Apple Blog GPS Thoughts

UWB the GPS of indoors ?

In respect to mobile phone usage I swing both ways so to say, my “work” phone is usually the latest Android device, currently a Pixel 5a (5g) and my “home” phone is an iPhone.

I have been sitting out iPhone updates for the last few years, happy with my 2017 iPhone X, but this year some of the new “Geogeek” features on the new iPhone 12 Pro have had me reaching for the Amex card !

Clearly the LIDAR capability is a technological leap forward bringing the capability to map indoors and undertake SLAM based navigation could at last bring progress to the challenging business of bringing consumer mapping indoors, somewhere we spend at least 80% of our lives (even more so during COVID ?).

This technological leap forward taking a capability that previously costs tens of thousands of dollars into a phone comes once again from the integration of complex electronics onto dedicated chips in this case a VCSEL (Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser).

The image of my desk above was generated combining the camera and LIDAR sensor of my new iPhone in around a minute !

Another dedicated chip in the new iPhone is perhaps even more interesting but less obvious at first

Another dedicated chip in the new iPhone is perhaps even more interesting but less obvious at first. Apple have been developing their own “U1” chip for a few years, it’s name is a big clue to its role, it is responsible for Ultra Wideband or UWB communications.

UWB may be used for personal area network communications, allowing devices such as phones and remote controls to communicate with each other and nearby devices, so there is a lot of crossover with the more well known Bluetooth protocol. However, there is big difference in how UWB operates that means it can offer some more functionality that is very useful for location determination and familiar if you know anything about how GPS works.

UWB is a pulse-based system, one that repeatedly blasts out signals then turns off before repeating, by regularly sending out a pulse of data, it can enable other nearby devices to know it exists, or vice versa if it receives a pulse from another device. This is clearly beneficial for proximity sensing applications such as contact tracing which have been problematic with Bluetooth.

Because UWB uses a wide range of frequencies it enables devices to more robustly perform Time of Flight (ToF) calculations, estimating as does GPS how far apart the devices are located.

Any system based on Time of Flight calculations have to deal with multi-path propagation where radio waves take multiple paths to reach a destination, by using multiple frequencies a more accurate calculation is possible.

UWB tracking applications have been used for a number of years in high end engineering applications, for example Airbus used a UWB system developed by Ubisense to prevent tools ending up inside sealed airliner fuel tanks !

Devices communicating with each other using UWB can apply timestamps for receiving and sending packets, allowing the calculation of relative distance between them with some accuracy but in addition it is also possible for UWB radios to determine the angle of an inbound signal, determining a direction the device is located in relation to it.

Time and bearing measurements should allow relative position down to a few centimetres and of course these can be anchored if one of the devices has a known fixed location in space.

What does this all mean?

Well potentially in your pocket you now have one device which solves both the problems of location determination and capture indoors !

Apple Thoughts

The next Steve Jobs – and then some!

Once the recognised industry visionary was without doubt Steve Jobs, the ultimate showman – the man who claimed to want put a dent in the universe by creating technology so well designed and well of course marketed that it’s introduction would change society.

Take for example..

  • Apple II
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Apple iPhone

Now without Jobs, Apple seems to be turning away from technology and becoming a fashion brand, producing so-so technology with added “bling” to appeal to celebrities, the evidence m’laud.. The new Macbook in Gold and the Apple Edition Watch.

Now as an Apple Fanboy that’s was a difficult point to make.

The new tech visionary I and others identify is Elon Musk CEO of Tesla and Space-X, who rather than just building consumer electronics is working on the slightly bigger challenges of carbon free transport/power generation and rocket science !

And he comes across as a straightforward humble guy, as demonstrated in yesterday’s launch of his domestic battery system – the Powerwall.

If you have kids and you want to show them someone to admire as an alternative to Sports stars, celebrities or (unlikely) politicians show them this video, and read his Wikipedia entry.

Posted from the Dali Lounge, Barajas Airport, Madrid .


Apple Thoughts

Bad maps.. really a search problem

So now everyone knows making a map of our little planet to make available to users of mobile devices everywhere that is both accurate, up-to-date and detailed is hard. And with the benefit of hindsight and industry expertise we can smile knowledgeably at the mainstream tech press falling over themselves debating and theorising over Apple Mapgate !

But are we all missing the point, I have seen very few comments in the specialist or mainstream tech press that really address the true issue here.. Making maps work well on a phone is not actually a cartography problem.. yes you can use poor maps or conflate content from various sources without care producing a poor map, and people might get lost… but the reason we all use maps on our phones is that they help us find stuff – maps on smartphones are interfaces to local search.

Local search has all the issues of web search plus the added complication of needing to explicitly locate relevant information in relation to the location of the user.. To be successful you need a geocoded search index of places, an algorithm to identify terms that relate to places and of course some maps to put it all in context.

To be fair to our friends in Cupertino the maps are not that bad, all maps have some mistakes, but the bigger issue is the lack of a true geocoded search index of places and the search algorithms that sit around it.

Local search is in many ways what makes smart phones smart, because the users location and the location of things around them provides a set of contextual pointers to relevant information. If you are a lucky owner of a Jelly Bean powered android smartphone have a used Google Now, just think about how many of the information cards are related to location.. weather, travel information etc.

To make good maps that are globally consistent, accurate and up-to-date is hard and takes lots of people as well as clever software, as it is a business of relationships with many different providers of local data, and potentially local community groups. Transit directions are a case in point, they are not difficult to do technically, but the number of organisations that you must partner with to obtain data runs into the thousands   – it really does take years..

To understand local search is much harder you need the maps from above, plus the ability to crawl, create, maintain and understand a geo search index, and to query it in ways that provide value to you end users – that takes decades…

Maps on smartphones are so powerful and useful because they are far more than a digital version of an A-Z street atlas.

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)