We’re a restless nation. More than a third of American adults don’t get enough ZZZs, shortening our tempers, wrecking our decision-making ability, and increasing our anxiety and raising our chances of heart disease. And while lots of things keep people up at night, one common problem is simply noise: sirens, delivery trucks, late-night revelers, overprotective dogs, Dad snoring down the hall, you name it.
There are many ways to block it all out, whether it’s wearing earplugs or running a fan or a white-noise machine. But Christopher Calisi, CEO of Waltham’s Cambridge Sound Management, thinks he has a better way for you to shush those sounds.
His 18-year-old company, whose sound-masking systems are often used to increase employees’ power to concentrate and sense of privacy in companies with open floor plans, is moving into the consumer market. Cambridge Sound’s equipment essentially makes noise to block noise. It fills your ears with unobtrusive sound waves, so that noises coming from farther away on similar frequencies — especially people talking — don’t get in (white-noise machines or fans produce sounds across a wider spectrum). This has a hushing effect without being super loud. One survey indicates that 5 percent of Americans already use a sound-conditioning device in their bedrooms. Between getting people to switch and luring converts, Calisi saw a potential market in the billions.
Several challenges loomed. Companies that use Cambridge Sound’s technology often put its speakers, which are a bit smaller than coffee mugs, in the ceiling. But for consumers, the product would have to be easy to install. Ideally it would also be portable, so it could come along on trips that involved noisy hotel rooms.
After a year and a half of development, Cambridge Sound came up with a small sound-masking machine that looks like a thicker version of an outlet wall plate (it has holes for plugs, so you don’t lose outlets). The $299 Nightingale Smart Home Sleep System began shipping in March. The units are meant to be plugged into two different walls in a bedroom to create a “sound blanket” across the entire room. Inside, the devices have sound emitters as well as Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-connected electronics, so you can manage them from a smartphone or tablet app, Google Home, or Amazon’s Alexa service. You can also use a smart-home service called If This Then That to set alerts.
Like its nocturnal eponym, the Nightingale sleep system can make many different sounds. There are settings for rooms with hardwood floors and other solid surfaces, as well as for rooms with carpeting and drapes. There also are frequencies meant to counteract snoring (in an adjacent bedroom) and to stop tinnitus sufferers from hearing a ringing in their ears.
In my street-facing bedroom, the static-like hiss from the Nightingales provided a mild background noise that nonetheless muffled sounds from the road. You can instead choose a few nature sounds, though I’m amazed people can fall asleep to a loon call.
Calisi says that getting the customizable sound-masking hardware into a compact package and making it link to online services like Alexa made for “the most complex product I’ve ever built” in 30 years of working in technology. He also knew much of the competition (white-noise apps for phones, holding a pillow over your head) was free. So Cambridge Sound ran a Kickstarter campaign to gauge interest in the product. More than 500 people ponied up deposits totaling just over $100,000. That has Calisi dreaming about putting a lot of people to sleep.
Dimensions: 4.3 inches high by 2.7 inches wide by 1.7 inches thick (unplugged)
Connectivity: Controlled by a smartphone or tablet running iOS and, later this spring, Android; links with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, to let you use voice commands
Options: 15 variations on ambient sound and five natural sounds (think crickets chirping); the $299 system includes a pair of units, which can also work as night lights
Brian Bergstein is a writer in Brookline and editor-at-large at MIT Technology Review. Send letters to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.