Starbucks, IKEA, Samsung: Is 2015 the year of wireless charging technology?

A three-way standards battle in the wireless charging space often gets blamed for holding the industry back from what charging experts expect to be a thriving space.

But some major developments this year--including the merger of two of the standards organizations--are causing some industry experts to declare 2015 as The Year for Wireless Charging.

Momentum started last year, when Starbucks announced it would roll out Powermat wireless charging first in the San Francisco Bay Area and then on a national scale. Then, at the CES Show in January, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich used his keynote to highlight new wireless charging collaborations, including with Jaguar Land Rover. Then at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, Samsung revealed its flagship Galaxy S6 would include two embedded wireless charging technologies, setting the bar for other smartphone makers. Around the same time, furniture maker IKEA said it would include Qi (pronounced: chee) wireless charging in tables and other furniture products.

So now, today, the world's biggest coffee company, a famous Swedish discount furniture supplier and a leading smartphone producer are all supporting wireless charging in some form or another. "Now it's no longer an educated guess: It's a fact that 2015 is the year of wireless power," said Jacob Babcock, CEO of NuCurrent, a Chicago-based startup focusing on the space.

Differing standards, technologies
Of course, there's a catch or two. IKEA is using one wireless charging technology, and Starbucks is using another. So consumers using wireless charging at home may not be able to do so at a local Starbucks.

The Powermat standard, which is the one backed by the Power Matters Association (PMA), uses an inductive coil technology and isn't compatible with charging pads using the Qi standard promoted by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). The Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) is merging with the PMA and supports magnetic resonance technology, allowing devices placed within an inductor ring to be charged without having to perfectly line up with the coil. The PMA and A4WP say their combination will provide interoperability and stability to suppliers and supporters, eliminating much of the confusion that reigned in years past.

"Every year I can remember has been 'the year of wireless charging,' and then the next year, too," said Avi Greengart, research director of consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis. "The big catalyst this year is not IKEA or Starbucks, but Samsung."

galaxy s6 charging

Galaxy S6

By including both PMA and Qi wireless technologies standards in its flagship Galaxy S6 smartphone, Samsung is creating an installed base of thin, attractive devices that can be charged without plugging in a cable, Greengart said. "However, many Galaxy S6 customers are likely unaware of this feature as Samsung did not include a wireless charging pad in the box. Now, if Apple adopted wireless charging, it would have both the installed base and the clout to educate consumers that the feature is a must-have."

Naturally, Apple is the wild card. The Apple Watch has a form of tightly coupled magnetic induction in it, but it still requires a power cord. Some observers speculate Apple may be waiting on the sidelines to see which charging technology surfaces as the dominant one.

The case for multi-standard chips
Because retailers, coffee companies, automobile manufacturers and furniture suppliers all want a solution that will work for the greatest number of people, wouldn't it be nice to combine all of the dominant standards into one chipset? That's what chip makers Broadcom, MediaTek and NXP are talking about with their new multi-standard offerings.

Last year, Broadcom announced it was offering a "complete wireless charging package" when it unveiled its multi-standard smartphone power management unit (PMU). Its BCM59350 wireless charging PMU enables automatic selection among specifications from all three leading organizations: the A4WP, PMA and WPC.

David Recker, senior director of product marketing in the wireless connectivity/mobility group at Broadcom, told FierceWirelessTech that in general, he and his team expect to see continued rollout of the current inductive coil technology in 2015.

"In 2016, we expect products to start shipping with resonant technology," he said. "Having a chip that supports all three standards puts Broadcom in a favorable position for this next wave of wireless charging innovation." 

NuCurrent's Babcock said his company works with channel partners like Broadcom, NXP and MediaTek, pairing NuCurrent's antennas, which work with all three standards, with their chips.

This year, the startup might double its staff, ramping up to about 15 employees. "Now we're in a position where we have a lot more interest from a lot of companies because everyone wants to do wireless power now, and we need the staff and the talent and the right type of talent" to deliver its technology into the hands of its customers, he said.

While rivals Broadcom and Qualcomm are often at odds, they both are members of the A4WP and point out the benefits of a technology that doesn't require strict alignment of a device to the charging mechanism.

"Right now, I think from a magnetic resonance perspective, from an A4WP, Alliance 4 Wireless Power perspective, we're seeing some tremendous momentum," said Mark Hunsicker, senior director of product management at Qualcomm.

While it's up to member companies to speak for themselves, Hunsicker said his team feels the increased interest in wireless charging is due mainly to the user experience.

