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The Next Big Innovation: Apple’s U1 Chip

Despite massive promotion of its new silicon products, Apple didn’t give any stage time to its new U1 chip when it was introduced in September 2019 alongside the iPhone 11.

The chip didn’t get much media coverage either as it is currently only used for the company’s local file-sharing system, Airdrop. However, in small devices like the iPhone, a new component isn’t included unless it’s vital. The U1 chip could be the foundation for applications that will be essential to later Apple goods and services.

The U1 uses a wireless technology called ultra-wideband (UWB), which Apple says is a “GPS at the scale of your living room.” This technology is similar to WiFi, but runs in a distinct series of frequencies that will undergo less interference, and thus enhance performance. It sends a quick succession of pulses over a wide spectrum to other UWB-enabled devices in the area to discover their precise locations, and transfer massive amounts of data—more than current Bluetooth allows. Ultra-wideband isn’t new. It’s been used in commercial and industrial settings for decades. For instance, it is used to tag boxes in numerous warehouses for later retrieval. Furthermore, it is in devices used by professional athletes so that television broadcasts can pursue their positions for digital overlays and augmented reality replays.

Nevertheless, this is the first time the U1 chip has been in a mass-market device. 

Apple has not stated its long-term plans for the chip, but researchers have found many purposes for UWB. Originally, it was pitched to customers as a way to rapidly transfer large files to nearby personal devices, but had limited success. However, smart homes and location-based technologies have given it a new chance to succeed. For instance, UWB could be utilized to open your vehicle door when you approach it. While this is achievable with other wireless technologies, UWB is significantly more precise than Bluetooth. It’s so perfect that it knows which particular door you’re standing next to.

News from Cupertino shows that Apple plans to compete against Tile, an American consumer electronics company which sells automated tags you attach to valuables so you can find them with an app. Due to Tile goods relying on Bluetooth LE, U1-equipped smartphones and locator tags would be more precise at obtaining a definite location. Investigations have also shown that the technology can be used favorably in the realm of augmented reality, an area that Apple has invested much in recently.

Apple CEO Tim Cook declared that he believes that AR will become as popular as the smartphone. The U1 chip could boost Apple’s mobile devices by creating stronger, more reliable connections with one another in AR applications. This would enable two iPhones to forever know where the other is in a multi-user AR encounter. Moreover, its transfer rates would let them interact with each other in ways that have not previously been feasible. 

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