Wireless charging: the tech’s here, standards are the new headache

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Duracell Powermat

You would once have had to be a nutty professor or James Bond to do the stuff that I am about to talk about. Imagine dumping your “out-of-juice” mobile into your handbag and taking it out some time later, fully charged. Or walking into a room with your “dead” tablet, and re-charging it without ever plugging it in a socket charger. Fallacy or fact? Let me put it this way — the white coat R & D scientists tell us that wireless charging of devices is a laboratory success.

Within the next year, you may be able to place your “power exhausted” mobile device on a restaurant table and walk away an hour later with it fully powered up, the “juice” having seeped through the table-top itself (with the wireless charger placed right beneath the table). Or charge a room-full of gadgets and devices using a single source of wireless power. Look Ma, no wires.

A couple of things still do stand in the way of wireless charging’s journey from laboratory to restaurant table. Cost, for one. But we are assured that some global companies like Intel are already working on bringing the costs down. The second is distance — the space between the charger and the device. A third hurdle is some competitive corporate politics between the two known methods of wireless charging. But more on that later.

A recent frenzy

There are already some mobile computing devices in the market equipped with wireless charging facility, almost all launched within the last few months — the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 smartphones, the Google LG Nexus 4 phone and the “wireless charging-retrofitted” Samsung Galaxy S-III. I can’t claim to have got them all, but the point I am making here is that the revolution’s begun.

Wireless charging may not be as big an emerging technology as say mobile computing, but from the user perspective, it sure as hell is revolutionary. Freedom from twisted wires, bulky chargers, plugs and sockets, and all that. At first, when you use wireless charging, it’s almost like magic. Hey presto, no wires but my mobile is still charged.

What is the reason for the sudden hectic activity on this front in the last two months or so? While wireless charging has been tested and successfully tried within the sterile walls of a laboratory, like any other technology, it now needs to be taken to the mass consumer market. The stepped up activity of the last few months signals the start of this migration.

So what about devices like the Duracell Powermat (the pad on which you rest your mobile device to be charged), that have been available on sale for years? Permit me to be a little cheeky here to say that like wireless charging, like sex, is all about method and positions.

Wireless power, as we’ve come to know it, was a simpler name for a process based on electromagnetic induction. The Duracell Powermat is the modern-day, commercial child born out of scientist Michael Faraday’s discovery of induction from the 17th century.

Here’s an explanation of inductive charging minus the scientific mumbo jumbo: a magnetic flux is induced between a power transmitter and a power receiver, and using this magnetic field, electrical power is transferred. Naturally, when we have a transmitter and a receiver, it is a given that both need to be in alignment with each, and also obviously not too far away from each other, to induce charge. So that explains devices like the Powermat or the iPhone 4 wireless sleeve (again a product of Duracell Powermat).

Immediately, there are at least two drawbacks — this type of recharging can work only over short distances, and the device (power receiver) that needs to be charged has to be in close proximity of the power transmitter. Thus the pad or the cellphone jacket. All of this makes it almost like charging devices the traditional way, except of course, you have not physically tethered your gadget to a socket.

Then along came a bunch of scientists, some even from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who decided to experiment further with induction, charge and positions. Was there any chance of charging a device even if the transmitter was kept at a far-off distance?

The outcome was charging by magnetic resonance. Resonance could do things that magnetic induction could not. The primary advantage it offered over induction was that your power-sapped device could be far off from the charge-emitting device and still be charged. Eureka. Suddenly, there was a wire-free method in the truest sense of the term, with massive commercial implications. (In theory, a magnetic resonance device in a single room can charge as many devices and instruments as possible, irrespective of the latter’s placement.)

Companies like Fujistu and Intel have been experimenting with wireless power for the last four years or so. Intel has also gone on record to say it was hoping to introduce wireless charging technologies to mainstream use by 2013 in Ultrabooks. A wireless transmitter in the latter will charge any mobile device, of course, using related software. Intel claims this will not result in any significant power drain from the Ultrabook, and will also not require the phone to be kept in any special position. But Intel’s very own wireless charging technology (WTC) still wants the two instruments, the Ultrabook and the cellphone, to be in close proximity of each other.

Intel has also signed up with the NASDAQ listed analogue and digital company, Integrated Device Technology, Inc., (IDT) to develop an integrated transmitter and receiver chipset for the former. By mid-2013, both companies assure us, not only laptops but also desktops, smartphones, chargers, keyboards and storage devices will come equipped with this technology.

In October, IDT also announced a separate collaboration with the NASDAQ listed Qualcomm to enable IDT’s development of an Integrated Circuit (IC) for the former’s consumer electronics devices to meet its requirement of magnetic resonance wireless power charging for mobile phones and other low power direct charge devices. IDT aims to have samples of this IC ready by 2012-end.

WiTricity & Prodigy

But if you thought the Intel-IDT deal was wonderful, wait. The white-coat guys at MIT apparently have already developed a mid-range wireless transfer method, which is now being commercialized by a company called WiTricity Corp., founded in 2007. This company is the exclusive licensee of a wireless charging technology developed by a team of MIT physicists led by Professor Marin Soljacic, and is actively looking at various avenues to commercialise it. As part of its endeavour, it has signed a technology transfer and licensing agreement with the Taiwan-based semiconductor firm MediaTek to collaborate on systems that will wirelessly charge mobile handsets, tablets, game controllers and other devices. WiTricity is also developing technology for the wireless charging of electric vehicles and in other applications.

