Wireless power must focus on a better user experience

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Chinnapong)

The global wireless charging market is set to grow by a healthy 34.88 per cent between 2017 and 2025, according to Market Stats Report.  A major factor driving this growth is the use of wireless technology in mobile devices such as smartphones and wearables.  Although many devices are now designed with wireless charging capability, it is rare to see it being used.  It will only become more ubiquitous when there is more focus on end user experience and further evolution of the Qi industry standard.

Wireless charging technology first made its way into mobile phones in 2013, yet its use today remains limited.  Too often, wireless chargers fall short of being a viable and user-friendly alternative to plug-in chargers so there is no clear benefit in switching.

The challenges of today’s wireless chargers

Given the connected world we live in and our reliance on many different devices, there should be nothing easier for an individual than to be able to place all devices on one single charging surface to top up power.  In fact, one of the most compelling benefits of wireless charging is being able to keep devices topped up with power anywhere at any time. 

However, as with traditional wired chargers, today’s wireless charging technology also has the limitation that every device needs its own dedicated wireless charger with a power supply.  This falls somewhat short of the ease and flexibility that wireless charging should provide.

The current generation of wireless chargers also need to be precisely aligned with the device they are charging to successfully transfer power.  The concept of walking into a café and placing your smartphone on a wireless charging point is currently anything but universal.  Where wireless charging is available publicly, it relies on very accurately and closely aligning a device for a charger to work.  This becomes even more of an issue when taking into consideration larger devices such as tablets. 

Wireless charging should be simple, convenient and universal.   Little wonder that many people are still plugging their devices – smartphones, tablets, laptops – into the mains using tried and tested wired chargers.  And yet in today’s mobile and connected world, wireless charging has the potential to transform our reliance on plug sockets, enabling smartphones and laptops to be constantly topped up with power in almost any location.

How wireless charging should be

A more visionary future for wireless charging would be the availability of power to any device, from any surface.  Imagine a world where you can safely and easily charge any non-metallic device by placing it on a surface with embedded charging capability.  This could be a desk or a table, out and about in cafes or libraries, or even a kitchen counter in the home.  Charging would not rely on accurate alignment – users could simply place their device on the surface and be sure it was charging.

This kind of universal wireless charging technology effectively removes the need for wires at all and wireless charging would become as accessible as Wi-Fi is for data connection.  So how could this vision be achieved?

Further steps needed for the wireless power industry standard

One of the considerations in developing a better end user experience of wireless power is to take a look at how Qi, the default industry standard, might have to shift to enable electronic devices to be truly compatible with wireless power. 

Qi has been adopted by the main consumer electronics manufacturers and other industry bodies, with today’s first-generation wireless chargers based on this.  Despite this progress, there are still many improvements to be made to wireless charging technology.  Qi has notable limitations as it is based on lower frequency inductive power.  The key point to note is that lower frequency power only operates when devices are closely aligned on a charger, so it only takes a slight knock to displace a device and prevent it from charging. 

In contrast, higher frequency power offers a viable alternative offering greater flexibility and freedom for both user experience and the design of devices.  In particular, using higher frequency power allows users to simultaneously charge a range of different devices on one larger surface, all without the requirement to precisely align each device.  Moreover, higher frequency power also offers wireless power transfer through thicker materials so a charger could be included in the design of a table, desk or breakfast bar. 

Historically the issue with higher frequency wireless charging has been that an entire surface would need to be charging all the time.  This raised concerns about people being close to a high frequency power source and worries that the technology was energy inefficient at a time when maximising usable energy is a key global concern.  These issues have recently been addressed with the demonstration of technology that ensures power is only directed to where a device is actually placed and not across an entire surface. 

With this development, there is huge potential to create a new and truly convenient, ubiquitous wireless charging experience.  It will mean a fundamental shift to industry thinking and an evolution of the Qi standard as it is today.  Arguably, higher frequency power could be the driver for the next generation of wireless charging technology.

New thinking about wireless power

Metamaterials is a new branch of science that uses the manipulation of materials to bend waves and enable those materials to take on new properties they do not have in their natural state.

Metamaterials can be used to design a surface wireless charger that provides the all-important capability to power any number of electronic devices at the same time, without needing to precisely align these over inductive coils.  Instead, the surface is designed to power hot spots when it detects a device placed on a part of the surface.  This technology has already been demonstrated and could well deliver commercial applications in the next couple of years.

Catalyst needed to boost the industry

The use of higher frequency power and its associated benefits could be the catalyst to boost advances in the wireless power industry, as it offers significant user value and advantages to consumer electronics designers and manufacturers.  With mobility and productivity becoming increasingly important, the limitations of charging via cabled connections are obvious and there is no doubt that wireless power has a firm place in the future connected world.  Yet to unlock the potential of wireless charging a major rethink is needed amongst all players in the industry to fully achieve this.

Nedko Ivanov, CEO, Metaboards
Image source: Shutterstock/Chinnapong