Posts tagged Wireless
Offering a shot of one-stop convenience, Starbucks began its roll-out of free Powermat wireless charging last week. The Seattle, Wash.–based coffee purveyor equipped roughly 200 stores in San Francisco with the technology, ahead of a nationwide launch next year.
I stopped by a location in Levi Plaza to check out the system and see if it lives up to the promise. I figured it would either be a cool new convenience or a lame, over-hyped feature.
See also: How To Boost Your Phone’s Battery Life
Sitting in the cafe, with my phone resting on the table that piped juice to it, the answer was clear. Starbucks should consider extra security; Frapuccino-fueled patrons are destined to jockey for a seat at one of these tables. After years of trying, wireless charging could finally be on the verge of going mainstream in a big, caffeinated way.
Getting Juiced Up At Starbucks
Wireless charging seems like a misnomer. People who have bought Powermat and similar products know that the main charging mat connects to a wall outlet with a cable. But it’s still considered “wireless” because phones, handheld gaming machines and other devices can power up just by sitting on top of it.
At Starbucks, the mats (or “Powermat Spots”) are built into some of the tables and countertops. Despite reports to the contrary, Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat Technologies, claims the charging speed rivals cabled connections. I gave it a try, and found the charging action to be pretty speedy.
The downside is that few phones support Powermat charging out of the box. Some Lumia phones have it built in, and compatible backplates, phone cases, batteries and small Power Ring attachments are available under the joint Duracell-Powermat brand. The system offers some backward compatibility—if you have one, even an older unit, you’ll be able to charge your device on Starbucks’ tables.
If not, you can still use the Starbucks charging surfaces. The store loans out Power Rings for free on the spot and sells them there too for about $10, if you’d like to own one. Duracell-Powermat also sells them online.
“You’ve got to have a complete system,” said Matthew Guiste, Starbucks’ vice president of in-store digital. “No one has taken the plunge, [but] we want to start giving manufacturers a reason to put it in their phones.” The retailer has a habit of pushing technologies into the mainstream. Back in 2001, the business proselytized Wi-Fi, being among the first to offer it for free.
The chain’s knack for popularizing tech was the main reason Powermat partnered with it. “Wi-Fi was not a known commodity then,” said Schreiber. “They’re in a place to educate consumers.”
Education is needed. Wireless charging has been around for quite a while, but despite that, it still hasn’t managed to gain traction with consumers yet.
Why Isn’t Wireless Charging A Thing Yet?
Even though the electromagnetic technology behind wireless charging goes back a century, people still mess with cables and power adapters—now more than ever.
Poor battery life forces the hassle. Today, huge phones with larger batteries and power-saving tactics, like Android’s Project Volta, try to prolong the longevity of our devices, but these are workarounds for batteries that just can’t keep pace with advancements in mobile technology.
Processing power, new features and our demanding requirements for connectivity make us “more dependent on our devices,” said Schreiber. “[But] it’s reached a crisis point where the industry is bringing us new uses that we routinely disable to give us more battery life.” The issue becomes worse with wearables, as tiny gadgets leave little space for big power cells.
Wireless charging’s convenience can help ease the pain of short battery life. Unfortunately, like the old video rivalry between VHS and BetaMax, warring factions within the industry prevent a universal standard from paving the way for wider adoption.
Earlier this year, two of the leading power consortiums—Powermat’s Power Matters Alliance (PMA) and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP)—made some headway by joining forces. Reinier H.M. van der Lee, director of product marketing at Broadcom, a key member of A4WP, told me then that it would lead to “dual-mode receivers,” or gadgets that support both PMA’s open standard and A4WP’s Rezence standard.
But the deal left out a third, the Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi—currently the most popular wireless charging option available in mobile devices. Devices like Samsung’s Galaxy, Motorola’s Droid and some Lumia phones offer built-in support.
All three standards essentially rely on the same technology. Coils (in mats) create electromagnetic fields that transmit electricity when receivers (in gadgets and accessories) sit on top. But their approaches vary, and none work directly with either of the others.
Rezence devices don’t exist as consumer products yet, but even if they did, single-mode products wouldn’t work on Starbucks’ Powermat charging tables. (They’d have to be dual-mode.) Qi gadgets, the most prevalent so far, won’t directly work either.
To cut through the complications, Starbucks and Powermat made a smart move: Those free Power Ring loaners come in a choice of micro-USB or Apple’s lightning port. This cross-compatibility should cover most smartphones, and their in-store availability means people won’t have to plan ahead.
