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Former Employee Accuses Wireless Charging Startup uBeam of Being a Sham (ieee.org) 118

uBeam, a startup which has raised over $25 million for its transmitter that can charge phones, tablets, and other devices wirelessly, is under attack. Paul Reynolds, former VP of engineering at the company has accused the company of making false promises. Reynolds, who has more than 20 years of experience working on ultrasound devices, says uBeam has overstated its technology's capabilities, and there's no way it can deliver anything close to its claim in a working prototype later this year. In fact, he went all the way to call uBeam "the next Theranos". For the uninitiated, uBeam plans to create a charging station which utilizes sound waves to beam power to devices in the same room. The company, which has a team of more than 30 engineers and physicists, has been working on the product since 2011. Some of its investors include Marc Andreessen, Marissa Mayer, and "Shark" Mark Cuban. From an IEEE report: Physicists have long questioned the practicality of uBeam's plans to deliver electricity to mobile devices using ultrasound. Mark Suster, a prominent venture capitalist and uBeam investor has defended uBeam. IEEE report adds: In his article today, Suster writes that when Reynolds was at uBeam, the engineer gave no indication that he had any problems with the company's direction -- implying that the issues raised in Reynolds' blog were essentially out of the blue. uBeam itself has yet to respond to anything Reynolds has written. "Throughout my time working with him he reassured me we could solve the technical challenges and our approach was viable," Suster writes. But Reynolds told IEEE Spectrum that is simply not the case. He says that he was rarely allowed to communicate directly with Suster, on account of Perry's (Editor's note: Meredith Perry is the Founder and CEO at uBeam) management preferences. But Reynolds said that in two meetings with Suster during the summer of 2015, he voiced concerns about what the company was telling investors and reporters it could do.
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Former Employee Accuses Wireless Charging Startup uBeam of Being a Sham

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  • Today's startups wouldn't exist if there hadn't been products in the past that seemed impossible at the time but were later able to become reality and make it to the market.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 )

      Today's startups wouldn't exist if there hadn't been products in the past that seemed impossible at the time but were later able to become reality and make it to the market.

      That doesn't mean that every stupid idea is possible.

      The idea is not specifically impossible. But there are some basic laws of physics that have to be adhered to that make it 100 percent pointless. The amount of power needed to make an acouctic charging system work is so unlikely to be useful that even if not impossible, it isn't remotely practical. You have to transmit a helluva lot of power to transmit power.

      I'm expecting kilowatts to charge phones reliably. Now just imagine a person sitting in a ro

      • by N7DR ( 536428 )

        The real puzzle to me is how easily VCs part with scads of money without, apparently, bothering to hire a couple of decent physicists (or mathematicians or security experts, as appropriate, in the case of security snake oil) beforehand. I have been hired in the past to point out the obvious "this can't work", but only when alarm bells have begun to ring -- after VCs had parted with ~$40m. Somehow, it seems that a dynamic CEO, expert in public relations and putting together cool Powerpoint, causes the parts

        • It's not just VCs. Solyndra managed to scam the entire government [wikipedia.org]. Their "innovation" was to use cylindrical solar panels (half-cylinder) to increase time-averaged production as the sun's position changed during the day. Anyone with a half-decent grasp of geometry could tell you what's wrong with that. The amount of sunlight hitting a surface depends only on the projected surface area perpendicular to the sunlight. Doesn't matter if you use a flat panel, cylinders, triangles, origami, whatever. The on
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by HornWumpus ( 783565 )

            That was a plain and simple (scam/kickback to campaign contributors). Nobody (except true believers) expected Solyndra to do anything but take the government's money and run.

            Don't mistake corruption for incompetence. The people involved in Solyndra were very competent, everything went exactly as planned.

            • It had to have been something like that. This was proven in my first semester freshman engineering class when everyone was supposed to group brainstorm ideas (brainstorming is when you come up with ideas with no regard to their technical efficacy or feasibility) then later on evaluate them. Solar power was the topic of that class that particular semester and every semester there would be a different topic like dams or garbage dumps, just happened to get solar power so studied it in depth.
          • I suspect the issue there was the cost of the PV area (and the energy return for it, as opposed to the same area in a planar form with a fixed orientation), not the size of the total unit. Now of course, the cheaper your PV technology gets, the less reasonable proposition it is to make it non-planar, and the same thing holds if you're going for a higher area fill factor. And it also might turn out not advantageous for other reasons as well. But I'm quite sure the original idea was not to violate any laws of
        • The real puzzle to me is how easily VCs part with scads of money without, apparently, bothering to hire a couple of decent physicists (or mathematicians or security experts, as appropriate, in the case of security snake oil) beforehand.

