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Tech to Locate Any Object, Unlock Car Doors, and Eliminate Passwords – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Tuesday, January 11th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Imagine being able to turn on your computer just by walking up to it with your Smart Watch on or pay for groceries without even getting your smartphone out of your pocket. Those applications could be possible with ultra-wideband technology or UWB. It allows devices locations to be detected by other gadgets with extreme precision. It’s being installed everywhere from smartphones to cars to forklifts as companies that build our gadgets look to test out its possibilities. On today’s show, Wall Street Journal tech columnist, Christopher Mims joins us to explain how this technology could reach all kinds of new conveniences and why the data collection is raising some privacy concerns along the way. That’s after these headlines.
In one of the video game industries biggest acquisitions, Take-Two Interactive, the maker of Grant Theft Auto has agreed to buy Zynga for roughly $11 billion. This purchase will allow Take-Two to expand its mobile gaming portfolio with Zynga’s hits like Words with Friends and Farmville. The two have a combined user base of more than 1 billion. The cash in stock deal is expected to close by the middle of this year.
Intel has removed references to China’s Xinjiang region from an open letter it sent to suppliers last month, calling on them to avoid sourcing supplies from the region where the Chinese government has conducted a campaign of forcible assimilation against ethnic Muslim minorities. The note sparked a social media backlash in China, forcing Intel to issue an apology to the Chinese public last December. In a statement on Monday after the Wall Street Journal noted references to the region had been removed, Intel said it had recently issued a statement in China to address concerns raised by stakeholders there and said it would continue to comply with US law and regulation. Last year, the US government restricted all imports from Xinjiang, unless there was proof products haven’t been made with forced labor.
And speaking of China, Huawei is investing in companies that are racing to build the country’s semiconductor supply chain. Through a funded setup in 2019, the company has put money into businesses that manufacture and design chips, as well as those involved in creating the parts needed for semiconductors. The Chinese tech giant has been blocked from buying many of the chips it needs for its products like smartphones and 5G telecom gear by US sanctions. Huawei says those restrictions pushed its 2021 revenue down by nearly a third.
All right, coming up, sharing our device’s locations could be the key to make technology easier to use, but are you willing to give up more personal data and privacy to make that work? We’ll discuss the technology behind this conundrum after the break.
Technology to locate devices has been around for some time. A lot of it uses Bluetooth, but there’s a tech that’s been a decade in the making called ultra-wideband that could be a game changer. It can triangulate an object’s position in three dimensions to the centimeter. You may have already used it. It’s how Apple’s AirDrop allows you to send files to devices nearby, but it’s not proprietary tech. It’s also being used by Samsung, Google, car companies like BMW and Volkswagen and others. And it’s opening a world of possibilities for users and smart device developers. But there are trade offs for these new conveniences, as well as hurdles companies will need to address to make the tech and its potential use cases viable. WSJ tech columnist, Christopher Mims sat down with our producer, Julie Chang to explain.

Julie Chang: Hi Christopher, thanks for being here.

Christopher Mims: Julie, thanks for having me.

Julie Chang: So you UWB technology is already a part of our lives. Where are some places people can find this technology being used?

Christopher Mims: So UWB is already in many devices, even though it’s really a NASA technology, but every iPhone since iPhone 11 has Apple’s UWB chip in it, which is called the U1 chip. Every Apple Watch since Series 6 has the U1 chip, newer Samsung phones have UWB chips, phones from Xiaomi, Oppo and others have it. More are coming. The Google Pixel has it, but at this point there’s not a ton you can do with it. It is critical to how air tags work. So if you get one of these air tags and you put it on your key and you’re using the function on your phone that gives you a little compass that’s like, “Go in this direction,” that’s ultra-wideband or UWB enabling that. There’s a few other ways that Apple has put some tricks into like HomePod and AirDrop and stuff.
But right now there are not a lot of applications. So UWB is one of these things where the applications really are coming and those future applications, some of which are the most interesting, include unlocking your car just by walking up to it. So this is something that BMW announced, but frankly, the technology to accomplish it, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s rapidly dropping in price. So I think that it’s reasonable to expect that in the next two to five years, this could be standard. You just walk up to your car, presumably an electric car and it says, “Oh, this is so and so, I’m going to open, I’m going to start,” and you’ll just do away with car keys. It’ll just be your phone.

Julie Chang: So then how accurate is the UWB chip compared to other tracking chips or technology that we had before the emergence of this one?

