From a consumer’s perspective, things were a little quiet on the wireless charging front in 2016. Very few product announcements made much reference to the feature, if they even include it, and there doesn’t seem to be a big rush to bring next generation technologies to the market. This year though, we already have the LG G6 sporting wireless charging, and the Galaxy S8 seems almost certain to continue sporting the technology.
Behind the scenes, things have been a little more active. A number of charging manufacturers have announced more powerful components in the past few months, which should help to close the gap on existing wired solutions. Disney has recently shown off a prototype living room that can power numerous objects completely wirelessly, albeit with some servants. Even Apple, which has so far stayed out of the business, joined the Wireless Power Consortium earlier in February. This group oversees the Qi wireless standard and Apple’s membership could signal a renewed push with the backing of a major smartphone brand in the near future.
This year, wireless charging receivers are expected to ship in around 500 million devices, including smartphones, and could surpass 1.5 billion in 2022.
While Samsung has been sticking steadfast with its dual wireless charging configuration, Apple entering the market with its iPhone 8 would be a major game changer, simply for increasing the technology’s profile if nothing else. With the LG G6 already boasting the technology, 2017 could see a number of flagships reboot the technology this year.
The future envisioned for wireless charging goes well beyond smartphones though. Applications range from charging desks and office equipment, smart-home, healthcare, and industrial applications. Automotive is also seen as a potentially huge avenue, not just for charging gadgets but for electric vehicles too. Analyst estimates vary, but the industry is expected to be worth somewhere between $13.7 billion by 2020 and $22.3 billion by 2022. This year, wireless charging receivers are expected to ship in around 500 million devices, surpassing 1.5 billion in 2022.
A looming showdown
The big problem with wireless charging, more so than a few years ago, is that there are a number of groups and companies working on their own versions and slightly different technologies. However, the technology’s long term success seems to depend on ubiquity. For example, a wireless charging desk is no good if your monitor, keyboard, and speakers are all using different standards.
Samsung has attempted to sidestep this issue by supporting both PMA and Qi standards so far. However, these two technologies are quite similar and there are other standards that these phones don’t support. Although multi-mode charging sounds like a good solution, it’s not cheap and adds to device complexity.
Ultimately, it seems that only one wireless charging solution can prevail. We’re looking at another betamax versus VHS showdown, so who are the runners and riders?
Wireless Power Consortium (Qi)
Qi is probably the technology that consumers will probably be the most familiar with and it’s the most common technology found in wireless charging products. The Wireless Power Consortium is formed from a number of major mobile and tech companies, including Qualcomm, Samsung, LG, HTC, MediaTek, and others. Apple is the latest major member to the group, which could give the Qi standard a major boost if an iPhone product ships ever with the technology.
Not much has changed on the smartphone and gadget front in terms of technology inside products. That said, Qi version 1.2, which supports longer range resonance charging, is now being adopted predominantly in new products using Qi. WPC is still growing too, 152 different brands registered a Qi product with the group, with hardware ranging from charging pads and alarm clocks to audio systems.
The Wireless Power Consortium recently noted that its two fastest growing sectors were in-car charging and hospitality applications.
The group recently noted that its two fastest growing sectors were in-car charging and hospitality applications. There are currently 61 car models equipped with Qi. Automotive is seen as a key growth driver as not only is wireless charging a convenient way to keep your gadgets topped up without cables, but also because the Qi standard can transfer other pieces of information as part of its protocol. This can allow automotive manufacturers to implement new premium features, such as pre-programmed driver preferences for seat positioning, HVAC settings, and in-cab lighting, all based on who pops their phone down in the drivers charging station.
The Wireless Power Consortium has also been continuing its strategy of rolling out public charging stations. Marriott has portable charging stations in 150 of its hotels around the world, and Starbucks is continuing its adoption in Germany through a partnership with WPC member FluxPort. Looking forward, last year the WPC announced the development of two new specifications for higher power devices. A 60-200 Watt specification aims to cater to drones, robots, laptops, and other high power dagets, while a separate 2000 Watt specification is designed to power home kitchen appliances.
AirFuel Alliance (formerly A4WP & PMA)
The AirFuel Alliance is probably considered the Wireless Power Consortium’s closest competitor, both in terms of technology and scope. The current collective was formed after a merger between the A4WP and PMA groups in 2015 and PMA wireless charging technology is used alongside Qi in Samsung’s Galaxy flagships. You’ll also find a number of familiar mobile brands among its membership too, including LG, Samsung, Sony, HTC, and SoC manufacturers Qualcomm, Intel and MediaTek. Huawei and Bose are just two of the company’s latest members, which could give the group’s technology a major boost if these two start building AirFuel compatible products.
