How a vibrating smartwatch could be used to stop nightmares

Every night, Patrick Skluzacek woke up with a pounding heart and his sweat-soaked T-shirt. The details of his nightmares often vanished when he opened his eyes sharply, but he knew their outlines. He was back in the Iraq war, marching to or from the infernal insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, attentive to the omnipresent danger as he commanded a convoy of tankers to supply a marine base. Even years after returning home, his mad mind could not adjust to the calm of civilian life.

After a while, the fear of nightmares became more destructive than the nightmares themselves. Skluzacek remembers trying to clear them with antidepressants, anxiolytics, sleeping pills, and increasing amounts of alcohol. Nothing worked for long. The nightmares returned as a nighttime horror show. He thinks he slept about two hours a night.

Skluzacek’s life took a downward spiral – he divorced and lost his job as a mechanic – and he struggled to persevere. Then in 2015, eight years after Skluzacek returned from the war, his son Tyler had an idea.

Tyler Skluzacek, then a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, imagined programming a smartwatch to monitor and disrupt nightmares. He entered Hack DC 2015, a 36-hour hackathon dedicated to finding innovative ways to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. His team programmed a Pebble watch (an old portable device but now defunct) to measure heart rate and body movements during sleep. This would send vibrations to the wearer’s wrist as these indicators rise, signaling the onset of a nightmare. The young Skluzacek had his idea of work of assistance dogs, who lick or push veterans with PTSD who struggle or moan in their sleep, to disrupt their nightmares and allow them to sleep more peacefully. The day after returning from the hackathon, Tyler brought the prototype to his father. “I was literally building the thing for my dad,” he says. “On the way back, I had no intention of making it a business. “

Hearing that this son wanted to help, the elder Skluzacek cried. Then he started to wear the device. “I slept like a baby,” says Patrick, who has since remarried and works as a mechanic again. Most of his nightmares are gone and he no longer uses the device.

Now an updated version can help thousands of other veterans sleep better at night. Minneapolis-based startup NightWare developed Tyler’s concept, raising investment funds, partnering with the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, and conducting a clinical trial. The “Digital Therapy System” uses sensors from a specially programmed Apple Watch to create a basic sleep profile for the wearer. The sensors can then detect the increased heart rate and body movements associated with disturbed sleep. The watch delivers vibrations in 10 second cycles, increasing in intensity to awaken but not wake the wearer, until readings return to normal levels.

The first hint of strong demand for such a device came when Tyler Skluzacek’s team won the “Best Mobile App for Clinicians” award at the hackathon. The media coverage that followed drew emails from hundreds of veterans. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $ 1,200 and $ 26,000. At first, he called the device MyBivy, in reference to the bivouacs, or compact shelters that fighters use to protect themselves at night, and he tested it on other veterans.

Grady Hannah, who spent 15 years in Silicon Valley and worked in business development in the video game industry, had returned to his hometown of Minneapolis when he saw the media coverage of Tyler’s hackathon success. He first became an advisor to MyBivy, then bought the rights from Tyler to create NightWare, and is currently the CEO of the company. (Tyler is still a consultant for NightWare but does not have a formal role in the company.)

About Tommy Dodd

Tommy Dodd

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