When I Was Your Age, We Had to Plug in Our Electronics

Originally published on Nerdclave.com


Science Fact Friday champions today’s advancements that could turn yesterday’s Science Fiction into tomorrow’s science reality. Information presented here is for entertainment purposes only. We are not liable if your space elevator collapses.

In a future where wireless power becomes as plentiful as Wi-Fi, not-so-distant generations could grow up cordless.

That is the dream, anyway. Nikola Tesla started down the road at the 20th century’s dawn. A hundred years later, companies like WiTricity carry the torch. Ask Dr. Frankenstein or Prometheus himself, the dream of plucking energy from thin air is a tough one to shake.

Imagine never needing to find an outlet again. Your phone charges in your pocket as soon as you walk into your office, and when you cross the threshold into your home it begins to re-charge. On the way home, from an adapter in your car or from the neighborhood Starbucks, like they were a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections, your smartphone finds wireless electricity hotspots nearby and starts streaming power right to your iPhone 42s-z-double-n-squared. There is no point in your day that you ever wonder how much battery power you have remaining.

In this future world, all electronics have been converted to receive wireless power. The only thing you need to worry about plugging in is a base that distributes the field, which would logically sit right next to your internet router.

Wireless power is still in the demo stage, though it’s passed through the “does this jive even make sense” phase, so that’s good. Don’t expect all of this overnight, but we can have fun looking ahead.

It’s also not very efficient. And I mean, really, could pumping sweet, sweet power through nothingness ever come at 100 percent efficiency?

How it Works

Wireless power is possible through inductive coupling.

In a nutshell, it works like this. Take a wire, coiled for optimum effect. Run some current through your coil (primary winding) and you’ll create a magnetic field around it. Take another coil (secondary winding), not connected to power but to a battery, and put it into the magnetic field. This induces a current in this second wire, charging the battery and, by result, whatever device that battery powers.

Electronic toothbrushes use this technology. As do inductive power mats, seen online and in stores like Best Buy. More power and bigger coils can create more powerful effects, but the efficiency is horrible.

Enter WiTricity.

True wireless power at a distance, like WiTricity proposes, requires something in addition to simple inductive coupling. Resonance. Specifically, resonant magnetic coupling . This is what MIT researchers, in the precursor to forming WiTricity Corp., used in 2007 to power a 60-watt lightbulb seven feet away.

As WiTricity describes on their website:

[An] example of resonance is the way in which a singer can shatter a wine glass by singing a single loud, clear note. In this example, the wine glass is the resonant oscillating system. Sound waves traveling through the air are captured by the glass, and the sound energy is converted to mechanical vibrations of the glass itself. When the singer hits the note that matches the resonant frequency of the glass, the glass absorbs energy, begins vibrating, and can eventually even shatter. The resonant frequency of the glass depends on the size, shape, thickness of the glass, and how much wine is in it.

It’s a two-sided system, but easily accessorized to retrofit existing technology, as exhibited by WiTricity’s recent iPhone sleeve.

The WiTricity Corporation’s YouTube Channel hosts several awe-inspiring, but soberly presented, videos. All of them are worth your time, but here’s one of the coolest. Yes, it does mean putting these things under some mats along your floor, but fifty years from now, who cares? It can all be built-in.

In case you’re wondering, the magnetic fields in question have been proven harmless. If your Wi-Fi hasn’t killed you, wireless power won’t. It can also penetrate solid objects like walls and furniture.

It’s really quite simple technology, just intelligently executed, which is crucial. And WiTricity is just one of many companies entering the wireless power business landscape. But we have known it was possible for a while.

Well… when I say “we,” I’m talking about one specific Serbian-American super genius.

Turns Out… Nikola Tesla

The world is starting to come around to Nikola Tesla, especially since Major Tom showed such electrifying ground control in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

After nearly a century, probably aided by the Internet, Tesla is kind of a big deal right now. There’s even an electric car company sorta kinda named him.

But there’s still not a lot known about the extent of his genius, because he never got around to inventing vlogs. There seems to be even less known about his real personal life–the kind of stuff HBO would demand to know if they ever did a biopic–except that he probably was not all that into it from account of being an extreme germaphobe, which itself seems ahead of its time.

He liked science-y stuff, God love him. As it stands he’s largely a mystery, somewhat self created from his penchant for hyperbole, but his patents speak for themselves.

The facts: one of the world’s greatest geniuses, and he definitely among its most visionary inventors. Tesla will definitely get his own Science Fact Friday at some point in the future, hell he practically embodies the Sciece Fact Friday spirit (and he liked pigeons). As a brief overview, his inventions and discoveries include Alternating Current (not too shabby), radio (heard of it), and X-rays (quit bragging). In the meantime, The Oatmeal’s “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived” is by far the coolest breakdown of the uber-inventor.

