OUR WIRELESS FUTURE: All the tech that's available today, and what's coming in the next 10 years

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Last month, Apple made a big push towards a wireless future.

By removing the headphone jack on the iPhone 7, Apple invigorated the idea of using wireless headphones to more people than ever before. The company's new completely wireless AirPods should help with that, too.

Getting people to switch from wired headphones to wireless ones might seem a bit insignificant, but imagine one day you're walking down the street and all the headphone wires disappeared. And then, imagine that there were no wires at all: No telephone wires, no nada. On the surface, everything would look pretty much the same. But for everyone who switched to wireless tech, it means no more snags, tangles, and breakages.

Removing wires also creates new possibilities for what technology can achieve. Cords are minor annoyances, but to settle when something better is out there is to idle in the present. If you want any involvement in the future, you're going to have to ditch wires.

Beyond headphones, there are plenty of other wireless gadgets out there to help eliminate the endlessly tangled clutter of wires, and plenty more to come. Here's what wireless tech we expect to see in the next 10 years. 

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First of all, why is "truly wireless" a good thing?

First of all, why is "truly wireless" a good thing?

Simply put, wires are the worst thing about tech. They're messy, they tangle, you can trip on them, they snag, they break, and they limit how far you can use your devices. They are a limiting factor for many technologies.

So what wireless devices can you buy now to bring you closer to wireless enlightenment? Here are four main scenarios where wires rear their ugly heads the most.

1. Your computer.

1. Your computer.

Wireless accessories can cut down the number of wires that connect your computer to various external devices, including:

– Wireless mice

– Wireless keyboards

– Wireless printers

– Wireless speakers/headphones

– Wireless display adapters

– Bonus: You can even ditch your hard drive, which uses a cable to transfer your stuff to and from your computer, to store all your stuff in the "cloud," like Apple's iCloud, Google Drive, or Microsoft's OneDrive.

2. Your living room entertainment center.

2. Your living room entertainment center.

This could be one of the biggest culprits of wire-dom.

My TV, for example, is hooked up to an Xbox One, a cable box, and a 5.1 surround sound system. That's four power cables, two HDMI cables, an optical cable to link the TV to the sound system, and five wires for the sound system's satellite speakers.

You can (almost) avoid all of that:

– Use a smart TV with Bluetooth to connect wireless speakers, like a wireless soundbar.

– Ditch cable TV (and your cable box), and stream content from over-the-top services like Netflix, Amazon Video, or Hulu from your smart TV or console that streams content, like an Xbox or PS4.

– If you don't have a smart TV or a console, use a small streaming device, like the Chromecast or Roku Stick. They plug right into your TV's HDMI port, eliminating the need for an HDMI cable, and they only need a USB cable for power. You can plug the USB cable into your TV's USB port, if it has one. At least the USB cable is hidden behind your TV rather than a power cable that leads to a power strip or outlet.

3. Your mobile life.

3. Your mobile life.

Mobile devices are free from cables... until you need to charge them or listen to music.

The solution? Charge your mobile device wirelessly by using a wireless charging dock or mat.

The mat itself still needs a power cable, and you still need to leave your mobile device in one place while it charges — just like you would with a charging cable, because it needs direct contact with the device. Still, a wireless charging dock/mat lets you hide away the cable from sight.

The only problem is that not all phones support wireless charging, namely the iPhone. Still, hopefuls out there will be pleased to know that Apple's next iPhone in 2017 is rumored to support wireless charging. Yes, those are just rumors, but it could happen.

4. Your music.

4. Your music.

Wireless Bluetooth headphones are pretty great. They can be a pain at times, as you sometimes need to dig through your settings and re-pair your headphones. But Apple set out to fix that problem with its new W1 chip that makes it incredibly easy to connect to your devices. For example, to pair Apple's new AirPods to your iPhone, all you need to do is open their charging case and they'll pair automatically with your iPhone. There's no need to trudge through your Bluetooth settings.

The only limitation is that the W1 chip is only compatible with Apple products, like the iPhone and MacBook computers. So, unless another company out there develops a more open standard to solve the convoluted wireless pairing issue, people who don't use Apple products are out of luck.

Of course, wireless headphones aren't fully wireless, as you need to charge them with a cable. But these minor annoyances pay off when you have full range of motion while listening to your favorite music, so you don't need to worry about getting tangled in wires or having them catch a random surface.

So there are several ways you can ditch a bunch of cables TODAY, but what about the next 10 years?

So there are several ways you can ditch a bunch of cables TODAY, but what about the next 10 years?

