The “Qi” wireless charging standard will reach a higher level of prominence when the next fleet of iPhones is released. Apple has added glass backs to the iPhone X, iPhone 8, and 8 Plus, allowing them to charge wirelessly when placed on directly onto a mat. Next year, the company will release the AirPower, an Apple-branded wireless charging mat, to accompany the newest iPhones, the Apple Watch, and AirPods (when the AirPods are placed in their new wireless charging case that is).
However, Apple’s fall keynote announcement still fell short of expectations. The devices still have to be placed directly onto a charging mat which must, in turn, be plugged into an outlet. The setup isn’t exactly wireless and doesn’t allow for mobility– you can’t even lift your phone a few inches from the pad without disrupting the charging process.
Pi, a startup from California founded by a duo of MIT grads, aims to change that. The company has developed a wireless charging station, dubbed the Pi Charger that can beam power to multiple devices within a one foot radius.
The closer the device is to the charging hub, which is shaped like a small lampshade, the faster it charges. When placed right next to the station, the device will charge at full speed. Conveniently, the orientation of the phone (or what have you) doesn’t matter, meaning it doesn’t need to be positioned in a specific way, say, with its back on a flat surface.
The Pi charger was demoed in front of an audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield earlier this week, showing that the device could charge four phones and a tablet wirelessly and simultaneously, within a distance of a foot in any direction. The solution is still a far cry from the ideal scenario in which the charger’s range covers an entire room, but it’s a step toward greater flexibility.
The technology underpinning the Pi charger is called “inductive power transfer”, which is the same concept at work with the Qi standard. It’s good news for Apple customers, because the Pi charger will be “backwards compatible” with all Qi-compliant devices including the soon-to-be released iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and iPhone X.
The “secret sauce” that Pi contributes to this setup is a beam-forming algorithm that safely conducts a weak magnetic field to the device’s position up to a foot away, Pi co-founder John MacDonald said in an interview with TechCrunch. The algorithm, which was the brainchild of Lixin Shi, Pi’s CTO and co-founder, allows the charger to change the angle of the magnetic field to match the angle of a consumer device. According to the company website, the Pi Charger provides up to 10 watts of power per device, which is slightly higher than the 7.5 watts supported by the third-party charging mats for the newest iPhones.
“Magnetic fields are the best way to send meaningful energy to phones, tablets, and other portable electronics,” said Shi. “The hard part was figuring out how to make magnetic charging more flexible, multi-device, and extend its useful range. It took us over a year to complete the mathematical proof that makes it all possible.”
The exact price and shipping date for the Pi charger have yet to be determined, but the co-founders expect it to ship sometime in 2018 for less than $200 dollars.
Apple, for its part, is also suspected to be working on extending the reach of wireless charging in partnership with a startup called Energous. Energous claims that its WattUp wireless technology covers a range of up to 15 feet, allowing users to roam with their devices while charging them. But we may have to wait until next year’s fall keynote to see if the rumored partnership has borne fruit.