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The surprisingly simple feature that helps this wireless charger do what Apple couldn’t

Wireless charging is surprisingly difficult to get right. (Just ask Apple.) But Spansive’s new Source charger has a deceptively simple solution.

Let’s get it out of the way up front: No, Spansive didn’t tell us exactly how their new Source wireless charger magically powers up your device without having to set it down on a charging surface just so—a feat that Apple recently failed at. (That’s why the phrase “proprietary” exists.) Suffice it to say that the Source makes something that is clearly very, very difficult to pull off look absurdly simple. The key to that simplicity of use? It’s not the Source’s elegant A-frame, nor some special material in its so-called “charging canvas.” It’s the solid block of aluminum along the bottom that Spansive–and Enlisted, the studio that designed the Source–calls “the ingot.”

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[Photo: courtesy Enlisted]

Wireless charging is hard for “a million reasons,” says Spansive CEO John MacDonald. One is basic engineering: The coils required to deliver the power (one coil in the charger, one in the device) work simplest when they line up point-to-point—but that requires the user to line things up. Which is the whole problem Apple and Spansive were trying to solve. You can cover a larger surface with more coils, but that quickly introduces heat-venting problems. Plus, the know-how required to explore solutions to this “freedom of positioning problem,” says MacDonald, “comes from combining two disciplines that couldn’t be more different”: theoretical computer science and power electronics. “Getting people from disparate backgrounds to work together can be harder than solving technical problems,” he says.

Spansive uses software to spread charge across the Source’s “canvas” with fewer coils and match charging points to a device’s position, but it still has hard boundaries beyond which it simply won’t work. In other words, they still had to deal with the positioning problem. And that’s the ingot’s real job.

[Photo: courtesy Enlisted]

The Source’s killer feature, technology-wise, is that your device doesn’t have to lay flat against the charging surface—that’s how it can deliver “drop-and-go charging,” as MacDonald calls it, through obstructions like PopSockets and OtterBoxes. But that power-delivery zone still only extends about 1 centimeter outward. In other words, you can drop your phone into the Source and go, but you do have to drop it within an unforgivingly tiny volume of space. The ingot both defines this envelope and ingeniously ensures that you can’t miss: Stick the bottom end of your phone against it, let go, and gravity takes care of placing your phone within the Source’s charging zone.

If you think I’m making too much of this, consider what would likely happen without the ingot. Obviously Spansive doesn’t want your phone to slip off the Source and onto the floor, but they could have solved this problem by simply angling the base of the Source slightly upward, like a reading lectern. However, that might invite people to treat the Source like a catch-all tray for keys, wallets, pens, and anything else that you want to drop-and-go along with your phone. Enlisted actually explored this catchall form factor during their research, and quickly ruled it out. “The introduction of foreign objects can be challenging” to any wireless charger, says Beau Oyler, Enlisted’s CEO. “We wanted to discourage absentminded obstruction of the device with other objects, especially metal objects.”

[Photo: courtesy Enlisted]
The angle of the ingot still ensures that tipping your phone into the Source will place it within charging range, but it also ensures that you can’t slot your phone in at an angle that will bump against (and interfere with the placement of) something charging on the opposite side of the A-frame, too. The ingot is also set just far enough from the charging canvas to discourage you from stacking devices on top of each other (which would cause one of them not to charge), or absentmindedly wedging other objects in between your phone and the Source (like, say, mail). Finally, the ingot is made of real aluminum, “which makes it feel premium in a reassuring way, especially if you’re not using a case,” Oyler says.

Basically, that unassuming chunk of metal is telling you in no uncertain terms that the Source is only for phones and that they can only sit against it in certain way, otherwise nothing will work. Which sounds… fussy. But that’s not how it actually feels.

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Apple might have had equally impressive proprietary technology inside its own canceled charger, but the elegance of this “dumb” piece of angled aluminum in the Source must have Cupertino’s designers nodding in respect.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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