This simple decision gives every customer some wireless charging powers. It just so happens to spread the gospel of Powermat to a massive audience as well.
Powermat’s Power Play
After starting out with test roll-outs in select stores in Boston and San Jose, Starbucks is ready to go all in with PMA now. Guiste calls Powermat “the perfect partner,” thanks to its focus on commercial installations and managed support.
“What we got is not just a standard,” he said. “We got launch partners and a managed network that can tell us what’s going on, down to the location and the [specific] spot at that location.”
What Powermat got is a direct line to the vast market of coffee drinkers across the country. (Starbucks serves more than 5 million customers per day.) While obviously beneficial to Powermat, the strategy could also raise the profile of wireless charging overall, giving the whole industry a boost.
It may even compel the various camps to work together on a universal standard. If so, it couldn’t come too soon. The already complex landscape of wireless charging could get even more complicated before long.
As cable-free power-ups work to establish themselves in the mainstream, fringe candidates have been trying to push it in new directions. Startups like Humavox and Ossia want to ditch the mat entirely, using radio frequency technology to transform charging into Wi-Fi-like affairs.
It’s All Up In The Air
Humavox CEO Omri Lachman explained the design strategy behind his Eterna charging platform to me earlier this year: Users don’t use mats, he said. Instead, they toss their devices in a box.
Those devices can vary, not just in variety, but size. With more than a little showmanship, he told me his company “didn’t start off with these devices,” holding up a smartphone. “We started with these,” he said, pointing to a small in-ear canal hearing aid.
The components were designed to fit inside one of the smallest consumer devices imaginable, so it’s not tough to see those tiny receivers embedded inside the compact casings of wearable gadgets, one of Humavox’s target areas.
Another startup, Ossia, believes charging should work entirely over the air.
Though a bit slower than traditional charging, Ossia’s Cota technology can supposedly transmit power safely over a distance. It has been tested at 16 feet, and the company claims it can work up to 30 feet.
Ossia has been making motions toward the smart home industry, hoping to power battery-operated sensors and other gizmos. In the controlled setting of a retail environment, Cota devices could theoretically start charging your devices the moment you walk in. But that scenario will probably take a lot of convincing to appease public concerns over safety.
If these emerging companies succeed, or the leading troika of wireless charging proponents get their act together, they could banish the drudgery of plugging in cables and power adapters once and for all.
We’re not there yet. But Starbucks and Powermat took a big step toward that future. And until it gets here, at least now we can sip our lattes and charge on a table while we wait.
Starbucks coffee photo (cropped) courtesy of Starbucks; Ossia photo courtesy of Ossia; all others by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite
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Four years ago, Google dismayed open-Internet supporters when it joined with Verizon to argue that net-neutrality rules—that is, regulations that keep cable and telecom companies from speeding or impeding Internet traffic based on who sends it—shouldn’t apply to wireless networks.
The FCC later adopted that policy in its own net-neutrality regulations, which a federal court struck down earlier this year for unrelated legal reasons. Yet Google appears to have had second thoughts on the matter.
This week, Google emailed subscribers to its “Take Action” newsletter, encouraging them to “support a free and open Internet.” And that has a new and specific meaning, according to Google’s latest post on its Take Action website (emphasis added):
That means no Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others. These rules should apply regardless of whether you’re accessing the Internet using a cable connection, a wireless service, or any other technology.
That’s a big change from Google’s 2010 blog post about its Verizon partnership (emphasis added):
Sixth, we both recognize that wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world, in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly. In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless, except for the transparency requirement. In addition, the Government Accountability Office would be required to report to Congress annually on developments in the wireless broadband marketplace, and whether or not current policies are working to protect consumers.
Google’s campaign comes at a particularly timely moment while the FCC is debating a new net-neutrality proposal. As outlined by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in May, that proposal would also exempt wireless carriers from most net-neutrality rules, although the commission declared its willingness to consider extending broader regulation to wireless as well.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Overloaded wireless-data networks are so common in crowded urban areas that many of us take them for granted. Which helps explain why a startup like Artemis Technologies, which promises near-perfect cellular reception to smartphone users no matter how crowded their networks, has gotten some rapturous attention over the past month.
Artemis announced its approach, which it calls pCell (for “personal cell”), at the end of February. Despite the hype, its technology is far from proven, and has yet to be demonstrated outside of carefully controlled settings. Even if it does work as advertised, there’s no guarantee that wireless giants like Verizon and AT&T will embrace it, since scarce bandwidth allows them to charge higher data prices.
