Listen to this article
At a time when sleep has become a treasured luxury for many people, the bleary-eyed might want to daydream of a world resembling the 1993 science fiction novel Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.
Set in a futuristic 2008, advances in genetic engineering have allowed children to become the first generation able to live happily without sleep.
The resulting group of “sleepless”, unburdened by the need for rest, are able to outperform their “sleeper” peers, boasting higher IQs, more time for work and never being moody on a Monday morning.
But now that 2008 has come and gone, the need for 40 winks remains very much intact. In fact, the value placed on sleep, and the designs that can aid it, have never been higher.
While exact figures on sleep-related spending are hard to pin down, recent estimates for annual revenues in the US have come in at more than $30bn a year. This has coincided with repeated yearly surveys by the US-based National Sleep Foundation, which has found that at least a fifth of Americans are “under-slept”, with this year’s poll reporting that 24 per cent of respondents were regularly suffering from poor or very bad overall quality sleep – receiving less than the recommended seven hours a night.
“Work patterns have changed, lifestyles have changed, technology has changed, and sleep lies at the nexus of all those changes as symptomatic of living in a relentless, if not restless, 24/7, hyper-connected, globalised world,” says Simon Williams, a professor of sociology specialising in sleep at the University of Warwick, England.
As such, workers in the developed world are popularly perceived to be sleeping less. Yet an increased awareness of lack of sleep as a medical problem in and of itself – and the emergence of the “sleep industry” – may also be causing more people to focus on the need for rest as a health issue.
The bed has inevitably been the primary focus for designers and gadget inventors, with high-end bed designs moving ever further into ideas once thought reserved for a faraway future.
The Floating bed, designed by the Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars, is suspended in the air by magnets and steel cables and can support a weight of up to 900kg – all at a cost of more than €1m. A cheaper alternative comes in the form of the Lago Fluttua, a bed supported by only one central stand, giving it the appearance that it is floating in the air.
Slightly less striking, but arguably more practical, is the Flying bed, designed by Francois Laine – a mattress suspended from the ceiling that can be put away when not in use.
Another option might be the Starry Night Sleep Technology bed by Leggett and Platt that comes with technology designed to reduce snoring by elevating the user’s upper body by a few degrees. It also monitors the bed’s temperature during sleep, and adjusts it to keep the user as comfortable as possible.
While some may find that floating mattresses allow them to drift off peacefully, others may be unable to relax sufficiently. For them, the Quantum Sleeper bed may provide greater peace of mind. This “anti-terror bed” forms a seal around sleepers to protect them from would-be intruders and other potential disruptions to a good night’s rest.
Another focus of sleep-related design has been with products that provide as close an imitation of a conventional sunrise as possible, allowing the sleeper to be woken up gently by light rather than the sudden screeching of an alarm.
Several products exist, such as the Natural Sunrise alarm clock, which uses LED lights to simulate daybreak inside a darkened room, and there are iPhone applications that are able to do the same thing.
For Matthew Wolf-Meyer, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, modern beliefs about what constitutes a good bed, a good room and the “right” way to sleep can be traced back to American urbanisation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Whereas before it was common for whole families to share beds, and for urban migrants to be accustomed to resting in uncomfortable spaces, the rise of the suburban home changed the way society viewed sleep, explains Wolf-Meyer
“You saw the intensification of the middle class home in America in this period, where everybody in the family has their own room,” he says. “A lot of suburban architecture is structured around this idea.”
An extension of this has been recurring debates in the US and elsewhere over whether it is best for babies to sleep in their own rooms, or for them to share beds with their parents – arguments that are reflected in the latest cots and baby gadgetry.
Newer designs of “co-sleeper” furniture, for example, allow babies to sleep in side extensions to their mother’s beds. The Intellicot, meanwhile, is a technology-laden baby pod with internal temperature controls, video monitoring devices and a control to rock itself automatically.
Alongside new technology related to better sleep is the concept of “sleep hygiene”, where consultants from various backgrounds offer their services to improve environmental factors inside a room, or a house, that may disrupt resting.
Jan Cisek, a feng shui consultant based in London, says that there has been a steady rise in demand from clients that have had trouble sleeping and are worried that the problem lies in their sleep environment.
“Your bedroom is the most important part of your home, as you spend the most amount of time there,” he says. “A lot of this is common sense – a lack of noise is very important, so you should have glazing, as is darkness, so good curtains are important”.
Indeed, whether it be through the simple purchase of high-quality mattresses or the use of feng shui consultants, it does not appear that our preoccupation with a good night’s sleep is going to fade away any time soon.
While the “sleepless” in Beggars in Spain may be more successful than their regular human peers, who waste hours in bed each night, the “sleepers” possess something that their perma-rested rivals will never have – the ability to dream.