Welcome the future, where your phone never dies
August 8, 2014 9:29 AM   Subscribe


 
I wonder how the efficiency of this compares to inductive charging?
I still have Palm Touchstone chargers around my office and home, reminding me of those heady days of early 2010s, when I didn't have to plug and unplug my phone all the damn time.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 9:39 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is amazing and awesome.

But the first paragraph of this article is literally the most depressing thing I've read in months, because it so perfectly encapsulates why we've swapped dreams of space colonies for fucking iPhones.
When Meredith Perry, 25, started studying astrobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, her career goal was to eventually find life on other planets. Instead, Ms. Perry accidentally stumbled upon something even more exciting: the ability to charge portable electronics, like cellphones and laptops, wirelessly using ultrasound.
I mean, come on.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2014 [57 favorites]


Forget phones, what would be the medical implications of this? Could it be used as a backup power source for pacemaker batteries or other implanted medical devices?
posted by elizardbits at 9:42 AM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


I still have Palm Touchstone chargers around my office and home, reminding me of those heady days of early 2010s, when I didn't have to plug and unplug my phone all the damn time.

These do still exist, and are quite awesome. I use one to charge my Nexus and it's still like magic when I don't have to fumble with a cord.
posted by odinsdream at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Can the ultrasound break up your kidney stones while it recharges your phone?
posted by goethean at 9:48 AM on August 8, 2014 [9 favorites]


Forget phones, what would be the medical implications of this? Could it be used as a backup power source for pacemaker batteries or other implanted medical devices?

Doubtful.
The uBeam charging capabilities do have some serious limitations, including the power transmitters’ inability to beam through walls.
It uses high frequency sound waves - so it won't work in a vacuum, and will be blocked by things that attenuate sound. I doubt it would work well in a purse, but maybe in a pocket.

I sorta wonder what the dogs are going to think of this.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:48 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


No doubt they have done testing to make sure blasting ultrasound into the environment won't hurt plants and animals (including humans). One more noxious piece of technology to be guinea pigs for.
posted by stbalbach at 9:53 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Be interesting to see the details of this first. What's the energy loss in transfer, what the maximum intensity of the soundwaves are, what frequencies they've decided to use.

Ultrasound can have biological effects, depending of frequency and intensity. Perry has a partially biological background, so I wonder if this has been addressed.
posted by bonehead at 9:53 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


“This is the only wireless power system that allows you to be on your phone and moving around a room freely while you’re device is charging,” Ms. Perry said in an interview.

...which the New York Times was too cheap to copyedit, apparently. Fremdscham.

“You’ll never need a cord again, and you won’t need international charging adapters.”

That might be overselling it just a tad. My experience with syncing large files over WiFi has been pretty lackluster, so I'm going to want a cord if I'm putting a multi-GB movie on a tablet or restoring from a backup. Speaking of speed: I'd be surprised if this technology was as fast as a corded charger can be. And of course it just shifts the international adapter problem from the phone itself to the ultrasound emitter.

How directional is it? The picture accompanying the article suggests that it's practically line-of-sight, but that might have just been how the photograph was composed.

All that said, the idea of continuous, medium-range, wireless power sufficient to power a phone or tablet (and presumably at least greatly extend the life of a laptop) is very appealing.
posted by jedicus at 9:54 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I want to believe, but isn't ultrasound highly directional? So it'll be blocked by, say, furniture, large ornaments, and people.

Unless it's tracking exactly where the device is and aiming appropriately, you have to transmit enough power to charge your phone in all directions, all the time. If the ultrasound beam is collimated then coverage will be spotty. If it's not, then power will drop with the inverse square law, meaning that you need orders of magnitude more energy going out of this thing to charge a phone across the room than you'd need for one of the current generation of charging mats, which work over a few cm.

This seems pretty wasteful and, given that animal tissues do a decent job of converting ultrasound into heat, how long would it take to cook my pet fish?
posted by metaBugs at 9:55 AM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


I sorta wonder what the dogs are going to think of this.

