The Report

Why wireless charging is bigger than you think

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The idea of powering up mobile gadgets with no cords is tantalizing, but the applications could extend to household appliances or even business equipment.

The idea of wireless charging is tantalizing -- a vision of electronic devices that stay powered up without wall sockets, and gadget bags minus the eternal spill of bulky cords and cables.

The reality, however, is that wireless charging options today are still relatively expensive and support few of the real-world devices that consumers actually own.

Still, prices are falling, and research and development efforts are gaining momentum. Market research firm IHS predicts that almost 100 million devices that support wireless charging could be on the market by 2015, compared with the 5 million sold in 2012. Some mobile phone manufacturers are even distinguishing certain high-end models with wireless charging options. A few examples include the Lumia smartphone from Nokia, the Nexus 4 from LG Electronics, and the Droid DNA from Verizon Wireless and HTC.

And in the future, wireless charging technology won't be limited just to powering more mobile devices. It could have applications for large-scale appliances and could be embedded in surfaces ranging from car dashboards to household floors to kitchen countertops.

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) is the largest technology alliance in the wireless charging industry dedicated to advancing that vision although there are several other efforts brewing.

Established in late 2008, WPC has nearly 150 member companies including major mobile phone manufacturers and semiconductor companies. The consortium introduced the Qi inductive power standard in late 2010, and it is working to drive adoption - along with a healthy market for wireless power. The more companies that adopt Qi and produce interoperable products, the more opportunity there will be to develop the technology further, and extend it to new applications.

How far do we have to go?

Since Qi was introduced, more than 30 companies have shipped mobile phones using its embedded wireless charging capabilities. Those phones are designed to power up on compatible charging mats and cradles, alarm clocks and music players, and the inside surfaces of some new car models. Toyota announced in December that the 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited will be the first car to offer wireless charging with a Qi-powered console included under the dashboard.

Bas Fransen, chief marketing officer and head of business development for ConvenientPower, a wireless power technology company, and active member of WPC, says the Qi standard currently supports devices needing five watts of power or less.

But an upcoming revision in the second quarter of 2013 will see Qi extended to support wireless charging up to a level of 15 watts, enough power to charge consumer tablets. The ability to charge laptop computers wirelessly isn't yet supported, but plans are on the near-term roadmap. Moreover, as the cost of the technology continues to fall, wireless charging will become an ever-more common device feature for mobile gadgets, like Bluetooth, or embedded cameras.

Charge your refrigerator wirelessly?

As the commercialization of early applications for mobile gadgets accelerates, some engineers are focused on the longer-term potential for wireless power.

Inductive charging, which is the technology used in the Qi standard, works with any material except for metal, meaning almost any surface at home or in a business space could be designed to deliver power. A marble countertop, for example, could be rigged to charge a wireless coffeemaker and a blender along with a variety of phones, tablets and computers as needed. Induction-based cooking means the countertop could also act as a stove, with no separate appliance required.

As wireless charging develops, the technology might even help reduce production costs for large appliances like kitchen refrigerators, Fransen says. That's because if power can be delivered wirelessly, then there's no need for a typical power converter, which adds to the price of manufacturing.

From a competitive standpoint, WPC is up against two other notable organizations: the Alliance for Wireless Power, which includes early industry evangelist Powermat, along with Samsung, Qualcomm and more; and the Power Matters Alliance, which is supported by Powermat as well, but also Google, AT&T and others. It's still early to consider this a platform war, but the industry may get to that point before long, particularly as the financial stakes increase and people get more excited about charging without plugging in.

For now, WPC leads the way, and its open platform theoretically offers the easiest path for companies planning new product development that supports wireless charging options. The next few years will show just how well WPC can deliver on new commercial products, and the promise of wireless charging for the future.

Image of Qi-enabled car console courtesy of Toyota

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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