Free us from the tyranny of the plug socket

As expected, this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was awash with the usual dizzying range of gadgets. But one common theme to emerge from the rich and exotic soup of innovation was the gathering momentum of wireless technology.

From Sony’s Transfer Jet – a wireless data transfer system said to be faster than firewire and Bluetooth – to Wireless USB technology able to transmit data at high speeds up to 10 metres – consumers can, it seems, look forward to a future of ever more seamless and user friendly wireless connectivity.

And it’s not just around the home or in the office that the relentless march of the wireless world will be felt. According to many in the industry, the really big story is the continuing development of Wimax, the next generation wireless technology that can send data at high speeds over several kilometres. The technology now has the strong backing of Intel, which envisions Wimax forming the heart of a world-wide wireless broadband infrastructure and reportedly has plans to build Wimax capability into its laptops at some point this year.

But there is one big advance yet to be made before we can really say that we live in a wireless world, and that is the development of technology that will enable the wireless transmission not of data, but of power.

Imagine a world, where instead of plug sockets, every device in your house would receive its charge wirelessly from a series of hubs; banishing unsightly tangles of cables and plugs and revealing the contours of your wainscoting in all its pre-electronic splendour.

It sounds far-fetched, but the technology exists, and the physics has been studied for centuries, perhaps most notably by 19th century physicist Nicola Tesla who experimented with long distance wireless energy transfer.

Last year, a group at MIT revisited the concept and came up with a convincing theoretical design for a system based on the concept of resonant coupling – where an object is caused to vibrate when energy of a certain frequency is applied. This group believes that the phenomenon could be harnessed to wirelessly power laptops, MP3s and a host of other gadgets.

Clearly the notion of having beams of energy bouncing all over the house is going to raise some health concerns. But one thing is certain: we will only be truly freed from the tyranny of the plug socket when we find a means of safely and wirelessly transmitting power. Then again, we could just use batteries.

Jon Excell