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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Recent Investments in Consumer Ultrasound

Earlier this month a consumer ultrasound company received a large series B funding round, taking in a further $23m to bring their haul to around $40m in total. It wasn't uBeam, it was UltraHaptics in the UK, who are using ultrasound to induce sensations and feelings at a distance (Haptics means 'relating to the sense of touch'). Think touching a 'key' on your phone when the screen vibrates or there's a buzz, even though it's not feeling like a key, the presence of some form of feedback tricks your brain and lets you know something has happened.  

It's likely a good complement to AR/VR and while it won't ever feel like solid objects or real things, the fact that there can be some form of feedback is a huge benefit. Imagine feeling something on your fingers as you touch a virtual keyboard, or sensations on other parts of your body as signals to interact with the virtual world around you. 

From the UltraHaptics pictures, it looks like they are using Murata MA40S4S car parking sensors (at least that's what they show), just many of them together in a square array (it's what's under his hands, just in front of the laptop). These are commercial off-the-shelf parts, and not ideal for a phased array, but unlike uBeam who also appear to be using them, are unlikely to be working at a power level where this becomes a safety issue. An array like this can be controlled to send beams in directions controlled digitally, but also as a receiver to allow imaging of the surroundings.


UltraHaptics seems to be working with the automotive industry according to the TechCrunch article, which surprised me, as there are fewer options within the car for that kind of feedback. What there is more demand for is sensing, both of passenger location within the car, and sensing close in around the car at low speed such as during parking. Other sensing systems such as LIDAR aren't always best close in, at a few meters or less, and ultrasound can do that job - essentially it's a high-fidelity version of the reverse sensors many cars have these days. I do wonder if they've found that there's another more lucrative application for their technology.

Another company in the ultrasound haptics space is Emerge, based in LA, and they have to be pleased that large investments are going into this space. Interestingly, Emerge has been on uBeam's radar, with rumours of a 'Cease and Desist' being sent their way for having the audacity to hire an engineer previously employed at uBeam (one wonders if the other 19 or so companies now employing the entire first group of uBeam engineers will also receive such letters). It's hilarious that anyone would be naive enough to think in California that a non-compete or restrictive practice could be placed on the employment of any engineer, and might indicate some desperation on their part. With Energous covering the IP space in wireless power (RF and ultrasound) as well as multiple applications such as communications, apparently few uBeam patents in the pipeline, and Emerge and UltraHaptics cleaning up in the haptics and possibly imaging spaces, that there is anywhere for uBeam to pivot to if (when?) the wireless power market proves unattainable.

Overall, I'm glad to see investment in this area - there are challenges for these companies but definitely some interesting opportunities - but also that there are engineering companies out there just quietly getting on with the job of building technology and delivering products.

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