‘Sex with celebrities & flying on dragons’: How tech industry re-imagines lucid dreams
Some credit the boost in interest to the 2010 blockbuster Inception which created a fantasy vision of dream engineering where people could hack the dreams of others and steal secrets from their subconscious.
Others believe the rise in popularity of the nocturnal ‘hobby’ is in line with the on-demand Netflix loving-culture we inhabit. Not content with merely sleeping, we now want to also control the dream process to live out our greatest desires.
So what exactly is lucid dreaming and why are startups flooding to Kickstarter in a bid to launch their latest aid to enhance the experience?
A lucid history
The practice of achieving this hybrid state of consciousness dates back more than 1,000 years in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist monks seeking enlightenment. Lucid dreaming is considered one of the core principles of Dream Yoga - a spiritual practice considered by its practitioners as an important part of the preparation for death.
The term ‘lucid dreaming’ describes the dissociated state of the dreamer who is aware they are dreaming and can therefore exert control over the process. It was coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Willems van Eeden. He classed lucid dreams as the seventh and ‘most interesting’ type of dream and highlighted the importance of finding a “scientific order” to explain the phenomenon.
In the late 1970s scientific research determined that lucid dreaming was like all dreaming which occurs during REM sleep, but it was Stanford University psychophysiologist Stephen La Berge who brought the idea of conscious dreaming into the mainstream with his ongoing research in the area.
He developed an eye signaling method in the 1980s in which trained sleeping subjects could alert researchers when they were experiencing a lucid dream. From this, he determined that flashing lights into a subject's eyes during REM sleep could induce a lucid dream state and produced the, now-defunct, NovaDreamer mask in 1992.
A lucid dreaming industry emerges - through Kickstarter
La Berge’s work provided the basis for the ‘Remee Mask’ launched amidst much hype thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 by entrepreneurs Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan.
The crowdfunding campaign easily surpassed its target of $35,000, raising a whopping $572,891.
The overwhelming reaction to its launch no doubt gave others confidence that there was a market for such devices and contributed to the rise of similar Kickstarter campaigns. Some proved controversial and none was quite able to emulate Remee’s success.
It had, by that point, greatly surpassed its target of $40,000, raising over $360,000.
GXP halted the crowdfunding campaign, saying it had secured alternative funding for their device. They subsequently issued a statement accusing a competitor of starting the rumor and apologised to backers for canceling the project.
GPX also said their lucid dreaming product would still be launched thanks to the support of a single investor, however at the time of writing it doesn’t appear to have reached the market.
Another, somewhat more niche, lucid dreaming aid, the nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) lucid dreamer, failed to reach its $50,000 funding goal last year. The novel premise for the device was that it would detect a man’s erection and send an audio cue to trigger a lucid dream. The project raised $7,000.
Newcomers to the market
The makers of Remee, however, don’t seem threatened by new developments in the industry.
“We have heard of a few things being worked on, but they've been in development for years and don't seem to be much closer to actually entering the market than they were when they were announced,” Remee co-founder McGuigan told RT.
He believes though that there is huge potential for the lucid dreaming industry as the related tech improves.
“The sky’s the limit! Computers and sensors are getting smaller and more powerful. It's not unrealistic to think that we will be able to decode dream data in our lifetimes,” he said, referencing pioneering research at UC Berkeley on vision reconstruction.
New products are changing tack and adding the use of sound, brainwave measurement and even minor electrical shock to help induce lucid dreaming.
“These technologies are using more advanced methods for achieving lucidity,” he says.
Peisel doesn’t believe, however, that these devices are necessary: “I think it can be great to use technology to help someone get lucid in their dreams, but it’s not necessary. Every single person can have lucid dreams on their own without supplements or products. What these new emerging technologies can do is just open the door.”
“My only concern is being dependent on anything outside of yourself in order to be lucid. We can be lucid tonight, we can do it with only a blanket and a pillow,” he added. “Well, even that is not necessary.”
US startup iWinks raised over $290,000 on Kickstarter for its aurora dreamband and has recently announced the arrival of the first batch of mass produced devices.
