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uBeam Lay Off Around Half of the Employees?

Over the last week I've heard from a number of people as to some significant events at uBeam - last Monday the 10th June around half th...

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Perry Out at uBeam

uBeam cofounder and ex-CEO, Meredith Perry, recently updated her LinkedIn profile to show that not only was she was no longer in either of those roles as of September 2018 (or was it May 2018?), she is now no longer a board member at uBeam as of this month.

For someone who controls a pretty hefty amount of stock in the company, it's hard to be removed from the board. So resigned? Pushed? Founded her new venture and no time to do the arduous task of one 4 hour meeting per quarter? (She is asking about best banks for startups on her Twitter account, which you'd think having already done once she'd know...)

Interestingly it's almost 4 years to the day since I sat with a board member and lead investor and told him that IMO Perry was a liability and needed to take action or the company was in serious trouble. Well 4 years and near $30 million later and maybe he listened to me? :)

So how much longer does uBeam have? IMO it has to be measured in single digit months, possibly weeks as there's a new Acting CFO according to the webpage. We'll know soon enough.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Wired and Qi Charge Rates for a Pixel 3

Since I've been writing about wireless charging, I thought I should do some quick tests especially after being challenged by Qi advocates that I'm being harsh on the technology. A couple of years back I tested with a phone and was getting around 2 to 3 W rate, and wasn't impressed, but it has apparently improved since then (or my data point was skewed). I took my Pixel 3 which has wireless Qi Charging, and tested with two wired and two wireless options. The phone is about 2 months old, so hard to get a better test case, and the battery is around 10 Wh in capacity. For the wired tests I used the USB C cable and adapter that came with the phone (18 Watt), then an Anker 60 W PowerPort Atom PD 2 with a USB C cable rated for up to 100 W(about $60 worth of charging gear). For the wireless Qi I used the Google Wireless Charger for Pixel ($80) and an LK Qi Fast Wireless Charging Pad ($16). (Annoyingly the LK cable in the box only goes to a USB A, you need a USB adapter to actually plug into).

Google Wireless Charger (Left) and LK Fast Wireless Charger (Right)

Now this was not a scientific experiment where I placed the phone on the chargers with sub-mm precision, made sure the environment was identical each time, or run multiple tests to check for outliers, so there's going to be some error here. I also didn't use any high end equipment to measure the performance, just the % battery as reported by the phone itself, and the clock, so especially early on there will be some integer related errors - however this is more as an example of what a user will actually experience, and in the end the results were pretty definitive.

The Pixel charges faster to about 50%, then starts to slow down. The out-of-the-box wired approach gets to 50% in under half an hour, and a full charge in about 1h15min, while the more expensive wired charger takes around 35 minutes to get to 50% but then 1h46min to get to 100%, with about 25 minutes of that being the last 10%, not sure why it slowed down so much (I did look at the battery temperature, it didn't report as high). Assuming 10Wh in the battery, that means an 11W rate for the first 50% of the charge and 8W overall with the default charger, and around 8.6W/5.7W for the Anker charger. It looks like, with this one data point, that there's no point in spending the money or using anything other than the default wire charger for a Pixel 3.

For the wireless Qi approach the official Google Wireless Charger for Pixel takes about an hour to get to 50% charge, and 2h30min to fully charge, giving a 50% charge rate of ~5W and overall at 4W. I did not see the 10W fast charging claimed for a Pixel 3 - my results are a bit slower than I saw in this article, which got 22% charge in 15 minutes (an effective 8.8W rate). I have a plastic case on my phone, I tried with and without the case and it really made no difference to the rate. For the LK Charger, it's 1h40min to 50%, and nearly 4 hours to 100%, for 3W charging to 50% and 2.6W to 100%. It was painfully slow, and I had to do the test a couple of times as I fell asleep while waiting and woke up the next day at 100% charge.

Unsurprisingly, wired wins, and by a lot. Up to 11W is pretty good when only a few years ago wired USB was at around 2.5W, and getting to 50% in under thirty minutes is really handy if you need to top up quickly. The charge rate with the official Pixel charger was about half, so 5W for the first 50%, but I have to say it felt adequate, and I wasn't really frustrated by the speed of charging. The LK on the other hand charged at 3W and was really frustratingly slow, and near 4 hours for a full charge. For me it seems there's a break point between 3 and 5 Watts that makes a huge difference if I'm awake, if I go to sleep it just charges overnight and it really makes no difference if it took 2 or 4 hours.

While it was adequate to charge at 5 Watts with Qi, I still found I prefer wired, as for the most part I really wasn't running out of charge during the day. Now that I was paying attention, I was finding that I'd leave home at around 8.30am at 100%, and still be at 20% charge at midnight, with some days even getting to late morning the next day before running down to 0%. I don't use GPS much, so that may help, but that's a lot of use time in a phone, so a quick wired charge in the evening while I have dinner is usually more than enough. It was kinda handy to drop the phone onto the stand, but it wasn't so good that I stuck with it consistently.

The Google charger comes with a few extra features such as auto-do-not-disturb, slowly brightening lights before an alarm goes off, and photo display. I didn't particularly like these things, and found them of no value. My wife, however, did. She tried out the Google Wireless Charger for her Pixel 3 and I was quickly told I wasn't getting it back, and now it's what she uses exclusively. I got left with the LK, which sits on my nightstand and I sometimes use it if I'm going to sleep to charge overnight, but otherwise it sits idle.

So, for me I'd say the Google Wireless Charger does a reasonable job, but not so good that I personally find it worth the $80. If it did 10W the marketing claims (or someone can tell me why I'm limited to 5W actual during the first 50%), then that would be different and I might be more easily persuaded. It's clear I'm not the target market though, and it was a big win with my wife - if you're not looking for the absolute fastest charging and like the additional features, the Google Wireless Charger seems a good buy. At $16, for occasional use the LK charger is adequate, but I wouldn't miss it if it were gone.

So Qi wireless charging has come along in the last few years, and for the right person, is a good choice and for the Pixel 3 go with the official Google Wireless Charger, especially if you think you'll like the features that it comes with.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Ossia and FCC Approval

Earlier today (Thu 27th) the FCC published that Ossia, the RF at-distance wireless power company, had been granted Part 18 approval for their charging system. This has many similarities to the Energous system that got similar approval around 18 months ago, but also a number of differences. The first similarity is that it seems a lot of cost and effort to deliver very little power across an annoyingly short distance though in a more elegant manner than Energous. If you want to look up the data for yourself, you can go the the FCC OET Authorization Search page and enter "Ossia" under Applicant Name. Ossia are clear in its intended application:

The Cota power system is intended to power sensors, actuators, small displays and other devices in a commercial or industrial environment for which changing batteries and/or connecting wires is impractical.

