sleep onset time, ie the time it takes you to fall asleep. Sleep onset time is a good indicator of how tired you are. A healthy person will take an average of 10-15 minutes to fall asleep. Much shorter than this means you’re probably over-fatigued.
Unfortunately, the Aura, more often than not insisted that I was falling asleep in 1 min, even on nights when I wasn’t over-tired. I suspect this is an error with the algorithm as my tests with other sleep trackers has shown my sleep onset time to be in the healthy range.
The Aura does away with buttons by allocating the vast majority of control to your smartphone. So if you’re still using a retro Nokia 6210, you’re a little screwed – you’ll need a reasonably up to date iPhone or Android device to make the best use of the Aura.
The exception to this rule is the Aura’s built-in touch interface. Two unmarked areas on the case – one on top and one on the side – respond to simple touch gestures including volume, light intensity and activating/deactivating your sleep programs.
The touch interface in undeniably useful, but unfortunately it’s not perfect. First, you have to remember what gestures control what – one tap, two taps, long hold. This aspect is not as intuitive as it could be.
Also, the interface itself doesn’t respond with a 100% success rate, so sometimes you find yourself tapping the device more than once to achieve your desired result. These are minor gripes, however and in the big scheme of things it didn’t spoil overall Aura experience.
One other noticeable design feature of the Aura is, errr….. a lack of visible features. By this I mean that there are no visible buttons. No labels or indications as to what the device does. Indeed, if you planted this device in the middle of a room of technophobes, I would guess the majority of them would have no idea what the Aura does.
Again, this is a deliberate design choice. Withings have decided to go for a minimalist control interface – smooth lines, no hard edges, no ugly buttons. After all, this is meant to sit next to your bed, and bedrooms should be restful and calm – not something out of mission control.
SLEEP SENSOR ACCESSORY
Also in the box is the sleep sensor accessory pad. Again, this is a curious looking item. To be honest, it reminded me of something that you’d find in a hospital. Diaper-like in its appearance, it certainly doesn’t share the aesthetics of the bedside device.
Unlike the Beddit Smart, who have gone for an ‘invisible’ approach with their sleep sensor the Withings equivalent is quite bulky in comparison. This is because Withings have opted for a sensor that works by inflating under your bed.
- The Withings sleep sensor accessory pad.
Hence the sleep accessory pad actually consists of three elements; the fabric cover, the detachable plastic inner sensor which in turn is attached to a plastic housing which contains the electronics. It’s not an elegant affair, suffice it to say it’s quite ugly. But then again it’s well constructed and designed to be hidden under your bed, so you’ll only ever see it when you lift up your mattress.
This is where the fun starts. OK, so I’m being a little sarcastic. Setting up the Aura and the sleep sensor is actually a little convoluted, and certainly not an intuitive process. That said, once it’s done, it’s done. It’s a one off experience.
INSTALLING THE APP
Withings’ app is called Healthmate, and it’s a multifunctional piece of software, incorporating not just sleep tracking but also activity and weight tracking, via Withings’ other range of products.
Once you’ve created an account you’ll be asked to enter a variety of personal details such as your weight and height. It’s not made clear why you need to do this, but later on I realised these aren’t necessary for the sleep tracking functions. That said, the app installation and signup was otherwise trouble free.
SETTING UP THE AURA
In keeping with its physical simplicity, setting up the Aura itself was relatively simple too. The lack of physical controls means everything has to be configured via the Healthmate app. Being a ‘connected’ device, the Aura needs to access your Wifi connection and also pair, via Bluetooth to your phone. Once the Aura is Wifi’ed up, and has a connection back to the mothership, everything else, the clock, firmware updates etc is taken care of.
This aspect, that fact that you never have to fiddlle with any settings, configurations or buttons is a real boon for the Aura. The very definition of ‘set and forget’
SETTING UP THE SLEEP ACCESSORY PAD
The sleep accessory pad on the other hand, is less of an intuitive affair. It’s strange, but Withings don’t make it obvious how the sleep sensor works. The pad uses ballistocardiography (BCG), – the same technology as the Beddit sensor, to monitor your sleep measurements, albeit in a different way.
For the uninitiated, BCG measures the ‘mechanical’ impulses of your arteries and blood vessels, (as opposed to the electrical impulses of EEG or brainwave sensors) to measure your breathing and heart rate.
However, whereas the Beddit sensor consists of a wafer thin strip of conductive material, the Aura equivalent utilizes air pressure to pick up these body movements. Hence, before you start using it, you need to inflate the sensor and perform a calibration. This only takes a few minutes and it’s a simple procedure – (just plug the USB plug of the sensor pad into the Aura device, pop it under your bed and follow the in-app instructions), but it’s certainly not a slick affair.
One example is that when you first attach the sensor pad, there’s a rather loud, mechanical whirr that lasts for several minutes. I nearly switched the whole thing off, but on reading through the instructions again, I discovered this is part of the inflation/calibration process.
Another aspect I found a little peculiar were the instructions for how to position the sensor. Withings recommends placing the sensor underneath your mattress for optimal results. However it also suggests you can place it between your mattress and mattress topper.
