The Day of the Wireless, Self-Charging…Everything

It was an idea born from a beeping cell phone, hitting Marin Soljačić several years ago after the dreaded low-battery signal roused him from sleep yet again.

The rude awaking led the MIT professor to wonder why there wasn’t a way for the phone to charge itself.

Fast-forward to today. Soljačić is the founder of WiTricity, a Massachusetts-based tech company that envisions a day without wall sockets, when all kinds of electric devices can receive power wirelessly from a transmitter in the rafters.

WiTricity works when that transmitter communicates with a device in need of juice and delivers power through an oscillating magnetic field. The company says the connection poses no risk to people or animals.

But each electronic product — laptop, smartphone or desk lamp — must have a WiTricity receiver for the technology to work.

This may explain why outlets aren’t going away any time soon and why WiTricity, the company, is still focused on research and development.

Less-sophisticated innovations in wireless charging are gaining a foothold in consumer electronics, however. The trend, albeit a slow one to take off, may whet the appetite for homes and offices with WiTricity or systems like it.

The most visible developments in wireless charging are occurring within the smartphone industry with several manufacturers — including Nokia, LG and HTC —releasing devices that can receive a charge when placed on a special charging pad that plugs into an outlet.

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Tech companies are just beginning to install these pads into everyday surfaces like countertops and tables to provide wireless charging areas as amenities in cafes, airport lounges and shopping malls.

But the wireless charging industry is fragmented at the moment, threatening to stall progress in this area.

At issue is a three-way battle over which wireless format will emerge as the industry standard — Qi, PMA or A4WP. The competition is reminiscent of prior format wars, such as when VHS squared off against Beta.

Qi (pronounced chee), from the Wireless Power Consortium, seemed the early frontrunner until PMA from the Power Matters Alliance also began to receive support from some of Qi’s affiliates, namely HTC, LG and Samsung.

Yet Samsung says it’s betting long-term on A4WP, a format the company developed with Qualcomm that offers a larger charging field and the ability for users to simultaneously charge different kinds of devices on the same pad.

The slow rollout of wireless charging for devices as ubiquitous as smartphones, coupled with the battle for market dominance among standards, suggests that a future of a completely wireless home is a distant one.

Yet most of the major players would likely agree that ending the existence of the wall socket is a common goal. The Powers Matters Alliance refers to it as the “final frontier.”

It envisions a day when a vacuum cleaner and a power source engage in a digital conversation, determine that the vacuum is only 70 percent charged and schedules a charging session for late at night — when energy prices are cheapest.

Nick Clunn is an award-winning journalist who has worked for several websites and daily newspapers, including The Record in New Jersey. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University. Follow him @NickClunn.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
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