Tech Innovation

Goodbye headphone jack, now where’s my wireless power?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

The smartphone has murdered a lot of technology we once held dear — the dictaphone, the standalone calculator, the camcorder and the MP3 player. They have all been absorbed into software options and downloadable apps. Most recently, with the launch of the iPhone 7, Apple is killing off the headphone jack too.

Should Bluetooth or a USB-C/Lightning port ultimately replace the classic 3.5mm audio connector, it would leave only one cord left to cut — the power cable.

But hang on. Isn’t wireless charging already an established technology? You’re right. It is. And, at the same time, it isn’t. Let me explain…

Two types of wireless charging

You see, there are two types of wireless charging. You should be familiar with the first. Most rechargeable electric toothbrushes use what’s called ‘inductive charging’. This allows power to jump a few millimetres from one device (a charging plate) to another (the gadget being charged).

Powermat wireless power in Starbucks
Starbucks uses Powermat wireless charging technology in some of its London coffee shops (extra Powermat Ring required). Credit: Starbucks.

The vision is that you’ll be able to walk into a coffee shop (like Starbucks above) and charge up your devices by setting them down on a table. Or have a single charging pad in your home, which will juice up your smartphone, smartwatch, tablet, perhaps even your laptop. WiTricity, for example, showed off its notebook-friendly charging plate at this year’s Computex.

Wireless charging is a mess

A few smartphones already have inductive charging technology built-in, such as Samsung’s Galaxy handsets and some of Microsoft’s Lumia models. While you can add the feature to an existing phone by slipping it into a wireless charging case.

Yet a wider rollout of the technology has been hampered by competing Qi, PMA and A4WP/Rezence standards. Perhaps the AirFuel Alliance, which brings together the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PWA), will improve matters.

TechNovator XE wireless power concept
Beyond not-so-wireless charging plates, TechNovator wants to broadcast wireless power.

Even though Apple wasn’t the first company to ditch the headphone jack, it might need Apple to pick a wireless side before the technology reaches a tipping point. Even then, with inductive charging the power cord is simply replaced by a charging plate. It doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade. And with new USB-C connectivity, wired charging times have improved.

But there are two types of wireless charging and the second one is far more exciting.

True wireless power?

Companies like TechNovator, for example, are developing technology that can charge devices at a distance. The company demonstrated its XE charge station and iPhone 6 receiver cases at IFA 2016, a far-field solution that transmits power using electromagnetic waves. The range? An impressive 17 feet.

The prototype technology still isn’t as fast as using a wired charger — the further you are from the base unit, the slower the flow of wireless power. Furthermore, the electromagnetic waves XE uses can’t pass through walls. But it’s still far more convenient. As well as the tower-style charging station, TechNovator has shown off a flat aerial that can be mounted onto walls or ceilings, delivering greater coverage.

TechNovator XE wireless power base station
The TechNovator XE wireless charging technology transmits its electromagnetic wireless power from a base station unit.

It’s not the only far-field solution around either. The rival Energous WattUp technology, meanwhile, works thanks to a special antenna, which converts cellular and Wi-Fi radio waves into a packet of low-power energy. This can then be picked up by phones and converted into DC power for charging.

As near-field, inductive charging struggles to gain traction and companies squabble over standards, it doesn’t look like the power cord will be cut any time soon. But then again, with new fast-charging features starting to appear, perhaps we don’t need to get rid of it just yet.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/Mihai Simonia

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