Ossia’s Cota Wireless Power Tech Promises to Enable the Internet of Everything

Posted by Julia Thames on August 27, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen enough companies promising to deliver truly wireless power that we’re almost, almost starting to believe in it. But there’s an awful lot of hype, compounded by the fact that there are a bunch of very different technologies all targeting the same goal: charging everything, everywhere, without plugs or cables or pads. Recently, we’ve taken a closer look at a few of these technologies, including uBeam’s ultrasonic power transmitters and Energous’ WattUp pocket-forming antenna arrays.

Yesterday at CES, we were introduced to Ossia, another company that wants to transform how we power our devices using wireless energy. Ossia’s solution, called Cota, uses thousands of tiny antennas to deliver substantial amounts of power directly to embedded receiving antennas in devices located up to 10 meters away. Cota emphasizes safety, efficiency, and reliability, and their technology seems pretty incredible.

Companies like Ossia aren’t working on the kind of wireless power that you might already have in your toothbrush or cell phone, where you have to place the thing you want to charge in a specific orientation and specific place and then not touch it. You may not technically have to plug in a wire, but you might as well, for all the freedom such an arrangement provides. (And at least having a wire would let you use the device while it charges.) The wireless power that everybody wants and nobody has is the kind where all of your devices are charging themselves wherever they happen to be, whether you’re using them or wearing them or not. That is what Ossia is offering with Cota.

Cota is based on the transmission of power using 2.4-gigahertz radio waves. Small antennas embedded in devices can receive up to 1 watt of power at up to 10 meters away. Rather than transmit this power in one concentrated beam, Cota uses a bunch of small antennas to transmit power to the receiver along multiple pathways. It’s not only safer, but it also helps to compensate for the position and orientation of the receiving antenna in real world environments.

So far, this sounds a lot like another wireless power technology we’re familiar with: WattUp, from Energous, which uses multiple beams of 5.8 GHz RF energy to create a discrete “pocket” inside of which a device with a receiving antenna can charge. However, it’s the details of how Ossia’s technology works that sets it apart from anyone else in the wireless power space. What the company has managed to do with Cota seems kind of amazing.

The fundamental problem with wireless power is coming up with an efficient way to safely deliver a concentrated amount of energy to one specific (but arbitrary and sometimes moving) point in space where your device happens to be located. Ideally, to be safe and efficient, you’d want to transmit RF energy only to your receiving antenna and nowhere else. But how the heck would you project energy in the exact shape of an antenna out to a random point in 3-D space? That seems impossible, right? But it’s exactly what Cota does.

Here’s how Cota works: each device that you want to power contains an RF receiving antenna that also acts as a beacon. It sends out an RF “ping” 100 times a second. The Cota power transmitter (which is stationary) receives those pings across an array of thousands of small antennas, and each one of those antennas hears that “ping” from a slightly different angle. The transmitter responds by having each of its antennas send RF power straight back in the direction from which its particular ping came. Since all of those transmitting antennas are sending RF back to the ping’s point of origin, the RF is focused precisely on the shape of the receiving antenna with submillimeter accuracy.

This can be a little bit difficult to picture, I know, but fortunately, there’s a totally cool experiment from Japan that handily illustrates the principle. Watch this:

To create an arbitrary shape in the water at an arbitrary point, this system uses a bunch of actuators all around the sides of the pool to generate small waves that constructively interfere with each other in very specific places. You could “teach” the system to make a new shape in a new location by dropping an object of that shape into the water, and then having the actuators all record the characteristics of the waves that reach them. By simply “replaying” those waves in reverse, you’d be able to precisely recreate the shape of the object in the pool. This would even work if you put a bunch of other static objects in the pool before you dropped the object in: just record and replay all the waves that you see, and you’re good to go.

This is essentially how Cota’s power transmission works, except in three dimensions, and with radio waves instead of water waves. The initial ping from the receiving antenna in the device provides the information that the transmitting antennas need to be able to precisely transmit power to the device and nowhere else. The device can be behind something, or you can be holding it; it doesn’t really matter. As long as the transmitter hears that ping, all the transmitting antennas have to do is detect the phase and calculate the complex conjugate of the incoming signal, and then transmit power back in that direction.

Okay, so now that we have a sense of how Cota works in principle, let’s talk about how it performs in practice:

Efficiency: right now, Cota’s transmitter uses about 8 watts to deliver 1 watt of power to a device. This is not end-to-end efficiency; Ossia says that including all the necessary conversions and computing and LEDs and stuff, a Cota transmitter will probably use a total of 60-70 watts to charge 4-5 devices remotely at 1 watt each. That 8:1 ratio is the significant one, though, because that’s the measure of the efficiency of the wireless power delivery technique itself. Relative to other types of wireless power transmission, Ossia says that Cota is very well optimized, since it precisely targets the receiving antenna to minimize losses, including losses over distance. Ossia points out that if you use its system to charge something like a AA battery, it would be orders of magnitude more efficient and cost effective than buying even a single disposable AA.

Safety: Ossia’s engineers say that they deliberately chose 2.4 GHz because it’s significantly safer than 5.8 GHz. None of their antennas emit that much power individually, and since the power is entirely focused on the receiver with submillimeter accuracy, it’s safe to charge devices, even if they’re right up against your skin like wearables. Furthermore, Cota doesn’t interfere with WiFi networks, and can be used as a communication channel in addition to its role as a power delivery system. Ossia seems very confident about getting U.S. Federal Communications Commission approval for Cota: the technology is undergoing its third round of testing at an FCC certified lab, and Ossia “fully expects” to meet all SAR requirements with its current platform.

Cost: It might be a bit premature to talk about cost at this point; we’ve seen a sort of proof of concept demo, and that’s it. (“We literally built this an hour before you came in,” said a product spokesperson.) Ossia still has a ways to go before it’s able (with the assistance of partners) to bring Cota to market. Having said that, we did get company reps to speculate a little bit on eventual cost, and the news is mostly good. The cost of the receiving antenna and associated hardware could probably be described as trivial, especially if it gets integrated directly to devices. The first generation of the transmitter (like the round one in the pictures except smaller in production) might run you a few hundred dollars. Ossia will be making more announcements about commercialization partnerships later this year.

