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Energous and FCC Approval for Mid Range Device - What Does It Mean?

Six months ago wireless power company Energous claimed they'd have FCC approval for their at-distance charging, and I was highly skepti...

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Tech Journalism Fail: Energous at CES

One of the reasons I write about Energous so much is that it's an ideal vehicle to show how tech journalism is manipulated by startups to give what are essentially Press Releases disguised as reporting. When you read most tech coverage you rarely see journalists speak to experts in the field, or press for deeper answers on questions, taking for granted statements from the company in question even when they have been shown to repeatedly be 'less than truthful'. 

In part it's understandable as some of these topics are just difficult to understand due to the technical complexity, giving leeway for the company to use 'smoke and mirrors' to bamboozle. PR companies ensure that exclusives and early previews only go to the reliably compliant (I'm looking at you, David Pogue), cutting out from future access anyone who asks difficult questions. Journalists are also under tight deadlines and the system encourages more, lower quality articles that get attention rather than a smaller number of less feel-good but very detailed and accurate pieces - essentially, journalists are responding to the incentives the system offers. That's one reason I try to support, with actual dollars, publications that allow long term detailed investigations such as John Carreyrou's expose of Theranos.

During this last week was CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, and Energous were using this to give private demos of their latest tech to a select few. My recent post on Energous tried to lay out some questions to help journalists at least try to probe past the marketing fluff, but from what I've seen of the CES coverage, it's clear I need to work on my blog exposure! Barron's had at least some questions over long term viability and Tiernan Ray is one of the very few to actually get an outside opinion, using a phrase I constantly bring up with wireless power - possible but not practical. The weakest that I've seen so far has been from Tom's Guide which I'm pretty sad about as in its early days Tom's Hardware was a go-to site for in-depth tech analysis. What I do like about it though is that there is a video of the tech on display, and gives us more insight into what's going on.

First of all, I suggest you go to the Tom's Guide site and watch the video through. (See, I told you the 'access based journalism' gets more hits!).

Basic Research Anyone?
First thing is that the journalist immediately sets the expectations by saying that the at-distance charging will "start showing up in products you will buy in about 12 to 18 months". Barring the fact that if you want to show up in mass-market products you have to have deals signed 12 to 18 months prior to the product actually appearing, apparently it was too hard to go an look back and see examples of Energous using a "time-to-carrot" of product 18 months out since at least early 2014. Why believe them this time, or at least mention that the company has a history of being wrong about their timing?

As an aside, why do journalists need to use adjectives when describing the technology such as 'cool'? If it's actually 'cool' then the reporting will show that without the need to lead readers so bluntly - but I do understand that the company PR people will love them for it.

The Demo
We then move to a demo charging devices - you can see the transmitting antenna underneath a monitor, with the keyboard and mouse sitting about 1 foot away. There's a statement that WattUp Mid-Field goes up to 250 mW, but apparently it's not worth saying "Hey Energous rep, show me something charging with this at 250 mW". Instead we see the keyboard receiving around 67 mW at close range, dropping to around 20 mW at 2 feet or so. This is a far cry from even the >100 mW at 50 cm that the CEO was claiming last week, or the "12 devices, 15 feet, 4 watts" from 2 years ago.

The keyboard is much bigger and should support ideally sized antenna, so why that low? Why the inconsistency? But you'd have to know the technical details and have done your homework to ask that. (I expect part of that is due to the antenna being horizontal - move the keyboard vertical and the number may have gone up. That would have been nice to see - if only someone had maybe suggested you do that...)

Perhaps someone might even have thought to ask:

"Hey, your FCC Approval says that it switches off and won't charge below 30 mW. Why am I seeing 20 mW here? Is this different than the FCC approved system?"

Next you have a 'cool' part of the tech where the transmitter can prioritize between the devices being charged, like a keyboard and a mouse. It's "sophisticated enough to support scheduling capability".  Isn't that cool and smart? No, no it isn't. The obvious question to ask here is:

"So you can barely charge at mW level, and can't even charge more than one device at a time?"

Everyone does realize that the marketing team just got a major technology limit spun positively as a feature, right?