His actual contributions are overshadowed by misinformation. Ardent Googlers can find links between his work and teleportation or time travel, but there is little proof that even Tesla thought these things possible from his work.

All of this being said… let us now tell you about how Nikola Tesla tried to build a tower in the early 1900s that could power New York wirelessly.

The year is 1901. The same year Scotland Yard decided to start keeping a fingerprint database, New York started requiring license plates, and Teddy Roosevelt says “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Meanwhile, in Long Island, Tesla started building the Wardenclyffe Tower.

Tesla Meme

(SIDENOTE: Alan Bellows, DamnInteresting.com Founder/Managing Editor, wrote an awesome recounting of the Wardenclyffe Tower’s construction and purpose, for those wanting more of the history.)

Basically, Tesla planned the tower as the launch of a global network of towers meant to provide both wireless communication and wireless energy. Drawing from a 1908 Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony article, via DamnInteresting.com, I’ll let Tesla explain the tower’s purpose in his own words:

Science Fact Friday - Wireless Power - Tesla Tower

As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction.

We’ll just ignore, for this article, that Tesla referenced broadcast television half of a century before its invention.

And Tesla’s plans including ways to fit things like houses, business, and even boats with devices to harness this field he would create with these towers.

Does that not sound exactly like WiTricity and Wi-Fi in one package, except on a city, state, country, and maybe world-wide scale? And Tesla was not in this for the money, though he was happy to offer it to anyone for whatever purpose they preferred, such as J.P. Morgan for communication. He just thought it was rad.

Science Fact Friday - Wireless Power - Tesla Toiwer - Long Island

It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive — blind, faint-hearted, doubting world! […] Humanity is not yet sufficiently advanced to be willingly led by the discoverer’s keen searching sense. But who knows? Perhaps it is better in this present world of ours that a revolutionary idea or invention instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence — by want of means, by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, through the strife of commercial existence. So do we get our light. So all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combatted [sic], suppressed — only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle.

(via DamnInteresting.com)

I’m sure we all need a pick-me-up. Here’s a cat biting a Dalek.

Dalek Cat Science Fiction Kitten

Now, let’s talk about cars.

Yet Another Mobile Application

Speed Racer - Wireless Power

It may not look as electric as Speed Racer, but the future of transportation could be paved with wireless power.

Even without WiTricity, extending into your garage through some kind of energy router, having an induction mat to drive onto could make things just a tad easier for electric vehicles.

It may sound minor, but the thought of plugging a car in every night turns some consumers off. Driving your car onto a mat every night is not so arduous. It shaves about 10.4 seconds off your car-to-couch commute.

It’s just barely unnecessary enough to work.

And it’s already being tried by several companies, including Evatran and Momentum Dynamics, but most notably Qualcomm. Looking at their demos, it’s a slick idea. Pull up after a long day milling at the mill, and hop out (preferably having stopped) without giving two cares about your morning fuel stock. Add some sweet solar panels and you’re basically giving a big middle finger to cavemen and cavewomen everywhere.

But why wait to get home when you can piss off cavemen en route. Why not put them in the roads?

Public transportation, like busses, are perfect for this technology, along with anything big that moves a lot of people and currently burns a lot of gas. More importantly, busses have rotations and they have regular stops.

Electric busses in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England have been using wireless power technology via plates embedded in the road on either end of the busses’ route since late January. The fleet charges fully at night, but it receives a boost during the day, which improves things like route efficiency. A few places in South Korea, Italy, and the Netherlands have started similar projects.

There are some technology companies working on this idea of using wireless power to energize public transportation in the U.S., such as WAVE.

Okay, so we all hate when our cities do roadwork, but when we all drive electric cars, we probably wouldn’t mind the free “gas.” If it works for public transportation, it could work for private transport too. What this could mean politically and economically, who knows?

But it’s an exciting prospect. Who hasn’t hovered near “E,” searching for a gas station, asking themselves if they feel lucky? Just think, one could swerve over into a toll-tag-activated charging lane and get a fuel boost, like a racing video game’s power-up.

Science Fact Friday - Wireless Power - Mario Kart

It’s a-me, future Mario! Driving my Tesla Model S 2053! Still a-no fixin’ no toilets*. Wa-hoo! Let’s-a go!

This could simply be one part of a much larger realization of wireless power technology. A decision to powering our roads could lead the way to wirelessly powering the cities where they intersect, connecting everyone to a new, multi-functional wireless grid.

