Wireless power for automotive and smart homes with Mike Brown of Inverse

08 August 2019

Mike Brown is the Morning News Editor for Inverse. We discuss the current status of contact- and long-range wireless charging, how these products could be used in auto and smart home applications and much more.

This episode was recorded on July 12, 2019

Yuval Boger (Chief Marketing Officer, Wi-Charge, @TheChargeGuy): Hello, Mike, and thanks for joining me today.

Mike Brown (Morning News Editor at Inverse) : Good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Yuval: Who are you, and what do you do?

Mike: I’m Mike Brown. I’m a morning news editor for Inverse.com, which is a future-facing technology news website. We’re primarily a U.S.-based news outlet, but I work in London. I cover consumer technology, electric cars, a lot of big idea things, a broad set of topics, really.

Yuval: Excellent. And I know that looking at and following your work over the last couple of years, you spent some time on Apple on one hand, and on wireless charging on the other. Let’s start with wireless charging, sort of the Qi charging. Do you think that is here to stay in a very big way? Or do you think that’s more of a fact?

Mike: Well, I think Qi charging is interesting because it’s been around for a long time on the Android side, but it’s only very recently made its way over to Apple. It was with the launch of the iPhone X and 8 a couple of years back that it finally made its grand debut. That seemed like quite a late entry, but also suggests that maybe Qi is just getting started in its own way. We’re seeing a lot of third-party products that build the chargers into lamps and other household furniture. So, I’m not entirely sure that Qi is a passing phase, or just coming to its end. It seems that, even though it’s been around for more than a decade now, in some places, it’s only just getting started.

Yuval: And do you see the primary use of Qi at home settings? Bedside, I’ll just put my phone there instead of connecting a cable. Or do you see it primarily at offices or public settings?

Mike: Well, I think there’s an interesting use case for public settings. One of the things that I was very interested in was Starbucks’ wireless chargers, which didn’t use Qi standard if I remember correctly. It was a Powermat technology instead. But, I think that’s an interesting example of how wireless charging can really provide a benefit to consumers. If you go along to a café, for example, and you see a wireless charging mat, you don’t have to fiddle around with cables or anything, you just pop your smartphone down on the table and it gets charging. You don’t have to think about using the right connector, or anything. I think that’s another benefit here, is it seems that Apple and all these other Android smartphone makers have gone in with Qi charging, and if that provides a single, unified charging standard, then that’s maybe another big positive. It’s always been a bit of a struggle, really, with Apple phones always using proprietary connectors.

Yuval: One issue with Qi charging is that the charger itself, the charging pad, needs to be powered. That may not sound like a big problem, but if you think about a Starbucks, some of the tables are stationary, maybe next to the wall where you could easily wire them to an outlet and then put the Qi pads, but others are floating table. They’re mobile tables. Maybe you pull them together when a group of friends comes over. These are much more difficult to be wired because they move. You have to move them for cleaning, and so on. So, that’s an area where long-range wireless charging, contactless charging comes in. Do you see it the same way? Do you see an opportunity for long-range charging in public spaces?

Mike: Yeah. I think there’s definitely some limits to Qi charging and similar technologies, because, as you say, it has to be connected to a power outlet. And I think that shows itself in how people are designing these products. One thing that I’ve been quite interested in is these table lamps where you have the Qi charger on the base, which makes sense in that situation where you need an outlet. If you’re already plugging in the lamp anyway, then why not attach a wireless charger there? But that is definitely a limitation that it seems these manufacturers are bearing in mind. So, I think some people are maybe a little bit confused when they hear wireless charging, and they assume it means, “Oh, I can get rid of the cable from the wall to the charger,” when actually it means you don’t have to plug in the cable at the very end. So, yeah, this may be a slight confusion on that front on the consumer’s side.

Yuval: Absolutely. On the long-range wireless charging, I live and breathe this stuff every day, and you’ve been covering a ton of different areas, and I know you’ve written about long-range wireless charging for a number of years now. Where do you think long-range wireless charging is? Is it promising? Is it already there? Is it a disappointment? How would you rate the progress there?

Mike: Well, I’m not going to lie, I’m very excited by the idea of long-range wireless charging. Being able to sit in a room and you don’t have to even think about whether you’ve plugged your phone in, or you’ve put it in the right position, that’s just fantastic. And then, you stand up to leave, and you’ve already got a full battery. I think, really, that is the dream for a lot of people. People don’t like fiddling around with chargers. They’re always talking about, “Oh, my iPhone doesn’t last a full day of charge. Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to worry about constantly plugging it into a wall?” When people share on websites like Reddit, like most essential purchases, I always find charging cables come very high off those lists. Getting a long, several feet charging cable with proper threading around it. And being able to remove the cable from the equation to me, just seems like a no-brainer. If we can do that, then surely that’s the ideal solution.

