How wireless charging will change our devices

24th Apr 2013 | 15:50

How wireless charging will change our devices

Plus: can more efficient displays make a difference?

If you're anything like us, every time you leave the house you take an armful of cables, chargers and just-in-case batteries to fuel a camera, smartphone, tablet and laptop to amuse you between a constant hunt for the next recharge, the next top-up.

What a terrible way to travel.

Anyone who's 'upgraded' from an e-Ink e-reader like an original Kindle to the Kindle Fire HD or Kobo Arc only to miss the once-a-month quick charge of old will know exactly what we mean. And with wearable gadgets like smart watches and smart glass imminent, it's only going to get worse.

Luckily, some clever innovations are afoot including wireless charging and power-efficient displays that could help us at last enter an era of ubiquitous computing.

What is ubiquitous computing?

The concept of ubiquitous computing was popularised by Mark Weiser in 1988, and describes a world where people interact with computers that 'weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it'.

"It's just another term for mobile or portable computing," says Kevin Curran, senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "The biggest barrier to ubiquitous computing has simply been the poor battery life on mobile devices."

What about solar power?

If you're going off-grid to hike or camp for a few days but still want to use your tablet-smartphone-Kindle-GPS there are options. If staying at home in a darkened room isn't one of them, you could invest in something like the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 for £914 (around $1,400 USD/£1363 AUD), a battery with a solar generator that stores an incredible 150W of power within.

That's enough for about 20 laptop charges, though it does take 20 hours to recharge from light alone. It also weighs a hefty 54kg. Other options include the foldout, pocket-sized Freeloader Classic for £35 (around $54 USD/$53 AUD) that's good for a few hours charge of a phone, though does take eight hours doing it. The OffGrid Solar Backpack for £150 (around $229 USD/$223 AUD) is another option, its 2W solar panels on the outside good for a five hour charge for a 17-inch laptop stored within. Such blue-sky thinking, however, has its limits - and who wants to carry around extra gadgets?

Could we not just have a phone that uses less power?

Nail on head - especially with some smartphones now using power-hungry six-inch screens. Options here include the single AA battery-powered SpareOne for £65 (around $100), a GSM phone that can last for 15 years if unused, or for 10 hours talk time, but it's certainly not a smartphone. A more innovative attempt at efficiency is the YotaPhone, a dual-screen phone with a colour LCD on one side and an electronic paper display (EPD) on the other.

YotaPhone

"I think many of us in the industry can remember where we were when we first heard of the concept and immediately went 'why did I not think of that!'," says Curran, who calls the use of e-Ink - which only uses power when it's refreshing the screen - a 'no brainer'. "I expect many smartphones, tablets and laptops to integrate similar displays." Smart watches, too, could use e-nk; the Pebble already does.

So is e-ink making a comeback?

E-Ink is just one manufacturer in the wider Electronic Paper Display (EPD) industry that's currently awash with power-saving innovations.

Ubiquitous Energy uses a unique molecular power film across a screen that will ultimately charge a device while it's being used. "The film is transparent in the visible part of the light spectrum, and absorbs in the near-infrared to generate energy," says Curran, who expects to see the first batch of prototypes used on e-nk readers like the Kindle.

Could E Ink tech make a comeback?

Such a display could have a colour screen, too, if Liquavista changes ownership from Samsung to Amazon. Don't forget Apple, either; as we reported back in 2011, Apple patented a method for displaying static content in e-ink while other sections of the screen appear using standard LCD technology.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, UK-based 'organic electronics' components manufacturer Plastic Logic has come up with a way of printing – even spraying – electronics on flexible plastic sheets. Such electro-plastic displays (EPD) can show simple Flash-based video animations at 12 frames per second, and in full colour, but they're really intended to complement an LCD screen, not replace it. The paper-thin screen technology could soon find its way into both high-end and entry-level devices such as bendable phones and wraparound smart watches, or as an extra, though largely weightless, second screen on a smartphone like YotaPhone.

Industrial designers have clearly got a lot of work to do; the 'death of e-ink' predicted a few years ago was a false dusk indeed.

Plastic Logic has developed spray-on electronics to create low-power, bendable plastic screens

What about wireless charging?

"When they come to write the history of computing, 2013 will be the year that they select for the arrival of wireless power," says Curran, who expects to see wireless chargers outselling standard ones very quickly. Wireless charging is achieved through a process of electromagnetic induction whereby a current is sent from a coil in a charging pad to a coil embedded in a gadget placed a few centimeters away. As the device has to be either laid down on, or a very short distance (about four centimeters) from its charging pad, it's also not that easy to use a smartphone or tablet while it's charging. The designers clearly have some work to do for those who like to use their smartphone or tablet while it charges.

