Christmas Lights And Ships In A Bottle

Thanksgiving was last week, and Christmas has been invading department stores for two or three months now, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to kill a tree, set it up in your living room, and put a few hundred watts of lights on it. All those lights, though; it’s as if Christmas lights were specifically invented as fodder for standup comedians for two months out of the year. Why can’t someone invent wireless Christmas lights?

We don’t know if it’s been invented, but here’s a Kickstarter campaign that’s selling that same idea. It’s called Aura, and it’s exactly what it says on the tin: wireless Christmas lights, controllable with a smartphone. If it works, it’s a brilliant idea.

Here’s the basic technical breakdown for Aura. A bunch of PCBs with large coils and LEDs (and little else) are somehow stuffed into glass ball ornaments. These ornaments are powered via RF supplied by a coil that snaps around the tree and plugs into the wall. The coil is able to power the lights up to about five feet away. For trees taller than five feet, you can snap the coil around the middle of the tree. A coil will be able to power up to about 100 lights. The smartphone ‘scheduling’ is done directly at the coil turning all the lights on or off, so there’s no worrying about the insane power requirements of putting WiFi in dozens of glass globes.

There’s no question in my mind that something like this can exist. The LEDs in each ornament draws a tiny amount of power, and since you can charge a cellphone with a Powermat or other wireless charger, it’s not unreasonable – even considering the inverse square law – that you could power a few LEDs with a really big ‘power ring’. EMC tests are another thing entirely, but at the very least it’s possible.

However – there’s always a however – something about this doesn’t pass the sniff test. It took me a while looking at the Kickstarter campaign until I caught it, and now I have questions that can’t be answered. How on Earth did they get that PCB inside a glass ball? Yes, it’s the classic ship in a bottle problem, only you can’t really assemble a PCB inside a glass ball.

Those aren’t plastic balls, either. The creators of Aura say specifically that they’re glass:

The plastic ones we’ve experimented with are actually pretty cool, just not as “classy” as the clean glass ones, which is why we didn’t start there… Since this is a brand new technology, idea, and implementation, we needed to focus on delivering, so hence the subset of options available for the time being.

It’s a curious thing looking over dozens of shady Kickstarters every day. Most of the projects are easily digestible, and you’re able to make a judgement about the feasibility and potential success of a project rather quickly. Very rarely, you’ll look over a project and something that seemingly insignificant will catch your eye. A great example is fitting a chip into too small of an enclosure – a fairly insignificant detail that’s like tugging a loose thread that unravels the whole campaign.

Here we are with Aura, something that’s probably, maybe possible, but with an unanswered question in the back of my mind. And so we go looking for more.

Here’s a video from the Aura campaign that’s so saccharine it would have given [Norman Rockwell] diabetes. It’s exactly what you want in a Kickstarter video: don’t show the product, only show how much better your life will be with the product. The only voice over for this video is, “There are a lot of firsts in your world. Your first steps. Your first Christmas. And now, the first ever wireless Christmas lights.” We desperately need media theorists to start trawling through Kickstarter videos.

Pretty bland, huh. Let’s take a look at two frames from this video. The first frame shows a boy putting a clear glass ornament on a tree. Pay special attention, because there’s nothing inside the ornament.

lol

Mere seconds later, the ornament magically lights up though the power of the Christmas spirit and a device you can fund for $69 on Kickstarter:

wut

A beautiful family gathering, a great interplay of light and shadow, and very good evidence the light coming from the ornament was added in post. Look very carefully at that last picture, and you’ll see how it was done. A spot was placed off to the right; half the tree is lit from the wrong direction. A little bit of Sony Vegas or Final Cut takes care of the actual ornament lighting up – and the light coming from the ornament is far too Gaussian if that word is an adjective. Actually, all arguments about lighting are moot, because we already know there wasn’t anything in the ornament to begin with.

I’m done. After seeing this, I literally cannot evaluate Aura anymore. The Aura team is presenting obviously faked video as a real, wireless Christmas light. I can’t figure out how they fit a PCB in a glass ball. I’m not even going to try to parse the claim, ‘The Power Ring safely creates a magnetic field and only transfers energy when a receiver comes into its field.’ This, of course, is where you come in. Comments are open, guys. Let’s hear your take.