So no charging your phone, or any other significant electronics, and also it seems to be for fixed receivers, not mobile.

This is a large area transmitter, around 0.36m^2 (imagine a ceiling tile), and outputting 5 Watts, not that much more than a cellphone or a wireless router. For comparison, at the claimed 145 dB SPL uBeam would be emitting 100 Watts acoustic from the same area panel.

Having had a little time to read the 100+ pages of data, I'll summarize the results:
  • Uses 2.45GHz band (12.25cm wavelength), compared to ~900 MHz used by Energous (33cm)
    • Tries to be tightly +/-10MHz, to limit interference with WiFi?
  • A 16 by 16 antenna array (256 total), compared to the linear 12 antenna used by Energous
  • A 60 by 60cm ceiling tile size transmitter, compared to a flat bar for Energous
    • Means a 0.3 wavelength spacing, so good steering possible
  • A maximum of 5 Watts emitted, compared to 10 Watts max for Energous
  • Claiming 1 Watt delivered, unclear if to the receiver or battery, possibly 500 mW to 1 Watt actual, max. Energous in the 30mW to 150 mW range.
  • Limited by a SAR of ~1.42 W/kg, compared to ~0.97 W/kg for Energous (FCC limit is 1.6)
    • No increasing power from here
  • Max range 1 meter, compared to 90 cm for Energous
  • Creates a more confined beam, better steering, but no "hotspot"
    • They claim to be able to steer around objects, some viability to that claim with a large phased array and test results 
  • A 15 by 15cm receiver with unspecified output
    • Ossia website says "meaningful power at 1 meter" but no numbers given
  • No indication of a "keep out zone" that Energous 
    • Ossia website claims the phased array steering means it's not needed
  • Fans on the transmitter, possibly for compute/ADC heat phase-shift electronics
    • If 30+ Watts for electronics, efficiency is likely ~1.5 to 3.0%
  • ~10 mW CW output from the receiver, for location
  • No consumer use allowed, professional installation only and a 20cm offset from people from transmitter and receiver
  • I cannot see a significant business case for this system, even at OK power the range and stationary nature limits it
  • No personalized message of congratulations from Ajit Pai, FCC Chair

So the summary seems to be that Ossia have a larger 2D phased array at a higher frequency and so can control the beam better than Energous, transmit half the power, to a fixed receiver the size of two phones, needs professional installation and never closer than 20cm to people, barely enough power to charge a phone, but potentially a very low efficiency. They also cannot increase the power beyond where they are without breaching the SAR safety limit (I'd guess they scaled down to the 20mW per antenna to get under the SAR limit, and some indication they started at 40 mW per antenna). The worst case seems to be immediately behind the receiver, on page 94 of the RF Exposure report Part 2.

Front of the Ossia Cota Transmitter Panel

Without impedance information it's hard to calculate what the power is even if we assume a half-wave dipole and multiple antenna, and know the field strengths. Obviously it's less than 5W received, they claim "meaningful power at 1 meter" but no numbers given, and no use cases such as "charge your phone" so I would guess it's starting to confirm the low power number in the high 100s of mW. (Update: This article claims around 1 Watt delivered so I'll guess it's somewhere from 500 mW to 1 Watt at the battery, max under ideal conditions) If it were much greater than a Watt I think they'd be saying that very loudly, so ~10 to 20% efficient on receive (emitted to battery and *not* overall system efficiency, which is wall socket to battery). (These are estimates, I will reserve the right to update later! Which I did...) I'd be interested to see how WiFi and Bluetooth work around this, even if they have restricted to one or two of the channels.

Back of the Ossia Cota Transmitter Panel

The receiver outputs a signal at a constant 9dBm, which is <10 mW. This is the signal that's used to determine location. Now that signal I expect gets received at up to 256 channels on the transmitter, sampled (assuming the same number as transmit), so Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC). Sampling will likely be in the high GHz to get the phase accuracy needed. You can look at ADCs in the 10GHz+ range, such as this AD913 part, and they are going to consume (say) 5 Watts per channel. If sensing/location duty cycle is 100% then that's 1.25 kW of heat just from the ADCs, and so fans will be needed. Wording in the report indicates they do this 50 times a second, so I expect a lower duty cycle, let's guess 10%? Even at 100 Watts for this with simplifications and good engineering, the system is using 105 Watts to charge ~1 Watt, so overall end-to-end efficiency is <1% which is not good. (This is not certain it's what they do, but given what I'd guess the phase delay precision requirements are to make this work, it's the most obvious solution).

Update 29th June 19. I'm glad I left the caveat on different ways of doing things, as a conversation with a colleague who has a lot of narrowband phased array radar experience covered alternative ways of doing this. My expertise is most heavily in broadband ultrasound for medical, and applications of using time reversal have been really precise in sending back the exact same signal, not just phase shifting a CW train. It's a reminder that general engineering expertise gets you so far, but specialized knowledge is invaluable. If anyone from Ossia was reading it they were probably rolling their eyes :). Very quickly, they would expect that they use phase shifters rather than ADCs, and that they'd expect the electronics to be around 30+ Watts to do this. With distributed electronics, it's just easier to put a fan on the back rather than heatsink everything. They also estimated you'd manage to contain about 80% of the power into the beam, would have around 75% loss of power in the 1 meter propagation path, and then around 50% receive efficiency, so you'd see about 1 Watt RF at the receiver, and about 500 mW converted to usable power. Assume they do a good job, that's in line with the 500 mW to 1 Watt estimate. That would put it at around 35 Watts in to get between 0.5 and 1 Watt out, so 1.5 to 3% overall end-to-end efficiency.

The compute on this to work out how to send the signal back should be pretty minimal. As an alternative to this system (barring, of course, a length of wire) I note the receiver is about a 15 x 15 x 3cm block so about 775 cm^3. At 500 Wh per L, that means around 390 Wh in a Li-ion battery that size, so anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks runtime at 0.5 to 1 Watt requirement.

Why limit to 1 meter? Well with a panel 60cm across, and 12.25cm wavelength, the near/far field boundary is at around 75cm, so it gets hard to have a bounded energy region beyond about 1 meter. That may be a consideration here on the regulatory side.

The report also makes it seem like the phased array nature of the array is used not to track a moving receiver, but to act as the safety system and try to route the signal around obstructions. Both the transmitter and receiver are likely fixed. How this is then useful in most circumstances is very questionable.

I'd be interested to compare this to a modern multi-antenna wifi router with MIMO like the ASUS AC5300 with the firmware hacked to up the power transmitted and see what gets received. Might be a fun 1 to 1 comparison.

