Elgan on Tech

Why Apple beats Google in the smartphone 'radar wars'

Apple and Google each rolled out new phones with innovative radar technologies. Google's is cooler, but Apple's is world-changing. Here’s how they compare.

location data tracking iphone
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Elgan on Tech

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The new flagship phones from Apple and Google have amazing cameras.

The public seems shockingly unimpressed. It appears that, despite the importance and centrality of cameras in smartphones, the amazing new cameras are replacing cameras that were also amazing. Better cameras don't change how we live and work. Everybody's used to the fact that new smartphones always have better cameras.

Both the iPhone 11 phones and the Pixel 4 line, however, contain something truly new: radar.

Apple goes wide with U1

Apple's iPhone 11 line of smartphones contains an Apple-designed wireless chip called the U1. The chip enables Ultra Wideband (UWB) location detection range-finding -- radar.

[ In case you missed it: Jonny Evans looks at how the iPhone 11’s U1 chip will change everything ]

You've seen how this works in the old submarine movies. A radio pulse is sent out in all directions, and the enemy sub's location is revealed on a giant round green screen because of the direction and timing of the bounce-back.

Apple patents show that the U1 technology (along with other components, such as multiple antennas built into the devices) not only identifies the direction and distance of an object, but also its trajectory, if it happens to be in motion.

But unlike old submarine radar systems, UWB can also transmit data.

As an example of how wide UWB is, Bluetooth uses 2MHz channels and WiFi 20MHz. The U1 uses 500MHz-wide channels. Such wide channels means that any objects between devices won't affect performance.

Like Bluetooth, the U1 also facilitates data transfer, but the iPhone is supposed to intelligently deploy UWB, Bluetooth or WiFi, depending on which is fastest. While UWB rules for range and direction finding, it's not as fast as WiFi for data transfer.

The U1 technology will be used initially for frivolous uses, such as finding one's car keys under the couch cushion (Apple's rumored "Apple Tags" program, which is a Tile-like set of products and services enabling you to find anything tagged using your iPhone 11 or later smartphone) and improving the effectiveness of HomeKit-based devices.

The first and currently only publicly available U1 feature is beyond frivolous -- It prioritizes AirDrop targets based on the direction in which you're pointing your phone.

Although the U1 is Apple's proprietary design, the technology should be compatible with devices that support Decawave's Ultra Wideband DW1000 chip, according to an iFixit teardown.

In the future, Apple's U1-based UWB tech will be used for the non-frivolous. Multiple points of circumstantial evidence suggests, for example, that Apple will move its iBeacon product from Bluetooth to U1-based UWB. That means retail businesses, concert halls, sports venues, museums and even city centers will be able to deploy low-cost, high-quality "indoor GPS" and location tracking. Enterprises will get an incredibly powerful RFID replacement technology that won't require dedicated readers.

The U1 chip should make Apple Pay mobile payments more secure. The directional and distance saavy of U1 means that "relay attacks," currently a threat with NFC-based payments, will become almost impossible.

Apple's U1 technology will also probably enhance the speed and quality of wearable devices, such as future Apple Watches and smart glasses, as well as home devices, drones and self-driving cars -- or regular cars for that matter. The use of a U1-based iPhone as a key fob could be much more secure than existing wireless key fobs. (Apple patents show a large number of car-related applications for UWB technology, such as enabling Uber drivers to spot passengers in a crowd.)

The smart glasses use case is especially interesting. U1-based UWB technology would enable Apple's future smart glasses to anchor virtual objects in real-world 3D space -- a crucial feature for augmented reality (AR). (This ability is the difference between heads-up display glasses like Google Glass, where data is displayed according to where the glasses are pointed, and the Microsoft Hololens or Magic Leap One devices, where data is displayed according to where in 3D meatspace that data is "anchored.")

In other words, the current uses for smartphone-based UWB are boring and pointless, but the future uses are world-changing.

Google goes short with Soli

Google's Pixel 4 line of smartphones, announced last week and shipping next week, contain a chip-based technology called Soli, developed by the R&D outfit that used to be part of Motorola.

Google Pixel 4 Google

Google Pixel 4

Soli enables extremely precise 3D tracking and imaging, including in-the-air gesture interfaces and face authentication.

Google calls their new in-the-air gesture feature "Motion Sense," and the actions you take to use to control your smartphone, "Quick Gestures."

Soli is new and sophisticated radar technology, which results in some minor convenience. For example, Soli sees you coming and quickly unlocks the phone by scanning your face. In fact, it enables your phone to know what you're doing and whether you're paying attention to, or ignoring, your phone.

Like Santa Clause, Soli sees you when you're sleeping; it knows when you're awake.

All this sounds vaguely privacy-violating, but because no camera is involved and because all this data is processed locally on the phone, Google says, it's very private.

You can control music, or snooze your alarm by waving over your phone. As you reach for your phone, the ring gets quieter.

Soli is usable only in "US, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, and most European countries," according to Google. The frequency at which Soli operates (the 57 to 64-GHz frequency range) is the same frequency as some nations' navigation systems and military equipment, so it's banned in many countries. The Pixel 4 phones will helpfully disable all Soli functionality when you're in those countries.

The constraint is even blocking sale of the Pixel 4 in India.

What are we to make of all this pocket radar?

We suddenly live in a world where our phones use radar. What does it all mean?

Google's Soli is usable out of the box, and adds a new user interface for using the phone. Don't let that fool you.

Let's ignore the shiny objects and take a hard look into the future.

Google's Soli technology results in some cool, handy, convenient changes in how we can use our smartphones, and suggests a future where innovative third parties might do some interesting and unexpected things. However, it's ultimately a user interface technology.

Apple's U1 ultra-wideband represents a more profound advancement. While UWB technology has been around for decades, nobody anticipated it being built into phones until recently.

Now that Apple has done it, the industry is scrambling to replicate that feature in smartphones.

In other words, Apple has mainstreamed smartphone UWB technology overnight. While Apple devices may never get something like Soli, Android phones will definitely get something like the U1 chip.

More to the point, miniaturized UWB technology will prove to be a foundational technology for the future we've been talking about for years -- a future filled with AR glasses, self-driving cars, high-quality indoor navigation, sensor-based IA assistants and the intelligent enterprise.

Today, Google's radar will make using Pixel 4 phones fun. But tomorrow, Apple's radar will usher in a new world of powerful and world-changing, culture-shifting and business-enabling technologies.