There’s a lot more to be said about Cota that we don’t have time to put into this article in the midst of a jam-packed CES schedule. For example, since Cota can be used for data transmission as well as power, it opens up all kinds of possibilities for small Internet-Of-Things devices that won’t require batteries. We spent an hour and a half talking with Ossia reps about their technology and vision for the future, and we were very impressed by how open they were about everything.

After CES, we’ll have a more in-depth article on Ossia, but for now, if you have any questions, let us know and we’ll try and get them answered at the show.

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Hands-On with Ultrahaptics’ Invisible, Touchable Controls

Posted by Julia Thames on August 2, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

Last year at CES, we experienced a very cool demo from Ultrahaptics of an ultrasound-based gesture interface that provides invisible tactile feedback in mid-air. This year, Bristol, England-based start-up is showing how their technology can be embedded into devices like cars, stereos, and stoves. And it’s exactly as magical as we were hoping it would be.

Ultrahaptics’ tactile interface is based on a Leap Motion sensor that tracks the location of your hand in space paired with an array of ultrasonic transducers. The transducers generate ultrasonic waves that constructively interfere with each other where they intersect, generating targeted points of invisible turbulence that you can feel.

Ultrahaptics showed off a few new demos in a private suite at CES last week that we got to experience for ourselves. The most impressive one was definitely the stove, where you can control the temperature of four individual burners by waving your hand around above the space where the temperature knobs would be if this wasn’t a stove from the future.

There are four discrete controls (one for each burner) that you can feel by moving your hand above Ultrahaptics’ ultrasonic transducer array on the right side of the stove. It’s not like you can feel an actual knob or anything, but as you move your hand around, you absolutely feel these four tangible regions in space that correspond to the burner controls. Each is a little bit like having an invisible, silent bumble bee right under your palm or fingertips. To turn a burner on, “tap” your hand in mid-air, and the system will register the action with a soft tactile explosion across your palm, the haptic equivalent of a “click.” There’s also a slider control: if you make a pinching gesture with your finger and thumb, the system recognizes it, and you’ll feel a gentle buzzing. Then, just move your hand laterally back and forth to adjust the temperature of the stovetop up and down.

This kind of interface is so foreign that it takes a little bit of practice to get comfortable with, but after waving my hand around haphazardly for a minute, I was able to control the stove as dexterously as if there’d been physical controls there. Once you get a sense of what sorts of tactile sensations to expect, and what each of those sensations means, it’s a very natural control system to adapt to.

While the video shows actual knobs and dials, that’s not really what you should expect from Ultrahaptics’ system. The minimum point size that the system can create (constrained by the wavelength of the ultrasound) is 8.6mm in diameter. By moving those points around quickly, or using many of them, you can make three dimensional shapes, although not with very fine amounts of detail. Force fields are realistic, though, and Ultrahaptics suggests that they might be a useful feature to add to stovetops: if it’s hot, there’s a tangible force field that you’d feel before you got too close to the surface itself.

It’s true that you could accomplish all of these control interactions by just waving your hand around in front of the Leap Motion sensor. But without tactile feedback, it’s very difficult to execute fine control over specific areas in 3D space, since you have no idea whether or not your hands and fingers are in the right spot. Tactile feedback like this means that you can execute fine control in situations where you don’t want to touch anything (like while you’re cooking) or when you can’t look at a display (like while you’re driving). It also opens up the potential for all kinds of different form factors for future electronics, because you can potentially do away with buttons and dials completely.

Right now, Ultrahaptics is using the same sorts of transducers that you might have in your car to alert you when you’re about to back into something. They work fine, but they’re a bit bulky for consumer device integration. The next generation of transducer (already in development) will be about 1mm in height and 1/40th of the volume, although it’s going to take some work to crank the power high enough for tactile use. In terms of software, version 2 (currently under development) will enable “fully tailored sensations,” like very fine recreation of textures that update at 10,000Hz (as opposed to the 200Hz of the version 1 software). Feeling textures, fundamentally, are just your fingertips feeling a pattern of changing vibrations, and with fine enough resolution, Ultrahaptics should be able to fool your brain into feeling just about anything.

In 2016, Ultrahaptics will be using the £10 million of funding they just got to develop industry partnerships, although they already have a bunch of (secret, so far) customers. They’ll also be reducing the size and power draw of the array to make it easier to integrate into devices. If we’re lucky, we should see some products being announced this year, and since Ultrahaptics’ tech isn’t inherently expensive, some of those products might even be affordable.

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Move Over Wearables. Make Way for Implantables

Posted by Julia Thames on July 25, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |
Wearable monitors for health and fitness seemed to be everywhere in the exhibit halls and on the conference stages at CES 2016. But while this generation of biometric monitoring devices goes mainstream, a little Silicon Valley company is working on what could be the next generation of body sensing technology: the injectable.

In a small suite high above the CES convention floor, South San Francisco-based Profusa last week demonstrated the Lumee Oxygen Sensing System, the first of what it expects to be a line of biocompatible sensors. This tiny, flexible sensor is about the thickness of a few human hairs and the length of a piece of long-grain rice. It’s made of hydrogel, a substance similar to the material in contact lenses, but is permeated with fluorescent dye. It’s designed to sit under the skin to monitor the levels of oxygen in the surrounding tissue. The company expects to market the device to help people monitor peripheral artery disease, wound healing, and, eventually, for athletes, muscle performance. Profusa has been in stealth mode since 2009, supporting its research with approximately US $10 million in grants and $15 million in venture financing, CEO Ben Hwang told me.

Originally, Profusa planned, Hwang said, to build a better continuous glucose monitor—one that doesn’t trigger a foreign body response that leads to scar tissue buildup—so it can work accurately for years. As a first step, Profusa’s researchers focused on developing the implantable side of the equation rather than the sensing side. They wanted to create an implantable that could be left in the skin forever without triggering the formation of scar tissue or other reactions. They eventually settled on a design that resembles a sponge; it has rounded edges and microscopic holes into which cell tissue grows.

