Pivotal Commware in Kirkland is helping bring 5G cellular networks to the market. But its technology doesn’t stop there.

For decades, books and movies have tried to envision what technology has in store for us. Remember when Oct. 21, 2015, rolled around — the date Marty McFly time-traveled to in Back to the Future Part II? Weren’t we all a little disappointed about our lack of progress, compared with what the 1989 movie had predicted? No flying cars? No self-lacing shoes?

But there is one technological advancement in our near future that likely won’t disappoint.  It’s called Holographic Beam Forming, and it has been refined and is being deployed by Kirkland-based Pivotal Commware. Commercially, it will make 5G cellular networks possible, said Pivotal Commware CEO Brian Deutsch, and it involves much more than higher upload speeds.

Imagine current cellular networks as the expanse of sunlight — blanketing an area with invisible radio signals that digital devices connect to. Cellular waves are spewed out from cell towers, and any subscriber in that general area can capture it, Deutsch said. But what happens if a protest or other large gathering turns up at the outer edge of a cellular zone, where the coverage is weak, and it’s competing with a different cell tower? Service quality suffers, and it’s difficult for network providers, like Verizon or T-Mobile, to quickly change service patterns to make the bandwidth stronger.

And there’s only so much spectrum available for the growing number of electronics. Split-second decision-making in an autonomous car or the future of immersive gaming isn’t feasible without the metamaterials technology — dubbed by Pivotal as Holographic Beam Forming.

Using this technology, Pivotal is solving a plethora of connectivity shortcomings. Instead of depending on a radio signal that’s transmitted in a sunlight-like fashion, operators can focus radio energy like a spotlight, increasing throughput to individual subscribers and to objects moving at a distance, like airplanes, ships, or a Black Hawk helicopter.

“Radio waves are a lot like light waves,” he explained. “They act very much the same way.  We applied optical holography to radio frequencies and created an antenna, a holographic plate, to shape and steer the beam. So, instead of a picture of Princess Leia coming out of R2D2, it’s a beam, or several beams.”

Cellular Technology

From left to right: The founding members of Pivotal Commware, Alex Katko, director of product engineering; Kent Lundgren, vice president of marketing; Brian Deutsch, CEO; and Eric Black, chief technlolgy officer.

The startup launched from Intellectual Ventures in 2016 and had paying customers out of the gate. Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue-based intellectual properties and science invention company, incubates startups internally, matches them with CEOs, and spins them out to operate individually. In June 2017, Pivotal Commware raised $17 million from backers, including Bill Gates. Early this year, it relocated from Bellevue to an 18,000-square-foot space in Kirkland with the opportunity to grow. There are about 35 employees now and it will have about 50 by the end of the year.

The company had kind of a backward beginning. Casey Tegreene, the executive vice president of the Invention Science Fund division of Intellectual Ventures, started digging into electromagnetic physics, known as metamaterials, about 10 years ago. Deutsch was brought on to help shape practical uses for it.

What are Metamaterials?

The metamaterials technology used at Pivotal Commware are created using elemental structures not found in nature that affect waves of light or sound. With the use of beamforming, the radio waves are tightly focused like a laser. 

Over the years, three main services were identified as the most profitable, avenues Pivotal would initially go after. The first was being able to send tight beamformed signals to track and provide communication to an object in motion, like a plane, submarine, or helicopter. Trying to get a cellular signal on an airplane is difficult because the current infrastructure doesn’t support effective beamforming. But, with the use of effective beamforming, high-frequency signals are tightly focused and pushed out, so they travel better with a stronger signal.

The second is tactical, working with defense contractors to provide communication on the battlefield. The military has beamforming technology already, Deutsch said, but it’s heavy; expensive; and produces a lot of heat, making it an easy target for enemies. Pivotal’s product is lightweight, small, affordable, and slightly malleable.

“If you fly a drone or a helicopter into a battlefield, and you want to use it as a communications node, you want to make sure the bad guys can’t hear you, and you want to make sure the bad guys can’t jam or spoof you,” he said. “If you know where they are, you can put a null on them, so you’re not talking to them. They’re invisible to you, and you’re invisible to them.”

Pivotal’s largest opportunity is providing infrastructure to cellular networks to launch the next generation of connectivity with 5G. Deutsch said Pivotal’s technology is cloud-based and will eventually operate with machine learning. There are a lot of moving parts to it, but to put it simply, the communication between a device and the cloud will be faster and stronger with record low delays.

And, if there is a protest in a cellular dead zone, a machine learning system will — eventually — alert networks of the unusually high activity and reconfigure the network pattern so those people have fast wireless service.

The current infrastructure won’t support the future of full-fledged augmented reality, autonomous driving, immersive experiences, or the sheer volume of electronic devices.

“If you’ve made a Skype call, you know about how the delay affects the voice quality,” he said. “That delay is caused in the last few miles of communication. 5G involves 10-plus gigabit speeds and very low latency compared to Skype calls.  If you’re using 5G for autonomous driving, that’s important.”

“Having customers come to you with product requirements that fit hand-in-glove with our technology never gets old.”

Deutsch said 5G networks will be broadly released in late 2019. Later on, 5G will support hundreds of billions of devices connected to the Internet.

“Beamforming technology is so fundamental to 5G,” he said. “We’re working with Tier 1 operators right now — I can’t mention who they are or what we’re doing. But truthfully, 5G cannot happen — at least in the manifestation that is currently contemplated — without technology like ours.”

So why aren’t other companies participating in the feeding frenzy? Deutsch said Intellectual Ventures is ferocious about protecting its intellectual property. More than 250 patents have been filed for the underlying physics of metamaterials and the application of it. All of them are shared by Pivotal and its sister companies — Kymeta, Ecodyne, and Evolv Technologies, which operate within the same industry. Deutsch said a majority of the patents have been granted, so they’re in a strong position to push this technology out, and act as the only one that can offer it.

“I have been an entrepreneur for over 30 years and a CEO of many successful startups,” Deutsch said. “Pivotal is incredibly special inasmuch as our team is the best I have ever been a part of, and our products and technology are essential to the success of future generations of wireless communications. Having customers come to you with product requirements that fit hand-in-glove with our technology never gets old.”