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商业 - 科技

25岁美女发明家打造最强无线充电器

Daniel Roberts 2015年01月17日

从无到有发明一款无线充电设备,可不是一件容易的事。uBeam公司的梅雷迪斯•佩里已经发明了一台原型设备。在接受《财富》专访时,这位25岁的发明家畅谈了这款设备的研发过程,以及她对未来科技的看法。

    梅雷迪斯•佩里已经受够了各种充电线。

    2011年,现在25岁的佩里还是宾西法尼亚大学的一名本科生。就在那一年,她发明了她的第一款无线充电系统,并在All Things Digital科技峰会上展示了一番。(她介绍说,“它基本上是由两台烤箱大小的盒子组成,相距两英尺远,我们在峰会上展示了一下如何通过超声波将电能跨越那段距离输送过去。”)这款设备叫做uBeam。

    现在,这家名为uBeam的公司表示,它正在研制一款可能在两年内就会上市的原型产品。目前市面上已经有了一些无线充电产品。比如,只要你把手机放在一个小基座上,或者离它几英寸远,一种名为Qi的系统就可以给手机无线充电。不过佩里认为uBeam的技术比所有竞争对手都要先进。作为2015年1月《财富》杂志“塑造未来”系列文章的组成部分,佩里在洛杉矶接受了长时间的电话专访,畅谈了她一手创建的uBeam,以及她对其它未来技术的看法。以下是经过编辑的采访实录。

    财富:首先,请谈谈几年前你刚开始研究uBeam时的情形。发明的过程是什么样的?

    梅雷迪斯•佩里:发明某个全新的东西是极为困难的,因为没有原型可以参考。不是说你在谷歌上一搜索,就会显示“需要采取如下步骤,”或者“当某人发明了类似的东西时,他们问了这几个问题,咨询了那几个人,这些是他们用过的材料”。有时你必须创造你自己的材料、你自己的设计以及生产工艺。而且你的材料必须涵盖你要制造的零部件。这些小设备当时都是我们手工制作的。有些对发明这些设备有益的工具,则是采用3D技术打印的。比如,我们需要制作一个容器来放一定量的微珠。为了完成某件从前没有人做过的事情,你必须要做好这些微小的细节。

    最开始,我几乎看过了每个可能的方案。我只是想解决一个问题,而那个问题就是:我不想再给我的笔记本电脑插电了。我想在一个房间里随时随地使用我的所有设备,而不用给它们充电。我了解到,超声波是唯一一种能够提供我们想要的无线充电体验的技术。

    然后,我基本上停顿在这种技术所需要的材料上——这种材料叫做“换能器”,它可以把电能转化成声波,再把声波转化为电能。我知道这个项目要想成功,必须要有正确的换能器,另外还得有一个能发射足够额度电能的发射机,等等。

    这些是否已经有了?

    是的,换能器被用在扬声器中。而且其实uBeam本质上就是个扬声器。为了发出声波,你要先给一个扬声器通电,这个扬声器包含了很多声波换能器。我们使用的是超声波换能器,它的音频是人耳听不到的。所以当你把这个扬声器通电后,你可以从墙上的电源获得电力,然后电力会被转化为声波,声波会在空气中运动,这样你就把电能变成了声能。这种技术已经存在了。但是扬声器是360度辐射的,这样散射的声波没法产生足够的能量,除非你让它集中起来。所以你要做的事情就是像激光或电灯一样,要用一个漏斗体让它聚焦。但我们并没有采用物理设备让它聚焦,而是利用数字技术让它聚焦。所以我们必须构建一个能令声音进行数字聚焦的发射机,让我们的超声波扬声器能发出足够的能量贯穿整个房间。所以uBeam的理念之所以有效,就是因为我知道换能器是存在的。所以你只需要把声波想成一种能量即可,只是人们通常想不到这一点。

    关于这个东西我好像说得太过细节了,听起来有点奇怪吧。

    不,它非常有意思。让我们多说说它的一般程序。你的工作方法是怎样的?

    在2012年的时候,我们融到了不少资金,我已经有了整个计划,但整个过程还是极为艰难的,因为当时我只能与承包商合作。甚至一直到几个月之前还是这样。一直到A轮融资结束(该公司获得了由Upfront Ventures公司领投的1000万美金),除了我自己以外,我们甚至连一名全职员工都没有。所以我只好把技术分成一块一块的。有人专门做发射机,发射机后面还有一些电子元件,所以我又跟人签了合同,让他们去做发射机后面的电子元件。然后我做了大量的研究,试图找出我能获得的最强大的超声波换能器。超声波换能器的种类数不胜数,大多数都用于医疗用途,比如超声波扫描。另外还有人设计了汽车用的超声换能器,比如倒车雷达。还有一些是用于水下定位的,比如潜艇用的那种。我需要确定哪种换能器是我需要的,也就是能够通过空气传递能量。当然,在此之前从来没有人做出过哪怕与它比较接近的东西。

    有一个大学做过一种换能器,它算是比较接近了,但是我们也得对它改了又改。理论上我们可以通过这个设计传递能量……所以我联系了这些论文的作者,请他们设计这些换能器。然后我需要有人设计发射换能器,同时我也需要有人来设计接收换能器。所以我是让不同的人来设计系统的不同部分。

    听起来像一条组装线。

    是的,但这个过程很困难,因为每个人都离我很远。这也是我的工作方法所带来的挑战。但是我没法让任何人来全职工作,而且我也没有必要让任何人来全职工作,我只需要每个人完成他们那一部分就可以了。

    最难啃的骨头就是换能器,这个问题花了我们整整14个星期的时间。

    但这个部分正是核心引擎,是吗?