As a test of the prototype, the team embedded the hydrogel sensor with fluorescent dye sensitive to oxygen. The dye glows when excited by particular wavelengths of light; the brightness of the fluorescence diminishes as oxygen binds to chemical receptors in the dye. To read the device, the researchers shine light on the skin above it; an optical reader picks up the emissions. This cycle can happen as quickly as once per second. And while the scanner is currently a handheld device that communicates to a smart phone, Hwang said it could easily be built into a watch or other type of wearable band.

While the oxygen sensing capability was initially planned to be simply a proof of concept (and, perhaps, a method for calibrating other sensors), Hwang said it turned out to have multiple applications of its own. So the company is releasing the oxygen sensor as its first product. Work on the glucose monitor and other sensors—including ones to monitor levels of lactate, creatinine, and urea—continues. Profusa expects its oxygen sensor to receive clearance in Europe for use in monitoring peripheral artery disease within the next few months, with FDA approval on its way. Profusa then expects to seek approval for other applications, including monitoring wound healing and sleep apnea.

To this point, 14 test human test subjects have each had four or so sensors implanted in them for two years; 80 percent of the devices are still working. The company previously conducted tests in rats and pigs. Hwang himself is one of the test volunteers; because you can’t find the sensors by touch, he’s marked his arm to help him quickly find one of them for a demo (though the reader has what Hwang calls a “stud-finder” mode, with colored LEDs that light up to direct you towards a sensor as you scan someone’s body).

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Smarter ways to find a job

Posted by Julia Thames on December 10, 2018 in Electronic with Comments closed |

If you are considering working in Singapore (シンガポールで仕事)then, you should resort to GoodJobsCreation (シンガポールの求人なら実績の) to find the job of your dreams. Read on to find the smarter ways to find a job that is for you:

Try online networking:

If you are looking for a job, you can use platforms like GoodJobsCreation (でシンガポールの転職活動に成功を) to find a job. Or, you can plug into networking platforms like LinkedIn to create connections with your potential employer. These two options allow you to step up your options, and it increases the probability of earning you the job that you deserve. Joining an online networking platform is an excellent way for the fresh graduates to score a job as soon as they are done with their education.

Alternatively, you can also join discussion groups to build an online network and to connect with people to facilitate your process of finding a job.

Go beyond job listings:

Going through a job listing is one way to secure a job; however, it is not the best way to score a job. You should be able to go beyond the job listings to get a job that you deserve. You should take a step back from focusing on specific companies and you should divert this attention to the application process or other tactics to get a job for yourself.

You should definitely keep an eye on the job listing but, you would more likely come across job offerings that are not for you. You should experiment around and find your place elsewhere. Of course, not finding a job entry that meets your requirements and specifications could be disheartening but, you can always take an alternative route to get a job that is for you.

Work for your university:

If you want to acquire a work experience prior to applying for a corporate job then, you should consider taking the part-time jobs offered to the students on the campus. You can do the event work, admin jobs, bar work, and it would enhance your experience and learning required for a job. It is no wonder that you cannot find a decent job without prior experience, so working for your university allows you to work and some might even pay you for your efforts.

Try a recruitment agency:

If you want to narrow down your ways to find a job, you can always resort to a recruitment agency to find a decent job for yourself. You can reach out to a recruitment firm, and you can submit your job applications to get started with the job hunting process. The recruitment agencies work for you regularly and actively, and they help you in finding a job that is absolutely for you, and meets your talent and skills set.

Resorting to a recruitment agency is optimal if you are new to Singapore and you are not familiar with the standard methods of finding a job. They match your talent; skills set, and work history to a current job opening and boo an interview for you with the company.

Tesla Powerwall Has Competition

Posted by Julia Thames on November 22, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

Energy storage has a number of applications for residential and commercial customers. First and foremost, homes with solar panels could benefit from energy storage, especially if net-metering laws, which let customers use the grid for “virtual storage,” disappear. (Off-grid users with PV systems obviously need storage as well, but that’s a pretty small market right now.) Secondly, as more electric utilities incorporate smart meters and time-of-use pricing, customers may use behind-the-meter storage to reduce their consumption during peak demand hours. Commercial and industrial customers already use energy storage for load shifting and demand management. Finally, on-site energy storage can provide short-term emergency backup power when the grid goes down.


Tesla’s Powerwall works for all of those applications, but it’s not the only player in the game. Other companies – some established and some upstarts – are tossing their Li-ion batteries into the ring as well. Let’s look at a couple.



Schneider Electric’s EcoBlade is a modular, scalable, and fully integrated storage system designed for homes, businesses, and microgrids. About the size of a 30” (76 cm) flat-screen TV and weighing 55 lbs (25 kg), the EcoBlade is designed to hang on a garage wall, much like its Tesla counterpart. Unlike the Powerwall, which needs a separate inverter, the EcoBlade is fully integrated: Li-ion batteries, charge controller, inverter, and energy management software are all included

The 10 kWh Tesla Powerwall is expected to sell for $3500, but adding the cost of an inverter and professional installation brings the price tag closer to $6000, which equates to roughly $600/kWh. The 5 kWh EcoBlade, which will be available sometime in 2016, has a target price of less than $500/kWh installed. A pair of EcoBlades will provide 10kWh of storage for about $5000, including installation.

Like the Powerwall, the EcoBlade is scalable. For commercial and industrial applications, several EcoBlades are mounted into a rack (hence the “blade” designation), providing up to 100 kWh per rack.

Schneider also developed a pre-engineered pod for microgrids. When fully loaded, the pod can store 1 MWh of energy and deliver up to 3.2 MW of peak power.

The Physics Bus STEM on Wheels Powered by Renewable Energy

Posted by Julia Thames on November 15, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

When my son was young, our family had a membership at our local hands-on science museum for kids. There he was exposed to a lot of cool scientific exhibits and displays, and I’m happy to say that at 20 years old he continues to have an interest in science and technology. Unfortunately, many kids don’t live near such a museum, but thanks to a handful of innovative science educators, one might be coming to them … on wheels. Introducing the Physics Bus:

The Physics Bus is a traveling science exhibit with dozens of hands-on activities that demonstrate a variety of fun scientific concepts. The idea originated at Cornell University, which seems appropriate considering that science popularizer Carl Sagan spent most of his career teaching at that institution. Since its inception, a number of Physics Buses have been rolled out across the country. Today I’ll look at one that works out of Tucson AZ. What’s special about this one? The bus runs entirely on renewable energy. The engine burns discarded vegetable oil, and once the bus is parked, its electrical exhibits are powered by sunlight.

