UPDATE: A former VP of engineering at uBeam has recently come out publicly exposing the uBeam fraud in a series of blog posts.
As an entrepreneur that has built many businesses, both successes and failures, but always within the laws of economics and physics, hardly a day passes where I don’t read about some bullshit, pie-in-the-sky tech startup that just landed another $XX million in funding for a totally non-viable idea.
Today it was uBeam, apparently they landed $10 million for an ultra sound device that will wirelessly charge your phone and other miscellaneous gadgets. The problem? Converting ultrasound to electricity isn’t very efficient and within the constraints of basic physics, this device likely will be something on the order of 100 times slower than your wall outlet; that is if you don’t want to injure or kill the users and their pets. But fuck it, who cares about a few roasted internal organs and deaf dogs when we have an exciting new tech startup to sell right?
The article that pissed me off enough to write about it was this one: “The Case for Optimism and Risk at Startups”. The author, Mark Suster, is some California VC douchebag millionaire who is “enthusiastically” backing uBeam. Reading his article makes it clear that he is trying to refute an unnamed, unlinked article that criticizes uBeam using basic physics and applied common sense. I suspect the unnamed article is probably “How putting $10M into UBeam illustrates everything that is wrong with tech investing today” but it could just as easily be “Because physics”, “Ultrasound, thermodynamics, and robot overlords” or some other article I haven’t read yet. The problem is, he doesn’t make any counter argument whatsoever. All he does is make the completely unfounded, completely unsupported claim that the unnamed critic used “wildly inaccurate” assumptions in his unnamed, unlinked article. Then he proceeds to just wander off into all kinds of unrelated directions about British Parliament and Elon Musk.
The rest of his article reads as follows:
Blah blah blah blah blah.
Blah blah blah blah blah!
Elon musk, elon musk, elon musk.
Google, Goldman Sachs, Apple, FedEx, Verizon, Coca Cola.
I wish I could suck Elon Musk’s dick.
Have I mentioned how much I want to suck Elon Musk’s dick?
Blah blah blah.
In conclusion, blah, blah, BLAH!
Read it yourself if you can slog through it without shooting yourself in the face. I barely made it.
And also, I have to say Elon Musk fucking sucks! His shitty, overpriced, under-ranged electric cars are not a great business and they would never have gotten off the ground in the first place without massive government loans, subsidies and a stock market full of moron investors that grossly overvalue what he’s doing. There also isn’t enough lithium in the world to build enough of his batteries to power the US let alone the world, but that doesn’t stop him from daydreaming aloud about it. What can you expect from a market that values shitty companies like Twitter and Amazon in the billions when all they do is lose money hand over fist? What kind of loony tunes world do we live in where whether or not a company makes money or whether or not its flagship product violates the laws of physics is merely a footnote in their annual statement? At the very least, doesn’t a process that has “very low efficiency” when applied to a charging device sound suspiciously like it “wastes electricity”?
UPDATE: There are some priceless comments on this topic here, such as:
This reminds me of my favourite VC story from the height of the dot-com bubble. A few months prior, I had announced my distributed computation of the quadrillionth bit of Pi, and the concept of doing computations using unused CPU capacity from around the Internet was getting a lot of attention. A VC asked me to look at a company they were thinking of investing in and give my opinion as someone with experience in the field.
Stripped down to its core, the company was pitching technology which would allow it to do “useful” internet-wide computations once global communication latency dropped below a certain threshold. Going along with this was a graph showing how internet round trip times had been steadily dropping for the past two decades, and projecting into the future that some time around 2006 the latencies would become short enough to make their solution work.
Unfortunately, their projection had communication becoming faster than the speed of light in 2004.
I pointed this out to the VC in question. They decided to invest anyway. My understanding is that the company raised $10M before going bankrupt.
I’ve been looking closely at the UBeam demo video at:
There’s a lot of information one can get from that video if you turn the resolution up to 720p and look at still frames.
The meter is reading voltage, on what appears to be the 10 VAC scale. (Someone wrote it was on ohms, but it’s not.) About 4V is coming out. We don’t know what, if anything is the load, and there’s no current measurement, so we can’t compute power. It’s interesting that they’re measuring AC voltage while supposedly charging a DC device, a phone.
The ultrasonic transducers seem to be common hobbyist-level range sensors as used on small robots. Like these:
At 00:31 into the video, there’s a good view of the back of the board holding the ultrasonic receivers. If you take a screenshot of this and enhance it, you can see the wiring. There are just two wires coming out of the receiver, and it looks like all the sensors are just wired in series. That maximizes voltage at the expense of current, of course.
