Everything else is going wireless--phones, Internet, television, e-mail and music sharing. Now add power to the list.
At the Consumer Electronics Show next week, two companies--Arizona-based start-up WildCharge and Michigan-based Fulton Innovation--will demonstrate what are expected to be very different ways to give gadgets juice, sans wires.
"The social aspect of being able to have one adapter that powers all those devices is much more environmentally friendly and universally friendly to the consumer."
--David Baarman, lead inventor of eCoupled
The concept isn't new, and some of the same challenges--such as cost and size--that have prevented the technology from winning over manufacturers still remain. But executives at the companies, who won't say how much their recharging devices will cost, hope the sheer amount of mobile gadgets today could portend a different outcome.
WildCharge's product, called the WildCharger, can recharge a variety of handheld gadgets at once--mobile phones, MP3 players, digital cameras--or a laptop by placing them on a metallic pad. WildCharge execs refused to describe in detail how their product works before CES, but it's a streamlined version of the product a company called MobileWise attempted to market several years ago, according to WildCharge president Izhar Matzkevich.
People familiar with wireless recharging technology say it could work by placing a device, fitted internally or externally with an adapter, onto the metal pad. When contact is made, electrical power is sent between the two.
At CES, WildCharge will debut a 90-watt device. Smart phones and MP3 players need 3 to 5 watts, while smaller laptops need 50 to 75 watts of power. While the 0.1-inch thick and 6x15-inch pad still has to be plugged into a power source, the advantage is its universal adaptability, eliminating the need to pack three different power cords for three different products.
Fulton Innovation's vision is similar, but the technology is different. Fulton calls its technology eCoupled, and has signed up Motorola, Mobility Electronics, Visteon and others to back it as a wireless power standard.
Devices that are eCoupled-enabled transfer energy through the air over short distances to handheld consumer electronics gadgets one at a time, using what's called adaptive inductive coupling. A wireless adapter senses how much power a specific device's battery needs and adjusts its frequency and how much power is being sent to the device. The technology is a good fit for universal power because it can work with any type of battery, said David Baarman, director of advanced technologies at Fulton and lead inventor of eCoupled.
The process creates an electromagnetic field, but does not interfere with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices and won't demagnetize credit cards, Baarman said.
"When the device is present, (the field) is on. When it's not, it turns off." As a result, "it's radiating a tiny bit; in most cases, it's less than what a typical CE product already is (radiating)."
A car cup holder that recharges devices
Visteon, a Fulton partner and maker of high-end automotive products, will debut a consumer version of an eCoupled product at CES, a car cup holder that recharges devices set inside it using eCoupled's induction process. The cup holder needs only to be plugged into the car's 12-volt outlet.
The idea, said T.C. Wingrove, Visteon's senior manager of innovation, is to have a "hot spot" in the car where you set down your phone or iPod and never have to worry about different types of power cords or outlets.
The first version of the product will be available this summer, said Wingrove, and will require gadgets that need recharging to sport a wireless adapter, similar to a Bluetooth dongle used for mobile phones. But the next step is a battery pack for phones, one with a profile similar to a phone, that would integrate easily with each phone's wireless circuitry. The ideal application, though, would be to have gadget makers integrate the adapters into each device and to have car makers integrate cup holders or other wireless power products into cars themselves, which Wingrove said to expect in late 2008.
WildCharge and Fulton will have initial devices sold aftermarket beginning this summer; for both, however, that's also just the first scratch on the surface. They have similar visions of entire ecosystems of wireless power.
If consumers embrace the technology, both companies hope that public and private spaces--hotel rooms, kitchen countertops, airports, coffee shops and cars--will one day be outfitted with pads or hot spots that would supply power for a host of mobile devices.
"The (long-term) strategy is if I buy (a laptop) battery, I can charge my laptop just by setting it down on my desk," said Fulton's Baarman.
"For it to be effective, it needs to be built into portable electronics, and so far, no major manufacturers have agreed to do that."
--Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group
WildCharge and Fulton are banking on consumers' frustration with spending more money on a new adapter every time a new device is purchased.
"People are sick of buying a new adapter every time they buy a new electronics device. How many adapters do you throw away when you get a new phone?" said Baarman. "The social aspect of being able to have one adapter that powers all those devices is much more environmentally friendly and universally friendly to the consumer."
Of course, CES attendees have heard this before. At CES 2003, U.K.-based Splashpower showed off its wireless power product, a pad also using magnetic induction, but the company has yet to deliver the product to market.
Wireless power didn't exactly electrify the industry back then, so why do these companies think the second go-round will be different?
For one, the costs are considerably lower now, according to WildCharge's Matzkevich, who used to be MobileWise's vice president of marketing. WildCharge can make each pad for 66 cents per square foot, "a fraction" of what MobileWise could.
"There are a lot of challenges to do something like this mainly because the added cost to the building materials for this sort of technology is pretty high," said Richard Shim, an analyst for IDC. "When we're talking about adding it to low-margin products, it becomes a question of, 'Is this even feasible?'"
But backers say there's a demand for wireless capability today that has never existed before. "There's also increased awareness now, and excitement about everything else going wireless," Matzkevich said. "The only thing not wireless is power."
It's actually a chicken-and-egg issue, said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group. "For it to be effective, it needs to be built into portable electronics, and so far, no major manufacturers have agreed to do that," he said.
At least not specifically. Motorola is an eCoupled partner, though the company is refusing to say what the extent of its involvement will be. Supporters of eCoupled insist there's going to be a solid network in place very soon.
"In previous implementations, that ecosystem wasn't in place," said Wingrove of Visteon. With Motorola, Mobility and others on board, "we're poised to release things that are compatible with one another at the same time."
Whether the second time's a charm is a difficult question, Shim said, but he agreed companies are "smart" to consider this market.
"With notebook adoption growing and with more mobile computing devices becoming an integrated part of people's lifestyles, there's certainly an opportunity."