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Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Watertown startup could lead revolution in wireless charging

Starbucks has already deployed these wireless charging “mats” at a number of Boston-area stores.Handout

For many families, the holidays brought an influx of amazing electronic gifts — and the charging cables, power adapters, and batteries required to keep them juiced up.

If you were among these families, the most compelling vision laid out at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a world with fewer tangles, fewer drugstore runs to replace batteries, and fewer squabbles about who unplugged Mommy’s iPhone to “borrow” the cable.

We’re witnessing the start of the wireless charging revolution, and one of the key companies fomenting it is a Watertown startup called WiTricity Corp. The company has partnerships with key allies like Intel Corp., whose chief executive Tuesday announced pilot tests of wireless charging with hotel chains Marriott and Hilton and the luxury carmaker Jaguar Land Rover.

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The goal: Just as Wi-Fi cut the cord between computers and modems, wireless charging will eliminate cables that tie phones, tablets, and wearables to wall plugs.

You might already have a toothbrush or electric shaver that sits on a cradle and uses inductive charging — a circuit in the cradle creates an electromagnetic field that transfers energy to a circuit in the tool to charge the battery. Companies such as Duracell have introduced charging pads that can do the same thing for a mobile phone outfitted with a special case. But you need close contact between the pad and phone.

WiTricity’s breakthrough — originally demonstrated at MIT in 2007 — was figuring out how to get the circuit in a charging pad to send energy over longer distances. While not all of the electricity sent is captured by the receiving circuit, WiTricity can lob it over a distance of several meters — far enough to have a pad on your garage floor recharge an electric car’s battery.

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WiTricity has raised about $45 million from investors (including Intel), but you can’t buy anything made by the company today — except for a $995 demonstration kit geared to educators and entrepreneurs who want to tinker with wireless power.

So to experience the future, I spent $26.40 on Amazon to buy a postcard-sized Duracell Powermat, and a case that would fit my iPhone 5. (I couldn’t find either product at a local retailer, which says something about how nascent this revolution is.) The case added a little weight and about a half-inch of length to my iPhone, but when I laid it down on the right spot on the Duracell Powermat, I heard a cheerful chime and the phone started charging.

Where else could I use this magical new case? A Powermat app directed me to a McDonald’s in New York, a mere 181 miles away. But I remembered writing a blog entry in 2012 that Boston was the first city in which Starbucks deployed Powermat charging technology. The Starbucks website listed 14 locations around town.

When I went to one in Brighton, I found seven circular charging spots embedded in a wood countertop along the shop’s front window. None was being used, so I tried two different spots; both worked fine.

The Powermat I bought has space for two phones. When I went to look for a device that would allow my wife’s Samsung Galaxy to use that extra real estate, I ran into a reality check: a $26 case for the Samsung uses a different wireless charging standard called Qi (pronounced “chi”).

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Just as consumers had to choose between Betamax and VHS in the 1970s, and later Blu-ray and HD-DVD, today there are two competing technologies in the world of wireless charging. Companies like LG, Microsoft, and IKEA have signed up with an industry group called the Wireless Power Consortium, which promotes the Qi standard.

The other side of the battle is a new industry group formed last week by a merger; it has not yet announced a name. Its supporters include AT&T, WiTricity, Starbucks, and Intel. Apple has not aligned itself with either of these opposing armies, Qi or the Alliance to be Named Later.

These standards skirmishes tend to delay the rollout of new technologies because many consumers wait to see who will win before committing themselves to buying anything.

“Markets don’t develop well when you have confusion over standards,” professor Michael Cusumano of MIT’s Sloan School of Management says. And, he adds, the first one to hit the market doesn’t always win.

Consumers will make decisions based on such factors as how much wireless charging adds to the cost of a device; transmission distance; which charging pads they see in cafés and airports; and how well- promoted a wireless charging standard is. By that last measure, Qi is off to a better start.

John Perzow, a vice president at the Wireless Power Consortium, says there are already more than 600 products that comply with the Qi standard, while acknowledging that only a small percentage of consumers knows what wireless charging is — even if they own a phone that has it built in. Consumer adoption will take off, he says, “when you can charge a device at your bedside and take it into your car, then from the car to your office desk, and into the conference room.”

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A few Christmases ago, WiTricity produced a small run of prototype iPhone cases and charging pads and gave them to employees as gifts. Their office now has electrical Wi-Fi — WiTri? — in conference rooms and under most desks. They’ve entered the future, when hunting for cables is no longer a part of daily life.

Everyone else, though, might need to wait until Christmas 2015 . . . or 2016 . . .


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.