69 thoughts on “Christmas Lights And Ships In A Bottle

  1. Good points. Also, how do you “click a ring” around a tree without breaking the coils? Are the coils in packs like the armature of a motor? Why would you need to “Click a ring” around a tree? Couldn’t you just place a pad at the bottom? Next they’ll be claiming that the tree acts like an antenna transmitting the power up the stem…

    1. I watched one of the other videos. “Move the light closer to the ring and it lights up”, They move it like 6″ from outside the ring to 6″ inside and magically it lights (very dimly at that, not nearly as bright as the kid hanging the empty ornament).

    2. Didn’t notice this thread – as you can tell, the commercial we did with the kid was early on in the process and as you can see from the demo videos that show the plain PCB with LEDs, the tech works just fine at a distance. Feel free to ask questions on the project page so we see them as I didn’t see this particular post or comments.

      Here’s an early demo vid showing the tech.

  2. The ‘wire receivers’ photo shows a) coils that were ‘tested’ that haven’t had the enamel removed from the ends, andb) at least one would not be of any use at all as it is wound to counter itself (large one right of center). Sample primary ring they show is not unfeasible, but would require a hefty transformer to feed it, which is not shown. The first vid (GIF at top of page and vid lower down– Higgins tree) defies belief for a number of reasons, the principal one being that the ornament would have been in the reasonably uniform part of the field long before touching a branch, and should have been lit it it was real. Ditto for the vid already dissected. Also, doing a few calculations for air coupled transformers doesn’t lend a lot of support to the concept as shown, even with LED’s.

    I suspect this is scam, though I would like to be proven wrong, as it is a great concept.

    1. I think we do a pretty good job providing legitimacy for ourselves before we launched this product as it is a new technology. Check out anything that I’ve done previously to demonstrate our legitimacy and feel free to ask any questions or for more video demonstrations to prove to yourself that what we’re trying to do is not some sort of scam…

      If you research the technology you will find plenty of examples of this technology just not applied to this particular application.

      As mentioned above, the video with the kid in it was staged as we didn’t have the tech fully ready back then. In the whistling video we wanted to demonstrate the technology turns on when it gets close to the tree, but also wanted to do something like the corona commercial which is why we just switched it on – if you want the original video to hear the click, I can provide that if you’re interested.

      As for your question of the wire receivers… a) the enamel is sanded off and b) the polarity of the winding is of little consequence due to the fact that it’s magnetically coupled. We’re not going to show all of how we did it with the power supply, there’s some IP there we’d rather not show. Anything else we can take video/images/etc.

      Also, if you’re worried about legitimacy, check out the CNET interview we did in which their hosts saw it… so if you don’t believe us, check that out.

      1. As I said, I would like to be proven wrong. You have given, throughout this thread, more information and references to support your claims for the product, and I salute you for this. I have fewer doubts about this project than several weeks ago. I understand that you can’t show all details without disclosing IP that needs to stay protected until rights are properly established and product is on the shelves. Looking at the original presentation with this in mind, there were still a number of flags, noted both by me and by others.

        While I do not specialize in resonant transformers, I do have some relatively current experience. Without any notation that the commercial was not a demo, the assumption would be that the actual device was being shown. The behaviour in the video was not in line with real world, and was quite visibly arted-up. Other things also came across with signs commonly seen in less than forthright campaigns.

        The reference I made to winding of the large coil in the image (https://s3.amazonaws.com/ksr/assets/002/873/448/bbccc8b99124ae7ed8b646077ade60f4_large.png?1415406529) to the right of center and stretched from near the bottom of the frame to the top stands. The wire coils down in one sense, is reversed at the bottom, and coils back up countersense. It will be useless in this application, as he only field effectively enclosed is that from small imperfections in winding. This has nothing to do with the polarity. It has to do with Faraday’s law, in that the effective N is zero. If this was an actual test piece, not a mock up for a photo op, then I would heartily question the technical knowledge of the person responsible, and have doubts as to whether that person can produce a reliable, safe product.

