Cutting the Cord: Wireless Charging Coming of Age at CES 2014

For an industry that’s increasingly “going wireless,” the one cord that most people would like to cut — the power cord to their smartphone — is still holding consumers back. But that could soon be changing.

Broadcom is working to bring wireless charging technology to the forefront by making it more powerful, more flexible and easier to use. And there’s plenty of support around the effort — from technical alliances to device manufacturers, automakers and even the furniture industry. CES 2014 Wireless Charging

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month may prove to be the tipping point for wireless charging pads and other related devices. As the industry’s biggest trade gathering, there will again be dozens of them on display, while the numerous companies that make them duke it out on the show floor.

Related: Broadcom Announces Bluetooth Smart SoC with Wireless Charging Support for Growing Wearable Market

These days, there are three different standards for wireless charging, including the Power Matters Alliance (PMA)  the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which recently unveiled its Rezence™ consumer-facing brand. Each standards-setting body is backed by hundreds of consumer device and chip companies.

Industry-watchers see the groups coalescing around a single standard sometime next year.

Nothing takes off in a big way until it becomes an industry standard that guarantees interoperability of multiple products from different vendors,” Broadcom Co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Technical Officer Henry Samueli said in a recent Q&A interview. “We will see more and more wireless charging solutions come on the market as the standards crystallize in 2014.”

The end goal, Samueli said, is convergence around a single industry standard “so you can charge any phone on any charging plate.”

Wireless charging isn’t new — but the first generation of the technology, used by more than 40 different smartphones relies on “inductive technology” that has a lot of caveats. First, the placement of the charger and the device have to be aligned just right for it to work. In addition, the charger is device-specific, meaning that each phone needs its own charger, and only one device can be charged at a time.

But there’s a new generation of wireless charging — which Broadcom is backing — that’s expected to show up in products next year. “Resonant technology,” which is what’s being used by Rezence, allows a single charging pad to work with up to eight devices, each with its own set of power requirements. Alignment is much less important, so a device can be anywhere on or near the charging surface — and even have another surface between them.

Consider what that means for industries such as furniture manufacturers, who could presumably embed charging pads into a conference room table, or perhaps into a nightstand or end table. With the pad built in, users would only have to place their devices on the table for it to start charging.

“The furniture and automotive industries are very interested in this,” said Reinier Van Der Lee, director of product marketing, platforms, in the Mobile and Wireless Group at Broadcom. He noted that wireless charging stations could presumably start to show up in your car, and places like coffee shops, airports, hotels or restaurants.

And while smartphones are considered to be the central market drivers for wireless charging, the technology is flexible enough to deliver less than one watt of power all the way up to 30 watts. That means that new, up-and-coming devices – from small, low-power wearables such as smartwatches or fitness trackers, as well as established devices such as tablets and even some small notebooks – could all co-exist on wireless charging pads.

ABI Research projects more than 50 million wearable devices will ship in 2013 and 540 million in 2018, providing higher user engagement levels.

ABI also notes that Bluetooth® Smart technology, a low-power version of Bluetooth connectivity, will be a key enabler for ensuring optimum battery performance. Bluetooth Smart saves power by “remembering” connections, even when two devices are out of range.

From a technology perspective, Broadcom can tap into its extensive experience in power management for mobile devices to create an end-to-end offering.  The company has shipped more than 200 million power management chips for mobile phones that contain functions like battery charging, regulators that make the system work as efficiently as possible, and other critical features.

Broadcom’s wireless charging approach features a transmitter designed to support multiple receivers while also transferring power through non-metallic surfaces. Bluetooth — already present in almost all smartphones — provides clean, two-way communication between the charger pad and the receiving device to precisely track the status of every device, raise or lower voltage, note the percentage charged and determine how much power each device should get. It also provides a high-bandwidth channel to optionally deliver additional services.

Ensuring backward compatibility with induction chargers is a key feature, as well as design that make choice of specs invisible. The device and charger would automatically switch to the right mode, spec, and voltage without the user knowing it. Ideally, wireless chargers would work with any device, and vice versa, Van Der Lee said.

Broadcom is collaborating with other industry players to accelerate the adoption of wireless charging.

“Instead of going it alone, we got together with other companies to create usable specs for everyone to use,” he said. “The wider the spec is standardized, the more valuable it is to customers.”

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Special Correspondent Fredric Paul is an award-winning writer, editor and content strategist who has spent his career covering the intersection of technology, business, and culture. His writing has appeared… More