Home Radio waves Android will get a response to Apple’s AirTags. This is how UWB location technology works

Android will get a response to Apple’s AirTags. This is how UWB location technology works

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Apple has patented the use of UWB, or ultra broadband, to recognize when you are approaching your car, unlock its doors, and control when you can turn it on.

Apple via the American PTO; Stephen Shankland / CNET

This story is part of THOSE, where our editors will bring you the latest news and hottest gadgets from fully virtual CES 2021.

You have heard of wireless standards like Wireless, Bluetooth and 5G. Now is the time to learn another term: ultra broadband, or UWB. Technology allows you to pinpoint the location of phones, key chains, wallets and tracking beacons, helping you find lost dogs or automatically unlock your car. And now it’s the basis of the new Tile Ultra Tracking Tag, an Android compatible alternative to Apple’s $ 29 AirTag trackers.

Tile announced the Ultra label on Tuesday, saying it would ship in early 2022 but did not reveal a price. Google’s new Android 12 the smartphone software supports UWB, and Google has said it is cooperating with Tile on the technology. Samsung SmartTags Also, works with Samsung phones but not iPhones.

Smartphone leaders Apple and Samsung have integrated the UWB into their high-end models, including the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, iPhone 13, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra. The Apple Watch Series 6 and Series 7 have too Integrated UWB. The same U1 chip that Apple uses there also powers AirTags, meaning you can use a newer iPhone for “precision search” that shows you the direction and distance to your key fob or your AirTag handbag as long as you are within reach.

UWB calculates locations within half an inch by measuring the time it takes for ultra-short radio pulses to travel between devices. He will come later for Samsung’s new SmartTags, which use Bluetooth to boot, and automakers like Audi, BMW, and Ford are also hot for UWB.


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Right now UWB’s uses are limited, but as it matures and spreads to more devices, UWB could lead to a world where just carrying your phone or wearing your watch helps log you into your laptop as you approach it or lock your house when you leave.

“Being able to determine precisely where you are in an environment is increasingly important,” said ABI Research analyst Andrew Zignani, who expects shipments of UWB-enabled devices to surge from 150 million in 2020 to 1 billion in 2025. “Once a technology becomes embedded in a smartphone, that opens up very significant opportunities for wireless technology.”

Here’s a look at UWB and its uses.

What’s UWB good for?

Satellite-based GPS is useful for finding yourself on a map but struggles with anything much more precise and indoors. UWB doesn’t have those handicaps.

UWB could switch your TV from your child’s Netflix profile to yours. Your smart speaker could give calendar alerts only for the people in the room. Your laptop could wake up when you enter the home office.

Imagine this scenario: You leave the office and as you near your car, receivers in its doors recognize your phone and unlock the vehicle for you. When you get out of the car at home, the receivers recognize you’re no longer in the vehicle and lock the doors.

With UWB, your home could recognize that you’re returning at night and illuminate your walkway. The technology could then automatically unlock your front door and turn on your home sound system, which follows you from room to room. “I’m walking in a sound and light cocoon in my house,” said Lars Reger, chief technology officer of NXP Semiconductors, a UWB proponent whose chips are widely used in cars.

Samsung promises UWB technology for precisely tracking your location will automatically unlock car doors with digital keys in your smartphone.

Samsung promises UWB technology for precisely tracking your location will automatically unlock car doors with digital keys in your smartphone.


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Bluetooth-based location sensing takes at least two seconds to get an accurate fix on your location, but UWB is a thousand times faster, Reger said.

UWB will add more than convenience, supporters say. Conventional key fobs have security problems in regard to remotely unlocking cars: criminals can use relay attacks that mimic car and key communications to steal a vehicle. UWB has cryptographic protections against that sort of problem.

This same ability to track your movements has downsides, particularly if you don’t like the idea of the government following your movements or coffee shops flooding your phone with coupons as you walk by. But with today’s privacy push, it’s likely phone makers won’t let devices track your phone without your permission.

How is Google supporting UWB?

Google has added UWB support into Android 12, its latest smartphone operating system. In order for phones to actually take advantage of that, though, they’ll need UWB chips, so don’t expect support on budget phones. It’s likely that Google’s upcoming zPixel 6 phone, due to be fully unveiled Oct. 19 will have UWB built in.

Google’s UWB support enables digital car key technology so you’ll be able to use your phone as a car key — once automakers support the technology, too.

How is Apple supporting UWB?

iPhones since the iPhone 11 family have included Apple’s UWB chip, the U1. It joins a handful of other processors Apple has developed, including the A series that powers iPhones and iPads, the M1 at the heart of new Macs, iPad Pros and iMacs, and the T series that handles Touch ID and other security duties on Macs.

Apple AirTags

Apple unveiled its AirTags on Tuesday. 


Credit: Apple/Screenshot by CNET

AirTags really bring the technology alive, though. UWB communicates with an iPhone 11 or 12 so a big arrow leads you to the tag. When UWB isn’t in range, a Bluetooth connection means AirTags tap into Apple’s Find My system, which lets other people’s devices discover your AirTag’s location and share it privately with you.

“The new Apple-designed U1 chip uses ultra wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 Pro to precisely locate other U1-equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense to [the] iPhone, ”Apple said of the U1 chip when it arrived. “With U1 and iOS 13, you can point your iPhone at someone else’s, and AirDrop will prioritize that device so you can share files faster. And that’s just the beginning.”

