Anyone who has been on the ops or finance side of digital signage and digital out of home knows how complicated and expensive it can be to realize the simple task of getting power to a screen.
It's a particular challenge in settlings like retail - because store designers, until recently, didn't think much about the need to get power right in the aisles and in merchandising locations.
Battery-powered displays are one answer. Power over ethernet is another. And there's of course the often expensive and possibly unsightly option of running electrical infrastructure - wires and maybe conduit - all the way to the screens and other gear.
Wouldn't it be great if wireless power was a reality?
Turns out ... it is, and one of the companies leading development already has small displays for retail and hospitality that get their power over the air, using ceiling transmitters and receivers built into the screens.
Right now, Wi Charge's screens are just tablet-sized, but that will change.
I get the rundown on wireless power from Ori Mor, who is a co-founder and Chief Business Officer at the Israel company.
Ori, thank you very much for joining me. Can you give me a background on what your company does?
Ori Mor: Hi, Dave, happy to be here. We are doing over-the-air wireless power, and over-the-air charging. But when we say over-the-air, we mean a range of 10 meters (30 feet) and not proximity charging, like charging pads.
So this is very different from just those close contact charges where you put your phone down and it does it that way?
Ori Mor: Yes, very different. The phone charging is a type of docking station without wires, but a docking station. You still need to do it on your own, knowing that you are now taking care of charging and the docking station, the pad itself is being wired. We are talking about something that is more close to WiFi for power.
Is this a commercial product or something that's still in R&D?
Ori Mor: It's not in large volume yet, but it's a commercial product. It's deployed in Canada, the US, and Israel, and it's going also to a few locations in Europe and actually at the end of this month, also in Brazil.
And the company is in Israel, correct?
Ori Mor: Yes, the headquarters and R&D are in Israel. Marketing and Sales are mainly in the US, but also in Korea and Europe.
And how long has the company been around?
Ori Mor: 10 years.
Did it start trying to solve this problem or was it something else that found its way into this?
Ori Mor: We started by doing over-the-air wireless power. The main application was charging smartphones, but the technology is capable of powering other devices as well.
I was curious about the application for digital signage. I gather that you have a digital display that you could use in a retail setting, but it's a small display. You're not at a point where you could power a very large display?
Ori Mor: Yes, that is correct. We started with the five-inch display based on demand that we got from prominent retailers and CPGs from across the world who were interested in being able to power devices at the edge of the shelf. Obviously, we can't power 16 displays. So we started with a small display. We are now doing seven-inch and nine-inch as well. But the promise is, as you said, being able to power devices at the edge of the shelf without the hassle of running wires or replacing batteries.
And is that the problem that's being solved here, just simply the unavailability of power, right at a, like a shelf edge?
Ori Mor: Simply put, yes. People do display, people do CMS, and people do Digital advertising in retail space already, but usually, it's limited to very few locations and we are enabling it to be widely spread relatively easily.
And the problem is, in a lot of older retail and older can be like 10 years old, That there just isn't power on the shelves, right?
Ori Mor: Yes, That is correct. The gondolas are moving, The shelves of Heights are changing And as you said, there are in most of the retail locations, there are no wires. Maybe near the wall, but certainly not in the middle of the store.
There's power over ethernet, but I gather that has its limitations in terms of where you wanna put it and the cost of it.
Ori Mor: Power over ethernet is capable of powering displays. The problem is, again, routing it to something that changes with time, usually twice a year or even more, and you need to wire it to every different shelf, which is expensive and cumbersome.
So the setup with this is a transmitter and a receiver?
Ori Mor: A transmitter, and a receiver that is embedded within the display device.
Could you do a retrofit, like a bolt-on receiver?
Ori Mor: Actually, no. The displays are designed by us at this stage because we know how to optimize in terms of power consumption. It's a dedicated development optimized for wireless power.
In the future, I believe that we'd be able to support existing displays but we start with something we can control.
Is the power stable, or is it a bit like WiFi where it can kind of drop momentarily here and there?
Ori Mor: There is always a rechargeable battery in the device. So we charge the device and the device draws its power from the rechargeable battery. So it gets steady power from the battery even if power drops.
Are you restricted with the displays in terms of what you can show, like is it just static images or to run full 30 frames per second video?
Ori Mor: We are doing full videos.
Okay, and was that a mountain you had to climb or was that right out of the gate that would work?
Ori Mor: It was pretty simple. That wasn't the challenge.
With the transmitter, how does that manifest itself? I think it's something that you mount in the ceiling?
Ori Mor: Yes, think of it like a router in the ceiling with a range of 5-10 meters, the transmitter locates client devices and beams a directional infrared beam to the device where the device converts the infrared beam back into electricity.
Does it have to be like a line of sight?
