Sunday, July 2, 2017

uBeam Withdraw Claims of Wirelessly Charging TVs?

It seems someone at uBeam might read my blog, and has updated a recent posting claiming that TVs can be charged wirelessly. Their page for a recent job ad read:

uBeam is an innovation that will breed innovation. Ubiquitous wireless power will lead to a world with smaller batteries and thinner, lighter devices. With wires virtually eliminated, TVs can sit in the middle of a room cord-free and light fixtures will become “stick-on” without the need for routed power. uBeam is also a universal standard, making those bulky travel adapters a thing of the past. Imagine charging your phone, laptop or even your hearing aid virtually anywhere, without any effort. This is life powered by uBeam.

uBeam have made these claims before, such as in a panel discussion, Oct 2016, the CEO explicitly states TVs can be charged wirelessly with ultrasound, and a previous incarnation of the company website that explicitly states flat screen TV charging. The current company website still carries images showing TVs and other high power devices, so while not stated, it does seem to be implied they can be powered - hence my question as to whether it's a claim the company still stands by.

In a blog post here, I laid out the case why I believed this was near impossible/impractical due to a wide range of considerations. Well, it seems they may have accepted my carefully laid out argument, and have now changed their claims in that page:

uBeam transmits power over the air to wirelessly charge electronic devices. the company seeks to enable a world where device charging is a seamless and untethered experience. It will be the Wi-Fi of energy.

While apparently it's too difficult to do a grammar check on three sentences, it's good to see that they appear to have accepted that my argument is correct, and that it is utterly impractical to charge TVs wirelessly with ultrasound. They even noticed that it's not a universal standard and removed that statement, given the explicit ultrasound limit in most of the world would at best result in about 3 mW at a phone, enough to charge in around 3 months of it being switched off. Oh, and that standards usually have to be run through Standards Association like the IEEE and take years of input from a large committee.

This is the latest in a list of reduced deliverable or performance claims from uBeam such as 'faster than a wire' down to 'trickle charge' style rates, charging through your pocket, mass production in 2016 that never materialized, and claims of efficient and powerful transducers in 2015 that the Chair of their Technical Advisory Board apparently never saw.

Are they withdrawing their claim of wirelessly charging TVs with ultrasound, or simply saving that surprise for later? No one has stepped up to challenge my assumptions or working, and I am still happy to discuss that with anyone who cares to. As you can see, "Arguing the Point" in the manner I suggested seems to work, though I'm getting the feeling it's working better when I blog than when I worked there.

You're welcome, uBeam!


  1. Replies
    1. No, they generally don't - however if you are going to wirelessly power the device you have to account for the fact that something can get into the beam and block power for a period of time. That means you must have some form of energy storage at the TV to provide enough power during those outages. Basically, power from battery plus wireless power must, on average, cover all the use cases likely to be encountered. Unless you can be 100% certain you will never lose the wireless power connection, you *must* have a battery in the TV. You could say that nothing and no-one is allowed in the spaces around the TV, but then you may as well have a wire. Even if you want to float a TV in the middle of a room, you still have to support it somehow, may as well power via one of those wires.

      So basically to "run" a TV without wired power, any practical situation will need a battery and it will be a combined "power+charge", same as you'd have to do with your phone to simultaneously use the phone and have the battery level increase.

      In any practical situation the TV would have to change to essentially being a very large phone with battery to make wireless powering feasible, I'm just using that terminology.

    2. You never used to charge your phone, either - it had a line for both voice and power. Go back 30 years, it would be a weird turn of phrase to talk about charging your phone then.

  2. Of course they have withdrawn it, it's always been a throw-away marketing line.
    Now that they have been called out very publicly they are staring to retract previous claims. Expect more to come.

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  4. Longtime reader, first time commenter. What do you believe is uBeam's goal? After so many years even they must know that the tech isn't commercially feasible. From what I've read most of it already existed prior to their claims so there's not a lot of patents they could hold that are worth anything. They don't seem to be generating a lot of VC dollars either. They can pay themselves until they go bankrupt but then putting "uBeam" on a resume wouldn't instil confidence in potential new employers. I hate to draw the Theranos comparison but is Meredith blinded by her own ego like Holmes was/is? I can't understand what they're trying to accomplish anymore.

    1. Thanks for your well thought out, insightful, and intelligent comment. I can't comment as to the internal workings of the company, however I don't see any significant change in the direction of the company in public statements, and I've not heard anything from the investment community as to differing goals for the next round fundraise. If I had to guess, my opinion would be that the key goal for the company at this point would be 'raise Series B' and everything would be geared to that.

      One thing I'll disagree with in your comment - I wouldn't tar the individual lower level engineers with such statements. I know very few of them now, but in general the engineers doing the work are talented and probably delivering on their component, even if the overall project may raise questions. Also, if it were just about studying high power ultrasound in this frequency range in air, there's lots of experiments I'd like to run. You don't often get paid and given great equipment to examine this kind to thing, it's an opportunity to study these phenomena (if allowed) you wouldn't get otherwise. Don't underestimate an engineer's desire to work on interesting things regardless of company outcome!

  5. To the extent that uBeam and Energous (see David Pogue's latest article which features Energous continuing to roll back some, but not nearly enough, of their claims) are backing off their more absurd dreams, the actual use cases for wireless charging seem to be increasingly minimal. It may well be possibleish to do rather inefficient charging of wireless keyboards, smoke detectors, car key fobs, remote controls, etc..., but are people really going to buy bulky and expensive wireless charging equipment (and pay the electric bills to operate them) so they don't have to change the batteries in their TV remote every six months or less?

    If you can't deliver the holy grail of wireless cell phone charging anywhere in a room, there really aren't a lot of practical use cases left anybody cares about that you might possibly be able to deliver. It would be great if they could just admit that the end game of all of this is "maybe you toss your hearing aids or fitbit into a charging cup and they charge overnight at middling at best efficiency," because that would still be useful, but you can't take investors for millions on that pitch.

  6. Hello Paul,

    I just stumbled across this blog - a fascinating series of posts, and a story that sounds all-too-familiar.

    In an earlier post you referred to the "world-class team of engineers" - can you talk more about the team? Specifically, what were all these brilliant people working on for so long, and what eventually caused them to leave?

    Some posts online said that uBeam's objective was flat-out impossible, but if it was obviously impossible, I'm guessing you wouldn't have worked there. So what were the signs that gave you hope it would work out and what was it that eventually caused you to leave?

    It sounds as though Ms Packer is more someone drunk on her kool-aid, than someone trying to swindle the public. You complained about the company's poor PR in another previous post - and a pure huckster would make sure to keep their public image polished. It sounds more like a mix of delusion, overconfidence, and unwillingness to fix her own weaknesses.

    - Isaac