Apple is currently only promising UWB links between its own devices. But UWB standardization should open up a world of other connections, and software tweaks should allow Apple to adapt as UWB standards mature.

Apple’s years of UWB work are evident in several patents. This includes patents for UWB pulse shaping for more precision in distance measurements, using a location of the phone, watch or key fob to enter and start a car, calculate your way to a car so that your car can send a request for biometric authentication to your phone, and leave Bluetooth and UWB cooperate to give you access to your car.

Apple is hoping UWB will help you find your dog, control your thermostat, and unlock your front door.

Apple is hoping UWB will help you find your dog, control your thermostat, and unlock your front door.

Apple via the American PTO

How does Samsung support UWB?

At its Galaxy S21 launch event in January, Samsung showcased UWB as wireless technology that will bring new convenience to your life. This includes unlocking your home or car when you get there.

“With Digital Key, you will be able to open the door of your home with your mobile device,” Kevin Chung of Samsung’s consumer direct sales center said at the launch event. “You will be able to unlock your car door with your phone. The door will unlock when you reach it – not sooner, not later.”

You’ll be able to send digital keys to your friends or family, and Samsung’s AR search app will show the direction of your car in a crowded parking lot. Samsung announced key digital partnerships with BMW, Audi, Ford and Hyundai’s Genesis Motor.

Samsung SmartTags also use UWB.

Who else is interested in UWB?

Other companies involved in UWB include consumer electronics giants Samsung and Sony; chip makers Decawave, Qualcomm, NXP and STMicroelectronics; the automakers Volkswagen, Hyundai and Jaguar Land Rover; and automotive electronics center Bosch. Another notable player is Tile, which has been selling tracking beacons for years to help you find items like key chains and wallets.

Confusedly, these companies have regrouped into two industrial groups, the UWB Alliance formed in December 2018 and the FiRa Consortium (abbreviation of “fine range”) which formed in August 2019. Samsung joined FiRa, Apple is not listed as a member of either.

In addition to this, there is the Car Connectivity Consortium working on a digital key Technology. The three groups have figured out who does what now to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, Harrington said.

FiRa is working on standards to ensure UWB devices work properly together, while the UWB Alliance tries to minimize UWB issues the extension of Wi-Fi to the 6 GHz radio band which UWB also uses. For example, there are brief pauses in Wi-Fi signals sent in the 6 GHz band, and UWB transmissions could squeeze through these gaps, said UWB Alliance executive director Tim Harrington.

How does the UWB work?

The idea behind UWB has been around for decades – indeed, the University of Southern California established an ultra-broadband lab called UltRa in 1996. Some of the concepts go back to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, Harrington says.

UWB devices send out many very short, low power pulses of energy over an unusually wide spectrum of radio waves. The UWB frequency range extends to at least 500 MHz, compared to about a tenth of Wi-Fi channels. Low power UWB signals cause little interference with other radio transmissions.

The UWB sends up to 1 billion pulses per second, or 1 per nanosecond. By sending pulses in patterns, UWB encodes the information. It takes between 32 and 128 pulses to encode a single bit of data, Harrington said, but given the speed at which the bits arrive, this allows for data rates of 7 to 27 megabits per second.

apple-iphone-11-u1-chip

Apple chief marketing officer Phil Schiller touted the company’s U1 chip for UWB in the iPhone 11.

Screenshot and illustration by Stephen Shankland / CNET

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) has developed a UWB standard called 802.15.4 over 15 years ago, but it has not been adapted to its initial use, sending data quickly.

But has location detection made UWB a hot topic again?

Companies like Spark Microsystems use UWB for data transfer, but most tech giants like it for accurately measuring location. Even though 802.15.4 failed when it was created years ago, the rebirth of UWB is happening because its ultra-short radio pulses allow computers to calculate distances very precisely.

UWB development is active again, for example with the 802.15.4z standard which strengthens the security of keychains and payments and improves the accuracy of the location to less than a centimeter. Solving today’s relay attack problems, where someone with radio technology essentially copies and pastes radio communications from key chains or smartphone unlocking systems, was a top priority for 802.15.4z. . “With the precise timing you get from the UWB and the ability to know exactly where you are, you can cut the man in the middle [relay] attack completely, ”Harrington said.

Another area of ​​active development is improving the way you can use your phone to make payments at a payment terminal.

Radio waves travel about 30 centimeters (1 foot) in a billionth of a second, but with short pulses devices can calculate distances very accurately by measuring the “time of flight” of a radio signal to another responding device. with its own signal. With multiple antennas positioned in different locations, UWB radios can calculate direction to another device, not just distance.

UWB harmonizes well with the internet of things, networking of doorbells, speakers, light bulbs and other devices.

It is already used for location detection. NFL players have UWB transmitters in each shoulder pad, which is part of the broadcast technology used for instant replay animations. The location of a soccer ball is updated 2,000 times per second, according to Harrington.

Boeing uses UWB beacons to track more than 10,000 tools, carts and other items in its sprawling factories.

UWB consumes very little power. A sensor that pulses once per second should work for seven years on a single coin cell battery.

Verizon has something called 5G Ultra Wideband. Is it the same thing?

No. Verizon uses the same words, but it’s just a brand label.

“5G Ultra Wideband is our mark for our 5G service,” said spokesperson Kevin King. “It’s not a technology.”

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