What Ossia Want the Public to Think Their Tech Is

Most of the press articles on this are pretty light reading, simply regurgitating the talking points handed to them by Ossia. In the 18 months since Energous manipulated them, the press still fall for this approach, and it remains as frustrating as ever. Interestingly, what Ossia wants them to talk about is not this system, but mythical future ones, that what they have here is "a critical first step". It's like they are embarrassed by it, even the pictures they've given out are for non-existent desktop products. This is a shame as I think the engineering team has done as good a job as could be expected, this data shows they are ultimately limited by laws of physics and regulatory safety rules - ultimately I think this is as good as it gets. It's a successful approach though, they get the press talking about phone charging even in the headlines - something that's hard to do when you can't be within 20cm of your phone... Read for yourself the similarity in articles from IEEE Spectrum, Tom's Hardware, Tom's Guide, and VentureBeat.

What's the importance of this approval? The nominal use case of charging sensors in an industrial environment IMO doesn't hold up when everything is fixed and <1m distant, a wire or large battery does the job cheaper and better. It seems to me about as important as Energous' equivalent approval from 18 months ago, good for marketing/smoke and mirrors, but meaningless if you want to charge anything.

As far as I can see, no-one has beaten Powercast yet for just getting the job done without hype.

Note: I posted a version of this article earlier, but wrote it late at night and realized when I got up I had made some mistakes, and didn't have time to correct, so took the article down for a few hours until I had a chance to fix. So if you think you saw it and then disappear, you are correct.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

EEVBlog Does uBeam Again

You may remember that EEVBlog did a great video on uBeam a couple of years ago, which if you've not seen you should go watch now (also below). With the new information out on uBeam, Dave has done it again, and it's a nice straightforward description of the latest website and presentation. I encourage you to watch it if you want more accessible coverage than I write here.

The discussion of the video and business side is the first 16 or so minutes, but around 18m45s is where the more tech side of the coverage begins.

To save you going hunting for it, here's the EEVBlog uBeam debunking video from 2017.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Yet Another uBeam Video

I posted a uBeam promotional video earlier today, and a comment had a link to a presentation given by the current uBeam CEO at the OurCrowd summit a few months ago (OurCrowd were one of the larger funders for uBeam).

Most of it is unremarkable, with the usual marketing claims, but three slides have some interesting info - this is a post that gets reasonably technical, just warning, so a summary of my opinion of this video is:
  • The uBeam proprietary transducers seem a variation on existing commercial devices
  • Measured surface data shows the don't perform evenly
  • They can't focus sound where they want to (2 meters target, 1.2m actual)
  • The transducers may be highly directional, limiting steering in the array
  • They will never deliver more than 1W to a phone, even under ideal conditions (10 hours to charge)
  • The transducers are 5 to 10mm thick, likely doubling the thickness of a phone
  • Estimated phone case cost - $150 minimum
At around 2:40 the slide shows the transducer with a measured response from the surface.

These transducers seem to be the proprietary designs that are essentially (IMO) a variation on the standard Murata devices used in car parking sensors, with what looks to be a bar rather than a disk of piezoelectric material and then a cone shaped 'speaker' on the front. I expect the bar to be either prestressed or a bimorph layered component. The transducer diameter is large, appearing to be larger than a wavelength of sound in the ~40 kHz range, which would mean in phased array operation steering would be hard as you'd send energy in unwanted directions. The other image shows what I expect is a "heat map" of the vibrational characteristics of a single transducer in operation - where you are looking at the round face, and red indicates a lot of motion, green indicates little. If this is a magnitude map, then it indicates this transducer is not operating particularly well, as you'd want red evenly around the surface to get maximum power out for the area available. Now they may have chosen a bad result just to "throw us off" but I don't see what that would buy them, and this tells me that the transducers are, unsurprisingly, inefficient.

The next interesting images appear at around 3:22 and seem to show data on performance (not clear if simulated or measured). Axes on the left image are hard to read but seem to show a linear reduction of power with distance, though some of the markings on the y-axis indicate it may be logarithmic. The very interesting one is on the right and says "Focused Power @ 2 Meters", which is really weird because if you look at where the peak amplitude is it's around 1 to 1.25 meters, so not particularly good targeting there if you are looking to deliver power safely. What surprises me though is that there are no grating lobes, as mentioned above the spacing means in phased array application I'd expect some beams at an angle, but it's really clean. 

Two possible reasons for this - one is that the transducers are highly directional and really only send energy forward, so there's just no power at angles to form strong grating lobes - the other is that they aren't steering or focusing at all, just driving all over the elements together and letting a 'natural focus' form, same as if you had a single large vibrating plate and not many individual elements. Were would that focus? Well, from the Y-axis it looks to be a 20cm wide panel, and an approximate distance for the near-field/far-field transition peak is (width^2/(4*wavelength)) then for 40 kHz (8.6mm wavelength in air) that gives a "focal peak" at 1.16 meters - amazingly right on top of where that peak shows up in the plot. 

I don't think they are focusing at all, something essential if you want to carefully target devices for efficient and safe power delivery. If they want to prove me wrong there, the same plot as the one on the right, but steered at 45 degrees up or down, and placing the focus at various depths along the Z-axis, would make it clear. Not sure if they aren't focusing because they can't, or because showing that data would be ugly, but I'd like to know.

Last slide of interest starting at 3:59 or so, has power delivered versus distance. Now I'm skeptical of these numbers, but let's take the uBeam ones at face value (not the Next Gen ones of course, since they fired the entire team that would be working on them). What this claims is that a phone sized object can get around 1 Watt of usable power, and given that at 145 dB a phone gets around 3W of acoustic power incident, then that implies a ~30% reception efficiency, which is impressive if they can show that (to be clear, I don't think it's that high in reality). So impressive that I'm shocked there isn't a demo that makes that clear and proves the doubters like me wrong. Hmmmm. If you notice, that implies the next gen devices would have been 2x as efficient, or near 60%, given a 145 dB limit, which is an incredible feat and humanity is worse off for us not receiving this technology. Given 'circles in squares' leads to an effective usable area of around 79% max, that's getting to the limit of what's achievable (yes, I know hex layouts are more efficient, except in finite sized areas where the perimeter is a substantial fraction of the area)

More than that though, the numbers are just weird. The limit on usable power received is "Incident Acoustic Power Density x Area x Efficiency" and given the latter two are fixed, only the Incident Acoustic Power Density is the limit. That is set by the regulatory limit at 145 dB (really it's 115 dB, 1000x lower, but we're being nice) so 300 W/m^2, and the area of the transmitter. Let's say a 30 x 30 cm transmitter is used, that's around 30W acoustic transmitted and with really good focusing you can target most of that to the receiver. That means as you move further out, with a large transmitter you can maintain power at the receiver by using more transmitter area and so power received should remain constant for a period (when limited by 145dB ceiling), then dip when you run out of transmitter area to compensate for the increasing in-air losses. Indeed because of the natural focusing effect you want to be increasing the array used as you move the receiver further out. Of course, efficiency continuously decreases, and transmitter cost goes up, but that's 'hidden' in this plot. There's no reason for a plot like this not to assume a huge transmitter, so maybe they are admitting the can't steer/focus arbitrarily, or perhaps they are simplifying for the lay audience, or maybe it's just kinda nonsense.