Mike: But in terms of where we are right now, I’m thinking about how Qi was around almost a decade before big players like Apple finally came into the picture. And I think if we’re anywhere on this path, it’s still very early days before you can just buy a smartphone and it’s going to come with long-range wireless charging out of the box.

Yuval: I want to talk to you about smart home, but before that, because you’ve been following and writing about Tesla and others, what do you think about wireless charging in the car? Both sorts of contact charging, and, “Oh, I just have a pad where I put my phone.” Or, is the dream really the kids are sitting in the back seat, and they have phones in their hands, and they just got wirelessly charged? What do you think about in-car charging?

Mike: I think there’s a lot of interesting ideas that, as you say, inside the car, you can have pads where you place down your phone, and that makes sense for a central console next to the dashboard. You can get into the car and throw your phone down, and then you don’t have to worry so much about plugging in a cable. Maybe positioning is still a little concern on that front.

Mike: But I think outside the car, there are also some interesting ideas. I’m reminded of earlier this year when Oslo rolled out a plan to bring wireless charging to its electric taxis. So, the idea would be that a taxi is a vehicle that sits on the rank for a while, and if you have a big wireless charger there, then you could, in theory, top up the battery to add a few extra miles of range and it’s a vehicle that’s going to be sat there for a while waiting for passengers. So, that’s the sort of use case where maybe, for the electric vehicle itself, a wireless charger could really … It would make electric taxis an even more useful idea.

Yuval: Interesting. Very interesting thought. Talking about the smart home, and let’s put phones aside. We’ll come back to them. When you think about the smart home, which device would you like to have wireless charging, or wireless power, meaning that you never have to replace the battery, you’re never going to have to connect it something to charge, and it just keeps operating almost magically? What would be your favorite device, other than the phone?

Mike: Do I have to choose one device? Or can I choose a few? Because I’m sitting here right now thinking about smart home gadgets, and I think there’s a lot of different areas where wireless charging could really add some value. I’ll try to limit it down as much as I can. I think one that definitely comes to mind is the smart lock. Instead of having to worry about batteries or charging it up, you could wireless charger beaming down to the smart lock and making sure it’s permanently filled up with power. That’s the sort of use case where you don’t want consumers worrying about an extra thing to charge up in their lives. That was one thing, and I’ve written about this previously, about the Apple Watch, having to remember to charge it every day. And yes, if you’re getting into a charging routine, then maybe adding an extra gadget makes a bit of sense, but I think, if you can remove that worry from the equation, then consumers really appreciate that.

Mike: Beyond smart locks, I think anything, really, in a smart home that would maybe move around, or isn’t constantly attached to the wall. I think even a robot vacuum cleaner. They’re currently designed, a lot of them so that they return to the base station and top up the battery, but think about it, if you had a wireless charging system, you wouldn’t need to worry about that. The vacuum could just continue working all around a larger home, and that could really add value.

Yuval: Let me, for the sake of discussion, push back on the smart lock. I believe that smart locks should be wirelessly charged. At last CES, we demonstrated a battery-less smart lock, but I have a friend who’s upgrading the security system for his home, and he went to one of the companies that install a system, and they said, “Oh, we’ll put a smart lock.” And when he asked about battery life, they said, “Well, it depends on use, but we’re getting about two years before you have to replace batteries.” So, if the entire idea of wireless charging is to avoid replacing batteries every two years, maybe that’s not as valuable. Or is it about adding features that you couldn’t have in a smart lock today, cloud storage, face recognition, and so on, just because you’re limited with the energy that batteries can deliver? Where do you see the value for the smart locks?

Mike: Well, I think, if you can, then why not? I think that’s my gut reaction to that. Yes, you can have a battery that lasts for two years, but if you can have a smart lock that never needs changing batteries, why would you have a system that requires switching batteries over … I’m reminded of, in the world of watches, you have your battery-powered watches, you can have mechanical watches, and these battery watches can last for months or years, but you can also get solar watches. They’re very common as well. So, in that situation, you’re basically removing the battery from the equation, and you never have to worry about switching it over again. And they are very popular. People do appreciate that as a valuable part of it.

Mike: And even with other gadgets in the home right now, like the Amazon Kindle, that’s the eBook reader that I use, the battery lasts for a very long time. I can leave it down there for weeks. But it is frustrating, those one or two occasions when I pick it up and there’s no battery life left. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t used it in a while, and I haven’t been paying attention to the amount of battery left in it, but it’s just one extra thing that you have to manage. And I really think that, if you’re asking the consumer to have one more battery level in their head, thinking about, “Do I need to replace this one?” So many things around the home, do you really need to be adding extra batteries to the mix?

Yuval: The other thing that we’re seeing is actually in the elderly community. You and I, if we have a battery that runs out in our homes, then we could replace it. But if you have an older relative, maybe more limited in mobility, it becomes a bigger issue, and that may be an area where it’s more valuable than for a 30-year-old to never run out of battery.

