Charging pads inching from R&D to reality
Sitting at a table in the Kendall Square Au Bon Pain, Ryan Tseng is describing the kind of future I want to live in.
It's a future in which there is no longer a giant tumbleweed of charging cables beneath my desk, and no more business trips where you have to hunt for a Verizon or Apple store to buy a replacement charger for your phone or laptop, since the last one was abandoned in a hotel room two cities ago.
In Tseng's future, there will be "charging pads" built into everything, capable of reinvigorating all of our power-hungry portable devices. "You'll have a charging pad in the glovebox of your car, on an airplane tray table, or even integrated into a laptop bag, so that it would charge all of the devices in that bag," says Tseng, who is president of WiPower Inc. and a second-year student at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
Wireless power transfer is the next new frontier for the consumer electronics industry, and unlike a 47.3 megapixel digital camera or a combination cellphone/pepper grinder, it's something that consumers actually want. And several years after companies like Splashpower Ltd. of Britain began demonstrating charging pads, big electronics companies are starting to show interest in helping bring the technology to market.
Most of the charging pads employ the principles of inductive coupling, which transfers energy from a transmitter to a receiver using a magnetic field. In devices like electric toothbrushes, a coil of wire in the transmitter (or charging base) creates a magnetic field that "induces" an electrical current in a second coil of wire in the toothbrush handle, which is connected to a rechargeable battery.
By adjusting the frequency at which the magnetic field resonates, the charging pads can send more or less power to a given device, or send power across a distance of a few inches (today's toothbrushes, to recharge, must sit firmly in their base station.)
Splashpower, founded in 2001, has spent the most time trying to bring a charging pad to market. While the company's website shows a digital camera and cellphone being charged by the same sleek white pad, a company spokesman writes via e-mail that the first Splashpower-enabled products won't be available until "the latter half of 2008." (The company has missed earlier launch targets, dating back to at least early 2003.)
WiPower's technology, in development at the University of Florida since 2004, transmits power from a pad to a device at 68 percent efficiency, Tseng says, and the receiver can be as small as a quarter, which would allow it to be integrated into some very small devices (an iPod Nano, say.)
While the company has begun talking to several consumer electronics companies as potential partners, it hasn't announced a deal yet. Tseng says his company thinks it will be able to make receivers for about $2.50 and charging pads for $15 to $20; the electronics companies want the price of a pad to be closer to $10, he acknowledges.
The only company that has announced any partnerships so far, and which seems closest to market, is Michigan-based Fulton Innovation LLC. (Oddly, Fulton Innovation's sister company is Amway Corp., which raises the possibility of Fulton's charging gear being sold alongside Nutrilite vitamins and Satinique hair care products.)
Fulton Innovation is working with Motorola, the furniture-maker Herman Miller, and Visteon Corp., the auto parts manufacturer. Visteon is planning to sell a system that would fit into a car's cup-holder. When plugged into a car's cigarette lighter, it would be able to charge a range of devices. Products using Fulton's technology could be on the market next year, says David Hazlett, the company's director of business development. Herman Miller hasn't said much about what the company is working on, but a desk with a wireless-charging zone for laptops or portable devices would be alluring.
Of course, any devices would need to have a receiver built in, which would be likely to add cost and weight, and create a chicken-and-egg problem: Why should the makers of cellphones, personal digital assistants, and MP3 players incorporate receivers if none of their customers yet own charging pads, and vice versa?
But the same problem confronted WiFi only a few years ago, since there was no incentive to install WiFi transmitters in airports and coffee shops until laptops could link up with those networks, and vice versa.
But the big difference between wireless Internet access and wireless power is this: WiFi spread because there was already agreement about the communications protocol that transmitters would use to talk to receivers, a standard called 802.11. There's no such standard (yet) for wireless power. Hazlett acknowledges that when his company's product comes to market, and a certain cellphone incorporates a receiver, that phone probably wouldn't charge on a pad made by Splashpower.
He says that Fulton, by getting to market first, will try to establish a "de facto standard" for wireless charging, which could eventually become an industry standard. When I suggested that Sony is taking the exact same approach with its Blu-ray high-definition DVDs, choosing to battle it out in the market with Toshiba's incompatible HD DVD discs, Hazlett didn't have much to say in response. Incompatible pads and devices would be a real problem for wireless charging, sowing confusion and slowing consumer adoption.
A wild card entrant in the wireless power race is a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers led by Professor Marin Soljacic. In June, it demonstrated longer-range power transfer, using a magnetic field to light a 60-watt bulb seven feet away. The team, which dubbed its technology WiTricity (and received a trademark on the term), said it could eventually fill a room with enough power to safely charge laptops or other devices.
But the MIT team has yet to incorporate or hire any business executives. Tentative discussions with venture capitalists haven't led to funding. And MIT's Technology Licensing Office says that while the patents on the technology have generated interest, they haven't been licensed to WiTricity or any other companies so far.
Big companies haven't yet gotten behind wireless charging, and one reason could be that the current generation of plug-in chargers offers hefty profit margins while the more expensive new technology might not.
According to Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak, "We're totally in the R&D investigative phase. We're familiar with most of the companies, but there's nothing imminent."
Wireless power transfer is a brilliant idea in search of a marketing-oriented champion that can help bring it to market, in much the same way Apple Inc. helped shepherd WiFi into the mainstream. Any takers?
Innovation Economy is a weekly column focusing on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.