With the mass commercialization of UWB technology now underway and consumer interest riding high, it’s hard to imagine how UWB struggled to take hold in the market for so long. As chronicled right here on our blog, the technology has been with us since the late 1800s in one form or another, but it didn’t find it’s foothold until well over a century later in recent product introductions like Apple’s AirTags and perhaps others soon to be announced. Along the way, UWB technology has experienced many twists and turns.
In the 2000s when UWB spectrum was allocated internationally, telcos briefly eyed UWB as a means to cram more carrier channels into our wireless airwaves to expand available bandwidth – a complex and expensive proposition that failed. Consumer electronics makers later attempted to leverage UWB to wirelessly transfer video between laptops, cable boxes and TVs in a failed effort hyped by some as ‘Wireless HDMI.’ A similar initiative known as ‘Wireless USB’ showed promise for a time, before it too fizzled in the market.
What happened? UWB’s range and speed capabilities didn’t immediately live up to the market hype, and WiFi emerged with a faster communication implementation and consequently dominated the market for short-range wireless applications serviced with wall plug access to essentially unlimited power. For apps requiring very high data rates for heavy-duty wireless communication, WiFi remains the technology to beat for devices that don’t rely on batteries.
Bluetooth wireless connectivity likewise emerged at the turn of the century for short range comms and today it’s nearly ubiquitous – virtually unchallenged in the battery-powered wireless device market, spanning smartphones/tablets, earphones/headsets, gaming peripherals and more. For wireless apps that could get by with highly compressed audio signals and high latency (compressed video was a nonstarter), Bluetooth could deliver a lower quality but acceptable user experience for many wireless apps.
All the while, the UWB spectrum remained available for commercial use, and it was available for free! With no licensing fees to contend with, surely UWB could be put to good use by some enterprising technology vendors. But how?
SHORT-RANGE LOCATION SENSING
Harkening to the earliest days of UWB’s development, a handful of vendors decided to leverage UWB spectrum for delivering electromagnetic impulses, and impulses are perfect for radar-esque applications like positioning for object/asset tracking, as exemplified by Apple’s AirTags. In this capacity, UWB is used to measure time of flight: you send an impulse from one device, receive it on another, and measure the time it took from transmit to receive. The distance between objects can be determined based on the time it took the signal to travel, and this can be measured with picosecond accuracy with UWB chips. Leveraging onboard antennas, measurements can then be correlated to determine signal angle, and lo and behold, now we can find the precise location of our car keys! This can be achieved with accuracy down to a mere 10 centimeters – Bluetooth technology comes nowhere close to matching this precision.
But positioning technology is extremely complex and therefore extremely power hungry. As a result, UWB chips used today for object tracking are actually less power efficient than Bluetooth chips/radios by as much as 10X. So while UWB is great for positioning, it’s a gas guzzling application by nature and at the end of the day there’s no device-level power benefit delivered with UWB.
SPARK is unique in the UWB market in that we recognized UWB’s untapped potential for high-speed multimedia and data communications at low latency and low power. Impulses delivered over ultra-wide bandwidth ensure extremely low latency – these signals can be sent in microseconds with UWB, whereas Bluetooth would take milliseconds. This enables ultra-efficient wireless data communication. What’s more, SPARK’s UWB implementation consumes at least 10X less power than Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the lowest energy, short-range wireless connectivity technology commercially deployed today.
With SPARK UWB ICs, huge volumes of data and high-quality, uncompressed audio and multimedia can be delivered with 60X lower latency and 40X better energy efficiency than legacy Bluetooth ICs. This is hugely beneficial not only for consumer wireless applications, but also for the myriad IoT, smart city and AI applications on the horizon that will require UWB-caliber, high-speed communication among sprawling networks of battery-powered wireless sensors.
UWB is great for positioning apps, and SPARK salutes our peers in the UWB technology domain for successfully introducing UWB to the mainstream. But positioning represents a mere sliver of UWB’s potential, and the best is yet to come.
Picture credit: Pixabay