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Apple’s latest UWB patent could change how we use remote controls

The ultra-wideband (UWB) technology found in Apple’s most recent devices could have an interesting new functionality, according to a new patent uncovered by Apple Insider

So far, the technology is best used for the precise location tracking of AirTags and other devices with Apple’s U1 chip in place. But the patent, first filed in 2016 but published yesterday, imagines another way of using the precise spatial awareness of UWB.

In short, UWB is so exact that Apple believes the technology can tell where a device is pointing. That means that a remote control could have different functionality when aimed at, say, a HomePod mini, than when directed at Apple TV, bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘Universal Remote.’

Of course this doesn’t just have to be a remote control. This could also be an iPhone, where the display changes to contextually highlight options on the device you’re pointing at. After all, Apple has included the UWB-enabled U1 chip in the last two generations of iPhone, starting with the iPhone 11.

While this may sound a bit like a return to the bad old days, where remotes had to be pointed at a specific point on a TV in order to adjust the volume or change channel, this is actually a whole lot more sophisticated. The system imagined has UWB sent from the device and received by the controller, which then figures out whether it’s pointed the right way.

The patent suggests that the controller – be it a dedicated remote or an iPhone 12 – could use extra motion data and other sensors to finetune where it’s pointed. For controllers with a camera, the patent also imagines that an augmented reality (AR) view could be used, with extra information overlaid on top of the device.

It’s important to remember that a patent isn’t a guarantee that something will definitely become commercially available, and as a company Apple is especially prolific with its patents. Last year it filed over 5,000, taking its overall stash to more than 135,000. All the same, it’s interesting to see that the precise tracking that UWB provides needn’t be limited to the hunt for lost objects.

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