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Sleep machine promises better rest at night

/ Source: The Associated Press

In fading light, the murmur of a cool stream soothes your jangled nerves. Your back is slowly massaged, stretching muscles exhausted from the long commute home.

Before you know it, you’re fast asleep.

It sounds like treatment you might get at an exotic resort. But a Japanese company has developed a sleep machine system it says will deliver a full eight hours of Z’s in your own bedroom.

Matsushita Electric Works will open its “Sleep Room” to the public in Tokyo next week, giving the weary a chance to get a scientific take on their sleep patterns — and take a nap.

With sleep disorders a rising concern in Japan, the company is betting the elaborate system, which includes a special bed, wide-screen TV and sound-absorbent walls, will cater to a growing market.

“We think that if we put all of these things together, we can solve some of the sleeping problems in Japan,” said Takahiro Heiuchi, a Matsushita official running the demonstration.

Awake all night

Those problems are deep in a country where students begin burning the midnight oil in elementary school and workers put in long hours at the office and the train ride home.

A Health Ministry survey showed in 2000 that 31 percent of Japanese say they don’t get enough sleep because of work, school or commuting. Another 29 percent said stress was the top cause of their lack of shuteye.

The “sleep room,” in fact, is part of a general boom in products in Japan — from special pillows and new-age music to aromatherapy and computerized dream-inducers — that promise customers better rest at night.

There’s no shortage of shuteye in the sleep room, which has been open to Matsushita employees and media since the beginning of June.

Visitors walk past a row of mechanical massage recliners in a showroom where office workers in shirts and ties are zonked out for their mid-afternoon naps. A sign on the wall reads: “Supporting your vitality level 24 hours a day.”

At the “Vitality Diagnostic Corner,” a “sleep counselor” leads visitors through a 30-minute, Matsushita-developed software program designed to pinpoint sleep problems and put out a “sleep profile.”

With that out of the way, customers are free to pass into a separate bedroom and get down to business with the sleep machine.

Inside the experience

The 30-minute session in the sleep room — about the size of a small hotel room and programmed with a control panel in the wall — starts with the bed upright like a recliner. A huge TV screen is positioned high above the dresser to meet perfectly with your line of vision, showing verdant scenes of a river ambling through a forest.

Gentle guitar and piano music plays against a backdrop of trickling water and birdsong.

After a few minutes relaxing like that, the sleep machine takes over: the lights slowly dim, the TV screen goes blank, the music dies down — but the stream still babbles — and the bed lowers into sleeping position.

Hold onto the sheets for what comes next: a mechanical massage. The mattress vibrates and bulges strategically under your upper and lower back, stretching your spine to its limits.

Eventually, the lights turn off completely, the massage peters out and air is released from the mattress, allowing your body to settle gently into place — and into the first dream of the night.

The sleep machine eases you out of your dreams as well. The lights come on slowly and the TV turns on with a crystal lake on the screen. The curtains open automatically to morning, and the bed lifts you into sitting position.

At Matsushita, a night of rest isn’t cheap. Rieko Saitoh, a company publicist, says the whole system is expected to go on sale in June 2005 — to the tune of $30,000.

Still, company officials say that even if the price is high, customers won’t lose much sleep over it.

“Nobody who’s come in here for 30 minutes hasn’t fallen asleep,” said Heiuchi.