Like so many other things, the Internet has something encapsulating the perfect reaction.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:55 AM on August 8, 2014 [7 favorites]


also btw (in other WISE news! ;)
  • Nuclear startup Transatomic Power scores seed funding from Founders Fund - "Transatomic Power was founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, and the company is at the early stage of developing a molten salt nuclear reactor, which can use nuclear waste as a power source. Molten salt reactors were first developed at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in the 1950s and 60s, but Dewan and Massie have developed created new designs, and new materials for the older tech." [Leslie Dewan "was named a TIME Magazine '30 People Under 30 Changing the World' in December 2013, an MIT Technology Review 'Innovator Under 35' in September 2013, and a Forbes '30 Under 30' in Energy in December 2012."]
  • Bloody Amazing - "Elizabeth Holmes, 30, is the youngest woman to become a self-made billionaire–and she's done so four times over. In 2003, as a Stanford undergrad, she founded Theranos, a Palo Alto company that's disrupting the business of blood testing, replacing the services provided by giants like Laboratory Corp. of America and Quest Diagnostics. 'What we're about is the belief that access to affordable and real-time health information is a basic human right, and it's a civil right', she says."
  • Meet the woman behind Ikea's living wage calculator - "In this new wage structure, Ikea's lowest wages will be based on something called the MIT Living Wage Calculator. How did one MIT professor's research project become a tool that will affect the wages of thousands of American workers? The story begins with Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT."
  • Harvey Mudd's Klawe Maps Way to Woo Young Women Into Tech - "Since she became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006, the 800-student liberal arts college near Los Angeles has made tangible progress creating a blueprint for encouraging women to become computer scientists. Last year, more than half the school's engineering majors were female for the first time. Women made up a record 47 percent of its computer science majors."
posted by kliuless at 9:56 AM on August 8, 2014 [10 favorites]


The company also announced Wednesday that it had stumbled upon the ability to be able to send highly secure data through its charging stations. This means that uBeam’s technology could be used for the so-called Internet of Things, where everyday objects are capable of communicating over the Internet.

There's a lot of 'stumbling upon tangential technology advance' in this article. I kept waiting for them to note how the engineering team stumbled upon how the ultrasound also can transfer DNA code, and then stumbled upon how the DNA will give people brain tumors, and then stumble upon the tumors granting people the ability to hear the singing of ghosts or something.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:57 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


In the more near-term, been waiting for the Rezence/A4WP people to get off their butts and put out the wireless charging platters.
posted by fubar at 9:58 AM on August 8, 2014


Well, this will certainly make the "cellular signals cause brain cancer" crowd relax.
[/sarcasm]
posted by Thorzdad at 10:00 AM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


David L. Jones of EEVblog weighs in with some realism.
posted by stobor at 10:00 AM on August 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


In retrospect, my comment above is almost certainly an over-reaction; those problems are complete no-brainers to the engineers, I'm sure. I'd be fascinated to know the answers, though.
posted by metaBugs at 10:02 AM on August 8, 2014


From stobor's link: uBeam claim 155dB max

Even for a focussed beam, that's well above the pain threshold, getting into levels that can cause damage. That can't be right.
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ok, thinking about this more... How do they beat the r3 problem ?

For the non-physics majors - if you have an antenna beaming energy into a space, that energy fills a volume. For a perfect radiator, it fills a perfect sphere - and so your energy density function is some form of the volume of a sphere, or 4/3 π r3. So, for every unit "r" you move from the point source, the energy absorbed diminshes by ~r3.

Well, you can get down to r2 if you transmit along a plane, and down pretty close to r1 if you can focus a beam.

So, my phone - a nexus 5 - requires about 2 watts when being used just to not drain the battery, and so, more than that to actually charge while being used.

I sort of wonder how they are going to be able to deliver 2+ watts omnidirectionally throughout a room without having real power density issues close to the transmitter.

When she talks about whole walls being transmitters, she isn't kidding.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:15 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's a company called Witricity that spun out of MIT, that can do this over meter-scales extremely efficiently 97-99%. They've been around for a few years, are well-funded and working with many partners (including Toyota). I'd say they're the ones to watch in this space. (They're not doing 'inductive' charging -- they use coupled resonators)

I'll go on the record and said it's unlikely that the ultrasonic approach will work as a product -- far too many geometric and environmental constraints, as pointed out by the EEV blog. The Witricity approach stands a much better chance of being the enabling technology. Sometimes the technical risk matters more than the market risk VCs..
posted by strangeloops at 10:26 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


How do they beat the r3 problem ?

I think you've covered the only two solutions I can think of. Either you cover an entire wall or the ceiling, and then you can approach the flat-plane case of 1/r^2, or you do some sort of Kinect-style automatic antenna aiming to focus a high-gain antenna. That's probably doable with off the shelf parts.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:29 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Either you cover an entire wall or the ceiling, and then you can approach the flat-plane case of 1/r^2, or you do some sort of Kinect-style automatic antenna aiming to focus a high-gain antenna. That's probably doable with off the shelf parts.

With a whole ceiling antenna... That's a lot of power to fill a room with. My phone has, lets say 10 square inches of surface area. To get 2 watts on 10 sq. inches means that my head (alone) is going to receive something on the order of 6 watts. Not Trogdor levels of burnination, but... definitely noticeable.

