From Qi charging to long-range wireless charging with Gareth Beavis

10 July 2019

Gareth Beavis is the UK editor in chief of technology website TechRadar.com. Gareth and I discuss the journey from Qi charging to long-range wireless charging as well as analogies from the WiFi and video streaming realm.

This episode was recorded on June 13, 2019

Yuval Boger (Wi-Charge CMO, @TheChargeGuy): Hello Gareth, and thanks for joining me today.

Gareth Beavis (Tech Radar): Thanks for having me.

YuvaI: So who are you and what do you do?

Gareth: My name’s Gareth Beavis, and I’m UK editor in chief of technology website TechRadar.com.

YuvaI: Gareth, I know that you’ve written quite a bit about Qi charging and short-range wireless charging. One of the topics that have been in the news in the last couple of months is Apple AirPower, or I guess lack thereof. What do you think we can learn, if anything, from the cancellation of that product?

Gareth: I think that what we can see from that was that, if a brand as large as Apple with the resources that it has, can’t make it work, this idea of multi-device safe and more importantly quick charging, it is very difficult. The device they were trying to create had multiple small coils. Obviously the technology needed as well to understand what the device was, how to charge it effectively, et cetera. And it just didn’t seem possible. And you can imagine, there was such a level of pressure within that company to make this work, and the fact that it had to hold its hands up and say, “Look, we can’t,” it shows that multi-device charging on a single pad is very difficult.

Yuval: So do you think that drives manufacturers to at least for now, abandon this and say, “We’ll just stick with single device charging,” and have multiple charging pads for each of your devices?

Gareth: I think it’s an interesting one because the real thing with AirPower was that it was the catch-all for everything because Apple has obviously now moved towards having wireless charging in its AirPods case. Then if you combine that with say the smartwatch, the Apple Watch, and of course the new smartphones and the iPhone range of being Qi charge-enabled as well, that allows you to charge all your devices at once. But in reality, there aren’t that many people that would have all three of those and need to charge them all exactly at the same time on the nightstand.

What it does talk to is the fact that you might have a family of people who all want to charge their phones on one device, having that capability would have been good. But in reality it was more of a convenience thing than something that’s a necessity. And having a single charging pad for each of your devices or multiple ones around the house still seems like it’s far greater and smarter idea.

Yuval: I mean if I were running a startup and I was focused on doing short-range wireless charging, that failure of the Apple AirPower would give me extra motivation, say, “Oh, I can do it and even Apple couldn’t.” But unfortunately, we work with long-range charging and not short-range charging.

Gareth: Yeah. So I think the key thing is that Apple itself always has this element of, we want to make sure things are done at precisely the right level that we’re not going to get the heat output, which is apparently the real issue so that the experience will stay consistent with how the products are created. And I think the fact that it couldn’t be done means that yes, another brand might be able to achieve the output, but would it be done at the necessary heat that people would feel comfortable with? Would it be done to this to the speeds that people would be comfortable with? So just be able to do it … Because we have seen products that promise to do the same thing, but just not to the standards that Apple is aiming for.

Yuval: Understood. So when you look at Qi charging today, I mean most high-end phones have the built-in Qi charging today. Actually they have half the Qi charging built in, right? They’ve got the coil in the phone, but then you have to go out and buy a charging pad. When you look at the adoption of the Qi charger, is it more, is it faster? Is it slower than what you expected and why so?

Gareth: It’s interesting because obviously we’ve been tracking the adoption of wireless charging for many years now, and there was a point around the Nexus 4, which is Google’s original line of phones, where we thought, “This is it. This is going to be the adoption point.” And that was a quite a few years ago now.

And then we went through a cycle where phone manufacturers started to remove it from their handsets because it was just, it added too much thickness at a time when there was a premium on phone design and slimness, and also increasing battery life. So the convenience of wireless charging just wasn’t there. What we also had was the battle between Qi charging and WPC, and having these two different standards made things very difficult. And a breakthrough there came really with Samsung adopting both of these standards in their smartphones.

And when you have a brand of that size, basically giving free rein, it started the conversation back up again. It forced manufacturers to start considering wireless charging as a desirable thing for consumers. And then as soon as Apple came on board, that was really the point where Qi charging really took off. We’ve seen it in multiple different disciplines. Betamax and video VHS was obviously the big one. Blu-ray and HDVD. Once enough people topple in the right direction, the standards then get properly set. Well they already were set, properly set to the point where people can really rely on them and get excited about them. And then the adoption technology takes off. And we’ve seen that now with Qi charging where the speeds that can be available through just a wireless charger are increasing rapidly. I think we saw 20 or 25 watts at Mobile World Congress this year from January. That’s incredible for contactless, and to do it safely is the key thing. And that’s a really exciting consumers because it gives that convenience.

Yuval: What do you hear about the impact of such a super-speed charging on battery life?