  3. Came here to say exactly this: “How on Earth did they get that PCB inside a glass ball?”
    I like the concept, but I find debugging Christmas lights a tradition that I don’t want to give up any time soon.

      1. Wooden ships are easy, you actually build them inside the bottle. Fitting a PCB that is the diameter of the sphere without folding, spindling, or mutilating it is more interesting. I can think of a few ways to do it, but none of them are workable for mass production.

    1. The bulbs are two halves that are glued together after the PCB is included so the seam matches up. We haven’t finalized the glass mfg and don’t have an awesome example of that part as it’s quite costly and take a lot of time so we cut a slot in the back of the bulb then superglued the PCB in… you can see there is an offset between one side of the PCB on that one.

  4. One of the coil designs would cancel out any power transmission.
    The prototype coil with larger copper tubing shows lack of knowledge of wireless power transmission.
    The container of through hole capacitors illustrates that they have no clue what the power requirements are, and
    that the capacitor is really the key to all this, meanwhile ignoring the other bigger issues, microcontroller, wifi and connecting the 2 halves
    of the coil.

    Then there’s metal pole christmas trees in the middle of a huge coil, plus wire branches both inside and outside the coil.
    Wifi and a huge coil need to transmit power 5ft, that creates it’s own set of issues. Love to see them get FCC approval.
    Plus there’s an odd looking camera flare when he passes the frosted bulb over the ring.
    A lot of this is photorealistic, so there’s no real working prototype, shows a lack of understanding of basic stuff.
    Misguided with a dream, or a scam, pick one.

    1. Wow, I don’t even know where to start with your comments…

      Coil design: Don’t know what you’re referring to. A coil is simply and inductor. For resonant inductive coupling if you operate at the resonant freq, power transmission is completely feasible.

      Metal Pole: Yes, there is a metal pole. As long as it isn’t adjacent to the coil it doesn’t affect the resonant frequency. We’ve tested artificial trees with our setup and there isn’t an issue.

      Camera Flare: Please be more specific. The frosted bulb images are 100% legit power transmission. The commercial was staged with an empty bulb as we didn’t have everything together back when we taped it and that video was supposed to be our intro.

      Actually most of it is real prototype.

      Please site specific technical reasons why you think it’s a scam, or questions in order to validate that it isn’t one versus just misguided conjecture.

  5. Given the realities of the inverse square law, I suspect any LEDs more than a few inches away from the ring will be so dim you’ll need the room dark to see them. Or perhaps, via the magic capacitors, they’ll have a >10% duty cycle (don’t blink your eyes…keep staring, you’ll see it…).

    The idea of wireless Xmas ornaments is cool though. Here’s a scenario:
    – Pull out ornament tray the night before decorating the tree. Plug it in to charge the ornaments over night.
    – Set up master controller to take lighting cues from phone, and detect motion in room, then broadcast signal to lights.
    – Decorate tree. The master controller only lights the ornaments when people are in the room.

    Could a rechargeable battery keep an LED going for a few hours/day for 4 weeks? Probably. Could the batteries keep working if they’re only used one month a year? Hmm, that might be a harder problem to solve. It wouldn’t be cheap, either. LiPo+wireless receiver+LED+charger would run close to $10/ornament retail. You’d want 30-40 to decorate an average tree – about 20x the cost of couple light strings at Target.

    1. That’s where resonant magnetic coupling comes in – check out the MIT experiment from 2007 or the TV that’s powered with this technology. The inverse square law doesn’t exactly apply for this technology.

      I’m not sure what you mean about magic caps… probably a dig, but that’s ok. We use metal film caps on the base (for the prototype) and typical ceramic 0603 caps on the receiver.

      The duty cycle is noticed on camera once in a while, but the final circuit has a regulator and cap so that’s not a problem any more.

      I mean, I’m no Nikola Tesla and I’ll admit that, but he paved the way for this tech, I’m just integrating it.

