Wireless Electricity Update Summer 2009

This is an update on recent developments in wireless electricity. I’ve been writing about wireless electricity for several years now and have corresponded with Marin Soljacic at MIT on one occassion regarding his progress as well.

The MIT Technology Review is doing a good job of following along with the race between their team (now operating within the independant VC funded startup WiTricity) and Intel (who appears to be building on top of some of their own technology) to bring a wireless electricity product to market first . Thanks to my buddy Jim for pointing me to this article last week. The article talks pretty much all about Intel and their June 18th presentation at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. At the event they showed a wireless electricity prototype which charged an iPod speaker at a distance of one meter using a 60 cm diameter loop transmitter and a 30 cm diameter loop receiver both tuned to a frequency (electrical current oscillation) of seven megahertz. Electrical power was transmitted with 80% efficiency through the specific arrangement they demonstrated.

This display is similar to one they showed in the Fall of 2008 which lit a lightbulb over a similar distance with only slightly less (75%) efficiency. Because of the small improvement in efficiency (5% increase in 10 months) I wonder if they are approaching a unique design limitation or a fundamental limitation with the transfer of a magnetic field through the air. It’s also worth wondering whether the 20% of energy lost is falling out as the magnetic field passes through the air (currently a distance of one meter) or through the process in which electric energy is converted into magnetic energy and back within the wire loops that comprise the transmitter and receiver. I figure the magnetic field transfer through the air is to blame for most of the energy lost in this model. Does anyone know?

I also haven’t heard anyone talking about efficiency gained or lost when a single transmitter is used in combination with multiple transmitters. If a transmitter is able to send a magnetic field out in multiple directions (which I don’t know if it does) then it seems to me that a receiver in a location far away from another receiver would not reduce the ability of the other receiver to be driven by the magnetic field. Could this technique be used to increase efficiency to a level that the current energy losses would be more than compensated for? I don’t see why this wouldn’t work… but my physics knowledge is based mostly on Physics 26 and 27 in the undergrad program at UNC from eight years ago 🙂 At least the classes did include sections on electricity and magnetism.

Another note about WiTricity, the company pushing MIT’s research forward that I mentioned earlier, their website contained a few things I found interesting:

1) It mentions that WiTricity has an exclusive license to the wireless electricity prototype intellectual property developed by Marin Soljacic and his team at MIT. There are also some other interesting details on the about us page of the WiTricity website as well.

2) It contains a nice illustrated description about how wireless electricity works which is a great read for a wireless electricity novice and probably great content for a lesson plan if you are a teacher.

Chapel Hill Trivia Game – Testing the Market for Personalized Niche Trivia

Just over one year ago a good friend of mine Erik brought an idea to me about building and marketing niche trivia games over the web. The original idea was sized down to a local market prototype that would allow us to judge the demand for this type of product within a market we all knew well. The thought was that if we could make the game a success within a market that we knew well and in which we could directly build relationships with retailers and affiliates/resellers that we would have a model that we could take to other markets by way of representatives in each that had connections similar to ours in our test market.

Our local test market became UNC students and alums and the first offering became a physical boxed game with 500 questions in five categories called the Chapel Hill Trivia Game. The categories are: Student Life, Sports, History, Landmarks, and Famous People. The game became available for sale online and in many local retailers in the Chapel Hill North Carolina area in December of 2007, a little late but still in time for the holiday gift season.

We’re now fourteen months from our first conversation on the idea and six months from our first print run of the Chapel Hill Trivia Game. The company name we created to hold each of our niche trivia projects was Factrivia.

The Factrivia project has been interesting to me for a few reasons:

  • A really smart guy that I respect came up with the original idea (which has been adapted some along the way).
  • The long term vision involved collecting and organizing information within a social model website.
  • The long term vision involved a print-on-demand process that would allow our physical printing costs to scale with demand for the product and would allow us to eliminate the need for capital and risk that comes with holding inventory.
  • The opportunity matched a number of already successful business models that were addressing the long tails of other traditional markets.
  • Preation had software that would make building a content-managed website and e-commerce system to support our test market prototype quick and cost effective.
  • Our test market prototype plan would involve getting to know the consumer game market and learning about retail distribution models which were completely out of my realm of experience.
  • We had a good balance among the four founders between those with time, connections, and business and technology experience.

After spending just over a year learning in this market and testing the demand for our local market prototype the Chapel Hill Trivia Game I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I’ll outline a few of the things we’ve done that have worked and others that haven’t from both a tactical and strategic standpoint below.

Things that have worked:

  • Our website and e-commerce system (Preation) have performed perfectly
  • Our email and document management system (GMail and Google Docs) has worked really well
  • Our conference call line (FreeConference.com) is perfect for what we need
  • Semi-weekly status meetings with emailed to-do lists for each person following the meetings
  • Our printing and game production company (Delano) did a nice job on the games
  • Coordinating communications and priorities among team members in different locations
  • Manually researching, documenting sources for, and editing 500 trivia questions on a niche topic
  • Breaking our go-to-market strategy into smaller chunks that would allow us to prove demand for what we’re doing at each step along the way and thus minimize risk
  • Funding our demand evaluation process with founder and friend-and-family funds
  • Negotiating great placements of the game in retail establishments that sell to our market
  • Selling to customers through Chapel Hill retailers and bars and restaurants
  • Selling through organizational affiliates who have active members
  • Using local media coverage to drive website sales
  • Using our status as UNC alums to tell a good story about the creation of the game

Things that haven’t worked (hopefully just yet):

  • Highly targeted advertising to UNC alums and students through web flyers on Facebook
  • Web banner advertising on DailyTarHeel.com
  • Non-holiday-motivated selling directly to consumers from our website
  • Affiliate selling through alumni organizations and groups around the country

Factrivia has been a fun project and I’ve already learned a lot. We’ve sold nearly half of our test inventory so far and we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. Our Tuesday and Thursday meetings are now all about revising and refining our current sales and distribution strategies and working to find channels that move the product quickly. So far so good.