Apple’s future is pants

The release of Energous' wireless, at-a-distance charging solution makes it possible for tech firms such as Apple to imagine next-generation connected devices, including clothing.

Apple, wearables, iOS, Energous, Qi, wireless charging

Can you recall way back when people predicted Apple would introduce true wireless charging with tech from a firm called Energous? Such hopes seemed dashed when the company’s new iPhones launched with Qi wired wireless charging, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those plans have been shelved because …

Wireless wearables

Following recent FCC approval, Energous launched its first shipping wireless charging solution, WattUp, at CES. It also released its first WattUp-supported product, a range of smart underwear equipped with health and activity sensors from a company called Skiin.

Now, I’m not about to evangelize smart underwear on its own terms, but the notion that you can put intelligence in clothing that you never need to plug into a wall socket seems pretty important to me.

Think about it: You don’t want to need to recharge your smart coat, T-shirt, pants or shoes. You want to be able to grab those items from where they are and wear them, and this new charging technology makes this possible.

Smartphones are trucks

You see, while Qi charging systems are great for gadgets, which we don’t mind leaving on a mat somewhere, they aren't so great for wearables. And with smartphones inevitably heading to the “PC is a truck” argument in the sky, Energous’ WattUp is the future.

Just like wired headphones represent the past. It’s all about wireless. It’s all about smart everything, about existence within a computing ecosystem capable of doing whatever you need it to do through a combination of connected systems. It’s like someone blew the PC apart and put pieces of it in all the different elements that comprise your life. Ambient computing.

Except for the wires

Energous makes it possible for tech firms (like Apple) to begin to imagine next-generation connected devices, from watches to spectacles, phones to completely wireless connected televisions (how good would they look on the wall?) and, yes, even pants.

While I think Apple-branded underwear may be a rather niche product, I can see some future in truly connected street wear, particularly if Apple’s fashion designers, Jimmy Iovine and Apple Music can add a little cool factor. Think about it. Your coat is a phone with Animojii on your sleeve, and if you ever lose it, you’ll be able to track it thanks to Find my iPhone. It’s a flight of fancy, but this is the kind of possibility this new wireless charging solution opens up.

Background noise

Apple has reportedly been working together with longtime component supplier Dialog Semiconductor and others on the Wireless Power Consortium. Interestingly, the latter firm has a stake in Energous. Also rather interesting, Dialog has warned Apple may in future build its own proprietary power management chips. Perhaps that’s why Apple acquired PowerbyProxi. We’ll see how that pans out.

All the same, if speculation Apple has spent time working with Energous is true and that the two firms have some kind of long-term plan to this effect (as hinted here), then I guess we might see this tech introduced at some point.

Is this what delayed AirPower?

An Energous press release confirms the technology isn’t only about power at a distance:

“As the only technology that can do both contact-based and non-contact-based wireless charging, as well as charge multiple devices at once, WattUp is highly scalable and automatically charges devices, as needed, until they are topped off,” it states.

In other words, it’s possible to charge items up on the power mat, too. Could the wait for such approval be what delayed the launch of Apple’s AirPower?

More likely I think we may see it included in AirPower 2 when it ships perhaps next year along with the iPhone X2 (or whatever it ends up being called).

Meanwhile, Apple at its iPhone launch said enough to suggest it has its own ideas to improve wireless charging, and Qi is an open standard run by the Wireless Power Consortium.

It's also worth observing that Energous says its tech is manufacturer agnostic, though I guess the device will need to support it. That's good news for Dialog, which is the “worldwide exclusive supplier of Energous WattUp technology.”

Further out, while the company has gained FCC clearance for Near Field (charging pad) and Mid Field (at distances of 3 feet), it hasn’t yet completed work on Far Field tech.

The latter promises to support recharging of devices at up to 15-foot distances, and I think is probably the kind of solution we need before wireless smart clothing really becomes convenient enough for mass market use. (I don’t think people will enjoy needing to plug in their coat or leave it on a mat. We don’t treat coats that way.)

Fashion statements

The same logic doesn’t apply to devices. We’re used to plugging these in and the luxury of being able to leave them in a specific part of the room still feels like freedom.

Meanwhile, I guess we need to look to the weaves and materials used in Apple Watch straps to get some idea of the kind of textiles the company may use in its future smart clothing lines.

After all, who else recalls when Jony Ive's chum and colleague, Marc Newson, told the Evening Standard in 2015:

“We will start to see more technology embedded in garments … magic woven in. There are some incredible things that are going to happen.”

Truly wireless power seems essential to such a vision. As was, and is, Apple Watch.


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Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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