INTERVIEW by KEVIN EISENMANN | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by LAUREN COLCHAMIRO
Flashing. Beeping. An alarming red color. In this new age of mobile electronics, there is no greater anxiety-inducer than the low battery warning. But thanks to 22-year-old inventor and entrepreneur Meredith Perry, low batteries may soon be a thing of the past. Her company uBeam aims to free us from our electrical leashes in the same way that WiFi liberated the Internet from phone lines. And she plans to do it using a technology as simple as a stereo speaker.
Letâ€™s discuss the product first. How does this work?
There are two parts to the system: an energy transmitter or â€˜hotspotâ€™ and an energy receiver. The transmitter plugs into a wall-outlet, and the receiver will fit on your phone in the shape of a phone-case. The transmitter is essentially a stereo speaker, but instead of broadcasting audible sound, it projects targeted, high frequency sound called ultrasound. The transmitted ultrasound will vibrate the air at a frequency too fast for you to hear, and will then vibrate your phone-case at a frequency too fast for you to feel. The phone case has a specific material inside of it which will convert the vibrational energy into electricity. That electricity will then flow from your phone case into the phone and charge your device. If all goes to plan, in a couple of years, you could walk into say, a Starbucks, or an airport, lift your phone in the air and magically charge it without plugging it in.
You graduated from UPenn after studying astrobiology. How did you go from studying life on other planets to inventing wireless power?
It wasnâ€™t really a linear process. When I get really excited about something, even if itâ€™s outside of my skill-set, I will throw myself into it. Despite my passion for outer-space, throughout my time at Penn I was always trying to invent gadgets that would make life easier or more interesting. With uBeam, it was a surprisingly quick process: my computer was dying in class, I couldnâ€™t plug it in, I wondered how I could beam energy to my computer. Even though I previously knew nothing about wireless power, Google is such a powerful tool that it only took a couple of days to throw together to the high-level idea. 10,000 hours, 9 trips across the country, a billion math equations, and a million iterations later: Iâ€™ve developed a design that will actually work.
So youâ€™re not an engineer and youâ€™re just out of college. How are you doing all of this with no experience?
Learn by doing. Iâ€™m flying by the seat of my pants but thereâ€™s really no other way to do it. Itâ€™s been a very steep learning curve. Entrepreneurs face so many bizarre obstacles and need to make so many decisions unique to their own company that they just have to learn to quickly make calculated decisions and trust their own gut. In the beginning, I was very lost and asked everyone for advice. Not only did that slow things down, but everybody gave me different advice â€“ and that made me realize that there werenâ€™t â€œtextbook right answersâ€ to these things and that I had to just start making decisions. Keeping up momentum in an early company is extremely important. Of course, itâ€™s crucial to surround yourself with trusted and experienced advisors to help guide you and not make you feel so blind. But Iâ€™ve learned that if youâ€™re really trying to change the game, you must be passionate about what youâ€™re doing and you must be resilient because you will face enormous hurdles and if you donâ€™t have the stamina to jump all of them then you will fail.
Itâ€™s a new technology, so I imagine there are skeptics?
Many skeptics. I cannot tell you how many people have fought me on this. Prior to uBeam, ultrasonic transmitters and receivers were not built for wireless power transmission– they were built for things like medical devices, industrial cleaning and distance measurement â€“ so the people with â€œexperienceâ€ say that thereâ€™s no way you can get enough power out of the systems theyâ€™ve been using for the last X number of years. Of course those systems canâ€™t work â€“ which is why we had to design a completely new ultrasonic transmitter that could. It also doesnâ€™t help that I am a blond, 22-year-old female without an engineering degree who created this on a whim after reading a few things online. After months of research, and design iteration after iteration, Iâ€™ve received validation that this can work from the top ultrasonic researchers in the world. Feels good.
Where is uBeam at now?
Weâ€™re in the process of developing the second prototype that will prove out all the numbers. The first prototype, which I demonstrated at AllThingsD, looks like a science project, which it was. It beamed a small amount of energy across a small distance and was energetically inefficient. Our next prototype will prove that the technology can scale with a decent efficiency, and then weâ€™ll roll it out to consumers by the spring of 2013. Weâ€™re also working on figuring out the best possible application and product architecture for the technology. Itâ€™s a challenging task because it lies at the intersection of product design, technology viability, and commercial viability. Every decision we make impacts the way the user will interact with the final product.
What kind of voltage are we talking about then? How long would it take to charge, say, my iPhone?
Our current system is designed to fully charge an iPhone 4 in 3.3 hours. Right now, if you look at your phone and see 15 percent battery life left, you get anxious thinking that your phone might die before you see your charger again. But when we change the infrastructure of public places so that uBeam energy transmitters are in every coffee shop, every car, every cab, every waiting room, every airport, etc, your devices will be constantly charging, and that 15% on your phone wonâ€™t matter so much anymore. The idea is to saturate the market with wireless power hotspots and in five years, if you see someone with a 6-foot cord dangling from their phone itâ€™ll be laughable.
Are there any dangers to transmitting power over the air?
Not with our system. The sound waves weâ€™re using are at a frequency too high for humans and animals to hear, so it will not damage ears. Often, people hear â€œwireless electricityâ€ and think they are going to get radiated or fried, but weâ€™re literally just emitting sound. There are actually already commercial products out thereâ€”for example, directional sound systems, that transmit the same frequencies of ultrasound to create audible sound in different areas of a roomâ€”so consumers can rest easy knowing that this is a safe system already in use.
What needs to happen for you to consider this project a success?
The biggest measure would of course be making uBeam a commercial success. But I would also just be happy just to see this technology become available. Itâ€™s a concept that didnâ€™t exist before and now it does. It just needs to be scaled up.
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