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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wireless Charging in 2019

Things aren't looking so good for wireless charging in 2019. There have been a few announcements in the last few weeks that have not been positive for the industry as a whole. Let's start with the big one:

Apple and AirPower
After over a year of delay since the announcement, Apple finally cancelled AirPower, their multi-device charging pad, based on Qi. This pad was supposed to be able to charge your iPhone, Apple watch, and Airpods all at one time, just dropping them onto the pad. Qi uses inductive charging to transfer power over no more than a few centimeters, though in practice it needs to be in contact.

Apple's statement from a Senior VP of Hardware Engineering:

“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward,”

Qi had some limitations - the charged device needed positioned carefully to ensure good charging, was only one device at a time, regularly managed only a couple of Watts charging, and had something of a transmitter/receiver interoperability nightmare - much of the variability happening due to individual device or imperfect positioning. AirPower was supposed to use Apple's technology and market power to overcome all of those and make it simple, easy, effective. While Qi had some limitations from the initial design, it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that someone with the pockets and infrastructure to force the market in one direction could make it good enough (even if not perfect). 

There must have been tremendous pressure within the company to make this work, having made a major public announcement. Apple even spent over $100 million to buy PowerbyProxi, who had claimed to have solved all these issues. Apparently not, and it would be interesting to see if PbP could actually do what they claimed when bought. It's likely heads will roll over something like this, it's a major screw up and not something to be taken lightly.

Reportedly, the issue was heating - not enough power getting to the devices, for too much heat in the pad. Those inefficiencies come back to bite you, even if you are willing to pay the $ cost of it. What were the likely tradeoffs? Likely adding many small transmit coils to be able to work with any placements of receivers, while determining it's a genuine receiver and not a piece of metal, while limiting crosstalk between coils, without exceeding FCC limits for safety, while making it a simple seamless user experience.

I actually thought Apple would pull it off, after all if anyone is going to it would be them, and other arms of Apple thought so too, with images of AirPower showing up in the documentation for the recently released new AirPods. Perhaps it mostly worked but that's not good enough for Apple, or that there were still some placement issues, or that there was a small chance of something overheating which when you sell 100 million+ a year becomes an inevitability. I was confident enough they'd release it that I even made some statements about it in a recent interview, so of course they then immediately made me look like an idiot. :)

So even with the resources of the largest company in the world, multiple years, working from a known standard, and at zero distance, wireless power beyond the most rudimentary we already have can't currently be made to work satisfactorily for consumers. What does this say about the Energous, Ossia, and uBeam's of the world who want to charge as many devices, at the same charge rate, with new technology at multiple meters? For $100 million, Apple could easily buy one of them to replace AirPower (in face, Energous share price spiked slightly as delusional fanboys claimed this was an opportunity - the same fanboys that likely claimed AirPower had Energous in it when announced...) - yet they don't.

What does this mean for wireless charging moving forward? I'd say don't expect any changes soon, but perhaps Apple have learned enough that a future product will be good enough - but no matter what, nothing will ever be as fast, efficient, safe, and low cost as a wire. 

Pi Charging is now Spansive
About 18 months ago I wrote an article on Pi Charging, which used Qi but tried to 'shape' the fields to extend the charging range into the 10s of centimeters, and would work from a cone shaped object that would sit on a bench or table. It seemed ambitious, but not ridiculously so that it wasn't achievable - range was not excessive, charge rates normal for Qi, so I was fairly optimistic they'd get somewhere with it. As recently as 6 months ago they were still promoting it, but it seems the company has now undergone some changes and has rebranded as "Spansive".

According to the CEO, the user testing did found that the cone took up too much desktop space, and that the users did not want a custom case but rather just want to use "brand name cases". Now this seems odd, as in the original article it seemed that they were using the built in Qi capability, and in fact that's one reason I thought it would be a success, as it operated with existing infrastructure. Interestingly, this data says to me that wireless charging is of so little utility to consumers that they won't swap a case or put an Alexa sized hub on their desk. The co-founder then goes on to say:

“Qi is just not designed, even philosophically if you talk to people at the Qi standard, it’s not focused on one foot, two feet of range.” says MacDonald. “It’s really focused on surfaces and areas rather than volumes.”

This is odd, as it's no surprise what the Qi standard was when the company raised its $14m Series A. Next they say they'll be working with partners to licence its "volumetric" tech in specific products, with the usual "wireless headphones" listed. Mentioning licensing without specifics is usually code for "we've got nothing" so I'm not holding my breath here.

In the blog post, the co-founder talks of essentially a flat plate or container where you can place multiple phones and not worry about orientation, and is Qi compatible (despite the noting of its limits). So... AirPower? Constraining their "volumetric" technology to a plane? Who knows, but there was plenty of waffling and marketing speak to get me concerned - when you say "It will ship imminently" without giving a date, it makes me laugh. Let's see what they do in the next few months.

After AirPower, seems I'm now 0 for 2 in predicting wireless charging product launches...

Next I'll try to write on Energous, they continue their downward share price trajectory, have yet to have a commercial product available, and may have even struggled to complete their share offer which, if true, puts them in a position of running out of money in the next few weeks.