But due to the considerable thickness of the inflated sensor pad, this means you end up sleeping in a bed with a very noticeable hump – not conducive to a good night’s sleep at all. Hence the only practical setup seems to be the under mattress option.
So, enough about the setup, how did the Aura perform in action?
AUTOMATIC SLEEP TRACKING
Probably the best aspect of the Aura is that sleep tracking is completely automatic, hands-off and seamless, even more so than the Beddit. The reason for this is that unlike the majority of sleep tracking set-ups, the Aura doesn’t need to use your phone, other than to view your data.
All of the clever stuff, the processing and data analysis is performed within the bedside device itself. Hence, if you’ve setup your alarms and chosen your sleep/wakeup programs, you pretty much don’t need your phone at all.
The result is, the Aura is always on standby, and ready to receive data from the sensor pad. The downside to this is that, outside of your regular sleep times, the Aura is prone to pick up accidental readings when, for instance you sit on your bed, or your dog, or kids decide to use the bed as a play area/trampoline/pillow fight arena. This unfortunately does lead to the occasional spurious reading, but in practice I didn’t consider this a big downside.
The upside to the hands-off approach, is of course is that you never have to worry about manually starting the Healthmate app, or telling the Aura you’re in bed. Just lie down and sleep. In fact, it’s pretty easy to forget the sleep sensor is there.
Not only is this a great psychological boon, it also means that if you’re lucky enough to be able to take regular daytime naps, you can be assured that the Withings will seamlessly and accurately pickup up all of your napping data without any manual intervention.
CALCULATING YOUR SLEEP DATA
Whilst most sleep trackers can give you an instant calculation of your sleep data, Withings does things a bit differently. There’s no way to instantly check on your sleep graph as soon as you wake up. Puzzled by this aspect I spoke to Alexis Arquillier, Product Manager at Withings who gave me this response:
“ by construction a delay between the time you leave the bed and the data availability, here is why :
– while we do a 1st level sleep stages assessment in real time for the smart wake up feature, we also run a 2nd level assessment based on the entire night. When working on the entire night, some of the parameters of the sleep stages algorithm are better tuned to the user’s specific patterns. This is very similar to PSG which is scored by doctors for the entire night.
– as some persons may leave their bed during the night for some minutes, we wait ~15 min after the end of in-bed presence to qualify the night as terminated.”
So with this delay + the final processing time of the night, users typically receive their night data ~20 minutes after leaving the bed.”
Sleep and wake up programs
A key element of Withings’ Total Sleep System’ is the use of scientifically-validated light programs to assist you on your journey to better sleep. In practice this breaks down into two main elements; go to sleep programs and wake-up programs. As the Aura combines so much tech into one gadget first we’ll talk about the light aspect:
GO TO SLEEP PROGRAMS
When you’re ready to turn in for the night, you start the sleep program, either from the app, or, much easier, by placing your hand on the top, touch-sensitive area for 2-3 seconds. The Aura then emits a slowly changing red-tinged glow, accompanied by your chosen soundtrack (which I’ll explain more about below). The light and the sound gradually fades out after about 20 minutes.
Red, incidentally is chosen for night-time because of the lack of blue-spectrum light, which disrupts the body’s production of melatonin – the hormone that kicks in at night to help you sleep.
The question is, does it help you get to sleep? Well, I have to say I quite liked the effect. Although it annoyed my partner (who couldn’t see the problem in just switching off the lights and going to sleep), I found that the combination of soothing light and sound actually helped me relax and drift off after a busy or stressful day.
The Aura is like a hi-tech lullaby machine, providing just the right amount of distraction to take your mind off thoughts that might be racing through your brain as you go to sleep.
WAKE UP PROGRAMS
The other wake-up program, in contrast uses light from the blue/white light spectrum. Again, this goes through a subtle colour change as the program progresses. As with the sleep program, you can choose your own soundtrack to wake up with.
The wake-up program is the ‘smart alarm clock’ aspect of the Aura. If you’re using the sleep sensor as well, you get the maximum benefit because Aura can intelligently read your sleep cycle data, and adjust the timing of the wake-up program to ensure you only wake when you’re in a period of light sleep.
This reduces the groggy effect known as sleep inertia when you’re jolted awake from a period of deep sleep. On top of this you’re also free to set the length of your wake-up program – so if you want, your light and sound cues could gradually fade in over a period of ½ hour or even more.
Personally I found the wake-up light to be less useful than the go-to-sleep glow, possibly because we have a fair amount of daylight creeping in through the curtains. Perhaps with blackout curtains/blinds this would be more effective.
LED LIGHT SOURCE
The Aura’s light source, incidentally is very pleasing. The design is a smart choice, using the concave ‘bulb’ to reflect the light from the multi-coloured LED means that when the light programs are activated you’re not actually staring directly at the light source, so the glow is very warm and never harsh, even when the bright white light is at full power in the morning.
SOUND AND MUSIC
Having a previous life as a music producer/engineer, I have a very discerning ear when it comes to sound quality and choice of music. So I’m pleased to say that in this department, Withings has done a superlative job at creating one of the best audio sleep experiences I’ve come across.
