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On Friday morning, I will be upgrading my iPhone X to this years model but not primarily for any of the reasons presented on-stage during Apple’s special event – teased by the tag line “by innovation only”.

Whilst increased battery, enhanced camera electronics and advancements in computational photography AI were enough for me to invest in this years iPhone, over say a holiday, those upgrades are mainly evolutionary and don’t particularly change much about how we already use our devices today.

Glossed over during last weeks introduction of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro was the inclusion of a revolutionary Apple-designed chip called the U1. The U1 chip enables ultra-wideband (UWB) positioning, giving the new iPhones the ability to locate nearby objects with what Apple tellingly touts as “living room-scale GPS.”

Of course, whilst Apple likes to show off its chip designs for its new iPhones, the company also likes to stay tight lipped on future products and use-case scenarios for technologies that they’re not quite ready to show. If you’re inclined to believe details uncovered by 9to5Mac’s Guilherme Rambo, Apple could be ready to divulge more about their vision for the new wireless standard in the near future.

For now, Apple have published this little tidbit within the iPhone 11 family of product pages with a focus on a new highly directional version of AirDrop.

“The new Apple-designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness – allowing iPhone 11 Pro to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1-equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense too iPhone, and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities. With U1 and iOS 13, you can point your iPhone toward someone else’s and AirDrop will prioritise that device so you can share files faster. And that’s just the beginning.”

Excited yet? Well, you should be. UWB allows for devices to locate one another with pinpoint precision in real world environments. That means future device theft will be near impossible given UWB can work independent of device charge or online connectivity whilst sending notifications should a set perimeter be breeched. The low energy technology could also lend itself to a much mooted Apple Tile-like device.

As per Apple’s copy previously mentioned, the only announced application is a modified version of AirDrop which uses U1’s precise location tracking to detect the nearest iPhone 11 in relation to yours and the direction its pointed at! 

Its unknown as yet whether data transfer will also be handled through UWB, which can transfer Up to 27 megabytes per second. Raw data also shows that the technology is able to detect items within 10 centimetre accuracy with Brian Roemmele noting the possibility of further accuracy depending on its implementation.

“It is very possible the Apple U1 chip uses the Decawave chip, licensed technology or a customised OEM version. It is possible to achieve better than 3 centimetres of accuracy in theory with this technology”.
Brian Roemmele on Apple’s U1 chip and Ultra-Wideband
 

In a paper published by the voice first expert over the weekend, Brian Roemmele offers an in-depth highly detailed account of the technology, its development, privacy concerns and future applications beyond AirDrop and tracking tags. Here are just a few highlights:

Before UWB there were iBeacons. iBeacon technology was adopted across select venues and retailers including Apple Stores across the globe but failed to gain traction due to the technical limitations of BLE:

“This technology was centred around Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). The idea was sound, however the technology was low resolution, so low that it would be hard to be with-in a few feet without triangleization of 3 or more iBeacons and even then it can drift significantly with heat and obstacle issues. Parallel to the iBeacon research, Apple was testing a newer and more exacting technology in their research labs in 2005. By 2006, before the iPhone was even announced, they applied for a patent for “Ultra-wideband radios for time-of-flight-ranging and network position estimation” via a research grant at Livermore Labs. It took until September 2010 for the patent application to be released by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Apple went on to do a lot of work with iBeacons and BLE. However, the 3 dimensional spacial resolution was not nearly as accurate as Apple will come to need and thus they abandoned the concept of the iBeacon.”

On the potential ease of mapping and privacy concerns: 

“It is entirely possible to build a useful AR/MR/VR map of any indoor space using the Apple U1 chip in just a few minutes few minutes. This can be utilized with the same laser and/or IR technology found in the iPhone for FaceID. Thus with a combinations of the Apple U1 chip and Apple A13 Bionic neural engine we will have one of the most sophisticated spacial mapping and analyzing systems in any currently available consumer device.Indoor mapping has been tried via many methods over the years, including using the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner systems. Roomba met with a great deal of push back by users of their products when it was discovered the company may be selling indoor maps of the user’s homes [5] using SLAM technology. In the case of Apple, the U1 chip along with the results of FaceID/TouchID system is stored in the Secure Enclave. The data stored in the Secure Enclave is physically, nearly impossible to retrieve from the chip and is held only local to the device fully encrypted.”

The U1 chip and the future of UWB technology beyond AirDrop and device tracking:

“UWB can be used for many applications and use cases. One use case that will become very large for Apple as they move to AR/MR technology and Apple Glasses is to be able to track spacial relationships of objects. One way to do this is using lasers and IR systems, and Apple is already doing this to some degree with FaceID and Animoji. The other way to do this is via the radio spectrum.”

Ideas for a U1 equipped Apple TV

So what could we expect from U1 and UWB when it eventually comes to future Apple TV hardware? Whilst I’d be remiss to give my complete thoughts as I continue to process everything, here are just a few ideas which came to mind after reading Mr Roemmeles paper over the course of the weekend.

Finding the Siri Remote:

Starting with the most obvious use of all. Reports have suggested that an AR element to iOS 13’s Find My app is in the works, allowing users to pinpoint the precise location of the item you are trying to find. When Apple’s U1 chip does come to Apple TV it had better also come to its Siri Remote so we can spend less time searching and more time watching.

User Defined User Experience:

One major barrier for many people used to the traditional cable TV experience is how different tvOS looks and feels. Imagine being 80 years old and now being told that the best content is pretty much inaccessible to you because you cant get to grips with a UI which in the most part is completely alien to you. Apple’s U1 chip has the potential to detect who’s in the room and adapt the Apple TV user experience accordingly. The seamless switching on of subtitles or descriptive audio could also be beneficial to households with one or more members with accessibility needs. Allowing each user a first-class bespoke and fully independent TV viewing experience. 

Spatially Aware Content Filtering:

If you were like me as a kid, long after you were supposed to be in bed, you’d sneak downstairs to peep what your parents were watching. During which time I saw the demolition of a on-duty police officer before he became RoboCop, an Alien burst out of someone’s chest and a man and a woman get it on for what felt like 9 1/2 weeks.

A few days ago, VOD service VUDU announced the launch of its Family Play mode. A feature which automatically skips sex, violence, profanity and drug use during content playback. The concept of spatially aware content filtering is an extension of that premise, protecting impressionable eyes from seeing age restricted content, even when they’re not supposed to be in the room. Furthermore, spatially aware content filtering could alleviate the potential for awkward moments during family movie night and be a godsend to teenagers the world over, decreasing the chance of an American Pie moment.

In conclusion 

Its not since Apple adopted WiFi within its first iBook that we’ve seen the company be first to push a new technology out of the gate. Fridays iPhone 11 release will see the first consumer market smartphone to support UWB but my personal hope is that Apple’s U1 chip comes to its other product lines in a speedy manner. It may be “just the beginning” but I for one, am eager to see how this story unfurls. 

We’d like to thank Brian Roemelle for his infectious enthusiasm and dedication to #VoiceFirst. You can read his paper in full by clicking here.

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