Mike: Yes. Yes. Definitely. And it also reminds me of, say for example, smoke alarms. A lot of them use batteries. That’s another system where you’re asking some people who would struggle to get up and reach up, switch it over. If you can make these things easier for the consumer, that’s the thought that I keep coming back to when I think about wireless charging and long-range wireless charging. It’s about removing stress and possible things to go wrong. People don’t like managing gadgets and keeping track of everything, and if you have a system that makes that a lot easier, then why not do it?

Yuval: When you think about long-range wireless charging, there are many different performance parameters. If you were evaluating different systems, there are the things that are obviously must-have. You must have consumer safety certification if you want to deploy this in someone’s home. It must not double your energy bill, so it must be efficient. Of course, it needs to deliver ample power, enough to power everything that you’re looking for. But one area that I think is sometimes overlooked is the size. If a long-range wireless power system has two parts, a transmitter, and a receiver, and I think that it is quite important to have a small transmitter, something that doesn’t clog up your living room, and even more importantly, a tiny receiver that doesn’t increase the size of the device. Would you agree?

Mike: Yes. Yes. I think it’s definitely important that you don’t have a giant addition on the side making the product even larger than it needs to be. I think that that’s definitely a concern. I think another thinking about sort of wishlist of wireless charging, I think safety has to be up there as a very high priority. If the system is not safe, or if people have concerns about safety, then I don’t see consumers adopting it. I think people will become worried, they’ll think, “Well, why do I want to change from a proven system like a cable? Cable, there’s no worry about interference or anything. Why would I move away from that and switch to an unproven system for a small benefit?” I think, once you start getting into those sorts of questions, consumers are going to have concerns, and they might become spooked. So, I would list safety up there as very, very top-priority.

Yuval: Absolutely. And that’s why we went through great pains to make sure that we have UL, and U.S. government, international governments’ consumer safety certification. And even that, sometimes, is not enough in terms of people say, “Well, is it safe?” and you say, “Well, here are all my safety approval seals,” and they say, “Well, this is good, but is it safe?”

Mike: Yeah.

Yuval: So, we have to get there. Excellent. If you were controlling the Wi-Charge development plan for the next couple of years, what would you have us focus on?

Mike: Well, as an outsider who … In terms of what I would be interested in for the future, this is, in general, for wireless charging, because I’m not privy to the internals of Wi-Charge or anything, I would be most interested, as a consumer and as an observer of the industry, in adoption. I would like to know that a charging system that I have chosen to fit into my house would be supported in the future. I think that can be a concern. You have these competing standards. How do I know that I chose the right one? Oh, maybe I chose the wrong one and now I have to fit everything all over again. So, yeah. Adoption would be very high on my list. And also, communicating about safety and ensuring that the product is safe would be, for any wireless charging system, definitely, those would be my two major priorities.

Yuval: And as we come closer to the end of our discussion, one thing that we see when you talk about adoption is, I think there’s going to be faster adoption in situations where wireless power, long-range wireless power, can provide a solution without having to develop a giant ecosystem. So, if I gave you a phone and I told you it has a Wi-Charge receiver embedded in it, you say, “Well, that’s great, but can I use it at an airport? Can I use it at a Starbucks?” And in contrast, if I gave you a smart lock, or a security camera, or a smoke detector, and said, “Well, here’s the transmitter. Here’s the product. Use it. You’re all set,” you don’t care what your friends or neighbors have, because I’ve given you a complete solution. To me, that looks like a faster path to adoption.

Mike: Yes. In terms of including the receivers and everything that you need with the product.

Yuval: And choosing products that are usually used in one location, in one house, and so on, as opposed to products that travel all over the world in planes and airports, and coffee shops.

Mike: Hmm. Yeah. I think, really, this all kind of comes back to the same point as consumers, I think, in general, don’t like to think too much about charging standards, or how do we make this thing work? Et cetera, et cetera. It’s all about ease of use, simplicity. If I buy a new phone, for example, I want to know that I can charge it up. I don’t really care, as a consumer, about the standards that are being used. If it comes with a charger, then great. I plug it in, it works, fantastic. What I do care about as a consumer is when I go to charge it and I can’t, because I’m at a friend’s house, for example, and they don’t have the right charger or something, and then you get that friction involved.

Mike: So, I think yeah, in terms of smart home gadgets, for example, if I know I can take it out of the box and set up the wireless charging system, and then I don’t have to think about it again, brilliant. That’s all I’m going to be worried about as a consumer. So, I think that’s really the main priority, is making wireless charging even more invisible than it is already.

Yuval: Yes. I agree. So, Mike, where could people get in touch with you to learn more about your work?

Mike: They can email me at mike.brown@inverse.com, or they can follow me on Twitter @mikearildbrown.

Yuval: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for joining me today.

Mike: No, thank you very much.

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