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Electricity in the Air: On the Brink of Wireless Power

I spent much of last evening on a plane. My laptop, a Dell M11x, didn’t have an adapter that worked with the American Airlines cigarette lighter plug, so I had to use the laptop battery, which meant my screen was really dim as I tried to preserve my system’s precious juice. This is one of the reasons I’m flying Virgin America now: They not only have Wi-Fi (which American increasingly has as well) they have normal US AC pugs. Hey there’s an idea, let’s put power on planes that I can actually plug into! Those tricky Europeans…

At the same time, my phone battery is on life support, I have no idea how much power my headset or MiFi Verizon wireless router has left, and if I get one more battery-run device, they’ll likely put me on a no-fly list.

Fortunately, a range of innovative power charging devices already exist to address these problems, and even some amazing wireless charging solutions from Qualcomm and Intel that could be just around the corner.

Charging Solutions

The trick with a charging solution is not to add any more complexity, which is why I kind of fell in love with the iDapt product I saw at EFA in Germany, and paid a ton to have several shipped to my home; They are now sold, much more affordably, on Amazon (figures). The iDapt uses the normal connector built into your device, and just organizes them in a way so you can charge three devices close together. At around $50 it isn’t that expensive and you don’t have to rebuild your phone.

The PowerMat has also been very popular. In concept, it’s easier to use than the iDapt because you can just set the things you want to charge on a mat, but to me it’s not easy enough and it appears a lot of folks that bought it have regretted their purchase. At nearly $90 for the device and around $40 for each thing you want to charge, it is also very pricy. PowerMat does make a portable product, which the iDapt doesn’t (you’d just carry your charger), but that is another $90 which means, in total, this solution likely costs more than most of what you are charging.

WildCharge and TouchCharge are devices that seem to pull much better reviews than the PowerMat, with the only negatives focused on the design of the charging sleeves that you need for every device you want to charge. Both are more attractive than the PowerMat, and more affordable at $50 to $80, depending on what you want to charge. They also have pucks you can use for things that don’t have sleeves, but they just seem like an alternative to the wall wart chargers you are trying to get rid of.

Qualcomm’s Better Idea

Qualcomm is bringing to market something that on paper looks better than all of these, but we likely won’t see it this year. The eZone charging system would use near-field magnetic resonance to charge devices wirelessly without the electrical contacts of current products. The company plans to design the device side of the charger into extended batteries you would use with your device, eliminating the adapters that make the PowerMat, WildCharge and TouchCharge somewhat painful to use. In effect, if the plan works, you’ll buy an extended battery and the eZone charging capability will be built-in for a nominal upcharge. To charge the batteries, you’ll merely have a place in your car or an area on your desk or counter with a charging field.

This is, on paper, a better solution than what is in the market now, and Qualcomm has the connections to drive it into phones, tablets, and music players (PCs are out of luck for any of this) which gives it a lot of potential. But, until it ships, that’s all it’s got.

Intel and Broadcast Power

Unlike Qualcomm’s relatively small charging fields, Intel has been showcasing broadcast power that would shoot a power stream several feet or across a table to the device being charged. The goal is to fill a room with power so that your devices either charge when you are in the room, or only need batteries over the short time you are moving between charging fields, like outdoors. Eventually it is hoped that entire cities could be a charging field, eliminating the need for batteries for most of us. Unfortunately, while we’ve made progress since Tesla came up with this concept decades ago (and some think Tesla’s stuff could actually work), we haven’t made enough progress yet. This approach remains at least ten years out, and I could have likely said the same thing in 1940. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

Wrapping Up

Power remains one of our biggest problems to solve. As we look at devices like the iPad, iPhone and the new particularly thirsty Sprint EVO 4G, the need for a better charging solution (and a better power solution eventually) has never been more pronounced. This is really the elephant in the room that we don’t really seem to be talking about as much as we should. We need a better power solution, and we needed it a decade ago. To quote a blue collar comedian I enjoy listening to, let’s git r done.