What is UWB?
UWB is an acronym that stands for Ultra Wideband Technology. It is a radio transmission standard that is used not only in the area of data communication, but also for location recognition and access control.
UWB differs from standards such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in that it occupies a very large frequency range of 500 MHz, in a spectrum that (depending on the region) ranges from 3.1 GHz to 10.6 GHz and was specially developed for this , having (and causing) less interference with other wireless communication standards.
The current standard can be confused with the specifications of the “late” WiMedia Alliance – and their Wireless USB specification, which was primarily intended for data transmission while occupying the same frequency band that was inherited from UWB.
Like other technologies, the system we now call UWB is defined by a consortium of companies, FiRa, including Apple, Bosch, NXP, Qorvo, Qualcomm, Samsung and Thales, among others.
Why is UWB so important?
Unlike the other wireless data transfer technologies mentioned earlier, UWB can be used to pinpoint the distance between devices to within a few centimeters. On the other hand, the data speed is limited to “a few tens of Mbit / s”.
According to the FiRa consortium, the standard has a theoretical range of up to 200 meters under ideal conditions. In reality, of course, using an AirTag in the presence of walls and other obstacles would result in much less detectable range.
UWB is based on short (2 nanosecond) wave pulses and Time of Flight (ToF) technology to determine the distance between compatible devices. With ToF, the initiating device estimates the distance to the second device based on its response time.
In addition, the system enables real-time tracking of the relative movement and position between the two objects with centimeter accuracy.
In which products will we see UWB?
In addition to locating objects, a feature that is used not only in the Apple AirTags but also in some versions of its competitor Samsung SmartTag +, UWB also sees actions like the HomePod mini speaker, where there is an improved version of the handoff function that continues playing audio from the smartphone on the speaker.
On the HomePod Mini, when you bring a compatible iPhone near the smart speaker, the smartphone begins to vibrate, with the vibration increasing in intensity the closer it gets. At the same time, the lighting on the HomePod experiences a similar variation.
Other proposed uses for the personal technology will center around heavily on home automation. For example, controlling the lighting in rooms based on the location of a person, switching lights on and off when entering and leaving rooms or access control on doors, among other things.
Samsung also cited that on UWB-compatible devices, the Nearby Share option will automatically list other UWB devices first by simply pointing the smartphone in its direction.
Another possible use would be in games, especially those with augmented reality. Multiplayer games can also benefit by making it easier to hunt down opponents without having to activate the device’s GPS.
Outside the home, UWB support appears to be showing promise for replacing car keys, where it is touted as a mid-range version of NFC. This year there were announcements from BMW, which is in partnership with Samsung, where the necessary APIs have been integrated into the OS source code at Google I / O for Android.
In vehicles, this technology could not only unlock the vehicle doors, but also help to locate the vehicle in a parking lot with visual, acoustic or haptic cues such as the HomePod Mini. Similar ideas can also be applied to car sharing services or perhaps simplifying the unlocking of bicycles.
In theory, it is even possible to combine some of these applications, for example in a small car equipped with UWB technology, by recognizing the object finders associated with more than one approaching suitcase belonging to the owner. If detected, the driver’s door is unlocked when the trunk is opened, while the seats fold automatically to make room for luggage.
NXP is a manufacturer of UWB and NFC chipsets and, in collaboration with VW, has demonstrated the technology in a car that automates the attachment of a trailer, including the detection of the correct installation of a child seat, while the airbag is deactivated if necessary.
UWB could also have interesting uses for first-time visits to places, with the potential to explore your surroundings or even simplify the operation of interactive guides in museums.
Not only to be optimistic, at least according to the FiRa consortium, this technology could also be used for personalizing ads and monitoring presence in stores.
Is UWB Safe?
In addition to the use of encryption for data transmission, the security of UWB is also based on the use of ToF technology itself. By estimating the distance based on the response time and not on the signal strength (an option with Bluetooth and some Wi-Fi-based services ), the technology avoids the risk of man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM), such as signal amplification, to fool the device.
UWB-enabled handsets and smartphones
At the time of going to press, the UWB system can be found on the following smartphones:
Among the devices compatible with the technology we can give as examples:
Apparently, the next-generation Google Pixel should also include this technology. Other companies that are part of the FiRa consortium are Sony, Xiaomi, Motorola, Oppo and the Chinese manufacturer Vivo. In addition to these smartphone brands, the group also includes companies such as Hyundai, ST-Electronics and Tile, the tracker manufacturer.
Xiaomi does not want to be left out and has demonstrated the use of UWB in its ecosystem
Bottom line: keep UWB on your radar
The consortium claims that, in theory, the cost of manufacturing UWB chips is not that different from the components used for Bluetooth connectivity, aside from economies of scale in manufacturing. However, the fact that the technology was not included in the base model of the Galaxy S21 does not inspire much confidence in the rapid popularization of the system.
The inclusion of the necessary APIs in the Android system and adoption by more companies will be critical to the widespread adoption of the new standard. Personally, I believe it should follow in the footsteps of the NFC system, which isn’t even widely available for mid-range phones.
Still, UWB offers practical potential beyond what NFC offers, and the examples mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how powerful the technology is, even if it will take some time to mature.