          I think it is a case of "I am successful, therefore I am smart, therefore any decision I make is smart." It isn't trying to be sarcastic on my prt. I've just seen too many people who had some measure of success in their lives, start making stupid decisions based on not much more than thinking they were right a few times, so they'll always be right.

          Coupled with this weird idea going around today that all you have to do is want something hard enough, and you can make it happen.

          But didn't these people sto

          • Pulling a Shockley/Chomsky: Being good at one thing, then talking out your ass about unrelated things you know nothing about.

        • As a physicist I've always wondered this too. I also wonder how a supposedly intelligent tech website like /. has all of these people promoting ideas with little technical (or physics based) merit. But then I wonder why movies don't also. I guess from work experience it's a matter of getting the people with the money to trust the right people who know what they're doing.
        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          Not really all that accurate with regard to increasing the efficiency of solar panels. So for a given horizontal area exposed to sunlight, you could split the light frequencies and reflect specific frequencies onto specific frequency adapted vertical solar panels, with much greater area than the original horizontal area and substantially increase efficiency. The problem with this, does the substantial increase in capital cost with the more expensive panel provide sufficient return compared to a plain simpl

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      1. Most startups fail, even if they have a valid idea
      2. This is really very obviously not possible except maybe with extreme effort. Sound carries almost no energy and is very hard to focus. It is also extremely dangerous at higher energy levels.

      The people that fell for this have no clue about elementary physics. And yes, it is that obvious.

    • Many products were created without the need of startups or the mentality of startups. We used to have actual companies with reputations design new things, not a bunch of college drinking buddies who don't understand what they're doing selling vague ideas to investors who don't understand what they're doing.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Yes but an adequate science education has the twin benefits of sowing the seeds for being able to progress and being able to detect con-artists who try to take money for things that still remain impossible.

      Wireless power with sound waves and peizo-electric crystals - fair enough at the milliwatt range but jet engine noise is still not loud enough for what they claim.
  • Wireless power is like the three shell game. It's been popular since 1891 and it's scam 99.9% of the time. Funny how people keep falling for the same scam for hundreds of years - technology changes, but we don't.

    Heck, half of Slashdot is STILL falling for the "free electricity" scam, mostly the variety that's been popular since 1960. Practical solar- electric has been "just around the corner" for 55 years.

    • Good point - Just as George Westinghouse about what he thought about Tesla's work (on Westinghouse's money) in that regard. Transmitting power from room to room just doesn't seem like the physics are practical.

      However, I would argue that "Practical solar" has been available for several years and is used by many customers and applications. Here in Ontario, Canada, many farms and vacation properties get all their power from solar panels and it is cheaper than stringing power. The major issue with solar pow

    • Wireless power is like the three shell game. It's been popular since 1891 and it's scam 99.9% of the time. Funny how people keep falling for the same scam for hundreds of years - technology changes, but we don't.

      Heck, half of Slashdot is STILL falling for the "free electricity" scam, mostly the variety that's been popular since 1960. Practical solar- electric has been "just around the corner" for 55 years.

      Talk about your false equivalences. You better tell all those people who are getting their power from solar - some for years now - that it isn't working.

      But to the wireless charger point, you are correct. Just about the only practical wireless charging application that will work is achieved by turning the device being charged into the secondary coil of a transformer, and unless it is pretty precisely placed, efficiency will drastically suffer. So you have a little kiosk the device has to be laid on or

      • No charge port is a big advantage for water resistant phones.

        The current solution, contacts and magnets isn't great, but better than USB.

    • Solar power (as PV) has not only been practical for years, it's economically viable now in many places, including 55deg N where I live.

      Calling that a scam is bordering on delusional.

    • Solar power runs the refrigerator in my RV. And lighting and electronics, but the refrigerator is the big power user. It's just a matter of having enough panels so that you get a practical amount of power from normal, rather than optimum, conditions. It beats running a generator.

      Solar power heats my swimming pool. It gets pretty warm, which is a good trick for Northern California.

      It's a matter of time until we have solar electricity on the home too. We don't expect it to completely eliminate power from the

      • having enough panels

        My large, two door 22.5cuft refrigerator uses about 1kwh/day. I get on average 6 hours of sunlight/day. So 1kwh/6h = 166w(p), one small panel. Summer, I get 13 hours of sunlight an worse case winter is 4.7 hours of sunlight. Coincidentally, the refrigerator uses a lot less electricity the winter. Worse case, I'd need a 225w panel, which is what I have. 12 of them and I've never run out.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      While you are mostly right, practical solar electric has been around for quite a while. It just depends on where you are.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      Practical solar- electric has been "just around the corner" for 55 years

      If you live just around the corner from where satellites are built then yes, it has had practical purposes for that long.

      I find it funny the the joke to mock solar when this site was started was solar lights, but I've now got some that I bought for $1 each from the local supermarket.

