Qualcomm's WiPower takes aim at the WPC

Qualcomm is a name best known in the telecommunications business for its radio transceivers, ARM-based processors, and power management ICs - but Mark Hunsicker is concentrating on what he believes is the next big thing for his company: wireless power.

Hunsicker, who has been at the firm for the last two years, has plenty of experience in the semiconductor and telecommunications industry. Having previously worked as a director at companies including AT&T Microelectronics, Lucent, and Agere, he brings a long history to the table - but the product he's most excited about is a radical departure from his previous projects.

Currently leading Qualcomm's wireless charging team, Hunsicker has taken on the challenge of bringing a new form of wireless power to the market - technology Qualcomm has been quietly working on since 2007.

First seen at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Qualcomm's approach to the problem of wire-free charging of portable devices differs in a fundamental way to that espoused by the Wireless Power Consortium, the group of companies currently leading the way in wireless power. Dubbed 'flexible coupling,' Hunsicker sees Qualcomm's approach as offering something radically new in a market to which consumer are starting to wake up.

"You see products on the marketplace today that require precise alignment, either using magnets or some sort of interconnection system to lock the device into the charging area," Hunsicker explained to thinq_ during our interview. "You look at the old toothbrush technologies, the electric toothbrushes: you get your toothbrush and put it precisely on a stand. That's the same use case that tightly-coupled does today. We have a technology at Qualcomm that permits an area to be charging itself. What that means is that you can actually take the device to be charged, you can just throw it down - or place it down - in that general area, and therefore it'll be charging immediately."

The technology is called WiPower - and Hunsicker believes that it has the potential to revolutionise the wireless power market, despite the industry support the rival WPC-led standard, Qi, has already gathered from the likes of Nokia, National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, and ST-Ericsson.

With the ability to charge any number of devices that enter the charging zone, up to the maximum power draw of the transmitter - which is currently around 20W, and easily enough to charge even a high-end tablet like Apple's iPad 2 or the recently launched Asus Transformer - WiPower promises a flexibility that hasn't been possible in previous wireless charging technologies.

The true benefit of WiPower becomes apparent, Hunsicker claimed, when you think about embedded - rather than discrete - applications. "Furniture and automobile, conference room tables and so forth," he explained. "The same technology that permits us to place a device anywhere in that charging area permits us to charge through surfaces. We can charge through 65mm of a surface and have efficient charging - so you can have the antenna on the underside of a conference room table and have the devices to be charged on top of the table."

This flexible coupling technology, which Hunsicker claims is unique to Qualcomm, offers far more flexibility than the tightly-coupled system on offer from WPC members. WiPower has several industries taking notice, and while only wireless power pioneer Powermat and battery specialist Duracell have come out in support of the technology - agreeing to join Qualcomm in creating an industry alliance to rival the WPC - there is a market which Qualcomm is actively chasing: vehicle manufacturers.

"Virtually every major automobile vendor in the world has a roadmap to putting wireless power into their vehicles," Hunsicker claimed - and many are talking to Qualcomm to provide the technology to support that roadmap. "We've been working with the CE4A out of Europe - the consumer electronics industry force for automobiles - and there is tremendous interest," he claimed. "If you look at the specification that they are putting together and you compare that to the technology that Qualcomm plans to offer with our OEM partners, it is a very tight match."

The loosely-coupled approach lends itself well to such an implementation. With the transmission technology built into armrests, glove compartments, trinket trays, and other areas, a mobile can be thrown into the most convenient location and charge automatically - even if it slides about during your daily commute.

Getting the power transmission technology built into consumer goods, furniture, and discrete devices is one thing, of course - but it's nothing without support in the devices to be charged, an area where wireless power has traditionally lacked. Qualcomm, Hunsicker claimed, has the potential to break through that adoption barrier.

"We will have a semiconductor roadmap, where we we will build semiconductor receiver devices that can be embedded into the handsets themselves," Hunsicker explained, "and then we also can move into our power management IC product line. Qualcomm is a very large player in power management ICs, and eventually we see the migration of this wireless power functionality - which will be a discrete semiconductor in the near-term, but will be a function of the power management circuit that's already part of the phone today."

In Hunsicker's vision of the future, the WiPower technology will be fully integrated into smartphones, tablets, and even Bluetooth headsets - along with Qualcomm's other semiconductor offerings, including its Snapdragon system-on-chip technology and its Gobi radio transceivers. The ability to offer a one-stop solution comprised of parts from a single manufacturer with guaranteed interoperability is, he argues, going to give Qualcomm a serious edge over its competitors.

WiPower as a concept technology has already received the green light from the FCC from a safety standpoint, although it's not until products start appearing from Qualcomm's OEM customers that official certification will take place. "We are convinced that this is a safe technology. We've got initial indications that our technology is safe based on the feedback that we've received from the FCC," Hunsicker explained, "and now we're going throughout the world to meet with all the regulatory agencies to ensure that the same confidence we have with the FCC we have with the rest of the regulatory agencies."

Products developed using WiPower technology aren't expected to hit the market until some time next year, but demonstration implementations from Qualcomm, Powermat, and Duracell will be on show at the Computex event in Taipei later this year, where we'll be sure to see whether Qualcomm's technology can deliver on its promises.