Smart screens / Aiding sleep

Words by Michael Addelman

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Social media keeping you awake at night? Or do your eyelids droop when working late? Researchers at The University of Manchester have trialled screen technology that could help you nod off – or stay awake.

A good night’s sleep is one of those things that eludes many of us nowadays. And it’s a very modern problem thanks to the rising tide of people who speak to their doctors about screen-related sleep problems. After all, checking your phone before bed is probably not one of the best things you could do if you want to avoid counting sheep.

As hand-held digital devices are becoming increasingly popular, many of us feel we can’t get by without checking our social media and our emails at night. But help could be on its way thanks to a new form of visual display, developed by a team led by Professor Rob Lucas and Dr Annette Allen.

They’ve come up with some exciting new technology that they say could revolutionise displays, not just in smartphones, but in televisions, projectors, computer screens and tablets too. The device – which the researchers call a ‘melanopic display’ – is not only something for insomniacs; it could also be used by people such as nurses who need to use a computer at night and stay alert.

It works by allowing users to directly change the amount of cyan light coming from the screen light while keeping the colours true.

Conventional display is made up of red, green and blue primary colours, which match up with three types of photoreceptors in our eyes. The team added what they call a fourth primary colour – cyan – which controls melanopsin cells in the eye that detect light, normally during the daytime. When cyan is turned up, the participants in a trial ran by the team felt more alert; when turned down, they felt more sleepy. Saliva samples taken by the team showed higher levels of melatonin, a hormone produced by our body when it thinks it’s night.

“This outcome is exciting because it tells us that regulating exposure to cyan light alone, without changing colour, can influence how sleepy we feel,” Professor Lucas says. “Our study also shows how we can use that knowledge to provide a next generation of visual displays.

“We built our melanopic display by adapting a data projector but we would expect that this design could be applied to any type of display. Such displays could, for example, help phone-obsessed teenagers to fall asleep, or support alertness in people who need to use a computer at night.”

As an added bonus, it can also enhance the visual appearance of screens. “Our new display could actually have a wider benefit. Like adding salt to food, we aren’t necessarily aware that it’s been done, though we appreciate the effect,” says Dr Allen.

For smartphone addicts, it’s probably a bit too soon to be counting on a good night’s sleep just yet. But thanks to this new technology, the team hope that one day, checking our phones before we nod off will no longer stop us from getting our heads down for the night. It might even help us.

Energy is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons.

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