The ‘dreamband’ is designed as a wearable device which uses EEG (electroencephalogram) sensors to measure your brainwaves for REM detection during sleep, and combines sound and light stimulus to induce lucidity.
Research carried out in 2014 established a link between the administration of a mild electric shock and the occurrence of lucid dreaming.
A Ukrainian company, Luciding, is now putting that to the test with their headband LucidCatcher. It uses low electrical pulses, or ‘transcranial electrical stimulation’, to provoke lucid dreams while the user is in deep REM sleep.
The technology was developed alongside researchers from Russia’s Novosibirsk State University.
They have recently released results of their tests, converting them into a ‘lucidity scale'. Manufacturing of the LucidCatchers is now underway.
The user puts the band on their head before going to bed, checking the positioning of the electrodes is correct via a related mobile app. The band is designed to detect REM as the wearer sleeps, and apply light stimulation to alert the user to the fact they are asleep.
A short documentary, Kiev Dreamers, was produced by MEL films about the new device and highlights the growing industry around escapism in Ukraine.
Chief Technology Officer at Luciding, Michael Skrychevsky, describes lucid dreaming as akin to Netflix and says many people’s wildest dreams include having sex with a celebrity and flying a dragon.
Dr Rory MacSweeney, a London-based dentist and lucid dreaming expert, told RT that while he understands the natural apprehension around using electrodes on the head for this purpose, he believes it’s a likely avenue for the industry to explore and may prove effective.
He classes the current technology as basic and limited, and doesn’t believe masks or similar “cueing” devices are a solution.
“The eye mask sends a signal into the dream to disrupt the scene so as to prompt one to the fact that they are dreaming. However, since the dreamscape is ordinarily quite a disordered field of operation, any disruption tends to go relatively unnoticed,” he pointed out. “So the mask for me is not a great solution.”
MacSweeney believes that currently the most effective aid to inducing lucidity is dietary supplements, but notes these can have side effects.
Among the most popular supplements taken for this purpose is galantamine, often referred to as the ‘lucid dreaming pill.’ It’s an alkaloid synthesized from plants, including the red spider lily and common daffodil bulbs, and is prescribed for treating dementia and Alzheimer's.
Stephen LaBerge first tested galanthamine on lucid dreamers in 2004 and established that galantamine treatments are more effective than placebos for lucid dreaming induction. These results were verified by Thomas Yushak in 2007.
Further research carried out in 2012 by LaBerge and Kristen LaMarca found that the likelihood of having a lucid dream with 8 milligrams of galantamine was almost six-times greater compared to taking a placebo.
The booming sleep industry and the potential of the lucid dreaming market
So what does the future hold for the lucid dreaming market? The sleep industry, generally, is booming as sleep and quality of sleep seems to be more difficult for the average person to obtain. The multi-billion dollar industry is thriving, with the US the single largest market, and predictions point to continued growth.
In 2015, an estimated $7.1 billion was raked in from the 2,800 sleep disorder clinics across the US.
This is expected to rise to the $10 billion mark by 2020, according to a report from industry researchers at IBISWorld.
A report by bccResearch published in 2014 predicted the global market for sleep-aid products would grow to $76.7 billion by 2019, with the sleep apnea products and diagnostics market expected to do particularly well, jumping from $11.8 billion in 2013 to $23.6 billion by 2019.
So will the growing lucid dreaming market get their piece of this profitable pie?
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“Where there is desire, there are dollars and people are becoming increasingly more curious about this state of consciousness suffice to say there is a gradual swelling of demand.” MacSweeney said.
“This is another dimension of reality that we want to explore and industry wants to pave the way,” he added.
MacSweeney believes the answer to truly enhancing this natural state of virtual reality lies in the prefrontal cortex.
“The problem is essentially that our prefrontal cortex is offline and this is where the opportunity lies. One needs to stimulate the prefrontal cortex suffice to trigger intellectual insight to recognise that one is dreaming whilst not triggering a waking response.”
“The prefrontal cortex is the key. Whoever can hack that and switch it on wins the game.”