Blog: Sometimes Cool Stuff Doesn’t Pan Out

Article By : Rebecca Day

A few years ago, I visited homes of the future and what intrigued me most…

A fun perk of being a tech writer is the peeks you get into the future. We see some wild and wacky stuff. Sometimes it’ll pan out, sometimes not.

When I worked for an audio magazine back when, a colleague returned from a trip to Japan where his host company spoke excitedly about coming technology that would render the CD obsolete. An entire music collection would be stored on credit card size media, he reported to an awed audience on his return.

I wonder if that engineer could have envisioned one day owning no media at all — and instead grabbing mix-and-match playlists from a server stored in another time zone and renting your music for $14.99 a month. Then listening to it on a phone.

AirPower didn't pan out
Apple’s proposed AirPower recharger never reached the market (source: Apple).

A few years ago I visited homes of the future — at Panasonic’s home base in Osaka and LG’s headquarters in Seoul — and one of the concepts that intrigued me most was the charging table. Charging surfaces are standard in the utopian home of tomorrow: You come home at the end of the day and place your phone on a surface whose sole purpose is to keep your devices juiced. You don’t have to hunt for an available outlet or worry about finding an adapter. There was room to charge everyone’s phone — and presumably future devices like AirPods and smartwatches.

The wireless charging surface holds a lot of appeal to me because one of my biggest tech peeves is running out of power. Some people keep their fuel tanks full for fear of running out of gas in a remote location. I fear the red zone on my phone’s battery indicator: I can’t lose power as the St. Louis Blues head into overtime during the Stanley Cup playoffs, or while I’m on hold with the vet’s office waiting for important results.

Years after those trips to Asia we still don’t have those convenient charging surfaces. We can listen to Billie Eilish  or watch a wacky kitten video on a crosstown bus, but not if we forgot to plug in the phone charger the night before. Technical and regulatory obstacles have stood in the way.

The farthest the industry has gotten with wireless charging is the Qi standard. Qi has been around for a while now; it’s ubiquitous, but it’s also picky. Though it’s wireless, charging requires precise alignment of coils in the charging and receiving devices — and that they’re very close together. The phone has to sit in just the right spot on the charging stand or the coils in the charger and phone won’t be able to complete the electromagnetic circle required for charging to take place.

That circle has been broken on many occasions for me, especially as the size of my phones have grown in upgrade cycles. I got a nifty combination gadget for Christmas last year with a flat pad for charging my iPhone Pro 11 and a miniature stand for charging my watch. Just once I got the phone to fit just right so that the coils lined up and charged the phone. Now the accessory is an oversized watch charger, and I refuel my phone battery every night using a power adapter plugged into a power strip. So 2010…

I was hopeful in 2017 when Apple — in unApple form — teased the idea of a wireless charging product it was prepping for the future: a tabletop mat that would charge multiple devices simultaneously. They showed a mockup of it at the iPhone 8 launch event and had even named it: AirPower.  Any pet owner will tell you that once you’ve name it, you have to follow through.

But Apple didn’t follow through on AirPower. Event after event came and went, and AirPower just went. After several Apple launch events with AirPower as a no-show, the company admitted defeat — to the dismay of quite a few of us hoping for a future of red-free battery indicators: “After much effort,” Apple said in a launch statement, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch.” Ouch.

Not that I’d want a wireless charging product that’s unsafe, of course. Tech Crunch reported AirPower was scuttled because it “ran too hot.” The 3D charging coils in the mat were close together and “required very, very cautious power management.” Yeah, no.

Wireless charging company Energous talks up its WattUp wireless charging technology that’s been certified by the Federal Communications Commission for at-a-distance charging. The company says a WattUp transmitter “sends contained energy via radio waves to paired devices containing complementary WattUp receivers. The receivers convert those radio waves into DC power, which in turn charges the receiver’s battery.”

In its FAQs, Energous says its technology would enable multiple devices to be charged on the same pad, “depending on the available space on the pad.” Based on the Apple reports, that size pad might have to pay rent in my apartment. Energous was psyched about consumer electronics products several years ago on earnings calls; now it talks up smaller devices like hearing aids. The CEO talks up smart speakers with its technology that could charge nearby earbuds or a watch, an intriguing idea but without any takers so far.

So, I continue lug around power adaptors, at least I did pre-Covid when we traveled. The connected TVs and appliances that LG and Panasonic showed in their homes of the future arrived, but I’m not sure the contactless wireless charging table will ever see the light of day.

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