The next 10 years: Bringing super-fast internet over the air without waiting for the infrastructure to upgrade.

The next 10 years: Bringing super-fast internet over the air without waiting for the infrastructure to upgrade.

One company called Starry has an idea to deliver gigabit internet (1,000 Mbps, or 125 megabytes per second) with minimal upgrades to infrastructure, and it can absolutely happen within the next 10 years — possibly even in the next five.

It works by transmitting internet signals via transmitters dotted around a city, much like cell towers. That signal is received by an antenna/modem combo you install outside a window, which is then transmitted (via cable, mind you) to the Starry WiFi router or your own WiFi router of choice. 

Starry's service is currently in beta in Boston, and the company claims it'll roll out to more cities by the end of 2016 and into 2017. Even Google Fiber, Google's own gigabit internet service, is looking to ditch physical fiber-optic cables in favor of a wireless solution that could help the service roll out to more cities more quickly (and more cheaply, too, since laying down miles of fiber-optic cables and digging up service lines or upgrading above-ground lines is extremely costly).

The next 10 years: LiFi, the evolution of WiFi

 

The concept of LiFi is simple: LED light bulbs can flood a room with internet.

It works by flickering LED light bulbs extremely quickly, which transmits Visible Light Communication signals (VLC) to devices that can receive VLC. "All we need to do is fit a small microchip to every potential illumination device," Harald Haas, the inventor of LiFi and a professor at the University of Edinburgh, said during a TED Talk in 2011.

LiFi can achieve speeds of up to 224 gigabits per second in testing. That's 28.6 gigabytes per second. With those speeds, you could potentially download a 90-minute 8K – that's eight-kay – movie in 22 seconds. 

While those astronomical speeds might not become a reality in the next 10 years, LiFi technology itself could. A LiFi company called Velmenni claims we could see it "rolled out for consumers within the next three to four years" as of 2015, according to the International Business Times UK. 

The next 10 years: Wireless charging everywhere.

Wireless charging can become more ubiquitous over the next 10 years when furniture companies start incorporating wireless charging systems into their products, thus eliminating the need for a special charging surface, like a mat or dock.

IKEA is currently the leader in this concept, as it offers tables and lamps with stands that have built-in wireless charging pads. 

And you'll even find wireless charging spots in public spaces, like some restaurants, airports, and even universities.

The next 10 years: Wireless power for bigger devices.

The next 10 years: Wireless power for bigger devices.

The next step in the wireless charging space is wireless power for larger devices that need more power than smartphones or tablets, like laptops.

Companies like Intel and WiTricity are developing power mats that can pump out enough wireless juice for power-hungry laptops. 

The next 10 years: Truly wireless power is the elephant in the room.

The next 10 years: Truly wireless power is the elephant in the room.

Even if you've got all the wireless gadgets you can possibly use to ditch wires, you'll still find cables strewn across your home or office to power anything that uses electricity, even wireless charging docks.

We need truly wireless power for truly wireless freedom. That way, we can place tech wherever we want instead of looking for a power outlet, or charge our mobile devices by just being inside a building rather than leaving them in their usual spots to charge.

The next 10 years: The true innovation in wireless power doesn't need special power mats, furniture, or any power cables at all.

The next 10 years: The true innovation in wireless power doesn't need special power mats, furniture, or any power cables at all.

Power company WiTricity claims to have developed truly wireless charging and power for any and all electric devices in your home.

Unlike wireless charging mats, which require direct contact between the charging surface and the device, WiTricity says its solution is "resonantly enhanced" to work on a much bigger scale and over longer distances.

WiTricity claims it can transmit wireless power up to a several meters from the main wireless power source, depending on the distance and power requirements of your devices. That means several wireless power sources discreetly installed throughout your home could power pretty much anything that requires electricity.

Imagine your smartphone or laptop charging just by being inside a building. I'm particularly fond of this concept, although it's yet to be seen how effective this technology is at charging multiple devices at once, and how fast it can charge those devices.

Back in 2014, WiTricity predicted to CNN "kids that are growing up in a couple of years will never have to plug anything in again to charge it." Those two years have passed, and we're still not seeing this level of wireless electricity being used in the mainstream. Yet, the technology is here and ready to use, so it's entirely possible to become more mainstream in the next 10 years.

While this wireless future sounds great, it’s still very much a “future.” There are a few familiar hang-ups keeping these sort of cable-free solutions from prevalence today. Let’s start with the obvious one: Wired tech still just works.

