NEW YORK — Imagine never again having that frantic feeling that your smartphone battery is about to die. Amazingly, charging your phone may soon be a thing of the past: Technology companies are developing a way for your gadgets to power up while they’re sitting in your pocket.
By converting radio waves into battery-replenishing power, smartphones equipped with special receivers can literally pull energy right out of the air.
It’s not far-off in the future stuff — the technology is making its way to the real world in a matter of months.
Companies like Energous, Nikola Labs and a small handful of others have different ways to accomplish that, but their technology essentially works like this: Special antennas focus cellular and Wi-Fi signals into a pocket of low-powered energy around the back of your phone. A receiver on your phone then converts that radio energy into DC power that can charge the battery.
Wireless charging technology has existed for years in the form of power mats, pads and even Ikea furniture. But you need to keep your phone on the pad in order to charge it, making it only slightly more convenient and aesthetically pleasing than plugging it into the wall.
Long-distance wireless charging was long thought to be too dangerous. Walk between your phone and the charger, and you were likely to get zapped.
But by harnessing the energy that is already being sent to and from your phone — radio signals — you can charge your phone at a distance without worrying about being fried in the process.
Energous plans on releasing wireless chargers and phone cases in late 2016 that will let you charge your phone at a distance of up to 20 feet. The company demonstrated the technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, winning two “Best in Show” awards and three other honors.
At a distance of up to five feet, the company’s transmitters charge phones at the same speed as a wall charger. Up to 10 feet, the speed is reduced to USB-charging levels. And up to 20 feet, your battery will charge at a rate of about 1% per minute.
But what makes Energous particularly compelling is that it claims to have signed a commitment with a “top tier” tech company that will build the wireless receivers right into the gadgets themselves (no case needed). Energous says that its nondisclosure agreement prevents it from naming the company, but CEO Stephen Rizzone told CNNMoney that the commitment is for “millions of devices,” and “it’s highly likely that you own some of this company’s products.” Hmmm….
Nikola Labs, which stole the show at TechCrunch Disrupt this year with its battery-extending smartphone case, uses somewhat different technology to apply a similar concept. Unlike Energous, which requires a special transmitter to send energy to your phone, Nikola Labs’ smartphone cases harness and recycle the unused energy your phone creates by searching for cell towers and Wi-Fi routers.
With normal use, the Nikola Labs cases don’t actually charge up your phone — they help extend your battery life by about a third. But get close enough to a Wi-Fi router, and your phone will start charging similar to the way that Energous’ transmitters operate.
Nikola Labs’ cases will ship later this year, but early adopters can get their hands on it by backing a Kickstarter campaign.
In the early days of wireless charging technology, you’ll still have to plug in on occasion: Your Energous transmitter will be limited to a single room in your home, and your Nikola Labs case usually won’t charge up your battery.
But one day soon, transmitters could be deployed in Wi-Fi routers themselves and receivers could be universally built into devices.
Universal wireless charging wouldn’t only impact phones. Imagine toys with “batteries not required” labels. And the impact universal wireless charging could have on the wearables market could be game-changing.
The Apple Watch and other wearable devices typically only get 10 or so hours of battery life — a puny amount for something that you’re supposed to wear all day long. If they could charge while you’re wearing them, you’d be able to treat your fitness band or smartwatch just like a regular wristwatch.
The best part: It’s not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It’s coming soon.