One of the reasons I never use my phone for playing music (excluding headphone use) is because a phone’s speaker can only reproduce middle and upper frequencies, turning everything into a tinny cacophony. The Aura’s built in speaker, by comparison, sounds rich and warm – with just enough bass and low mid to convey the whole frequency range.
Aura utlilizes sound and music in several ways. There are several built-in audio programs; these are essentially music tracks that play in tandem with your sleep/wake light show. I call them music tracks because these are not simple short sound loops. The sound and music is actually very high quality and it’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone into designing the ideal audio experience.
The sound programs vary from crashing waves, to ambient , Brian Eno-esque soundscapes and solo piano accompaniment. What’s really clever about the sound programs is the way that the music ‘morphs’ to respond to your chosen sleep program.
The Aura wakes you up in a gentle way, so the lights and sounds will gradually fade in for a chosen amount of minutes, before your actual ‘wakeup’ time.
So in the case of my favourite track ‘Cloudscapes’ this starts with a very soft, sparse ambient melody. As the wake-up program progresses, the music gets slightly busier, but remains subdued until, at the exact minute you’ve set your alarm for, the full track kicks in. It’s a very clever piece of music/ sound design that really helped me to wake up in the mornings.
Whilst some may find this a bit gimmicky and see nothing wrong with a boring alarm clock, I found that the care and thought that Withings have put into their light and sound programs really pays off.
The Aura wakes you up, and sends you off to sleep in the most gentle and ‘natural’ way. Even if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, there’s no shock to the system when your alarm goes off – just a gentle, gradual auditory and visual nudge – the result being far fewer groggy mornings and more energy overall throughout the day.
SPOTIFY AND RADIO
Another string to the Aura’s bow is the ability to stream music from either your Spotify account or a choice of 20,000 internet radio stations. You can then, if you wish, use these instead of the built in sound programs as your wakeup music.
Spotify worked seamlessly. On my Galaxy S5 the Withings automatically showed up as a ‘connected device’ in the Spotify Android app. One click later and I was playing all my music through the Aura’s speaker. Needless to say the device works very well as means for playing back music in the bedroom.
I had less success with internet radio. I wasn’t able to immediately find my favourite stations like the BBC, although to be truthful I didn’t browse too deeply.
Bottom line is, if you prefer to wake up (or fall asleep!) to Van Halen rather than the sound of crashing waves, the Aura does this very well.
In order to unify their whole range of smart health products, Withings have gone for a one size fits all approach in the design and functionality of their Healthmate software.
So, unless you’re already plugged into the Withings ecosystem of fitness trackers, bathroom scales or blood pressure monitors, you’re unlikely to use all of the available features in the app – of which there are a lot.
Healthmate is not just an app, it’s more of a health platform in that pretty much all of the app functions are mirrored in the companion web app.
Hence the app itself doesn’t really do much in terms of processing – all of the data is crunched by the Aura itself and then uploaded to the Withings cloud servers.
This is an important distinction to bear in mind – although you can view your sleep data offline via the app, your phone doesn’t store or calculate any data itself -instead it acts as a remote control for the Aura, as well as a means of viewing your sleep data.
Aesthetically, the look and feel of the app is workmanlike rather than cutting-edge design. But whereas the app fails to excite visually, it certainly feels well engineered and solid, if not a little cluttered.
You access your data from the left-hand menu, the most pertinent items being your Profile, Dashboard and Timeline. Dashboard is a detailed summary of all your health statistics, such as your sleep score, weight tracking, fitness statistics. Profile is your ‘about me’ page which also gives a brief summary of your overall health stats.
Timeline is the place where you can really dig down into your sleep data – and believe me, there’s a lot of it to view. The Withings Aura is one of the most sophisticated sleep trackers on the market, so for data junkies there are plenty of metrics to dive into.
Withings have really gone to town on the breakdown of their sleep metrics. It’s the most detailed set of numbers I’ve yet to come across in terms of sensor data. Here’s how the data is broken down in the app.
- Heart rate
- Light sleep
- Deep sleep
- Room temperature
- Luminosity (light levels)
Sleep metrics are further detailed with the following data points:
- Sleep duration
- Time in bed
- Time asleep
- Time awake
- Amount of REM/light and deep sleep
- Time to fall asleep
- No. of awakenings
- Resting heart-rate
In the app you can view a side by side display of heart rate, room temperature, luminosity and noise. The layout works really well as you can see clearly how these different elements interact – for instance how noise spikes coincide with brief wake periods – and how your heart rate reacts to the increasing light levels of morning. Withings have done a really good job in this respect.
There’s also a ‘Sleep Goal’. This is a percentage score, based on a period of 8 hours. Hence 8 hours sleep will give you a score of 100%. 6 hours will get you 75% etc.
This is not particularly useful because whilst 8 hours is a recommendation, many people need different amounts. I for instance only need around 7-7.5 hours sleep to feel fully refreshed so the Withings Sleep Goal for me is an arbitrary figure – especially as there’s no way to change it either.Read more..