This article is part of our Trends 2016 coverage.
When Wi-Fi gained dominance over the Ethernet cable, it obviated the need to plug in for an internet connection. So have you ever wondered why device charging still largely relies on USB cords?
With the rise of wireless charging, that is starting to change. Here’s how it works: There’s a base, connected by wire to an electrical outlet, with a magnetic field that varies constantly. That variance vibrates a receiver in the device, powering the battery. Plop your phone down on a desk with such a base, and it automatically charges.
It’s a century-old idea, first put to use in motors and generators during the industrial revolution. These days the push is toward implementation in personal devices, with more than 200 brands -- including Microsoft, Samsung, LG Electronics and Verizon -- agreeing to a standard for chargers called Qi. The latest bump came this past spring, when IKEA introduced furniture with built-in wireless chargers and charging pads.
These protocols and deals are starting to equal serious market penetration. In 2014, 55 million devices shipped that charged wirelessly. A year later that number had tripled to 160 million, accounting for $1.7 billion in sales, according to research firm IHS, which predicts an $8.5 billion market by 2018. The proliferation will extend from personal devices like phones, the Apple Watch and laptops to appliances, cars and especially to major infrastructure in offices and public places, such as airports and restaurants.
One company that’s benefiting is Toronto-based ChargeSpot, which uses teams of integrators to retrofit offices and commercial spaces for utilization of wireless power. The company provides the hardware and an integrated back-end solution, so it can monitor charging performance, update security and firmware, and give offices or franchisees (there are ChargeSpots in a chain of Toronto coffee shops called Second Cup) a web portal that acts as an integrated management system. Co-founder and CEO Mark Goh says a business can use the system to provide rewards, such as a coupon popping up on a user’s phone, and adds that ChargeSpot is being piloted at a chain of hotels.
Other companies in the space are Aircharge, a U.K.-based outfitter whose chargers are in some Emirates airlines first- and business-class lounges; the company also inked a deal earlier this year to deploy 600 Aircharge stations in McDonald’s restaurants throughout the U.K. Kube Systems, a New York-based supplier, is quickly gaining the lead in the hospitality sector; it outfitted 29 Marriott Hotel lobbies with wireless charging in 2014 and has since rolled out Kube portable charging systems at select Sheraton, Vail Resorts and Four Seasons properties. Kube is also taking advantage of brisk Apple Watch sales by rolling out a product that can simultaneously charge the watch as well as a phone, so travelers don’t have to pack cables.
Perhaps the biggest movement is in automotive. A study by IHS suggests that there will be widespread adoption of wireless charging by nearly all automakers. Toyota has taken the early lead in offering Qi charging in its Camry and Tacoma models, as well as in Lexus products; now the Germans are giving chase, with BMW offering Qi on its newest 7 Series, and Audi in its Q7 SUV. IHS predicts the market for in-car wireless to grow to $600 million by 2020.