Imagine almost never having to plug in your phone or computer to ensure that they’ve got ample power to last all day and beyond. Such power-thirsty devices would get charged automatically, the moment you walk into a room with them.
It’s a dream scenario, but is it a pipe dream?
Ossia has a solution it says will charge your phone and other tech without wires at a distance. USA Today
What generally passes for wireless charging nowadays is something of a misnomer. You lay down a phone such as Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S8 onto a “wireless” charging pad, mat or cradle that is itself tethered to some nearby socket. It’s convenient, sure, but not exactly liberating.
“We believe from a consumer perspective there’s very little utility there,” says Stephen Rizzone, CEO of San Jose-based Energous, one of the companies developing wireless charging solutions. “If you have to drop your mobile device… onto a charging surface then it’s really no longer mobile.”
Hatem Zeine, chairman, chief scientist and founder of another company developing wireless charging — Ossia in Bellevue, Wash. — concurs: “The way we look at this is that wireless power should be like Wi-Fi. You go into your home, your phone will charge in your pocket, you don’t need to place it somewhere or orient it somewhere or even know where the power transmitter is. It should just work.”
A third company, uBeam out of Santa Monica, Calif. is developing a solution that transmits targeted power through inaudible high frequency ultrasonic technology.
“We are literally on the bleeding edge of science in what we’re doing here,” says uBeam CEO Meredith Perry who broke her recent media silence to talk to USA TODAY. “In Silicon Valley-years it has taken an insanely long amount of time.”
These companies are chasing “uncoupled” power solutions, a technology that could amount to one of the next major innovations for smartphones, whose technological upgrades have stagnated lately.
Some of the efforts are still confined to labs. Scientists at Disney Research in Pittsburgh gained attention earlier this year for a prototypical 16-by-16-foot room they built in which the walls, ceiling and floors were all constructed of aluminum panels. Inside was a copper pole with capacitors able to transfer power to almost any location in the room. Researchers charged phones, toys and lamps. But Disney has no immediate commercial plans.
“The real tradeoff here in some ways is the amount of deliverable power you can get to a device versus how safe it is…and how much mobile freedom you get,” says Alanson Sample, an associate lab director and principle research scientist at Disney Research.
The broad promise is that wireless power schemes will supply juice not just to the phones and computers you carry, but to hearing aids and other wearables, sensors inside connected devices around the home and in businesses, even electric vehicles. No cables, wires or charging pads needed.
So what's the hold-up? While the technology has shown itself to work to some degree, it's hard to do over distances. It's very early: the potential solutions in development are incompatible with one another, in various stages of progress and aimed at different corners of the consumer and industrial market.
“When we developed the wireless charging standard the things that were most important were safety, efficiency, and to some extent cost. As soon as you start to transmit power over large distances, all of this becomes more difficult,” says Menno Treffers, chairman of the Wireless Power Consortium, which developed the Qi (pronounced “chee”) inductive standard, one of two main wireless charging standards in use today in which a pad or other charging device must be in close contact with the device being charged.
The market has the potential to be big, but IHS Markit expects the older, clunkier pad-based technology — typified by Qi chargers, or the Powermats you see in some Starbucks — will dominate, even as more true wireless tech emerges. IHS analyst Vicky Yussuff forecasts wireless charging receiver shipments to rise to 325 million units by the end of the year, up from 140 million last year, and as high as 2 billion in 2025. But pad-based chargers will account for the majority of shipments.
Challenges abound: solutions must be practical, affordable, and able to charge multiple devices simultaneously and within reasonable range of a transmitter. Transmitters, especially those in the home, can’t be eyesores, and indeed the vision in some cases is to build the tech into furniture or walls.
Ideally, charging will take place even when there’s no direct line of sight between transmitter and receiver, so you could be able to charge the phone in your pocket. That’s one of the limiting factors, for example, in uBeam’s approach.
Suffice it to say, the tech must not only be safe, but cannot interfere with other products. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission must give its blessing.
Analysts also point to the classic chicken and egg dilemma. “Even if you have a (wireless) transmitter that was the size of a router and it was beautiful and would charge the whole house, you’d still have to have a device that was able to be charged,” said Rob Reuckert, managing director of Sorenson Capital in Lehi, Utah.
Interim steps for phones would come in the form of covers, sleeves, dongles and cases with embedded wireless power solutions.
“But if you’re going to get mass adoption you’re going to have to find a consumer electronics manufacturer, an Apple, a Samsung, that is willing to put a transmitter into their devices,” Reuckert says.
The next iPhone
Indeed, Apple is something of a wild card in the space. The company has yet to offer wireless charging as a feature within the iPhone, lagging Samsung and others.
It’s a reasonable bet that Apple will add wireless charging to the tenth anniversary iPhone that’s expected to be unveiled in September, though whether the solution goes beyond a mat or cradle seems far less certain, and certainly premature without FCC approval. Apple did join the WPC earlier this year.
Wireless charging could also soon be a feature for laptops and cars.
Watertown, Mass.-based WiTricity is approaching wireless power through magnetic resonance technology, not to be confused with the MRIs in the medical field.
Dell is expected to bring out the yet-to-priced Latitude 7285 laptop in mid-July, the first with built-in wireless charging based on WiTricity’s approach. For now, it will require a charging pad.
But WiTricity’s vision is to move such charging technology under the desk, into a nightstand or kitchen countertop.
The same principle might apply if you park an electric vehicle over a charging pad in your garage.
“It’s not about filling whole rooms with power,” WiTricity CEO Alex Gruzen says. “We’re talking moving inches to feet.”
Some are thinking bigger than rooms or even buildings, as in whole cities. In April, AirFuel Alliance — another wireless standards organization — announced the launch of its first resonant-based smart city ecosystem in Shenzhen City, China, to provide wireless charging service in a variety of public venues including the airport, subway stations, hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls. Qualcomm and Chargifi are among the companies involved in the effort.
Energous CEO Rizzone expects the first wave of its true transmitters with the required FCC approvals to hit the market at the end of the year. (It did recently get FCC approval for a mat-based solution.) But as a semiconductor company, Energous doesn’t build the final devices, instead working with the consumer electronics and home devices companies it expects to integrate the technology.
“In the not too distant future, we believe there will be a single device that will provide Internet connectivity and your wire-free power," Rizzone says.
Ossia's Zeine, who demonstrated a working prototype of the company's Wi-Fi-like Cota wireless power solution to USA TODAY, says there could be commercial solutions based on the tech towards the end of 2018.
If he and his industry peers prove successful, consumers are sure to get juiced up over wireless power.