David Zax

A View from David Zax

Apple Is Interested in Wireless Charging

Though we hope it’s not seriously pursuing the awkward strategy in a new patent application.

  • August 24, 2011

If patent applications were like movies, then Apple’s patent applications would be Hollywood blockbusters—they’re eagerly anticipated and widely debated. And if technology journalists are like film critics, then Apple’s recent patent application, you might say, was widely panned. Here’s a summer offering that no one should pay any attention to—and yet everyone is.

The patent, “Using an Audio Cable as an Inductive Charging Coil,” can be read in its entirety here. Patently Apple, the blog owning this beat, was the first to give it a thorough read. The headline was triumphant, Apple’s inductive charging solution had “finally” surfaced, as though great Herculean exertions had resulted in success. But even Patently Apple had to admit that the patent application was a little off, featuring an “oddly designed charging tower.”

“Oddly designed” is an understatement. The patent application calls for a “wireless” charging solution that makes matters more, rather than less, complicated—and that effectively substitutes headphones for wires. The idea is that a charging tower would sit atop your desk. When you want to charge your device, you’d wrap specially designed earphones around the tower, multiple times. Then you’d place the earbuds atop your device, where special conductive metal mesh would begin funneling electricity to your device.

Cue the critics: “Incredibly impractical,” “ridiculous,” “like an iPhone scratching post,” “Tolkien-esque,” “un tanto extraña.” Two thumbs down.

And it’s easy to understand why. The charging tower (which is actually only one of two proposed wireless charging mechanisms in the patent, the second involves generating current through an acoustic process) is an eyesore, wrapping earphones around it would be a hassle; and the whole thing is decidedly un-Apple-like in its unwieldy and cumbersome nature.

Thankfully, it’s just a patent application. And while it’s important that research into inductive charging continue—who wouldn’t like to do without the tangled spaghetti mess of wires that litter our homes and offices?—this patent application shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the direction that Apple is likely to be heading. I’m inclined to agree with Gizmodo’s succinct assessment that the patent application is something of a “red herring.”

All of which is a shame, because it’d be fun to see what the bright minds at Apple are really thinking will be the future of wireless charging. More relevant than the recent patent application may be the news that surfaced last month of Apple’s interest in a startup company called WiTricity, which uses technology based on research done at MIT. A fascinating demo on YouTube shows how one of WiTricity’s proposed systems would work. A sort of “anchor” device plugged into a wall—your desktop computer, for instance—could be used as the charger for other wireless devices in the vicinity. By tuning devices to one another—manufacturing them with closely matched resonant frequencies—a whole family of devices could be integrated into a single magnetic field. Considerable amounts of power can be safely transmitted across an entire room. As MacRumors pointed out in July, an international patent application from back in May filed by Apple cites the original MIT paper undergirding WiTricity’s work.

Why reinvent the wheel here—and remove its roundness while you’re at it? A Tolkienesque scratching post ringed by a tangle of earbuds? Apple, like Hollywood, may have a weakness for sequels. Its recently published patent application, though, could have gone straight to video.

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