If it's a kinect style aimed antenna - well that doesn't scale. Would Starbucks have 10, 20, 80 of these things ? And how do you connect and ...

And I see the EEV blog covered all of this. I guess I can shut up now.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:38 AM on August 8, 2014


I want to believe but there's reason to be skeptical. The company's been around for awhile, it got some press in 2011 after a demo: NPR, Engadget. What's strange to me is how small the company is: 4 employees, $1.7M in financing. That's not much traction after 3 years and not enough capital to build and launch consumer devices. The NYT story metnions "closing a Series A" which could mean anything, but no doubt the new press will help with that.

Bottom line is does it work safely, in practical environments? I hope we find out!
posted by Nelson at 10:39 AM on August 8, 2014


I'd bet on a small transmitter on the target device and a phased array receiver and transmitter to do the beam forming. Also solves the issue of multiple beam forms in the EEVblog link.

This doesn't mean I'm convinced it'll work.
posted by edd at 10:42 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Harvey Mudd's Klawe Maps Way to Woo Young Women Into Tech

Uh, Mudd's women, you say?
posted by octobersurprise at 10:43 AM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


Could it be used as a backup power source for pacemaker batteries or other implanted medical devices?

I'm betting on piezoelectric or thermoelectric charging first. You've got a lot of kinetic and thermal energy right there next to your ticker.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:54 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Pogo_Fuzzybutt, Hopefully you'll forgive a dumb physics question, but I don't understand why it's r3 instead of r2. I get that in a given instant the energy density at a given point will scale with the inverse of volume. But over a long time ("long" relative to the time taken for the ultrasound to travel from the transmitter to our receiver), we're absorbing all the energy that hits the surface of our receiver. If we draw a sphere at that radius (or some other shape to reflect whatever directional quirks the transmitter has), it seems intuitive that we should care about the area of the receiver relative to the area of that sphere, which would scale with r2. (Obviously, for real applications we'd need to weight this to take into account the actual energy densities in different directions)

Am I wrong about that, or did I misunderstand your comments? Or both?
posted by metaBugs at 11:03 AM on August 8, 2014


Am I wrong about that, or did I misunderstand your comments? Or both?

No, you are right. But only for close distances where the area of the antenna is some large fraction of the volume at that point. Now, when working in inches, that is imaginable. Less so at feet, or yards -especially with something the size of a cell phone.

And when talking about say - a TV antenna and transmitter 20 miles away - the size of the antenna is recieving negligible to the equation.

So, In order to deliver a given power at a given distance, you either need to increase the output power, somehow concentrate/directionalize the output, or build a bigger/better antenna.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:22 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I mean, come on.

Well, at least iPhones won't plant eggs in your chest

At least, I don't think so

posted by mmrtnt at 11:54 AM on August 8, 2014


Just one more way for the NSA to figure out to hack into your systems - riding ultrasound electric charging ports into your device to install an app that can send the distorted sounds of the memory being read as modulation across the sound and captured by the tiny microphone in your laptop which surreptitiously broadcasts the entire contents of your instagram food blog that contains an encrypted message to your ex-wife's sister's brother-in-law reminding him, that he is, in fact, you.
posted by symbioid at 12:17 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Doing some searching turns up patents up to 6 years ago, so the idea has been around.

I'd certainly be worried about the safety. We think "It's sound at a higher frequency than we can hear, so it must be safe." But you can even do plastic welding with ultrasound. This isn't some low-power cell phone transmission--the whole point is to transmit enough power to charge a device.

I'm not saying it is unsafe, I'm just saying I'm leery. I'm not going to assume it is safe--they have to convince me.
posted by eye of newt at 12:59 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Perry has a partially biological background

I, for one, welcome our new cyborg overlord/inventors!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:02 PM on August 8, 2014


The uBeam charging capabilities do have some serious limitations, including the power transmitters’ inability to beam through walls.

It's so convenient! You just need to stay in your room! You never need to plug in anything as long as you stay in your room! At last, ultimate freedom to sit in your room and not have to bend over to put a plug into an outlet! The future is RIGHT NOW for people who do not leave their room!
posted by Greg Nog at 1:10 PM on August 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'll play this game... it sounds fun!

Instead of using ultrasound at dangerous power levels, why not use direct high voltage DC aimed right at the device to be charged? Air can conduct massive amounts of power, as we all have seen by observing trees after thunderstorms. Lets put that unregulated spectrum to use.

