Intel pushes industry to cut the cables

WiFi is wonderful, but somehow we are still stuck with lots of cables. Now Intel and others are working to eliminate the rest and deliver true wireless computing.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Intel didn’t invent WiFi — 802.11b was approved four years before Centrino came along. But the wireless platform did much to bring about a world in which we can walk into a coffee shop or hotel and expect free wireless broadband. What it did not do, however, is get rid of all the cables. Now the industry is setting its sights on the remaining ones.

Two technologies, in particular, are poised to make this happen. The first, WiGig, can be used not only to stream video to TVs and monitors, but also to connect computing devices to wireless access points, docking stations and other peripherals. The second, wireless charging, could finally eliminate the need to carry a power cable everywhere.

Like WiFi, these aren’t new technologies. Dell has been offering a Latitude laptop and wireless dock using WiGig for some time, and there are many companies — arguably too many — competing to deliver wireless charging. What the industry needs is someone to push standards, drive down the cost, and make these technologies ubiquitous.

That’s what Intel is now trying to do. Last month at Computex, Intel demonstrated WiGig wireless docking and simultaneous wireless charging of a laptop, smartphone, headset and tablet with a pad placed under a tabletop. The company said that it would deliver reference designs for systems that use the technology in 2016 as part of a future Core processor family known as Skylake.

Based on the IEEE’s 802.11ad standard, WiGig trades range for speed. It operates in the 60GHz spectrum, compared with 2.4- and 5.0GHz for WiFi, which means it really works only at short distances and can’t easily penetrate walls. But it can transfer data at speeds of up to 7Gbps, compared to a maximum speed of a little more than 1Gbps for 802.11ac (though there are techniques to push it a bit further).

Like the competing WirelessHD, which is also based on 60GHz but does not meet 802.11ad specifications, WiGig can be used to stream video from a mobile device to a TV or monitor, replacing HDMI and DisplayPort cables. But WiGig can also be used for networking and wireless docking. The idea is that you place your laptop on your desk and it automatically connects with your monitor, keyboard and mouse, printer and other peripherals without cables.

Eventually networking companies will offer tri-band wireless routers that can automatically switch between the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 60GHz bands to provide the best balance of range and throughput.

Wilocity was the first-mover here, teaming up with Qualcomm-Atheros to create the tri-band solutions (2.4- 5.0- and 60GHz) used in the Dell Wireless 1601, which is available in the Latitude 5000 and 7000 series, Precision mobile workstations and Wireless Dock D5000. Wilocity says it has shipped more than a million WiGig chips since Dell started offering the feature in early 2013.

At Mobile World Congress, Wilocity announced a new chip, the WiL 6500, designed for smartphones. Marvell is also working with Wilocity on tri-band solutions, and there are several competitors developing WiGig chips or intellectual property including Beam Networks, Blu Wireless, Broadcom, Nitero, Peraso and Tensorcom.

WirelessHD was first to market, and wireless transmitters and receivers are already available from DVDO, Sharp and ZyXel. Intel is also part of the WirelessHD Consortium, but the chipsets are developed by Silicon Image.

Earlier this year at CES, Silicon Image announced a WirelessHD chipset for smartphones. Most of the other members are consumer electronics companies including LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. Despite the big names, WirelessHD hasn’t been broadly integrated into TVs, Blu-ray players or set-top boxes, and the more versatile WiGig seems to be gathering momentum.

The situation is less clear in wireless charging. There are two basic technologies: induction-based charging and resonance-based charging. And within these there are competing groups.

The Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi is an induction-based technology already used in a wide range of products including HTC, LG, Nokia and Samsung smartphones. Freescale, IDT, Texas Instruments and Toshiba supply the chips. Starbucks recently announced plans to install wireless charging pads in tables and counters using Powermat, a competing induction-based technology (Powermat is a joint venture of Procter & Gamble’s Duracell division and Powermat Technologies). Powermat is based on standards developed by the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), a group that includes AT&T, BlackBerry, HTC, Huawei, LG, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung, TI and ZTE.

The competing resonance-based technology has been slower to market, but seems to have some technical advantages. First, devices don’t need to be placed in a precise position on the charging pad--you can change the orientation and distance and it will continue to charge. It also works from up to as much as 12 inches away from the pad, though the distance can be extended with repeaters. Second, it charges through materials such as wood and metal, which means chargers can be placed in furniture or PCs. Finally, a single resonance-based pad can charge multiple devices at once.

Earlier this year WiTricity, an MIT spin-off that has developed a lot of the resonance technology, joined the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), which is promoting the technology under the Rezence. Intel is backing the A4WP along with many other chipmakers such as Broadcom, Marvell, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments. The group also includes a long list of device makers such as Dell, HTC, Lenovo, LG, Panasonic and Sony.

This mess has held back wireless charging, but the good news is that the industry finally seems to be taking steps to straighten it out. The PMA and A4WP are now working together on solutions that would support both induction and resonance charging standards. At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, MediaTek announced a chip that will support both as well.

For WiGig, Intel plans to make its own chips. The company said it will have silicon for both transmitters and receivers in production by the end of this year, and available in products in the first half of 2015. For wireless charging, Intel’s decision to push Rezence should help get resonance charging into the mainstream market, but it isn’t clear whether the company will make its own components or partner with existing players.

Intel has said only that it will contribute some of its own IP to expand the standard to support wireless charging of laptops (which requires at least 20 watts) and that Rezence will be part of a Skylake reference design by 2016. Either way if Intel can duplicate its success with Centrino, by the end of 2016 we should be much closer to true wireless computing.

Editorial standards