Gareth: Yeah, I think it’s still to be seen in the moment. Battery life is a key consideration for nearly every manufacturer I speak to. A lot of them are doing, especially when you look at wired power connection, they’re doing some very smart things in terms of the charger itself having a processor that can actually talk to the phone and decide exactly how much power needs to go in at the right time. So in terms of the effect on battery life in that respect, it seems to be fairly under control because nobody wants a phone that’s going to degrade quickly.

I haven’t heard the same thing about wireless charging, and to be honest with you, I don’t know the exact answer, but my gut feeling would be that the convenience of super-fast wireless charging isn’t going to be a widespread thing right now, so perhaps the impact of battery is less important. Again, I’m not sure about that. I haven’t heard that for certain. But overall batteries are seeming to be quite robust at the moment, because of the fact there’s more intelligence in the charging, and that will obviously play a strong part.

Yuval: Excellent. It’s funny that you mentioned the DVD standard wars because that certainly took some time to work itself out, and then there was a standard. But today, not that many people buy DVDs. Everything has switched into streaming and wireless delivery of video. Do you think we’ll see the same thing with wireless charging, with long-range wireless charging? So once you have long-range wireless charging solutions that do not require you to have a charging pad, do you see that as displacing Qi? Do you see that as augmenting Qi?

Gareth: I think obviously in the short to medium term you’ll see augmenting it more than anything else. I think you do use a good example because it’s always about what goes forward in terms of quality. Like I said, I mentioned VHS and Betamax and then you move towards DVD. It was just an enhancement. It was an improvement. And what you have there is the thought that people will move forward for the right things. They’ll always look for the right thing. Excuse me. So what you have there is that people always move forward for the right thing. They’ll look for the right thing in terms of what works for them and improves their life in some way. And in the case of DVD and then to Blu-ray for instance, there was a real uptick in the quality of TV in terms of resolution, in terms of features and there was a definite job.

And then what you’re seeing is streaming start alongside as a convenience, as much as anything else. And as the technology progressed and got better, it’s largely starting to take over, but you’re still seeing a huge amount of people, and I mean a huge amount of people, that will want to hold onto their physical collection because it’s physical right now and it’s something that they own. There’s still this idea of renting something for a subscription each month isn’t as, is something that human beings just don’t like as much. We love tactility and the things that we actually possess. And also the fact that one is convenient and one also still offers the greater, more premium experience. You always have to have a strong and robust internet connection to have good streaming. But if you’ve got the TV and the Blu-ray, largely you’ll have the same experience every single time.

And so you can imagine absolutely, in the future, like VHS, no one uses that anymore. There’s no need. But it took a long time for everything to get a lot better and more cost-effective for HD DVDs, HDTVs to come through for high definition recordings for the movie studios to take on board, and it just will take time. So yes, I can see a future where long-range wireless charging will work. It just has to prove itself.

Yuval: Absolutely. Today I think when you buy a, say a Samsung Galaxy 10, it has built-in wireless charging built-in, Qi charging. I don’t think there’s an option to buy it without the Qi charging. But unlocking that capability does require you to buy a charging stand or a charging pad. So my question is, how much extra, if anything, do you think people would be willing to pay for a phone that supports this over the air, long-range wireless charging, as compared to an identical phone in all other respects that does not have long-range wireless charging?

Gareth: Well, you have to look at this question from two angles really. So the first of all is, first of all, people have to believe this is something that’s worthwhile. Because right now, the notion of long-range wireless charging, when you explain to the best news and following the industry closely, they’re saying “Oh, that sounds great. You know, the ability to walk into a coffee shop, into my office or to my room and to exactly get the right amount of charge at the right time in a very safe manner,” which is what people always ask straight away. Like, “Is this safe when you’re chucking power across the airwaves?” And if you can do that, then obviously people are interested. But right now as you know, the industry is still deciding the best technology, the right standards, who’s going to offer the most efficient way forward.

And because of that, it’s a difficult question, but let’s assume that hypothetically that wireless charging is like WiFi where it’s been acknowledged as safe, it’s become ubiquitous and people can look for it. And I think it would be a strong premium. It would be, if you had a phone for $1,000, I think people would be willing to spend a hundred, maybe 200 more, if it was demonstrated that it would fit seamlessly into their lives. Because there is obviously the question of a base station. Where’s it going to be positioned? How many do I have to buy? As I said, is the standard always exactly the same way here and there in the places that I go?

So in the case of WiFi, you know wherever you’re going to go, WiFi is the same. And once you get to that stage, it’s like laptops now. You wouldn’t buy a laptop without WiFi. You wouldn’t buy a phone without long-range wireless charging. So the question less becomes how much more would you spend? This is, how willing would you be to have a device that doesn’t have this.

Yuval: I know you’re a journalist and not a copywriter, but do you think we should be searching for a different name than long-range wireless charging or over the air wireless charging something to differentiate it from the charging pad crowd?

Gareth: Oh absolutely. I mean, even if you take away the wireless charging. My assumption looking forward was that this would eventually get some sort of new name basically. Even if it was something like LoRa, for long-range, or something that just became a colloquialism and was adopted by the industry. Usually, the standards themselves set that.

