It might seem hard to believe for today’s youth but twenty years ago if you wanted to go online you needed to plug in. It was only in 2003, when Intel introduced its Centrino motherboard chipset for laptops based on the then-new 802.11g Wi-Fi standard, did wireless internet connectivity started to become mainstream. By 2005, the term Wi-Fi was added to the Merriam-Webster English dictionary, and it was only when smartphones started to arrive that the term became ubiquitous, so much so that today, many people say Wi-Fi when they mean internet–when technically that’s not the case.
We can all agree, then, that the internet without Wi-Fi is therefore unthinkable – but when it comes to powering our devices, we are still very much tethered to the wall. Yes, we do have “wireless charging” pads to charge our phones – but they require placing your phone carefully in one location, and they are fairly slow at charging.
Basically then, along with our flying cars, where is our wireless charging tech?
As Ori Mor, one of the co-founders of Wi-Charge told me, that was a question asked by the other co-founder, Ortal Alpert, who got tired of his phone battery dying as he travelled the world when working on a previous start-up. As inventors, with a track record of success in previous companies, Mor said they asked themselves, “Can you do over-the-air charging—can you do it by physics and through regulation? And the answer to both is yes. The building blocks didn’t exist, but we decided, nevertheless, that we wanted to develop them. Call it stupidity, naiveness and optimism combined! We didn’t know it was going to take us eight years!”
Mor says that much of that time was spent shrinking the technology down to a practical size. “The first solution was a big bulky transmitter. It worked, but it was half a million dollars and required six [people with] PhDs to pack it up. But you need to start somewhere – and we did make it smaller!”
Wi-Charge’s solution operates over infra-red and differs from Wi-Fi in one key aspect in that it requires line of sight from the transmitter to work.
As Ori admits though the problem is not just transmitting the power—the technology to receive that power has to be built into products. “With wireless technology, whether it’s wireless power or wireless communication, there is always a mouth and an ear. You can’t work with one of them only. So, it doesn’t help us having a transmitter if our receivers are not inside.”
The demo below shows toy trains powered via a transitter in the ceiling.
Certainly, there’s a chicken and egg situation. The typical use cases would be devices such as electric toothbrushes, game console controllers, smart locks and eventually phones and even laptops. It also opens up opportunities for products that wouldn’t be possible before, such as video screens placed next to products in a supermarket showing video advertising next to the items in question, which would inevitably lead to a rise in sales – and made practical as there’s no need to run a cable to each screen, with all the transmitters in the ceiling.
But Wi-Charge needed a partner to work with to get its solution into the market, and that is now here inside a smart lock from Canadian company Alfred.
Brad Cook, Head of Product at Alfred, says that offering a Wi-Charge solution inside its ML2 smart lock is a “game-changer”, particularly in the commercial space simply because of the time and money it’s going to save changing batteries. Cook gives the example of one particular business that has smart locks on every floor. “They have a maintenance guy, going throughout the building – one on the second floor, one on the fourth, two on 18th, etc., basically spending his whole day in an elevator knocking on doors and changing the batteries—it’s a whole day’s work, every three months!”
That’s eliminated with a few transmitters, easily plumbed in like a light fitting, and Wi-Charge enabled locks.
Cook also says it now opens up new possibilities for what can be designed into a smart lock. “It’s a complete paradigm shift for our next product, as we know we know we will always have power, as it’s effectively hardwired. Maybe you’ll put a TV screen in your lock showing weather, or illumination or an intercom—the sorts of things that previously wouldn’t be thrown on the table by the engineering team.”
Of course, with any kind of transmitting technology, there are going to be safety concerns, but Cook is unconcerned explaining that the infra-red source is an inert, non-reactive energy source and as it’s a direct, non-broadcast technology it further reduces the concern. Cook also points out that its lock is FDA approved and insists that it would not be able to have been released were there any concerns over the safety.
Overall, the thought of wireless charging certainly appeals. Having to change the batteries in my game controller is a pain, and it’s a nuisance when my electric toothbrush runs out of power as I’m using it – and I don’t much care for the unsightly, bulky cable that I have to plug in too.
The biggest impact would be if all our smartphones had this type of technology built in. Your phone wouldn’t charge if it was in your pocket but if you’re in an office and you had it out on the desk in line of sight with a transmitter, it would be effectively charging all the time – reducing the chances of you realising as you leave that you have to take a portable power pack and cable with you as your phone battery is running low.
Could our phones feature that tech in the not-to-distant future? I direct the question at Mor, and while he can’t say much, he teases that talks with some big names are underway. “I can’t tell you much without mentioning names that—but let’s just say everyone wants the technology.”