Ecotones Adaptive Sound Sleep Therapy Machine


A Sound Machine That Stays Alert While You’re Asleep

The Ecotones sound machine, left, senses when garbage trucks rumble by. Devices made by Fitbit, center, and Philips Respironics can measure sleep habits.




Published: March 14, 2009

ONCE people drifted off to sleep with the aid of warm milk and a bit of sheep counting. These days, they may also get some bedtime help from a clever microprocessor.

A new tabletop machine from Adaptive Sound Technologies uses its algorithms to create soothing bedside sounds. Sound machines have existed for years, but the machine, Ecotones Adaptive Sound Therapy ($299), adds a new, responsive twist: when the soundtrack is running and it senses a disruption to bedroom quiet, it responds immediately with additional cloaking sounds.

Set the dial to ocean sounds, for example, and it produces the sounds of continuous rolling waves, fog horns and the calls of sea gulls. But if a truck suddenly rumbles by outside the bedroom, the machine detects the racket and masks it by producing an extra crashing wave or two.

Ecotones has a library of sounds with which to do its spontaneous camouflaging, from babbling brooks to cricket chirps to fireside crackling, said Sam Nicolino Jr., chief executive of the company, based in Campbell, Calif. The mike built into the unit detects ambient sound in the room; within a tenth of a second the software has selected an appropriate masking noise, and possibly raised the soundtrack, to attenuate the effects of disrupting sounds.

“We trick the ear into thinking it is listening to something pleasant,” said Mr. Nicolino, an electrical engineer, amateur musician and audio bug, who created the device when a freeway was built near his home and he realized that he could mask its roar with the sounds of ocean waves.

Mary Beth Usinowicz, a data coordinator for a pharmaceutical firm who lives in San Francisco, uses her Ecotones not to get to sleep initially, but to help her drift back to sleep after she awakens during the night. “I wake up, usually at 3 a.m.,” she said. “I hear the trains passing, the wind, the dog snoring.”

Ms. Usinowicz said the machine was helpful in returning to sleep. “The beach sounds work for me,” she said. “I wake up, listen, and go back to sleep again.” She also uses the machine on the weekends when she’s working at home. “If there’s noise in the other room,” she said, the machine makes a difference, masking it “just enough to keep me from focusing on the distraction.”

David N. Neubauer, an associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center in Baltimore, said machines that create comforting background noise can be useful. “They can be beneficial to sleep,” he said, in part by blocking outside noises like traffic, and inside noises like plumbing. “And there’s something fundamentally soothing about background noise,” he said. “When it’s totally quiet, people who have trouble getting to sleep focus more intently on small noises,” and this undermines their ability to sleep.

Jay Littlefield, director of product management at Adaptive Sound Technologies, estimated that about 90 percent of customers were buying Ecotones for their bedrooms. “The remainder are using them to mask noise in the office or living room,” he said.

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