A Wireless-Power Struggle

A number of standards and technologies have arisen around wireless charging, making the technology a certainty for the future.

In the wireless industry, the mark of a hot emerging technology is that a standards war will rise around it. With energy harvesting the “next big thing” for wireless devices, automobiles, and more, the ability to wirelessly charge handheld devices is beginning to reach consumers. This progress is in large part due to the work of the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which published the Qi low-power specification in August 2009 in hopes of creating a new protocol for how people interact with power—much as the Wi-Fi Alliance did for wireless networking. While the WPC has made great progress, it now faces some stiff competition from big names in electronics and other markets.

The independently operated Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), for example, counts Broadcom, NXP, Qualcomm, and Samsung (also a member of the WPC) as its members. At the end of October, the A4WP announced that its technical working committee had approved a flexible wireless power specification that will allow consumers to charge their mobile devices on a variety of compatible surfaces. The A4WP specification permits spatial freedom based on loosely coupled magnetic-resonance technology. Thus, power can be transferred wirelessly through surfaces to multiple portable devices.

Instead of focusing on proprietary technologies or unregulated specifications, the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) plans to bring the Power 2.0 agenda to commercial realization while working under the umbrella of the IEEE. The PMA counts AT&T, Google, and Starbucks among its members. Among the products of the alliance’s working groups are two specifications for smartphones. The first one defines the physical and logical interfaces of an insertable wireless charging card (WiCC). In contrast, the second specifies the PMA protocol, enabling any compliant device to charge at compatible locations as well as on wireless power products sold by major retail chains.

Finally, Intel’s Wireless Charging Technology (WCT) lets users charge their smartphones wirelessly from their notebook PCs. This past August, Integrated Device Technology, Inc. (IDT) announced that it will develop and deliver chipsets for WCT. The resulting solution promises to go beyond inductive charging and “smartphone on a charging mat” usage. It also promises to deliver size and cost reductions.

Despite all of this competition, things still look good for the WPC and its Qi standard. With the backing of many handset manufacturers, the magnetic-induction-based Qi standard promises to allow users to charge their devices wirelessly, no matter where they are in the world. The idea is simple: All devices with the Qi logo will work with all Qi chargers. Over 100 Qi-certified products are already available. In addition, phase one of the Okudake-Juden (Place and Charge) campaign has been successfully completed, adding Qi wireless charging at more than 60 popular locations throughout Japan. There are plans to expand to 126 total Qi charging locations by the end of this month. Although it is unclear whether Qi will indeed become the ubiquitous standard of choice, the world clearly has wireless charging in its future.

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