The most popular device this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn’t a laptop, camera, or high-definition TV – it’s an open electrical outlet. With over 160,000 attendees constantly draining their cellphones’ batteries as they tweet about and upload photos of the show, power is a precious commodity. The chance to plug in and recharge is as precious as gold.
Maybe that’s one reason why Watertown-based wireless power company WiTricity has so many people prowling its booth here in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The company’s technology offers a way to charge electronic devices without any wires, cradles or plugs; if it was embedded in a table, you could toss your phone on top with everyone else’s, and it would automatically start receiving power.
“Everyone here is a potential consumer of this technology,” says CEO Alex Gruzen. “Are there any products anywhere on this whole show floor that don’t have a power cord or charge somehow? Everything here could be wirelessly powered.”
WiTricity licenses out its technology, called “Rezence,” to manufacturers around the world who build it into an array of consumer electronic devices. Some of them are on display in the booth, including an Intel-made laptop with a built-in wireless power receiver, and a GoPro camera that visitors can see is charging even though it’s locked in a plexiglass box and submerged in water. A point of sale razor display from fellow Boston-born company Gillette hangs on a wall, and WiTricity’s wireless power lights up flashing LEDs inside each individual package; it’s an eye-catching gimmick that Gillette is currently testing in a few retail locations.
Wireless power isn’t a new technology — chances are good you’ve already used it if you owned an electric toothbrush in the past two decades. But those systems use magnetic induction to transfer power, a scheme that requires precise placement and close contact between device and charger. WiTricity’s systems are built to exploit resonant magnetic coupling; they emit an electromagnetic field that extends several feet from the charging base, offering positional freedom and the ability to penetrate other materials. Rezence can charge your phone through the wood of a table or from behind a concrete wall.
At the CES booth, one visitor played with a wireless floor lamp powered by a charger hidden beneath a piece of carpet. Another studied a mockup of an automobile console that could charge your phone when you toss it into a cup holder. “We’re dealing with a huge amount of inbound traffic,” says Gruzen. “[Rezence] is one of those things that when people start to experience it, there’s no going back.”
WiTricity’s mission here at CES is part product evangelism (“This CES is about letting everyone know this is real, and it’s coming this year.”) and part searching for new partners — the company already has some big licensees, including Intel, TDK and Toyota, but for the technology to succeed, it needs to become ubiquitous. Wired power has remained a standard for a century in part because manufacturers can be sure their products will plug into any electrical outlet in the country; before consumer electronics companies will start the shift to wireless, they’ll want to be sure their consumers can always find compatible wireless chargers.
One major obstacle to that happening fell on Monday, when the two major industry groups promoting wireless power agreed to merge into a single organization; The Alliance for Wireless Power will deliver existing members including WiTricity, Dell, and Foxconn, while the Power Matters Alliance includes Duracell, AT&T, and Kyocera. The new group will accelerate adoption of the technology, says Gruzen, and will help make 2015 “the year of wireless power” as a first wave of compatible smartphones, notebooks, and tablet computers starts hitting stores this fall.
But whether new wireless power products are one-off novelties or the first generation of many still depends largely on whether vendors like WiTricity are able to line up enough new licensees — making events like CES more important than ever. Gruzen says he’s spent about 80 percent of his time this week talking with manufacturers from the hundreds of different industries represented at the show. “We don’t know all the potential customers out there,” he says. “But they’re all here, they’re walking around. My sales and biz dev guys are swamped.”
WiTricity was founded in 2007 to commercialize technology originally developed at MIT, and has received investments from companies including Toyota, Intel, Needham-based Stata Venture Partners, and Waltham’s Stage 1 Ventures.