What's That Secret Chip in the New iPhone?

What's hiding in that phone?. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There are lots of neat things in the new iPhone 11 that was just introduced. I really want that wide-angle lens on the camera. But there's one feature that Tim Cook didn't even talk about, one that Brian Barrett of Wired says is the biggest news about the phone, what they call a U1 chip. "The U1 will enable so-called ultra-wideband positioning powers, giving devices the ability to determine each other's location when they're in close proximity. Think of it as Bluetooth on steroids."

Nobody is quite sure what Apple plans for this chip, but many suspect the super-accurate positioning that it permits will be used for a system like those Tile tags you can put on your car keys, but with accuracy within 8 inches.

Patent Drawing of UWB
Your door and your dog will talk to your phone. (Photo: de Jong; Erik G. et al /Apple Patent Application)

This is not a new idea, but according to a recent patent application assigned to Apple, their Ultra-Wideband Beacons (UWBs) that talk to your phone can be used in environments where Bluetooth or other technologies might not work: "the wideband radio signals utilized herein are particularly suited to ranging in harsh RF environments because they allow signal reconstruction in spite of multipath propagation distortion." As the drawing shows, they can be attached to everything from your door locks to your thermostat or your dog's collar. Or, for that matter, you might attach a beacon to yourself so that your location can be pegged within inches.

emergency alert
I fell down and I can't get up!. (Photo: Apple)

Apple is being particularly aggressive in this sector; my Apple Watch will call emergency if I fall (and if I chop wood, so I keep that feature off), it can take an electrocardiogram and monitor my heart rate. There are dozens of apps that monitor diet and other aspects of health. They developed special low-energy Bluetooth for hearing aids, which makes them an extension of my phone.

UWBs attached to everything I own seems like a particularly good idea; I'll never have to search for my keys, wallet or running shoes again, and my wife and kids will never lose me. It's just one of many technologies being developed to address the needs of the huge aging baby boomer cohort. According to CNBC, everyone is jumping into the demographics pool.

Thousands of companies are chasing seniors in this market, says John Hopper, chief investment officer at Ziegler Link-Age Funds, which has invested $100 million in 25 companies.... Higher percentages of older people want to be active longer and age at home. "We view technology as a big part of the puzzle of how we provide those services that the senior demographic is demanding," he says.
ElliQ robot
ElliQ will talk to you — and listen, too. (Photo: ElliQ)

I noted in a recent post that a lot of companies were developing robots that can tell jokes to lonely seniors, but there are also robot dogs, and even ElliQ, a sort of table-top iPad with a robotic nodding head.

ElliQ is a friendly, intelligent, inquisitive presence in your daily life — there for you, in your corner, offering tips and advice, responding to your questions, surprising you with suggestions — a dedicated sidekick on your journey through this remarkable part of life.

ElliQ costs $1,500 plus $30 a month for an account, and I suspect Alexa and Siri will be doing pretty much the same thing, without the nodding head. It's a lot easier to carry around an iPad.

Others, like Famli.net, developed messaging systems that are easier to use. 88-year-old Richard says "I send pictures, text messages, voice recordings and receive the same. On voice I sang "Danny Boy" to my granddaughter in Dublin – and she replied with a photo holding a pint of Guinness." (Richard clearly has never heard of FaceTime.)

Another company, HomeExcept, rents you four sensors that get installed in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room. Family or caregivers can then get way too much information, taking thermal readings, motion detection, temperature, noise, lighting, air quality and vapors or fumes. Seriously nosy technology— and expensive at 14 cents an hour.

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords, but I suspect that most of these companies chasing this market aren't going to survive. For one thing, they are way too early; all of them are being demonstrated with people in their late 80s and 90s, and the oldest baby boomers don't even start getting that age for another decade.

But more importantly, Apple and Google are building all these technologies into their phones and Homepods and Google Home. We're all going to be spending our time touring the world with their VR headsets and wearing their watches. My Starkey Livio hearing aids are already monitoring my health and even my brain activity.

Nobody wearing an Apple Watch or AirPods feels like they're suddenly old, as they might when that ElliQ lands on their desk. The trick is to make this stuff normal and to make it work for everyone, not specifically for the old. Nobody who has spent the last 15 years moving from BBM to Apple messaging is going to need Famli.net messaging. By the time the baby boomers turn 85, they're already going to have all this stuff on their wrists and in their ears.

I can't help thinking that if I had $100 million to chase the seniors market, I would invest it in Apple stock. They own the baby boomers already, and they just keep adding features that anticipate this market.