Your Wireless Future

Tesla_Broadcast_Tower_1904I dream of a wireless future.

We introduced cables for the first time with the discovery of electricity. This magical source of power traveled along wires to bring light and sound to far away places. The invention of the telegraph led to wires stretching from coast to coast, and eventually across the Atlantic itself. By the mid-twentieth century electricity was in every home. Wires had become so common, in fact, that a common term for a standard transistor radio was a “wireless” since it received sound over airwaves instead.

Even as late as thirty years ago telephone conversations were complicated by having to be tethered to their base. Teenagers who wanted to talk in private to their friends had to contend with the length of the wire in their escape from nosy siblings. As early as 1901 the great inventor Tesla noticed the increasing importance of wires in our lives and commented: “The economic transmission of power without wires is of all-surpassing importance to man.”

And yet, since then, we have only found more ways to increase the number of cables in our lives. Power cables are only the start. Add to that video cables, sound cables, data cables, and the typical modern workspace more closely resembles a snake nest then the future.

So what can we do about it?

Wireless Telephone

cordless-telephone-ge-intact2The issue of being able to take your phone anywhere was dealt with rapidly. By 1977 the first cordless phones were being produced and marketed to the public. These phones converted the information coming over the telephone wire into a radio signal which was broadcast over a limited space to where ever the actual phone device was located. Unfortunately, the range had to be kept very small or it would interfere with aircraft communications. So while you couldn’t leave the house with your telephone, at least you could take it into your room and shut the door.

At about the same time, mobile phones were being invented. In 1073 Motorola released the first handheld mobile phone. By 1990 texting had been introduced. Today no one leaves the house without their smart phone–an instant source of communication and entertainment. Cell phones, unlike their predecessors, are battery powered and communicate wirelessly with cell towers. No longer do we have to worry about missing an important phone call when we’re out of the house. No longer will you go to the grocery store, forget what you came for, and be unable to contact your mother to find out what it was again. This is the beginning of the wireless future.

So what’s next?

Wireless Video

The age of analogue television and heavy CRT monitors are far, far behind us. The world is shiny, portable, and space-saving with LCD screens. But as anyone who’ve ever tried to plug their laptop into their widescreen television screen knows, not all LCD monitors are created equal, and some connectors are easier to find and adapt then others. DVI, RGB, and HDMI are just a sampling of the type of cables you need to keep in supply if you want to be able to instantly connect devices to displays.

In this day and age, storing information on discs is going the way of CRT screens. Instant streaming and digital libraries are fast, convenient, and have a much longer shelf life. Cloud storage means you can access your media from anywhere, any time, provided you have the data plan to cover the high download usage. This has led to an increasing number of products designed to access streaming software such as Netflix, Amazon, and your own cloud software. Instead of having to plug your laptop into your television, simply insert the USB FireStick from Amazon and navigate by remote control.

amazon-fire-tv-stick-review-box-3303x2203Less cords! But what if there was a way to transmit video, images and sound from your smart phone to your friends television screen without searching through the bottomless box of cable adaptors, or having to copy and paste over to his home server? What if you could push a button and flick your fingers at a youtube party instead of having to tediously search for each video? What if I told you that this wasn’t science fiction, but real technology that will soon be as wide-spread as LCD screens?

Met Amazon’s Fire TV, the first of many companies to introduce screen sharing. Screensharing is the most awesome step towards eliminating wires since the cordless telephone. It works like this. When you’re over at a friends house or even, in the near future, in a public area, you can search for available screens, much like you search for open WiFi networks. Some will be open, some secured, depending on what they’re for, and how private the owner is. You select the screen of your choice (like your uncle’s widescreen at a family gathering) and then go to your video/slideshow and send it over. Suddenly everyone is watching a video on your phone…without having to crowd around your phone.

It’s wireless, it’s instant, it’s the future.

Wireless Sound

Bluetooth_headsetAnother type of cord we humanoids deal with are headphone and speaker cords. Who hasn’t experienced rocking out to their favorite song, only to absent-mindedly get up to walk to the refrigerator to be brought up short by their headphone cord? Cords are also the bane of surround sound home stereo systems. Every tried to deal with those twenty foot wires that refuse to stay where you put them, and fall on the door at inopportune moments?

And what about watching an action film on that nice, widescreen LCD? If you have other people in the house they might tell you to “keep it down.” But that’s a highly unsatisfactory arrangement. But finding a pair of headphones with a cord long enough to stretch across your living room is not only difficult, but impractical.

Bluetooth technology is becoming more and more popoular, and is one solution to this problem. Most people associate bluetooth with hands-free telephone calls, the 21st century version of cordless telephones. They even use radio waves to bypass the need for cords. Wireless headphones are also powered by Bluetooth technology, solving the pesky problem of the distance between you and the TV. But suppose you didn’t have to wear headphones at all?

Research is being conducted on ultrasonic speaker arrays that could direct sound like a laser beam. Imagine being able to configure your sound system to be as loud as you like, without bothering anyone else in the room. Imagine walking into a room where the TV is always muted, until you plop onto the couch next to the person watching it. It might only be a novelty item, or it might change the future of headphones. It won’t be too long until they hit the market and we get to find out.

Wireless Electricity

Since Wardenclyffe, we have struggled to find a way to transmit electricity through the air rather than across wire.Tesla believed it to be possible, necessary even, but if he was right he died before he could finish his work. Since then all attempts have been feeble at best, and we remain enslaved to the wires. Even as late as a few years ago wireless electricity was as much of a myth as flying monkeys, but new developments are being made that could make the impossible a reality.

power.480One form of wireless electricity exists in the form of induction charging. Induction charging works by using an electro-magnetic field to transfer energy from one place to another, and is most commonly used to charge cell phones or other small electronic devices. Although wireless, induction charging does not work across distances, and can sometimes be hindered by thick cases. The batter side of the device must be placed directly on the charging pad in order for the transfer to take place.

Even more exciting, however, is ultrasonic transduction, which changes energy into sound waves, which are directed at the device, which then changes it back into energy. A company called Ubeam is working to produce a technology that will use ultrasonic transduction to beam electricity across a room as simply and harmlessly as wifi.

It isn’t only large corporations that are working on this either. Last Christmas a Kickstarter project launched that proclaimed they would invent the world’s first wireless Christmas tree lights. These round, globe lights did not use batteries, could be controlled by your smartphone, and were supposed to provide light for twenty years. The lights used technology called eRING–a ring that could be placed around your tree that generated a magnetic field. Anything within the magnetic field would pick up on the power, and turn on. Anything outside of the field would be unaffected. Unfortunately, although successful, the project was cancelled in favor of pursuing more traditional manufacturing and distribution methods, and we’ve yet to see wireless Christmas lights. But perhaps by next year they’ll be on the market–and a new era of wireless electricity will begin.

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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