Ori Mor: Yes. Wireless power with meaningful power is the line of site technology. You can do non line of sight using RF, magnetic and even with infrared, but the amount of power that you can deliver with sight will be very low for reasons that I can explain if you wanna dive into.
I probably wouldn't get most of it.
Ori Mor: Oh, you would get it. When you do non line of sight, it means that energy is being spread in the room and you only harvest part of it. It has two drawbacks, a) the amount of power that you draw that you receive is lower because you waste a lot, and b) you fill the environment with unwanted radiation that the regulator and the customer wouldn't want. So if you do choose to do a non line of sight, it's for very low power.
And what are the safety issues?
Ori Mor: We passed all the safety certificates worldwide. FDA in the US, IEC in UL as well. It's approved to be safe under all conditions and that's the claim to fame for the technology we can deliver meaningful power yet it is as safe as your optical mouse.
You're walking around a cafe or something where this is set up and you let's say you work there. Are there any long-term implications of being around this radiation so to speak?
Ori Mor: No. Think of it like it's even safer than your wifi router. The beam is very directional. So outside the beam, there is an absolute zero. It's not a wifi router that sends radiation to every location and only part of it is being harvested or absorbed by your cell phone. The beam that leaves the transmitter, a hundred per cent of it, reaches the receiver, a centimetre away from the beam, and there is an absolute zero, and when you cross the beam, it shuts off automatically,
Hence the need for or the value of having a battery on board?
Ori Mor: Yes.
So how long would that last if somebody put a large chair or something in the way, and it was blocking, would that mean eight hours later, it stops working?
Ori Mor: Yeah. It's a design criterion. We designed it to be able to last a full day on a battery, but you can design it differently. It's a trade-off between the size of the battery and the thickness of the display.
So if you talk about larger displays, a 30-inch display, a 55-inch display, which is quite common in digital signage, at least. How long off are we from that being a possibility?
Ori Mor: That's too big of a question for me. I'll tell you that we are not even trying to target this at this point in time, but I'll give you an example of how technology develops. You probably know that when we started using the internet, we used 2.4 kilobytes or something like that.
I go back to 256K modems, I’m old.
Ori Mor: Yeah, and we are now doing a podcast where I'm sitting on probably 200 megabytes per second. Whether the technology would take us there, we will have to figure it out by seeing.
So this is a matter of time, more than anything else.
Ori Mor: Yes. Time, the economy of scale, components becoming more capable and scaling up performance.
I would assume also that you guys don't wanna be a display manufacturer. You're doing it right now just to demonstrate what's possible, but I'm thinking you'd like to license this to the display guys, as opposed to making your own?
Ori Mor: That is absolutely correct.
Wi Charge is a company that knows how to deliver wireless power and we do that for many different applications. We chose a few to show how it works. There's a big opportunity here in terms of market demand. We chose a few applications, one in commercial, one in smart home, and one in consumer, just to see the market and then to license it to the relevant guys that can do it much better than us.
When do you see that happening?
Ori Mor: We've already had deals that are licensed-based and it's like a domino effect. It's like how penguins jump to the water. They all stand at the edge of the ocean knowing that the food is in the water, but still hesitating and then one jumps in and immediately after a hundred thousand jump in. So by showing the way, we would unlock this domino effect.
There are some Korean university researchers I wrote a piece about last week that were also doing wireless power. Are there any number of initiatives out there doing this?
Ori Mor: Yes, we have seen more and more companies or universities doing wireless power. What they're doing right now, we did 10 years ago, so it's nice that they’re catching up.
We see over-the-air charging happening already and it's happening in different ways with different technologies that allow different value propositions. So you can expect to see more and more of this.
Is your focus right now mostly on B2C (Business to Consumer)?
Ori Mor: No, we are actually doing commercial applications, like the displays. Even the consumer applications that we do, start with commercial settings. It's simply easier for us. Consumer, we are doing very cautiously and very few applications, but actually, before the end of the year, you'd hear announcements about consumer applications from us.
Right, because you've been at CES a number of times and before we turned things on here to record, you mentioned that the company would be back at CES in January.
Ori Mor: Yes. There's another reason why we are doing the display. It expedites the go-to-market. When we can actually do the turnkey product, rather than only the wireless power, we can offer solutions to end customers without hesitations.
It's easy to do it in B2B, but we already have a few consumer applications.
What's getting traction for the product right now, like a particular use case?
Ori Mor: The displays are seeing tremendous, overwhelming demand. The other products that we do are smart door locks, which you probably are not so smart, not because they can't be smart, it's because people are worried, designers, OEMs are worried that if they would add smart functionalities, batteries would run out way too fast and then the end user would be stuck locked outside over a dead battery. So we are unleashing this as well in parallel.