A one kilowatt photovoltaic array, consisting of four Hyundai 250W monocrystalline PV modules wired in parallel, is mounted to the top of the bus. To ensure that the fun doesn’t end at sunset (or on excessively cloudy days), battery manufacturer US Battery donated a bank of eight deep cycle flooded lead acid batteries that provide up to 14 kWh of energy storage. It takes two to three days to fully charge the battery bank from solar power, depending on conditions. (Need it faster? Looks like there’s room for more solar panels!)

Since some of the exhibits use AC power, Magnum Dimensions was kind enough to donate a 4kW inverter/charge controller that’s capable of running in grid-tied or stand-alone mode. The inverter has a low startup voltage – only 18 to 34 volts – allowing it to produce electricity even on cloudy days. During a recent winter tour of Arizona, the PV array’s voltage dropped from 27.2 volts to 25.8 volts on a day of continuous cloudiness. Since this is well within the acceptable input range for the inverter, all systems were running on solar power, even with the Sun behind the clouds.

Dr. Sagan frequently pointed out that we’re all made of “star stuff.” I think he’d be happy to know that the Physics Bus continues his mission of bringing science to the people, and that its experiments are powered by our nearest star, Sol.

Living Building is a Net-Zero Energy Education Center

Posted by Julia Thames on November 4, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

The Alice Ferguson Foundation recently cut the ribbon on its new “Grass” education center, a net-zero energy, net-zero water, carbon-neutral structure that’s designed to meet the strict requirements of the Living Building Challenge. Located on the shore of the Potomac River just a few miles south of Washington DC, the building will support the Foundation’s mission of promoting sustainability through STEM education.



A 47 kW rooftop photovoltaic array generates more electricity than the building uses. The array is grid-tied, so it sells excess energy during the day and buys energy at night, using the grid as “virtual storage.” Electricity consumption is reduced through efficient LED lights and ample daylighting. (The picture above shows the south-facing roof. The north side features clerestory windows for daylighting.) Energy consumption and distribution are regulated by an advanced Building Management System.


Five vertical loop geothermal wells, each 450 feet (137 m) deep, take care of the building’s heating and cooling needs. The geothermal system’s total capacity is 8.8 tons, which is more than enough to handle the 3800 square foot (353 sq meter) facility. Although horizontal wells would have been less expensive to install, vertical wells have a smaller footprint on the surrounding land.


Heating and cooling needs are minimized thanks to a high-performance building envelope consisting of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified OSB (Oriented Strandboard)  surrounding an EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) core. OSB is commonly known as “waferboard” and is often made by gluing wood chips together. FSC certified OSB is made from wood that’s been farmed with sustainable practices; the wafers are joined without formaldehyde-based glue. The building’s R-factor is about five times that of a standard building of comparable size. According to Ferguson Foundation representative Sandy Wiggins, “The walls are 2×6 studs filled with closed cell biobased foam with plywood sheathing, wrapped with 1-inch Thermax – a glass fiber reinforced foil-faced polyisocyanurate foam, and all of that wrapped with VaproShield Wrapshield – a water resistive vapor permeable barrier membrane.  Windows are Alpen, triple glazed with a U value of 0.16.”



The Grass building is a net-zero water facility, which means that all of its water needs are met on site. A well provides potable water, while stormwater and greywater keep the gardens green. Composting toilets turn waste into topsoil, eliminating the need for sewer and septic systems.


A solar thermal system is capable of heating 80 gallons of water every day, meeting or exceeding the facility’s typical daily hot water needs. During extended sunless periods or when hot water demand is unusually high, a thermostat controlled electric water heater supplements the solar water heating.



The Alice Ferguson Foundation published a zero-waste facilities guidebook; all of its education centers abide by those principles. For example, leftover construction materials were recycled or repurposed/reused, food waste is either fed to livestock or composted, and toilet waste is composted. Of course it’s better to reduce than to reuse/recycle, so green purchasing procedures are used to minimize waste.



Some of the wood used to build the structure was harvested from downed trees on site. Remaining wood products come from FSC certified sources. All construction materials are free of PVC, formaldehyde, and other hazardous “Red List” substances. Due to the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, many large manufacturers have changed their products and processes to more sustainable materials.

Living Building Challenge

At the time of this writing, only eight buildings in the world have achieved the full “Living Building” distinction. (One of them is the Bullitt Center in Seattle.) The Ferguson Foundation hopes that the Grass education center will become the ninth. To do so, they must provide a full year of data related to its energy and water usage. The process is currently underway and should be completed sometime in 2016.

Design for sustainability is becoming a significant factor in engineering and construction, and a few organizations, like the Alice Ferguson Foundation, have taken it upon themselves to lead the charge. By studying how these buildings operate under various conditions, engineers will learn to develop new materials and techniques that eliminate waste, improve health, and reduce energy consumption. The best teachers are the ones who set an example, and the Ferguson Foundation is giving today’s architects and tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, and leaders a great lesson in sustainable design.

Vizio Smart TVs Snitch on Viewing Habits to Advertisers

Posted by Julia Thames on November 1, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

Most smart TVs connected to the Internet do not track your viewing habits by default. But the 10 million Vizio smart TVs sold so far will automatically track viewing habits and share information with advertisers from the get-go unless customers disable the option.

That opt-out default of Vizio’s “Smart Interactivity” feature was discovered by ProPublica doing a close reading of the Vizio privacy policy. Rival smart TV makers such as Samsung and LG Electronics go with an opt-in default that requires customers to actively turn on such tracking. By comparison, Vizio’s opt-out approach means it can begin hoovering up data as soon as customers activate their new TVs.

So what data does Vizio collect? The smart TVs can track data related to whatever TV programming and related commercials you’re watching—whether it’s the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” or Monday Night Football—and link such data with the time, date, channel, and TV service provider. Vizio will also track whether you view TV programs live or later on.