In September this year, WiTricity unveiled a product in Shanghai, China, called the Prodigy. The company has positioned this instrument as “more than (just) a demonstration kit; it’s your gateway to a future of a world without wires!” Prodigy helps consumers power two devices from a single source. Plus, it’s got what’s called as a resonant repeater that lets “wireless power” move over greater distances (since resonance charging does tend to weaken after travelling some bit). A repeater is a like a signal booster, in layman’s terms. The other marvellous feature, I personally feel, of Prodigy is that it can transmit power through non-metallic materials like a glass window or a brick wall, or even through a fish tank! Another advantage of charging using the magnetic resonance tech.

So, if you have not grasped it by now – the technology developed by WiTricity can transfer power wirelessly over distances of a few feet, while IDTs’ technology only has a range of an inch or so for now. Recall my words – method & position?

Not to be left behind in the race, Duracell Powermat had announced the Wireless Charging Card (WiCC), with “the potential to integrate Powermat technology into every mobile gadget”. This is a wafer-thin card which sits in the battery compartment, for wireless power. Commercial production of this card, as far as I know, has not begun yet.

After high costs, distance was the second deterrent in the development of wireless charging technology. The farther the device to be charged from the transformer, the less effective the charge.

Now, with repeaters like the one in Prodigy allowing a charge to hop from one place to the next, the problem of the charge weakening over distance, too, seems to have been licked. With two of the main limitations — cost and distance — gone, it’s but a matter of time before wireless charging gets mainstream acceptance.

Before I go any further, let me pause to let readers know that the example of charging-a-mobile-while-it-rests-in-a- handbag that I had given at the start of this post is not a figment of my imagination. There’s a company called Fulton Innovation that has a proprietary technology called eCoupled. Again, in September, (it seems to be a happening month for wireless charging), Fulton announced a new development on the eCoupled front called Adaptive Resonance. This combines the benefits of inductive coupling, magnetic resonance and Qi Technology in one, with compatibility across all three methods. Why just a mobile device — Fulton has claimed that this technology could be used to even re-charge an electric car, as long as “it’s in the designated charging spot”.

Some powerful jostling for industry standardisation

Adaptive Resonance is also what brings me to the last part of this post. The various methods of wireless charging have sparked off some intense competition between multinationals, tech companies and other leading global, non-IT brands, depending on the route each has elected to take. After all, we are at the cusp of the start of a multi-billion dollar business since wireless charging will not be limited only to mobile phones or computers but as I said, to electrical gadgets like coffee grinders, clocks, radios; anything and everything that is powered by batteries or can be re-charged.

Industry standard is an issue yet to be decided. Which means as of now, no one is clear about that one set of tech specifics that all devices with wireless charging technology will have to adhere to, around the globe.

Various alliances (at last count, at least four) are jockeying to ensure their version of global standard for this field is ultimately accepted, and wins the loyalty of the vast majority of companies, manufacturers and end-users.

About 125 global companies, not only IT or software but even furniture brands, have come together to form the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). The latter has developed the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard for wireless charging. The companies who are part of the WPC are Nokia, Motorola (Google), Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Verizon, Panasonic, Pantech, Belkin and Energizer, to name a few. Did you notice that Apple and Intel are missing from the members’ list? That’s because Intel by virtue of its WCT, and having joined hands with the IDT, forms part of another front on wireless technology.

Apple, on the other hand, is a mystery player, and many expect it to introduce its own standard in wireless charging.

There’s also a third front, the relatively new Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), that has Qualcomm and Samsung as its members. Samsung, incidentally, is a member of A4WP and WPC.

Then, in mid-October this year, AT&T, Google and coffee vending king, Starbucks, announced that they had joined the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), founded by Powermat Technologies and Proctor & Gamble. This is a community of not only companies but government agencies and regulatory bodies, seeking, among other things, the establishment of guidelines and standards for the future of wireless charging. Vincent Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, was quoted in the press release announcing the development, as saying the PMA was doing for power what the internet did for data. By the way, the Duracell Powermat’s WiCC claims to be in compliance with the PMA wireless charging card specifications.

I do not know about Intel’s WTC but I am told that the WPC’s Qi Tech standard has got a lot of traction in Japan and even in the US. Plus, a recent update in Qi Tech has ensured the backward compatibility with existing devices sporting some version or the other of wireless charging.

The million dollar question thus is — which standard will be adopted, ultimately? Or will it there be a case of dual standards? Or will some leading companies like Apple thrust their own, proprietary technology down the throats of customers? Now that the technology hurdles in the way of wireless charging have almost disappeared, one can only hope that the issue of standards does not momentarily derail the commercialization of this technology.

Image: Duracell Powermat

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  • http://www.facebook.com/clayton.delport Clayton Richard Delport

    Great Article, In actual fact before i read this i thought Wireless charging capabilities we theoretical, My Friend and I Spoke about this a few years back, Creating a Device to Transmit Electrical Frequencies from itself to say a Cell phone, and have a solar replenish Function where the Transmitter only needs the sun to Power the Device to Charge the other device, Now Introduce this technology into Electrical cars, Buildings, and later on Power stations, Some one once said the limit is where you set it, and if this concept works on small scale, lets see some governmental funding and introduce this into everyday life….

  • Pingback: The Coming War Over Wireless Charging – Businessweek | www.linn.mobi

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