The Apple iPhone 11 features a first generation room-scale radar of sorts: Here's how it works

Apple didn't talk about the iPhone 11's most intriguing feature, the U1 ultra-wide band radio.

The most intriguing update to Apple’s iPhone 11 line was the inclusion of the U1 chip. Apple made no mention of the chip during its launch event and only mentioned it in passing on the Apple website.

The U1 chip is an ultra-wide band (UWB) radio and processor that can work like a short-range radar or high-speed data link. For now, Apple says that the U1 will help make AirDrop better. AirDrop is Apple’s short-range wireless file transfer mechanism that has basically replaced USB if you work within the Apple ecosystem.

Where AirDrop was a bit more indiscriminate — anyone with AirDrop turned on could send or receive data to and from anyone else — U1-powered AirDrop will allow you to point the phone at the device you want to AirDrop to or from, reducing some of the ambiguity that can go into wireless data sharing.

That's not all that Ultra-wide band (UWB) tech can do though.

Ultra-wide band technology could be a game-changer for Apple. Image: Apple

Ultra-wide band technology could be a game-changer for Apple. Image: Apple

Why UWB can be a game-changer for Apple:

Hide and seek: Apple already sells Bluetooth trackers from Tile, which beep really loudly when they're in range of a device that's looking for them. A UWB-based upgrade to this could be a game-changer. Imagine losing your keys or AirPods and then just pointing your phone around with a compass like indicator and an AR overlay over to guide you to the object's location.

Hell, you could put it on kitty and track her as she disappears into her various hidey holes around your home.

Indoor navigation: Imagine if you could just walk into a supermassive department store or mall and have your phone guide you to the precise location of the items you wish to buy.

Imagine parking in a multi-storey car park and never worrying about getting lost or finding your car again.

Immersive AR/VR experiences: UWB could even help create shared AR/VR experiences where multiple friends could participate. Precise location data indoors means you won't accidentally tread on someone's toes or punch them in the face. You could also experience things together.

If mature and precise enough, the tech could also be used to track objects such as controllers in the same space.

But this is still just scratching the surface. UWB is also more secure than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and could be used for payments, locking and unlocking your home or car, and a lot more besides.

What is UWB?

UWB is a radio frequency-based communication protocol like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but that's where the similarity ends.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the equivalent of a person shouting in a precise tonal range (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz in the case of regular Wi-Fi), and only in that tonal range. The signal is 'broadcast' indiscriminately and anyone can listen in, even if it's only one person who raised the query. In a crowded place, with everyone shouting at the same time and in the same range, it'll be very hard for the right person to single out the person they want to listen to. This, in essence, is how Wi-Fi works, and why it's not always the best choice.

UWB operates across the available wireless spectrum (> 500 MHz), but at a much lower power, meaning that only devices within a certain radius can hear the signal. Think of it as whispering to Wi-Fi's shouting.

Rather than flood the frequency band with data, a UWB system transmits data in precisely timed pulses. A receiver tuning into the signal will not only receive data, but also the precise range and direction of the source (taking advantage of the Doppler effect). This is key to what makes UWB special.

Traditionally, UWB has been used in factories and warehouses to track worker and equipment location with a high degree of precision. Workers wear UWB transmitters and receivers scattered throughout the warehouse track their movement, enabling planners to observe and improve efficiency in the workspace.

Apple's implementation of the tech is unlikely to be that mundane, and UWB tech only works with other UWB devices, making it a very niche feature for now.

In this generation of iPhone, UWB is unlikely to do more than just allow for faster, more secure AirDrop, but the potential for the tech is incredibly exciting. Google's been talking about the tech since at least 2008, but Apple appears to be the first company to have implemented it at a commercial level.

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