How the iPhone 11’s U1 chip will change everything

Apple is bringing ultra-wideband capabilities to its iPhone 11 -- and it promises to be a game-changer (eventually) for everything from healthcare to smart cities thanks to its location accuracy, reliably and security.

apple iphone 11 smartphone 2020 by apple

Apple didn’t say much about ultra wideband (UWB) when it introduced support for the technology in the iPhone 11’s U1 chip on September 10. The Apple website simply states:

“The new Apple‑designed U1 chip uses UWB technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices. Think GPS at the scale of your living room.”

Apple hasn’t said what it plans to do with the technology, nor has it discussed how standards-compliant its implementation is.

The only use it shares is AirDrop: “If you want to share a file with someone using AirDrop, just point your iPhone at theirs and they’ll be first on the list.”

While that sounds nice, it doesn’t really justify adoption of a new standard all on its own, a point Apple concedes, saying, “That’s just the beginning.”

What is ultra wideband?

UWB is not new. It was first authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2002.

The standard was originally developed for commercial radar systems and saw adoption as a PAN/file sharing solution in PCs and a tiny number of smartphones, though the industry coalesced around cheaper-to-deploy Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for these tasks. There was an attempt to roll UWB into Bluetooth, but this petered out before the 2010 economic crisis.

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and mobile networking standards like LTE have already proven their worth, but the industry is evolving. Developers seek a secure technology capable of providing precise outdoor and indoor localization. That’s what UWB provides.

It turns your iPhone into a short-range radar, a highly secure data communications device and a location sensing solution. Its implications go far beyond AirDrop.

How UWB works?

UWB is a very low-power wireless technology. It transmits data across a wide frequency of bands (from 500MHz up to several gigahertz) at a range of around 100 meters. The use of wide frequency bands means it passes through walls far more reliably than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can achieve.

The signal broadcasts precisely timed digital pulses and is capable of achieving wireless data rates of 480Mbps up to 1.6Gbps at short distances. Accuracy is also boosted by its capacity to share position updates 10 times a second. UWB generates very little radio interference, resistant to such noise uses very low power transceivers (which is why it needs so little energy and only functions at close range).

UWB will determine proximity, which means the standard is resistant to hacks in which criminals attempt to fool a device into thinking the security key is present.

To achieve this, UWB uses time-of-flight calculations (i.e., how long a signal takes to travel to a destination and back again) to identify location and distance. It is capable of identifying location to an accuracy as precise as 10 centimeters. (Bluetooth is accurate only to within one-meter.) UWB is also directionally aware and can figure out where a device that can receive its signal is situated.

UWB also supports fast data transfer, delivering up to 8 megabits per second in mobile devices, four times faster than Bluetooth (I’ve seen varying estimates for data transmission, with most hovering around 27 megabits). Better yet, a UWB transmitter should work for years on the energy contained in one single button battery.

In other words, if you had a UWB tag attached to keys lost in your apartment complex, a device that supports the standard would be able to tell you how far away you were from those keys, what elevation they were on, and place them on the map.

The advantages of UWB

  • Range of 100 meters
  • Accurate to within 10cms
  • Signal can pass through walls and other barriers
  • Supports faster than Bluetooth data transfers
  • Highly secure
  • Resistant to interference and creates little of its own
  • Very low power
  • Extensive battery life

At present, you’ll find the standard used in factories and warehouses, where goods and employees sport UWB tags. It also provides a highly secure personal area network (PAN) communication tool for covert surveillance.

UWB adds location and privacy

While Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were great answers for an industry seeking a way to ensure wireless data transfers, UWB adds privacy and location to the mix.

Many of the biggest industry names, including Apple and Samsung, are active members of the UWB Alliance – a pan-industry group that evangelizes UWB.

Apple’s introduction of UWB support comes as the industry develops UWB antennas suitable for use in plastics, which opens up the opportunity for embedded deployment, such as Apple’s anticipated introduction of a Tile competitor in the form of a tag that works with its Find My features.

“We are at a significant inflection point in the adoption of UWB,” said Tim Harrington, chairman of the UWB Alliance said. “We have seen dramatic growth in implementations of UWB across a range of industries and geographies.”

IoT research firm, ON World predicts global annual sales of 802.15.4 chipsets will exceed one billion per year by 2024.

“However, that expansion is accelerating as we see the introduction of the next generation of UWB devices based on the draft IEEE 802.15.4z standard,” said Harrington.

Apple contributes to the IEEE 802.15.4z Enhanced Impulse Radio group. Samsung, Decawave, Alereon, Humatics and many others are also working with the technology.

Tim Harrington, executive director of the UWB Alliance called Apple’s decision to support the standard a "game changer,” explaining that it is already igniting fresh interest.

UWB applications --  today and tomorrow

The NFL uses UWB to track players during games. It is used in factories and warehouses to track workers, stock and equipment. Car manufacturers use it during vehicle assembly. You’ll find it in visitor passes.