The power received here is for a phone sized object, around 0.01 m^2, but an individual transducer is around 100th of that. That implies at point blank range the max power per transducer is around 10 mW, and barely 3 mW at 2 m, under ideal conditions. Note for IoT charging, you don't get much space.

Nothing on cost here - a Murata transducer in bulk is a bit under $1, so even assuming they do an awesome job and produce at 50c (doubtful, most likely they'll be more expensive), then a phone case has around 100 of these, so $50 in COGS before anything else like electronics, putting the case at $150 retail, minimum. Ouch.

So, nothing surprising here, but a few extra bits of information that we didn't have before that mostly confirm our existing expectations.

Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail

An Oor Wullie Statue in Candleriggs, Glasgow

I was fortunate enough to get a week off and went back home to Scotland to visit family. Just as I was leaving, a summer long event started called "Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail". Oor Wullie (Translated: Our William) is a comic strip character from newspapers (specifically DC Thompson papers from my home town, Dundee), started in 1936 and still going today. For American readers, I'm thinking the analogy may be Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.

From Dundee, with Wullie Showing layers of computer graphics, and Lemmings (studio was Dundee based) for those who remember that far back

For the 80th anniversary in 2016, there was an exhibition of large painted statues of Wullie in Dundee, and this summer they've gone even bigger with Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail with around 200 full sized statues in Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Inverness, and around 300 smaller ones. The event aims to raise money for a variety of Scottish children's hospital charities. A variety of groups have painted the statues each with a different theme, and they are located in various parts of the cities - some are just fun, some represent Scottish historical or artistic figures, or aspects of Scottish life. Like cow parade (for those of you familiar with it), it's a fun outdoor and large scale exhibit - and it gets you walking around the towns to try and see more. The official site is here, and there's even an app to help you cross them off your list and learn more. You can also follow them on Twitter @OWBIGBucket and the hashtag #OWBBT

Town center in Dundee, with the permanent dragon statue in the background

I caught the first couple of days of it in Dundee and Glasgow, just before I left. I was up at 11pm walking around Glasgow the night before I left to get a couple more (Scotland is really far north, it's light late this time of year), but I never did find the Glasgow Green or Strathclyde Uni ones.

Oor Jimi in Glasgow

I had a few favourites for different reasons. Jimi Hendrix shows up as Oor Jimi, and given I live in Renton WA where Hendrix is buried, I liked it. Nearby was another that appealed to my childish sense of humour:

A Whoopie Cushion Wullie in Glasgow

Traffic Cone Wullie in Glasgow

I used to walk past this pretty much every day, and even tried to get up on the statue to place the cone once (and failed). It's just Glasgow. I wish I'd had a day or two more to go see the rest, it took me to a few places in the cities I'd not been to in some time, and they seemed to be getting a lot of positive attention. Hopefully it also raises a lot of money for charity in the three months or so it runs.

I'll post a few more pictures later but one last thing, I always try and get some good Scottish food when I'm home. My dinner of choice - Cullen Skink (soup with smoked haddock, cream, potatoes), haggis neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes, this time in a whisky cream sauce), and sticky toffee pudding. This was from the Bothy restaurant in Glasgow, and I'll be going back next time I'm home. 

uBeam Promo Video

I recently wrote about the large layoffs at uBeam, and the new website, however I had missed their new promotional video that was posted on the 5th June.

Similar to the website, it shows charging of phones by peoples heads (insufficient power delivery to be practical, tracking for such application never demonstrated, and IMO not safe), forklift trucks (just not even close to the power requirements there), and all the while powering huge numbers of distributed devices with a line-of-sight technology implying massive numbers of transmitters. It also has babies and animals so of course it's "ultra-safe" as it just bounces off the skin (as long as there's no hair, in which case there will be heating and possibly burns at high power, but that's just a detail) and the voice over assures us it's for any application. Hmmmmm, I smell something...

I will say, at least this website/promo theme isn't set in space, where sound literally cannot propagate, simply because the CEO "likes space".

This made me wonder about the timing of the firings - that it wasn't that they had run out of money, but rather that they had finally reached the combination of Murata-style devices they manufacture themselves to be able to claim "proprietary transducers" along with sufficient marketing materials (even though IMO the "product" is absolutely not viable) they can claim to have something to sell.  Sufficient smoke in the machine and enough mirrors there's a bit of hope a purchaser will not be paying attention? Knowing it's a dud and there's no future, did they then just deep-six the development team because they had done their job and were now simply surplus to requirements? I've said before I think their RF based rival, Energous, is a company designed to sell shares who uses engineering as their marketing, but have uBeam effectively done the same now? Quite why anyone with sense would buy into a tech that is at v0.9 and there's nobody to even provide support for the beta let alone build you a next-gen system, I do not know, but there seems to be dumb people out there with money to burn.

If true though, it's another reminder to employees - you are a "human resource" and the second you're not needed, you'll be removed no matter the impact to you. Be careful what you commit to any company, do the work you're paid for but don't forget that loyalty is a one-way street.

When (and why) did Perry leave as CEO?
According to uBeam, Perry left the company in September 2018 to "spend more time with her next project" (9 months later, still not appeared), handing over the reigns to interim-CEO McCauley. Shortly after that McCauley updated her resume to show she'd been interim CEO since July, and now it's updated again to show since May 2018. Three resume changes on a date that is not really ambiguous - as Goldfinger says, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

Interestingly, the COO also left uBeam in May 2018, after barely 9 months on the job. He was someone immensely qualified to do the COO role, and even the CEO role - a position most who noted his hiring expected he had been brought on for. Is there a connection and is there more to this story than meets the eye?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

uBeam Lay Off Around Half of the Employees?

Over the last week I've heard from a number of people as to some significant events at uBeam - last Monday the 10th June around half the employees had been laid off. No notice, no severance, no vesting, no farewell party, and the last day of employment at uBeam for them had been Friday the 7th June. The first emotion I heard from any of them was shock, that this was unexpected both in its suddenness and harshness. It seems the team that have been let go, around 13 of the 25 or so total, are most of the engineers who would have been doing actual product development (with an exception for some electronics/visualization work), as well as the product manager, so as clear a signal as possible from uBeam that there will not be a product coming from them (to no surprise for anyone who has read this blog).

