Ultra wideband: From USB lost cause to object location prize

Once, UWB-based Wireless USB failed to make inroads as a cable replacement technology. Now, a UWB variant aimed at precisely locating objects seems poised to join Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC as a ubiquitous wireless technology.

Not to be confused with Verizon's branding of millimeter-wave 5G cellular, short-range ultra wideband technology designed for precise location detection is set to have a breakout 2021. Apple and Samsung have been among the first to integrate it into smartphones as a way to unlock cars and homes. Apple has also included it in the Apple Watch Series 6. Among more affordable products, it has found its way into Apple's $99 HomePod mini and may or may not introduce AirTags based on the technology this week. In any case, this isn't the first time UWB assailed the client device market. Marketed as Wireless USB, the technology rode into the PC world about 13 years ago on the coattails of the most successful digital connector ever. Nonetheless, it failed.

Playing to UWB's qualities of high speed (It had theoretical speeds as fast as USB 2.0 but proved slower in practice) and limited range, Wireless USB was to bridge PCs and nearby peripherals such as printers and external hard drives, a "cable replacement" technology. It held particular appeal for occasionally connected devices such as digital cameras that needed to sync with PCs in the pre-smartphone/pre-cloud era. Wireless USB also held promise as a way to reduce or possibly eliminate the number of USB connectors on a device, enabling notebooks to become smaller and thinner.

But none of that came to pass. Wireless USB appeared on a few expensive external hard drives that also supported wired connections for those who would trade a bit of elegance for better speed. I recently tried one of these products with a Windows 10 PC. After plugging in the bundled dongle (a bit shorter but just as thick as a Roku Streaming Stick) and pressing the sync button on the drive, it worked as well as it ever did. Had it ever gone mainstream and become integrated into PCs, Wireless USB might have been able to help bridge the USB-A to USB-C transition, sparing us from tracking down an adapter or USB-C hub sprouting a few of the classic USB connectors.

Even if its speed had advanced, though, Wireless USB would struggle to find a market today simply because the need for peripherals has greatly diminished. Returning to some of the standard's usage scenarios, we no longer sync PDAs, printers took the Wi-Fi path to cable unshackling, and flash storage as a transitional medium has largely given way to cloud storage services. Indeed, 60 GHz Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11ax and 802.11ay, which can achieve multi-gigabit data speeds over short distances, represent the modern-day spiritual successor to Wireless USB. They have been used in wireless docking stations and and wireless video links between PCs and TVs. However, they have not seen much uptake despite having the endorsement of the Wi-Fi Alliance and speculative inclusion in a tantalizing rumored Apple product that won't ship this year as once anticipated.

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The second berth of UWB is being spearheaded by the FiRa (for Fine Range) Consortium. Among its better-known members are Cisco, Samsung, Sony and Tile along with Chinese phone makers Oppo and Xiaomi. Apple is notably absent despite its strong support of UWB, including development of custom silicon. FiRa touts UWB as being highly complementary to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, emphasizing three main applications for the technology: hands-free access control, location-based services, and device-to-device (peer-to-peer) communication.

According to consortium representatives, the UWB implementation on which Wireless USB was based failed to achieve much market acceptance in part because its data speeds weren't much faster than those of Wi-Fi, and the industry moved on before an upgraded standard was released. WiMedia, the consortium that developed the standard behind Wireless USB, remains intact primarily to manage the intellectual property rights behind that standard

In contrast, FiRa says that its modern flavor of UWB is optimized for small amounts of data at "tens of megabits per second" as of today. With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth even more entrenched than they were during Wireless USB's run, it's no surprise that FiRa seeks to avoid the mistakes of its predecessor by not taking on these technologies straight on even as it cites Bluetooth LE as a competitor for location detection and NFC for contactless payment. For establishing a fast connection between two devices, though, no credible challenger to Thunderbolt seems close.

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