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An Electrifying Invention … Ben Franklin Would be Proud

Column: Tricks & Tips

From the Oct. 2008 Issue

The continuing move to wireless technologies seems to have reached virtually
every corner of our lives, from wireless business networks to our personal gadgets
that keep us linked up with all of our e-mail, work folders and other functions
at all times. Businesses and individuals can now use cordless keyboards and
mice, get their high-speed Internet through wireless networks, and use PDAs
and smartphones to stay connected. Some printers are even available with wireless
cards, further freeing users from the tangled jungle of cords and wires.

But as wireless as we are becoming, the technologies on the market share the
same general capability of transferring data, which means there’s still
one cord that we haven’t managed to cut: electricity. All of our computers,
monitors, scanners, printers and portable gadgets with rechargeable batteries
need power, which obviously means the need for power cords, strips, surge protectors
and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS).

Intel, however, recently announced an innovation that may change this relationship
we have with wall outlets. The company’s new Wireless Energy Resonant
Link (WERL) was able to wirelessly transfer enough energy to power a 60-watt
light bulb from about seven feet away. This may not sound all that exciting,
but this is actually more power than is typically used to run a laptop computer.

For clarification, Intel didn’t invent the concept of wireless electrical
transfer; Mother Nature’s been doing this for eons in the form of lightening.
And spark plugs, electrical welders and even trains have been using a form of
it for years in the form of an electric arc. Additionally, Nikola Tesla developed
a wireless electrical transfer method in 1891, and numerous experiments with
microwave transmission have been successful. But all of these methods of transferring
power have the not-so-subtle drawback of zapping anything in between the send
and receive points. The new innovation is that it specifically doesn’t
zap anything because it is not using an electric field to transmit the energy.
Instead, they developed a way of transferring it via magnetic fields that don’t
affect the human body or other objects in the area.

One of the new terms coined for the concept is WiTricity (kind of like WiFi).
The initial development of using magnetic fields for the transfer of electrical
energy was performed by researchers at MIT. In the comparably short term, Intel
and tech industry analysts are touting benefits such as wirelessly powering
laptops, phones and other portable devices by installing transmitters in public
areas much like has been done with wireless networks. So at the airport, mall
or coffee shop, users wouldn’t have to worry about their battery charge
or finding an available outlet. These devices would, of course, need to have
a receiver built-in or added, probably in a similar fashion to wireless cards.
In the office or home, plugged-in items like computers or monitors could have
a transmitter built-in, allowing it to charge the smaller devices around it.

According to analyst Rob Enderle, this new power system could “eliminate
chargers and eventually eliminate batteries all together.” But this is
still primarily looking at small devices. What about powering full computing
systems, servers, even home appliances? Intel sees this potential perhaps by
the year 2050, likely beyond any of our professional years. But still, within
just the next three or four years, we should see these technologies coming to
the market.

You Still Aren’t Wireless?
On a related note, if your firm is still among the many that have not set up
a wireless network but you’d like to, you’ve probably held off because
of one of three reasons: security concerns, the potential cost, or you’re
leery of how much work it might be. Don’t worry, though. Wireless networks
can be set up pretty easily, they’re cheap now and they can be made as
secure as wired systems. In my next column, I’ll go over the basics of
setting up a small wireless network, either for your office or your home.

That’s Cool!
It’s About Time… Airborne Internet
American Airlines announced in late August that it is starting to offer in-flight
Internet service on a few trial routes, which is expected to be expanded to
most domestic flights sometime next year. Considering the state of the aviation
sector and since the largest U.S. air carrier was the first to implement fees
for even one checked bag, I’m pleasantly surprised that at least this
time the airline was able to figure out a way to give its patrons an added service
for the added fee.

Plus, it’s about time the Internet was available during flights, since
phone-based communication options have been offered for more than a decade and
satellites have been beaming the web to millions in recent years. Of course,
this means that frequent business travelers will probably be expected to be
productive on these flights, instead of catching that wonderful nap so many
of us enjoy. Ah, the joys of technology. Also, keep in mind that a nosy neighbor
may be able to see a passenger’s confidential e-mail, so be wary. The
service will cost $12.95 per flight, and as of this writing was offered on flights
from New York to L.A., San Francisco and Miami.

Travel Pics?
Summer’s long over, but every year during August, I suffer from varying
degrees of wanderlust. Sometimes I can satisfy this itch with a long day trip
or two, but occasionally I need to get further away for a bit longer. It probably
is not a coincidence that most people in western societies seem to take their
vacations or holidays during the summer months. Sure, it’s warm and the
beaches are inviting, but I wonder if there’s something instinctive in
the human conscience that makes this yearning for independence stronger during
this time of the year.

I suppose that would be a better discussion for a sociology publication, but
I’m curious about it nonetheless. So what did you do this past summer?
Did you drive to the Grand Canyon? Hike the Appalachian Trail? Visit Europe?
Or did you do something a little more local? Drop me a line and share some of
your summer pics. You can e-mail me at
(Please keep the size of the e-mail below 4MB).