The transmit array has 10 transducers in a hexagonal pattern, which helps focus the beam. (That transducer is a rather broad-beamed device.) The transmit end is powered by a hefty looking power supply, so those transducers are probably being driven hard.
With that setup, they should be able to get a few volts out of the receiver end, using the same kind of off the shelf transducer at both ends. This is something you could put together in a day or so after ordering the parts. There doesn’t seem to be anything new here at all in the demo version.
The efficiency is probably a few percent. That’s for this ideal case – transmitter pointed directly at receiver. The Wireless Power Consortium inductive wireless charging people report 60% efficiency, and they’re trying to get to 80%.
The patent application talks about steering and focusing the beam, but you’re still going to need line of sight, and a big emitter array.
To get as basic as possible, an iPhone 5S has a ~6 Wh battery that Apple claims will operate the phone for up to 250 hours on standby. So, if your phone is sitting on your desk doing nothing in an area with good signal, it will require a mere 6/250 = 0.024 Watts just to keep the battery from running down further than it already has.
Delivering even this tiny amount of energy to a phone-sized traducer that may be tens of meters from the emitter and oriented randomly is going to be very difficult. An omnidirectional emitter would likely require more power than a Megadeth concert and heaven help anything with a millimeter scale resonant frequency that’s in the room! Tracking the phone’s position and delivering a tightly focused beam is probably the only realistic way to go about this. That means you will need some very cutting edge focused ultrasound beam transducers (not cheap) that can mechanically track phones (not cheap) which must be pointed by something like a kinnect (not cheap) and a clear line of sight to the phone (completely unlike WiFi). It’s probably going to have to let the user know when there isn’t a clear LOS too, because it would suck if your phone died because you set it down behind a plant.
I can’t say all this is outright impossible to do at a competitive price. Danny didn’t convince me that it’s impossible. It is probably pretty close though.
So, why is this company being funded to do something that’s probably impossible? Well, Danny is right about one thing: Investors often invest in impossible things. Just google “over unity” generators (better than perpetual motion devices basically) if you don’t believe me. Earlier this decade Steorn suckered millions of euros out of investors with a lot of talk and a few cheap parlor tricks. UBeam might not break the laws of thermodynamics, but Steorn literally scoffed at them. People still lined up to invest. Whether Steorn and his co-workers were/are truly insane or con-artists has not been determined to this day. Their website is still live so, against all reasonable expectations, Steorn is still viable!
Personally, if I wanted to scam investors I’d choose something that has a direct impact on the layman’s life and theoretically has the potential to be big. Simultaneously, it would not obviously break the laws of physics but would be difficult enough for a company to spend years working on it only to fail. UBeam would be a pretty great setup for a scam actually.
From Arrington’s blog:
> In a year or so when this thing is productized you’ll be hearing a lot more about Mary.
As you note, that was written on May 23, 2012, more than 2 years ago. According to this article, the company is now aiming to be selling “by 2016.” This suggests there was either a misunderstanding about the time required to develop a commercial product, or developing a commercial product has taken a lot longer than anticipated.
What’s interesting to me is that the recent photo from the New York Times, which Mark Suster also included in his blog post, doesn’t on the surface seem to show substantial progress from what was being demoed back in 2011. Charging a single phone from a couple of feet away is not what’s being promised.
(this is not a swipe at poster).
This article by Suster is awful. The take down discussed physics, Suster discusses “doubters”. The take down did not suggest it wasn’t possible to transmit energy through sound waves, simply that it seemed very impractical to be able to charge a phone without pretty drastic side effects.
It doesn’t matter, they’ll burn most of it up, raise another round and pivot into a B2B client-customer IM app with patented business emoji or something.
No lessons will be learned, nobody will understand physics more because the things they (re)learned about basic science will be lost behind the veil of “stealth mode” and all of society will be a bit poorer in the end.
It doesn’t matter because the money will vaporize, nobody will learn anything and we’ll get another useless app that nobody will use (unless they do then they’ll be lauded for great execution and their investors will be called visionaries, the pivot from ear shattering charge-tech to chat app will be just a footnote in everybody’s success story).
Then the whole thing will be acquired by IBM or something and will disappear into history.
Here is another article from Mark Suster singing the virtues of uBeam and it’s founder but with absolutely no substance whatsoever.
UPDATE 2: Here is another excellent article taking an honest look at the uBeam from an engineering standpoint: uBeam Ultrasonic Wireless Charging – A Familiar Fish Smell and a forum discussion on the merits of uBeam.
Is it me or does this “concept prototype” look like an orange sticker on a standard, run of the mill iPhone case and orange poster board?