Never lose your keys again: How technology is evolving to help us keep tabs on our belongings

Ultra-wideband, which is built into newer models of smartphones, could be used to help us track other items in the near future

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We are a forgetful species, and our belongings tend to go astray. Insurance companies, which have a vested interest in getting us to pay to protect ourselves against loss, have commissioned surveys to measure the extent of this problem.

The average person misplaces nine objects every day, says one. We spend 12 days a year looking for things, says another. These numbers may or may not be accurate, but we all recognise the inconvenience of losing keys, phones, purses and wallets.

It’s a problem that technology has sought to solve in recent years by enabling objects to beep, phone home or show up on a map. But soon, lost items may be able to reveal themselves a lot more easily and precisely.

A form of wireless communication called ultra-wideband, or UWB, enables location pinpointing accurate to the centimetre, and it’s built into the latest smartphones from Apple and Samsung. Next year, if rumours are to be believed, these will be followed up with next-generation tags – also UWB-equipped – that can be attached to whatever we choose. It may precipitate the previously unthinkable: the unlosable car key.

You'll be able to use your smartphone to find what you're looking for, whether it's somewhere to eat at the airport or ... your car in a parking garage

Tile was the first brand to capitalise on our need to find lost items. Eight years ago, the fledgling company smashed crowdfunding records to finance the production of its Bluetooth-enabled tags, which could connect with a smartphone app, advise where they were last “seen” and beep helpfully. If you were out of the Bluetooth range of a tag, a larger network formed by other Tile users could come to your rescue. While competitors came and went – Proximo, Bringrr, Gecko and others – Tile went from strength to strength, forming alliances with the likes of Google, Intel and HP.

A new surge of interest has accompanied rumours that Apple is getting in on the act. The development of a small circular disc dubbed “AirTag” was first hinted at 18 months ago, with references to it found in the iPhone’s operating system.

Earlier this year, its existence was accidentally revealed in a now-deleted Apple support video, showing how the app that is currently used to find your smartphone could be used to find other objects.

While this could be seen as encroaching on Tile’s well-­established territory, there’s one key difference: the presence of UWB in both the tag and the phone. The code suggested that by using your phone’s camera and scanning the room, the location of an object could be revealed on screen by means of a small balloon. No beep necessary.

The technology that facilitates this modern-day magic isn’t new. UWB has existed for decades, but it never caught on as a method of sending data. However, when Apple’s iPhone 11 became the first smartphone to utilise it in September last year, its new role as a “sensing chip” soon became clear.

"UWB has been around for a while, but the chips implementing the technology are new or somewhat new," says Stanford University's Colleen Josephson in a recent episode of the technology podcast Cookies. "The key is not so much the technology, but the players. Once big players have taken this technology and essentially endorsed it by including it in their products, that is the real catalyst for this to become ubiquitous."

How does it work? UWB sends out up to a billion incredibly short pulses of energy per second, and their departure and arrival can be measured with great accuracy. Until now, the location of devices has generally been measured according to the signal strength of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, by converting that to a rough estimate of distance. UWB measures the distance precisely, and gains power and flexibility when used in tandem with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Apple was coy about UWB initially, indicating that it would be mainly used to transfer files between devices, while also hinting at its “spatial awareness”.

Could UWB help us keep tabs on all our items in the near future? Unsplash
Could UWB help us keep tabs on all our items in the near future? Unsplash

But almost a year later, in August this year, Samsung was more bullish about its potential when it incorporated UWB into the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

“It allows mobile devices to better understand their surroundings,” says KJ Kim, the company’s chief technology officer. “It can assist with a wide range of needs, from making secure remote payments to locating a missing remote control. UWB also makes it possible to navigate large spaces with incredible accuracy, which means you’ll be able to use your smartphone to find what you’re looking for, whether it’s somewhere to eat at the airport or the location of your car in a parking garage.”

Last week, it was reported that Samsung could also be developing a UWB tag, the “Galaxy Smart Tag”, in direct competition with Apple. More than 40 other companies, including Sony, Volkswagen and Bosch, are also working on UWB standards.

The implications are huge. What GPS did for the outdoors, UWB can do for indoors. Devices will know where we are and vice versa, with homes and workplaces responding to our proximity and integrating us with our environments: doors that unlock, lights that switch on. Of course, these developments are not without their challenges.

"Describing a scenario where you walk into a shop and it points you to a particular product or helps you navigate that environment, that's great," says New York University's Yan Shvartzshnaider in the aforementioned Cookies podcast. "[But] certainly it can have a negative effect on consumer privacy."

In this technological age, convenience always comes with trade-offs. But for now, to focus on one of the positives: at least we’ll know where our keys are.