Wireless power group sees standard within 6 months

The group developing a standard for wireless charging expects to complete its first specification within six months, opening the door for makers of cell phones, digital cameras and other devices to bring compatible products to market.

Wireless charging lets consumers place gadgets on a mat that plugs into a wall outlet, and have the devices recharge automatically without needing to plug in each one. Apart from the gee-whiz factor, it's supposed to make life more convenient by letting people walk into their home or office, toss their gadgets onto a mat to recharge and forget about them.

There are still questions about when standardized products will come to market and how they'll be received, but the Wireless Power Consortium aims to finish its first standard before the middle of the year, said Menno Treffers, a Philips executive who is chairman of the consortium. If it's not ready by then, "I will eat my hat," he told a group of vendors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Friday.

The consortium has 27 members including Nokia, Research In Motion, Philips, Sanyo, Samsung Electronics, Energizer and Hewlett-Packard, as well as component and wireless-power technology companies such as Texas Instruments and Fulton Innovation.

The standard is for a technology called magnetic induction, in which power is transferred between metal coils built into the device and the charging mat when they are placed close to each other. The standard is for delivering up to 5 watts of power, which covers most smaller devices. A further standard will be needed for laptops and larger products. "We want to start on that as soon as possible, but for now we don't want to dilute our engineering efforts," Treffers said.

Consumers will know which products are compliant because they'll carry the consortium's "Qi" logo (pronounced "chee" after the Chinese for life force). Initial products are likely to come bundled with a small charging mat of their own, but if the technology takes off other companies are likely to sell mats that can charge multiple devices at once.

Several wireless power products are already in the market, including a Nintendo accessory from Energizer for recharging Wii game controllers, a Dell Latitude Z business laptop that can be recharged by placing it on a stand, and products from Powermat for charging phones and other devices. Bosch has shown power tools that are recharged by laying them on a workshelf.

But a standard is seen as important to wider adoption because it ensures that devices will interoperate. Until it arrives, some vendors won't release any further products. "We're done for now until the standard is complete," said Serge Traylor, brand manager for charging and rechargeable systems with Energizer. When the standard is done, Energizer will release a mat for charging as many as two devices, for about $100, and charging sleeves for iPhone and Blackberry devices, for $30 to $40, he said.

The standardization effort faces several challenges, though. Powermat, one of the leading wireless power companies, has not joined the consortium and is selling products using its own technology, which Treffers acknowledged could create confusion in the market.

Some of the most popular gadget makers also are not on board, including Apple. "I have not heard from them," Treffers said.

He admitted also that the public may have concerns about safety, although vendors insist any concerns are unfounded, and there have been no big problems reported with products on the market. The consortium hopes regulators will classify the products as "home appliances" and vouch for their safety.

The consortium also needs to establish testing bodies to certify products as standards-compliant, and it's not prepared to say yet when the first qualifying products will appear.

Companies seem keen to get products out quickly, however. Those selling charging units today say they charge as quickly as plugging devices into a wall outlet. There is some loss in the system, however, and the technology being standardized is only about 70 percent efficient, Treffers said, meaning it is not a particularly green way to charge devices.

"We're not selling this as a solution to global warming," he said, "it will appeal to consumers because it is magical." The standard will conform to regulatory requirements for efficiency, however, and the group will try to get it approved under Energy Star guidelines. He added that manufacturers can make their products more energy-efficient with additional technology investments.

Charging mats will recognize when a device is fully charged and then consume a trickle of energy in standby mode, Treffers said. "We have demonstrated standby power in the micro-watt range," he said, displaying a slide that showed standby consumption of 0.0001 watts. The coils can be made small enough to fit inside a Bluetooth headset.

Treffers was involved in the standards-setting process for Blu-ray, which took several years to complete. He said he learned lessons from that experience and is determined the wireless power effort will go more smoothly.

"If we get the standard done, that will give [wireless power] the most market appeal," he said. "Otherwise it will be something that's nice for geeks and users with specialized needs."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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