An important innovation that the latest iPhone has to offer is well hidden. It does not show itself when you pick up the device, you can not feel it, you can not hear it. Nothing is visible on the screen, the software equipment reveals nothing. The enclosed documentation does not contain any information on this, and also on the cardboard box in which the iPhone is delivered and on which the hardware equipment is described in detail, this innovation is not mentioned.
When Apple introduced the new iPhone Pro models at its headquarters in California on September 10th, the innovation was not mentioned during the nearly 50-minute show. Only once, for a few seconds, was there a hint in the background: “U1-Chip” could be read on the back of the stage, while the head of marketing once again listed the most important new features of the device: 3-fold camera, stronger battery and so on.
What’s up with this U1 chip? There’s just so much to find on the Apple website: “The new Apple-developed U1 chip uses – for the first time in a smartphone – ultra-wide-band technology for spatial awareness.”
That sounds mysterious. Apple apparently does not think it necessary to explain the U1 chip. But this is a major innovation that could open up many interesting new applications for the smartphone – not just the iPhones, but all smartphones. And even if the Apple iPhone Pro 11 is not the first smartphone to be prepared for ultra-broadband wireless technology, the future of this technology depends heavily on Apple.
The Californian company has been heavily involved in the research, standardization and commercialization of this technology for the past four or five years. Apple was awarded several important patents here. And above all: Apple has the market power to establish new techniques. This company has pioneered when it came to, for example, to find majorities for the USB connector or wireless technology.
Ultra Wideband Radio (UWB) allows transmission of a few hundred Mbps over a distance of a few tens of centimeters. For transmission, unlicensed frequencies between 3.1 and 10.6 GHz are used. Weak signals are distributed over a large frequency range (> 500 MHz) as a result of short pulses.
Once before, about fifteen years ago, UWB was about to make commercial breakthroughs. The technology, which was pushed by Intel for example, should then replace as a kind of wireless universal serial bus (USB) cable connections. But she did not prevail. The hardware manufacturers could not agree on a single standard, and with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth soon cheaper and better alternatives were available.
Today, UWB is in a new light. The interesting thing about the technology is that a receiver can determine the location and orientation of the transmitter very precisely – to within a few centimeters. This allows new applications: Apple wants to secure in this way, the data transfer using the in-house Airdrop method. Only those iPhone 11 devices can communicate with each other, which are spatially aligned.
The automobile manufacturers have discovered UWB for themselves. As part of a car door, a UWB receiver can not only detect whether the right signal has been sent to open the door, but also where it came from. The door opens when the driver approaches the car with the correct key in the pants pocket and closes when seated in the driver’s seat. Conventional radio-based locking methods can be cracked, because the signal of the correct key can be intercepted and then reproduced without these keys near the car door. This attack scenario can be thwarted with UWB. Next year, two major automakers will introduce UWB-based locking systems. They rely on the expertise of the young Zurich-based company 3db Access AG.
UWB could also facilitate indoor navigation where the signals from GPS satellites can not be received. Or in a museum it would be enough to point at an exhibit with the smartphone to get explanations on the screen. UWB is already being used in factories to inform workers about the exact location of tools or components.
In the queue
Why is Apple mystifying the U1 chip? Also, Samsung has recently been interested in UWB, but also this company holds back. Why? For UWB to succeed, it requires the cooperation of many market participants. But there is still disagreement in the standardization committees. Some details are still unclear, different factions face each other.