Discussing wireless power at CES and looking forward to 2021
It’s a new year, and for all of us in the tech world, it is time for CES… But just like the last 12 months, this CES was nothing like the years past.
While this year’s CES show still delivered the expected product launches and preview of market trends, which I will get to in a bit, the virtual, all digital, conference was missing something. Something we have all come to miss in 2020: the personal connection. I missed the opportunity to meet with the AirFuel Community in person, talk with the startup companies whose names we will all come to know, and be connected in this industry of connectivity.
I am optimistic life will get back to being normal again soon and I am looking forward to seeing you all again.
The Future is Wireless. How Long Until The Last Cord is Gone?
It is an exciting time for the wireless power industry, which believe it or not is still in its early stages. Just like how wireless communications over the last few decades evolved from analog technology to 5G (and believe me all the hype about 5G is real); wireless power is continuing to evolve from the first generation inductive technologies to the 2nd generation technologies of Magnetic Resonance and RF/Uncoupled. Just like we have multiple wireless communication technologies, when the dust settles, I expect multiple wireless power technologies must coexist in the future and meet the unique requirements of the different use cases and applications. Our devices may even support multiple generations of technologies to support seamless technology evolution in the market.
In this important phase of wireless power’s evolution, it’s essential to keep the conversation flowing and share expertise and key learnings. That is why, in conjunction with IEEE and Consumer Technology Association (the organizers of CES 2021), AirFuel Alliance hosted a panel on The Future of Wireless Charging at IEEE’s CCNC 2021 conference to discuss where the wireless charging landscape currently stands and where it’s going. In that panel discussion, our experts offered diverse perspectives from across the industry, ranging from product innovation to education and training. We discussed various wireless power technologies and their applications, as well as safety and advice for companies taking a wirelessly powered product to market.
As Alex Lidow, CEO of Efficient Power Conversion Corporation, explained on our The Future of Wireless Charging panel:
“Magnetic resonance is not a whole different thing than inductive coupling. You can actually dual-mode Qi and AirFuel without adding a lot of cost, almost none. For the cost of a Bluetooth, that already exists in most systems, and an extra winding on your antenna.”
I highly recommend anyone who has an interest in wireless power or who is building a wirelessly-charged product to check out the recorded panel discussion on our website.
Companies Are Trying Hard to Innovate Around Limitations of First-Generation Inductive Technology
We all understand that consumers demand and expect better from wireless power — they would love to simply set their device down on a charging surface and watch it power up — just like we take WiFi for granted wherever we go. Why should anyone have to focus on the exact orientation of their device, to check whether the slightest bump from a pet of a kid has moved it, to question whether their case is too thick, or to worry about their car keys being too close to the charging pad?
CES 2021 featured several designs that aim to overcome the technical limitations of first generation inductive technology.
One such design is the new wirelessly-powered car charger from Panasonic. Their phone charging pad for your car featured a mechanism for moving the transmitter coil based on the position and type of phone. I guess when you can’t get the coil’s charge to reach a device, you bring the coil to the device?
Another example of an attempt to deliver a next-gen experience with first-gen technology is Kew Labs UTS-1 surface-based charger. We all agree with the basic premise — it’s not really “wireless charging” if you still have a wired “hockey puck” sitting on your desk!
Kew Labs’ efforts are definitely noteworthy. As “Wired” explains, while the experience is certainly improved, it still has its challenges:
“This is a finicky process that requires not just the right alignment between the wire coils in the charger and those in the phone, but also the right amount of distance between them. Some phone cases—namely thick, “armored” ones—have been known to interfere with wireless charging because they’re just too big. Now imagine what the thickness of your desk is going to do to this delicate process.”
These products follow Apple’s reintroduction of MagSafe. I personally loved MagSafe on my Macbooks and wish I could have them back; but it is inaccurate to characterize MagSafe as wireless power. The current Magsafe does not provide the fundamentally new experiences consumers were expecting — charging multiple devices simultaneously, and freedom of placement and orientation. The new MagSafe has also led to some unintended consequences, like the magnets interfering with some user’s pacemakers.
Conductive Coupling — Back to the Future
While many companies are working within the bounds of first-gen technologies, others are searching for novel solutions to deliver better user experiences.
One such company is Lenovo, who unveiled a novel approach called “conductive coupling” to deliver the kind of benefits that first-gen inductive charging cannot. An innovative French company, Energysquare, provided the technology that leverages small conductive pads to slide seamlessly across conductive squares on the transmitter surface. The technology provides simple drop and go charging for multiple devices simultaneously. For those of you who remember the Duracell conductive charging solution this solution can charge multiple devices requiring different voltages and power (example phone and laptops) simultaneously and continues working in presence of coins, keys and other everyday metallic objects on the charging pad.
Even though conductive coupling is not technically wireless power, I expect conductive coupling solutions to fulfill consumers’ desire for elevated powering experiences in the short term and to be a stepping stone to the next generation of wireless power solutions.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Another CES show is behind us, with a new year ahead. So what should we expect in 2021 and beyond? It’s clear that the industry is trying to use creative engineering to deliver top notch product experiences to their customers but they keep coming up against the fundamental limitations of the first generation technology.
I believe now is the right time for a technology generational leap and evolution to AirFuel Resonant and AirFuel RF that make delivering delightful experiences easier, not harder. The ecosystem has matured and is ready:
- Availability of cost-effective integrated semiconductor solutions.
- Widespread adoption of GaN power devices have primed the market for adoption of next generation wireless power technology.
- A robust interoperability testing and certification program to accompany the AirFuel Resonant Specifications.
- Products successfully passing key wireless charging safety and regulatory requirements, proving that these requirements can be met.
As Jacob Babcock, CEO & Founder of NuCurrent, explains in our The Future of Wireless Charging panel:
“Apple’s AirPower would not have failed if that was using magnetic resonance. That product is completely feasible, we’ve seen it… Apple could have made that work with 6.78MHz.”
In the coming year I expect to see some companies still trying to push first-gen tech past its comfort zone. I anticipate continued introduction of next generation wireless power technology in higher power applications, IoT and wearables, and those where the need for massive infrastructure deployment is not a prerequisite. Others meanwhile will pursue strategies aimed at driving much needed technology evolution. Expect to see increased adoption of AirFuel Resonant and AirFuel RF in the market, serving customers and consumers with the innovative solutions that everyone expects.
Here at AirFuel, we’ll be covering all things wireless power in more depth on our blog and in our webinars in 2021, so stay tuned for updates.
Sanjay Gupta, PhD
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