In our system, the phone sends a locator pulse, which then allows precise targeting of the DC input terminals. Once the billing information is confirmed, the power supply and targeting system aims the mirrors on the output of a pair of UV pulse lasers to ionize a pair of channels through the air to the users device. We then send a pulse of the required amount down the now conductive air to the device in question... in 1 uSec.

If the customer has an overdue balance, we can also deliver a pulse to discharge the device. Moreover, to help keep our nation safe, in certain cases of national security, the device (and user) can be deactivated.

All you engineers have to do now is figure out the minor technical and safety issues. ;-)
posted by MikeWarot at 1:24 PM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


Please wear your sunglasses at all times while within Starbucks. Failure to wear sunglasses may result in sudden onset flash blindness.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:00 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Do not look at charging point with remaining eye.
posted by bonehead at 2:15 PM on August 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ohhhh, so THAT's how Dana and Carlos's phones stay forever charged while they're out in that desert on Welcome to Night Vale!
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:23 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


This seems like such a bad idea.

For one thing, it's gotta be super-inefficient.

For another, having multiple ultrasonic beams at very high volume in your house seems problematic. With more than one beam, it seems possible to be in a location where due to path differences the signal difference between the two different signals contains components of an audio frequency - i.e. in certain locations you'd hear things, probably loud, high-pitched tones. It's likely those regions would be small but you might get... jolts... as you walked through nodes or anti-nodes...

And we really have little or no idea whether being exposed to ultrasound for prolonged periods every day has any effects on you at all.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:35 PM on August 8, 2014


(rather - "Do not listen to charging point with remaining ear...")
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:35 PM on August 8, 2014


Forget phones, what would be the medical implications of this? Could it be used as a backup power source for pacemaker batteries or other implanted medical devices?
posted by elizardbits at 12:42 PM


For that sort of application WiTricity has wireless transfer via magnetic resonance working at 90% efficiency over a distance of 3 feet, but only 45% over seven feet. Will go right through the human body without issue, and low enough ambient leakage for purposes of charging cellphones to pass FCC safety regulations.

I'd kill to see an efficiency over distance plot for both uBeam and WiTricity.
posted by Ryvar at 3:53 PM on August 8, 2014


Immediate thoughts:

Could uBeam start a fire, if the ultrasound is inconveniently directed and vibrates the wrong thing, heating it up?

Also, if Witricity's charging is magnetic, could that interfere with pacemakers?
posted by limeonaire at 4:04 PM on August 8, 2014


We were riffing on the idea of transmitting power through air ionized with laser beams, lupus_yonderboy. But yeah, it would be really weird moving through an enclosed environment filled with high powered ultrasonic beams.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:06 PM on August 8, 2014


I'm still holding out for the ability to charge my devices using all that stored, er, energy around my waistline.
posted by Sequence at 7:07 PM on August 8, 2014


kadin2048: or you do some sort of Kinect-style automatic antenna aiming to focus a high-gain antenna. That's probably doable with off the shelf parts.

This. It's a phased array transmitter, which is 'steerable' in software.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:28 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's so convenient! You just need to stay in your room! You never need to plug in anything as long as you stay in your room! At last, ultimate freedom to sit in your room and not have to bend over to put a plug into an outlet! The future is RIGHT NOW for people who do not leave their room!

Tired of spending all your time plugging in? Now, with the new uDock system, say goodbye to outlets forever! Simply anchor the "prawngs" on your phone, laptop, or other device into the grooved recesses located conveniently right on your "u"-tlet, and go take care of the more important things in life, as our breakthrough new "enRgize" process delivers zapjuice to your device via a sleek black technostring. And now, try uDock multiplyR! This cutting-edge accessory anchors directly to the "u"-tlet and is enRgized through a technostring--just like an everyday cellphone!-- but features an entire row of recessed faces, allowing up to six devices to reload their zapjuice at once. You'll never touch an outlet again!
posted by threeants at 10:25 PM on August 8, 2014


I mean, come on.

On the contrary, it's one of the most encouraging things

What does strike me as a bit depressing is how many people bought into (and/or were sold) that nonsense to begin with, and need to in order to go into the sciences, apparently. Even esteemed people like Neil deGrasse Tyson like to sell science fiction visions to young people, precisely because developments like Ms Perry's are the intended result. Incredible outer space science fiction goals are a bait and switch to get the kids to develop the new Tang.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:37 PM on August 9, 2014


2032: I remember when we thought the worst thing about EEV, after the worldwide rollout, was how it made the bees and butterflies fall from the sky by the billions.

But then it gave the rest of the animals a craving for human flesh, and we knew it was just the beginning.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:11 AM on August 10, 2014


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