These usage models appear to be the thin end of an emerging wedge.

Indoor maps will become far more accurate thanks to UWB, which will also make it possible to more accurately map high traffic areas.

Retailers will be able to make use of UWB systems to guide consumers around stores. A consumer may simply point a device at an item on the shelves to find more information and initiate purchase, with pick up arranged later in the shopping journey.

Apple is exploring other ways to make use of the technology. “Not only have they adopted the chipset, but they’ve also filed for multiple patents, which will see the iPhone interacting with different IoT products in everyday life in the future.,” Klyk founder Asad Hamir said.  

In many ways, UWB makes some of the same promises as beacons – low-bandwidth signalling technology that enables messages to be received from devices in range of the beacon. The problem with Bluetooth-based beacons is that don’t deliver the same level of accuracy – a problem Apple recently solved when it filed a patent for a UWB-equipped Beacon.

There are bleeding-edge use cases that also make sense. For example, voice-first expert Brian Roemmele predicts UWB may eventually be seen as an eventual building block for development of spatially aware AR solutions (so you don’t bump into others when wearing Apple AR Glasses), ambient computing models and the evolution of personal memory systems.

Industry transformation on a chip

That’s the thing about UWB – it unleashes so many potential uses. For example, a recent Volkswagen/NXP demonstration showed how the tech supports a diverse set of car-related solutions:

  • Automated trailer hitch activation.
  • In-cabin passenger detection.
  • Automated valet parking.
  • Hands-free parking.
  • Drive-through payment.
  • Walking pattern recognition for car access, in which the car uses UWB sensing and AI to learn personalized user gestures, introducing another layer of security to car access.

"The first UWB application we see is in theft protection… But this is only the beginning. UWB, especially when combined with high-precision sensors and AI, can deliver further benefits,” Maik Rohde, head of body electronics and car access, Volkswagen, said in a press release.

NXP already offers a portfolio of UWB-equipped vehicle entry systems while the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) defines the standard as a component choice for its Digital Key.

It is interesting that CCC includes Apple, Google and Samsung in its membership with Apple’s Manager, Wireless Technologies and Ecosystems, SK Yong holding a seat on the board. Apple quite clearly has interests here.

Proximity awareness means the standard is also likely to become a component in vehicular-collision detection systems. Smart cities may also benefit from fast and accurate traffic analysis systems, capable of detecting not just traffic volume but direction, velocity and more.

What about security? Better than Bluetooth

UWB is inherently more secure than Bluetooth. It works by sending out short pulses to other devices in range which then return the signal.

The low range and wide wave bands supported by the standard make it much harder to spoof those pulses, while time-of-flight means the standard can tell precisely where an object is located.

This means your keyless car entry system will actually know you are standing near the vehicle, and those pulsed and highly secured signals are much harder to intercept in man-in-the-middle and relay attacks. Not only do cars and doors know where you are, but the whole exchange is much harder to hack as the right signal coming from the wrong location won’t work.

The use of UWB receivers means that in some situations position can be tracked as if progressing through a mesh network. Theoretically, that makes it possible to track a stolen vehicle even if that vehicle is hidden inside a second vehicle or in a garage, as UWB signals push through walls.

What will Apple do next?

Apple doesn’t do things casually and its introduction of UWB support in the U1 chip has the industry guessing. After all, Apple may create the usage cases that industry follows.

Apple has multiple patents around the tech, with embodiments ranging from door-entry systems to pet monitoring, wireless communications, vehicle transponders and more.

One of the most prolific Apple inventors, who his name on several patents relating to UWB, is Benjamin Vigier, who’s thought to have worked on the development of Apple Pay. Does Apple plan to migrate Apple Pay from NFC to the more secure UWB? Indoor mapping may also be part of the plan. Apple updated its Indoor Survey’ app for business owners just weeks before introduction of iPhone 11.

More than driving technology

There are more applications of UWB tech than car security. Think about AR and VR systems in which the precise location and collision prevention sensors UWB provides make glasses safer to wear, enabling shared group experiences in virtual spaces.

Then there’s healthcare.

UWB opens opportunities for tag-tracking of patients and short-range secure communication of patient data. It can also help hard-pressed hospital staff more quickly locate life-saving equipment.

UWB as a highly accurate generator and navigator of indoor maps may also help give robots and automated systems more spatial awareness.

You’ll find intrusion detection, security and even covert communications solutions already make use of UWB. All these usage cases can now be extended into consumer markets.

Up next for the UWB and the iPhone 11

The veteran standard seems to answer a series of questions the industry itself has only now evolved to require answers to: Location, privacy, security and reliability, for example.

With so many potential uses and the support of the biggest names in consumer electronics, the introduction of UWB to mainstream products like the iPhone 11 will unlock fresh opportunities for digital transformation. It provides an essential building block for a range of location-aware, proximity-based and highly secure data sharing products for an increasingly interconnected planet.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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