uBeam Wireless Charging: Hope, Hype or Both?

by • January 12, 2016 • Comments (0)


After generating excitement and attracting investors, wireless charging start-up uBeam is hitting a rough patch.

Energy is a big topic and uBeam became a darling of the unicorn set when 26-year old entrepreneur Meredith Perry announced plans to market a wireless charging device. No more wires!

But wait, wireless charging pads already exist. Despite the competition, Ms. Perry insists her proprietary ultrasound technology is literally the wave of the future.

As noted by Ms. Perry, the true capabilities of wireless power remain untapped since first pulled from the ether by Nikola Tesla in the 1800’s. Mr. Tesla was the brilliant mind ahead of his time whose thinking shed light on dynamic processes such as alternating current (AC) and power generation.

Is uBeam the company making good on the promise of wireless power?

Beam or bust? And what about bats?

In response to growing questions about the secretive technology behind uBeam, Ms. Perry wrote a lengthy promotional piece on the uBeam website to explain her product. A couple of points from her treatise include:

  • uBeam claims it has developed an intelligent, powerful transmitter to synthesize and direct ultrasound waves to receptive devices where it is quickly converted to usable power.
  • A recently published article in the journal Ultrasonics explores the safety of delivering ultrasound power to receivers in porcine patients. In other words, scientists implanted receivers into pigs and charged the receivers using an ultrasound charging process.  No tissue damage to the pigs was reported.
  • No bat will be harmed in the uBeam process. The ultrasound signal is transmitted only to a previously identified receiver, such as the anticipated uBeam phone case.

In theory, with your phone in its uBeam case, it can receive a charge and you are on your way. Or you could make use of the technology at your local coffee shop.

Still, like wireless charging pads, uBeam requires a specialized receiver unit (either built-in, or in your phone case), and transmitter, neither of which have been demonstrated and examined as fully-functioning prototypes.

As investors jump on board the uBeam bandwagon without the benefit of vetted, large-scale studies of uBeam tech, comparisons with the biotech start-up, Theranos, are inevitable. Theranos is currently under fire from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and losing large contract opportunities with retail grocer, Safeway, and drug company, Walgreens. Why? Because of allegedly inflated claims about the science behind – and the accuracy of – their products.

Theranos and uBeam have both attracted significant investment and made ground-breaking claims. Neither has delivered on those claims—despite significant hype. A comment made about Theranos in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), could as easily apply to uBeam if it cannot readily deliver the goods, “Stealth research creates total ambiguity about what evidence can be trusted in a mix of possibly brilliant ideas, aggressive corporate announcements, with mass media hype.”

A recent EEVblog Electronics Community Forum piece takes a grounded walk through uBeam space. From what we know, these seem to be relevant points about uBeam:

  • To charge a device, a transmitter must be close by. Ultrasound waves do not penetrate barriers, like clothes, bodies, walls, and furniture. Close line of sight with a transmitter is essential. While useful, this does not approach the ability of Wi-Fi, a service to which uBeam has been compared.
  • With no comparative energy studies, it is not clear whether uBeam is more environmentally responsible, economical, or practical, than an electrical outlet.
  • Ultrasound weakens rapidly in space, to approximately half strength within about nine feet.

This is a breakthrough age for mobility and the tech that supports it. It is also a time of unparalleled hype and hyperbole in hopes of being the next new thing. The manufacture and release of a uBeam product has been delayed several times, and is now scheduled for sometime this year. Will uBeam generate enough interest, success – and power – to charge your device? We shall see…

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