why AirTags is major news for HomeKit and the smart home

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Although you would have had to have been living under a rock for the last year not to have heard of Apple AirTag’s. But now they have finally been announced they have been billed as a product that will help you keep track of personal items However, it’s not just personal items that could get benefit with the tech behind AirTag, Ultra-wideband or U1.

So let me take you down a little journey or imagination of how Apple could use U1 to take HomeKit to the next level.

What is U1 or Ultra-Wide Band

To understand what Ultra-Wide Band can do for HomeKit and Smart home. You first have to know what UWB is and how it works.

Ultra-Wide Band can send or receive a relatively sizeable amount of data, but only over short distances. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi, for example, which uses 2.4 and 5 GHz radio waves, UWB transmissions occur way up in the 60 GHz frequency band. So it can pack a lot of information into those radio waves. Unfortunately, those waves aren’t good over a distance and struggle to penetrate through obstacles such as walls, for example.

So right now you are thinking, that sounds kind of limiting, and it is. However, it has two key benefits that most wireless standards do not have, The first being it uses less power than most radios which is great for devices like AirTags. But the most important for what we are talking about today, it can measure “time of flight”.iPhone AirTag U1

This means we can use UWB for very accurate distance, direction, and location measurements within its range. Similar to how GPS works outdoors, this is like GPS for inside the home. UWB calculates locations to within less than a half inch by measuring how long it takes super-short radio pulses to travel between devices.

Obviously the privacy aspect comes into place and because Apple has tight privacy controls. You do not need to worry about Apple or other manufacturers being able to track you or use this data.

What devices currently support Ultra-Wide Band

In 2019 Apple introduced the U1 chip in the iPhone 11 that enables Ultra Wideband support for improved spatial awareness and then continued this with the iPhone 12 in 2020. They then continued rolling out U1 support with the Apple Watch Series 6. Then, in October 2020, the HomePod Mini arrived with U1 support.

Currently, the Apple devices that support U1 utilise this technology fairly, basically. When used with the iPhone you can point your device at another U1 enabled iPhone and send things via AirDrop. Then with the HomePod mini you can hand off content from an iPhone and vice versa. For me this is a waste of such tech like UWB and they could achieve these things using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

But now with Apple AirTag’s things have stepped up, and the company is using this tech in a progressive way. This is because Ultra-Wide Band can locate a device with pinpoint accuracy. Meaning that locating an AirTag as long as it is within a certain range is straightforward and quick.

What U1 means for HomeKit

So what does AirTag’s have to do with HomeKit, well it’s not necessary AirTag’s per se, but the tech behind them. Right now HomeKit makes use of voice, buttons, switches, motion and contact sensors to allow users to interact and control devices. You also use automations and scenes that allow auto control over HomeKit accessory’s in your home. But Ultra-Wide band could change all that and add far more to your HomeKit setup and personal control.Apple Watch U1

So an example of this would be, if a user is wearing an Apple watch and placed a HomePod Mini in a room. HomeKit would know your location in your home, so if you were then entering the living room with your apple watch on your wrist. It could trigger HomeKit compatible devices in that room.HomeKit light ultra wide band

The same thing applies: if you were walking up to your house door, using an Apple Watch or iPhone, you could wave it close to the lock to unlock it.

Taking it one step further, it Apple could use U1 with automation rules for certain times of day, meaning it could trigger devices to act in a certain way. So in the evening, if you walked into the bedroom, it could ensure the lights are dimmed and set to warm colours. Whereas if you walked into the living room in a morning, it could raise the blinds and turn on the HomePod to your morning playlist.

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Automations get advanced with U1

Then going a step further, is with automations and U1 built into devices. For instance, you could have an area in your home with a light that you read a book or like me, I use my iPad to consume content. Right now I control this light via Siri to turn it on, but what about if device maker built a U1 chip into the HomeKit accessory? So remember when I said U1 is a bit like GPS in your home and can measure a distance between a device and it knows where you are? Well, if I was wearing an Apple Watch with U1 built in and based on an automaton rule. Then when I sit down, the light would detect me, know who I was, turn on and select my preferred lighting for that time of day.HomeKit Automrations with U1

I would also love to walk into my studio and then go to my desk to work. Then if a U1 device was near that location, it could turn on the monitor controlled via a HomeKit enabled smart plug and activate my working lights.

HomeKit could also use presence detection via U1 to determine if a room is empty and after a set period could turn off lights and turn down heating controls to save energy.

Ultra-Wide band could make Siri smarter

Some people see Siri has been rather basic for HomeKit control, and sometimes it can frustrate people to repeat various commands. Now I agree with this point in some regard, but a voice assistant is not a smart home platform and the two should not be confused. But what would be a significant change is if Siri suggested scenes or automations, just like it does on your iPhone with directions or other content.

By using AI and machine learning with data from HomeKit devices, then using U1 to track your movement patterns in your home. Apple could make HomeKit smarter and actually suggest changes within your home.HomePod Mini U1

So, for instance, if you walked into a room and you had multiple scenes enabled in that room. Then using machine learning, AI and depending on the time of day, Siri could suggest a scene via a HomePod announcement. This feature would then allow you to interact with Siri and either confirm its recommendation or request something else.

This would make HomeKit and Siri far more interactive and allow users to get more out of Apple’s smart home platform. Obviously, this would need work by Apple to ensure this type of feature is as private as possible because currently Siri is only listening when you say “Hey Siri.”

HomePod mini vs Airtag

While the HomePod mini has the U1 chip built inside and by all accounts, this device has sold well. In fact, I have 5 of them in my home scattered across various rooms and using U1 in HomeKit would work really well for me. However, the HomePod mini is 99 vs an AirTag at 29. So it would make sense both for Apple and the consumer to use an AirTag if the company went down the U1 route. As this would be a lower cost to deploy AirTags vs lots of HomePod mini in room you may not need it.AirTag attached

So while all this is pure speculation and Apple could never go down this route. Evidence is pointing to Apple using Ultra-Wide Band in this way and making HomeKit and Siri smarter and far more powerful. Utilising U1 in this way would enable HomeKit to be more personable allow users to get more for little effort. Allow it to become a real smart home and move away from motion and contact sensors, making it truly smart and add some real value.

With WWDC 2021 just around the corner now, we will hopefully see what Apple has in store for us with HomeKit. So don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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