Pi wants to extend the reach of wireless charging

Wireless charging isn’t new — but with the new iPhones picking it up as a feature, it’s about to get a huge boost in visibility.

But wireless charging is still pretty limited, particularly in terms of where your device can be while pulling a charge. For the most part, “wireless charger” means “a pad you sit your device directly on.” Lift your phone a few centimeters off the pad, and charging stops.

Pi, a company that debuted in the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield this afternoon, wants to change that. It’s building a device — the aptly named Pi Charger — that they say can charge multiple devices within about a foot in any direction. It’s not the full-room charging concept that other companies have spent years trying to tackle, but it provides a good bit more flexibility over a pad.

The team says they’re using resonant induction here, or the same underlying concept that powers the Qi charging standard found in the new iPhones and many an Android phone. Their secret sauce, according to co-founder John Macdonald, is a beam-forming algorithm that lets them safely direct a magnetic field to wherever the device is sitting.

“What’s at the heart of this is this algorithm that lets us shape a magnetic field,” John tells me. “It’s an old idea… but, the real genius behind this — my co-founder Lixin [Shi] — he was able to reduce this problem that was so complicated that you’d need several minutes of compute time on the latest i7 processor to solve. He came up with these matrices that could prove that you could get to an optimal solution in just two clock cycles on a simple microcontroller.”

The company demonstrated the tech onstage, and it appeared to work. They showed five devices (four phones, one tablet) charging simultaneously when brought within range of the Pi.

So why “Pi”? It’s a nod to both co-founders’ alma mater, MIT. The school celebrates Pi in a number of ways, including announcing admissions on Pi Day (March 14th — or 3/14); given that they spun the project out of an MIT lab, it only made sense to continue the tradition.

The company began its life in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, otherwise known as CSAIL. After its founders met by chance in a class (an entrepreneurship class that their peers and teachers pushed them into taking), they decided to work out a deal with the school to turn Lixin’s work into a commercial project.

“Without that school, we wouldn’t exist.” says John.

The company has raised $3.5 million to date.

Pi’s team says they haven’t settled on an exact price for their charger yet, but they expect it to ship for under $200 sometime in 2018.

Battlefield Judge Q&A:

How far can it charge?

About 12 inches in any direction; above, to the side or below.

How fast can it charge?

It varies by distance; right next to the device, it charges at full speed. The further the device is from the Pi, the slower it is.

What’s your pricing going to look like at volume?

We don’t have exact pricing today, but it’ll be well under $200 and we’ll maintain above 50 percent gross margin.

Have you thought about making a component that can be plugged into something like Google Home, or existing wired devices?

Yes! Absolutely.

How can you make a lot of money here?

A lot of it has to do with the verticals we can reach. We’re starting with consumer, but the enterprise is what we want to follow up with. If you use it at home, you’ll want one in the office. If there’s one in the office, you’ll want one in the conference room.

Will it work with laptops?

This one won’t; the max power output of this device is 20w. We can increase that with different components.

Are you building cases for existing devices?

Yes — for the sake of backwards compatibility. You won’t need a case for future phones, like the iPhone 8.