Like the WPC, the group has charging points installed in places like Starbucks and McDonalds, and has been encouraging product manufacturers to take up its model. However, the group has had less success in securing exclusive smartphone adoption than its rival, with Samsung’s Galaxy flagships and the new LG G6 supporting both Qi and PMA. Originally, A4WP had focused on mid-range resonance charging technology, while PMA was much closer to Qi’s inductive model. Combined, the group support inductive, magnetic resonance, and also radio frequency (uncoupled) technologies too.
The group’s strength is the wide range of technologies supported. Despite these efforts, AirFuel is the smaller group, with its current install base making up less than 10 percent of the WPC’s user count. On paper, magnetic resonance appears to be the better technology, as it allows for greater freedom and can even charge an inch or so through other objects, but the problem seems to be winning over the right manufacturers. While mobile products are a major focus, last year the AirFuel Alliance was mainly courting the PC crowd, which isn’t a major growth market.
WiTricity, a company that designs integrated circuits that supports magnetic resonance charging, is targeting the automotive, industrial, and medical markets, which are all more promising avenues for grabbing adoption. This year, the company has announced a collaboration with Nissan to develop wireless charging electric cars, and is participating in the STILLE standards project to drive wireless charging interoperability in the global electric vehicle industry. We could see car manufacturers begin making use of WiTricity’s technology sometime in 2020.
While resonance charging doesn’t appear to be gaining as much traction in the smartphone and wearables markets as some had thought it would, other markets are keeping the wireless charging standards battle very much open.
We can’t mention longer range radio technologies without talking about Engerous. The company has previously demonstrated wireless charging capabilities up to 15 feet, which is a much greater distance than any of its competitors. Rather importantly, the company appears to be a key partner in Apple’s wireless charging strategy. Nothing has been announced, but we have to acknowledge that an iPhone supporting any wireless charging standard will make a big difference.
The drawbacks of Energous’ technology is that it can’t deliver as much power over long distances as the inductive or resonant options already on the market. The technology could certainly charge a number of low energy devices over the air, with available current scaling up to 700mA depending on the distance from the charging station.
When it comes to phones and gadgets, this technology is more likely to be used to offer smaller battery top-ups at regular intervals, such as when roaming into a compatible WiFi network in a coffee shop. The company plans to integrate its technology into a WiFi router next year, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this strategy plays out. Energous also has to convince US regulators that transferring power over the air at this distance is safe for consumers. The company seems certain that its standard meets all safety requirements, but public perception is something that will have to be handled carefully moving forward as well.
More than just wireless power
While it’s obviously tempting to focus on the pros and promises of these different standards, it’s becoming apparent that wireless power capabilities are just one factor that will determine which standard, if any, ends up becoming ubiquitous. As we mentioned when talking about automotive, device-to-device connectivity is at the heart of enabling wireless power and is also a hugely important attribute in enabling new product features and monetization of public wireless charging stations.
When it comes to smartphones, the deployment of charging stations in cafes could (and already is) subsidised by advertising or up-selling. Having a menu pop-up on your screen when you use a wireless charging station at Starbucks or being able to place your order when connected to the station wouldn’t just be useful for consumers, but it’s a way to companies to get consumers involved in promotions and the like. Similarly, home audio products that can auto sync with your media library while charging, and smart desks that can wirelessly transfer files from phone to PC are all potentially enabled by the wireless communication that accompanies wireless charging.
We've seen standards battle likes this before, but wireless charging is looking a little more complicated than BetaMax vs VHS.
For electric cars and industrial applications, this wireless information could take on a more crucial role. Allowing a more universal wireless charging station to cater to multiple different models with their own power requirements, while also transferring important diagnostic information and update for important systems without having to rely on wireless data, which may not always be readily available. For example, your future electric car’s dashboard might take software updates from a wireless charging station that you can simply drive over at a freeway service station, while the car also makes a seamless bank transfer for the cost of the electricity you just fuelled up on. Pretty neat right?
This is one of the reason’s that Apple may have decided to become more involved in the WPC. Rather than confirming that the iPhone 8 will arrive with wireless charging, a possibility but one that would have been decided on much further in advance, the company is likely interested in future business avenues centered around device-to-device communication. Even if only some of these use cases end up making it to market, the wireless charging industry could turn out to be bigger business than some expect.
While this all sounds very promising, this range of possibilities is likely what has prevented any one of today’s standards from receiving universal industry backing. While Qi is great for gadgets, the extra range offered by Energous’ radio technology makes it a more cost effective way to reach multiple consumers at once, if you’re looking for a public commercial option. Likewise, the additional distance offered by resonance charging, such as that promoted by AirFuel, seem the best to cater to the high power demands of electric vehicles and industry/consumer appliances.
Hesitation to go all in with one group at this stage is rather understandable, and ultimately I’m still convinced that a standard which is able to cater to all of these areas and/or multi-mode devices are likely to win the day in the long run. Of course, this will all depend on who the industry ends up getting behind, and at the moment the WPC seems to be the favourite.