Author(s): Peter Bryer
Current wireless charging approaches are a bit of a misnomer. Pad-based solutions like Qi still require physical or extremely close contact to the charging dock, leading any decent wordsmith to question the semantics. The term "wireless" would suggest at least a minimum level of mobility, but the industry gets acquittal based on a technicality.
True wireless energy transfer has been a long-term holy grail for more than a century. Companies like Massachusetts-based WiTricity have been developing commercial solutions for true wireless electricity, potentially replacing cords, plugs, batteries and wiring. There have been some impressive technology demonstrations, but wide-scale, real-world deployment is still many years off. However, the industry is still inching forward.
Researchers at Microsoft are looking to use beams of light and sensors to scan a room for a device in need of a charge. Called AutoCharge, it's a smart solution to charging smart devices.
Developed in Microsoft Research's offices in Beijing, the AutoCharge artificial solar-power concept could provide a solution to the first-world problem of wall hugging. The system uses Microsoft's Kinect to scan a room and recognise devices and signals they are sending out — a smartphone could blink out a type of SOS that the Kinect understands, for example. The system then focuses a dedicated light source at photovoltaic receptors on the phone to provide a consistent charge: Microsoft's researchers explain that other light sources, artificial and natural, scatter too quickly to be of much use.
This sort of router-like approach to charging is not completely unique. Several remote charging solutions were demonstrated at CES 2015, providing some hope for homes, offices and public venues where wall outlets can be in short supply. A company called Energous, for example, demonstrated its WattUp solution, which sends radio frequency signals to power compatible devices that call to the power hub through Bluetooth for a burst of energy.
Safe and efficient wireless energy transfer is a key emerging technology, and is likely to remain so for years to come. There are still many cords to be cut. If constant-charging solutions like Microsoft's AutoCharge move out of the lab and become standardised and common products, the Internet of things and the smart home could get power boost. Wireless power is getting some solid signals.