  6. As long as they can keep the harmonics under control, FCC approval wouldn’t be too bad if they use an existing ISM frequency. 47CFR18 specifically says: “18.305 Field strength limits.
    (a) ISM equipment operating on a frequency specified in § 18.301 is permitted
    unlimited radiated energy in the band specified for that frequency.”

    Any bonehead who knows which end of a soldering iron to hold and can operate a signal generator and an oscilloscope can make this work at (say) 27 MHz.

    Or you can get fancy and deliberately beam GHz energy to each bulb, like Energous is proposing for their wireless charging device( http://energous.com/technology/ )

    1. The obvious answer is, they didn’t. The not-so-obvious answer is they made the ball around the PCB. Unfortunately you make glass balls by heating small glass tube and blowing into it, not by heading large glass tube and crimping the ends, so I’m guessing they simply didn’t and the photo is fake.

    2. I did respond to this recently up top in another thread, but the answer is you take two halves and join them at the PCB seam.

      We don’t have the final glass mfg setup but our samples proved out all of our theories. The seam issue isn’t hard to solve, there’s just two halves connected at the PCB to reduce any additional seam.

      The balls we have on the kickstarter page have a cut in the back of them where we slid in the PCB then superglued it to the side of the bulb so it would stay in place.

      If we had more time it would have been great to get a little further, but there was a tradeoff between getting it out before this Christmas and waiting until a time where Christmas wasn’t on people’s minds.

      Feel free to ask if you want to see any other images or video as evidence of the project’s legitimacy or check out our past projects at SparqEE.com to see we’re not playing around.

  7. OK. A quick little test I did. The 27 MHz ISM frequency is a challenge: it’s a bit too high — a resonating loop is too small and (a lame) rectifier diode performance drops off. At 180 kHz (NOT an ISM frequency!) this is totally trivial to get a few percent efficiency with even el cheapo 1N4148 diodes, skinny wire and lossy capacitors. The received power drops off rapidly once you’re further than about one diameter away from the transmit loop.

      1. WYSIWYG, as they say. But if you want to replicate: Two identical coils: I used 12 turns of 22 ga, 3.5″ diameter, resonating with a 68 nF AC-rated (line filtering) cap. One coil connected to a signal generator, second coil connected to fullwave 1N4148 bridge. 660 mW AC in on the transmit coil got me 62 mW DC out when they were about an inch apart. Much room for improvement (fatter wire, better caps, fewer turns, bigger diameter coil).

    1. Paul is doing his homework… he tests for viability. Thanks Paul (seriously).

      The trick is with this stuff is to get it up to a high enough voltage as voltage is one of the main contributors to the increase in distance. Obviously size of the transmitting and receiving coils as well as the efficiency and tuning you can achieve matters.

      Check out the MIT experiment from 2007, some posts on 4HV.com are helpful, and there was even a TV that was powered with this tech.

      -Chris

  8. Looking at the photo, it is clearly not a flexible PCB, judging by the plated thru-holes. The photoshopped PCB looks to be eating into glass on the left hand side and have a large 1/4″ gap on the right hand side. Yet it magically floats level. Not only is this a PS job all the way, it’s a bad one at that. Seriously, look at the thickness of the PCB on the nearest edge. I could do better PS work with my eyes closed. me/ goes to cook up a kickstarter ;)

    1. It’s superglued on and we didn’t match the diameter to the bulb diameter… didn’t have time to get it up before black Friday to do that. So we had to go with what we had. There’s a cut in the back of the glass ball I made with a wet tile saw… the dremel explodes the balls.

      The PCBs we made are 60mm but those balls were slightly bigger as we didn’t get the samples in time to use.

      -Chris

    1. That would probably cost around 1$/bulb. You could add a very simple IR switch to each bulb to turn it on and off, no controller needed.

      Packing in glass is not that hard, at least if you don’t need a perfectly round shape.

  9. As I sit here looking at my (conventionally wired) Christmas tree, I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking in proposing any sort of inductive device for use in an environment that is littered with plastic tinsel made shiny with vacuum-coated aluminum, metal-plated glass ornaments and the like….all covering a tree that is really just a very festive bottle-brush, made of plastic bristles and endless bits of steel wire. Forget the obvious scam (Ron Popeil would be proud), the ornaments would have to operate in what amounts to a leaky Faraday cage.