      Those windmills are not actually evil giants you know so charging them has been silly enough to write about for a very long time.

  • Too bad you can't fix inadvertant bad mods
  • Guess you don't want to be in a room when this US energy transfer happens and your dog will cringe up and escape into the furthest corner in the room wishing to die.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Also your ears will blow up (still enough sound energy at lower frequencies there) and your clothes may catch fire.

  • Ah yeah... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 14, 2016 @02:37PM (#52112197)

    Couple things. I know the guys who worked on the technology part.

    The technology is real. Ish. It works, but was still in very early alpha stage. The power loss is high, the equipment is large, thermal issues, and there's a lot of other problems. The acoustic waves are highly directional. Otherwise, you'd need kilowatts to give microwatts of power to a device. So you need a number of steerable beams to transfer power. That's not easy. Big enough and it's not a problem. Getting it down to realistic consumer sizes takes serious engineering talent. Ironically she had it on hand. It's definitely possible, but admittedly with the level of funding it'd be hard. Possible, but very hard.

    Problem is, Meredith either fired all the competent engineers or drove them out. Anyone that stayed did so because they were more agreeable than their technical merits. Meredith also had an issue with overstating capabilities of the technology. The theoretical maximums became the baseline. That's a niche engineering field. The engineers are not replaceable cogs, but Meredith gambled that they were. It's a very small field, and word spreads fast.

    Essentially Meredith is a CEO without significant experience or engineering knowledge. The company will crater in two or three years, someone will buy the IP for pennies on the dollar, look up the actual names on the patents, cut them consulting checks, and you'll see functional equipment two or three years after that. The investors already know this. But they can't yank the funding or can the CEO over PR issues. Better to take a loss than be unsupportive of women in STEM. It's only $20 ish million, so probably the right call. Meredith won't change. She definitely won't retire, step aside for more experience leadership or somehow mend things with the original engineers she drove away.

    • Maybe she recognized that it would never be economical and went full scam? You don't need competent engineers to run a scam, they only get in the way and are expensive.

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        That would be my take on the issue. Alternatively, she went "full denial", which is a typical CEO and management mode when presented with facts that do not agree to their "vision".

    • Re:Ah yeah... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by vovin ( 12759 ) on Saturday May 14, 2016 @03:16PM (#52112341)

      Ah no.

      Physics said no. I believe physics. The idea a stupid on the face. The patents are only worth pennies.
      Reality is it will compete with other short distance induction charging models that already have far less problems at much higher energy transfer rates.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Couple things. I know the guys who worked on the technology part.

      The technology is real. Ish. It works, but was still in very early alpha stage. The power loss is high, the equipment is large, thermal issues, and there's a lot of other problems.

      Stop. The issues you state above are what any reasonably well-trained engineer or physicist was saying right from the start when Perry made her fantastical claims. The above issues, which every expert predicted, are issues that cannot be solved without tremendous inefficiency (100 W or more consumption to deliver 5 W) and danger (I dare Perry to be in a room where high-power ultrasound is beamed. She doesn't even have to be in the line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver.)

      The acoustic waves are highly directional. Otherwise, you'd need kilowatts to give microwatts of power to a device. So you need a number of steerable beams to transfer power. That's not easy. Big enough and it's not a problem. Getting it down to realistic consumer sizes takes serious engineering talent. Ironically she had it on hand. It's definitely possible, but admittedly with the level of funding it'd be hard. Possible, but very hard.

      Let's summarize the situa

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Hi,

      I cover uBeam for the LA Business Journal. Are you free for a phone call sometime this weekend, or next Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday?

      I am not interested in writing an article about uBeam's technology. (We covered the company's technology before the media frenzy- http://labusinessjournal.com/news/2015/nov/08/skeptics-zap-wireless-charging/). I am more interested in hearing how the company was run by its CEO.

      I am OK with speaking on terms that you are comfortable with (on the record, on background, or off

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Well, nobody said it cannot work. The problem is it cannot work (at this time) safely and that it cannot work efficiently. It is just too hard to do. A good example of this situation are flying cars: Doable in principle, some working prototypes exist, but extremely expensive and until we have working AI pilots (which may be "never") not safe to use for most people.

      My guess is she fired the good engineers because they were pointing out fundamental limits and she did not want to hear how much effort this woul

  • Ohh... pushing the plug into a socket is so... hard... ohh... it hurts. Umm.... that's what she said.

    Anyway, plugs aren't broken. There is almost no loss of power at the plug-outlet interface. There is scads of power loss with any radiated power delivery system. There are questionable health impacts of radiated power delivery. The only upside is that you don't have to lift your poor little lazy fingers to put the plug in the fucking socket, or make sure that they mate compatibly.

    That's what she said.

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