My Q and A With Hush's Daniel Lee on the Intersection of Sleep and Wearable Technology

06/01/2015 08:08 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Daniel Lee is a co-founder of Hush, the earplugs that block out sleep-disrupting noises while remaining wirelessly connected to your smartphone so you don't sleep through your alarm. In answer to my questions, he shared his insights on why such a product is needed, how poor sleep can affect our most important relationships, and the future of wearable technology.

Why did you see a need for Hush? What inspired you to create the product?

There are a lot of noises that can keep you up at night. Not only do they ruin your entire night, but the resulting lack of sleep also completely debilitates your day afterwards. As a college student, I discovered this to be especially true, as I constantly found myself trying to sleep through the onslaught of loud parties, snoring roommates, and screaming housemates. One night, as I was lying in bed next to a particularly irritating "celebration" next door, I desperately thought that there just had to a better way; I needed to be able to block out all these noises but, at the same time, still hear my alarm to wake up for classes in the morning. That's when the idea for Hush hit me -- smart earplugs that could play soothing sounds to block out more noise than normal earplugs but also connect wirelessly to my phone so that I could still hear the notifications I needed!

At the beginning, Hush was just an idea for a product that I really wanted for myself as a sleep-deprived college student, but I soon found that there were a lot of other people as well whose sleep is consistently compromised by their surroundings. From the frequent travelers dealing with loud plane rides and noisy hotels to the city dwellers suffering from street traffic and bustling nightlife, there were a lot of people that I could end up helping by turning this idea into a real product. A statistic that got me really passionate was that one in four American couples end up sleeping in separate bedrooms as a result of snoring; that's a lot of strained marriages. By actually following through and manufacturing Hush, I could give all these suffering people a way to command control over their sleep and ultimately drastically improve their quality of life.

What did you consider when designing the world's first "smart earplugs"?

Comfort. Fitting the electronics that make Hush "smart" into an in-ear device comfortable enough to be slept with was definitely the hardest obstacle to overcome. We knew we had to make Hush small, and we think we've done a pretty good job with that, as Hush is now, to our understanding, the smallest Bluetooth-enabled wearable there is. Hush cradles into the ear, lying flush to the head in a way that it can be comfortable even for side sleepers. On top of making Hush small, we also knew that we had to make Hush customizable, as every ear is different, and every person has a different idea of what is comfortable. That's why we've made a variety of tip choices available, from foam to silicone to even a DIY custom-molded option! We've taken the approach of offering all the effective options we could find and letting the user select which one he or she likes best! Even still, there remains an initial barrier for some to getting used to Hush, for those not accustomed to sleeping with earplugs, or anything in their ears, for that matter.

Describe your Kickstarter campaign. What level of interest did you get? What did people have to say about Hush?

The response to our Kickstarter campaign was outstanding -- $600,000 pledged in 40 days! We had set up a TV in the office with our Kickstarter page up, and it was exhilarating to see the funding numbers jump up by the thousands every morning! We had people from all over the world wanting to preorder, and also a shocking number of people that wanted to sell and distribute our product as well. It was huge validation to have others see Hush as the answer to their problems, and to have people eagerly put money down to support it. We didn't have the big budgets of those huge multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaigns to push marketing or do any of that sort, so to receive the huge organic response that we did, with tens of thousands of people organically liking, sharing, and writing about Hush, was pretty surreal. There were a lot of people thanking us for creating Hush, and it was euphoric to have other people sharing in our vision.

Did you have a target demographic in mind when creating Hush?

I touched on this in an earlier answer, but I initially imagined college students, snoring-spouse victims, city dwellers, and frequent travelers to be our target demographics. However, through our Kickstarter, I found those with tinnitus to be a particularly passionate demographic as well, as people with tinnitus need noise masking to help them sleep through the irritating ringing that becomes especially acute at night. I was also told that Hush could be a game changer for those with misophonia, a condition where strong negative emotions are triggered by specific sounds, and those with hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to certain frequencies. There were a lot of other use cases that also came up, such as productivity, but the target that we're staying laser-focused on is Hush's application for enabling sleep in the midst of noisy environments. Nonetheless, it's great to hear that Hush can be used to help many people in a variety of ways that we didn't even necessarily design it for!

What do you see as the future of the sleep wearable business?

In general, I've found that wearables simply track your sleep data only to tell you that you had poor sleep quality, and they stop there. That's the disconnect for me: They don't actually solve the problem; they just tell you that you have one. Many of us already know that we sleep poorly, and we don't need technology to tell us that we're feeling terrible in the morning. Sleep wearables need to extend beyond just telling you that you're sleeping poorly to actually helping you sleep better. I see the future of the sleep-wearable business, and the wearable business as a whole, as one where the next generation takes "enabling" to heart rather than just "tracking," one where products actively provide you a way to deal with problems rather than just informing you about those problems. The first generation of "tracking" wearables served its purpose, as the first step is knowing you have a problem before you can address it. But with the growing, widespread understanding of the importance of sleep, I believe the world is primed for the "enabling" generation of wearables!