In Pictures: Inside the evolving world of wireless charging technology
Wireless charging is starting to make headlines, with companies like Samsung pushing the technology in its Galaxy line of smartphones. But did you know wireless charging goes back as far as the early 1900s?
The world of wireless charging technology
Do you have “battery anxiety”? That’s what the Wireless Power Consortium has dubbed the concept of being away from a power source with a quickly waning smartphone battery. While it might sound a bit extreme, it’s understandable in an age of social media-induced FOMO and Smartphone Anxiety.
Whether it makes you anxious or not, having a low or dead smartphone or tablet battery while you are on the go is frustrating. We rely on our devices for GPS capabilities, news updates, apps and to settle bar bets on the fly. But the battery life of our treasured devices has not kept up with the demands. And when it comes time to charge up, you’ll probably find yourself tethered to a wall or desperately seeking an outlet.
One answer is wireless charging, a technology that promises to free you of cables and allows you to charge your smartphones and tablets on the go. The problem is that it hasn’t become standard on new devices, especially the popular iPhone. And while companies like Samsung push their wireless charging capabilities, you’re still more likely to see wireless charging in appliances like electric toothbrushes or as a third-party charging mat for compatible devices.
What is wireless power?
There are two classifications for wireless power, non-radiative (near-field) and radiative (far-field). Near-field is employed by products that can be charged via short distances, like an electric toothbrush, RFID tags, implanted medical devices and electric vehicles. You might even have a device with Near Field Communications (NFC) that can let your device communicate with other NFC compatible devices; it’s most commonly used as a quick way to transfer data.
Near-field, as its name suggests, requires the two objects to be close, and probably touching. You might have a wireless charger for your smartphone, but you need to leave it sitting on the base in order for it to work. You can’t walk around the room and expect your device to charge in your pocket, or while you’re browsing Twitter next to the charger.
Far-field, or radiative wireless power, uses electromagnetic radiation -- in the form of microwaves or laser beams – directed at the device that needs to be powered. Problems arise with far-field wireless power because people generally need to stay out of the way of the electromagnetic fields, making it a less ideal solution for charging a device you carry in your pocket.
Wireless charging also requires both devices to have an antenna of sorts so that the antenna (or coil, or laser beam) in the base can transform the power into an electromagnetic field to send to a receiver, which then converts it back to electric power to charge the battery in your device.
The long history of wireless power
For a technology that isn’t commonplace yet, wireless charging isn’t that new. In fact, back in 1899, Nikola Tesla was the first to conceive of the concept for wireless charging. He had success with his invention as well, and he was able to light 200 light bulbs with 100 million volts of power over 25 miles away from a power source, but soon lost funding and was unable to continue working on the project. And in the 100 years following, we haven’t been able to employ his concept to our devices in a useful way.
Tesla envisioned a world powered entirely by wireless power. He called it the Wireless “World System,” which would leave the earth entirely powered wirelessly. A 187-foot tower dubbed the Tesla Tower in Shoreham, Long Island, was erected for the sole purpose of bringing wireless power to the world. Demolished in 1917, the Tesla Tower was intended to be the base of his wireless world power by transmitting power from the hydro-electric power plant in Niagara Falls built in 1895 by Tesla and Westinghouse. Of course, Tesla’s visions for wireless power didn’t continue, and may even be at fault for a mysterious explosion in Siberia in 1908.
The Major Players
Since Tesla’s grandiose plans of wireless world domination over 100 years ago, wireless charging has mostly remained on the back burner. But it’s making a comeback, with organizations popping up that are determined to bring some form of wireless charging as the standard for everyone. Households are quickly collecting more devices and along with that comes an array of wires and plugs, and a desire to reduce that clutter.
One of the names you’ll hear about in the wireless charging game is the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which is one of the leaders in the Qi standard. The organization has partnered with businesses to integrate its charging standard in furniture, airports, hotels and even cars.
Besides the WPC, the two other major players in the race to the wireless charging standard are the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), makers of the Powermat. In June of 2015, the two organizations announced they would be forming a merger, in an effort to become the industry leader. With these two companies joining forces, it brings the major competition down from three to two.
The WPC has dubbed its wireless charging efforts “Qi,” pronounced “Chee.” Qi is popular with smartphone makers, and you’ll find it in many non-iOS devices. It uses inductive charging technology, which transfers power via magnetic fields over a short distance. When built into a smartphone, like the Samsung Galaxy S6, anywhere you find a Qi-compatible charger, you can plop your phone down and get some battery life.
Technically, you can feasibly charge your iPhone with Qi, but you’ll need to get creative and hack your way to Qi charging, like the author of this Forbes article.
Powermat, also an inductive charging option, had a strong case in 2010 when it came on the scene at CES. With Powermat, if you have a compatible phone case, or dongle, it can work with the iPhone as well, so Starbuck’s choice to install it in all of its stores made sense. Qi, on the other hand, is typically built into a device or requires a removable battery plate to place the transmitter along the battery. It’s comes with a lot of phones, but iOS users are generally out of luck when it comes to the Qi standard, but can easily get a Powermat dongle to get wireless charging capabilities.
The race to a standard
When it comes to establishing a widespread standard for technology, it usually requires adoption and support from major companies as well as consumers. For example, as Computer Weekly points out, Wi-Fi was pushed to the forefront of the wireless Internet movement thanks in a big part to Starbucks. As one of the first businesses to offer Wi-Fi for patrons, the move helped the technology become a standard.
For wireless charging, the WPC has pushed Qi for a long time, and it’s popped up in flagship devices including the Google Nexus, Samsung Galaxy, LG G3 and the list goes on. While Qi may be in phones, Starbucks has adopted Powermat, and you’ll find the technology in its coffee shops, built into tables. The idea is that, while you sip a latte, you can let your phone charge right there on the table before getting on with your day.
Currently, Powermat and Qi are the two most popular options for wireless charging, and some phone makers aren’t putting their eggs all in one basket. The Galaxy S6 is compatible with both Powermat and Qi, but that is currently the only device that lets you choose between the two. So if you have a Qi device and you head into a Starbucks, you’ll be out of luck with the Powermat chargers.
The future of wireless charging -- where’s Apple?
While wireless charging is finally making some headway, there is one glaring holdout in the industry: Apple. It’s now the global leader for smartphones, surpassing Samsung, which means it wields some influence. Could the adoption of wireless charging for iOS devices help push the standard for the rest of the industry? If Apple decides to go with an already established form of wireless charging, that could be the case. However, don’t be surprised if Apple develops its own wireless charging standard, which it has done in the past with other technology.