While this wireless future sounds great, it’s still very much a “future.” There are a few familiar hang-ups keeping these sort of cable-free solutions from prevalence today. Let’s start with the obvious one: Wired tech still just works.

In order for wireless tech to become the norm, it has to add demonstrable value to the wired things it’s trying to supersede. In many cases today, that’s simply not the case. Wireless headphones introduce a host of battery and connection quality issues. Wireless mice add concerns with latency. Wireless charging is slower than using a USB cable. And so on.

Simply “being wireless” won’t be enough of an incentive for everyone to make the switch, especially when wireless tech usually comes at a price premium now.

It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. The more people that adopt wireless tech, the more incentive companies have to improve it. But for more people to adopt wireless tech, it needs to improve. This is why Apple ditching the headphone jack is such a big deal for wireless audio: It has a ton of customers, and they’re all hungry for a better wireless experience right this instant.

This is the natural order of things in consumer tech — and we're already seeing advances — but, as always, it takes time.

Outside of the user experience, there are also complications when it comes to advancing wireless standards.

Outside of the user experience, there are also complications when it comes to advancing wireless standards.

In an ideal world, the wireless things in our life would all work in harmony, and the underlying platforms they use would be the most technically advanced around. You wouldn’t have to worry about if your smart lights can connect to your smart speaker. Everyone — developers and consumers — would all be on the same page.

If only. The thing about tech companies is they want to make money. That makes getting them to agree on a broadly compatible set of wireless standards a cumbersome process.

Take Bluetooth, for instance. It has a centralized body, the Bluetooth SIG, that counts thousands of Bluetooth-using companies as members, and oversees the development of the tech as a whole. Almost anyone can use it, and almost everyone does.

However, the fact Bluetooth accounts for so many companies’ needs makes pushing out new and improved versions of the tech very slow. It has to make sure the tech actually works with all sorts of devices, for one. It also has to deal with internal politicking, since many of its members want to get whatever intellectual property they’ve developed toward the standard to be included in the final spec, and thus ensure they get a cut whenever it’s deployed.

That’s just one example. The new 5G network, which will be much more capable than the 4G LTE we use on our mobile devices today, doesn’t even have a base set of standards yet; it looks like it’ll be relatively open, but right now, it’s more of a concept than a concrete piece of tech. While things usually work themselves out, the point is that openness usually comes at a cost, both in terms of time and general quality.

The alternative is to let companies create and license their own wireless standards.

The alternative is to let companies create and license their own wireless standards.

Think something like Google Cast, or Apple’s AirPlay. Proprietary tech like this is often better than an open alternative, since the company developing the standard isn’t beholden to other needs. (Or at least, not as much.)

Still, it’s a trade-off. You’re more likely to run into fragmentation — i.e., some devices inevitably won’t support (or pay for) every private standard — and you run the risk of letting a smaller group of companies hold the keys over everyone else, which distorts the development playing field.

This is not a new conflict, and it’s one without a clear solution. Nevertheless, it’s a catch-22 that’ll likely keep any wireless future from arriving as smoothly as it could.

The other big, high-level challenge to an all-wireless future, particularly when it comes to 5G, is infrastructure.

The other big, high-level challenge to an all-wireless future, particularly when it comes to 5G, is infrastructure.

To put it simply, wireless tech requires wireless spectrum — the invisible frequencies in the air that serve as a sort of “highway” for various wireless technologies. This comes at a premium. In the US, companies have to go through the federal government, and pay for the right to use certain wireless bands in spectrum auctions.

The FCC voted to open up more spectrum for 5G earlier this year, but how exactly it’ll be divvied up and auctioned off remains to be seen. What we can say now is that not all spectrum is equal, and some of the spectrum that’s set to make 5G a thing will require serious preparations from both tech companies and policymakers.

That’s because a good chunk of the proposed 5G spectrum works on higher-than-usual bands, meaning it allows for faster speeds, but doesn’t travel as far, and has a harder time getting through walls. To combat this, companies will have to make further advances in antenna and reception technologies, then install a whole lot of base stations to keep those short-range wireless signals bouncing from one spot to the next.

Companies can’t just plant stuff like that willy-nilly, though. Agreements will have to be made with local governments (and possibly landlords) that allow these things to be installed and maintained. If this sounds like a logistical nightmare, it is! It’s also the kind of thing that could roadblock a startup like Starry, which doesn’t have the deep pockets of a Verizon or a Comcast.

Still, this process is easier to take on if you’re building a wireless network (just ask Google), and lots of groundwork has already been laid to make better wireless a reality. It’s probably going to happen — and when it does, it should be great. It’s just not going to be easy.

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