Cutting The Wires

January 12, 2007
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A revolutionary new technology may have been generally overlooked at the International Consumer Electronics Show last week in the wake of the iPhone, dual format DVD, 108-inch screen HDTV, and thousands of next generation cell phones, computers, video games and other gadgets.

Alticor startup Fulton Innovation introduced eCoupled at the Las Vegas event — an innovative technology intended to eliminate the use of power transmission wires for potentially every device that must be plugged into an electrical outlet or charger.

The technology is based on inductive coupling, a 200-year-old technology that transfers energy from one device to another through a shared magnetic field. Theoretically, it can be used to power or charge any compatible device of up to 1,400 watts by simply placing it within a half inch of the eCoupled charger. It also has potential for data transmission.

“The technology can go virtually anywhere we use power today,” said David Hazlett, Fulton Innovation’s director of business development. “In the consumer electronics ecosystem, you have all these devices — cell phone, PDA, iPod — and power cords everywhere for everything. You have a charger for each at home, in the car, the office.

“This is universal,” he said. “You can just sit whatever it is on top of the base, without having to plug anything in.”

Fulton Innovation launched in November out of Alticor’s Ada-based Access Business Group to commercialize eCoupled. Licensing agreements are already in place with Visteon, Herman Miller, Motorola and Mobility Electronics, the creator of the iGo brand universal power adaptor.

Visteon, the massive Detroit-area automotive supplier, licensed eCoupled for use in its In-Vehicle Wireless Charger, introduced last Tuesday in a press event at CES. The “cup holder” charger was integrated into the dashboard of the company’s Toyota Scion and Honda Civic concept cars along with other recent innovations, including HD Jump transportable HD radio and Game Boy Dockable Entertainment System.

“Any driver or passenger who uses an electronic device would benefit from the convenience of this innovation,” said Steve Meszaros, vice president of the company’s electronics group in a prepared statement, adding that international consumer studies suggest people in several countries are “willing to invest in the convenience of not having to deal with charging cords in a vehicle.”

The charger was selected as a CES Innovations 2007 Design and Engineering Awards honoree. Visteon hopes to have it on store shelves by the third quarter. The company has indicated that the charger will be a factory-installed feature in some 2008 vehicles, but has not revealed what models it might appear in.

Built on concepts from pioneering 19th century chemists Michael Faraday and Nikola Tesla, inductive coupling, in its simplest terms, involves a magnetic battery coil within a device that spins when in close proximity to the coils within a charging unit. Inductive coupling is historically a limited and unreliable technology, eCoupled is the first offering to achieve efficiency standards coupling comparable to hardwired connections, with power losses of less than 2 percent.

It has been used for six years within Alticor’s eSpring Water Treatment System — inventor David Baarman’s solution for powering the system without wires that could corrode or rust underwater. The eSpring system has sold nearly a million devices since then, representing more than $1.2 billion in sales.

For six years, Alticor has been quietly working to commercialize eCoupled, Hazlett said, with hopes that it will become the standard technology for wireless power transmission in the manner that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have become industry standards for their respective niches. The first eCoupled products will be “backward compatible,” meaning they will work with existing devices.

Although the first applications will focus on mobility, the technology is not limited to small, low-power devices. With a potential output of 1,400 watts, eCoupled could easily power kitchen appliances and office machines.

“Imagine on your kitchen countertop a hotspot, so to speak, where you could set your Cuisinart or coffeemaker, and not only traditional electrical devices, but a frying pan or pot that you could set down on that spot and cook with just like a stove,” said Hazlett.

While not exhibiting at CES, representatives of Zeeland-based furniture maker Herman Miller were on hand to help launch the technology at the Visteon and eCoupled press events.

“We’re here today to demonstrate the ecosystem, so to speak, in which this technology can be applied,” said Herman Miller spokesman Mark Schurman during a phone interview from Las Vegas. “There is an opportunity for this as a problem-solving technology, to take devices from home to the car, work or class, and have that easy access charging.”

Schurman said it is possible that Herman Miller will debut an eCoupled concept or product of its own this year. If so, it is likely that will happen at the office furniture industry’s annual NeoCon trade show in June. The company also won a Best of Innovations award at CES last week for its Leaf tabletop light.

Office furniture industry analyst Michael Dunlap was not familiar with the technology, but said that any method of eliminating wires would be a strong proposition for furniture makers.

“You can eliminate an incredible amount of clutter and disorganization,” he said. “Wire management, which is a polite way of saying wire chaos, has been an obstacle toward office organization for a very, very long time.”

Coincidentally, last week also saw the launch of the first generation of wireless USB gadgets.    

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