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With last month’s highly anticipated AirTag release, Apple finally levelled up the U1 chip in its iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models, but there’s one device that still seems to have been left out of the party: the Apple Watch Series 6.
It was something Apple didn’t talk about at all when it unveiled the new Apple Watch lineup last fall, which probably isn’t surprising because it didn’t actually do anything at the time. Its presence was clearly noted in the spec sheets for the Apple Watch Series 6, and in fact it was one of the differentiators from the lower-cost Apple Watch SE.
Still, even now, the Apple Watch Series 6 chip remains sadly unused, even for the relatively more pedestrian features that Apple debuted with the iPhone 11 and the new HomePod mini.
To be fair, Apple didn’t have anything to say about the U1 chip at its iPhone 11 launch event either, although it was conspicuously shown in a graphic behind Phil Schiller, and not long after the event the iPhone 11 product page specifically mentioned the chip under the heading “Ultra Wideband technology comes to iPhone,” and hinting at great things to come.
Back then, however, the ultra wideband capabilities of the iPhone were related to targeting AirDrops to a specific user by pointing your iPhone at them. While this was kind of a cool feature for someone in a busy room, it was by no means groundbreaking.
Then came the HomePod mini last fall, which leveraged the U1 chip for a cool new handoff feature, a slightly nicer quality-of-life improvement, but again something that fell short of what we’d long been hoping the U1 chip would do.
However, despite quietly gaining the U1 chip a few months earlier, the Apple Watch Series 6 didn’t get to play along, since much like the AirDrop feature from the year before, the wearable doesn’t support Apple Music handoff even with its paired iPhone, much less with a HomePod mini.
Still, we’ve been convinced since the U1 chip first arrived in 2019 that the real purpose for its existence was to support finding Apple’s AirTags, and last month the company confirmed this to be true with its Precision Finding feature that’s unique to the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models.
Unfortunately, while it seemed like this would be the opportune time for the Apple Watch Series 6 to shine, it was instead completely left out of the game.
Despite its U1 chip, there’s no Find My Items support for the Apple Watch Series 6. The only Find My app on the Apple Watch is Find People. AirTags can only be located with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, not an Apple Watch, nor does the Apple Watch even report the location of nearby AirTags.
Now, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t on the way, of course. In fact, the very presence of the U1 chip in the Apple Watch Series 6 strongly hints that we’ll see a Find My Items app in watchOS sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, it’s not in the current watchOS 7.5 betas, and while it’s still possible it could make an appearance in a later beta, our guess is if it’s coming at all, it’s slated for watchOS 8, which is expected to debut at WWDC next month.
That said, there’s more to the U1 chip than just AirTags, of course, and while it seems inconceivable to us that the Apple Watch wouldn’t become part of the Find My Items family, it’s entirely possible Apple has even bigger plans up its sleeve.
U1 in the Home
Apple already gave away some other possibilities with a patent application last year, which not only included the technologies found in AirTags, but several other interesting ideas that the Apple Watch could participate in.
For example, since an Apple Watch is more likely to be worn on a person even when their iPhone is sitting on a table, other U1-equipped HomeKit devices, like HomePod mini speakers, could use the U1 chip to determine where you are in your home, allowing things like music playback and lighting to be automatically controlled as you move from room to room.
As of now, the only HomeKit accessory that has a U1 chip is the HomePod mini, but we’re sure Apple would love to give users another reason to deploy more HomePod minis around their home. However, it’s also not hard to imagine other smart home accessory makers incorporating U1 chips into things like smart locks, lights, and even thermostats.
For example, some door locks, such as August’s Smart Lock, can already use GPS location and Bluetooth proximity detection to automatically unlock when you approach your front door — it’s a feature some of us use every day — but the U1 chip could make this even better by avoiding the need for GPS data entirely and only unlocking your door when you’re right in front of it, rather than 20–30 feet away.
Further, imagine a home where lights turned off automatically when you left a room, or where temperatures could be adjusted based on the areas of your home that are occupied — all without clumsy motion sensors.
U1 on the Road
When Apple unveiled its new Car Key feature last year, it felt like more of a proof of concept than a useful feature. Limited only to BMW vehicles at launch, it relied on NFC connections that required you to pull out your iPhone and tap it against your car to unlock, and then place your iPhone in a designated spot on the console before you could start your car.
Considering that the key fobs that come with almost every modern car allow for a much greater level of convenience, it was really hard to see what the point was of Car Key. Sure, you could share virtual (and time-based) keys with friends and family via iMessage, but when it came to actually using it with your own car, it was really more trouble than it was worth.
However, it’s clear that Apple only released Car Key to get it out there and whet our appetites, ahead of the new spec that will implement Ultra Wideband support. This will be where Car Key truly comes into its own, since it will allow for the same capabilities as existing key fobs, and more. It’s also not hard to see how the Apple Watch will be at the centre of this.
U1 at the Store
Another idea that Apple seems to be hard at work on is using U1 to improve the Apple Wallet experience.
While we suspect this one is a bit further off, since it requires retailers to get on board, the idea would be to insert ultra wideband chips into payment terminals to allow the proper payment and loyalty cards to be selected automatically from the Wallet app.
This could also go beyond just payments, since the Wallet app can also store things like tickets and boarding passes, so it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where your concert tickets or airline pass are ready to go as soon as you approach the lineup.
In fact, while it would obviously need the cooperation of the banking and payments industries, Apple could eventually take UWB even further, replacing NFC-based payments entirely. Imagine a scenario where you no longer need to hold your iPhone or Apple Watch right up against a terminal to make a payment, but could instead just pull it out and confirm and authorize the payment directly from your device.
The bottom line is that it’s clear that Apple is playing the long game here with the U1 chip and ultra wideband technology, which is someday expected to power a multitude of other things as well, such as indoor navigation in malls, airports, and sporting venues.
Despite indications that Apple wanted to get AirTags out back in 2019, it’s fairly clear that by the time it added the U1 chip it knew that its item tracking tags were still a way off. However, it was still determined to lay the groundwork to make sure that when AirTags finally did come along, there would be even more devices equipped to handle features like Precision Finding.
We suspect this is also the case with the U1 chip in the Apple Watch. It does nothing right now, but we can safely expect it to become a standard component of future Apple Watch models, so that by the time the technology is ready, many people will everything they need to take advantage of it already sitting on their wrists.