While founders and CEOs get the press coverage and public sympathy, it's always the regular employees that take the brunt of the pain in situations like this. Startup founders are more likely to come from backgrounds of financial stability, CEOs the last to go even if their decisions led them along this path, but your regular employees are just trying to do their job, pay the rent, and then one day they find that the paycheque, and health insurance, won't be coming. If anyone reading this blog has positions or knows of places hiring especially in the LA area in tech companies, you should look to contact them (most are on LinkedIn) or I can get you in contact for a few of them.

While I'm hearing slightly different stories, what's consistent is that they were told the company had very little runway, a few weeks at best, and the board declined to put in more money to keep things on the current path. Rather, a drastically reduced budget was given, and half the staff had to go. Given who was let go, it seems there is no product in the future, and rather they will focus on selling, licensing, or otherwise extracting revenue from whatever IP currently exists. Tech staff that are left might be viewed as those who can make sure a physical demo actually works, and the tech people senior enough to impress potential purchasers. I personally don't see this as a route to revenue, without a product the IP has limited value, the transducers we've seen from them (called "uBeam's most critical component" in the prior fundraising round) look to follow the same basic design as the industry standard Murata type, leveraging width-mode piezo vibrations and a speaker-like cone. I can't see any advantages over the Murata, but I struggle to see them beating the leader on price, and both have sizes that are large relative to wavelength that make them unsuitable for phased array use (basically, they will send out energy in unwanted directions). In however long they have left, I don't see them selling the IP for anything above bargain basement prices (look for "for an undisclosed sum") and even that I think is a longshot. 

It's something of a surprise though this happened right now. The company's last raise was at the very beginning of 2018, and while numbers like $25 million were discussed, I have always felt that was a combination of the new raise and the prior convertible note round and the new money was more in the $11 to $14 million range (still not shabby!). It didn't appear uBeam hired any significant new staff (losing the CEO, COO, and CTO in 2018 while not replacing the CEO until Jan 2019), and had abandoned the production model in favour of licensing, so expenses should not have been that high. I had thought they would be halfway through the money by now, and looking at a cashflow issue somewhere between the middle and end of next year. That it happened now is very interesting and there are some possible explanations.

I think a likely scenario is that the prior round was tranched - that is they didn't get all of it in one lump sum but rather released by the board only on completion of certain milestones. One option would be that the money would be split into 2 equal tranches with half the money needing to get them to a milestone of a product or a licensing deal. Without either on the horizon, the board may have had little confidence in the future of the company, and decided to cut losses and squeeze whatever money they can out of what is there. It's a strategy I don't think will work, I noted last year I thought the best return to investors would have been to give the staff 60 days notice, shut the company down, and hand the remaining money back to the investors. Seems an aspect of that has been followed, but regular staff apparently don't merit consideration. This does not surprise me, when I was there employees let go were terminated on the day with no severance, despite encouragement from the senior engineering side to pay at least 2 weeks - it's the right thing to do (unless the employee is let go for cause), but also goes some way to alleviating concern in the remaining employees that they can be out with no money any day, never a good situation. 

Something I do wonder is if the money is tranched, whose money got spent? I was guessing that the round was pretty much 50/50 between OurCrowd and UpFront, around $6m or so each. If 50% got spent, was it split 50/50 or did the OurCrowd money go first, which would be unfortunate for the large number of individual small investors in the OurCrowd group but good for the LPs at UpFront. Or vice-versa? If anyone has any greater understanding of the situation or alternate scenarios, I'm interested to hear.

How long have they got? I don't know, but I can't see significant money being put in so perhaps 3 to 6 months at most? It's a terrible negotiating position to be in, as any buyer knows that waiting a month will likely result in effective downward pressure on price. Morale among remaining employees will not be good and if I were them I'd already be looking for new work. It would make sense to offer them a significant bonus should they stick out a set time period, but in a cash strapped company the likely bonus isn't going to be big enough to make up for a month or two gap in income when the end comes. If my experience of the company still holds, there was never thought nor attention paid to the needs of staff, they were simply expected to do what the company required and be grateful for the opportunity. While no longer CEO, Perry will still likely have significant board presence and will need to have been at the board meeting where this decision was made. A tweet from Perry on the 5th June might indicate that's when it happened, and may signal she accepts that it's game over.

Notice no public announcement, they want to keep the pretense of a viable company going, but also no press attention either - the corporate end of uBeam may be months away, but it seems to be dead as far are press are concerned.

It is a bit of a kick in the teeth for the new CEO who has not even had 6 months to get the company turned around. Even if it were possible (and I don't think it was by that stage) it's hard to make a turnaround in hardware so fast where that timeframe may be only one development cycle. Still, he gets to say he tried and it wasn't his fault, what could he do, and perhaps collect a healthy paycheque along the way. 

The website had recently been updated, with images showing them powering everything from tablets medical equipment, and home appliances (never going to happen) while showing pictures of babies and pets in a subliminal attempt to say "We're safe" along with the more overt "ultra-safe" marketing lines, the very carefully worded "no verified risk", a claim of full regulatory compliance (hmmm, I'd love to see the paperwork there), and third party studies proving safety (let's see them then). It looks somewhat like the Energous website, seemingly not only do all the at-distance wireless power companies follow the same trend of massive performance specs at first (TVs, cars, cellphones, multiple meters, faster than a wire!), to trickle charge, to IoT, but the websites look the same as well. They had also been advertising for a Chief Revenue Officer, and that ad seems to have disappeared - either plans there were shelved or someone is in the role and had a really crappy first week. A few pictures from the website are below:

It's frustrating as there were things that could have been done, changes that could have been made earlier to develop technology useful in a number of areas and a total of between $25 and $40 million spent to generate IP that might sell for 2% of that, if at all. I know several hardware companies with solid products and tech where $1 to $3 million would be a massive boost for them, and ten such companies worth of initial funding just disappeared. It's a shame that the two most senior engineers didn't sit down with a board member almost 4 years ago and let know issues at the company and the likely trajectory, while suggesting possible changes/pivots to make it all viable. Though if they had they may have been treated as second class employees from then on, motives questioned, never trusted for having 'snitched' on a member of the elite...

