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Smart surfaces deliver power without wires

Smart surfaces deliver power without wires

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It's not about battery life. Powermat is building smarter surfaces.

In Ran Poliakine's home, everything in the kitchen is wireless: not wirelessly connected to the Internet, but powered wirelessly through inductive surfaces that charge everything from the mixer to the coffee maker.

If that sounds futuristic, it is. But as the CEO of Powermat Technologies, the wireless charging company, Poliakine believes the future of wireless power is closer than many people think. He uses this analogy: wireless charging is like Wi-Fi connectivity. "Ten to 15 years ago, you had to connect to the phone line.... Today you expect to get Wi-Fi ... regardless of the way it's going to get there. You just expect it to be there," he notes.

In the future, it will be the same with wireless charging, Poliakine believes.

Since 2006, when the company was founded, Powermat's vision has been about creating smarter surfaces, not gadgets or gadget accessories. To achieve that vision, however, Powermat has started by developing cases and adapters for mobile devices that enable them to work with the technology in the company's wireless charging mats.

It has been a slow process. For one thing, there are many different types of mobile phones, and Powermat has had to develop unique cases and battery packs to support at least the most popular models. For another, as the technology works today, customers not only must buy and carry a new mobile attachment, they need a Powermat mat that must be plugged in somewhere. Cost and inconvenience have hindered adoption. A mat capable of charging three devices sells for about $70; a smartphone case starts at about $25.

Luckily, the situation is changing on both fronts.

In a major milestone, AT&T has asked device suppliers to integrate wireless charging technology into their phones by 2014. That means people won't need a special case, battery pack, or adapter to charge their phones with Powermat's inductive charging technology.

As far as surfaces are concerned, Powermat has forged a number of new partnerships designed to bring its technology to surface locations that people already use. "This is a very, very strategic decision that we've made ... that in order to provide freedom for people with smartphones, you need surfaces that give you more than just [a place to hold your] coffee cup," Poliakine says.

To that end, Powermat has signed deals with retail chains including Starbucks and McDonalds to install charging surfaces in their restaurants. It is allied with major public arenas such as Madison Square Garden, and it also works directly with chemical company DuPont (maker of countertops like the one pictured above), and with the major consumer products manufacturer, Procter & Gamble.

More recently, Powermat announced an agreement with General Motors to include embedded charging technology in select GM cars by 2014.

There are still more challenges to overcome. In particular, there are multiple associations competing to develop a wireless charging standard. Powermat is part of the Power Matters Alliance (PMA); that organization is up against the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which introduced its own inductive power standard called Qi in 2010.

"We're seeing that there is a huge interest in the wireless power," Poliakine says. "We see different alliances that are being formed, and I think it's very natural."

Even though the competition is real, Poliakine believes current wireless charging standards will eventually merge. And in the meantime, momentum behind wireless charging continues to build.

Poliakine offers one more analogy. A car gives you freedom, because you can fill it up at any gas station in order to keep driving. A smartphone is the same because it gives you access to communication as long as you keep the battery charged. If there are places to charge the battery easily everywhere you go, then your phone can keep going forever.

"This is freedom," Poliakine says.

Freedom is what wireless charging promises, and it's what Powermat plans to deliver.

(Image courtesy of Powermat)

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure