Truly Wireless Charging Edges Closer

Wireless charging is one of the great white whales when it comes to the modern electronics industry. In the past few years, we’ve seen some real progress on wireless charging, if by wireless charging you mean being able to charge a device by placing it on a special charging pad. But the concept of true wireless charging—the capability to charge a device while it is in use, wherever it is in a room—has remained out of reach. At this year’s CES show, I saw a couple of demos—notably from Energous and Ossia—that give me hope that real wireless charging may actually appear in some real products this year.



I don’t mean to completely dismiss the idea of charging pads, such as those used in the wireless charging that Samsung has built into its Galaxy S7 phones this year; it can be convenient. At CES, I was impressed by a demo from WiTricity that showed multiple phones all being charged on a single large charging plate which could be placed under a desk, using the firms’ magnetic resonance charging technology. One big difference from this and other technologies is that magnetic resonance does work at short distances, so devices don’t have to be placed directly on the charging plate. Indeed, the company is working with General Motors on a prototype that will work to charge cars.


WiTricity laptop demo


The big news for me at the show was the appearance of the first laptop to offer this technology, the Dell Latitude 7285 2-in-1. This is certified by the AirFuel Alliance, which now has standards for inductive, magnetic, and most recently radio frequency (RF) and other completely wireless solutions. At the show, I saw two competing demos of RF-based demos that I found impressive.


Energous has been talking about truly wireless solutions for a couple of years and claims it has an offering that that involves ASICs, antenna, and software algorithms.


This system, known as WattUp, uses a radio frequency transmitter that sends a signal to the device when requested (typically using Bluetooth for the request). A receiver inside the device then converts the signal into power. It uses a system similar to Wi-Fi, using the 5.8 GHz band. The company has offerings which work at near fields, at 2-3 feet, and at 10-20 feet, depending on the number of antennas and transmitters used.


At the show, Energous showed a few products, including a Bluetooth tracker from Chipolo, a hearing aid from SK Telesys, electronic pens for a whiteboard from Prism, and a portable phone charger; it also talked up its partnerships with Dialog, a major manufacturer of Bluetooth chips, as well as with Pegatron, one of the major leading electronics manufacturers.


Energous mouse


I saw demonstrations of products that could be charged using the WattUp system, including a number of small devices charged up close, and a mouse charged from a few feet away, and a remote control that lit up from about 10 feet. It’s impressive. Energous says it is initially targeting devices that use 5 watts or less; it will soon be building discrete parts with a partner and expects to launch in the next couple of quarters.


Ossia devices


Another competitor is Ossia. It showed off its COTA wireless charging system, which I also saw last year. Ossia’s solution uses thousands of tiny antennas. CTO and founder Hatem Zeine made the point that instead of using beam-forming, it can bounce the signal off different surfaces in a room, which allows charging to continue even as the device moves around, something the company was eager to demonstrate.


Ossia phone


One new thing this year was what Ossia called an “invisible transmitter” in which its transmitter is built into a ceiling tile. Demonstrations included connections to wearables and to a phone, and to an external charger, since Ossia’s system isn’t yet built into any phone yet. It is quite impressive, as it’s the only system I’ve seen that was charging a phone at distance.


Ossia says Cota can emit up to 10 watts of power and includes software that allows you to set the priority of the devices that get a charge, so more power goes to the device that needs it the most (a phone with very little charge, for example) compared to one that is nearly full.


While phones and the like are interesting, the company seems in part to be more interested in home devices, such as security systems or electronic blinds, which currently either need to be wired or to have batteries replaced periodically.


Ossia is positioning itself as a licensing company, producing reference design silicon and software services, and talked about partnerships with KDDI, a major Korean telecommunications company, and with Jabil, a manufacturing company. Ossia, working through strategic partners, hopes to see its products on the market later this year.


There have been lots of rumors about a major phone company adopting truly wireless charging technology this year. I don’t know if the rumors are true, but I do know that if anyone can make this work in a wide-scale implementation, it would mark a major change in the way we use our phones.


Michael J. Miller is chief information officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Miller, who was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine from 1991 to 2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.

http://www.pcmag.com/article/351255/truly-wireless-charging-edges-closer

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