Ultra Wideband: the new technology that Apple and Samsung are betting on
You may have never heard of Ultra Wideband (UWB). This is a technology that has been commercially available in various Apple devices since 2019and has recently been included by Samsung in some high end devices, as well as by Google in Android development.
Why is UWB sparking growing interest in the industry? Let’s see what it is and what it is for.
What is UltraWideband?
UWB enables communication between devices over relatively short distances, similar to Wi Fi or Bluetooth. But it does provide some functionality that is not possible with these other technologies.
As its name describes, Ultra Wideband uses a very large bandwidth, which can reach up to 500Mhz in each transmission.
UWB allows a very precise spatial location. Devices with UWB can determine not only the distance to each other, but also their relative position with great precision. This enhances the capabilities of using devices to locate, pair, or interact with each other, such as between smartphones and UWB headsets or keyfobsor use a smartphone or a smartwatch with UWB as a digital key to open vehicles very safely.
UWB is not a new concept or technology, but has been used for decades in many professional or industrial fields, such as short range radar for vehicles, medical imaging equipment or railway signaling systems.
How does UWB work?
UWB implies, like other radio communication systems, the incorporation of additional transmitters and receivers in the devices, which are currently only available in some high end terminals.
UWB is a pulse based system. This means that the signals are transmitted repetitively for very short periods of time (typically in bursts of no more than 5 milliseconds), remaining off for most of the time. This feature, together with a significant limitation in the maximum power allowed, means that UWB signals can coexist with other communication systems operating on the same frequencies, with hardly any interference.
UWB enables transmission speeds of several hundred megabits per second to be achieved. While these transmission speeds are a long way from modern Wi Fi systems, they are adequate for a large number of use cases. Nevertheless, these speeds decrease rapidly depending on the distance between devices and the interruption of the direct line of sight, being appropriate only for short range communications (from a few cm to a few meters).
Data transmission with UWB
UWB is very interesting in developing capabilities for localized augmented reality. For example, showing additional information about a work of art, a monument, or any tourist spot just by pointing the device towards said element, which would incorporate a UWB system for the delivery of said information.
Samsung, for example, uses the “Nearby Share” feature on its UWB enabled devices, which allows users great precision when connecting to other Android devices simply by pointing at them. Nearby Share will automatically display a list of available users at the top of your instant sharing panel once photos, videos, or other files are selected.
In the case of Apple, this ability is used in AirDrop, functionality used for sharing files between devices. The addition of UWB allows you to prioritize the list of devices that can be shared to. By simply pointing one iPhone at another, both with UWB, these devices are put at the top of the list of devices to share to, making the user experience easier. Although the transmission is not necessarily via UWB.
Location with UWB
To a certain extent, UWB could be considered as a radar that continuously scans space, and can precisely focus on an object, discover its position and communicate with it.
Ultra Wideband devices are capable of accurately calculating not only the distance, but also the position relative to each other, and the angle between them.
Thus, while, with the help of satellites, it is possible to determine the location of a GNSS device (GPS, Glonass or Galileo) with an accuracy of a few meters outdoors, and some more in the case of location through Wi Fi signals, Fi or Bluetooth (in its version 5.0 or earlier), UWB allows location with accuracy of less than 30 cm, something only within the reach of the recent version 5.1 of Bluetooth, which is beginning to reach the market.
Sharing with ‘Nearby Share’.
Interaction with the environment
Both Apple and Google are working to make it easier to develop apps that take into account the relative direction and distance between devices, using UWB technology. As examples of the possibilities opened up by the use of this technology, we could cite shared ride applications that allow a driver and a passenger to locate each other easily, or a virtual “water balloon war”, using augmented reality.
The use of Ultra Wideband technology is also expected to improve the accuracy and experience of using object locators., even reaching precise guidance, with augmented reality, towards the object to be located. UWB technology will determine not only position, but can also identify whether an object is stationary or moving, and whether it is approaching or receding.
UWB also allows you to turn a smartphone into a digital key. This could lead to scenarios such as the unlocking of locks and the automatic opening of a garage door or an access barrier as a user approaches their home or workplace with their vehicle, with much greater security than other wireless systems used at the moment.
interaction with people
Ultra Wideband allows for exceptional accuracy in detecting people, with low interference from ambient temperature or other objects. This allows more precision to be achieved than with other systems or other frequencies, such as infrared, laser or acoustic waves.
These capabilities, which have traditionally been used in medical systems (cardiac and respiratory monitoring) or rescue of people (eg detection of injuries in earthquakes or natural disasters), they can have numerous uses in consumer devices.
Human presence sensor for devices, with UWB technology.
What teams is it available on?
UWB is available on iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and the full range of iPhone 12 devices, as well as Apple Watch 6 and HomePod mini.
Samsung, for its part, has incorporated UWB this year, for the first time, in its Galaxy Note 20, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 2 terminals, while Xiaomi is testing this technology in special versions of Mi 10 Series devices. and some of your smart home devices.
As for laptop PCs, Lenovo has just launched, in November this year, the ThinkPad X1 Nano model, which incorporates UWB technology to efficiently determine the presence of a person in front of the device, and interact when this happens, activating, for example, locking or unlocking the device.
Google, for its part, has recently included an Ultra Wideband API in Android code for use by app developers.
What can we expect from UWB in the coming years?
Following the initial movements of Apple and Samsung in devices, and Google at the Android ecosystem level, other manufacturers such as Oppo or Xiaomi are working on incorporating UWB in their smartphones. Although the incorporation of this technology initially in the highest ranges is expected, its subsequent evolution towards devices in other ranges is also foreseeable.
In this context, Ultra Wideband has the potential to become a very common technology, much like Bluetooth is today., not only on smartphones, but also on wearables, laptops, tablets, and smart home devices. In fact, the UWB Alliance expects UWB technology to be present in more than a billion devices by 2025.