    While I’m not the world’s leading expert on inductive energy transfer, it seems to me that in order to get the impossibly-filled globes to light, you’d have to put massive amounts of power into the transmitter ring. This means that energy that is lost to the ornaments and the like would probably be converted to heat, and not in a good way.

    They may have just invented the world’s first self-igniting Christmas tree.

    1. Your comment got me thinking. Wouldn’t the field turn all other glass ornaments into Leyden jars? Especially if they have a coated interior and a layer of dust or haze on the outside.

      1. Leyden jars store static electricity and I’m not sure that the eddy currents induced in the glass globe would have the same effect. That said, I’m looking at a lot of ornaments and my Qi charger with an evil gleam in my eye…

    2. And not forgetting to mention all of the Eddy currents on anything metallic placed within the EM field would basically turn the tree into a formidable heater. They should have mentioned that in the Kickstarter as an extra “feature” (but conveniently “forgetting” to mention that conservation of energy thingy)…

    3. That Ron Popeil comment– that he would be proud of this scam– cannot stand, man!

      Ron Popeil is an inventor, not a scammer! You may not like the sort of direct TV marketing which he invented, and while there are certainly 100% worthless products being hawked that way, Popeil actually invented and produced the products he marketed.

      Two generations before Kickstarter, he was hacking and kickstarting old school. He should be idolized here on HaD!

      1. To be fair, he wasn’t overtly fraudulent in the way that Aura seems to be, but I’m going to disagree a bit:

        Although a clever inventor and genius at marketing, his products (at least the ones I owned or had contact with) were designed from the outset for large-scale manufacture and thus not “hacked”, and many were shoddily made. Also he was not involved in any sort of kickstarter or public investment, but his video marketing grew out of the inability for salesmen to carry enough vegetables for his initial product, the Veg-O-Matic and the videos he made for demonstrations (and his style) migrated easily to television as his business grew.

        All of that said, the Pocket Fisherman still stands as being the best cat toy ever made if you put something wiggly on the end of the line.

    4. Glad you guys are having fun. Please feel free to investigate a little further into the technology before making off-the-wall comments.

      Eddy currents aren’t big enough to induce heat as we don’t need to transfer that much power. It’s been tested with artificial trees with metal poles down the middle without issue – only if enough ferrous material gets close to the coil does it start to shift frequency.

      As I commented above – I’m not Nikola Tesla, we’re just using his invention to create something that’s never been done before.

      Feel free to be skeptical, that’s allowed, but if you want any answers to your questions, videos, or pictures, please just request them.

  10. Yerah, just basing off the vid showing it magically coming on inside the ring and going off outside of it…I’m calling bullshit. Radiative power would not be different inside of the coil as opposed to outside at that distance. Scam.

    1. Well, it would be different like that if you turned the voltage down in order to demonstrate the point of the technology.

      Also, it’s not radiative power, it’s non-radiative power based off of resonant inductive coupling technology.

      Check out the MIT experiment from 2007, 4HV.com for some other demos videos of the tech, or feel free to ask for more videos, picture, or information.

      -Chris

  11. these guys have already demonstrated that you can send wireless power for longer distances, so you could use this.

    On the other hand a simpler way to make things wirelss is to just add one AA battery inside each globe. It’s about 3Wh so it should be able to provide more than 10mW for 2 weeks, like 16h/day. 10mW for a high efficiency led is quite a lot of light

    1. If you think back well over 100 years, the original Christmas tree lights were candles. My family even had some old electric lights that looked like candles. Modern tree lights are a pale imitation of that. Why not make electric lights that once again look like candles, with AAA or AA batteries in them and LED lights at the top? The only problem is how to attach them to the tree so they stay upright, but it seems to me our grandparents grandparents figured out how to attach actual candles to the tree, so it’s solvable.

  12. I can’t do the fancy math to prove whether or not this works.

    But I can make the simple observation that they only demonstrate this functioning with a single ornament at a very short distance from the power source.