All that viewing habit information gets linked to the IP address that serves as a unique identifier for Internet-connected devices using the same Wi-Fi router.  That IP address serves as the focal point for Vizio’s advertiser partners to reach you—and not just on your smart TV.

Starting from 31 October 2015, the viewing habit information can help marketers figure out which advertisements to display on your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other wireless devices that happen to share the same IP address as your smart TV, according to Vizio’s privacy policy. In other words, your TV viewing habits related to keeping up with “The Big Bang Theory” may influence the ads shown on your smartphone at home.

Of course, anyone who does not want their Vizio smart TV constantly tracking their programming preferences for advertisers and data analytics companies can turn off the Smart Interactivity option. But requiring customers to opt-out of a feature pushed on them by default certainly represents the sneakier of choices available to companies.

Vizio’s privacy policy also makes a point of saying IP addresses represent “non-personal information” and that it never combines viewing data with personal information. But IP addresses can easily be linked with other information to form a personal profile of a person’s online habits. And many European courts have favored the idea of IP addresses as representing personal information.

Experts Still Think uBeam’s Through-the-Air Charging Tech Is Unlikely

Posted by Julia Thames on October 29, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

uBeam, a high-profile startup backed by some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors, has become a tech-industry sensation because of the wireless charging technology it claims to have in its labs. Scheduled for delivery next year, uBeam promises to use ultrasound to charge a mobile phone wirelessly, as you go about your business at home or chat away at your local coffee shop.

But even amid a tidal wave of publicity, the company has never publicly demonstrated a fully functioning prototype of its system. Nor has it ever produced an outside expert (who wasn’t an investor) who could attest to its ability to actually make and market a safe, effective version of what it is promising. To the contrary: uBeam is now facing an onslaught of questions about whether it can deliver any significant breakthrough at all.

Meredith Perry, who founded uBeam in 2011 when she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, has said that her charging system will be as useful with household appliances as with mobile handsets. On its website, the company proclaims, “The impact uBeam will have across industries will be profound.” It even promises to improve health care. “Because bacteria can spread via electrical outlets,” the company says, hospitals using uBeam “will be cleaner and safer for patients.”

UBeam presentations give the impression that its system to charge devices throughout a home or business will be as easy to install and use as a Wi-Fi hot spot. But according to the very limited data uBeam has made available, its product transmits only a relatively small amount of power within a very limited radius—and then only if there is nothing between the transmitter and the receiver. Each room would need at least one transmitter, and possibly many more, with each device costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars—hardly the makings of the “world without wires” the company promises on its website.

Another major issue uBeam has never addressed involves the efficiency of the electronic components it will use to transmit and receive energy. Engineers say that this is perhaps the most crucial issue the company faces as it affects everything from the amount of power a uBeam system will require to the heat it will throw off while operating.

It is entirely possible, say engineers, that using uBeam to deliver a few watts of power through the air to a mobile phone could require scores, or even hundreds, of watts of power at the source. This, they say, could make uBeam an environmentally questionable way of charging an iPhone, especially when the alternative involves simply finding a nearby electrical outlet.

In some regards, uBeam is already walking back some of the more extravagant claims it has made in the dozens of stories that have been written about it. A September piece in TechCrunch, said uBeam “could power up your phone while it’s in your pocket when you’re at a café.” While that sort of ubiquitous charging would be appealing for its simplicity and convenience, experts consider it to be impossible on account of the line-of-sight nature of ultrasound waves.

A TechCrunch interview from Saturday concedes the point, saying, The system “requires a line of sight and can’t charge through walls or clothes.” The latest story, though, didn’t address the obvious discrepancy with the earlier account. The most recent story says uBeam could transmit up to 4 meters, far less than the 30 feet (9 meters) claimed in an earlier piece.

While the company has made several technical advances involving ultrasound, “the idea that uBeam is going to eliminate the need for wires is ridiculous,” said one person with knowledge of the situation.

Even as its shipping deadline draws near, the company has suffered an exodus of technical talent. With the exception of Perry, none of the engineers listed on uBeam’s patents are still at the company, according to their LinkedIn profiles. What’s more, people familiar with the situation say that uBeam engineers felt pressured by management to describe the technology in more optimistic terms than they were comfortable with.

Among the losses were key people. One of uBeam’s departed engineers, Marc Berte, was extravagantly praised in a 2014 post by one of the company’s venture backers, Mark Suster. He wrote that Berte “became so passionate about the idea that he decided to go full time and began recruiting some of MIT friends to the project…. Having Marc Berte and a team out of MIT who have designed systems like this for years gave one confidence we could do something others couldn’t copy and at price points that could make us market leaders over night.”

The company, based in Santa Monica, Calif., has raised more than US $20 million, with backers including the firm of Andreessen Horowitz, Mark Cuban, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, and a number of prominent venture capital firms. One April estimate gave it a possible valuation of $500 million.

Media coverage of uBeam has generally been enthusiastic, including a recent BBC report, as well as scores of magazine and newspaper stories. Fortune even asked in a headline if Perry was the next Elon Musk. But much of the breathless media coverage has since been shown to be technically inaccurate.

“The technology makes it possible for a device to move freely around a room, in a pocket or purse, while constantly charging,” said a New York Times article from last year. An earlier Engadget item said, “The shipping system will be able to detect a uBeam puck in the room and charge it if it’s anywhere within a 20- to 30-foot radius.”

Neither of those statements is true, something uBeam essentially conceded in the most recent TechCrunch article. While popular press accounts of the company have been laudatory, comments in technical Internet postings have been far more critical.

Perhaps the most devastating was a 3,000-word post on EEVblog Electronics Community Forum, which among other things, said that a large room will require dozens of transmitters to provide full coverage. The article also noted existing patents covering systems similar to uBeam’s, including one from 2004 “related to the transmission of electrical power…between electronic devices using ultrasound.” What is striking about the post is the nearly universal praise it has received for accuracy, with the endorsements coming from both persons familiar with uBeam as well as highly credentialed outside experts. Several from the former category said they couldn’t find any mistakes.