Safety Last
Next comes safety. In the article Energous get to plant a direct PR quote without any questioning:

An Energous rep said that the company’s sub-gigahertz technology transmits at well below the SAR (specific absorption rate) for phones, and that its beam-forming technology is precise enough to direct energy only in the direction of the gadgets being powered.

Did anyone perhaps think to ask:

"Great - What value is SAR limited to and what are you transmitting at?"

or

"Awesome - can you show me some beam plots proving your highest power is exactly on the receiver?"

or perhaps even

"You say you target small "pockets" of energy - how big are they across?"

because it's not as if anyone has laid it out that they are basically at the SAR limit, the beamforming is so poor they can rarely get the highest power at the target, or that the 'pockets' are 50 centimeters across. And that's from the company's own data in the FCC report. Yes, I know that I'm a nobody blogger, but there are so many people that could have been called up, like a university electrical engineering prof, and just asked what should be looked for. Without asking anyone else who might know, this is just being a mouthpiece for Energous PR. I'm sure they are grateful for it.

That's not the worst part of the safety question though. It's an integral part of the Energous FCC approval, which even they themselves admit is required, that there is a safety system that shuts off when there is movement within 50 centimeters of the transmitter. The video makes it very clear that there is no such safety system here, so how about asking:

Your FCC approved system shuts off for 30 seconds when anyone is within 50 centimeters. I'm clearly in that range. Why is this still working? Am I exceeding consumer SAR limits right now?

This is not the system approved under FCC Part 18 (one hard-to-spot give-away to this is that the transmitter is a completely different shape) and I expected them to try this which is why I wrote out the question to ask which was:

"Are we, right now, operating under the same safety limits and other restrictions a consumer system would have to?"

It's not that hard to ask, and the answer would quite likely be "no" (or some mumbling) and then it would be a more interesting story! (Hint, the sign right in front of you literally says "This device has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission")

Anyway, it's not my health, so congratulations to the journalist for being brave enough to potentially put himself outside those limits for the sake of Energous' share price - sorry, I mean informing his readers.

More Power
That's enough about safety, after all who cares about that? Now we come to 'high power devices' like phones which you can charge at 7.5 Watts (7500 mW!). The same technology that can only charge a keyboard at 67 mW is suddenly charging 100 times higher. Cool! Except what is missed, and the Energous rep was very happy not to correct, is that the sign next to that demo says quite clearly "WattUp Near-Field High Power Demo" not the "WattUp Mid-Field Demo" just walked away from. This is completely different and now incompatible technology (0.9 GHz vs 5.8 GHz) and now gives readers the impression that the at-distance charging will work with phones at 7.5 Watts. 

Just because they use the same name, WattUp, doesn't make them compatible. If it were capable of that wouldn't they be charging the keyboard like that? This isn't a little difference, it's a factor of 100!

This is a basic failure to understand the products being reported on and quite literally misinforming readers to the benefit of Energous. 

See the power of branding and names like WattUp to cover multiple differing technologies? Awesome for confusing the rubes customers.

The phone, which is connected to the contact charging device by a USB cable, is then moved closer to the charging brick and apparently the charge rate increased. What? If distance was a factor, why have the cable? 

Here's the next thing missed. As the phone is moved we hear "it's up to 875 mW", while knocking the charging brick it's connected to off at an angle and away from the charging pads underneath the monitor base. Then there's a sudden cut in the video (at 1m 25s) where it's obvious the Energous rep stepped in and squared the brick up, and now it's charging at 3.57 W. So hey how about someone asking:

"Is this near-field technology so sensitive that knocking things slightly changes charge rates by a factor of 4?"

Perhaps it's worth asking because that's in direct contradiction to the Energous PR statement printed which was:

Energous says its solution allows for greater “rotational freedom” over coil based technologies.

Even when the video evidence contradicts them, some journalists still say what the company hands to them, unquestioned. It's a little clearer in the text, but the ambiguity the mistake introduces will be used by the company to their benefit.

Last techy questions to have asked here since this Near-Field demo also had the sign saying it wasn't FCC approved:

"Could any currently FCC approved devices charge at this rate?"

and

"And isn't this charging brick limited to 300 mW charging as-per the recent FCC Approval?"