Yeah, it would be the same with those surveillance cameras that people have at their homes, the Nest cameras and so on.
Ori Mor: Exactly. Since they need to go to sleep to preserve their batteries. There's a phrase, I think a professional phrase, which is called the back of the thief. By the time they wake up, the thief is already on the way out.
You mentioned you were seeing tremendous take-up on displays. What's going on there? How are they being used?
Ori Mor: In various ways. Edge shelf displays in retail locations. I'll tell you what I can say and there are a few other things you can publish, we will send you when they go live.
It's the usual thing. The clients don't want you talking about them, right?
Ori Mor: So what I'm disclosing right now are things already out there that are available and in a few weeks there will be other use cases as well and I'll be happy to share them with you, both images and videos. So we are doing table-topping restaurants, this is already out there. We are doing edge shelves in grocery locations. And we are doing other devices for grocery locations, which are quite cool, but I'll wait on how they look till we launch them. We are also doing displays in shopping centres like jewellery and other stuff, it's a display it's so generic, you can put it anywhere. You can wrap it and you have advertising at the point of decision.
And this is not just in Israel?
Ori Mor: No, most of it is outside of Israel. Texas, New York, Michigan, Idaho, Toronto, and Sao Paulo.
I'm sure one of the determining factors out there is the overall cost. What this does in terms of cost versus what you would pay to run conduit, run power or ethernet cabling to a display that way and people would do a spreadsheet exercise and decide, okay, this is less expensive to do it your way.
Ori Mor: Exactly.
What is the cost of a transmitter?
Ori Mor: Oh, you'd have to ask our partners. They're selling the solutions to the end customers, not us.
Okay, but is it hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars?
Ori Mor: Hundreds, not thousands.
And it would install in the ceiling just like you would put in a ceiling light?
Ori Mor: Yes, it takes a few minutes.
For the display, understanding that these are your proprietary displays and you've tweaked them and everything else, but the hardware cost for a receiver, is that something that's also hundreds of dollars?
Ori Mor: No, much less.
It's nominal, so it'd be like another component inside a display?
Ori Mor: Yes.
Does the system also radiate WiFi?
Ori Mor: Yes, the communication with the display is over WiFi, over 3G. So with the end customers, it depends but they can run the content through a CMS on their own, independently.
So in theory would a company that makes WiFi equipment, like routers and so on, could they conceivably add your capability into their product line?
So if I'm a company that makes networking equipment, like Cisco or more B2C stuff, could they add Wi charge capability to their WiFi routers?
Ori Mor: Yes, but I'll explain how. These companies are used to creating infrastructure and delivering connectivity. They can do the same for power, power as a service, not just data as a service. The only difference is that transmitters should be located most of the time on ceilings rather than hidden in the closet, that's the difference, and now the 5G routers are on ceilings for the exact same reason. They are almost in the line of sight.
You mentioned metering. With the energy issues that Europe's facing right now because of Russia, there's a lot of concern around energy consumption, and I wonder whether we're gonna get to a stage where power would be metered for this sort of thing.
Ori Mor: Let me answer this in two ways. Since it's a service, it can be metered. It's an extension of the electricity grid and the same as you paying for watt/hour for electricity, you probably would be paying a watt/hour for wireless electricity, so it's only a natural extension. Regarding power in general and sustainability. What we also discovered is that a single transmitter that we are now shipping saves up to 5000 AA batteries and that's even on our first gen only. So it's probably your and my body weight in batteries saved by each transmitter that we deploy.
Is the transmitter always pushing out energy and therefore the meter's always going or is it more of a demand thing?
Ori Mor: No, it's a demand thing. When there's no demand, it goes to sleep.
All right, interesting. That would be a lot more efficient.
What about distance? You mentioned 10 meters right now. Will that improve, just like the other things?
Ori Mor: We did a test for a government agency for 100 meters successfully. But then we decided that as a company we need to focus. It's either we do indoor for consumers or commercial, or we do outdoor for other types of devices and we chose the short-of-range options.
So the technology can easily do a hundred meters or probably more, and there's actually a company that does that. This is their forte. We chose to focus on the inside.
Okay, but you could, in theory, have advertising displays on a sidewalk, and the same in drive-throughs, a lot of costs involved in trenching and everything else to get power out to the display?
Ori Mor: Oh, there's actually a company that we work with that is considering using our solutions for care pickup and drive tools.
And there would be enough power cuz those are extra bright displays?
Ori Mor: So for them, we are considering making animated e-ink displays. As I said the large displays with LCDs or OLEDs are out of our range at the moment.
So if people wanna know more about Wi Charge, where do they go?
Ori Mor: Website and LinkedIn.
Ori Mor: Yes.
Perfect. All right, Ori, thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Ori Mor: Thank you, Dave. I enjoyed it.