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Ask GR Anything: Why can't controllers be charged wirelessly?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

A couple weeks ago, we dug into a reader question about how some controllers are able to communicate with a gaming console wirelessly. While that was fascinating (in our own humble opinion), there was a second part to the question that we had to delay simply because the first part took so long to explain.

The second part asked why controllers can't charge wirelessly even though they can communicate at-range. The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time, so we'll try to keep the technical mumbo-jumbo as far away as possible.

The first thing you should know is that wireless power is entirely possible. It just sucks right now. Not even a little bit, either – it’s incredibly useless, although (as we'll explain later) there are efforts under way to fix that.

The fundamentals of wireless power are already well understood. In fact, it's not terribly different from the way radio waves work, which is what we discussed two weeks ago. Radio devices (controllers, cordless house phones, radios, etc.) send out a low-powered signal in all directions at a specific frequency. Anything within range can detect that signal, as long as it’s more powerful than the background noise.

The same fundamentals apply to wireless power, since radio waves are a form of energy. With current models, an even amount of energy is sent out in all directions, and any wireless charging device within range can receive some power. However, the problems with this may already be apparent to you. Power is sent out in every possible direction, meaning up, down, left, right, one degree left of left, two degrees left of left (etc., ad nauseam). Every single possible direction is receiving the same amount of power, meaning that 99 percent (more than that, actually) of the energy sent out is wasted.

That's the real problem here. It's not that it's difficult (Nikola Tesla figured all of this out over a hundred years ago). It's just unbelievably wasteful. 

It all works because of the awesome realization, by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873, that electricity and magnetism are basically the exact same thing. They're like two sides of the same coin, two forms of the same phenomenon. The way wireless power works is by getting electricity from a normal source (outlet, battery) then changing it into magnetism so it radiates outward. Most of us did this in science class in grade school; just loop a wire around a piece of iron a few dozen times, connect both ends of the wire to each pole of a battery, and voila, you've got yourself an electromagnet.

Then, the object you want to charge can receive the magnetism and change it back into electricity to be stored in a rechargeable battery. Again, the issue is not with difficulty (a small-scale version of this is used in most electric toothbrushes), it's with wastefulness. There are other methods that use lasers to beam energy directly into a device, but lasers are very wasteful as well. Also, it's usually a bad idea to be beaming lasers around your home.

That said, researchers at MIT have developed devices that "tunnel" from the source to any device within range. This is done by a process called magnetic resonance, which regrettably, I can't explain too well here. There's not enough space, and I'm not an MIT researcher.

All you need to know is that the new technique can (on a small scale, for now) avoid the problem of wasting energy by naturally directing the flow of magnetism directly to the devices that need it. It's not easy, but it can be done. Most likely, it will one day be the norm.

There are even theories being tossed around that could allow us to beam wireless energy into space for use on space stations and spaceships that don't feel like lugging around a nuclear reactor. With all this potential, wireless energy is one of the coolest ongoing fields of study, and could lead to some astonishing results. But for now, we're just hoping for a PlayStation 5 that doesn't tether us to the machine by its tiny recharge cable every 10 hours, and an Xbox 1080 that doesn't chug batteries.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for a future Ask GR Anything.

26 comments

  • Dabaws1 - February 16, 2012 8:40 p.m.

    How does lag work? when you see someone singularly lagging are they lagging or are you?
  • Sinosaur - February 16, 2012 10:28 p.m.

    If you see just one person lagging in a game with multiple people, then most likely they are lagging, otherwise everyone else would look lagged to you. How lag works is that the data being sent between players has a delay for the lagged parties, possibly because of slow internet speeds or security settings limiting how the data can be processed. Other causes of lag include distance from the server. For example, when SSMB came out, a friend and I decided to try the online; I live near Washington, DC and he was in Pennsylvania (not very far). However, apparently Nintendo's servers were on the west coast, so despite the short distance between us, the data had to travel twice the length of the United States. This, along with other problems going through Nintendo, caused the two minute battle to lag out to twenty minutes.
  • forestfire55 - February 16, 2012 2:46 p.m.

    Thanks again for answering my question, i had another, more hypothetical question: what would happen if all of the consoles were one? Like there was no wii or ps3, just a game system. It would be fun to see all of the pros and cons.
  • angelusdlion - February 16, 2012 7:28 p.m.

    the copyright lawyers would collectively die from orgasm. It's been tired. It'd also be damn expensive.
  • forestfire55 - February 18, 2012 12:34 p.m.

    What i mean is if there was no Sony or Microsoft, just a game company that made all the games. Would it be better worse... so on
  • kit07 - February 16, 2012 3:59 a.m.

    Whats the whole deal with the Terms of Agreement for online games?
  • Sinosaur - February 16, 2012 5:42 a.m.

    Game companies don't want to get sued or for you to steal from them, that's pretty much the entire point of it.
  • kit07 - February 16, 2012 4:36 p.m.

    ah i c
  • Ravenbom - February 15, 2012 11:54 p.m.

    Another question that's easy-ish. How do you connect your PS3 controller to your PC? The reason is if you Google it half the answers are spyware/malware/blah, blah, blah while hooking up a wired 360 controller is as easy as plugging it in. No valid gaming website has ever officially walked a gamer through using a pad with a PC. On a side note: Please acknowledge each person who asks a question. If nothing else, the ReCaptcha on this site basically asks me for a Cyrillic and Ancient Egyptian keyboard just to post one comment.
  • Hobogonigal - February 16, 2012 12:41 a.m.

    I take it that you don't know that you only have to type in one word (the strange one with a black dot behind). Forget the rest, unless you have an Egyptian keyboard (which would be cool) and would like to type it in anyway.
  • taokaka - February 16, 2012 1:38 a.m.

    hopefully this can help http://tiny.cc/qhniv for some reason I couldn't post the actual domain so here is its tiny url
  • angelusdlion - February 16, 2012 7:29 p.m.

    the 360, the wireless one at least, requires a 50 dollar adapter... it's just the wired ones that plug in.
  • GameManiac - February 15, 2012 11:22 p.m.

    I REALLY would like to see you guys explain (to the best of your ability) how Poke Balls work... I guess I'll just wait.
  • Sinosaur - February 16, 2012 5:39 a.m.

    Pokeballs force Pokemon to use the ability Minimize multiple times in rapid succession and then yank them in with an energy chord. They sit around in tiny form until such time as you release them, which is treated like switching a Pokemon out of a fight and then resets all buffs, removing the Minimizes. That's how Pokeballs work: temporary forced TMs.
  • WinkedUp Lozza - February 15, 2012 10:48 p.m.

    The use of magnetic resonance is apparently how the Covenant fire directed amounts of plasma in Halo (according to the Halo books anyhow). Using magnetism to direct technical things just reminded me of it
  • Andrew Groen - February 21, 2012 7:28 a.m.

    That's a neat idea. I'll have to look into that whenever I get around to doing Science of Games: Halo.
  • Shinn - February 15, 2012 9:02 p.m.

    Radiation is why.
  • Andrew Groen - February 21, 2012 7:29 a.m.

    This is all done with waves, particle radiation (the dangerous kind) has little to do with it.
  • Person5 - February 15, 2012 8:27 p.m.

    I read this article for the only reason that I wanted to see if you'd at least mention Nikola Tesla, I was glad.
  • n00b - February 15, 2012 6:31 p.m.

    why did rare change and will we ever get another killer instinct/ battle toads/ jetforce gemini/ blast corps/ conker?

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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