Since the 1928 invention of the first consistent bread-slicing machine, there’ve been countless failed predictions about the next life-altering invention. Often, the “next big thing” turns out to be the next “okay (at best)” technology: Betamax, Microsoft Vista, QR codes, Siri. They worked, but they failed to live up to the hype. So far, wireless charging platforms are in the same boat.
Still, the topic of wireless charging has staying power, and new advancements have revived interest among both fans and skeptics, who jump at new hints that charging your phone with a cable may soon be a thing of the past.
But the question is, how soon? Wireless charging showed early promise, but five years after it was first developed, the technology still hasn’t taken off. So is the advent of wireless charging finally upon us, or is this another case of the technology that cried wolf?
When cordless charging is a game of centimeters
As it stands, wireless charging has its flaws. Currently it uses inductive charging technology, requiring both phone and charging mat to have an induction coil. When coils detect each other, they generate an electromagnetic field that transfers energy from charger to phone. It works, but it’s no more efficient than a standard 1 amp in-box charger. In fact, some wireless chargers deliver only a 0.5 amp charge – not a good option to top off your battery before running out the door.
If you’re now wondering whether your phone has an induction coil, it probably doesn’t. You can add one by purchasing a case (approximately $40-$50) to pair with a charging mat (another $50). Paired coils initiate wireless charging, but the user – or at least the phone – is still tethered to a tiny space. If your phone is even centimeters off from the proper placement, the charging mat doesn’t detect your device and it stops charging.
Since wireless charging currently means a $100 investment, most mobile users haven’t found “no plug required” compelling enough to buy. Compound that price with consumers who aren’t aware of the technology or don’t understand it, and you have supply without demand.
But champions of wireless charging haven’t thrown in the towel mat just yet. Samsung recently embedded coils in its new Galaxy S6 devices, eliminating the need for a pricey case. And new Qi standards published by the Wireless Power Consortium will improve speed quite a bit and have the possibility to deliver a 5V, 3 amp charge. That’s about twice the speed of what’s available now.
But a Qi competitor called AirFuel Alliance is building a better way to power up: magnetic resonance.
Magnetic resonance charging will attract more customers
If inductive charging is Siri, then magnetic resonance is Google Now – the next-generation, everything-you-wanted-it-to-be-the-first-time wireless charging technology, promising more speed and more freedom.
Under development by multiple companies and consortiums, magnetic resonance is a different way of charging that allows you more distance (~5cm / 2.5 in) and less precision than with induction. It also allows for new shapes; think: a charging ball, charging seats in a Starbucks, a conference table doubling as a wireless charging platform. Creativity can move well beyond mats.
Magnetic resonance not only charges your phone from farther; it does it faster too. Nothing is in production just yet, since today’s chips don’t accept increased current (amperage). But it’s possible we could see an early announcement come out of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January.
The benefits of magnetic resonance expand the case for wireless charging in tablets and laptops. But in expanding to laptops, inductive charging could see some repurposing, too. In fact, Intel is experimenting with a computer chip that provides inductive charging through your computer, meaning you could power your phone simply by laying it on your laptop.
These factors all make wireless charging more compelling. But with studies showing only 20 percent of consumers are using wireless charging on a regular basis, will they invest in what seems to be an interim technology? How far are we from the “charging room”?
Potential for across-the-room charging would mean powering up without ever plugging in
What once seemed like a Jetsons fantasy is now positively plausible. A few forward-thinking companies are stretching the distance between charging hub and phone, but like with any wireless technology, efficiency is based on proximity.
Picture a typical living room: How far are your devices from the wireless router? Now swap the router for a wireless charger. When power bounces back and forth across that distance, it results in 30-50 percent energy loss. Transmitters aren’t constantly sending energy when there aren’t any devices around to accept the charge, but when in use, that broad distance can make some electricity literally disappear into thin air. So as it currently stands, wireless charging is not only environmentally unfriendly, it’s wasted dollars spent on your electric bill.
While companies are working toward this arrangement, we’re still several years away from a viable and affordable option. At CES 2015, one vendor displayed an impressive full-fledged wireless charging room. But with a large equipment footprint and an even larger price tag (thousands of dollars), it’s not yet an option that’ll suit the average user.
And that’s the common thread with all wireless charging technology. It’s not novel, but it’s still a challenge: End users won’t bite until there’s an option at an affordable price. As manufacturers continue to develop wireless charging technology, we can expect at least a few announcements in spring 2016. And while an efficient, user-friendly option remains to be seen, the next year or two could reveal whether wireless charging will finally come to life.