Recharge without wires

Phones, laptops just sit on `eCoupled' hot spot or in car dash's slot

Plugged In

January 25, 2007|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Mobile phones, laptops and other battery-powered devices for today's mobile work force all have at least one shortcoming: They need to be recharged.

And that's a big nuisance for road warriors who have to lug power bricks on trips or even for everyday users who leave devices plugged into wall sockets at the home or office.

Well, 2007 may be the year when recharging begins to go cordless.

A technology called "eCoupled" that powers gadgets ranging from electric razors to iPods just by placing them on a countertop or into a slot on a car's dashboard was introduced this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"The goal is to create a universal spot to charge all your devices," said Dave Baarman, director of advanced technologies for Fulton Innovation, an Ada, Mich., subsidiary of Alticor Inc., which owns direct-marketing giant Amway Corp.

Fulton is licensing the eCoupled technology to companies ranging from mobile phone manufacturer Motorola Inc. to furniture-maker Herman Miller Inc. and auto parts supplier Visteon Corp.

"Imagine going home and charging your pager or your iPod by just having it sit on the counter. You don't need to plug it in," said T.C. Wingrove, senior manager for innovation at Visteon, which unveiled an eCoupled product at the show. "That's a very powerful value proposition for the consumer."

Wingrove, who called the new technology "the most exciting thing I've come across in my career at Visteon," said a charging device using the technology is expected to be available in some new vehicles in 2008.

A bucket-like eCoupled charger, expected to be priced below $100, will be available in the third quarter for those who want to add them to their vehicles, he said.

To get an idea of how eCoupled works, Baarman said to imagine a kitchen countertop with a built in "hot spot." Your BlackBerry or iPod would charge by sitting on the hot spot, which "is intelligent and can tell which device" is on it and adjust the power flow accordingly, he said.

The hot spot "reads the different frequencies" for each device and charges both, Baarman said.

The hot spot is connected to a home's main power supply and turns on when a device is placed on it and powers off when the gadget or gadgets are charged.

The first eCoupled products will be "backward compatible," which means they'll work with existing devices.

Visteon's charger, for example, will tap into a car's 12-volt power supply. A user drops a phone or an MP3 player into the charger.

Sometime in 2008, Wingrove said, "we expect to see an eCoupled charger" installed in cars at the factory. "We already have a lead customer," he added, but declined to name the automaker.

The car charger will also work with Bluetooth wireless technology, meaning a driver won't have to pull the phone out of the charger while making a call, so drivers can talk wirelessly while charging wirelessly.

Furniture-maker Herman Miller is also exploring options for the technology.

"At one level, the technology can be embedded into a desk or another work surface," said Mark Schurman, a spokesman for the Zeeland, Mich., company. "The next level is looking at how we can use the technology in furniture, like a chair."

Another development expected to draw attention is the wireless Universal Serial Bus port, which will enable consumers to get rid of the cables that transfer information such as music or photos between gadgets and computers.

More than 2 billion products have wired USB ports.

"People want to get rid of the cable mess around their house," said Jeff Ravencraft, a technology strategist for Intel Corp. and chairman of the USB Implementers Forum, an industry group that develops USB technology.

Like eCoupled products, the first generation of wireless USB gadgets will be backward compatible.

An adapter will be required to make these products work until "native" devices are developed. Native means wireless USBs built into cameras, phones and computers.

Ravencraft said wireless data transfers, such as moving digital camera photos to a computer, will compare favorably in speed with their wired counterparts.

Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Samsung Corp. are some of the companies developing products for wireless USB transfers.

Technology researcher In-Stat predicts 11 million products will be shipped this year that include wireless USB ports. By 2010, that number is expected to jump to 289 million products.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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