When I wrote last week’s opinion piece on five hardware lessons Apple could learn from Android manufacturers, a few of you wondered why I hadn’t added wireless charging to the list.
Those who know me might be especially surprised. I hate cables, and indeed went to the trouble of having a bespoke desk made so that cables could be rendered almost invisible. I’ve also been known to favor hi-tech approaches over low-tech ones just because I’m a gadget guy, so why wasn’t I calling on Apple to introduce wireless charging … ?
It’s not because I don’t want wireless charging. I do. If I could remove all visible wires from my home, nobody would be happier than me. I look on the idea of having to tether a MacBook to power in much the same way most people would look at having to plug in an Ethernet cable to get Internet access.
But today’s wireless charging systems don’t get rid of wires. They replace a power cable running directly to a device with a power cable running to a charging mat. Either way, we get the cable.
There is of course one advantage to wireless charging: we don’t have to plug in the device, we can just put it down on the pad. I’ll admit that’s slightly more convenient. But only slightly. One of the things I love about MagSafe is there is no fiddling around with power cables, just hold it vaguely in the right area and it snaps neatly into place. Lightning doesn’t do that, but it’s at least much less fiddly that the old-style 30-pin connector.
A few manufacturers, like IKEA, are now building wireless charging pads into furniture. That is a vast improvement on standalone pads, enabling us to tuck the wires out of sight, but as yet, there are very limited options. I don’t want to be stuck with the few pieces of furniture that include it.
Realistically, we’re never going to get today’s wireless charging technology built into all the furniture we actually want to buy. The whole approach is no more than a stopgap, a dead-end. The very minimum we need is inductive charging capable of working through a thick desk or kitchen worktop, so the charging pads can be hidden away out of sight.
But what I really want is true wireless power. The kind of wireless power that enables a device to be genuinely liberated from power outlets. Where I can just use any portable device – be it an iPhone, iPad or MacBook – without having to worry about where it gets its power from.
There are two potential ways we could get that …
The first technology is fuel cells, which turn hydrogen into electricity. Using the same space taken up by today’s laptop batteries, fuel cells would power a laptop for several weeks.
Sure, we’d have to top up our devices from time to time, but a MacBook would become like a Kindle or a Bluetooth keyboard – something we have to charge maybe once a month. That’s well into ‘good enough’ territory for me.
The only downside is that when charging becomes that infrequent, it’s easy to forget about it completely. About the only device I use that I let go flat these days is the Brydge keyboard I use with my iPad, because it only need to be charged every 5-6 weeks and I have no routine for it. But that’s just about developing new habits.
Fuel cell technology is nothing new. It was first invented in 1838! NASA uses it to power satellites, and larger fuel cell systems are used in a number of industrial applications. But for some reason, it hasn’t yet made it into portable electronic devices – despite more than a decade of articles promising we’d have fuel cell-powered laptops any day now.
But I’m not giving up yet. Apple has a patent on using fuel cells in portable electronic devices, and has reportedly been working on it for some time. Intelligent Energy has even managed to squeeze fuel cells into the same space as an iPhone 6 battery and use them to power an iPhone for a week. This stuff works.
But the holy grail of wireless power is wide-area wireless charging. Many attempts have been made at this, most of them requiring huge amounts of power to charge even small devices – and also pumping out a great deal of electromagnetic energy, something which has health and safety implications.
But there’s one approach out there that has neither drawback: MagMIMO, a technology developed by MIT. This works in a similar way to advanced Wi-Fi routers: you blanket a room in signal, then when the router detects that a device is connected to it, it boosts power to the right directional antennas to reach that device.
MagMIMO does the same thing, but using magnetic fields instead of radio waves. An array of wire coils generates a magnetic field and when a phone disrupts that field, MagMIMO senses it and focuses on the phone by creating a slightly different field with each coil. The magnetic fields reinforce each other so as to maximise the strength of the overall field reaching the phone.
MagMIMO uses no more power than conventional charging, and the focused magnetic fields have no effect on human tissue.
MIT’s proof of concept operated over 30cm, but a company called WattUp has already demonstrated a range of 20 feet using exactly this type of focused-energy approach. The end goal is to have a network of power transmitters throughout a home so that any device can be remotely powered from anywhere inside the building.
This is what I want: not a wireless charging pad, but a wireless charging home. All our devices being charged all the time. No visible wires, no need to connect a device to anything or put it down anywhere in particular, just power constantly available to any device anywhere in the home.
Fit the same systems to offices, coffee shops, hotels, airport lounges and so on, and we’d never need to carry a charger ever again. That’s my idea of wireless power. And that’s why I remain entirely unexcited by charging pads.