How Apple's Next iPhone Could Finally Solve Indoor Navigation

Apple may be able to fix one of navigation's missing areas.

Apple could be about to transform the iPhone into a handy indoor navigation tool. An analyst note released over the weekend claims that the company’s next smartphone lineup, expected to launch sometime in the fall, will offer a frosted glass case and the ability to charge other devices. Perhaps its most intriguing benefit is the addition of a user positioning system, which will simplify navigating a busy shopping mall or calling up more information in museums.

In a note seen by MacRumors, Ming-Chi Kuo describes three smartphones that follow the same screen sizes as the 5.8-inch iPhone X, 6.1-inch iPhone XR and 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max:

“The new 5.8” OLED may support DSDS, and the new 6.1” LCD may be upgraded to 4GB. All of part of the new models’ main upgrades include Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) for indoor positioning and navigation, frosted glass casing, bilateral wireless charging for charging other devices, upgraded Face ID (with a higher power flood illumination), larger batteries, and triple camera feature (wide, telephoto, and ultra-wide lens).”

First, a quick primer. When the iPhone first launched in 2007, it used cell phone triangulation to judge the user’s location based on the nearby signals. If your phone is receiving signals from three cell phone towers, and Apple knows the location of those towers, you can reasonably estimate that the device is somewhere where the three towers’ signals overlap. The iPhone 3G vastly improved this in 2008 by adding GPS, which looks for visible satellites in the sky. Later devices augmented this data by looking for nearby Wifi signals from public hotspots, plus support for alternative satellite constellations GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS.

Satellites help measure the user's location.
Satellites help measure the user's location.

The addition of ultra wideband could enable far more precise location tracking inside buildings. Locatify explains that the term covers pulse-based transmissions in the range of 3.1GHz to 10.6GHz, an area of usage opened up by the FCC in 2005. Beacons located inside a building can fire out transmissions every 100 milliseconds, and the recipient device measures the amount of time it takes the waves to reach the sensor. This provides accuracy to around eight inches of location.

Perhaps one of its best applications is as a replacement for the iBeacon. This is a beacon launched by Apple in 2013 that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to achieve similar results. While this is ideal for iPhones that support this technology, it determines a user’s location based on signal strength and so its accuracy is highly dependent on the environment.

The iBeacon has seen limited use. Macy’s uses it to tell when a user is inside its store and offer them deals, Major League Baseball has used the technology to provide video clips, and the Philips Museum has used them to power scavenger hunts. Ultra-wideband could make these use cases even more enticing by making them more reliable and boosting their accuracy.

With upgraded Face ID and a triple camera design also set to launch, Apple’s next iPhones could offer an enticing set of reasons for users to upgrade.

Apple Demonstrates an AR Multiplayer Game on the iPhone XS