Back in 2014, Elon Musk appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss his vision for Tesla, the electric vehicle and power storage company. At the end of the interview, when asked what he would like to see in the future, Colbert simply wished, "that there weren't any cables," and that he could walk into his house and "things would charge."
The comment received a laugh from the studio audience, but there really wasn't anything funny about it. Maybe back in mid-2014 the idea sounded fanciful, but at CES 2016 one could see an early version of Mr. Colbert's vision.
Wireless charging is slowly but surely emerging as the next big "wow" technology—an idea that may require a few more years to manifest, but which is sure to alter our entire relationship with technology.
How? Just think about it: Wires and cables are so ubiquitous we've learned to hide them and essentially tune them out. They constitute the very lifeblood of our technological ecosystems, but we shove them behind couches and run them along baseboards, loop them around each other and twine them together. There's an entire submarket devoted to cord management.
But enough is enough. We have driverless vehicles and smart homes, both of which are well on their way to becoming commonplace. Can we make cables and cords obsolete in the process?
Let's take a look at a few organizations that are working to make wireless charging as simple and as universal as WiFi. You'll notice a lot of similarities between them—and even some overlap—but no matter which product comes out on top, it's likely to begin sounding the death knell for cords and cables.
Energous is a Silicon Valley startup specializing in wireless charging. The company's WattUp transmitter is able to remotely charge any battery-operated device that uses less than 10 watts. Small as it may be, it requires the installation of a special receiver in the device you want to charge—which is inconvenient, to say the least.
The company announced at CES 2016 that it has signed agreements with two "top-tier" IoT and wearables manufacturers to make this happen. It wouldn't specify which ones, but it's a safe bet that either Samsung, Sony, Intel, HP, Apple, or Dell is involved.
WiTricity has a slightly different approach to wireless charging. The company, which started as a project at MIT, makes devices that use magnetic resonance technology to wirelessly transfer energy. While many wireless chargers struggle to transmit through stone, brick, or metal, WiTricity's tech powers through all three—and can even safely transmit through your head.
The company also claims its charging tech is faster than inductive charging—currently the standard bearer among wireless chargers, used in devices like the Apple Watch, LG Nexus 5, and Samsung Galaxy S.
Ossia makes a wireless power system called Cota that's capable of charging every compatible device within a 30-foot radius. It uses a huge network of tiny antennas to send and receive power signals, and it routes paths around obstacles that could inhibit the signal.
Like the Energous WattUp, Cota requires a receiver to be embedded in the product, which means we'll have to wait for companies like Samsung and Apple to get on board before Stephen Colbert can use Cota to walk into his house and wirelessly charge his phone. Nonetheless, this kind of tech is the ultimate goal of the industry—to be able to charge your device as it sits on a table or in your pocket.
Okay, so what's next?
These technologies point to the future of Mr. Colbert's dreams. But, obviously, there are some major obstacles ahead. Despite the impressive selection of wireless chargers at this year's CES, most manufacturers have thus far settled on induction charging technology, which only permits power transfers over very short distances (sort of like NFC). This is the tech used to charge electric toothbrushes, shavers, and other small electronics.
There are two induction-based standards—Qi and AirFuel— and they've allowed for a whole suite of wireless charging devices—including a wireless monitor that Dell unveiled at CES. The problem is that they're both competing to be the standard. (At CES, the two had booths situated right next to each other.)
Another problem is that induction charging can only go so far in terms of achieving Colbert's vision. Why settle on a standard that allows for wireless charging across a mere few inches, when there's a chip that can be installed to charge automatically across 30 feet?
The wireless charging space is currently at the same stage mobile payments and smart home tech were at in 2013—waiting for manufacturers to settle on a single protocol or third-party system to power the whole category. This is a technology that demands industry-wide standardization—something the consumer tech industry is notoriously bad at achieving. And that's the problem: The market needs a winner to move forward in order to get rid of all these cords and cables.
Of course, even when the industry settles on a path forward and we begin to enjoy wireless charging on our laptops, phones, tablets, and cameras, we'll still be far from a cordless future.
The next step is to adopt some sort of WiFi for charging—just like Ossia, WiTricity, and WattUp are pursuing—a system that charges your devices as it sits in your pocket. And even then, we'll still have to deal with those myriad wires and connectors trailing from our lights, appliances, computers, servers, and home entertainment systems. Removing cords entirely, I'm afraid to say, may be a challenge for another era.