So far we've seen various devices under the umbrella of Duracell's Powermat, and Palm's magnetic Touchstone dock for its Palm Pre, which uses a proprietary wireless charging system, but more are coming. Many, many more.

Proprietary? That spells 'format war'!

Well spotted. Just like the Blu-ray Vs HD-DVD bore-fest, and lately the shenanigans between Panasonic's active shutter and LG's polarised systems that helped ruined the whole 3D TV idea, battery boffins at Duracell and Energizer have each come up with their own systems that they each believe is superior. Duracell's is based upon the Powermat idea it's been long developing, with supporters shielding behind the Power Matters Alliance (PMA). It's same the yearning for worldwide licensing royalties that causes every format war (isn't unrestricted capitalism awesome?).

On the other side of the fence is the Qi standard created by Energizer, which is supported by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC).

Another Qi supporter is Nokia, whose Lumia 920 already includes wireless charing

There are others, including PowerByProxi, a technology that can charge several devices simultaneously on the same charging pad, unlike Qi or Powermat. It also uses a 'loose coupling' array to enable a device to receive an equal charge anywhere on a charging mat. "Many systems like Qi only report peak efficiency, which occurs at such precise alignment and positioning on the pad that most users will never experience it," a spokesperson told TechRadar.

PowerByProxi's 'killer app' could be the freedom and ease of placement offered by its unique charging box idea. "Household devices can simply be put in the box when the batteries get low."

Wireless Qi charging is possible on the Penatx Option WG-2 GPS camera

Who's in the PMA camp?

BlackBerry, LG, Google, NEC, Texas Instruments, AT&T, Starbucks, Otterbox, IDT, ZTE (the world's fourth-largest handset manufacturer) and wireless charging spot provider PowerKiss are on Duracell's side, among 57 members in total.

The latter joined the PMA in February 2013, stating that it would deploy wireless power in select McDonald's restaurants in Europe. It already operates conventional charging points train stations including in London Paddington and the Gare de Lyon in Paris, 16 European airports (including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle). Expect wireless upgrades soon. "Our decision to become a PMA member was based on several factors," said Maija Itkonen, CMO and Founder of PowerKiss.

"The PMA system has a unique layer of telco-grade intelligence that allows venues to monitor the health, usage and policies of all their charging spots. Secondly, we believe the PMA now enjoys the momentum and the necessary investment from major industry players to bring wireless power to life for consumers."

Who's in the Qi camp?

HTC, Huawei, Hitachi, LG, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, Pentax, Philips, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba ... and 120 in total. About 15 million devices already have Qi technology inside, according to the WPC, most notably the new Samsung Galaxy S4. However, Qi isn't a native feature in the Galaxy S4, but rather an add-on accessory that comprises both charging pad and battery cover.

Though LG is hedging its bets by belonging to both bodies (not an unusual stance in this kind of scenario), its Nexus 4 is fitted with Qi despite Google-love for Powermat.

Which format will win?

From a device perspective Qi stands a good chance if Samsung actively popularises it, though no doubt Apple has its own in-house plans for the iPhone 5S and next iPad/iPad Mini that could scupper any kind of universal cross-brand charging system. A third format? Yes, that's what we need.

Don't rule out the PMA standard; as well as PowerKiss, it also finds favour with Starbucks. Could its tables and chairs be embedded with charging pads? Yes, they could, which suggests that the 'winning' format could be the one that creates the biggest and best charging infrastructure, and fast. After all, device makers don't operate on loyalty and will very quickly swap to whichever emerges as the industry standard. We'll drink to that.

What kind of wireless charging products can we look forward to?

Intel-powered ultrabooks that can 'beam' charge to a smartphone placed next to it, in-car charging cradles, and furniture with integral charging pads. Meanwhile, Apple has filed a patent application for wirelessly powering keyboards and mice without the need for batteries.

Among a slew of new innovations at the Mobile World Congress 2013 was a demo of a smart wireless charging mat from NXP that used NFC to trigger wake-up, thereby allowing the charging pad to remain completely switched off when not in use. As well as a 'true-zero standby mode' the use of NFC could also mean a handshake to kick-start Bluetooth audio streaming without the need for pairing. Best of all, NXP's prototype supports multiple wireless charging standards, automatically detecting which standard the device is using.

We're in for some big changes in terms of product design, but there's bound to be a long interim period where gadgets come with optional wireless charging packs and cables, too. They might be a pain to travel with, but USB cables are on the cusp of becoming universal ... achieving the same with wireless induction charging mats could take a very long time.

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