Christopher Mims: So when we use something like Google maps or Apple maps, that uses a combination of GPS and triangulation from nearby wifi hotspots and cell towers to try to nail down our location, but it’s only accurate to within a meter or a few meters or so. But because this is capable of triangulating from multiple beacons or radios inside of a room or a building, it can get you down to a resolution of, one engineer told me less than a centimeter. So exactly its point in three dimensional space, it can register. And that ends up being really interesting because then if I’m standing in front of a cash or register, it knows, oh, this person has a phone in his pocket and that’s how he’s going to pay. Whereas now we’ve all had the experience of taking our watch or our phone and trying to mash it into the point of service terminal and figure out where to move it to get the chips lined up so we can pay.
In this scenario, you just walk up and it’s like, “Oh boom, you’re here. Okay, you’ve paid.” Or you walk up to a smart lock and the building is like, “Oh, you’re here. You’re so and so. Okay, I’m letting you in.” Same thing with letting you into your car.

Julie Chang: What are some hurdles companies are going to have to overcome to make the UWB chip more efficient or pleasant to use for consumers so that they would want to use this tech or they would want to have it in all their devices?

Christopher Mims: Every time that you come up with a new wireless technology, it’s this chicken and egg problem. I mean, wifi is so ubiquitous now that we just don’t even think about, “Oh, wifi doesn’t work unless it’s in my laptop and it’s in a router,” which is connected to cable or fiber optic internet. But there was a time when those things were novel, right? When the first iBook in 1999 had wifi and people were like, “Okay, cool, but what do I connect it to?” So same thing with UWB, it doesn’t work until our homes, our offices, our cars, maybe our grocery stores, our convention centers are all kitted out with these UWB chips, either in the form of other people’s phones and watches or these so-called beacons, which help you navigate indoors. So overcoming that chicken and egg problem is one reason that this kind of indoor localization technology has taken so long to take off.

Julie Chang: But there are also issues around privacy, right?

Christopher Mims: So clearly if there’s a technology which is constantly streaming the exact location of your most personal devices, that raises some major privacy concerns. And we’ve already seen this rear its ugly head in the form of people apparently using Apple’s air tags which have UWB tech built into them to track people’s cars that they want to steal or maybe even stalk other people and other scary things like that. The technology itself, it is able to provide the location of a device and then it is up to the device manufacturer how to protect that data. So if you’ve got a UWB chip in your iPhone or your Google Pixel phone, it’s up to Apple or Google how to protect that data. And as we’ve already seen, I think there have been some early missteps in terms of, with these trackers especially, it’s not clear to me that that technology is so helpful to us that it justifies putting that kind of technology into the world because of its potentially bad or harmful uses.

Julie Chang: So you give us some examples of what companies are using this technology for, like unlocking your car. What else are they hoping to use it for?

Christopher Mims: So in the long run, some of the most exciting applications of UWB have to do with technologies which we don’t even have in our possession right now. So there’s a lot of chatter about the metaverse and VR and AR. All of those technologies currently rely on things like cameras in order to know where a device is in space and what’s the identity of everything around them. But if we just kind of were to kit out our homes or the world with a bunch of UWB chips, it makes integrating the metaverse and the real world, that fusion of the two which is known as augmented reality, a lot easier. So imagine a future in which you’re putting on these augmented reality Apple glasses and you’re walking around some indoor space and objects that are relevant to you, things you want to control, like your appliances or your smart lights or whatever, your gadgets, they can all announce their presence and be like, “Here’s what I’m capable of,” and that would all be through a combination of UWB and other technologies.
So giving our tech this spatial awareness, it’s all just part and parcel with this future in which we’re interacting with tech and with the internet and the real world in a more three-dimensional way.

Julie Chang: You’re saying that UWB is still in its early stages, but what does that actually mean considering that tech develops so fast, how far into the future really are these new use cases?

Christopher Mims: A lot of these use cases are in the immediate future. A lot of it is just up to developers and hardware makers to put compatible UWB chips in their devices so they can communicate with our phones. So Apple and Samsung and Google and everybody else, has created this basic piece of infrastructure, which is in our phone now. But just like how phones started getting so-called NFC chips a long time ago, it took many years for every store that you go to to install the right kind of point of service terminal so that the NFC chip in your phone could then be used to make contactless payments. So this tech is moving quickly in the sense that all of these major phone and watch and other types of manufacturers are stuffing them into their devices right now. But it’s up to everybody else in the world in a bunch of different industries to kind of do their part and figure out, well, how is this useful and how do we want to make this technology interface with our technology?

Julie Chang: All right. That was our tech columnist, Christopher Mims. Thanks for being here, Christopher.

Christopher Mims: Julie, thank you so much for having me.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. If you want more tech stories, check out our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do that wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.

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