Perhaps the most interesting revelation from Apple’s product event Tuesday was what was not announced a single time during the presentation: Apple’s U1 chip that will be embedded into the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 pro. The only reference of the chip during Phil Schiller’s presentation was an image of it during Phil Schiller’s slides. For today’s update, I want to share what I have learned the past few days about the implications of the U1 chip from people a lot more knowledgeable about this technology than me .
First of all, I’ll be the first to admit that I was unaware that Apple was going to be bringing this type of chip to market. The person who really turned me onto understanding what’s going on here, was none other than Brian Roemmele. Brian wrote an incredible Quora post that completely breaks down what’s going on with this chip. Much of his analysis stems from the 35+ years of patent analysis he’s been doing, largely centered around Apple’s patents. His Quora post now serves as the foundation for my understanding of the U1 chip, much like how his post on the Apple Card helped to shape my thinking around the trajectory of its Apple’s finance goals. Both are well worth your time and offer way more depth than what you’ll find here.
The biggest thing about new iPhones? The U1 chip. Apple won’t say what it’s really for, but, in the future, it’ll be helpful in unlocking cars with your phone, AR, and lots of other location-based stuff. https://t.co/xWKnPnLqWi
— Nicholas Thompson (@nxthompson) September 12, 2019
The U1 chip is powered by Ultra Wideband (UWB) radio technology which uses a very low energy level for short-range, high-bandwidth communications. This type of wireless technology is perfect for spatial awareness and precise GPS. It’s basically a competitor to Bluetooth, but more accurate as it’s able to precisely locate an object within 10 centimeter range, as opposed to the current version of Bluetooth which is roughly a meter. It’s also about four times faster than Bluetooth currently. Brian suggests that the power requirements for UWB is so low that you could likely power a device using UWB on a hearing aid battery-sized coin cell that would last upwards for a year.
If people are curious about Ultra Wideband, the provocative answer is it will actually replace Bluetooth and NFC (the 802.15.4z standard subsumes both).
It’s not a light bet—it will power ALL short range wireless including glasses to phone high bw data transfer and localization.
— Steve Cheney (@stevecheney) September 11, 2019
Although UWB has been around for decades, Bluetooth has ultimately won out to this point because it has historically been cheaper to implement. As a result, we have all types of legacy infrastructure and systems built around Bluetooth, so even though UWB might be more technologically advanced and capable, the incumbent and current standard, Bluetooth, is going to be tough to unseat. There are only a handful of companies that can truly influence something such as the preferred method of connectivity and wireless communication, and Apple is one of them.
Today we announced U1! I’ve been working on U1 for a long time, and I am so excited for people to experience the first feature that it supports: a magical, enhanced AirDrop flow where you can select someone to share with by just pointing at them! pic.twitter.com/psLm1QKsuo
— Tom Erdmann (@tomerdmann) September 10, 2019
The first application of this chip will be the ability to point your phone at any fellow U1 chip user and quickly AirDrop them files. However, there’s much, much more to this. Brian, like he is so in my instances, was way out ahead of this announcement. He was cryptically tweeting as the event approached about, “following the balloons.” I now know that Brian was referring to Apple using the U1 chip in an upcoming Tile-like product from Apple, which would allow the user to hold up their iPhone camera and have an AR overlay with a red balloon signifying the location of said product.
“Hey Siri, where did I leave my keys and wallet?”
Siri: “Follow the Balloon, 14.57 feet ahead and 2.6 feet down.” https://t.co/j5CE74OatC
— Brian Roemmele (@BrianRoemmele) September 9, 2019
So, an obvious application of this chip would be to use it to locate missing iOS devices embedded with the chip, including the Tile-like product, or friends and family members precise locations via the “find my friends” app (so long as they’re carrying an iOS device on their person with the U1 chip). Brian takes it step further by insinuating that we’ll eventually be able to have Siri field questions based on data from the U1 chip too.
If we’re able to precisely locate objects using the U1 chip and create AR overlays to display their locations, then it’s conceivable that we’ll see this expand considerably. Here’s how Brian suggests this might evolve:
“The use case will allow for you to find a product like you world on a website with a whimsical Balloon, also used in the Find My app, to direct you to the precise location of the Apple product. With FaceID and Apple Pay you just look at your phone and confirm and leave. It is not hard to imagine many retail businesses adopting the system. It is also not hard to imagine AppleLocate used in industrial locations and medical locations.” – Brian Roemmele
That’s what makes an Ultra-wideband chipset in iPhones so interesting. UWB and depth lasers mean mapping the entire world, sharing high-accuracy AR ‘cloud’ presence, and building the successor to radar and LIDAR. https://t.co/vukCJQPb9F
— Daniel Sinclair (@_DanielSinclair) September 10, 2019
Many astute folks on Twitter (like the ones whose tweets I’ve embedded in this post) are pointing out ways in which this type of chip might impact the trajectory of these emerging technologies. Beyond geo-location, it would seem that UWB will be foundational to many upcoming technologies expected in the 2020s, from AR/MR to crypto to medical biometrics to autonomous vehicles.
Clever idea from @rabois on using consumer wearable beacons to improve vision system prioritization in self-driving cars. With Apple now designing cellular modems in-house, you can see how some of the pieces may be falling in place alongside their Titan project. pic.twitter.com/ZIhGePnyuY
— Daniel Sinclair (@_DanielSinclair) February 27, 2019
So, while the Apple event might have been a bit underwhelming, I think what we’re really witnessing is an interim period where Apple is rolling out all of the building blocks required for the products it will be releasing into the next decade. Brian very eloquently describes this period:
“The accelerometer systems, GPS systems and IR proximity sensors of the first iPhone helped define the last generation of products. The Apple U1 Chip will be a material part of defining the next generation of Apple products.” – Brian Roemmele
-Thanks for Reading-