Is Ultra-Wideband the next big wireless technology, or just more hype?

When you think of wireless technologies, the ones that come to mind first have taken years to become household names — Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, and 4G — while others have faded into the ether of technical jargon. It’s fair to be skeptical when a new technology arrives alongside claims that it’s going to be huge, so when Samsung proclaimed this morning that a long nascent technology called Ultra-Wideband (UWB) is “the next big thing in wireless tech,” I might normally shrug it off as typical industry hype.

But despite prior commercialization challenges, there’s reason to believe that Ultra-Wideband technology will indeed be a big deal. Using radio waves, the wireless technology promises to enable any object with a UWB chip to be located within 4-12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters) of its actual location, compared with prior technologies measured in feet or yards. Moreover, UWB can be used to facilitate short-range data transfers, including file sharing and secure transactions. In essence, it promises to do at close distances what GPS did for long distances, unlocking a new age of location-aware business applications and opportunities.

It’s unclear at this point whether companies will use UWB to track down-to-the-foot location information for items in a warehouse, or instead rely upon it to enable virtual and remote work — imagine donning a VR headset and being able to accurately find your physical keyboard and trackpad despite not actually seeing them. Multiple business and personal applications of the technology are possible, and it looks like we’re about to start seeing some of the early ones finally emerge from labs into public view. Here’s what’s coming.

UWB technology, and 5G confusion

Without getting overly into the weeds, Ultra-Wideband refers to the use of very large blocks of radio spectrum to transmit and receive data at a short range. Imagine a tiny radio tower that can simultaneously blast data onto every station on the dial at once, but limited in power so that it doesn’t interfere with radios outside of the current room, and using special frequencies that actually won’t disrupt traditional radio communications. The strength and directionality of the varied wide radio signals can be used to determine the relative location of the tiny tower, as well as to convey huge amounts of information quickly.

If you’re in the United States, you may have heard of UWB in another context: Verizon decided to use the same term to market its millimeter wave 5G mobile network, making the acronym “5G UWB” pop up on the screens of supporting devices. While there are some similarities in the underlying concepts, Verizon’s 5G UWB is unrelated to location services — it’s purely referencing the specific short-range cellular technology used for its highest-speed 5G connectivity.

U.S. rival AT&T instead uses the term “5G+” to differentiate millimeter wave connections, and globally, no other carrier is confusing customers in this way. As Ultra-Wideband location service technology becomes more common, Verizon’s use of the term for cellular purposes will hopefully disappear, or else remain perplexing for its customers.

Who’s on board, and why

Samsung noted today that it has been working since 2018 to bring Ultra-Wideband technology into its products, and has already released two UWB-capable devices, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra in August and Galaxy Z Fold2 in September. For now, the company notes that UWB is enabling two features: Nearby Share, which lets users transmit files to friends and family in the same room, and SmartThings Find, which lets users of those two devices see the exact locations of UWB-equipped objects within “an augmented reality visual display.”

It’s worth underscoring that Samsung didn’t bring UWB to any phone in the Galaxy S20 series, or the entire lineup of its Note20 family. These are the first Android phones with UWB, but to see the feature for yourself on that platform, you’ll need to spend $1,300 for the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, or $2,000 for the Galaxy Z Fold2. That’s probably why the company didn’t make a huge deal out of UWB during their unveilings.

The timing of Samsung’s press release wasn’t coincidental. Tomorrow, Apple will hold an iPhone event where another “next big thing in wireless” — 5G cellular technology — will be the dominant story, but rumors suggest that UWB news could also be on the agenda. If Apple holds a proper coming-out party for the technology, Samsung likely wanted to be sure no one forgot that it’s supporting UWB, too.

Although you mightn’t have taken note of it last year, Apple added a UWB chip named “U1” to every iPhone 11 model in September 2019, which means that there are already tens of millions of supporting devices in the marketplace, with prices starting at $700. The same chip was quietly added to the $400+ Apple Watch Series 6, and is expected to be inside all of this year’s iPhone 12 devices, as well.

Last year, Apple said only that UWB would be used to enhance the precision and speed of AirDrop, its version of Nearby Share, but openly hinted at much greater things to come in the future. iOS 13 code revealed that the company was also working on standalone U1 location trackers called Apple Tags or AirTags, and the plan was apparently to add near-field location services for the trackers into the Find My app. That hasn’t happened yet, but taking all the details into account, it’s clear that Apple was working on the exact same features as Samsung, but under different names, and with much greater initial scale due to Apple’s larger collection of supported devices.

What to expect

Unlike Apple, which hasn’t yet shown its full UWB hand, Samsung offered a short list of future applications for the technology, including:

  • A Digital Key solution that lets your phone unlock doors as you approach them, including a building’s front door
  • Accurately navigating large spaces, such as locating a car in a parking garage or finding a place to eat at the airport
  • Making secure remote payments
  • Locating missing remote controls

Samsung has also said that it’s planning to bring UWB “to everyone, not just a select few” thanks to open collaboration with over 45 organizations spanning multiple industries, ranging from automobile manufacturers and universities to enterprise and consumer technology companies. The promise of interoperability is a clear shot at Apple, which has thus far promised only to use UWB to help devices understand their “precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices.”

Apple is likely headed in similar directions, though. Rumors have suggested that the next Apple TV remote will include a U1 so that you can locate it in a couch, and the company has confirmed that it’s collaborating on an automotive industry-wide standard for digital car unlocking that uses the U1 rather than NFC.

Another tantalizing prospect is that UWB becomes an enabler for mixed reality, helping devices bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. Thanks to UWB, users may finally realize the promise of high-precision indoor mapping based on Lidar and/or Wi-Fi, such that you might soon be able to explore a “digital twin” of a real space, remotely previewing the live locations of real objects within an office, store, or home, then finding them quickly when you arrive. Combined with 3- or 6-DoF orientation trackers, UWB could enable headphones to deliver high-precision spatial audio, such that a user could simply move and turn around in a room to experience a concert, movie, or game differently from the left, center, right, front, and back of a space. Feats like this are possible without UWB, but many companies have been waiting for precise spatial location and directional data to make them better.

One key question — and potentially major limitation on how widespread the technology becomes — is how much UWB accessories will cost. Though some people expected Apple to release Tags for under $30, the component costs alone could be $10, and some rumors have suggested that Apple was planning a $50 price point for each sensor. That’s markedly higher than the $20-$30 Tile charges for trackers, and probably high enough to slow demand for UWB tags, even if millions of tracking devices are out there. Samsung has a larger challenge, as UWB hardware isn’t yet found in any of its more affordable phones, and there hasn’t been any hint yet of Samsung tags. Past history suggests that where Apple goes, Samsung follows, and vice versa.

So regardless of the platform you prefer, there should be some extremely interesting applications of UWB technology. We’ll have to see whether it actually turns out to be “the next big thing in wireless tech,” but the power to make it so rests firmly in the hands of Apple, Samsung, and relatively few other companies with the wherewithal to release a comprehensive suite of hardware, software, and services to support UWB’s unique capabilities.

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