But the promise of pCell is unquestionably attractive, and while the underlying technology is counterintuitive, it’s well-founded in communication theory. Artemis, too, has a pedigree; it was founded by Steve Perlman, the inventor/entrepreneur behind OnLive, WebTV and Apple’s video encoding technology QuickTime.
So while Artemis is clearly out on the frontier, no one should dismiss pCell out of hand. Here’s what you need to know about this technology and what it could mean for the future of wireless data (and, possibly, more).
1. Wireless Data Is Bottlenecked By Interference
If your LTE data slows to a crawl even when you have good reception, you can blame what telecom researchers call “the cocktail party problem.” When there are way too many people in a room, there are too many signals—and too much interference—for you to hear the person you’re talking to.
The same goes for wireless, where your experience is usually affected by the thousands of other people nearby also trying to connect to the Web. All those radio signals zipping from cell tower to individual phones and back routinely get in each others’ way, sometimes canceling one another out entirely.
To see how this works (in a vastly simplified way), consider this photo of a lovely New Zealand harbor, taken as two wakes are crossing one another. Think of those crossing waves as the data signals heading for your smartphone and that of someone down the block.
Now let’s look at a closeup of where the waves meet (click for a larger version).
See how the water flattens where the peaks of one wave meet the troughs of another? It’s a phenomenon physicists call destructive interference, and something very similar happens when radio waves of the same frequency cross paths. In other words, those are your smartphone “dead zones.”
Now multiply this effect by thousands of signals pinging around in some dense cell sites, and it’s clear that dead zones are everywhere. Communications engineers have a number of tricks to keep you from ending up with no signal at all, but they all have one thing in common: They limit you and your phone to a mere fraction of the total bandwidth your local cell tower puts out.
2. pCell Actually Uses Interference To Its Advantage
Three years ago, Artemis founder Perlman released a white paper describing a technology he called DIDO, for “distributed input distributed output.” DIDO purportedly allows wireless users on a network to use the full data capacity of shared spectrum with several other users simultaneously.
“DIDO profoundly increases the data capacity of wireless spectrum, while increasing reliability and reducing the cost and complexity of wireless devices,” Perlman wrote. “DIDO deployment is far less expensive than conventional commercial wireless deployment, despite having vastly higher capacity and performance, and is able to use consumer Internet infrastructure and indoor access points.”
DIDO—now pCell—basically exploits the flip side of destructive interference. Let’s go back to those New Zealand waves for a second.
Now look where the peaks of both waves meet. This is also interference, but here it creates a larger wave—one that, were these radio waves, would correspond to a stronger signal. Artemis’ technology aims to exploit such “constructive” interference in order to deliver a fast, clear signal to mobile users.
3. pCell Involves Some Very Serious Computation
One of the most interesting claims Perlman makes for pCell is that it sidesteps Shannon’s Law, an information-theory principle that establishes a limit to data transmission speeds over a given channel. In wireless, the main consequence is that mobile devices served by wireless networks of the same frequency interfere with one another and thus “divide up” the available signal, limiting their data reception.
pCell, however, purports to fine-tune the pattern of radio signals in a way that allows each device to receives the data capacity of the full channel. As a result, DIDO claims to pull off something normal cell towers can’t achieve: Even when more users join the network, the data rate for each user remains constant.
Effectively, this is because the pCell system is designed to create pockets of constructive interference around every mobile-device antenna. Each such pocket—Perlman describes them as about a centimeter in diameter—would act as an independent data channel, and thus wouldn’t be limited by interference from other devices.
The way Artemis describes it, there’s some very heavy lifting going on behind the scenes. In place of a single cell tower broadcasting to all users within range, pCell would establish a network of smaller antennas, each of which would broadcast a precoded signal computed by a data center that manages all communications in the area. Each precoded signal would basically be gibberish by itself—but where they overlap, the resulting constructive interference would yield a clear, high-speed data signal for every device in broadcast range.
Now, this is most definitely rocket science. The pCell system would have to generate those complicated precoded signals in real time, taking into account the actual data being transmitted to users, their location, their movements, and interference from solid objects like concrete walls.
It’s an extremely complex problem, and probably one of the biggest reasons to be skeptical about Artemis’ claims. Perlman, of course, says his company has solved it.
