A fu­ture fi­nally free of cell­phone charg­ers gets a lit­tle closer

‘This is not a trick’: De­vices are pow­ered via ul­tra­sound waves

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Marco della Cava @mar­codel­la­cava

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

ROBERT HANASHIRO, USA TO­DAY

The start-up uBeam’s wire­less charg­ing tech­nol­ogy has come head to head with skep­tics.

ROBERT HANASHIRO, USA TO­DAY

Mered­ith Perry, 27, has bro­ken her si­lence on solv­ing one of smart­phone users’ big­gest headaches.

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