Sue Weekes talks to Dan Bladen, co-founder of UK SME Chargifi, which is on a mission to make wireless charging smart
Dan Bladen is in no doubt that the power cable is the last cord that needs to be cut, describing it as the “only barrier to true mobility”. “From smartphones to laptops, electric vehicles to drones, connected power in public locations is now essential for the transformation of global mobility,” says the co-founder and CEO of wireless charging implementer, Chargifi. “The power cable will go the same way as the network cable and it’s imminent.”
Bladen believes power is a building block of today’s digital economy but is one that has been overlooked. “It hasn’t been turned into a digital commodity in the same way wi-fi, Bluetooth and other forms of connectivity have. “Power is like something from the late 1800s that we still plug in. Even the design of how we plug in has not changed,” he says.
Wireless charging is set to change all that though. Put simply, wireless charging makes use of an electromagnetic field to transfer energy between two objects and therefore liberates device owners from the need to find an electric socket to charge up.
Explosive market growth
The market for wireless power has seen explosive growth and is estimated to be worth $37.2bn by 2022 in the Business Wire Wireless Charging Market Report 2017 with more devices likely to be released with wireless power in 2017. Dell announced its first laptop with wireless power at this year’s CES.
Momentum is building and it isn’t just about announcements from device manufacturers. Chargifi is working with a number of other companies including Qualcomm to build the AirFuel Resonant wireless charging ecosystem in China. This includes supporting the development of Shenzhen into an AirFuel Resonant-powered smart city (see link below).
Chargifi’s focus is the monitoring, managing and monetising of wireless charging. As Bladen explains, the company looked closely at how wi-fi was able to scale through technologies from companies such as Aruba (acquired by HP) and Meraki (acquired by Cisco).
“These guys perfected the ability to scale wi-fi without having to have lots of networks and over-heavy management,” he says. “It worked well for lean IT distributions environments such as offices, hotels and restaurants and meant an IT manager could sit anywhere in world and see how their wireless network was performing. In the old days, if you went somewhere offering wireless connectivity, you’d see large numbers of access points but these have gone and are now replaced by one giant access point.”
As a parallel, Bladen explains that a single hotel chain with wireless charging in the bars, bedrooms and restaurants could easily find itself with up to 400 charging spots per hotel. When scaled up across the chain, this could increase to more than 5,000.
“If you are a systems integrator deploying wireless charging you have no idea how the hardware is performing, nor whether it is working, you can’t update firmware, and you can’t help that venue engage with an application. You basically have no smart cities element,” he says.
Chargifi is building out an Internet of Things (IoT) layer to provide this much needed smartness. It has patents around how you can manage and monitor wireless charging in public spaces and works with system integrators all over the world to help them deploy wireless charging with its software. “Chargifi turns wireless charging hardware into a service,” says Bladen. “Without it, your hardware is just dumb, commoditised plastic.”
Bladen got the idea for the company after travelling around the world for six months in 2012 and realised that decisions about where they were going were often dictated by which venues had power sockets so they could re-charge to remain connected with family and friends at home. He once again draws a parallel with the problem wi-fi had previously. “Six years ago the problem would have been connectivity but today the problem is power,” he says.
Surveys carried out by the company have backed up his view that lack of power is seen as major issue in today’s society and that wireless charging is going to be a standard requirement for smartphones imminently.
“It’s already being considered a utility amongst consumers. Our OnePoll research has demonstrated that ‘battery anxiety’ is a current concern,” he says. “One in five of us (22 per cent) say that the worst time to run out of battery is on the way to meet our friends and family, with 19 per cent saying it is when we are travelling abroad or to a meeting.
“Being ‘charged up’ is clearly critical with almost half of people (4 per cent) saying wireless charging should be made an amenity in public spaces, taking precedence over bottomless drinks [flat-fee drinking] and cloakrooms.”
One of the main issues facing the wireless charging industry though is that it has competing charging standards, namely the AirFuel Alliance and the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). Chargifi has the advantage of being a member of both and its software platform works with both standards.
“We’re the only agnostic provider of wireless power,” says Bladen, describing the situation as being like wi-fi in 1999 before Intel Centrino came along and put it straight into laptops. “Before then you had to have PCMA or a USB dongle to get onto wi-fi.
"Big chip makers, like Intel and Qualcomm, are putting their weight behind wireless power now and with Apple and Huawei to name just two companies that recently joined wireless charging standard bodies, the ‘Centrino moment’ for wireless power is not going to be too far away.”
Meanwhile, the company is busy realising its ambitious expansion plans. It is working across industry sectors and opening up new relationships with organisations such as Pret A Manger (where it is extending its charging spots to more outlets), The Clubhouse and Imperial College London.
In such venues, the charging transmitter typically goes under a table in a public space. A user puts their phone or laptop on top in a particular zone and it charges. “It is amazingly magical,” says Bladen. “With the AirFuel magnetic resonance, you can actually hold your phone in your hand above the table and it will still charge.”
Ultimately, wireless charging is likely to become as normal a feature of devices as Bluetooth but in the interim period users can borrow a wireless charging key from the venue offering the charging service.
Increasing dwell time
Chargifi has seen a 20 per cent increase in dwell time since November in venues which have its software with people sitting down and charging for longer. “It means people are getting used to it and changing their charging habits,” he says. “It is instinct to put your phone down on a table so it might as well be charging. We’re seeing people snacking on charging and lithium-ion batteries like it. They don’t like full charges or discharges, that is an old-school alkaline battery thing.”
The advantage for venues and retail outlets is that even a 1 per cent increase in dwell time reportedly leads to a 1.3 per cent increase in sales. Chargifi has also carried out research that found 54 per cent of women said they would likely spend up to £15 more if they were able to charge up at a venue.
“So we are trying to change it from being seen not just as providing a qualitative improvement for buildings and venues that is seen as cool and which enhances the customer experience, but also something that has a quantitative reason to deploy in terms of revenue.”
Further international expansion
In the consumer electronics side of the market, Chargifi would appear to be without a rival, having what it claims is the only truly agnostic software platform that works with magnetic induction and magnetic resonance. Bladen says if there is a competitor in terms of software management, it is in the electric vehicle (EV) space.
The company has filed for some intellectual property (IP) around controlling wireless charging sessions in wearables, tablets and smartphones through to EVs. Without doubt it has some of the most important IP for the IoT side of wireless charging in public spaces. And while it isn’t making any announcements, as the company matures and looks for other ways to monetise its software, it may explore how it could be applied in markets that make use of larger batteries.
With partners across nine markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia and most recently Switzerland, where tech entrepreneur Michael Rava recently signed a licensing deal, it is powering further international expansion for the business. It also recently joined with companies from around the world in Taiwan to talk about the importance of IoT management to enable wireless power to scale in smart cities at the Taiwan Association of Information and Communication Standards (TAICS). Bladen predicts Q3 and Q4 could see a number of significant developments for the market. “And we are constantly aiming to contribute to an always-on, 24/7 world.”
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