Many of the themes of the EEVblog piece were echoed by the well-known ultrasound experts IEEE Spectrum spoke with. Butrus T. Khuri-Yakub, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and a key developer of a method for converting ultrasound into electricity, says that Perry contacted him in 2011 to ask if the technology would be useful in the uBeam system she was contemplating. In recent weeks, Khuri-Yakub says, he had another lengthy technical conversation with Perry. Khuri-Yakub says he spoke with Perry as a professional courtesy and that he has no relationship with the company and is therefore not privy to the details of its plans. Nonetheless, he says he was “doubtful” that the company’s technology could charge mobile phones at rates “anywhere comparable to what one can do with a wire connected to a wall outlet.”

Perry has often said she wants to make wireless charging as common and easy as Wi-Fi. John Fraser, a Stanford-trained applied physicist who has spent his career in the ultrasound industry, says basic laws of physics make attaining that goal extremely unlikely.

“Efficiency is not a big deal when you’re transmitting a signal,” he says. “You might transmit a 1-watt radio signal for Wi-Fi, but your computer only needs to detect 1 microwatt to be able to process the signal. But efficiency is a very big deal when you’re transmitting power. I don’t think ultrasound over distances of tens of feet is ever going to be practical. Even 2 meters is pushing it.”

In a TED talk from 2012, Perry seems to brag that she knew nearly nothing of physics before starting the company—not even how a TV remote control worked. She says the basic idea for uBeam came after only a few hours of googling, and portrays herself as the first person to have thought of using ultrasound for wireless power. “It seemed like an awesome idea,” said Perry in the TED Talk. “Why hadn’t the ultrasound experts thought of it before?”

Actually, they had. Many times. David R. Andrews, a physicist whose firm, Cambridge Ultrasonics, based in England, advises companies about ultrasound designs, says ultrasound experts have been thinking about using it for wireless power for many decades but invariably dismissed it as impractical because of well-understood laws of physics.

Ultrasound signals attenuate extremely rapidly in the air. William M.D. Wright, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and ultrasound specialist at University College Cork in Ireland, told Spectrum that at a frequency of 60 kilohertz, which is within the range uBeam has discussed using, a signal will typically fade to half its original strength within just 3 meters, and to one-tenth at about 10 meters.

An even bigger challenge involves the efficiency of devices used to convert electrical energy to ultrasound, and then back again. There are a number of well-understood methods for doing so, but none of them are close to being perfectly efficient; even the best ones are no more than 30 percent efficient. Attenuation and conversion compound each other to magnify the power needed to deliver even a few watts.

“You can use ultrasound to transmit power, but it’s always going to be a tiny amount,” Andrews says. “The possibility of using uBeam technology to replace all cables in the home is a pipe dream.” He was especially critical of the notion of using a uBeam-style system to charge high-wattage household appliances and noted that because the technology is a line-of-sight system, each room in a house would need its own uBeam transmitter, each costing, he estimated, hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

According to uBeam, its plan is to integrate a receiver into the back cover of a mobile phone case; the larger the receiver, the more power it can collect. Transmitters could be located on walls or in ceilings. This means, though, that if a cellphone user were holding the phone up to his or her ear, as normally occurs, a hand would be blocking most of the receiver and thus most of the charging signals. The result would be the same if the user were holding his phone in the palm of his hand while looking at the screen.

(Curiously, a publicity photo released by the company and used in scores of articles shows a uBeam transmitter on the wall and a hand holding a phone wrapped in a white uBeam receiver. While the picture is presumably meant to show a mock-up of uBeam in action, because the receiver is pointed away from the transmitter, it is likely not receiving any substantial charge at all, says Cork’s Wright. The upshot is that the PR photo portrays a scenario in which the pictured transmitter is, in fact, useless.)

The only public uBeam demonstration was at a 2011 technology conference. Perry showed off a proof-of-concept system delivering power across a few feet. The demo, available on YouTube, seems to have wowed the Silicon Valley types in attendance and was the springboard for much of the company’s later fame. One prominent tech pundit in attendance wrote that the demo was “the closest I have seen to magic.”

But physicists interviewed for this article say any awe is completely unwarranted. Perry’s demonstration “was pretty trivial,” says F. Joseph Pompei, an MIT-trained physicist whose company, Holosonics Research Labs, makes directional loudspeakers that rely on an ultrasound technique. “It was very similar to other experiments done using ultrasound to transmit low levels of power over the last few decades.”

The 2011 unit was an early prototype using off-the-shelf components. Pompei says that “one would expect” that whatever technology the company has since developed is more sophisticated. “If they can pull it off, I’d love it,” he says. “But if they are confident about the technology, they should publish their data and show the device. And the press would be well-served to reserve the accolades for uBeam until after something has been shown that really works.”

Some of the press accolades might indeed be regarded as premature considering uBeam has yet to show an actual product. A staple of press accounts about uBeam is an unattributed report claiming that the company is negotiating major technology deals with the likes of Starbucks. One account from March said a pact with the coffee company was “especially close to signing.” No such deals have been announced, though, and uBeam declined to answer whether it was the source of these rumors. Starbucks declined to discuss the matter.

While uBeam has received a great deal of press attention, the company seems to work with the media only on its own terms. After Spectrum began making inquiries about the company, a uBeam spokesperson suggested the company might be willing to share certain unspecified internal data that would back up its claims—but with the stipulation that the data not be published.

The offer was withdrawn, though, when the company discovered that Spectrum was using LinkedIn to approach ex-uBeam employees for possible interviews, a relatively common practice for reporters.

(“What would you possibly gain from reaching out to a former executive assistant with no engineering background?” asked a spokesperson in an e-mail to a Spectrum reporter. “This isn’t TMZ; this is IEEE.”)

Spectrum e-mailed uBeam several lists of questions about the issues raised in this article, but the company declined to answer any of them. A uBeam spokesperson said the questions had a “negative slant” and added, “If you want to write about real science, for a scientific audience, you would reach out to us and work with us in a collaborative rather than offensive way.”

Over the weekend, uBeam provided an interview to TechCrunch, in which it provided a few details that it had previously withheld—saying, for example, that its system is designed to deliver a minimum of 1.5 W, and that a single transmitter could operate at distances of up to 4 meters. (That’s much less power than mobile phone owners are used to; the USB converters sold by Apple range from 5 to 12 W.) UBeam told TechCrunch that it would begin demonstrating its system next year.

