USA TODAY US Edition
A future finally free of cellphone chargers gets a little closer
‘This is not a trick’: Devices are powered via ultrasound waves
A year ago, Meredith Perry, founder of a well-funded start-up that promised a revolution in technology — charging smartphones over the air using ultrasound waves — went into self-imposed exile.
No interviews, few appearances. Just head down on work.
Her company uBeam, bankrolled by $26 million in Silicon Valley capital enthused about solving this thorniest of modernday tech problems, had been called a fraud by a former engineer. Media reports compared Perry to Elizabeth Holmes, whose high-flying blood analysis company, Theranos, has suffered an ignominious fall.
“Our industry is binary,” says Perry, 27. “Your tech works or it doesn’t. We needed to show that it works.”
In May, Perry broke her silence, giving USA TODAY a first look at uBeam’s technology in action, which harnesses ultrasound and optical lasers to charge multiple phones at once at a distance of up to 10 feet. Walk into a uBeamoutfitted room, say, a coffee shop, and within seconds, your phone should be getting juice.
Fear that she’d be called a fraud were omnipresent during the demonstration: First, Perry took this reporter to a nearby T-Mobile
“We’ve met with the biggest technology companies in the world, and they keep telling us to come back.” Mark Suster, who led an early round of funding for uBeam
store to buy a new Samsung Galaxy S7 for the test, a way to counter skeptics who might wonder if she could fake it by using her own phone. .
“This is not a trick,” she says, slipping the new phone into a chunky 3-D printed case.
Perry flips the switch on a large box. A quiet hum fills the conference room as the entrepreneur asks her visitor to pick up the smartphone and hold it in front of the box about 4 feet away.
Ping, the smartphone chirps. “Charging,” the icon message reads. And not a cable in sight. Perry beams. For uBeam and a handful of other tech companies, this is the halcyon future for smartphone users who find themselves tethered to walls and kiosks, all in need of a power outlet. In this blissful, cord- less world, tech gadgets never run on empty, powered by energybroadcasting transmitters hidden away in the walls of cars, businesses and homes.
Asked when uBeam might hit the market, Perry shakes her head. “I’m out of the prediction game.” But the implication was that the team still had another year or more of testing to tackle some key hurdles to commercialization.
Today, most wireless charging doesn’t quite live up to that title. While the user may not plug the phone into a charger, instead resting it on a pad, that energy-emitting pad is connected to the wall. UBeam is different: Its tech broadcasts a beam of high-frequency sound waves that are captured by a receiver lodged in a phone case and reconfigured as electricity. The implicit advantage of uBeam’s approach is that it allows charging while your phone remains in use in your hand.
For the technology that underwrites this vision, Perry has amassed, along with a host of critics, funding from investors such as Mark Cuban, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.
“2016 was both the best and the worst year of my life,” she says. “We made some huge breakthroughs, but my credibility, which is all I have, was stripped away.”
If uBeam or any other company can nail an effortless way to charge devices without cables, it could claim a healthy slice of what promises to be a $37.2 billion pie by 2022, up from $1.9 billion in 2015, according to Allied Market Research.
A large part of that wirelesscharging growth is being spurred by big-ticket items such as electric cars, some of which can charge simply by driving over a large pad that uses induction technology.
But as the number of household and personal items goes electric and wireless, the ability to power them without batteries or recharging could also help users of smaller devices, such as hearing aids.
One question is safety. Experts point out that ultrasound is used without a problem in medical procedures such as MRIs and fetal scans and that common devices such as backup parking sensors employ the principle.
Perry says the sound waves generated by uBeam tech are safe, and the company will conduct thirdparty tests “to assure folks the technology is completely safe.”
Another issue is simply whether the technique can generate enough power to keep multiple devices up and running, especially if some are larger than a smartphone.
“In general, just like with any other signal, there’s an issue with it getting weaker the farther away it travels from the transmission source,” says Alexander Wyglinski, associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a member of the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
Delivering power through ultrasound “is probably doable, but this is its technically challenging problem, and it would be great to see if it can materialize into a product,” he says.
One skeptic turned convert is Matt O’Donnell, whose early career saw him at General Electric and involved with the creation of the MRI, which uses ultrasound to take images of the body.
“When Meredith called me in 2015, I was curious and skeptical as hell, because you just hadn’t seen efficient airborne transducers,” says O’Donnell, dean emeritus at the University of Washington’s college of engineering, who now serves as uBeam’s chief technology adviser. “But the leaps they’ve made in the past 18 months have been impressive.”
Even if uBeam has just cracked the ultrasound charging code, its financial success is dependent more on its partners, says Amy Teng, a Taiwan-based analyst with Gartner.
“uBeam still has a lot it needs to do,” she says.
The company faces a trio of challenges familiar to most startup ventures, looking for reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency while chasing the best possible partnership, says Mark Suster, whose Upfront Ventures firm led an early round of funding for uBeam.
That means further miniaturizing the transmitter (into what would amount to a ceiling tile) and the case (it should resemble current slip-on covers) while persuading big brands to take the leap.
“Ubiquity is what will improve our customer experience,” he says, noting that ideally uBeam will, like WiFi, find its way in chains such as Starbucks, high-end gyms and airport lounges.
Suster says he counsels Perry to “ignore the naysayers” and push on. “We’ve met with the biggest technology companies in the world, and they keep telling us to come back.”
Here’s what USA Today observed. After the T-Mobile store visit, the new phone was unboxed and slipped into a case fitted with countless small transducers that act as a receiver of the ultrasonic waves. Across the room was the white box, also fitted with transducers, which creates the sonic beam.
When the phone’s case was held up by a reporter in the path of the ultrasonic beam, the charging icon would light up. Move a few inches away, and the icon would vanish.
Asked why the battery percentage didn’t appear to increase rapidly, Perry shakes her head.
“You’re thinking about it the wrong way,” she says. “If you’re moving from your car to a coffee shop to work and your phone is charging while you’re using it, it’s no longer about what percentage. You could stay at 1% all day.”
The limits of the demo are obvious. The phone cannot be in your pocket because its case-receiver needs to collect the sound waves. uBeam invited USA TODAY back later to show how it could track five phones at up to 10 feet.
“This may seem novel now, but our mission is to have charging become a passive experience,” Perry says. “It will fade into the background.”
“Our industry is binary. Your tech works or it doesn’t. We needed to show that it works.” Meredith Perry, uBeam founder, on her company’s early struggles