But WiFi doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense to what’s there to lots of people. But it has some good connotations and it flows nicely off the tongue. So I think absolutely it needs to be given a proper name. But again it depends on what the standards themselves will be like.

I’m quite surprised that that Qi has become the de facto, but I think that’s largely born out of the fact there was this war in terms of the standards, so I think it became a brand name rather than a technology. So that’s interesting, and absolutely we do need something that gets people excited because people like to get behind a concept, rather than it being explained too simply and also in too long-winded a way, and then sort of losing interest in exactly what it is.

Yuval: If we continue with this analogy, obviously we think that just like WiFi eliminated the data cord, then technologies like what wi- charge offers would eliminate the power cord. But if you had WIFI just at home, and not in a coffee shop or in a hotel and so on, then the benefits would certainly be diminished for your notebook or mobile devices.

In contrast, what we’re seeing is if for wireless charging, even if you could wirelessly charge … For long-range wireless charging, even if you could wirelessly charge smart home devices, then there’s plenty of benefits because a smart lock or a security camera or a smart speaker do not leave your house, and therefore there’s no need to charge them at an airport. So the end of this long-winded question is, if you think about your home or smart homes that you know, which battery-operated smart home device would you want to be wirelessly powered so that you’d never need to replace batteries again, and perhaps so that the manufacturer could add features that they cannot because of battery power.

Gareth: I see. I think this question should be flipped around really. And I think really the question, the thing that I really want is that to just eliminate batteries. Because what, by saying certain things you could do, you could list everything basically. Because a smart switch that you could place anywhere would be better without having to be replacing batteries. Smart locks is a great example you made just there. Cameras, smart toys, speakers, in a kind of a hi-fi set up rather than just, you know, an Alexa smart speaker for instance. What we really want to do is get to the point where there are no batteries at all, because it gives you complete fluidity in not just how you set up your house, but room design, et cetera. So being able to, in a world where you didn’t have any power cords pushing anywhere and it was just the single base station, it gives you so much more freedom in how you design a house and when you move into a new place, deciding where the sockets are.

So I think for the short term obviously, what I want to see if long-range wireless charging is to work, I want it to start making those low power devices much more efficient. And that is those things like those smart switches that the batteries last forever anyway. But taking away that worry and seeing it work just gives you that much more freedom. And the next stuff is lighting, being able to move lighting around and especially with smart lighting coming right now. If we could do that, that would be incredible because again, it changes the atmosphere in the home. It creates a different relationship with the space you’re in. And having that emotional relationship changes your relationship with the technology itself, and it makes it more of a thing that you feel like you’ve achieved and you’ve created. It helps you build your space.

And so like I said, you could really ascribe the, what would you get rid of batteries to everything because batteries are annoying by their very nature because they have to be charged up. And then wires are annoying because they get in the way. So everything is the answer but ultimately start with things that will just change the way you feel about the space. And I think everything will blossom from there if long-range wireless charging is to work.

Yuval: And by the way, one of the things we’re seeing is that if today, … We see that industrial designers hate batteries. Because if you have to have a battery that lasts for six months, it forces you to have it on a certain size. Batteries are typically rectangular and they put severe constraints on the industrial design, on how slick the product looks.

Now, if instead of six months battery, you only have to have a one week battery just in case there’s a power outage, then you’ve reduced the battery to 4 or 5% of its original size, and that opens up so many design opportunities that didn’t exist before.

Gareth: Yeah, absolutely. I think the design is really key. It would be interesting to apply the same concept to things like smartphones obviously because there’s a necessity for how much people need that power. And the question then would be, how ubiquitous is that long-range wireless charging for them to be able to keep things topped up? The reality, smartphone designers always love a smaller battery. The engineers always need more power, so it’s obviously a balance. I think the industry area is quite interesting because I think in the short term, the consumer angle of long-range wireless charging is always exciting and it’s the one that we talk about the most. But much like the recent move, we’re seeing with 5G, this super speedy, always connected, wonderful new standard is great for consumers, but in reality, it will be better for the industry. The idea that you can have super-low latency sensors all around the factory floor would be amazing because it gives you just this amazing real-time feedback for the business to be that much more efficient.

And the same can be true of being able to power these things. Being able to leave these sensors around without having to worry about how well they’re being charged, for the batteries need to be replaced, et cetera would be a wonderful thing. And it’s that kind of proving ground that doesn’t get the headlines because it’s not as cool, but industry first. And these places where people can actually make a real impact on their bottom line by having the reduction of batteries or being able to see more things and have more data, that’s incredibly exciting.

Yuval: That’s a great point. So Gareth, where could people get in touch with you to learn more about your work?

Gareth: Well, as I said, editor in chief of TechRadar.com, which we’d love to have you come visit. I’m @superbeav on Twitter. But ultimately I’m just Gareth Beavis on the web. There aren’t many of me around, thankfully. So if you search for the name, you should find me.

Yuval: Excellent. Gareth, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Gareth: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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