Readers of this newsletter know I am obsessed with the potential for RF sensing. I even dedicated a small event to the topic. And one of the best options out there for low-power RF sensing is ultra-wideband (UWB). Today we see two use cases developing for UWB. The first is fine-ranged location, exemplified by Apple’s AirTags, which use a UWB radio in addition to Bluetooth to detect within a few centimeters where the AirTag is.
The second is for radar, where UWB can provide a quick picture of proximity, motion — and when combined with fine-grained location, where someone is to within a few centimeters. Next year will be a big year for UWB adoption and two startups show where those initial use cases will emerge.
When it comes to fine-ranging location, Qorvo, Texas Instruments, NXP, and others all have silicon that can provide it. But now Mauna Kea Semiconductors, or MKSemi, a company founded in 2019, has also decided to enter the ring. According to CEO Yifeng Zhang, MKSemi’s silicon is more integrated compared with the competition, and as a result, will be smaller and consume less power than less integrated options available on the market.
The company’s founders have experience in building both UWB and Bluetooth radios, and have raised money from Chinese smartphone maker Oppo as well as a variety of venture investors. MKSemi’s first chip for UWB will start sampling with its first customer, a smartphone vendor that Zhang declined to disclose.
In the near term, we will see UWB positioning used for tags that help find things, and use cases such as automotive door locks or home door locks. But as more smartphones have UWB inside, we’ll see vendors building smart home products that will let the devices understand who is in a room and where that person is in relation to a particular device. We’ll also see other companies embed UWB into their products to help with asset tracking. (We saw Targus announce an integrated AirTag backpack at CES.)
This capability lets device makers create highly personalized settings for users. For example, if the UWB chip in my phone communicates with a nearby light bulb, I only have to say, “Alexa, turn on the lights,” for the bulb closest to me to turn on. Or a pair of smart speakers might sense where a user is in the room and center audio from the left and right speakers optimized for the user’s position. I expect we’ll see both of those use cases this year.
But like Zhang, I am excited about getting UWB installed into wearables so the phone no longer has to act as the trigger that indicates a person. For anyone who doesn’t carry their phone around the home, or simply doesn’t have a smartphone, installing UWB in wearables will be essential for more ambient computing. That capability will take longer, according to Zhang. First, we’ll orient around smartphones to drive interesting UWB use cases. We’ll also need to work on standardizing data models and an application layer that lets UWB radios in different devices communicate. For now, Apple’s UWB network is a closed ecosystem, although it says it will change that.
Standards organizations such as the FiRa Consortium are also hoping to help, and maybe we’ll see UWB open up and become closer to true infrastructure in 2022.
Outside of fine-grained location tracking, UWB is also used for radar sensing. Google is using UWB for its Soli radar, which is embedded in the most recent Nest Hub display to track respiration during sleep. And a Norwegian company called Novelda has embedded its silicon into devices such as laptops and sensors in hotels that can detect when a person is in front of the laptop or in the room, respectively.
Eirik Lystad Hagem, chief commercial officer with Novelda, argues that UWB sensing is more effective than the traditional motion sensors that hotels have historically deployed because they can sense a person even when they are still by “seeing” micromovements made by the person’s breathing. Lenovo embedded the Novelda chip into its laptops as a way to keep the screen on only when a person is in front of it, which helps save on battery power.
Using RF as a sensor, whether it’s UWB or an alternative, also can preserve privacy in some sense because it doesn’t identify a person individually in the way a camera with facial recognition might. However, with high enough resolution and the right algorithms, the signals produced by RF interference read by these sensors could share more than most people think.
With more antennas and higher resolutions, a company can build models that can identify gestures and count bodies in a room, for example. Novelda’s sensors can’t do that yet, which makes them good for the hotel room application. The limited resolution and relatively low cost of the sensor also makes it good for simple person detection tasks that might then wake a “smarter” system to identify someone.
So you might use the Novelda sensor to sense a nearby person, then trigger a camera to turn on in order to identify another person’s face. And in a later version of the Novelda sensor, which will come out later this year, the company plans to combine the radar sensing with fine-range location to provide more capabilities. This would bring about person detection and some of the use cases mentioned above.
So in the next two years or so, get ready for an explosion of capabilities brought about by UWB.