Wireless power energizes CES

2009 should be a big year for products that recharge devices without wires, judging from what's on show at CES.

There's something futuristic about wireless power that has grabbed people's attention at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, and 2009 could be a big year for the technology judging from what's on show here.

A few products from Wild Charge are already on sale for recharging small devices like phones and game controllers, by laying them side by side on a charging mat. Perhaps more interesting is some of the bigger equipment on show at CES this year, including power tools and blenders.

Legget & Platt is showing a workman's van rigged out with the infrastructure for charging a drill, rotary saw and other tools. Legget showed a case of Bosch power tools that can be thrown on a charging shelf in the back of the van and powered up en route to the next appointment. The van's alternator provides the electricity. There's also a console in the front of the van for recharging a laptop, cell phone or flash light.

Legget has licensed a technology called eCoupled from Fulton Innovation. It consists of a coil of wire in the charging base and another in the device, and transmits electricity via a magnetic field. The technology, which is calls "near field induction," has the smarts to figure out the correct voltage to supply and shuts down when charging is complete.

Legget said its kit for the van, as well as the flashlight from Energizer, will go on sale in mid-2009. But it's up to the other vendors when the rest of the devices will be available. Legget has worked out pricing with Bosch for the power tools and they too are expected this year.

The tools case will be US$500, including three eCoupled batteries that fit onto existing Bosch tools. The console with the Energizer flashlight will be $250 to $300. Other products here, including the cell phone and a blender that charges through a modified countertop, were prototypes, and Fulton is waiting for partners to come on board and sell them.

The eCoupled technology is 98 percent efficient and charges at about the same speed as a standard, wired charger, according to Leroy Johnson, Legget & Platt's senior director for emerging technologies. Legget specializes in commercial vehicles, so the technology will appear first in things like cable repair vans and police cruisers.

For consumers today, Wild Charge sells products for charging the Blackberry Pearl, Blackberry Curve and Motorola Razr, by laying them on a mat that plugs into a wall outlet. One of its licensees, Griffin International, has released an add-on for recharging a Nintendo Wii wireless controller, and is developing others for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers. They clip on the back where the controller's battery would go and retail for $50 to $70.

The system isn't completely wires-free - the charging mat has to be plugged into a wall outlet. But Wild Charge thinks people will find it convenient to come home from work and lay four or five devices on a mat, instead of plugging them in separately. And it means people can charge several devices from one wall outlet.

WildCharge uses a conductive technology that differs from Fulton's. It sells sleeves with small metal contacts that fit over the devices and rest on a metal charging pad. The pad is lightweight and putting a hand on it doesn't give an electric shock; the mat turns it off until the hand is removed. Wild Charge hopes device makers will integrate its technology inside their products.

Another comany, Powermat, announced that it will sell a similar set of products in the third quarter, using an inductive technology akin to Fulton's. The mats will be about $100 and the sleeves and other "receivers," such as a dongle for the Playstation Portable, about $35 each.

Yet another company, PowerBeam, demonstrated a technology that it says will be able to charge wireless speakers or a digital photo frame from 10 meters away, by pointing a laser at a solar cell.

Texas Instruments and Motorola also plan to bring wireless power products to market.

One issue for all the vendors will be agreeing to a standard that lets their products interoperate. Another will be convincing consumers that the technologies are safe and won't interfere with wireless networks. Vendors here all were adamant that there are no safety or interference issues.

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James Niccolai

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