Apple to use UWB and BLE to let iPhone users make hands-free contactless interactions with smart devices

Apple iPhone with iOS16 and camera-assisted object location using AR
NEARBY INTERACTION: An iOS 16 update will enable hands-free interactions with nearby smart devices

Apple users will be able to switch on smart devices such as e-bikes, speakers and other accessories from an iPhone or Apple Watch running the forthcoming iOS 16 update without needing to unlock their own device or take it out of their bag or pocket via third-party apps that use both ultra wideband (UWB) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology.

Apple has released an update to its Nearby Interaction framework that allows developers and accessory manufacturers to incorporate proximity-based functionalities such as object detection and device activation into apps that will be able to communicate with other devices even when the app is running in the background and the user is not actively interacting with it.

The framework update will also enable more precise camera-assisted object location and allow enhanced artificial reality (AR) content so apps will be able to direct users to objects such as museum exhibits more accurately and allow them to locate objects in the “AR world”, Apple says.

To date, developers have been able to access the UWB technology in Apple’s U1 chip in order to use Nearby Interaction (NI) in apps to “allow users to point to other devices, find friends, and show controls or other UI based on distance and direction to an accessory,” Apple’s Jon Schoenberg explains in a video recorded during the company’s recent Worldwide Developer Conference 2022.

“However, when your app transitions to the background or when the user locks the screen on iOS and watchOS, any running NI sessions are suspended until the application returns to the foreground.

“This means you needed to focus on hands-on user experiences when interacting with your accessory.

Hands-free interaction

“Starting in iOS 16, Nearby Interaction has gone hands-free.

“You’re now able to use Nearby Interaction to start playing music when you walk into a room with a smart speaker, turn on your e-bike when you get on it, or trigger other hands-free actions on an accessory.

“You can do this even when the user isn’t actively using your app via accessory background sessions.”

The enhanced object location functionality is being enabled by the option to integrate NI with Apple’s ARKit artificial reality technology in apps supporting iOS 16.

“ARKit-enhanced Nearby Interaction leverages the same underlying technology that powers Precision Finding with AirTag,” Schoenberg says.

“The best use cases are experiences that guide a user to a specific nearby object such as a misplaced item, object of interest or object that the user wants to interact with.

“By integrating ARKit and Nearby Interaction, the distance and direction information is more consistently available than when using Nearby Interaction alone, effectively broadening the ultra wideband field of view.”

Apple originally added its ultra wideband communications chip to iPhone 11 in September 2019 and announced its UWB-based digital car key feature that lets motorists lock, unlock and start their vehicle without having to take their iPhone out of their bag or pocket in January 2021.

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