Wireless Power: Convenient, But Its Shortcomings Are Somewhat Sour
Lest there be any doubt as to the extent of my independent thinking, even when it conflicts with the opinions of my management, here’s what I emailed Editor in Chief Rick Nelson subsequent to the publication of his efficiency-focused anti-wireless power diatribe a month back:
While the green-bleeder in me appreciates your message, I’m far more cynical than you. Since when has a notable percentage of the population (excluding upper-class Prius owners, for example) done ANYTHING that prioritized power savings over convenience? The only reasons why the SUV market has collapsed are that:
- gas is expensive and
- folks are out of work.
I could go on…
In his reply, Rick begrudgingly admitted that I had a point. And from my past correspondence, you already know that I’m no fan of proprietary power (and other function) connectors (and have little confidence that government and consortium-driven compatibility aspirations will amount to much at the end of the day). So when heard that Dell had unveiled its first wireless induction charging-based laptop at the beginning of last week, following in the footsteps of the Palm Pre, I decided to dust off and test a conceptually similar (albeit conductive, versus inductive) hardware suite that’d been in my possession for about a month. Behold the WildCharge system, specifically the WildCharger pad:
Not shown in this ’stock’ photo is the wall wart (15V/1A output) that powers the pad. I’ve also got circuitry-inclusive ’skins’ for my 2nd generation iPod touch, and for my iPhone 3G. The cases add only a minimal amount of incremental thickness to either device, though I wish that WildCharge would have also included screen protectors:
As Stacey Higginbotham recently noted, wireless power isn’t a new concept; Nikola Tesla, for example, was working on it in the late 19th century. And unlike the longer-distance albeit inefficient wireless power ‘beaming’ demos from Intel and other companies (either leveraging intentionally installed transmitters or tapping into stray ambient RF energy), WildCharge’s approach relies on ohmic contact and is therefore claimed to be 100% efficient (close-proximity inductive coupling is commonly estimated to deliver 50 to 70% efficiency). The gentle magnetic attraction between the pad and each device gives effective tactile feedback of proper placement and also keeps gear from sliding around. Here are my two handheld devices simultaneously juicing up on the WildCharger pad:
The technology seems to work as advertised. I didn’t put a stopwatch on the recharge cycle to compare charging times against a more traditional setup that direct-coupled each device’s power connector to a wall wart. But then again, my usual approach is to overnight-charge my widgets while I’m asleep, so speed is somewhat of a secondary concern.
Current-generation implementation shortcomings include:
- Cost. Keep in mind that WildCharge is in the classic early-adopter phase of any technology life cycle (whether or not it’ll transition to a lower-priced but higher-volume broad market embrace, of course, is yet to be determined). With that qualifier in place, right now the bundle of pad and one skin costs $79.99; standalone skins for other devices are $34.99. That’s pretty pricey, when stacked up against the combo of a $5 charger (or $1 cable) and a few-dollar skin.
- Complexity. At the moment, and understandable given the current lack of widespread infrastructure to support the technology, no OEM has yet implemented integrated WildCharge capabilities. Aside from the above-mentioned incremental thickness issue, this shortcoming means that the ‘dock’ connectors for my iPhone and iPod touch are used up by the WildCharge skin and are therefore unavailable for tethering, audio/video transfer or other purposes.
- Compatibility. WildCharge isn’t the only company selling charge pads, either conductive or inductive. While I admittedly haven’t yet researched the alternatives in depth, I doubt the various approaches will plug (or should that be no-plug?)-and-play with each other. And therefore, as has been the case many times in the past, I wonder if any of the contending technologies and suppliers will achieve sufficient critical mass to become the de facto standard…and what it will take (Apple adoption, for example?) for any of them to sustainably rise to the top of the heap. Then again, a consortium might succeed in establishing an industry standard…but with past history as a guide to the likely future, I’m skeptical.