Techwatcher

Wireless technology is springing up everywhere – from familiar Bluetooth headphones and wireless USB accessories to new Wi-fi memory cards (that enable any camera to upload photos wirelessly) and other emerging near-field wireless applications. The only wires that persist are the power cords.

Every wireless device has to have its own plug-in charger, creating a pile of power strips, adapters and wires in any household with more than a few gadgets. Well, wireless power is on its way, with several different technologies being shopped around to companies for incorporation into future devices.

There are several ways of creating a wireless power source. Powercast Corp. has developed technology that can turn radio waves into a power source. The second component is a transmitter that plugs into the wall and turns power into broadcast (and safe) radio waves. By having just one transmitter in an area, any device with a Powerharvester module (either as a small add-on or built into it) would pick up the signal and draw enough power to charge any device that uses AAA or smaller-size batteries. Since mobile devices are the primary targets, devices would have both a Powerharvester module and a battery to store the charge when away from the transmitter. As demonstrated at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the amount of power that can be transmitted increases the closer the receiver is to the source, so higher-power solutions might also be possible as the technology develops.

Actually, also at the CES was Fulton Innovation, which showed that its eCoupled technology could indeed power a laptop. The eCoupled technology, though, uses an inductively coupled power circuit to transfer power from an enabled surface to the enabled device, using what the company calls “Intelligent Wireless Power.” It claims that – unlike plug-in chargers that always draw power even after the device is charged – eCoupled-enabled devices actually save energy by only drawing as much power as is needed, even when several devices are being charged at once. Although devices would still have to be placed on an equipped surface to charge (either as a charging mat or incorporated into future furniture), this technology would still eliminate the multitude of different chargers and adapters, making charging a phone as simple as dropping it into an enabled compartment in the car.

Solar power is also making a comeback with a wide range of solar-powered chargers, including the Voltaic solar backpack – great for hiking during long summer days in Alaska. The backpack itself stores solar energy and can deliver up to 4 watts and 7.2 volts to charge whatever device you bring with you – it has an adapter and volt setting for almost every conceivable device. Voltaic even has an upcoming laptop carrying case (with one side a solar panel) that can deliver the 14.7 watts needed to charge a laptop on the go. Of course, the best thing about solar power is that it’s free and as environmentally friendly as you can get.

Like any new technology, extremely high production costs can be a big hurdle that can stop many innovations from catching on with consumers. Competition, while necessary in a free market, can also make companies and consumers shy of committing to a new format – just ask those who got burned by HD-DVD’s failure. Without strong commitment, finding eCoupled-enabled or Powerharvester-equipped devices and furniture will remain a theoretical application of wireless power. Solar power is a little bit more familiar, so most solar rechargers are quickly making their way to market, if not for sale already. However, solar chargers always need to be larger and separate from the device, making the other wireless power options far more flexible, since they can be built right into devices. But even though many deals have been made between companies over the last few years, no real products have come out yet. Instead of fully integrated products, expect first to see either adapters from each company or, perhaps (and most practical for consumers), battery packs with wireless recharging built into the batteries themselves, eliminating the need for adapters or device alterations.

Wireless power has been a long time coming, but charging batteries is only the beginning. If enough interest exists, there’s an untold number of ways wireless power could revolutionize the electronics industry.