How Apple’s ultra-wideband chip could transform its products

Cupertino, September 20, 2019

Apple hardly mentioned the biggest technical innovation of the iPhone 11 Pro when it unveiled its latest smartphones earlier this month.

While some new features, such as triple-cameras and more durable batteries, are already present in competing devices, the iPhone 11 Pro is the very first smartphone to include an ultra-wideband chip. This wireless technology is little known but offers enormous potential for smart home, security, augmented reality and positioning.

UWB is similar to WiFi or Bluetooth in that it is able to quickly transmit data between neighboring devices. But it is particularly interesting for its ability to locate the device to a few centimeters - like GPS, but much more accurate.

So far, Apple has only indicated that its new UWB-based U1 chip will endow AirDrop, its wireless file transfer system, with "spatial recognition" capabilities, allowing it to know which iPhone you're driving on.

This seems a rather trivial reason to include an entirely new component, suggesting that Apple has more ambitious plans for its U1 chip.

UWB can detect proximity to about 20 cm by measuring the time it takes for the radio signal to pass between two connected devices. Although it is slower than WiFi, UWB is much faster than Bluetooth. It is also less vulnerable to interference because its signals can pass more easily through our body or the walls of a room. "It's like a very short-range radar," said Lars Reger, chief technology officer at chip maker NXP, which sells UWB chips.

This could make the UWB much better for searching for lost keys or wallets with the help of tags such as the Bluetooth mosaic. The code discovered in the Apple software suggests that the iPhone maker itself develops a tracking tag similar to Tile.

Despite the sudden interest of Apple, UWB is not a new technology. Today, it is mainly used in industrial environments, such as monitoring forklifts and pallets around a warehouse or factory.

There are also some early examples of consumer use. Locatify, an Icelandic start-up, disperses UWB "tags" or "anchors" around museums to guide tourists through exhibitions via a special dongle on their smartphone or tablet. (Locatify says that he also attached tracking tags to the chickens in small backpacks to follow them on a farm in Ireland.)

The high price of UWB chips (up to $ 20 each) has made it less attractive for smartphone manufacturers to integrate them into their devices. When the technology sector rallied to Bluetooth and WiFi, the cost of these components fell quickly, without UWB losing it.

Broader adoption in consumer electronics promises to reduce volumes that will drive down prices. Apple's rival for smartphones, Samsung, is a member of the UWB consortium, Fira, which could soon incorporate it into its own products.

The automotive industry is already working with NXP to explore the use of UWB technology as a more secure alternative to Bluetooth technology for wireless car keys. This concept could also apply to any other type of key, from door locks to the security system. "UWB chips are very small," said Reger. "You can integrate wherever a battery is."

Apple's patent filings suggest that it has considered using UWB at home, possibly as part of its HomeKit system. Illustrations of his ideas show UWB that connects an iPhone to door locks, thermostats and even a dog collar.

Subsequently, UWB could play a role in Apple's next smart glasses, such as creating a wireless link between the iPhone and the headset. If an iPhone, glasses and Apple Watch all contain a U1 chip, understanding their position relative to each other can allow the wearer to control the virtual objects they see by performing subtle movements of the hand or head.

For now, these are just speculations, but Apple is teasing bigger things. "It's like adding another meaning to the iPhone," says Apple about the U1 chip in its marketing pages for the iPhone 11 Pro, "and this will lead to incredible new capabilities."

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