Another uBeam Anecdote
The situation does remind me of an incident from my time at uBeam. Normally there was supposed to be a meeting with myself, the other VP Eng, and CEO Perry at 9.30 each morning, though our bet each day was on how many minutes after 9.30 we'd get a text from the PA letting us know the CEO would be late. We'd watch her walk in usually looking tired at ~9.45 and it was maybe another 30 minutes before our meeting would start (damn whatever else you might have tried to do in that time, she was there, so the meeting starts now), but she was at least teeming with energy by then. This morning in question was different. The CEO was in her office already when the other VP and I walked in, with the new CFO while super-excited and energetic. "Great news" she tells us "My friends told me last night that Virgin Galactic is going out of business!". We look at each other knowing it was going to be one of those mornings, and could see where this was going. Perry was a self-described space-nut and was always trying to get us to hire people from Space X or similar, even though we kept telling her that the typical skillset was vastly different between companies. And so it came - "We can hire all their engineers!" and trying to head things off we immediately tried "That's interesting we can have recruiters try to target the likely employees". Perry scoffed at our feeble engineer approach, and informed us she would be mailing the CEO himself to find out who to hire, showed us the email, which read (and while from memory is confirmed with the other attendee, is pretty close)

"Dear [VG CEO]. I hear that your company is going out of business. Can you tell me who your best engineers are so I can hire them?"

Now we were in a fix. We couldn't let this go out, but neither could we tell Perry this was a dumbass idea, an insult to the VG CEO, and impractical for us, as any attempt to indicate she may be on a non-optimal path almost always resulted in the "I'm the CEO" response where she had to "show leadership" by not changing and instead doubled down (our eternal Catch 22). These situations were tricky and so at first tried the "If true he would have bigger issues let's give him a few days" line in the hope we could delay enough she'd forget and move onto something else, but no, she clicked send. The whole conversation was between 5 and 10 minutes maximum, and like many things at uBeam we could see the action being taken that would result in predictable (to us) consequences hours, days, months down the line and nothing we could do about it.

Later that day we asked if there had been a reply, and amazingly there had been. The response was (and again, from memory) "Dear Meredith, VG is not going out of business, in fact we recently raised a significant financing round. Please inform whoever told you this that it is not true and ask them to stop spreading the rumour". Perry just shrugged and carried on as if nothing had happened, and to be fair that type of bizarre event was pretty much the norm at uBeam. 

So I chortled to myself when thinking of this and imagined sending the email "Dear former-CEO Perry. I hear that your company is going out of business. Can you tell me who your best engineers are so I can hire them?" I'm sure she'd understand.

But back to the most important point - if you want to hire solid engineers, there's a few looking for a solid employer right now.

Update: I wrote a brief update and link to the promo video that matches the website here. It also asks when co-founder and former CEO Perry actually left the company.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

State of Wireless Charging in May 2019

I have to apologize for the low rate of postings - basically I'm slammed with work, personal ventures, and home/family. I'd like to be writing more, and talking about what I'm doing, but that's just not going to happen for a while. Hopefully more at the end of the year, but for now I'll use the long weekend to try and get at least a couple of articles done.

AirPower and Qi
My last article on wireless charging, noting the disappointment of AirPower and PiCharging (Spanse), got some mixed responses. Some industry insiders were not pleased with my portrayal of Qi as limited, and suggested that if I were to review a premium phone with the associated official charger that I'd have a different opinion. I agree that in a perfect world Qi can achieve some reasonable charge rates, however my hope for AirPower was that Apple removed the need for consumers to worry about positioning and would make it a seamless experience. Just "drop and go" and it's charged when you pick it up an hour or two later - but they couldn't do so. 

The problem isn't Qi's performance under ideal conditions, it's that if you need the ideal setup, a premium phone, and the expensive charger, then many users get a sub-par experience and then that experience taints things from there on out. You don't want consumers to think it's pointless? Give them a great experience first time out, and then that becomes the expectation and when there's a cheap knock-off charger that's $50 cheaper but charges at 1 W not 7.5 W they blame the cheap charger, not Qi. Let there be a tainted ecosystem where for years it's a crap shoot how things go then the standard gets blamed instead.

The reality of things is that consumers are dumb, and will take the cheapest and laziest route on everything. For example, I went to Amazon and typed "wireless charger Pixel 3" and I see the official Google wireless charger for ~$80 (4 star review) and an LK charger for $16 (4 star review). I understand this stuff and can't tell what the difference is, the average person has no chance. I have no idea if LK is any good or not, but is it 5x better than the Google? That's the price point most people expect, and are going to have a hard time justifying that extra $64. Now does that $16 charger work fast and well, or does it fail to charge due to positioning on a regular basis, or charge slowly? (I'll try and let you know in a few days, I just ordered it) If it fails on even a couple occasions and you lose phone use during the day because it didn't charge overnight then people start to default back to "just plug in with the wire that came with the thing". For the Pixel 3 that wire is an 18 W charger, and that's noticeably fast.

So can Qi be great when all is good with the setup? Yes. But if a consumer has to know the exact setup to use to get that then the $16 base unit sets the expectation, not the $80 one.

Update 28th May 2019: A reader tells me "The reason it (the Pixel Stand) costs $79 is not because it charges faster or with more placement forgiveness than some 3rd party charger like LK (although it does offer a proprietary 10W mode, so it should charge a Pixel3 somewhat faster than LK). Rather, the 'Google Screen' feature is why it is priced very high.  You need to use the Pixel 3 phone to unlock this feature, but it is really cool, IMHO... To simply take some Samsung or Apple phone and compare its charge rate on the Pixel Stand vs. the LK and obviously conclude that it is not worth the extra $64 is a waste of time and misleading." Seems a fair point, and I do have a Pixel Stand on the way too, I'll compare them in more than just the charge rate. Still, I had no idea there were even such features in the stand so I think my point on poor marketing of what may be excellent features stands!

It was also pointed out to me that what I was saying about the frequency of operation didn't make too much sense, which on rereading was a fair point. What I wanted to say came over badly, and there was no easy way to fix it, so I deleted it. Thank you for that feedback those who sent that comment.

Pi/Spanse and Qi
So this was the more interesting one, it seems. I had pointed out that I had thought Pi would be a success in part due to the use of the existing infrastructure of the inbuilt Qi charger, but that I was now confused as they talked about the need for a proprietary charging case didn't go down well with users. 

When I had written the first Pi article, I'd seen the original paper on the technology working at 6.78 MHz, and spoken to a couple of people I knew and trusted who had connections to the company and the answer came back "yes they shifted to 140 kHz". I also emailed the founder and specifically asked this question though didn't get a response (should have raised a flag there). I then went on to write the article based on that, and there's a lesson here for me in not believing something until I've seen it in verified. I think someone should start a blog about that...

