A new Dell tablet/laptop hybrid computer that can be charged without a power cord hits shelves this week.
The new device, called the Latitude 7285 (pictured above), signals the continued spread—albeit slowly—of consumer electronics that can be juiced up wirelessly. The wireless charging technology embedded in the “2-in-1 notebook computer” comes from Watertown, MA-based WiTricity, an MIT spinout and one of the leaders in the field.
The Dell computer, first announced in January, marks a significant milestone for the decade-old WiTricity: It’s the first commercially available consumer electronics product to use WiTricity’s technology.
“I think it’s just a significant proof point that large, global brands can integrate this technology into their products,” WiTricity CEO Alex Gruzen says in an interview. “Wireless power is just going to be how you charge things in the next few years. It’s going to be the new normal. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Gruzen and other wireless charging advocates have been promising for several years that this technology is ready to take off. A growing number of smartphones, personal computers, computer monitors, and other devices have cut the cord, but most gadgets still require them.
One of the hurdles has been competing technical standards. WiTricity is a board member of the AirFuel Alliance, which was formed through the merger of two of the three major wireless charging industry groups. The other group is the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which backs the Qi wireless charging standard. Dell and Samsung are among the device manufacturers that have hedged their bets by being members of both AirFuel and the WPC. Apple, which is rumored to be integrating wireless charging capabilities into the next iPhone, is one of the WPC’s notable members.
WiTricity’s technology works by running AC electricity through a special coil embedded in a charging device, which converts the energy to a higher frequency and voltage and creates a type of magnetic field. A second coil embedded in the device that’s being charged resonates at the same frequency, and can convert the energy in that magnetic field back into standard electricity.
Part of the draw of this magnetic resonance technology is that the coils don’t have to be aligned in a precise way, and the device being charged doesn’t have to be placed directly on top of a charging mat or other connected surface to draw power. Instead, WiTricity’s tech can transmit power through the air or other materials—wood, concrete, glass, and so on—to a device that is nearby, but not physically connected to anything. WiTricity has seen demand not only from consumer electronics makers, but also car manufacturers and suppliers, industrial machinery companies, and medical device firms.
One of the main competing technologies uses magnetic induction, which requires the transmitting and receiving coils to be aligned in a precise way and placed more closely together—usually with the device and charging station physically touching. It’s worth noting that the new Dell computer that uses WiTricity technology was designed so that it needs to rest on a charging pad to power up, Gruzen says—but future versions could be configured to draw power from a charging station mounted under a desk, for example.
Wireless charging can also be accomplished using radio frequency technology, ultrasonic sound waves, and laser light, according to the AirFuel Alliance.
Gruzen argues that magnetic resonance offers “a better user experience” than competing technologies and will ultimately win in the consumer electronics market. But we’ll see how things play out over the next few years.
A smartphone might have made for a splashier entrance for WiTricity into the world of consumer electronics. But Gruzen points out that notebook computers are essential for many professionals, and they remain popular among millennials, despite the explosion of smartphones.
“PCs are still really relevant in the marketplace,” says Gruzen, a former executive at Dell, HP, Compaq, and Sony. “Everyone just talks about smartphones.”
Gruzen says WiTricity has “active technology engagements” with multiple phone manufacturers, but he’s not ready to announce anything.
The Dell product gives WiTricity some momentum in the consumer electronics sector, but the company has more traction in the electric vehicles market, which makes up a “large portion” of WiTricity’s revenue, Gruzen says. Toyota and Delphi are among the automotive companies that have licensed WiTricity technology, he says.
Volvo’s announcement that it will make only electric or hybrid vehicles starting in 2019, and Tesla’s production launch of its cheaper electric sedan, are just two recent examples that the shift to electric vehicles is ramping up. Gruzen says that spells opportunity for WiTricity.
“The electric vehicle market is going to move beyond the early adopters and really go mainstream,” Gruzen says. “And what the automakers want to do is to remove charging anxiety—not force customers to have to create new habits.”
And that’s where WiTricity comes in. The idea is to install charging pads either on the surface or slightly underground in garages and other parking spots.
Another tech trend may come into play, too. Eventually, if autonomous vehicles become the norm, “you have to have wireless charging,” Gruzen says. Think about a hypothetical driverless taxi service—in between dropping off and picking up passengers, there would be nobody around to plug in the vehicle. The autonomous taxis will stop off at a charging station, “top themselves off, and then go about their business,” Gruzen says.
Ultimately, he thinks WiTricity has a bigger business opportunity in electric vehicles than consumer electronics.
“The consumer market has huge potential but is very volatile; it shifts on a whim,” he says. “But our technology is really relevant. We’ve started with Dell, and we’ll have other customers in the pipeline.”