Apple barely mentioned the iPhone 11 Pro’s biggest technical innovation when it unveiled its latest smartphones earlier this month.

While some new features such as triple-cameras and longer-lasting batteries are already found in rival devices, the iPhone 11 Pro is the very first smartphone to include an ultra-wideband chip. This wireless technology is little known but holds huge potential for the smart home, security, augmented reality and positioning.

UWB is similar to WiFi or Bluetooth in its ability to transmit data quickly between nearby devices. But it is particularly interesting for its ability to pinpoint a device’s location to within a few centimetres — like GPS but much more precise.

So far, Apple has said only that its new UWB-based U1 chip will give AirDrop, its wireless file transfer system, “spatial awareness” capabilities, so it can understand whose iPhone you are pointing at.

That seems a pretty trivial reason to include an entirely new component, suggesting Apple has more ambitious plans for its U1 chip. 

UWB can track proximity to around 20cm by measuring the time it takes for a radio signal to pass between two connected devices. While it is slower than WiFi, UWB is much faster than Bluetooth. It is also less vulnerable to interference, as its signals can pass more easily through our bodies or the walls of a room. “It’s like a very short-range radar,” said Lars Reger, chief technology officer at chipmaker NXP, which sells UWB chips. 

This could all make UWB much better for finding lost keys or wallets using tags such as the Bluetooth-based Tile. Code discovered in Apple software suggests the iPhone maker is developing a Tile-like tracking tag of its own. 

Despite Apple’s sudden interest in it, UWB is not a new technology. Today it is primarily used in industrial settings, such as tracking forklifts and pallets around a warehouse or factory. 

There are also a few early examples of it being used by consumers. Locatify, a start-up from Iceland, scatters UWB “beacons” or “anchors” around museums to guide tourists around the exhibits via a special dongle on their smartphone or tablet. (Locatify says it has also strapped tracking tags to chickens in tiny backpacks to track them around a farm in Ireland.)

The high price of UWB chips — as much as $20 apiece — has made it less appealing for smartphone makers to build them into their devices. When the tech industry rallied behind Bluetooth and WiFi, the cost of those components fell rapidly, while UWB missed out.

Broader adoption in consumer electronics promises to bring the volumes that will bring prices down. Apple’s smartphone rival Samsung is a member of the UWB consortium Fira, which suggests it may soon build it into its own products. 

The automotive industry is already working with NXP to explore using UWB as a more secure alternative to Bluetooth for wireless car keys. That concept could also apply to any other kind of key, from front door locks to a security system. “UWB chips are very small,” said Mr Reger. “You can integrate it everywhere a battery is.”

Apple’s patent filings suggest it has explored using UWB around the home, perhaps as part of its HomeKit system. Illustrations of its ideas show UWB connecting an iPhone to door locks, thermostats and even a dog collar.

Eventually, UWB could play a role in Apple’s forthcoming smart glasses, such as forming a wireless tether between iPhone and headset. If an iPhone, glasses and Apple Watch all contained a U1 chip, understanding their position in relation to each other could allow the wearer to control the virtual objects they see with subtle hand or head movements. 

For now that is all speculation, but Apple is teasing greater things. “It’s like adding another sense to iPhone,” Apple says of the U1 chip in its marketing pages for the iPhone 11 Pro, “and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities”.