    一个系统要想工作,每个零部件都得工作才行,但最终这个部分是它的心脏,所以是的。

    所以说,换能器花了最长的时间是也有道理的。

    是的,但当时我没意识到它会这么艰难。

    Meredith Perry is tired of wires.

    The 25-year-old was still an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania when she built the first model of her wireless charging system and demonstrated it at the All Things Digital conference in 2011. (“It was basically like two toaster-sized boxes that were two feet apart, and we showed that you could beam a certain amount of power over that distance with ultrasound,” she says.) Its name? uBeam.

    Now a company in its own right, uBeam says it has a working prototype and could have a product on store shelves within two years. There are other wireless charging systems already out there—Qi, for example, charges your phone as long as it sits on or inches away from a small base—but Perry believes uBeam’s technology is superior to all competitors. As part of the Shape the Future package in the January 2015 issue of Fortune, Perry, who lives in Los Angeles, sat down for a long conversation by phone about how she created uBeam and her vision of other future technologies. What follows is an edited transcript.

    Fortune: Let’s go to a few years ago when you were first beginning to work on uBeam. What was the invention process like?

    Meredith Perry: To create something really new is extremely difficult, because there’s no protocol. I can’t Google it online and find, “These are the steps that need to be taken,” or, “When somebody created something similar, these are the questions they asked, these are the people they talked to, and these are the materials they used.” Sometimes you have to create your own materials, your own design, your own manufacturing process. You have to create your own shipping materials that can cover the parts that you built. And we were building all of these tiny little devices by hand. We 3-D-printed tools that were useful in creating these devices. For example, we needed a holder that could hold a certain amount of micro beads. So that’s the level of minutiae you have to get involved with in order to actually execute on something that hasn’t been done before.

    In the beginning I looked at every possible option. I just wanted to solve a problem. And that was: I don’t want to plug in my laptop anymore. I want to be able to move around a room and use all my devices without plugging them in. And I learned that ultrasound was the only type of technology that would work for the experience we are trying to give, which is the Wi-Fi for charging.

    Then I basically stopped at what materials we needed to make that happen—they’re called transducers, which convert electrical energy into sound and sound back into electricity. I knew that for this project to work, I needed the right transducer, and a transmitter that needs to have this amount of power and be able to beam that power across the room and hit these targets, and so on.

    And that existed already?

    Yes, transducers are used in speakers. And that’s effectively what uBeam is: a speaker. To make sound, in general you plug in a speaker, which is a bunch of sonic transducers. And we’re using ultrasonic transducers, which is sound above what you can hear. So when you plug in a speaker, you’re taking electricity from a wall, and the electricity is converted into sound, and that sound travels through the air. You’re converting electrical energy into acoustic energy. So that already exists. But a speaker is radiating out sound in 360 degrees, and you’re not going to get that much power from sound unless you focus it. So you have to do the same thing you would do with a laser beam, or with a light bulb—you take the energy and funnel it into a cone. But we’re not physically focusing it, we’re digitally focusing it. So we had to create a transmitter that digitally focuses sound to get enough power out of our ultrasonic speaker across the room. So the whole concept of uBeam worked because I knew that transducers existed. It was just a matter of thinking about sound as a form of energy, which people don’t often think about.

    Anyway. I’m kind of going into weird details about this.

    No, it’s fascinating. Let’s talk more about the general process. What was your work method?

    Well, back in 2012, we had raised a bunch of money, I had this whole plan planned out, but it was extremely difficult because I was working with only contractors. Up until a few months ago, even. Until we raised our Series A [funding round, totaling $10 million and led by Upfront Ventures] we didn’t have any full-time employees except me. So what I did was broke apart the technology into its pieces. I had people working on the transmitter, and there are the electronics behind the transmitter, so I contracted people to create the electronics behind the transmitter. Then I did tons and tons of research to figure out, “What is the most powerful, in-air, ultrasonic transducer I can get?” There are a zillion different types of ultrasonic transducers. Most are made for medical purposes, like sonograms. Then there are people that have designed transducers for cars, like when you back up and you hear the “beep beep.” Then there are transducers you use underwater for sonar, like on a submarine. I needed to figure out which is the best transducer I can use that will beam power through the air. And of course, nothing had been created before that was even close.

    There was one type of transducer that came out of a university, and it was kind of close, all we had to do was change this, this, and this, and theoretically we should be able to output the power we need using this design… so I contracted the people that wrote those papers to design those transducers. Then I needed someone to design the transmitter transducer, but I also needed someone else to design the receiver transducer, which would capture the energy. So I had individual people working on individual parts of the system.

    It sounds almost like an assembly line.

    Right. But it was very difficult because everybody was remote. That was the challenge of the way I set it up. But I could not get anyone to come on full-time. And I didn’t necessarily need anyone to come on full-time, I just needed each person to finish their one part.

    The part we couldn’t crack was the transducer. It took us a total of 14 months working on that one particular problem.

    But that one part is the core engine, isn’t it?

    Well, for a system to function each part needs to work, but ultimately this piece is the heartbeat, yes.

    So then it makes sense that the transducer took the longest.

    Yes, but I didn’t realize just how hard it would be.

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