(The TechCrunch article appeared less than three weeks after Perry had tweeted, “Going dark until product launch. I’ll tweet about other things, but uBeam’s back in the vault. No press. Heads down & focused until launch.”)

Engineering experts were not particularly impressed with the new details, if only because they omitted perhaps the most important data point of all: the efficiency of the company’s electronics.

David W. Greve, from the department of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon, wrote in an e-mail, “What’s missing is how they plan to achieve the required sound intensities and receiver efficiency. I am not suspecting that these are unachievable; what I am not sure about is how practical, efficient, and economical the transducers can be. My gut feeling is that a system of this sort will not be very efficient and will be practical for, at best, limited applications.”

The most recent TechCrunch article also quoted two ultrasound experts in an apparent attempt to bolster the company’s claims. But what was most striking about their quotes is how little they actually said in support of uBeam.

Both men—Matt O’Donnell, a medical ultrasound expert at the University of Washington, and Babur Hadimioglu, a Stanford-trained electrical engineer who works in the ultrasound industry—were quoted saying essentially the same thing: that wireless power via ultrasound is possible. That issue, though, was never in dispute. Neither man provided any opinion about whether uBeam could engineer and then effectively commercialize the system it is promising in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

In interviews with Spectrum, both men said they were contacted last week by uBeam and asked if they would provide statements for reporters. Hadimioglu said he was told by the company that it was expecting some negative publicity soon. (The company had already received several sets of questions from Spectrum.) Hadimioglu said he wasn’t familiar with the company before the call, and his research mainly involved reading its website.

“As a scientist, I want to be open-minded and not too skeptical,” Hadimioglu told Spectrum. “But I am an applied technologist and know that uBeam is facing a very challenging problem, to say the least.”

Gourmet Coffee? High-Protein Insects? There’s a Desktop Gadget for That

Posted by Julia Thames on October 11, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

The San Francisco Bay Area tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to food trends, and if those trends involve high tech gadgets, all the better.

So there’s usually a smart food or beverage-preparing gadget at hardware launch events—in past years we’ve seen automatic bartenders, robotic stir-fry gadgets, and countless ways to brew coffee.

This month, the HAX accelerator’s seventh class featured two food gadgets—one fairly predictable, and potentially successful, and one I definitely didn’t see coming.

First, the fairly predictable but on-point in terms of trends: Auroma Brewing Company’s “coffee science machine” which, the company says, can adjust all the parameters for making a cup of coffee, tailoring the brewing process to a particular bean, or a particular user’s taste. It’s what the company calls a “third wave brew,” explaining that first wave coffee drinkers are just going for the caffeine (their example was Folgers, mine would be Dunkin Donuts), second wave coffee drinkers are going for a snack (Starbucks, likely with milk, sugar, an maybe flavorings), and third wave is about getting the unique flavors out of a bean (Blue Bottle coffee drinkers, and those who describe brews of coffee in the way they describe wine). Auroma hopes those Blue Bottle customers will spend $200 or $300 for a system that get them a similar quality brew at home. The gadget is on Kickstarter at $279 and up.

Less predictable, and a bit—OK, a lot—ahead of the trend curve: Livin Farms (photo, top). The company launched a desktop insect farm, a multi-layer, microclimate-controlled gadget that cycles mealworms from the breeding level on top (founder Katharina Unger called that the beetle loveshack), down layer by layer, spending one week in every layer, until they are at the bottom and ready for harvesting. It happens at a rate of 200 to 600 grams per week. Harvesting takes a push of a button that triggers vibrations to separate the edible mealworms from waste. “They have a neutral flavor, a bit nutty in taste, and can be used in savory or sweet dishes,” Unger said, pointing out that lobster was once considered the cockroach of the ocean, so with a little rebranding mealworms could be a gourmet food. The gadget is available on Kickstarter for $449 and up; sample packs of mealworm snacks are $25.

Parrot Pitches BeBop 2 Drone As “Flying Image Processor”

Posted by Julia Thames on October 1, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

If you’re already drone crazy, here’s what you probably want to know about the latest Parrot drone, the BeBop 2, introduced today in San Francisco. The 500-gram drone has a 2-kilometer range, a 25-minute battery life (twice as long as its predecessor), a top horizontal speed of 60 kilometers per hour, and can resist headwinds up to 39 miles per hour. The pilotless aircraft, which can operate in first-person view mode, will sell for US $500 when it comes out on 14 December.

If you’re interested in the engineering of this gadget, you might want to know that it includes: a vertical camera that watches the ground to help in stabilization; an ultrasound sensor that measures altitude up to 16 feet (about 5 meters) and a pressure sensor for tracking altitude beyond that; a 3-axis gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer, and a GPS chipset; a graphics processor, and 8 gigabytes of flash memory. Its sensors operate at 1 kilohertz to feed the image stabilization’s software. The BeBop 2’s only moving parts are its propellers.

If you’ve never flown a drone solo before, like me, you certainly would want to know that the learning curve is about 45 seconds, it’s really, really hard to hurt someone because it’s small, light, and has built-in safety features (during my first 45 seconds at the controls those indeed came into play). Once you figure out how to point the gadget towards something you want to photograph you immediately see how having a camera drone could be a lot of fun.

Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux, unveiling the new drone, touted all of its features, including aerial performance, battery life, and wifi range. But, he said, “The most important feature is the camera; [consumer] drones are for taking pictures you can put on YouTube or Facebook. Bebop 2 is built around a camera; everything done to stabilize the image is through image processing. It’s a flying image processing device.”

Seydoux also stressed the drone’s size and weight: “Doing everything through software makes it lighter,” he said. “If it falls down, less opportunity to break itself.” And in a collision, “It doesn’t hurt if it hits someone.” (It also avoids causing injury with a feature that automatically stops all the propellers if one is touched.)

