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6 July 2018

Metaboards plans wireless power step-change amid slow-moving industry

Most devices inherently have two cables – power, and data. In the past decade, most consumer electronics have been able to bypass the need for a data cable using WiFi or Bluetooth, and while batteries have removed the need to be constantly plugged into an outlet, devices still need those power cables at some point in their lives.

This is why wireless charging has garnered such interest from developers, but there have been limitations in the current technologies. The Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi is the market leader, used by all the major smartphone makers and finding its way into other devices too.

Apple joining the WPC sealed the deal, but Qi is far from perfect. It requires that the device and the charging unit are correctly aligned, otherwise the coils in the device are not properly addressed by the charger. The charger can also only charge one device at a time, meaning that a 1:1 relationship was required. It also necessitates contact with the charger – meaning that while you don’t need a cable, you are effectively docking the device with the charger.

Ossia’s Cota, which Riot has covered in the past, is one way of removing the need for proximity, however, it is not really suited for delivering the same amount of power as Qi or Airfuel. Cota seems great for low-power devices like sensors and switches, with some very interesting uses for things like digital price labels in supermarkets, but it is not a good way to recharge a laptop, say, or power a blender – things that Qi can do.

A small University of Oxford spin-out, Metaboards, thinks it can provide great improvements to the current state of wireless charging, to improve the user experience (UX) greatly using its knowledge of metamaterials – to achieve significant gains in the abilities of the charging devices.

As CEO Nedko Ivanov put it, the current UX is very limiting – no different from plugging a phone in, and sometimes more restrictive, given that you can’t hold the phone while it is charging. What’s more, Metaboards’ technology can provide both power and data – meaning that this is potentially a complete cable replacement for things like computers, TVs, smart home devices, or cars, eventually.

Metaboards’ business lies in the transceivers for these wireless charging unit, specifically in providing a system that can charge at much greater distances than rivals. But while the company knows its version of a transceiver would cost more, Ivanov points out that the value lies in the installation costs for systems integrators (SIs).

For many of these SIs, one of the biggest problems when asked to provide Qi wireless charging is that they have to find furniture to accommodate the short charging distance. That can be challenging in and of itself, but when a customer won’t allow the SI to modify the existing furniture, such as a conference room table or a bar, then the SI has essentially run out of options. But Metaboards says it can provide the answer, thanks to the longer range of its transceiver, which would let the SI just slap one on most existing furniture to achieve the right result.

Arranged in grids under a desk, the Metaboards system would also benefit from only requiring one power supply, which can be shared among the cells. Ivanov says that if you were to try to use Qi, each cell would require its own power supply, as there isn’t a system to handle the handover between cells if the device is moved around the top of that desk or bar.

Ivanov wants to see if the Qi standards will evolve to support multiple simultaneous charging devices, but adds that the company could pursue its own standard, although noted that adding another standard isn’t ideal. He said that the Metaboards technology performs best in higher frequencies than those used by Qi, up in the 27MHz range. In time, perhaps there will be a need for better performance that might drive Metaboards to pull the trigger, but that’s a long way down the road.

The CEO noted that past experience has shown that you need to have carried out all the legwork for a potential customer, going as far as proving how they can commercialize the product. The company is confident in its demos, videos of which are pretty prominent on its website, and that these prove the value of the improved UX.

While it would be great if a company like Apple opted to take a license, those that make the end-devices that need charging, Ivanov said that the initial targets are going to be the charging devices themselves and the SIs that have to work with them. Ivanov stated that relying on OEMs like Apple or Samsung would be a mistake. Metaboards also has no interest in becoming a manufacturer itself.

With proof-of-concept tests with some companies, Metaboards is targeting CES 2019 as a launchpad for the technology. There are no product customers yet, but should the technology get in front of enough eyeballs at CES, it could become a very sought-after product – providing the ability to just place a phone down on a table or desk without worrying about not charging because you haven’t placed it exactly in the correct orientation.

The metamaterials that the company specializes are tricky to explain. In broad strokes, they are artificial structures that can be tuned to have very precise electromagnetic properties that you can’t find in naturally occurring materials. As such, you should be able to get better performance from a metamaterial transceiver than you would from a comparable gold or copper one, because of those modified structures – the patterns of the atoms.