*smart toilets™

An Untethered Society

Science Fact Friday - Wireless Power - Untethered Society

Photo by Flickr user Halfrain under creative commons.

Alongside advances in areas like computer science and nanotechnology, including research with graphene and other super materials, we’re looking at a more powerful, power efficient future. Add wireless power to the mix, which is essentially limited only by how much much weight it’s asked to lift, and our world may look indistinguishable from science fiction within the century.

You’ve got WiTricity or some other wireless power system in your house giving you electricity without cords. Well, you’ve also got a Roomba, though it’s a lot smarter now. Your nearly paper thin, bendable television can stick anywhere because it’s super lightweight–sometimes you tuck it under your arm and take it to watch while on the toilet. Your stove is on wheels and if you roll it outside and work it through some Transformers-esque manuevers, it works as an electric grill for 4th of July.

Oh, and Christmas lights. Yes, someone figured out how to make Christmas lights cordless and that same someone instantly made a billion dollars.

All of this is possible only with wireless energy. It’s a hurdle no one really thinks about. There’s not a whole lot of charging ports in the Star Wars movies, so how long are we expecting these little practice drones to fly around? In fact, how do these batteries power droids for so long? Or any robot in 99 percent of science fiction?

Sure, battery improvements are a given, but wouldn’t it make more sense if these awesome future-batteries were also getting a constant feed of future-electricity? Well, unfortunately, we’re still a ways off from far out science fiction.

We may have to settle for tossing our phones into magical bowls that casually fill them with electricity like a sponge dampens a paper towel. Earlier this month, Intel boldly entered the wireless power game with their charging bowl, unveiled at CES in January along with their wearable tech initiative. Intel, being the giant they are, have the power to make at least some devices compatible with the bowl–a huge hurdle effectively sidestepped. Intel is starting with their new smart headset, and the plan is to integrate the bowl with future devices.

Intel Charging Bowl Wireless Power

What’s more, Intel and other companies, like Samsung, Sandisk, Dell, Qualcomm, and LG Electronics, have joined together in alliance with the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), branded as “Rezence”, which basically means that there’s a new little symbol you might see on boxes and things, sort of like a Bluetooth symbol. Same idea. It’s the often under appreciated, non-governmental third party that gets everyone to play along, and it’s supported by a lot of heavy hitters.

Several tech companies known for making fast moves, bound together in a common cause for wireless power. We might be revisiting that Tesla Tower sooner than later… Well, one can hope.

What about the other companies, like Microsoft, one might ask. Well, they just chose to back another horse, the Wireless Power Consortium. So it’s a safe bet to say that we will have widespread wireless power at some point, in some application, if everyone can find a way to agree and move along.

Oh, and Apple just had to go and file it’s own patent. We get it, Apple. You “Think Different.” Well, at least you’re cool with this. Welcome aboard, I guess… on your raft. Over there in the Apple Store with your cool laid back approach that everyone likes, and for good reason because it’s a lovely personality. I’ve got my eye on you. Love my new iPhone, by the way.

Roomba, listen up. When that day comes you’re still going to have to go into the closet at night. I still don’t trust you yet. Now, commence thine chores by working thine attention on the crevice betwixt mine floor and mine bed.


Science Fact Friday - Wireless Power - Nikola Tesla in his laboratory

We haven’t seen the last of the power outlet. If anything, we’ll need to plug our WiTricity “router” into a socket.

And of course, we have to outfit all of our devices to work with the resonance technology, which is not only an economic worry but potentially an environmental worry when we talk about adding to long-term, harmful e-waste–a real concern despite how much the third world seems to enjoy recycling old Gameboy guts on the Amazing Race.

Concerns like these naturally stem from technological progress as new replaces old. We just need a genius to focus on that sector for a little bit. If only we had a spare genius.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still bummed out about Tesla’s “It is not a dream” quote from above (someone find a way to meme the hell out of that, please). He was a real genius not appreciated in his own time. Not supported enough by good and honest people with deep pockets. Shame. Who knows when we’ll get that chance next.

In unrelated news, Meredith Perry, 20-something founder of uBeam , discovered a way to turn crystals into wireless energy using sound waves. Specifically, it uses piezoelectricity, a form of charge that can found in specific solid state materials, namely crystals, ceramics, and bone, when mechanical stress is applied.

Several angel investers and angel groups, including the Founders Fund’s angel arm, Crunchfund, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, gave her $750,000 in start-up money. Crunchfund’s Michael Arrington called Perry’s demo “the closest thing to magic.” So far it’s already been proven to work a distance of at least three feet.


Let us know what you think of the possibilities and future of wireless power by commenting down below, and don’t forget to like us on Facebook to hear about the next Science Fact Friday.

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