Tech Insights

The Year of Wireless Power

November 01, 2015 by Graham Robertson

Major milestones in wireless power have been few and far between. The first came in 1831, when Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction and

Major milestones in wireless power have been few and far between. The first came in 1831, when Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction and another in the late 1800s, when Nikola Tesla began conducting tests transmitting power by inductive and capacitive coupling. 

Then, nothing. For the entire 20th Century.

Well over 100 years since Tesla first lit electric lamps wirelessly outside his New York laboratories, wireless power has finally made it into the consumer market, with store shelves making room for electronic products that can charge without the need for cords or cables. In fact, early this year, analysts deemed 2015 the Year of Wireless Power.

And in many ways, it has been. This nascent feature has been integrated into category-leading products such as smartphones by Samsung, LG and others, and wearables like the Apple Watch. The wireless charging capability has also been integrated into less obvious products, like with transmitters implanted in IKEA furniture and lamps as well as a Samsung monitor. And why not? Wireless charging brings distinct advantages. It’s more convenient than having to constantly plug in a cable, and it eliminates the hassle and expense of replacing worn cables. And, we can all agree, it’s just cool.

So given the obvious advantages of wireless power, why isn’t virtually every new electronic product featuring this popular capability? Why hasn’t adoption come faster, broader, deeper?

Up to this point, wireless power (primarily magnetic induction at this point, though magnetic resonance isn’t too far behind) has largely fallen into the domain of “Tier 1” companies—the internationally recognized brands like those mentioned above. There’s a simple explanation for this: Transmitting and receiving power without the benefit of wires is a tricky business. It requires engineering expertise that many companies simply don’t have in-house because they never needed it. And the semiconductor companies that possess this expertise and experience—IDT and a handful of competitors—have been devoting our resources to support the Tier 1 high-volume customers with their custom designs.

To be certain, we’ve had inquiries and interest from a wide variety of companies with an even wider range of applications. We’ve had to say no, sorry, can’t help you with that. Until now.

In August, IDT introduced 5 W wireless power kits for the mass market. We’ve democratized wireless power by developing pre-configured transmitter and receiver boards that engineers can implement into existing designs within hours to create a working prototype. This plug-and-play ease of use has dramatically reduced barriers to entry; engineering teams no longer require in-house expertise in wireless power because most of the heavy lifting has already been done by IDT.

In addition to the hardware, there is a vast array of support material--instructional videos, user manuals, foreign object detection (FOD) tuning guides, layout guides, layout instantiation modules, schematics, bill-of-materials (BOM), Gerber files, and more.

Of course, when the idea for these kits was first hatched and adopted in April, we thought we were onto something good. But we didn’t know for sure until two months later, when Fed Ex delivered the first boards to our headquarters. We opened the boxes and gave a kit to one of our engineers, asking him to see what he could do with it. About 3 and a half hours later, he’d turned a set of headphones that charged through metal prongs in a cradle into a set of headphones that charged through magnetic induction. In less than a half day’s work, he’d created a working prototype.

So why would a headphone maker want to change from prongs in a cradle to magnetic induction? Turns out that the most common product failure for this product is the charging system—the prongs would get corroded or otherwise degraded. And there are other practical concerns that move wireless charging beyond the “cool” and “less hassle” factors. Consider kitchen appliances. It’s no secret that water and electricity don’t play well together. Wireless charging through magnetic induction enables a closed, waterproof system, ideal for kitchens, bathrooms and marine environments.

We’re not the only ones who saw the potential for change these could bring. David Green, research manager, Power Supplies & Wireless Power at IHS, wrote: “Integrating wireless power capabilities into existing electronics is a complex process, and one of the factors that has unquestionably slowed its adoption throughout the electronics industry. This approach of providing self-contained, ready-to-go wireless charging kits has the potential to change the landscape for those not yet equipped.”

And early indicators suggest the landscape will be changing soon. Since launch, we’ve had inquiries, orders and even design-ins from a remarkably broad set of companies representing, among others, the entertainment, travel and marine industries. Our Web site has received visitors from all corners of the globe seeking information about this new approach. With all these companies having first-time access to these new magnetic induction capabilities, it appears the Year of Wireless Power will extend well into 2016 and beyond.