“Wireless” will come to signify much more than the untethering of handsets from phone and Ethernet cables in the near future. Wireless charging spots for mobile gadgets are popping up at coffee and tea shops in select locations. Similar efforts to eliminate the cables that connect computers and monitors are not far behind, bringing with them the promise of virtually tangle-free living rooms and desktops.
Starbucks is putting wireless charging on the map through a pilot program to roll out wireless charging stations in its coffee and Teavana shops. Customers can recharge smartphones and tablets on tables and counters designated as Powermat Spots by placing their devices on a Duracell Powermat, developed by Procter & Gamble’s Duracell brand and Powermat Technologies, Ltd.  Some newer phones—including the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Asus PadFone X—have built-in receivers that enable them to draw power directly from these mats. Other devices must be placed in a special case or require a plugin receiver to take advantage of wireless recharging.
The program began in 2012 when the coffee chain began supplying Starbucks locations around Boston and San Jose, Calif., with Duracell Powermats. Last week, Starbucks announced a national rollout of Powermat Spots beginning with stores in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Powermat launched a similar pilot program last November with The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafés in the Los Angeles area.
Cables that connect mobile gadgets to electrical outlets use conductive wires to deliver battery-charging electricity. Powermats, however, rely on magnetic induction—the transfer of electrical power using a magnetic field shared by the device and the mat.
A typical wireless charging setup includes several components. The charging spot—the Duracell Powermat, for example—serves as the wireless charging transmitter that delivers power to the mobile device placed on it. The transmitter gets its juice from a power supply plugged into an electrical outlet, providing 5 to 50 watts of power for several charging spots connected in a daisy chain. The mobile devices themselves must have receivers—induction coils that collect power from the transmitter’s magnetic field and convert it back into electrical current to charge the device’s battery.
For wireless charging to really take off, however, the tech companies that make the charging spots and the devices that use those spots must be on the same page. That means following a set of standards that enable different devices to work with different charging spots. Powermat and Duracell designed their technology to comply with a standard established by the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), whose members include AT&T, Microsoft and Qualcomm as well as smartphone makers Blackberry, HTC, Huawei, LG and Samsung.
Two other wireless charging standards compete with the PMA’s version. Nokia’s Lumia handsets, for example, adhere to the Qi standard advocated by the Wireless Power Consortium. Yet another group, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP)—led by Qualcomm, Samsung and several other tech giants—backs a third standard called Rezence, which relies on magnetic resonance, rather than induction, for wireless recharging. Resonant magnetic coupling lets the magnetic fields of two coils with closely matched resonant frequencies merge into a single continuous magnetic field that can transfer power from one device to another over a distance ranging from a few inches to several feet.
One of magnetic resonance’s advantages is that it can be used to charge multiple devices on a surface much bigger than a single spot, says Kirk Skaugen, senior vice president and general manager of chipmaker Intel’s PC Client Group. Inductive technology allows only one handheld device to be charged at a time, and that device must be placed in a specific spot on the mat.
Intel is working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff WiTricity Corp. in Watertown, Mass., to develop wireless charging that can power a range of mobile computing devices. Intel—an A4WP member—sees wireless charging as a stepping-stone to altogether eliminating wires for PCs and mobiles, something Skaugen addressed at the recent Computex trade show in Taipei.
Peer-to-peer wireless streaming via a connection similar to Bluetooth could eliminate cables that connect monitors and other displays to PCs and laptops. Based on a standard called Miracast, such technology enables wireless delivery of audio and video to or from desktops, tablets, mobile phones and other devices. Intel has enabled such streaming on certain devices that use its chips for the past few years. The company’s version of Miracast—called WiDi, or wireless display—is actually software that runs on top of Intel Wi-Fi chips. A computer featuring a WiDi-enabled chip can stream content wirelessly, for example, to a high-definition TV with a WiDi chip. WiDi will soon be integrated into Android and iOS devices as well, Skaugen says.
Another way cords can vanish from desktop workspaces and home entertainment centers is via a multi-gigabit-speed wireless communications technology known as WiGig. The idea is to connect all the elements needed to work or entertain—including computers, mobile devices, displays, keyboards, cameras and mice—at speeds that make even the streaming of high-definition content an option. The devices would all have to be within the same room, but they would communicate at several times the speed of Wi-Fi.
Skaugen acknowledges that wireless signals—whether for charging, Internet connectivity or data transfer—are less efficient than those delivered through a cable. Despite the energy and signal loss, however, an increase in wireless capabilities means fewer Ethernet cables, power supplies and other wires to end up in landfills, he adds.