Forest of Sleep: Data Enabled Digital Environments

Presentation and speaker notes on my project surrounding the visualization of sleep data.

Many of the current platforms aimed at building healthy habits come in two forms — one that collects data through the use of sensors embedded in your phone or in a smartwatch like a Fitbit or an Apple watch, and presents the data to you in numerical, or graph, form, and the other that takes user input or interaction, and uses it to grow or create something, be it a plant, a town, or otherwise.

In my use of many of these apps, I found myself intrigued for short periods of time, maybe a week or two, but once the data stop interesting me, or the plant I was growing matured or died, it lost its nuance, and I stopped using it. I began looking for interesting ways that Fitbit sleep data could be translated into an immersive visualization that had no qualitative “end point” like some apps — it couldn’t ever reach a perfect state, and couldn’t die/disappear.

I began by categorizing different actions related to sleep into how positively or negatively we value them — some examples on the positive side being things like brushing your teeth before bed or getting out of bed within 10 minutes of your alarm going off. In the center I organized occurrences that we value as positive or negative, but that are less actionable, although they’re connected to things we can control — for example, things like waking up tired or getting over 8 hours of sleep in one night.

I decided to lean on the metaphor of a forest to use in relation to sleep, prompted by the similarities between the depth and mystery of woods, and how we don’t consciously experience sleep, leaving many of its processes mysterious. I began to develop my project The Forest of Sleep, an interactive data-enabled digital environment that used Fitbit data concerning sleep to inform the shape of trees in a digital forest you could move through.

Once I worked through the technical difficulties of generating a digital forest, I began to do some participatory research with people looking into the way they were able to translate sleep value into other visual forms, from the abstract, to the form of a tree.

I then began experimenting with different data values and how they affected different tree variables to generate trees with different forms.

I then used these forms to create probes for a second stage of research. I hoped that by getting participants to take existing digital tree forms and label different formal elements of the trees (trunk radius, branch placement, branch width, etc.) and translate them to values around sleep (number of hours, depth of sleep, satisfaction level), I would be able to find patterns between variables and create concrete parameters for how the sleep data would transform the trees.

This research is ongoing, as I hope to establish more patterns between tree form and sleep value.

At a later stage in this project, I plan to make the forest VR compatible and have it be something users can interact with right before they go to sleep. The purpose of this is two-fold — to allow the user to reflect on their sleep practices and habits before they go to bed so that they remain engaged and mindful of their sleep practices and the habits they engage in that affect their sleep, and as a meditative practice, where calming visuals and birdsong relax the user while cutting of things like phone use that might persuade them against going to bed.

Enter your forest to see and move around the trees generated by your sleep data from the past week, taken from your Fitbit. Continued use and the input of more qualitative data surrounding your sleep, such as adherence to routines or abstaining from things that will negatively impact your sleep, like coffee, generate new environmental aspects for your forest, like sound, and other forms of life like birds or new plants.

Move to a new scene in the experience, where you can see your average tree and the data that generated it. Using sliders, you can see how getting more or less sleep would impact the form of your tree. Through this users are nudged to improve their habits on timescales larger than a day — what would your forest look like if you got thirty more minutes of sleep each night this week? What about an hour?

Demo video below

Demo showing a sample forest.

Moving forward I hope to embed more functionality into my working demo so that you can look at the difference between your forest generated from this week’s data, vs. this month’s, or this year’s. Through this, I again want to encourage users to prioritize their sleep on more than a nightly basis, by showing them a visualization of sleep over a longer period of time. I also plan to translate this to VR so I can test my demo with people to understand how to make it both something that is calming, and that uses the metaphor of a forest in a way that is clearly translated into one’s sleep.

You can contact me at for more information.



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