"That spot charging, that one-to-one charging experience that has been in the marketplace has not really met the needs, and the needs are being able to do different types of devices," as well as charging devices simultaneously and being able to charge through a surface, he said. With A4WP's magnetic resonance approach, "we can charge through the table, and so we've got within Qualcomm, reference designs for tablets, smartphones, where we can actually show charging through tables, charging through surfaces," he said.

Qualcomm's flagship chipset Snapdragon 810 natively supports wireless power. "We've got reference designs that can demonstrate a tablet and a smartphone with embedded wireless power in them, so really, all the barriers that have existed have really been broken down," Hunsicker said. "Now it's up to individual OEMs to develop their products."

The heat effect, and other technological challenges
The frequency at which A4WP technology works is harmonized throughout the world for wireless power transfer; it's the Industrial and Scientific and Medical (ISM) band. In addition, the frequency is friendlier when it comes to heating. There's a lot of metal in a phone or tablet, and lower frequencies will heat up metal objects to a much greater extent than what is seen at 6.87 megahertz, Qualcomm's Hunsicker said.

"Bottom line is, when you look at coins and keys and paper clips and those types of things, and you think about having a wireless power transfer system built into your desktop or into your counter top or end table, you're going to want a friendly frequency so that if you have a pen or paper clip or coins, you can still charge your targeted device," he said.

One of the advantages of A4WP is it uses a large area for the magnetic field, and it allows a single power transmitter to charge multiple devices at one time. "Our position at Qualcomm is it's a transitory situation, and that as the magnetic resonance solutions are provided to the marketplace and consumers see the benefits, we believe long-term, that will ultimately be the preferred technology. But in the short term, we can certainly do dual mode," Hunsicker said.

What about combining all three? "Absolutely," it's possible, he said. Again, however, "we would see that solely from a transition perspective, because our belief is once consumers see the ability to charge over an area and just put their phone down, to do their smart watch on the same platform, charge a tablet on that platform, we believe these are key benefits."

As for NuCurrent, the company said it has developed a way to make wireless charging systems more efficient. It's not a big deal for a little toothbrush with wireless charging to lose power and get a little hot. But when you're charging a phone or a tablet, that's another story.

"We're able to keep the recharging system cool enough because of our high-efficiency antennas and that allows phones to maintain full charging speeds," Babcock said.

Babcock uses a water analogy to explain its technology. At low frequency, where most charging takes place, "it's like pumping 100 gallons of water through a fire hose," he said. "It's very easy to do, but at high frequencies, you get these high-frequency effects, like skin effect and proximity effect," which is like trying to push 100 gallons of water through a drinking straw. In electronics, that equates to a lot of wasted energy turned into heat.

"We've solved the problem of skin effect and proximity effect by creating what we call an MLMT," which stands for multi-layer, multi-turn antenna, Babcock said. "It allows us to operate at high frequencies without suffering the effects of skin effect and proximity effect." To go back to the water analogy, "it would be like bundling together 100 drinking straws," enabling a lot of water to get pushed through without losing a lot of it to heat.

Ikea supports wireless charging in some of its furniture.

Need for speed
Of course, furniture vendors that needed to make a decision last year about this year's products couldn't wait. While A4WP didn't meet IKEA's time-to-market requirements last year, Qualcomm's Hunsicker says those gaps are now closed, and there are no limitations for someone adopting A4WP today "because we're got all that infrastructure taken care of."

In a statement to FierceWirelessTech, Sweden's IKEA spokesperson Björn Block said the company chose Qi because it is a leading global standard for wireless charging and it "best lives up to our high demands on quality. Qi is the most used standard among already launched devices on the market. It is also a wireless standard that many people are familiar with as it can be found in many electrical toothbrushes and induction hobs. IKEA can now offer qualitative home furnishing products with Qi certified charging at affordable prices."

The furniture company also said that any Qi-embedded phone will automatically charge once it's placed on an IKEA wireless charging product. "For phones that are not Qi compatible, we will offer charging covers," he said.

Asked if IKEA is interested in a technology that would combine all three main wireless charging standards into one, the company was non-committal. "When developing new solutions to make life at home more convenient, we listen to what the customer needs are," IKEA's Block said. "When it comes to our wireless charging products we use new but available technology that is relevant for the home today and we will continue to listen to the market and the customer to create relevant solutions for the future."

On its website, IKEA says consumers can now charge their phones while taking a nap or getting charged up themselves on caffeine because the chargers are built into night stands and coffee tables. And, of course, the furniture designers promise: Easy assembly.

Starbucks, IKEA, Samsung: Is 2015 the year of wireless charging technology?