Hong Kong (CNN) — As you walk up the staircase in central Hong Kong, a mural of a woman hugging a pillow appears on the adjacent wall, followed by a message reading: "I'm so good at sleeping, I can do it with my eyes closed."
This is the approach to SLEEEP, billed as Hong Kong's first licensed capsule hotel open to both men and women, which hopes to become a haven for the city's sleep-deprived.
Covering just 367 square feet, it houses eight award-winning capsules, called SLPers, each big enough for one person to sit up or lie down in. The wooden paneled pods have ambient lighting and a felt curtain "door" that closes with magnetic clips. They won a Red Dot Design Award in 2018, and are the brainchild of lifelong friends Alex Kot and Jun Rivers, who were born in Hong Kong.
The wooden paneled pods won a Red Dot Design Award in 2018.
The SLPers, Kot says, offer an "alternative way of living" to citydwellers.
"One no longer needs to pay a premium for a large private space to sleep in. You can time share the SLPer ... and share common areas and utilities with others," he explains.
City that never sleeps
Hong Kong is one of the densest cities in the world. Its population of 7.4 million people is crammed into just over 1,000 square kilometers, much of which is too mountainous to inhabit. For comparison, London covers 1,580 square kilometers.
"In Hong Kong, this density has manifested in micro-apartments, cage homes, long commutes, sleep deprivation and, arguably, angry citizens," says Rivers.
Furthermore, the urban night sky in Hong Kong is as much as 1,000 times brighter than international norms, making this one of the most light polluted cities in the world, according to a study by the University of Hong Kong. Excess artificial light after dusk can cause sleeplessness, according to the American Academy of Neurology. Esther Yuet Ying Lau, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong's psychology department, who studies sleep, says "Hong Kong is well-known as a sleepless city."
As well as population density and light pollution, sleep in the city is also disrupted by factors such as "long work hours, stressful lifestyles and bad habits." For the latter, she cites late meal times and the nighttime use of digital devices, which emit blue-wavelength light "that delays our circadian clock."
Capsule hotels -- those with extremely small rooms designed only for sleeping in -- were pioneered in the late 1970s in Japan, catering to the salaryman who needed a place in town to crash after working late.
Today, however, you can find these hotels around the world from New York to Sydney, providing bootstrapping travelers with cheap accommodation and office workers a place to rest their head on their lunch break.
A 2017 report found that the capsule hotel market was valued at $159 million in 2016 and is forecast to reach $226 million in 2022, with China highlighted as a key market.
Lau says a nap as short as 10 minutes can effectively improve alertness and mood, and that 65% of Hong Kong adults regularly take one or more naps weekly.
Rivers and Kot used SLEEEP to make that nap more convenient for Hong Kongers, by tapping into the shared economy model that has seen the likes of Uber and AirBnb thrive.
"We have turned a space in a prime location, which would have housed perhaps a couple, and been left empty whenever the occupants were out for work or other activities, into a space that has been able to serve thousands of guests," says Rivers.
A visitor relaxes in a sleeping module at Tokyo's Capsule Inn Akihabara, in 2007.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
For Hong Kong resident, Adrian Chung, SLEEEP helps him to get through some of his craziest days at work. "With a one- or two-hour nap I can function for the rest of the day and attend all of the evening events that I need to," he says.
Chung goes to SLEEEP at least once a week and calls it his "haven away from work."
How SLEEEP works
For $12, SLEEEP lets visitors stay for as little as 45 minutes. The most popular option is the two-hour plan, which costs $25, with most customers checking in over lunchtime.
When SLEEEP customers book online, they can choose details down to their preferred mattress density and bedding. They then receive a QR code to open their capsule door, resulting in a cardless check in system. While during office hours an "experience officer" meets guests, after hours the facility is fully automated.
SLEEEP is not Hong Kong's only capsule hotel -- there is also L'étoile de Mer in Causeway Bay, which caters mainly to females.
"It was an extremely challenging task to try incorporating all the details in this 367 square feet space," says Kot. "At the next site, we hope to separate the locker area with the sleeping area and have a common hangout area where guests can mingle."
The founders want to expand globally, so international citizens can benefit from what they refer to as the "dream incubator."
Explaining the moniker, Rivers explains: "If you do not sleep, you cannot dream."