Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

Apr 12

Is wireless power in your future?

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iPod touch with charging cable

Someday soon, you could be saying goodbye to your charging cables. Hopefully.

I’m the first to admit: wireless is pretty amazing.

In today’s portable age, we’ve pretty much got wireless everything. From smartphones to tablets to MP3 players to Wi-Fi routers and Bluetooth, it’s easy to lose track of just how much wireless has taken over our lives. You may even be reading this very blog from the palm of your hand (cue future sounds)!

But one thing that still requires wires is charging. My biggest pet peeve is finding myself stuck somewhere sans my charging cable. And while battery power may be improving every year, cables seem to be something we’re stuck with when it comes to charging our favorite devices.

Or are we?

Power points

Nikola Tesla

Wireless charging? It's an older idea than you'd think.

First a little background. Wireless transmission of energy has been an idea that’s been floating around for more than 100 years, with some of the first theories for it being put forth by Nikola Tesla.

Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle for wireless power has always been efficiency. It’s not cheap to produce power, and many older transmission methods were only 50% efficient at best. Distance was (and still is) a problem — as anyone who’s ever been on the other side of the house from their router can attest to — distance means a weaker, less efficient signal.

These times, they are a chargin’

Despite these limitations, science has been marching on. The brass ring that is wireless power has seen iterations from microwaves to lasers — which, while very cool, are also not very practical. It wasn’t until mobile devices became prevalent, and people recognized  of wireless connectivity, that a huge consumer demand for wireless power started to be felt.

Fast forward to the last five years, and we’ve seen some pretty impressive jumps in the field of wireless energy transmission.

Piecing it together with inductive charging


Induction charging, the future is now(ish)

The simplest form of wireless charging is also one of the first we’ve seen showing up on shelves, and it’s been making a big splash.

On its most basic level, induction charging uses an electromagnetic field to transfer energy between two objects. By putting a device with an inductive charger (either built into the device, or added as an accessory) on top of a charging station, your device’s battery recharges.

Currently, inductive charging tends to be device specific. For example, the iPort charging system from Launchport has been made specifically for the iPad 2 (it’s pretty cool, and makes a brief appearance in one of our March Madness videos).

There are more universal options available. Powermat, for example, uses charging pads sized for one to three devices that allow you to just lay your devices down and start charging them, provided you have the right type of case or battery insert.

In both cases, this highlights the downside of inductive charging — for most portable electronics, it takes an additional piece of equipment, and that can add bulk and extra cost. Adding induction charging can become a balancing act of cost versus convenience (although for many, the convenience of going cable-less wins out).

Until manufacturers start building devices with induction charging from the word go, it may continue to occupy a small niche. Thankfully, developing standards like Qi from the Wireless Power Consortium and UL2738 from Underwriters Laboratories will make it easier for device manufacturers on both the gadget and the charging side create compatible products.

Waves of charge

The other downside of inductive charging is that it still requires you to put your device on a pad of some sort. For those of us looking to charge and power our devices without setting them down, we’ve got to look a little further ahead.

Long-field magnetic resonance may be a little bit more of a mouthful than induction, but it’s a system that goes the distance. Rather than try to explain how this works, here’s the CEO of WiTricity, the current pioneer of this technology, speaking at TED (there’s also a pretty cool demonstration of the tech there, too).

For those interested in a little more technical breakdown of how this all works, here’s the breakdown as done by the Applied Physics folks at Standford.

While this technology isn’t quite ready for prime time (with similar downsides to induction in the form of bulky cases and add-ons), the possibilities on a larger scale are pretty amazing. Putting aside home entertainment, you can easily imagine something like this in a kitchen, letting you power your favorite gadgets (say a hand mixer or food processor) without needing an outlet.

With all these new technologies, the future for charging cables is starting to look a little more grim. But for the rest of us, freedom from cables could be the biggest thing to hit electronics in quite awhile.

Are you excited to get rid of your cables? Or will you fight to the bitter end to keep ahold of them? Let us know in the comments.

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