Google moves further into health and wellness monitoring with updated Nest Hub that tracks sleep

Tech giant Google is ramping up its focus on health and wellness by adding sleep tracking to its Nest Hub smart home device.

The company announced Tuesday that its second-generation Nest Hub includes a sleep sensing feature that uses radar-based sleep tracking in addition to an algorithm for cough and snore detection. It marks Google's first foray into the health and wellness space with its smart display products.

"One thing we learned with the original Nest Hub is that the bedroom was one of the most popular places people put their display," said Ashton Udall, senior product manager, Google Nest, speaking to reporters during a media briefing. 

Smart displays are often placed on bedside tables as alarm clocks and speakers. But if Google's Nest Hub was really going to be a great bedroom device, it had to help people with the most important job in that room—sleep, Udall said.

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People are seeking out solutions to get better quality sleep, as prescriptions for sleep aids have increased and the fitness tracker market has seen strong growth, Udall said.

But sleep technology hasn't caught on for a large mass audience, he said. A Google survey found that 38% of consumers don't use a sleep tracking device because they forget to use it, charge it or check it, and 19% say wearables are uncomfortable to use.

"To crack this problem, we need to make sleep tracking effortless and help users make improvements to their sleep," he said.

Google's Nest Hub smart display and Google Fit app with screenshots of sleep tracking feature
Nest Hub sleep sensing technology (Google)

The Google Health team, the tech giant’s health and wellness division, worked closely with Nest on the development of the sleep sensing feature.

Nest Hub's sleep sensing feature demonstrates the first wellness application of Soli, a miniature radar sensor that can be used for gesture sensing at various scales, from a finger tap to movements of a person’s body, according to Michael Dixon, software engineer, and Reena Singhal Lee, product manager, at Google Health in a blog post.

The low-energy radar technology can only detect motion, not specific bodies or faces. The Nest Hub analyzes movement and breathing at night, all without a camera or wearing devices to bed.

"In Pixel 4, Soli powers motion sense, enabling touchless interactions with the phone to skip songs, snooze alarms, and silence phone calls. We extended this technology and developed an embedded Soli-based algorithm that could be implemented in Nest Hub for sleep tracking," Dixon and Lee wrote.

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The sleep sensing feature can also detect sleep disturbances like coughing and snoring or the light and temperature changes in the room with Nest Hub’s built-in microphones and ambient light and temperature sensors, so consumers can better understand what’s impacting their sleep.

Over time, the Nest Hub recognizes sleep patterns and provides personalized insights and recommendations for improvement, developed by a team of sleep scientists and using guidance from organizations like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Udall said.

The sleep tracking feature was designed with privacy in mind, as the motion sensor technology only detects motion, not specific bodies or faces, according to Udall. Also, coughing and snoring audio data are only processed on the device—the information isn't sent to Google servers. Sleep data aren't used for personalized ads, he said.

"We apply machine learning to all of this data and distill out of it a rich picture of what is going on with somebody’s sleep," he said.

To develop the feature, Google Health researchers recorded more than a million hours of radar data from thousands of individuals to train the algorithm.

"We validated our results against a polysomnogram sleep study and found no statistical difference with the experts. We also compared our results to the reported results of a variety of consumer and clinical-grade sleep trackers and found it was on par or better," Udall said.

The sleep tracking feature on the Nest Hub will be available as a free preview until next year. Google also is looking for ways to integrate with Fitbit's sleep tracking features as the tech giant just closed a deal acquiring the fitness tracker company.

In the future, Nest Hub and other connected devices will be more compatible as the Project Connected Home over IP working group is developing a connectivity standard so smart home products are interoperable.

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"We are really just scratching the surface as far as providing people information and insights about themselves," Udall said. "When we look at further automating things in the home, given the Nest portfolio with thermostats and integrating with lighting and other devices. We'll continue to explore that in the future as we think about smart devices in the home trying to help you with health and wellness."

Google has been stepping up its focus on health tracking capabilities. Last month, Google Health announced new features to its Google Fit app that enables users to take their pulse just by using their smartphone's camera.

Researchers at the tech giant also developed a way to measure respiratory rate using a smartphone camera and a computer vision technique called optical flow to detect subtle movements in the chest. 

Google's work to expand into sleep tracking comes amid reports that Amazon is also working on a consumer device that uses radar to track sleep apnea. Business Insider reported that the gadget will monitor breathing patterns and can detect subtle movements.