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Technology

Cutting the cord

Powering up without wires

January 25, 2007

You've already cut the communications cord by getting a cellphone — soon, get ready to throw away the wires and adapter needed to charge it.

Fresh from grand unveilings in January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the yearly expo of the electronics industry, several companies have declared war on the annoying, cumbersome adapters of various shapes and sizes you currently have to lug around to keep tech goodies powered.

CES is the place where the electronics industry shows off its latest and greatest innovations, and the competition for attention is intense. The products that stand out are a good indication of what's going to be hot in the coming months, and this year's award for best emerging technology went to Powercast of Ligonier, Penn., for its transmitter-receiver combo that lets users charge small gadgets such as cellphones, cameras and remote controls by beaming power directly to them through the air.

It sounds like science fiction, but Powercast's transmitter, about the size of a dime, sends a radio signal that can power multiple devices fitted with a receiver chip up to several metres away. It generates enough strength (a few milliwatts) to charge a single depleted cellphone overnight or keep several hearing aids and wireless sensors powered remotely, and the company said it could also be installed on devices such as laptop computers or stereo systems to provide a mobile hub for wireless power. Its signal is comparable to that of a standard radio or TV broadcast and Powercast already has U.S. Federal Communications Commission approval for the device.

Plug replacement

For science fans, the device might recall the lofty dreams of eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, who dreamed more than 100 years ago of powering entire neighbourhoods wirelessly. As Keith Kressin, the marketing vice-president of Powercast, puts it, the company's goals are far more modest — and practical.

"Our focus is on low-power applications like lights, sensors, game controllers and cellphones. We want to be a plug replacement," Kressin said.

The company isn't alone in its mission to eliminate power cords and adapters. Arizona-based WildCharge, with its WildCharger line of charging pads that transfer power via contact between a small adapter fitted on the device and the pad itself. The pad plugs into a wall socket, but allows other devices to be charged simply by placing them on the pad.

Cellphones recharge on a WildCharge pad

At CES, WildCharge revealed a 90-watt device capable of charging a laptop and a multitude of BlackBerrys, pagers and cellphones simultaneously. The lightweight, flexible, 15-by-40-centimetre pad is safe to touch, and only about three millimetres thick.

Izhar Matzkevich, the president of WildCharge, said WildCharge's design philosophy is all about freeing people from the ball and chain of AC adapters. "People don't want to think about power. Right now, most people need to travel with plenty of chargers — we're eliminating all that," he said.

Matzkevich also believes the technology could prove popular in places like coffee shops as a draw for the "laptop 'n' latte" crowd, who could be offered free charging for their electronics.

Short-range approach

Michigan-based Fulton Innovation is offering a product dubbed eCoupled that's sort of a cross between the Powercast and WildCharge systems. ECoupled can send power over very short distances (about 2 centimetres) via a magnetic field that doesn't interfere with other short-range signals or demagnetize credit cards.

David Baarman, eCoupled's inventor and director of technology at Fulton, said the technology is not unlike what's in electric toothbrushes or shaver base stations. The system is also "smart - it actually senses how much power a device needs and adjusts its transmission accordingly."

Baarman called eCoupled's approach "adaptive," adding that he believes it increases efficiency and safety, when compared to traditional cable-and-adapter-based charging systems. "It knows when to turn on, when to turn off, it monitors what's taking place and adapts to it. Sometimes it's more appropriate to know when not to power a device."

Ready for prime time

Car-gadget manufacturer Visteon plans to release by midsummer a cupholder that uses eCoupled technology, which could charge devices outfitted with a removable adapter. As well as Visteon, Fulton has partnered with Motorola and office furniture provider Herman Miller Inc. to build goods using the eCoupled system. So far, none of those partners have revealed any major products using either technology, so don't expect to see many goods with built-in wireless power circuits until sometime in 2008.

Two prototype light sticks from Philips were shown using Powercast technology at CES 2007. RF Energy is transferred from a transmitter (not shown) to a receiver embedded in the light sticks to power the LEDs.

Powercast has signed a partnership with Philips to release products utilizing its wireless power solution, but hasn't revealed a launch date.

WildCharge is planning to sell its pads and individual adapters directly to consumers through its website by the middle of 2007, at a price of $100 US for the 90-watt pad and $40 US for a smaller, 15-watt pad.

"We're not waiting for built-in solutions — we're getting this technology to people right now," WildCharge's Matzkevich said.

Wireless power is new to the mainstream retail electronics market, but not a new idea — a few years ago, startups MobileWise and Splashpower made waves with announcements that they would bring wireless power to consumers. But MobileWise foundered and disappeared, while Splashpower has mostly stayed quiet about its commercial plans since its initial announcements.

Matzkevich, who previously worked as vice-president of marketing for MobileWise, said plummeting production costs are the crucial difference between those early efforts and the products coming to market now. In WildCharge's case, lower costs mean pads can be produced for mere pennies per centimetre of charging surface. The way Matzkevich sees it, selling the concept of wireless power today is less Star Trek and more Business 101.

"There's no science fiction, just an elegant solution to a problem many consumers have — how to get rid of their power cords. The opportunity is huge."

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