But, again, that would have required homework, and an understanding of the difference between the two charging technologies that Energous call "WattUp".

But Their Products...
There are still some stubbornly skeptical people so at the end, it's clearly pointed out that WattUp is now in a product, so obviously it's real. Who wouldn't want underwear that needs charged? The tech is so awesome and cool that everyone is knocking on Energous' door, but of course who wants Apple to use you in their product, the real market is tighty-whities!

Saying that it's a WattUp receiver lets readers think that it will charge at a distance, when the FitBit-style tracker component actually needs removed and charged in contact with the near-field device. It's also only available as a pre-order which means it's not actually available as a product yet

Once again putting two different and currently incompatible technologies under the same brand name, WattUp, allows Energous to play reporters and get incorrect but favourable reporting.

Lastly, there's a mention of "Tier 1" device makers and that it will take time for Energous to get them into their devices. But haven't Energous been teasing their relationship with a "Tier 1" for years, letting everyone think it's Apple until it became clear last year that it wasn't? Who is it now then? I ask because they people who keep mentioning "Tier 1" are Energous themselves, as it gives them a sense of mystery and importance, and everyone obligingly just repeats what's said to them. It wouldn't be that those "Tier 1" comments came from an Energous rep or handout, would it?

It's a tough job to do right
It's perhaps unfair to pick on this one reporter, there are many weak regurgitations of Energous PR out there such as Digital Trends talking about the "awesome new wireless charging tech" but the video shown here just highlights how much more sophisticated company marketing is than most of the press reporting on them. They know exactly how to use marketing terms and change up demonstrations to misdirect and confuse, allowing beneficial errors to pass, and correct those not in their favour. Complex technology in particular gives great leeway for obfuscation and if there isn't someone with a tech background helping, then it's going to be more of a Press Release Laundering Service rather than actual reporting. But hey, it gets a lot of page views, right?

To summarize
At CES Energous showed off a Mid-Field Transmitter that did not meet FCC rules, and clearly differs from the Mid-Field Transmitter approved under Part 18. They also showed off Near-Field charging technology that hid multiple charging pads under a monitor, needs a large charging-brick that won't fit into a phone case and was not FCC approved, as well as a smaller Near-Field charging technology that charges much slower. All four different versions are called "WattUp" and work as designed - which is to confuse and make everyone think they're all the same thing, that way it's easier for journalists to give positive coverage rather than report on the complexity. Nicely done Energous marketing team!

Final note: As every time I post something on Energous I get accused of being in a short position and writing for financial gain in trying to drive the stock price down, I'll once again note that I have no financial stake here, either long or short. So many people find it hard to understand why I write these posts if not for money, and unfortunately there's nothing I can do to persuade them that other motivations do exist.

7 comments:

  1. Found you quite by accident, but hooray for your efforts, Quixotic though they may be. Keep it up.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I don't know if you made that reference with this in mind, but there was a very specific reason I named my second post "Tilting at Windmills"!

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  2. If you take a look at the signs they have next to their demo setups in the toms guide video (or even behind the echo-like speaker in the headline pic) they specifically call it all out as FCC-unapproved - hardly surprising given that they've had a single device approved overall. Suspect these demo systems are pretty far from anything that might pass muster.

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    1. I think your suspicions are very likely true.

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  3. yeah take that - silly PR releases claiming to run cars and toasters.. ! thanks wle

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  4. Thanks for taking the time to share your valuable analysis and especially being contrarian to standard industry PR and hype. You clearly have a high ethical bar, which is commendable. However, I couldn't help noticing you mention it's "clear I need to work on my blog exposure"... which seems likely, and I'm quite sure you could (with a bit of networking) get to write thought leadership pieces in some more high-exposure online venues. If you're interested in chatting more about this, feel free to reach out (won't list my email here for obvious reasons, but I'm on LinkedIn). As a startup founder/CEO who sees a lot of the negative sides of this ecosystem, I'd be happy to help in any way I can.

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    1. Happy to talk - I contacted you on LinkedIn

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