Well suspicions now seem to be confirmed. If you go to Spanse's website you can see the "Source" that they are now essentially selling is a large Qi charging station that works with up to 6 devices and thick cases, for $189. Sure you get wifi for updating and a USB port for wired charging, but I've already got that in my laptop, or a wall socket, for a lot less. Now personally I don't have 6 devices that need charged, and I'm wondering if it's 12 times better than that LK charger I just ordered. It seems a bit large for bedside table use, so is it aimed at a kitchen table for a family, or an office? The generic image above shows it charging an iPad, but look closely and you'll see the iPad is wired charging, and given either the wall socket the Source is plugged into, or the laptop nearby, could have done it I'm struggling to see the clear use case. 

Importantly, the at-distance part is gone. What exactly happened is unclear, but rumours seem to be that the near-contact Qi charging was conflated with the at-distance charging that would need a proprietary case and a higher frequency. People I've chatted with who have some connections call it an honest mistake and miscommunication, but if true then I'm calling bullshit on "honest mistake" when the key aspects that made this interesting happen to not be true. Everyone knew what people wanted, and it was the convenience of modest charge rates at a modest distance, with pre-existing charging infrastructure. Add in the requirement of a new expensive case, and it's just another also-ran.

Ossia (wireless charging with RF, very similar to Energous) announced a deal for wirelessly charging IoT asset trackers in Walmart warehouses

...guards and associates will wirelessly power the asset trackers at warehouses’ guard shacks, ensuring the trackers are charged before they’re attached to incoming trailers, crates, pallets, and packages.

While the wording in the article seems to be ambiguous and points to also charging the handheld devices the employees use, I expect that fundamentally this is using their 2D array to locate and charge the small low power trackers that go on boxes and pallets in warehouses. Given that active RFID work at up to around 100 mW in short bursts (from recollection), a high microWatt, low milliWatt source that saves employees a minute on each tag across thousands of tags will be economically viable. From what I've seen, this is basically Powercast's business model and they've been out there for years quietly serving the market without the fanfare or exaggeration of Ossia or Energous.

Interestingly the Ossia VP interviewed talks about the "proof of concept" which makes me wonder if this is just a demo for Walmart and not an actual sale/rollout. Regardless, this very low power, intermittent need, in an industrial facility, which is the kind of thing that wireless power at-a-distance is actually suited for. It's one of the reasons all the companies talk about charging your phone fastert than a wire at multiple meters, but then move to "trickle charging" and then IoT, and then eventually out the consumer space entirely. All of them. No surprise, it's where they all inevitably go after having exhausted all the alternatives (and investor money).

Very briefly on Energous - I wondered if they would make their raise given the price of the stock, but it seems they did raise a further $25m from stock, and so now have cash to make it to early Q1 2020 assuming no reduction in staff or compensation. (I was told they had trouble selling that, cancelled the first offer and tried again, and ended up getting it from a short seller group, which is ironic. I have no confirmation on this, so take it with a pinch of salt) This still isn't enough to see them to revenue, given their own statements as to even the best case for products, so we'll be back here at the end of the year with the same thing again. We're also still waiting on any products with "WattUp" in them, such as the hearing aids (sorry, PSAPs) that were promised in no more than 90 days about a year ago. Don't hold your breath on those products.

Lastly, investors seem to be catching on, and share price for WATT has dipped and is now around $4.55. Tracking the stock price for the last year, it's not looking good for them. At what point do the institutional investors realize they've been had and bail?

Last and definitely least, uBeam. So little going on here compared to the others, Ossia and Spanse at least have technology that can sell even if it's not a wow, and Energous are quite entertaining, but what is happening with my former company? They're continuing to be fairly low profile, as they (presumably) try to package up IP and at least pretend there's a workable product in there somewhere to either licence or sell the company. 

I took a look to see if there had been any IP filed - generally you see what got filed about 1 year or more ago, and can tell what the company was working on at the time (not 100% certain, sometimes you still patent dead end paths). I was quite surprised by what I found looking at their filings. Now it's often hard to tell what are applications, what are grants, and what are just repeats in the system, but when you see that the most recent patent (10,252,908) was submitted in Feb 2018, that almost all the people listed on it had left the company 1 to 2 years prior to it, and that my name was one it as well, you can tell they're really not producing much new. In fact, going back through them I can see one other that was filed in 2018, and that's also from an employee who left in 2016. Maybe I'm missing a trove of them at the USPTO, but it looks like the bulk of the filings come from people who were there in 2015 and not much beyond. How do you sell a company based on IP when you've not produced new IP in years, the people who did produce that IP have long since left, one of them writes a blog criticizing you, and there's no product?

It seems that uBeam might now hire a third person since their (supposed) $25 million fundraise over 14 months ago. This time, it's a Chief Commercial/Revenue Officer.

uBeam is seeking to hire a Chief Commercial Officer/Chief Revenue Officer. uBeam is the inventor of ultrasonic power-at-a-distance Always-On Wireless EnergyTM, utilizing ultra-safe ultrasonic array technology to deliver reliable, long-range wire-free charging. By developing proprietary transducers, transmitters, receivers, and custom enterprise software, uBeam’s technology delivers usable power to devices ranging from portable electronics, medical, aerospace, automotive, and in particular IoT devices and networks. Significant revenue-generating experience in these fields, coupled with successful B2B licensing experience is essential. Experience in acoustic technology, phased array radar or ultrasound is also highly beneficial.

So "Always-On Wireless Energy" is their new tagline I guess, since it gets a 'TM', although no-one bothered with a superscript. Apparently the technology is not just safe but "ultra-safe" which I'm not sure the definition of but given the emphasis here, they must be feeling a bit of vulnerability on this front. I don't follow why a C-level "revenue" officer needs to have tech experience but bizarrely they want someone with "significant revenue-generating experience in these fields" and I'm not sure who that could be because quite literally no at-distance wireless power company has ever done that - not Energous, not Ossia, perhaps only PowerCast that actually have had a product on sale for a while.

Lots of references to dealing with board members in the ad, as well as fundraising. "The CCO/CRO will be required to present to the Board of Directors on a regular basis, and from time to time will be involved in fund-raising activities on behalf of the company.", "Successful experience in fund raising and pitching to investors.", "Have considerable experience presenting at Board of Directors meetings.", and "Ability to efficiently interact with board members."

It's a bit odd to be looking for a C-level hire via regular job board postings, those are mostly done via word of mouth, personal connections, and specialized recruiters. As someone on the EEV Blog pointed out - sounds a lot like the role a CEO should be doing. Is the uBeam CEO looking for a scapegoat already, or is this a replacement?

Phrasing also indicates they're aiming for markets outside the US, which on the one hand you can understand because the professed model needs contract manufacturers which are still heavily in China, but given every other country outside the USA definitively has a 115dB or less ultrasound limit (1000x less power than at the professed 145dB), the product is not viable there unless they ignore the law. "Experience in dealing with issues on an international basis: understanding of the North American and European landscape (knowledge of the Asian market would be a plus)."

