Monday, 01 February 2021 11:43

Over the air charging delivers power like it's Wi-Fi, but when can you buy it?


For years now, companies have teased the ability to charge devices truly wirelessly, receiving power through the air like your device receives Wi-Fi, but despite new demos from Xiaomi and Lenovo's Motorola last week, you can't buy an air charger yet.

Way back in 2015, I wrote about Ossia, with an article and a video interview with the company's then Chief Commercial Officer, Abid Hussain

Then, as now, Ossia promises technology that lets you charge your devices wirelessly, over the air, sending power just like your device receives Wi-Fi signals. The company has a great blog post linked from its home page which covered the questions asked at a January 2020 "Airfuel Alliance" conference, which looked at questions about what we should expect next from wireless power, whether it is efficient or not, how fast or slow wireless power is, whether it is safe, and what the interference issues are. The answers aren't too specific, though. 

True wireless charging would be fantastic, and so much more convenient than having to place a device onto a charging pad. Imagine if you needed to place your phone or tablet onto your Wi-Fi router every time you wanted to surf the Internet?

Wi-Fi and cellular signals are truly wireless, and power will be one day too, with even Nikola Tesla having tried to make it happen decades ago.

Ossia says it is FCC certified, which presumably means we'll finally start seeing devices with wireless power capabilities this decade, but whether it means we'll see something on sale in 2022 or 2029 still seems unanswered.

Another company with wireless charging technology that has also made waves over the past few years is Energous. There was huge speculation in 2017 that Apple and Energous had made a deal to bring wireless charging technologies to the next iPhone in 2018, but the feature sadly never appeared, and again, will presumably arrive sometime this decade.

So, while Ossia and Energous claim they have technologies ready to go for companies that want to license the tech, something is stopping those companies from licensing the tech and rolling it out. Is it cost? A slow charging speed? Something else? We don't really yet know.

Here's an article from January 2020 from a site called Inverse about how Apple "couldn't crack wireless charging" and of other companies trying to do with, looking at early 2020 CES developments in wireless power at the time. It includes even more companies working in the wireless power space that I've never heard of, but which are no doubt looking at the announcements from Xiaomi and Lenovo that I've written about below, and are presumably wondering whether these Chinese brands are about to gazump them and eat their lunch.

Xiaomi's blog post on its technology, called Mi Air Charge,  has a video (embedded below) which, somewhat startlingly, shows a charging device that's looks almost as big as a small bar fridge, with a slow 5w charging speed, although if your device is constantly being charged, the slower speed is less important - it's only when the device is flat that you really feel how slow 5w charging is.

Wired chargers are much faster, with Xiaomi having shown off an 80w charger, and Huawei, Oppo and others also offering super fast wired charging systems that can charge in super fast time. Even the iPhone 12 is able to be charged at 20w, which can charge a phone to 50% battery life within 30 minutes, if not more, while standard Qi charging on Apple devices is 7.5w, and Apple's own iPhone 12 Magsafe charging is 15w.

There's also questions about how companies will meter the usage of electricity in such a scenario - if anyone can walk into your shop or business, or even walk past it, and they're slurping some of your power, how high will your power bills go?

Of course, all kinds of businesses offer charging points now, and the energy used is just part of the cost of doing business, but it's still a question worth asking.

Here's Xiaomi's video - the article continues thereafter, please read on!

Xiaomi says that the core of its "remote charging lies in space positioning and energy transmission", and the company says its "self-developed isolated charging pile has five phase interference antennas built in, which can accurately detect the location of the smartphone. A phase control array composed of 144 antennas transmits millimetre-wide waves directly to the phone through beamforming."

On the smartphone side, Xiaomi says it "has also developed a miniaturised antenna array with built-in “beacon antenna” and “receiving antenna array”. Beacon antenna broadcasts position information with low power consumption. The receiving antenna array composed of 14 antennas converts the millimetre wave signal emitted by the charging pile into electric energy through the rectifier circuit, to turn the sci-fi charging experience into reality."

The charging distance "for a single device within a radius of several meters. Apart from that, multiple devices can also be charged at the same time (each device supports 5 watts), and even physical obstacles do not reduce the charging efficiency."

There's no timeframe other than "the neat future", but Xiaomi, like Ossia and Energous, promise to be able to pretty much charge anything that has a battery inside, from smartwatches, smart bracelets and even living room de vices such as speakers, desk laps and "other small smart home products", with future living rooms to be "complete free of wires, making our living rooms truly wireless."

The company says "it's not science fiction, it’s technology", and it boasts that "this is Xiaomi’s self-developed remote charging technology", although I'm sure Ossia and Energous are wondering whether any corporate espionage took place, because these days, you never know.

Then there's Lenovo and its Motorola division, which has technology called Motorola One Hyper. As you can see at this XDA Developers article, a Motorola executive posted a video on Weibo which shows two Motorola smartphones being charged at distances of up to a metre away, although putting one's hand in front of the much smaller transmitter than Xiaomi's stops the charging from happening. The video can be seen at the XDA article and at the Weibo post here.

The phone no longer charging wireless when the technology detects a hand in between the transmission means the phone might not charge in your pocket, which XDA Developers says is "likely for health reasons".

I mean, do you really want a beam of energy being beamed near your groin area? That said we keep our phones in our pockets all the time already, with Wi-Fi and 3G/4G/5G signals being beamed in that direction, so clearly humans don't seem to mind, and there's no mass cancers of the groin area being reported by huge swathes of the population.

So, as with other articles out there, the consensus seems to be that while this technology is inevitable, especially with a range of companies having developed the tech over several years, it's still not ready for prime time.

Maybe by the time the iPhone 22 launches in 2030, or maybe well before, wireless charging will finally be with us, but hopefully at much faster speeds than today's demos showcase, with any and all health concerns fully solved, so that we can charge safely and in peace.

All we need now is to hurry up on massively improving the capacity of renewable energy generation, battery storage, or even zero-point energy devices so that electricity can be ultra cheap and affordable, if not even free, although that may still take a few decades yet.

Until then, most of us charge with a cable, even if that cable is attached to a Qi or Magsafe charger, with truly wireless technology still existing more in the realms of science fiction, despite the demos showing that it really is science fact.

After all, as William Gibson of Neuromancer fame noted, the future has already been invented, it just hasn't been widely distributed yet. Wireless power's widespread distribution is yet to happen, but it is coming, and it will obviously change - and charge - the world.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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