In hands-on testing of three or four drones by journalists who were drone novices—in an indoor ballroom where structural pillars regularly interrupted open space, there were a multitude of crashes into windows and walls. None of the collisions disabled any of the drones. After my first minute, during which I somehow didn’t understand that I could stop the drone by lifting my finger from the touchpad and flew it full speed into a cluster of Parrot staff members and journalists (a staff member calmly reached out and snatched it just before impact), I found it easy and fun to fly. Adding to the fun was the ability to get whatever camera view I wanted on the touchscreen. Definitely a user-friendly gizmo.

Think of it as a pigeon, Seydoux suggested. “A small bird,” he said. “has nearly the same capabilities of very large bird. A pigeon can travel hundreds of kilometers and know exactly where it is; it is as good for traveling as a goose.”

Teaching Children to Talk, Not Text

Posted by Julia Thames on September 24, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

My children, young American teenagers, don’t have cellphones yet. They think I’m monstrously out of touch with the century into which they were born. I think I’m conflicted and all over the place on this issue. As the editor of IEEE Spectrum, I could be showering them with all the latest and greatest devices. But I’m not, entirely.

I’m uncomfortable with their technology use and look for ways to minimize it. When I visit their school and see them hunched over their laptops typing while the teacher waves her hand at the classroom smart board, I feel disconcerted, just as I do when I’m in an adult meeting and no one is making eye contact, instead looking down, or perhaps under the table, at a glowing screen.

I don’t feel any need for them to be texting from the dugout during baseball practice. Watching their friends do it gives me the same unnerved feeling I get in an elevator full of people communicating with everyone but the people they are standing next to. In addition to screen time, I have rules about headphone time and about Internet usage.

Yet I’m guilty of all the same behavior, and more: checking e-mail while standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, texting from a friend’s memorial service, scanning my phone for information about the chronology of geological formations while helping my son with his homework. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

And now I know why I experience such cognitive dissonance about the technology I also promote and cherish. In her brilliant new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (Penguin Press), Sherry Turkle has distilled and explained the ambivalence many of us feel about being, along with our families and friends and colleagues, always on.

Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. A clinical psychologist and devoted student of the impact of technology on human behavior, she has, for decades, chronicled the psychological impact our connected devices have on us as individuals and communities and cultures.

In Reclaiming Conversation, her thesis is that our phones and devices are changing not only what we do but also who we are, and not for the better. Based on her fieldwork, it seems that many of us are using our phones ostensibly to keep in touch but also to keep the messiness of actual human relationships and the physical world around us at a safe distance, at arm’s length. Living in these self-created vacuums is zapping our ability to experience our unique capacity for empathy and intuition, for curiosity and imagination, the remarkable human characteristics that distinguish us from our very clever devices.

Turkle’s solutions don’t involve going all Thoreau and tossing our pocket screens away. Some involve ingenious engineering. Why not build a phone designed to do a task and release us, she says. What if companies measured device success not as a function of lots of time spent on them but as a function of time well spent?

The bulk of her correctives center on reclaiming face time from screen time, and reprioritizing the value of in-person conversation and active listening over texting and Facebooking, Snapchatting and tweeting.

If we have these conversations with our children now, in person, perhaps they’ll remember that technologies wield power and change us, really change us, as augmented reality, virtual reality, maybe even brain prosthetics, push into their world.

So I think I’ll read them snippets of Turkle’s book. Or listen to it with them in the car. They’ll roll their eyes impatiently while we try to talk about it at dinner. But Reclaiming Conversations contains antidotes to the tech-user dilemmas that will confront them as they’re raising their own spawn.

Rushing to Join the IoT Web-Enabled Window Blinds

Posted by Julia Thames on September 22, 2015 in Electronic with Comments closed |

It’s a principle in the startup world: if you see a need for a product and think the technology for creating it is ready, you can be pretty sure you’re not the only one who has that same idea. So you need to get it out fastest, do it best, and offer it at the lowest price—or at least two out of those three.

There’s another axiom in the tech world these days: One day, everything will be part of the Internet of Things.

And, finally, another truism: There is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat.

Put these three laws of technology evolution together and you get two companies launching low-cost IoT gadgets that automate window shades but don’t do it the same way. And even if you don’t care about window shades, what happened in San Francisco earlier this month is an interesting story of the way startups get ideas, how the IoT is ripe for picking, and (jargon alert) “market disruption.”

The automated window shade market, explained both Raido Dsilna and Ksenia Vinogradova, is extremely ripe for disruption. Dsilna, co-founder of Wazombi Labs, based in Estonia, spoke at a launch event for HAX Boost, a San Francisco accelerator for companies that have already built products but are trying to get them to a mass market. Vinogradova, co-founder of Flipflic, originally based in Estonia as well but just relocated to San Francisco, spoke at Highway 1 accelerator’s autumn launch event. Both pointed out that today’s automated window blinds are expensive (at least $800) and require professional installation (more $$), while a few cheap motorized systems don’t have smarts or automation, just remote controls.

So automated window shades are currently a niche product used only in commercial buildings and very high-end smart homes. But both founders believe that more people would automate their window blinds if they could do so cheaply and easily. What’s more, they say, doing so could save energy, particularly if the shades coordinated with lights, thermostats, or sensors that recognize when it’s getting too hot. And automated shades could improve home security, by simulating occupancy when residents are away.

With that in mind, both companies decided to take basic IoT capabilities—sensors and wireless communications—to window coverings. Both are making them compatible with solar chargers (sold as add-ons). The two founders ideas diverged when they looked at the standard blind to decide what to automate. It turns out there are two choices: You can raise and lower a window covering (that works with shades and blinds), or you can open and close the slats (that works only with blinds, but gives more fine control of the light entering).

Wazombi is going with the raise-and-lower approach. The company’s “Smartshade” is a little box that clips onto a window-shade chain (the kind with tiny balls linked together; a cord version is in the works) and automatically adjusts the shade up and down. The $79 gizmo will start selling early next year on Amazon and in specialized shade shops, and will appear on the shelves of a  U.S. retailer next summer. An early version sold on Indiegogo.

Flipflic, a Highway 1 accelerator company, is going with the open-close approach. Its $69 gadget replaces the twisting stick normally used to adjust slats by turning a tiny knob in the blind housing. It’s already started shipping beta versions and is getting ready for its first mass-market factory run.

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