4. pCell Wouldn’t Require New Phones, But Would Replace Cell Towers
One of pCell’s biggest selling points is that it would work with all current 4G LTE-enabled devices. That, of course, would be a huge advantage, as it wouldn’t require everyone to ditch their current iPhones and Androids just to get a decent signal.
But the company also envisions a new line of “pCell-native” devices, which the company says are “faster than LTE with fiber-class latency” thanks to a low degree of power consumption. If this promise rings true, it could have a significant implications for newer and more dynamic mobile technologies such as wearables.
Cellular infrastructure, however, is another story. Today’s mobile devices are reliant on cell towers for their signals, but they’re costly in several ways. The average cell tower costs $150,000 to build, and takes a toll in worker fatalities, too. In 2012, ProPublica estimated there were an average of 123.6 cell tower worker deaths per 100,000 workers—more than 10 times the death rate across the construction industry as a whole.
Instead of cell towers, Artemis offers “pWave radios,” which are small but stylish weatherproof devices that the company says can be easily installed on indoor or outdoor walls or ceilings. Here’s how Perlman described them at the first public demonstration of the technology at Columbia University in February:
Rather than having one cell tower, you put a few of these small pWave radios around an area and that’s it. The transmissions, rather than being one transmission, intersect, and when they intersect, they create a tiny personal cell around every mobile device that’s around a centimeter in size.
5. There’s Just One More Thing
pCell could have even greater implications for other kinds of wireless technology. According to this detailed explanation of pCell technology by San Francisco data scientist Imran Akbar, pCell might also allow transmission of wireless power to for devices like phones, tablets, TVs and even motor vehicles. Should that pan out, smart devices might never need plugging in again.
Artemis’ approach, however, isn’t exactly unique. In fact, several other companies have invented solutions based off similar technology, and the theories for this system—also known as “network MIMO,” “cooperative MIMO” and “cooperative beamforming”—date back to the early 2000s.
Perlman says Artemis will begin deploying pCell by “late 2014.” But even if pCell can scale up to urban environments in a cost-effective way, that doesn’t mean pCell is guaranteed to succeed. The best technologies don’t always win, and Artemis has yet to conduct any large-scale demonstrations that might sway skeptics.
Artemis will also have to convince carriers and the FCC that its technology is worth the billions of dollars it would require to build base station radios and massive cloud infrastructure. It could be a long haul.
Most images courtesy of Artemis Networks; New Zealand harbor and wave images by Flickr user brewbooks, CC 2.0
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Charging cables for phones and tablets just edged a little closer to oblivion. Two of the three major coalitions backing incompatible wireless charging standards announced plans to join forces, potentially a big step toward unifying wireless charging standards and pushing the technology toward mass adoption.
It’s not clear, though, how quickly this agreement will simplify life for people who just want to power up their gadgets wirelessly without having to worry about charging-station compatibility issues. And the standards war isn’t settled, either, as a third major wireless-charging standards group wasn’t included in this announcement.
Formally, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) agreed to support each other’s technical standards. That should eventually result in charging hardware that works with most new mobile electronic devices. (Will any of it be backward compatible? No word at this point, though you probably shouldn’t count on it.)
Henry Samueli, co-founder and chief technology officer of Broadcom, a voting member of A4WP, told me in December that “the biggest impediment to [wireless charging] is that there are different standards in the market.” At the time, Samueli hoped the groups would find a unified approach, which would minimize some of that complication. Now, PMA’s inductive charging will include a specification supporting A4WP’s Rezent standard, and vice versa.
The odd man out here is, notably, Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) and its Qi wireless charging standard. WPC is backed by Verizon, Motorola, Nokia, Energizer, Belkin and several other big companies in the wireless market. (Samsung and HTC are members—Samsung even released an optional Qi-based wireless charging kit for the Galaxy S4—but both manufacturers also belong to the PMA.)
I’ve reached out to both A4WP and WPC for comment, and will update this post as more details come to light.
Image courtesy of Powermat.
Update: In an email via press representative, AW4P Marketing Chair Geoff Gordon said, “we are open to conversations with other organizations.” This seems to indicate that the agreement may not be necessarily closed to WPC involvement in the future.
Dr. Kamil Grajski also chimed in: “The A4WP and PMA undertook their effort as an initial leadership step. Industry consolidation is likely to be a multi-step process.” He also added that product announcements will vary by particular company, but “based on the Rezence products that have achieved certification to date, we anticipate product announcements throughout 2014.”
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