Somewhere in your abode – likely someplace more prominent than you'd like – there's a power strip or wall outlet crowded with cell phone and/or iPod chargers and trailing wires lying tangled and tousled like skinny black snakes on the head of Medusa. And like that mythical Gorgon, you'd like to metaphorically cut the head off the whole messy array.
You may soon get your wish (with no need for a mirror shield). Several companies have joined to create standards that could soon make wired chargers – and that Medusa's head of cables – obsolete and, simultaneously, make wireless charging ubiquitous.
The idea is simple and compelling. Your cell phone – or any low-power device such as a digital camera or digital music player – can be charged like your electric toothbrush, just by laying it on top of a charging pad.
But one day you may not even need a special charging pad. Counters, desks, table tops, car dashboards, etc., can be turned into charging surfaces. Just place your electronic device – including laptops and small appliances – on it to charge it. Imagine a night table you just sit a clock radio on with no need to plug it in. Or a conference table at work that you can just lay your laptop or iPad on to keep charged throughout the meeting.
Or, maybe you won't have to lay your device on anything – it'll just pull power out of the air. Really.
How does it all work?
Perhaps you've heard of Powermat. It's a wireless charging station for small devices, primarily cell phones, which uses "inductive" connectivity – the same wireless charging technology used by your electric toothbrush. (Because there's no exposed metal with inductive charging as there is with "conductive" charging, moisture isn't a problem). You plug the charging pad into a power outlet. You then slip your cell phone into a Powermat sleeve. You then lay the cell phone on the charging pad and a wireless charging connection is made.
Powermat has been quite popular. Since its introduction in October 2009, the company has sold 3 million systems. Its popularity has, of course, attracted competitors, but the company says it maintains a hefty 80 percent market share.
But Powermat also has some problems. For one thing, there are the sleeves, which aren't exactly attractive and make your phone unfashionably thick, perhaps too thick for cases or holsters (although the iPhone sleeve has shrunk from 3.4mm thick to just .9mm). And, if Powermat doesn't make a sleeve for your phone or MP3 player, you're wireless charging SOL. Second, you often have to slide a Powermat-sleeved phone around on the charging pad until the wireless connection is made. Third, Powermat is a proprietary inductive technology, which keeps other companies from adopting it as a standard.
Everyone realizes the potential in the idea of an inductive charging standard – companies could build the wireless charging capability into the devices themselves, and any compatible device can be laid on any standardized charging pad from any company. It would also mean manufacturers wouldn't have to include expensive wall chargers that end up clogging drawers and then the environment when they inevitably get thrown away.
Yes, a wireless charging standard is a great idea – that may be mucked up with a stupid wireless charging format war.
Wireless charging format war?
Two wireless charging standards are emerging. Recognizing its limitations as a closed ecosystem, Powermat has struck a deal with Qualcomm, creators of a wireless charging technology – as yet not commercialized – called Wipower (WEE-power). Powermat hopes to create a better, more widely compatible standard acceptable to other battery-operated hardware makers. The pair has attracted Duracell as a third participant.
While Powermat and Qualcomm work out their new wireless charging system, which Powermat says will be backward and forward compatible with existing Powermat products, Powermat is trying to establish its current system as a de facto standard simply by it being out there. In mid-2012, for instance, there will be Powermat charging surfaces built into many Chevys, Buicks, GMC trucks and Cadillacs.
And you could soon find Powermat charging surfaces in airport waiting areas thanks to a deal Powermat has made with Arconas, which provides public seating in more than 130 airports around the world.
Sounds great, except: these Powermat car and airport charging solutions won't work with a new wireless charging standard adopted by nearly all the major cell phone makers (not Apple, not yet) and nearly 70 other companies.
This competing proposed wireless charging standard is called Qi (pronounced "chee," the Chinese concept of power aura usually spelled "chi"), promoted by a group called Wireless Power Consortium. Among the 70-plus companies who have signed on are cell phone makers BlackBerry, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung, along with familiar electronics names such as Best Buy, Black & Decker, Energizer, Panasonic and Texas Instruments.
Energizer already is selling four Qi products: a charging pad ($90), sleeves for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3 G/3Gs ($35), and the first of hopefully many replacement battery covers (or "doors") for many popular phone models, initially for the BlackBerry Curve 8900. You just remove the old battery cover and attach the Qi cover ($35) and, voila, no more need to plug the phone in to recharge. And the Qi charging pad is a bit more exact – you don't have to slide your device around the pad to create the connection. Just you're your device on the Qi insignia and "click" happens. (Powermat and Energizer both supplied me with charging pads and iPhone sleeves.)
In addition to Qi battery covers, there will be phones with Qi built in; the Verizon LTE LG Revolution and HTC Thunderbolt will likely be the first two (Verizon will also sell its own branded charging pad) Qi-enabled phones, likely followed by a Samsung phone or two.
Since Powermat just announced its partnership with Qualcomm, it's been difficult to figure exactly which of the two systems/standards are better (other than Powermat having a lot of product already out there). But the Powermat people have intimated that if market trends swing toward Qi, they'd work toward some sort of compatibility.
Our wireless charging future
Charging pads and cell phone sleeves are just the beginning, though. The whole idea is to make wireless charging ubiquitous. One battle field will be airports; while Arconas and Powermat try to put Powermat charging surfaces in gate seating areas, Windsor International Airport in Windsor, Ontario, already has installed Qi-enabled charging stations, and more airports are expected to follow suit.
On both the Qi and likely Powermat/Wipower roadmaps – probably some years away – are wireless charging solutions for higher-powered devices such as laptops and small appliances. The whole technology is still being worked out, but entire counter and table top in our homes could one day be charging pads, eliminating a host of trailing AC cables. Furniture could be integrated into the electrical system of homes to avoid having to actually plug in the coffee table; office furniture maker Teknion already has announced some Powermat-enabled product.
But neither Qi nor Powermat, which are essentially charging dock replacements, may be the wireless charging solution of the future. Intel is working on a true wireless charging technology called Wireless Resonant Energy Link (WREL), which actually transmits power over a couple of feet, which means you'll be able to use you cell phone or camera or whatever while you're using it.
But Intel researcher Emily Cooper told me WREL is at least two years away from commercialization (see video below), by which time the battle between Qi or whatever the Powermat/Wipower solution is and will be called, will either be in full swing, mediated or decided – and everywhere.