Wireless charging: Still plenty of kinks in the cord

New York TimesFebruary 23, 2014 

Google-Nexus Phone

Google’s Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 phones and Nexus 7 tablet support wireless charging, and Google even makes its own wireless charger with the Nexus name.

UNCREDITED — Google/AP

As personal devices proliferate – smartphones, wearable fitness bands, Kindles, tablets, smart glasses – our charger collections are starting to look like the electrical outlet in the movie “A Christmas Story.”

Wireless charging to the rescue? Not quite. The concept has been caught in a slow-moving standards war.

That’s not to say wireless charging capabilities aren’t starting to creep into devices. Google’s Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 phones and Nexus 7 tablet support wireless charging, and Google even makes its own wireless charger with the Nexus name. The Motorola Droid Maxx supports wireless charging, while a few other Android phones sort of do: the LG G2 only offers it on the Verizon model, and Samsung Galaxy S4 owners can spend $90 on an official wireless charging back cover and pad.

Several charging covers are available for other Android phones and for many Nokia phones, like the Lumia 1020. There’s even a new, Indiegogo-funded wireless charging kit for iPhone, called the iQi.

Three standards

So, interest is growing, but why don’t more devices have wireless charging capability built in? The primary reason is, like so many things in tech, conflicting standards. Until last week, there were three separate groups pushing wireless charging standards. And phone, tablet and wearable makers are hesitant to tie their devices to a specific charging tech.

The Wireless Power Consortium backs the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard used in the iQi and in the accessories mentioned above, as well as the Nexus line. Qi is arguably the wireless charging leader, and support for the specification is built into some 400 devices from almost 200 different companies.

If you’ve seen Powermat chargers in Starbucks and McDonald’s, those support the Power Matters Alliance standard. A third specification comes from Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which has Qualcomm as a founding member. Last week, though, the alliance and A4WP announced a merger, bringing the three major standards-bearers down to two.

Confused yet?

The two organizations employ similar, but not identical magnetic charging technologies: A4WP’s newer resonance charging lets you charge multiple devices on a single charging pad without worrying too much about where they’re placed. The alliance, on the other hand, uses inductive charging, which requires more precise placement for a device to charge properly.

Other innovations

Qi chargers use the more restrictive inductive charging, but the consortium showed off resonance charging devices at International CES in Las Vegas in January, and the standard supports the more flexible charging technique.

But other companies hope to sidestep the standards slog with their own innovations. The Israeli startup Humavox is pushing a new, wireless charging technology based not on magnetic induction, but on radio frequency. Its Eterna platform employs an extremely tiny receiver, originally designed for hearing aids, and a transmitter that can work in any kind of charging receptacle, from a pad to a bowl to a portable charging box.

Humavox wants to license its technology, rather than build products. But it’s been showing off prototype devices including one it calls a “Nest,” which is basically a small white bowl into which you can casually toss a jumble of fitness bands and phones and charge them in about the same amount of time as a charging cable.

The technology seems promising as a demonstration, primarily because the idea of tossing devices into a bowl for charging is endlessly appealing. But as with all platforms, success depends on adoption. Humavox says it’s working with a few partners making semiconductors and health-related devices, but consumer brands are still slow to come around.

It’s hard to say whether Humavox’s entry will make things even more confusing or give manufacturers a good option. At least one other company, Ossia, is working on a wireless charging technology that uses radio frequencies, and there may be more in the works.

So for now – and please pardon the pun – wireless charging is still as tangled as the cords next to my bedside table.

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