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What does Apple’s new U1 chip do?

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What does Apple's new U1 chip do
What does Apple's new U1 chip do

One of the coolest features in Apple’s Iphone 11 lineup is called the U1 chip. With the U being short for Ultra Wide Band positioning or UWB. But what the heck does that even mean?

Well, the basic idea is that devices equipped with UWB chips can determine each other’s position. Although the tech has been around since the early 2000s, it hasn’t seen much adoption in consumer applications yet. The thing is ultra wide band signals take up lots of spectrum. They’re about 500 megahertz wide, as opposed to for example, Wi-Fi. Which typically takes up only about 20 to 80 megahertz. And due to the laws of physics, a wide signal allows UWB to send very quick pulses. Furthermore, the speed at which UWB operates means that it can use what’s called “time of flight”. Similar to radar, to accurately locate objects.

Generally, you need multiple antennas for this technology so that the position of the other object can be triangulated. But Apple has been quite vague about how exactly they’re going to do it. Anyway, what’s so special about UWB? Because bluetooth can also help you figure out where something is located over short distances. So why do we need it?

Well, as it turns out, UWB is superior to bluetooth in a handful of ways.

Depending on how it’s implemented, it can locate objects with a margin of as little as five millimeters, as opposed to about the one meter that you get with Bluetooth. And UWB can also update its position 10 times per second. And because UWB operates at a relatively low frequency, it should do a better job compared to bluetooth of passing through walls and other objects. Even though it’s a short-range technology, combine that with data transfer rates of up to 27 megabits per second, way faster than Bluetooth. Ultra Wide Band looks like it could be a very versatile little piece of technology. But what exactly is it going to be used for?

At the iPhone 11 launch, Apple said that the U1 chip would make it easier to use AirDrop. You just point your iPhone at someone and it will see that the other person is close by and bump it to the top of the list for a file transfer. But that in and of itself isn’t particularly exciting.

The real potential is what Apple and especially third-party developers might do with it.

In the future, for example, Ultra Wide Band is more secure than Bluetooth because of the aforementioned support for time-of-flight.

That means that UWB can be used as a check to ensure that someone attempting to send a signal is actually nearby. So imagine for example a smart door lock that will only unlock when it senses that the home owners phone is right in front of it. Or a car locking system that can beat the so called “relay attacks” that rely on spoofing a signal from a transmitter that’s actually farther away. There’s also a rumor that Apple is working on a tagging system similar to tile, so you could slap a UWB chip on something, like your keys, and your iPhone’s U1 chip could help you find it much more accurately and more quickly than Bluetooth.

There’s also the potential to combine Ultra Wide Band with augmented reality. So searching with your phone’s camera could cause the missing object to light up on your screen. UWB could also help you learn more about what’s around you. Facilitating interactive tours at the local UFO museum or tracking down hard to find products at the supermarket.

UWB’s precision and greater security could lead phone manufacturers to combine it with Apple Pay or Google Pay, in order to buy something just by pointing your phone at it, like a magic wand. And even if that’s not your style, UWB could improve indoor navigation In large spaces, like airports, malls and convention centers. Of course that sounds great, but it all depends on developers actually writing software for UWB and more gadgets than just Iphone incorporating UWB compatible hardware. Personally, I’m pretty hopeful that this tech is going to find its way into our lives sooner or later.

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