What Is UWB and Why Are Apple and Samsung Suddenly So Interested In It?

What Is UWB and Why Are Apple and Samsung Suddenly So Interested In It?
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC are well-established specs in modern smartphones, and if Samsung has its way, UWB is going to be next.

Samsung Chief Technology Officer KJ Kim outlined Samsung’s view of UWB, or Ultra-Wideband, on the company’s website, describing it as a transformative technology that can help facilitate wireless data transfer, upgrade smart home tech via features like Samsung’s forthcoming Digital Key, and even help with indoor navigation.

Like Bluetooth, UWB is a short-range wireless communication protocol based on radio waves. However, unlike Bluetooth, UWB supports much higher data transfer speeds and, more importantly, allows for precise tracking and environment detection that can allow a device to recognise and map its immediate surroundings.

Back in 2018, Samsung helped create the FiRa Consortium in partnership with NXP and HID Global (which has since expanded to include 45 various organisations) to explore and promote various uses for UWB. Earlier this fall, Samsung released its first two UWB-equipped phones: the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Samsung is primarily using UWB to enhance Android’s Nearby Share feature (which is the Android equivalent of Apple’s AirDrop) and increase the speed and accuracy of sending files wirelessly to other devices. The company’s SmartThings Find feature is also getting the ability to generate an AR display to help you locate other Galaxy devices around your house.

In the near future, Samsung plans to use UWB with smart home devices like smart locks via Digital Key to communicate faster and more securely than you can with current Wi-Fi or Bluetooth implementations. And if we look ahead, Samsung and other device makers are hoping to use UWB to support indoor mapping functions that could potentially guide you to specific stores or kiosks in places like a mall.

Now I should mention that Samsung isn’t the only company thinking along these lines, because aside from the FiRa Cosortium, companies like Xiaomi are planning to use UWB to connect to a wide range of smart home devices, including fans, air purifiers, robo-vacuums, and more.

And, of course, there’s Apple. The iPhone 11 launched with UWB, primarily to help facilitate AirDrop transfers. UWB was also expected to play a big role in Apple’s rumoured AirTags, which will reportedly help you locate lost devices, especially ones that might not be connected to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. A new rumour suggests that the new HomePod Mini (which is expected to be announced later this week) will support UWB in order to track your location and the location of other devices featuring a U1 chip (which is what Apple uses to add UWB support to its devices), and to connect to other media devices and smart home gadgets while also potentially adding HomeKit support to certain products.

While companies are still figuring out how to truly maximise UWB capabilities, it’s bound to be an important addition to the wireless capabilities of today’s gadgets. It’s a potential substitute for certain features that currently rely on Bluetooth, which, as we all know, often suffers from a wide range of security holes.