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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

  • c-c-c-combo breaker - February 15, 2012 3:55 p.m.

    I like these kinds of articles a lot, really makes gamesradar stand out from other gaming sites. Keep 'em coming, if it's not too much trouble :)
  • forestfire55 - February 15, 2012 4:11 p.m.

    Thanks for answering my other question! It feels good knowing that GR actualy listens.
  • Scuffles - February 15, 2012 4:12 p.m.

    Oh Dat wacky inductive charging
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - February 15, 2012 4:55 p.m.

    Very interesting, I love these articals. Let's see... would the force ever be possible? Or have any kind of power using your mind?
  • tiben36 - February 15, 2012 5:04 p.m.

    how about no, and charge it with a wire instead of whining not wanting to get up to ge a cord is as lazy as the reason for the creation of steam
  • 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?
  • azureguy - February 15, 2012 7:24 p.m.

    I asked myself the same question a few days ago: Just what the hell happened to Rare? After reading a few specials regarding the case, I'd say that there are three reasons why Rare turned from a god-like developer to just a normal developer and probably will stay that way. No.1: Quite a lot of talented people have left Rare. Most of the guys who made Goldeneye left to make Free Radical, and the two composers Grant Kirkhope and David Wise left the company as well. Hell, even the founders Tim and Chris Stamper left the studio. If there's one thing we've learned from Capcom and Square Enix, it is that without the original team, it's just not the same in terms of quality and style. No.2: Microsoft just isn't Nintendo both in regards of video game making expertise as well as audience. Nintendo worked closely with Rare with even EAD and Miyamoto working with them. Also, Rare's lineup was more fitting for Nintendo consoles (enjoyable by both young kids (Banjo, Pinata) and adults (Goldeneye, Perfect Dark)). But when they had to develop for the Xbox 1 and 360... well, let's face it: Microsoft consoles are for adults and FPS/racing game fans. Adventure games didn't quite fit there and didn't sell millions. Case in point: Psychonauts. No.3: Ever since the buyout from 2001, Rare's games were considered good, sometimes not so good, but no longer classic or perfect. This is due to lack of genius/talent and the Nintendo image they obtained, thus making any games created at this point facing big troubles. Some also mentioned that the Rare concept only really worked when games were small and didn't cost a fortune - too big teams and time constrains wouldn't have worked for the teams of pre-2001 Rare anyway. That said, they did made games that have some value to them. I didn't play any Xbox 1 games, so please forgive me for not mentioning them here. Both Kameo and Viava Pinata were great, but Perfect Dark Zero was a real disappointment: They didn't brought the sequel to the next level, the controls are still the same and the challenges are still absurd (I could never reach the time limit for the unlockable weapons in Perfect Dark, and I really tried!). Not to mention that the story was crazy bananas. They had the chance to establish a good shooter before Halo 3 and Call of Duty and wasted the opportunity. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is a good game for what it offers (build your own racer), but people expected a platformer and they didn't deliver. Red Faction Armageddon suffered the same fate: Instead of using the same successful formula of a GTA-like game, they did a linear game - expectations ruined, people don't buy as much. Overall, maybe there are still games Rare fans love, but it'll never be the same again, ever. As for the second question: Not a chance! Even though it would make perfect sense to release them as downloadable titles on XBLA/PSN/Steam, I haven't heard of any plans to revive Battletoads and most other franchises (and No.1 still applies, without the original people it wouldn't be the same). As for Killer Instinct, they said that they want to wait until they can bring something new to the right genre instead of just making another sequel (which actually sounds very Rare-like to me).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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