When Will We Get the Wireless Charging Technology We Want?

December 22, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Wireless charging is being integrated into businesses and workspaces, but it's not very impressive.

It's time to evolve.

Every time I'm pawing through the detritus of my car looking for a lightning cord to resuscitate my dying cellphone, I can't help but curse the fact that it's 2016 and we're still using charging cords. It's especially frustrating because wireless charging has been on the table (pardon the pun) since 2008, when the Wireless Power Consortium held its first meeting, and has been available in smart phones since 2011. Now, five years later, iPhones still use lightning cables, and fewer than 30 other brands' models are Qi-enabled for direct charging (see the full list here). 

The worst part is that the wireless charging we're seeing introduced to market isn't very impressive, and it's not the answer we've been waiting for.

Starbucks has Qi wireless charging.

Last year, Starbucks announced its Boston-area stores would be equipped for wireless charging, and now you can find the wireless stations built into Starbucks tables in most metro areas. The process is pretty basic: you take one of the charging fobs from the box at the counter, plug it into your phone, then set it onto a dock built into the tables. After getting past the initial novelty of not having to use a cord, it becomes pretty apparent that wireless charging is actually more limiting than traditional charging: you can't pick the phone up off the dock, charging takes longer (the Qi 1.2 has faster charging, but is still new), and you're using someone else's charging fob (which undoubtedly winds up much of the time walking out the door with the customer). Granted, you don't have to hunt for an outlet, but you still need to nab a dock-equipped table.

Ikea's joined the fray by introducing a range of wireless charging furniture. If you have one of those Qi-enabled direct charging phones, you can simply set your phone on the + sign embedded into the furniture and the phone will charge (if you're using an iPhone, you'll need to buy a separate cover).

Of course, then the furniture needs to be plugged in.

So basically, the wireless charging technology that's coming onto the market still uses cords at some part of the charging process. It makes for less-visible cords, but if you're using direct wireless charging you can't even remove your phone from the dock, making it significantly more difficult to use. The entire system works similarly to wireless electric toothbrushes, which have been around since GE invented them in 1961. The technology has evolved, but the concept hasn't. It appears manufacturers see this sort of direct wireless charging as the end-all to the charging dilemma and it's not even close.

The evolution of mobile charging until now (click to expand).

Tesla figured out how to charge wirelessly in 1891. We've had over a hundred years to figure out how to perfect his technique and we're still fumbling around with fobs and charging docks. There have been some promising attempts to bring us up to speed though; MIT, most notably, has been working on its MagMIMO device. The concept works similarly to WiFi, but instead of transmitting data, the MagMIMO transfers power. As of last year, it could charge a phone at 30 centimeters away at any orientation. It doesn't require massive amounts of power to charge, but does require that the phone be "within range" of the magnetic field generated by the array of wire coils that allow the MagMIMO to sense a phone's presence. MIT still has some way to go, but the goal is to cover an entire room with charging capability; you wouldn't even need to remove your phone from your pocket. MIT doesn't have the market cornered on this, though: WiTricityOssia, Energous, and uBeam have all developed ways to transmit power through the air. These technologies are new, but investors are throwing millions at them. For the moment, however, it's mostly talk until the technology is mature enough to release to market.

uBeam transmits power through ultrasound transduction; a transmitter converts sound to electrical energy and data.

The other issue is that phones shouldn't need to be recharged often, anyway, and it's baffling that daily charging is still an inevitability. Integrating fuel cells into portable devices is a plausible solution. Apple filed a patent this year for a fuel cell system for mobile computing devices that would most likely implement a mixture of both conventional batteries and fuel cells. On the other hand, Apple files hundreds of patents and filing doesn't mean a subsequent product launch, so it may all be conjecture.

The bottom line is that it's time for meaningful, safe charging. It should have happened years ago, but trepidation trumped innovation. Now that the IoT is here, wireless charging is needed more than ever, and it's just not happening soon enough.

  • J
    johnbinsc January 01, 2016

    I guess I’m not sure I want to be continuously bombarded by electromagnetic radiation at a power level high enough to charge a cell phone (i.e. Watts), regardless of the frequency, just so I don’t have to deal with a cord occasionally.  IMHO, battery storage capacity and power requirements are converging to the point where the wireless mid-day charging of cell phones will be unnecessary.  As for the IOT, powering untethered devices off of ambient light should be a requirement.

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    • G
      geekman92 January 02, 2016
      I agree, instead of investing in a technology that pumps out radiation just to save a wire from your phone lets invest in improving current technology. Phone batteries that don't need charging every night, charging technology that smartly manages when your phone charges rather than trickle charging a battery that is fully charged for 6 hours a night reducing the lifespan of the battery and MagSafe-type, reversible connector to easily connect phone to cable. Then you can actually use your phone whilst it is charging.
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      • K
        kb50 February 13, 2016
        But do you sleep with the lights on? Most people don't so that is a fail!
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