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Among all the interesting innovations coming out of CES 2022 this week, we were most intrigued by Samsungâ€™s new Eco Remote, which promises to stay charged by drawing power from the Wi-Fi signals that are already bouncing around your home.
The Eco Remote isnâ€™t an entirely new product; itâ€™s actually an update to last yearâ€™s version, which offered solar charging. Thatâ€™s still possible with this new model, but you probably wonâ€™t need to use solar, since it can also collect radio waves from your router and convert them to energy.
Itâ€™s a neat trick that you wonâ€™t see in too many gadgets since itâ€™s really only suitable for extremely low-power devices â€” like remote controls. Still, itâ€™s such a novel idea that weâ€™re a bit surprised that Apple didnâ€™t come up with it first, considering that itâ€™s been working on long-range wireless charging since at least 2016.
Of course, weâ€™re fairly certain Apple has much bigger plans for this technology, but itâ€™s also a long way from being perfected, not to mention authorized by government regulatory agencies like the FCC.
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Charging an iPhone over the air would be fantastic, but pulling this off requires specialized transmitters that beam out substantially higher amounts of power.
Meanwhile, Samsung seems to have latched onto something that shouldnâ€™t raise the ire of regulators, since itâ€™s simply drawing on the radio frequencies that are already swirling around your home.
From its very name, itâ€™s obvious that Samsungâ€™s Eco Remote is being marketed for environmental responsibility, which is another reason that itâ€™s quite surprising that Samsung got here first.
When Apple unveiled the Apple TV 4K last year, it came with a completely redesigned Siri Remote, but it still needs to be plugged into a Lightning cable to be juiced up. Most folks wonâ€™t need to do that more than a couple of times per year, but in some ways that makes it even more frustrating, as youâ€™ll need to dig out an extra charger and cable for those rare times that you do need to plug it in.
Still, the Siri Remote is a relatively stationary device, and plugging it in for the very infrequent recharge is still less of an issue than having to change batteries â€” not to mention the environmental impact of using disposable batteries.
As Ben Lovejoy points out over at 9to5Mac, the AirTags would be ideal candidates for this technology, since they also run at the same kind of ridiculously low power levels as a TV remote.
While Wi-Fi power harvesting requires that the devices be within a reasonable range of a Wi-Fi network, this shouldnâ€™t be a problem as most peopleâ€™s AirTags come home pretty regularly.
Plus, Wi-Fi harvesting doesnâ€™t require a specific Wi-Fi network to function, just the raw radio waves. This means it would likely work just as well at the office, at school, or even in a shopping mall â€” basically anywhere that thereâ€™s a strong enough concentration of wireless signals in the air.
Challenges in Using RF Harvesting to Power AirTags
To be clear, an AirTag would still require an internal battery, since Wi-Fi harvesting canâ€™t necessarily be relied on to provide enough energy to actually power the AirTag. Instead, it would slowly feed a rechargeable battery, which would then be used to keep the AirTag running.
This is even more complicated because harvesting Wi-Fi signals suffers from the same range issues as connecting to Wi-Fi networks in general. Basically, the farther you are away from a Wi-Fi router or access point, the weaker the signal is, meaning that your device will have less energy to draw from.
In other words, even if this technology could power an AirTag under ideal conditions, Apple wouldnâ€™t be able to rely on that consistently providing enough power to do any more than charging the battery.
Further, unlike a remote control, which likely sits idle on your coffee table for the majority of each day, an AirTag is active constantly. This means that itâ€™s not enough to slowly charge the battery, as the energy going out will still be greater than the trickle of energy coming in. It would be like refilling a humidifier with an eye-dropper. You may be able to make it run a bit longer, but eventually the tank will still be empty.
So, for Apple to wirelessly charge AirTags this way, theyâ€™d have to be designed to enter some kind of lower-power â€œstandbyâ€ mode at regular intervals. In theory, this wouldnâ€™t be too hard, as chances are your AirTag doesnâ€™t need to keep reporting the location of your keys at 3 a.m. when youâ€™re in bed, and theyâ€™re on the nightstand beside you.
However, this would increase the design complexity of AirTags, which donâ€™t even necessarily know what time of day it is, much less where theyâ€™re actually located. Remember that AirTags donâ€™t have a built-in GPS â€” theyâ€™re simple Bluetooth beacons that broadcast an ID code. Itâ€™s the iPhone, iPad, or other Apple device that receives that code that reports their location.
So, Apple would have to design a reliable way for an AirTag to know where it is and whether it needs to broadcast its location, and then drop into a power mode thatâ€™s low enough that the battery is actually charging. Only Apple knows for sure what this minimum power level is, and it may not even be possible without switching the AirTag off entirely.
Lastly, itâ€™s also hard to say what the extra hardware would do to the size or cost of the AirTag. Samsungâ€™s Eco Remote isnâ€™t a standalone product, but rather something designed to accompany its multi-thousand-dollar televisions, so thereâ€™s lots of room for the electronics maker to offset the expenses involved in producing the remote. Thatâ€™s not really the case with AirTags, which are sold as entirely standalone devices â€” although of course you still need an iPhone to get the most out of them.