As far as I know, this is a new position, so not from the Perry era and gives a confirmation to the business strategy the company is taking - B2B licensing, with contract manufacturers, and keep it going long enough to bamboozle for another round of investment.

Oh and apparently "Benefits that are 2nd to none!". Yeah, I'm going to call bullshit on that. How much PTO? How much in RSUs and bonus? Sabbaticals? Educational supplement? Matching 401k? My recollection (and that of more recent departees) is good benefits for a startup, but can't match that of larger companies.

Last thing for this article - uBeam don't post much on social media like LinkedIn so it was interesting to see them link to this safety article from the CTO of Wi-Charge (laser based power delivery)

Forbes just put out a good new article on wireless charging. Wireless Charging can take on many forms, but not all of them are safe and effective. uBeam's ultrasonic wireless power is a differentiated technology that can safely transmit energy over the air across long distances to charge a wide array of electronic devices. 

The premise of the piece was on regulatory and safety aspects of wireless power, yet uBeam used it to claim safety for their own system. Now we don't know what uBeam have (cough), and they do claim "third party testing" has proved it safe, but never released those reports, despite questions on how they can do what they claim at 145 dB when it exceeds sound limits around the world. For those wondering about various limits, I have a list here.

I have to wonder - do they know and know they are lying, do they deep down suspect and are avoiding checking so they can pretend to themselves they aren't lying, are they just that dumb, or are they true believers? The psychology of this is fascinating, as perhaps each person pretends it's not their responsibility and keeps cashing the paycheque. I really want to find this out someday, sadly I think it's just going to be one of those mysteries.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wireless Charging in 2019

Things aren't looking so good for wireless charging in 2019. There have been a few announcements in the last few weeks that have not been positive for the industry as a whole. Let's start with the big one:

Apple and AirPower
After over a year of delay since the announcement, Apple finally cancelled AirPower, their multi-device charging pad, based on Qi. This pad was supposed to be able to charge your iPhone, Apple watch, and Airpods all at one time, just dropping them onto the pad. Qi uses inductive charging to transfer power over no more than a few centimeters, though in practice it needs to be in contact.

Apple's statement from a Senior VP of Hardware Engineering:

“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward,”

Qi had some limitations - the charged device needed positioned carefully to ensure good charging, was only one device at a time, regularly managed only a couple of Watts charging, and had something of a transmitter/receiver interoperability nightmare - much of the variability happening due to individual device or imperfect positioning. AirPower was supposed to use Apple's technology and market power to overcome all of those and make it simple, easy, effective. While Qi had some limitations from the initial design, it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that someone with the pockets and infrastructure to force the market in one direction could make it good enough (even if not perfect). 

There must have been tremendous pressure within the company to make this work, having made a major public announcement. Apple even spent over $100 million to buy PowerbyProxi, who had claimed to have solved all these issues. Apparently not, and it would be interesting to see if PbP could actually do what they claimed when bought. It's likely heads will roll over something like this, it's a major screw up and not something to be taken lightly.

Reportedly, the issue was heating - not enough power getting to the devices, for too much heat in the pad. Those inefficiencies come back to bite you, even if you are willing to pay the $ cost of it. What were the likely tradeoffs? Likely adding many small transmit coils to be able to work with any placements of receivers, while determining it's a genuine receiver and not a piece of metal, while limiting crosstalk between coils, without exceeding FCC limits for safety, while making it a simple seamless user experience.

I actually thought Apple would pull it off, after all if anyone is going to it would be them, and other arms of Apple thought so too, with images of AirPower showing up in the documentation for the recently released new AirPods. Perhaps it mostly worked but that's not good enough for Apple, or that there were still some placement issues, or that there was a small chance of something overheating which when you sell 100 million+ a year becomes an inevitability. I was confident enough they'd release it that I even made some statements about it in a recent interview, so of course they then immediately made me look like an idiot. :)

So even with the resources of the largest company in the world, multiple years, working from a known standard, and at zero distance, wireless power beyond the most rudimentary we already have can't currently be made to work satisfactorily for consumers. What does this say about the Energous, Ossia, and uBeam's of the world who want to charge as many devices, at the same charge rate, with new technology at multiple meters? For $100 million, Apple could easily buy one of them to replace AirPower (in face, Energous share price spiked slightly as delusional fanboys claimed this was an opportunity - the same fanboys that likely claimed AirPower had Energous in it when announced...) - yet they don't.

What does this mean for wireless charging moving forward? I'd say don't expect any changes soon, but perhaps Apple have learned enough that a future product will be good enough - but no matter what, nothing will ever be as fast, efficient, safe, and low cost as a wire. 

Pi Charging is now Spansive
About 18 months ago I wrote an article on Pi Charging, which used Qi but tried to 'shape' the fields to extend the charging range into the 10s of centimeters, and would work from a cone shaped object that would sit on a bench or table. It seemed ambitious, but not ridiculously so that it wasn't achievable - range was not excessive, charge rates normal for Qi, so I was fairly optimistic they'd get somewhere with it. As recently as 6 months ago they were still promoting it, but it seems the company has now undergone some changes and has rebranded as "Spansive".

According to the CEO, the user testing did found that the cone took up too much desktop space, and that the users did not want a custom case but rather just want to use "brand name cases". Now this seems odd, as in the original article it seemed that they were using the built in Qi capability, and in fact that's one reason I thought it would be a success, as it operated with existing infrastructure. Interestingly, this data says to me that wireless charging is of so little utility to consumers that they won't swap a case or put an Alexa sized hub on their desk. The co-founder then goes on to say:

“Qi is just not designed, even philosophically if you talk to people at the Qi standard, it’s not focused on one foot, two feet of range.” says MacDonald. “It’s really focused on surfaces and areas rather than volumes.”

This is odd, as it's no surprise what the Qi standard was when the company raised its $14m Series A. Next they say they'll be working with partners to licence its "volumetric" tech in specific products, with the usual "wireless headphones" listed. Mentioning licensing without specifics is usually code for "we've got nothing" so I'm not holding my breath here.

In the blog post, the co-founder talks of essentially a flat plate or container where you can place multiple phones and not worry about orientation, and is Qi compatible (despite the noting of its limits). So... AirPower? Constraining their "volumetric" technology to a plane? Who knows, but there was plenty of waffling and marketing speak to get me concerned - when you say "It will ship imminently" without giving a date, it makes me laugh. Let's see what they do in the next few months.

After AirPower, seems I'm now 0 for 2 in predicting wireless charging product launches...

Next I'll try to write on Energous, they continue their downward share price trajectory, have yet to have a commercial product available, and may have even struggled to complete their share offer which, if true, puts them in a position of running out of money in the next few weeks.