From Location to Microlocation

I loved the 2014 book “You Are Here” by Hiawatha Bray of The Boston Globe. It tells the history of location and navigation technologies and explains just what a huge change in human affairs it was when suddenly you could always know where you were and how to get where you want to be. We take it for granted today, but GPS and Google Maps are pretty astonishing. My children have absolutely no idea what it would mean to be lost. There’s no such concept in a smartphone world where cars will soon be able to drive themselves home and your Bluetooth can tell you which office you are in and how to get to the coffee room.

Well, another big change in location is coming. Consumers will soon see a whole new range of services that are impossible to deliver using existing location technologies such s GPS or Bluetooth and these will in turn create incredible new opportunities for financial services. It hasn’t got as much attention as 5G but since the iPhone 11, Apple’s phones (and the series 6 Apple Watch and the new HomePod) have come with a technology called Ultra Wideband, or UWB. As does the new Samsung Galaxy Note 20. UWB heralds a new battle between the internet giants: the battle over micro-location (or µlocation, if you will).

Knowing where you are has changed the world. Knowing where everything is will change it again. Not only will you never get lost again, you’ll never lose any of your stuff again.

First of all, it’s important to understand that UWB is not really a new technology. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) standard on UWB (802.15.4) came out more than a decade ago. It was one of a family of wireless protocols (along with Bluetooth, ZigBee and WiFi) that were intended for short-range wireless communications with low power consumption. At the time it was assumed that, broadly speaking, Bluetooth was for a cordless keyboards and hands-free headsets, ZigBee was for monitoring and control networks, while Wi-Fi was for computer-to-computer connections to substitute for wired networks and UWB was for high-bandwidth multimedia links. It never really caught on though. WiFi worked well enough and it got faster pretty quickly.

So there was a pivot.

Engineers found another use for UWB, because the radio pulses that it uses have a very interesting characteristic which is that they allow you to determine location very accurately indeed. Much more accurately than you get from signal strength estimation (as with Bluetooth proximity applications). This means that with UWB it is possible to measure distance to a couple of inches and since apps can get this information a few times every second they can also tell whether another device is stationary, approaching or receding. For example, a UWB-enabled system can sense if you’re moving toward a locked door and it can know if you’re on the inside or outside of the doorway, to determine if the lock should remain closed or open when you reach a certain point.

Finding things is only the beginning, although it is by itself a huge market. Take tags. If you have a UWB phone and a UWB tag of some kind, the phone can work out exactly where the tag is. I’m a big fan of this kind of application because I’m old and forget everything and adore my Tile app! If you haven’t used Tile, it’s an app on your phone that can locate Bluetooth tags. You buy these tags and then attach them to things (I’ve got one on my keys, one in my wallet, one on my TV remote and one in my notebook) so that you can find them easily. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve misplaced my keys and saved hours of searching around the house by using the app.


with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

A recent Apple patent application sets out how a system of “Airbags” might work. Suppose you have one of these tags in your notebook and you leave your notebook somewhere. When the notebook loses touch with your iPhone because you have walked away, the tag goes into a “lost mode” and transmits its encrypted details through any other device it happens to come into contact with. So a stranger with an iPhone walks past, the tag sends its position and that stranger’s iPhone passes the message on via Apple to your iPhone. So when you realise you can’t find your notebook, your iPhone can tell you exactly where it is. The idea that you can lose something will fade from memory. Just as the 4G generation cannot imagine being lost because their phone can always tell them where they are, so the UWB generation will not be able to imagine losing anything, because their phone will always be able to tell them where if they left their wallet in a store, if the TV remove control is still in the family room and if their stash has been moved from their secret place in the tree near the park.

A more mainstream use case (where Apple already has patents) is for keyless car unlocking. Apple is a charter member of the Car Connectivity Consortium, which created the Digital Key Release 1.0 specification in 2018, and I’m sure that this sort of thing is only the beginning. Who knows what applications inventive developers will come up with when they have the ability to determine location to this kind of accuracy. Look at the issues that have arisen with using Bluetooth approximations in the Apple/Google contact tracing services.

New Competition

UWB chips are already used for some amazing applications such as tracking players (and the ball) on a sport field or for finding equipment in hospitals, but now that they are arriving in consumer devices there is going to be an explosion of creativity from those COVID contact tracing services (much better with µlocation than with Bluetooth) to contact-free commuting (where the train knows where you got on and got off). Knowing where you are, and where your stuff is, to an inch instead of 30 feet opens up new possibilities which is a variety why industry analysts estimate that this market will grown around 20% per annum, hitting at least $50 billion in the five year.

So why am I thinking about this stuff now? Well, it’s because it has started to make inroads into the world of payments. In Japan, NTT Docomo has teamed up with Sony and NXP Semiconductors (their UWB chipset was announced last September) to trial technology that lets shoppers make NFC payments without having to take their phones out of their pockets. They are using UWB to follow user movement and positioning with location accuracy of a few centimetres. This takes the new location technologies into the transaction space, alongside the existing Wifi, RFID/NFC and Bluetoon technologies. Obviously this of particular interest to me because of the applications around payments, insurance and risk management but I’m sure there are kids in basements rights now working on applications that I’ve never thought.

It seems to me that location is going to be central to some pretty important battles in the consumer technology space. Wired magazine summed up one of these battles very well last year, noting that Amazon (whose Sidewalk meshes low-cost, low-bandwidth sensors and smart devices) and Apple have embarked on missions to extend their control of their customers’ devices so that “Apple can get out of the home and Amazon can get into it”.

Knowing where you are and where your stuff is begins to erode fuzzy boundaries between mundane and virtual and creates a new border zone where competition will spur a generation of innovation. Oh, wait… where did I leave my AirPods…

[This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Forbes, 12th November 2020.]