It didn’t get much of a fanfare, but the new iPhones have an interesting new technology in them. It’s called Ultra Wideband, or UWB, and it’s in the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. It’s a technology used for some very interesting location-based applications. To give just one example, NFL players have UWB transmitters in each shoulder pad, part of broadcast technology used for instant replay animations. A football’s location is updated 2,000 times per second.

Anyway, it’s in my iPhone now and it will be showing up in Android phones later this year. If you look on the Apple web site, you’ll see the arrival of UWB confirmed with the interesting caveat that “availability varies by region”.

(The reason for this is that UWB is subject to national regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations such as, to give one example, Vietnam.)

It’s not really a new technology as it’s been around for ages. The spectrum was opened up for commercial use in 2005 by the FCC for pulse-based transmission in the 3.1 to 10.6 GHz range and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) standard on UWB (802.15.4) came out more than a decade ago. The idea behind it was to send data by transmitting short, low-power radio pulses across a wide spectrum (the channels are ten times wider than the channels used for wifi). The data is encoded so that each bit is spread 32-128 of the nanosecond radio pulses so that you can send lots of data (say 10Mb/s) with little interference.

UWB was one of a family of wireless protocols, along with Bluetooth, ZigBee and WiFi, intended for short-range wireless communications with low power consumption. Back in the day it was assumed that, broadly speaking, Bluetooth was for a cordless keyboards and hands-free headset, ZigBee was for monitoring and control networks, while Wi-Fi was for computer-to-computer connections to substitute for wired networks and UWB was for high-bandwidth multimedia link. It never really caught on though. WiFi worked well enough and got faster, it got built in to laptops and phones and together with Bluetooth seemed to take care of most applications.

But then came the pivot.

It turned out that people found another use for UWB, because these nanosecond radio pulses have an interesting characteristic. They allow you to determine location with great accuracy. The short bursts of signals with their sharp rises and drops mean that the signal start and stop are inherently easier to measure than for wifi or Bluetooth transmissions. This means that the distance between two UWB devices can be measured precisely by measuring the time that it takes for a radio wave to pass between the two devices. It delivers much more precise distance measurement than signal-strength estimation and, what’s more, UWB signals maintain their integrity in the presence of noise and multi-path effects.

All of which means that with UWB it is possible to measure the time it takes the signal to travel from transmitter to receiver and calculate the distance in centimetres, giving much better distance information than determining distance based iBeacons and such like. Apps can therefore receive precise location data and location updates can be delivered every 100 ms if necessary. So UWB-equipped devices can determine the precise location of another UWB device and know whether it’s stationary, approaching or receding. For example, a UWB-enabled system can sense if you’re moving toward a locked door and it can know if you’re on the inside or outside of the doorway, to determine if the lock should remain closed or open when you reach a certain point.

So if you have a UWB phone and a UWB tag of some kind, then the phone can work out where the tag is. Now, I already use something like this, because I’m a big fan of Tile. If you haven’t used Tile, it’s an app on your phone that can locate Bluetooth tags. You buy these tags and then attach them to things (I’ve got one on my keys, one in my wallet and one in my notebook) so that you can find them. I can’t tell you how many times — maybe this is something to do with age — that I’ve misplaced my keys and saved hours of searching around the house by using the app.

Anyway, for the moment Apple only uses UWB to connect its own devices but there are standardisation efforts underway to interconnect devices from different manufacturers. An example use case (where Apple already has patents) is for keyless car unlocking.

(Apple is a charter member of the Car Connectivity Consortium, which created the Digital Key Release 1.0 specification in 2018.)

So why am I telling you about UWB now? Well, it’s because it has started to make inroads into the world of payments. In Japan, NTT Docomo has teamed up with Sony and NXP Semiconductors (their UWB chipset was announced last September) to trial technology that lets shoppers make NFC payments without having to take their phones out of their pockets. They are using UWB to follow user movement and positioning with location accuracy of a few centimetres

Pretty cool stuff! So if you are thinking about a fun payments skunkworks project, you might do worse than have a look at what UWB can do to transform your customers’ experiences at point-of-sale and then ask the Hyperlab team at Consult Hyperion to help you to put something together.

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