The next big thing is called Ultra Wideband and you should care about it
You might not have heard about it yet but the Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology for spatial awareness offers great business opportunities thanks to extreme accurate indoor positioning capabilities. Although Apple did not mention it at their September 2019 keynote event, UWB technology is silently introduced in all of the new iPhone 11 series which confirms the huge potential the technology has. In this blog article I will discuss the potential of UWB, discussing some use cases and how it compares to other well-known indoor positioning technologies.
UWB network (development) components we use in our Amsterdam Digital Studio.
Long before UWB – at the end of 2013 – Apple introduced the iBeacon protocol based on blue-tooth low energy and we started experimenting with it. The range varies from 'very close' to far but in practice accuracy is aprox 1-5 meters, depending on different conditions - like number of installed beacons and room characteristics - of course. Although still evolving beacons are not that great for very precise location detection and are hard to manage in large quantities. But are used in real life scenarios, as detecting that a person enters a store - offering a discount coupon for example - or when nearby a specific area in a shop. Estimote and Radius Networks are commonly used solution when using beacons.
WIFI tracking and other sensors
Although WIFI is primary designed for wireless network access and not for tracking purposes it is commonly used for indoor positioning. By measuring the intensity of a received WIFI signal combined with the location data of a router it is able to do tracking. To make indoor position even more accurate WIFI tracking can be supported by data from other sensors which are already built into your phone, e.g. movement detection, barometric pressure (for floor levels) or compass. Also, beacons can be added to improve the results even more. With WIFI tracking indoor positioning and way finding solutions are relatively easy to implement. We have built event location solutions with our partners Indoor Atlas and Jibestream.
Finding your way in our Digital Studio using WIFI tracking, beacons and other sensors.
What is UWB?
UWB is a communication method used in wireless networking that uses low power consumption to achieve high bandwidth connections. In other words, it's meant to transmit a lot of data over a short distance without using too much power. Ultra wideband radio not only can carry a huge amount of data over a distance up to 230 feet at very low power (less than 0.5 milliwatts), but has the ability to carry signals through doors and other obstacles that tend to reflect signals at more limited bandwidths and a higher power. Enabling use cases as wireless USB or wireless high-definition video. And it can be used for high-precision location awareness.
So how does location awareness work?
UWB calculates your exact location by measuring the round-trip time of a radio signal between a sender and a receiver. This approach also offers much better security options. Methods like beacons use the signal strength to determine the distance, however this can be faked by hacker by boosting the signal, with UWB this is not possible.
UWB can also use different techniques like the angle of arrival of a signal (AoA) and combining this data with the distance gives an incredible accuracy of about 10-20 centimeters – or less. Data speed and power consumption are – roughly indicated – somewhere between Bluetooth and WIFI tracking.
Ultra Wide Band offers many use cases
One of the biggest advantages of UWB is that everything connected now exactly knows about a specific location, the relative distance between and speed of movement of objects or people. The value of this new data-layer is huge. New services can be developed in the area of indoor positioning, access control (security) and device to device communication.
Although very obvious Indoor positioning is just one of the areas where UWB can add value. Retailers might implement indoor location to offer store visitors tailored information depending on their exact location. Want to know more about the tomatoes in front of you? Just open the camera app and an augmented reality layer pops up. Or UWB enabled smart-displays, providing information from products close by the display. Another opportunity for retailers might be to analyze shopping behavior by processing very accurate walking data of store visitors.
However indoor positioning is not the only area where UWB can offer value. According to the FiRa consortium Hands-Free access control and Device to Device communication are other interesting areas where UWB will play a distinctive role. Example of access control are Smart Home applications, automatically gaining secure access to your car when nearby or getting access to all kind of areas or rooms without the hassle of keys or proximity cards.
UWB will offer the best digital interface: no-interface!
Device to Device communications offers the ability for smart devices to share positions and distance data to each other. In Smart homes all kind of devices can respond to your presence without starting an app or pushing a button. This makes the perfect – seamless – interface, entering a room will activate lights, cooling or heating and start playing your favorite Netflix series as an example.
In our Digital Studio we currently have two UWB networks up and running and created an UWB prototype to be able to develop specific use-cases.
Adding UWB technology to a phone, a first prototype for experiments
Experiments include a feature that when walking around lights will change colors depending on your exact location. A fun way to experience the accuracy of UWB which is mind-blowing.
Currently UWB finds its way primarily in smart industry solutions like asset tracking or drone control but for consumers UWB looks like the next technology wave. On the downside however, we need some time before consumers are able to adopt this technology widely. IPhone 11 series owners however might be the first to take advantage as it seems that Apple is pushing this technology forward.