    It’s a pretty big red flag that they use a crude 3D rendering to show how an entire tree would look, instead of an actual product video. Because on a real tree the ornaments would probably be dim/non-functional as they got more than a few inches from the ring.

    I suppose they could always make another fake video like the one with the kid hanging the ornament — but maybe that was beyond their After Effects skills.

  13. I posted that comment in haste — I hadn’t realized how much solid technology journalism has been done on their campaign. If they’ve been vetted by “My Social Good News,” “SlashGear” and “Ohio.Com” then who am I to judge?

  14. I backed the project for a dollar and took it into their comments. They’re being evasive as expected. Here is a clip of the fake ornament lighting up with an off-camera spotlight: https://gfycat.com/ComposedVibrantAlaskanhusky

    That whole video….wow. The part that most makes me believe in the wireless power transmission is seeing that kid feed a T-1000 a piece of cookie. If they have Terminator on staff then yeah, some advancements could be made.

    1. They replied in the comments and now say that the glass balls will be made in two halves. And posted a video of some experimental stuff working. It looks really, really dim…but we’ll see.

    2. Haha, his dad would rip me to shreds… that’s what CrossFit gets you.

      Yea, that video was shot as a commercial before we had the tech together. It’s quite an animal to get everything together, especially when prototyping and working with children so in order to get it going, we used an empty bulb.

      In the end, we didn’t use that as our main video because of that reason and went with the plastic bulb that actually was utilizing our demo… b/c I could get my wife to redo the shot a million times.

      As you see in the vid below is the system without covers or bulbs… just a proto ring and PCBs.

      I’m not sure where we’re being evasive, but feel free to ask questions, ask for video, or pictures… I thought in the comments we were answering everyone.

      -Chris

      1. There are two things you could be doing right now:

        1. Put up an actual video showing ornaments glowing nicely while distributed throughout the height of a 5 foot tree.

        2. Reply to two week old blog comments.

  15. Me? I am going to stick to my fibre optic tree for a few years still. At least then the only challenging thoughts I have are about using it in the centre of my home Ethernet network (anyone have designs for a terabit data generator?)

    1. Frankly, we’ve gone with live trees for the past few years with zero lights, and they look great. We tried a pre-lit artificial tree and it was a hassle to pack away and looked ratty after a few years. And we tried strings of lights on live trees but that’s just too much bother. I remember as a kid my father made us hang (drape) tinsel on the trees, too – and carefully take it off again after Christmas and save it for next year! This was real metal tinsel, not today’s plastic, so I can see why he saved it, but I’ve not tortured my kids with any of that. Just keep Christmas simple; there’s enough decorating as it is without stringing lights everywhere.

    1. Please substantiate your claim and we’d be glad to back it up with pictures, video, explanation etc.

      Also feel free to view the CNET demo where their host sees our tech and talks about it.

      Tesla invented the tech, we’re just using it.

  16. I’m glad the only problem you had with our project was the bulb and that video. Otherwise, I think we did a pretty good job of putting it together.

    Bulb – it’s superglued on b/c we didn’t have our samples from the factories yet. Trying to beat the black-Friday rush we had to rush a few things. We cut the back of the bulb and superglued it on – the disk is 60mm and the bulb was a bit more, hense the gap on the right side and it touching on the left. The final bulb will be two halves glued together as you see in the CNET video b/c we got the samples in.

    Commercial – it’s pretty tough to work with children and we didn’t have everything together at the time so we made the choice to go with an empty bulb as we were trying to show off the idea and create a feeling more than focus on the tech. All other demo videos show the tech.

    It’s actually quite expensive to put it all together and the two parts we didn’t yet get to was the final base housing b/c we need a mech engineer and the other part was the glass ball – we’ll be working with mfg to create new glass molds although the one in the CNET video is pretty dang nice.

    I’ve said this above – the tech is Nikola Tesla’s, we didn’t create it, we’re just using it to create a cool project.

    Please ask any questions you want or request anything – we’ll see it on the kickstarter page so please put them there.

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