True Wireless
By Justin Hall, Thu Dec 06 00:00:00 GMT 2001

You've finally got yourself onto the mobile 'net. Now there's just one more wire to cut...

You've finally got your computer connected to the wireless Internet. You spend a day surfing the web and downloading pictures of your friends from email, as you walk through the park, ride the train, and head to the bedroom in your socks. "Modern life is so convenient," you think, as you're relaxing for the night, sipping a ginger ale and cranberry juice with a lime wedge as you watch the web go by on your laptop in a darkened bar.

Suddenly an orange light goes off and your laptop begins to beep anxiously. Windows pile up, warning of an impending shutdown and data-loss. You can feel a sheen of sweat on your lower back as you scramble to prioritize your remaining tasks for the few minutes of battery power you have left. Your brow is furrowed, your time is up - you've lost the juice.

What use is wireless technology if we must remain tethered to a power source? A mobile phone is great for an hour or three of "talk time" but being online all the time requires a steady current. If you want to be free to move with your web away from work and home, then you are stuck entering restaurants, bars and cafes as a power junkie.

Maybe you've seen them, maybe you are one - head down, scanning a foot from the floor, walking along the walls, grabbing seats next to air conditioners, juke boxes, video games, vending machines. Slyly, we look around and stealthily unplug the unnoticed neon beer sign, and slip our power brick onto the wall.

Technology today presents some opportunity for power junkies to recover from their addiction. Still the truly unfettered technology lifestyle awaits just beyond our grasp still, leaving us on the leash of power lines for the foreseeable future.

Old-fashioned portable phone power

Former professional stunt man Trevor Baylis never graduated from high school in England. Sitting in his home in "Eel Pie Island" near London, he saw a documentary on the BBC about AIDS in Africa. If only those folks could get access to radios, it was proposed, they might learn how to better avoid the disease.

Baylis realized that rural access to electricity was the real barrier to information distribution. In 1991 Baylis developed a "hand-crank" radio and sold the rights for 2.5 million pounds to Freeplay. Since then, Freeplay has sold over 2 million of these units. On their latest S360 radio, twiddling a plastic crank sixty rotations yields twenty to thirty minutes of classic oldies, or up to date news. Some arm twisting can yield power for other devices as well, but not yet for mobile phones.

Freeplay has a deal pending with Motorola to begin offering the "FreeCharge," a hand-cranked charger for most popular mobile phones. Due for a winter release this year, the device weighs about 200 grams, and measures approximately 6cm by 14.5cm by 5cm. Freeplay proposes that cranking this device for forty-five seconds will yield 3 to 6 minutes of talk time, and "hours" of standby time, depending.

AladdinPower, based in Florida, offers a similar hand-crank power pack for mobile phones, and a "StepCharger," for foot pumping, expected in January. This company resells technology from the Nissho Engineering firm of Japan. Not much is known of their corporate story or strategy; their latest product advertised on their web site is the "Bio-Tox Life Shield" purporting to protect people from Anthrax.

These arm and leg driven chargers set up a reversal on the usual stories of early technology hardship. When Grampa says, "I remember when we used to look for power outlets in airports," his grandkids can reply, "Grampa, that's nothing, we have to hand crank our mobile phones!"

Passive power

Exercise-powered solutions are well-suited for charging up a phone if you're stuck powerless in an emergency. But you don't want to be wringing your arm every few minutes for general use when you're out and about. During the current economic downturn it might be possible to hire someone cheap to steadily hand-crank your mobile phone while you chat away, but this electricity sidekick could get cumbersome. Some university researchers have been working to allow us to passively charge up our phones as we go about our regular business.

At the MIT Media Lab in the late 1990s, they called this "parasitic power harvesting;" using ordinary behaviors and routines to generate electricity. The first notable example to emerge from this group was a shoe that created current with each "heel strike." The pressure of a foot on pavement would flex a piezoelectric crystal, generating a small charge. They effectively jammed a small generator into an athletic shoe, but in their words, it was "very obtrusive and fragile."

Shortly after the success of his hand-crank radios, Trevor Baylis started the Electric Shoe Company of England. He rigged up a pair of military-style boots with heel-strike technology similar to that tested at MIT.

In the summer of 2000, wearing these prototypes, Baylis trekked 120km across the Namibian desert. He charged up enough power to make a mobile phone call to maverick Virgin Corporation CEO Richard Branson. While he was able to prove the technology feasible, and draw some attention to the Electric Shoe Company, he has run into the same problems the MIT folks did: this heel-strike technology is still years away from providing consistent power and a comfortable podiatric experience.

Pervasive power

Above our feet, a yawning sky lies open. What if electricity could be distributed alongside wireless internet access?

Gazing at the Tokyo skyline through the dense tangle of above-ground power lines, it seems archaic to have tied our cities down with these creaking, unseemly nets. And many homes are messily strung with cables providing power from one side of the room to another. What if the current just flowed through the air?

Wireless 1901: Tesla's World System

Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla asked the same question just over a century ago. Tesla was among the most important inventors of the modern era, as he was responsible for the technologies undergirding many of our appliances and machines today:

AC power, vacuum tube amplifiers, radio (co-opted by Marconi, whose patent was later stripped by the US Supreme Court), X-Ray machines, and his "Tesla coils" made possible modern high voltage picture tubes (like computer monitors). In 1899, he began to use the planet Earth as a means of resonating and transmitting electricity. Firing continual pulses of electricity into the Earth, he found that the pulses combined, amplified, and created ever more powerful waves. This way he could provide a harmless charge, enough to power small devices nearby. That year Telsa successfully powered 200 lamps from a distance of 40 kilometers without wires.

In 1900, Tesla was excited to wirelessly transmit both power and data around the world in what he termed the "World System." At Wardenclyffe, in Long Island, New York, Tesla began developing his first wireless power transmission tower.

In his article "The Future of the Wireless Art," appearing in Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony in 1908, Tesla put it this way: after the Wardenclyffe plant is operational, " will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place."

Early funding for the Wardenclyffe project came from New York financier J.P. Morgan, who believed he was funding a comparatively simple effort to develop a transoceanic radio. Costs for the project ran over. It became clear that there were cheaper ways to send this radio signal, and that Tesla had bigger plans for his tower.

Figuring that the free distribution of electricity would undercut his investments in power companies, Morgan withdrew his support for the project in 1904. Tesla was never able to fully develop the Wardenclyffe tower before his death in 1943.

If cutting wires represents some technology liberation, then we are not yet truly free. While we have worlds of information and communication at our disposal, we can never be more than two hours away from a power outlet.

As Tesla wrote nearly one hundred years ago, "More important than [the transmission of data], however, will be the transmission of power, without wires..." Tesla planned to show the pre-atomic, pre-computer world that "...the wireless art offers greater possibilities than any invention or discovery heretofore made, and if the conditions are favorable, we can expect with certitude that in the next few years wonders will be wrought by its application."

Perhaps some day, someone will figure out how to supercharge the world and we can experience true wireless.

Thanks to Ljiljana Trajkovic from the School of Engineering Science at Simon Fraser University for her help researching this article.

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.