You know the feeling: one minute you are naked in public, and the next a piercing racket shatters your dream world, leaving you with baffling shards. It is estimated that we forget 95 per cent of our dreams within five minutes of waking. The founders of a new startup propose to combat sleep amnesia by means of a mobile app, all the while building the world's largest database of human dreams.
Shadow, the startup's name, recalls a term used by Carl Jung to describe the aspects of ourselves that we do not consciously recognize. Its co-founders, New York-based Hunter Lee Soik and Vancouver-based Jason Carvalho, are backed in their ambition by over 3,000 crowdfunders and a panel of scientists and dream experts from such institutions as MIT and Harvard.
Shadow surpassed its $50,000 (U.S.) funding goal within days of launching on Kickstarter, and has now raised over $77,000. The campaign closes on November 2, and a beta version of the iOS app is expected to be available to backers in December, with the wide launch scheduled for June 2014.
"We believe that modern alarm clocks destroy dreams," said Mr. Soik, 31, in an interview in Los Angeles, "because they rip you through your hypnopompic sleep state" – the phase of partial consciousness that leads you out of sleep. By easing rather than yanking you from sleep, Shadow's escalating alarm is designed to bubble-wrap your dreams. (A future version will track your sleep patterns with motion sensor technology and adapt to your individual sleep style.)
Once you are awake, the app transforms into a recording device that lets you speak or type about your unconscious undertakings and, with your permission, pushes them to a big data cloud where dreams from around the world are parsed by algorithms, and patterns are illustrated. If you so choose, it will scrub your identity from those posts. "Ultimately we want users to be able to share and explore: we want them to be able to explore their personal dream patterns, and explore global dream themes," said Mr. Carvalho, reached by phone.
A native of Kitimat, B.C. and a graduate of the University of Victoria, Mr. Carvalho, 34, has a decade of experience at Canadian startups, and is the co-founder and CEO of MarilynJean.com, an online shopping club for families. A self-described digital marketing expert Mr. Carvalho handles operations, marketing and finance for Shadow, while Mr. Soik serves as CEO and guides product decisions.
Mr. Carvalho said that Shadow's Kickstarter funding would serve as operating cash until the end of 2013, taking them through building the iOS and Android versions of the app, and that talks with angel investors were underway for future financing. "Choosing an investor is like choosing a life partner," he said. "You want to make sure your vision and values line up."
Mr. Soik, who previously founded a consulting agency at the intersection of fashion and technology, cuts a sleek figure in a black T-shirt, skinny black jeans and a black Jawbone fitness-tracking wristband. "We're not another social network," he said. "Our goal is not to do ad revenue based on people's dreams, serve them ads from Coca Cola and try to make money. Our goal is to create a platform to push human consciousness forward."
Shadow's global advisory panel bridges the intellectual gap between the neurology of sleep and the subjective experience of dreaming, with experts from disparate disciplines drawn to Shadow by the research possibilities a global sleep and dream database would represent.
"This is like a window into the collective unconscious," said Shadow advisor and neuropsychology researcher Umberto León Domínguez, borrowing from Jungian terminology. If it works, Shadow will "provide wonderful data about ourselves – about humanity," Mr. Dominguez said during a video interview from Berlin. "We can't imagine what we are going to see."
"Shadow is about 20 to 50 years ahead of its time," said Hugo Liu, an MIT data scientist charged with building Shadow's "dream API." Bespectacled and wild haired, Dr. Liu claimed to hail "from the cloud" (he was born in Xi'an, China and grew up in Massachusetts), and works by day as Chief Scientist at Hunch.com, a taste prediction company that was acquired by eBay.
"It's still crazy to even think about, but imagine the patterns that may emerge out of the dreams across thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people." With this level of data, he said, it might be possible to make "dream projections" in the same way that we now predict the weather. "We could be using Shadow in 50 years to make economic predictions," he said. "Maybe we'll be looking at dreams as the index of wellbeing of an entire nation."
On a more intimate scale, many advisors see Shadow as a valuable tool for individuals seeking to understand themselves better. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, has written a book about how remembered dreams have informed the work of some of the world's most creative people. "We're thinking in such a different biochemical state as we sleep – our dreams can visualize things in 3-D more vividly than we can do awake," said Dr. Barrett. "Simply paying attention to one's dreams, people get a lot of additional ideas and inspiration that their waking mind wouldn't come up with."
Mr. Soik had an experience that supports that theory: he came up with the idea for Shadow while sleeping on the beach in Mexico, where he was recovering from a stint as a creative consultant on tour with Jay-Z and Kanye West, and having "profound" dreams for the first time in a decade. "If I can put together huge campaigns for music moguls and fashion brands, why can't I do it for scientists? Why can't I do it for people who I really think are going to change the world?" he paused, collecting his thoughts. "I guess in that sleep on the beach, I kind of woke up to what I wanted to be."