In September 2019, Apple added a new feature to the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro without saying a single word onstage — and it did it again today with the Apple Watch Series 6.
The feature is Apple’s U1 ultra-wideband locator chip, which could let these devices find each other, find other gadgets equipped with similar tech, and even securely unlock your car and your door without ever pulling an iPhone out of your pocket.
The feature flashed by for a brief moment during today’s presentation, buried in this slide that we just barely managed to screencap:
And perusing the official Apple Watch specs comparison page, we can see that it’s only the $399 Series 6 that’s getting the U1 chip, not the new Apple Watch SE. It’s not in the Series 5, either, and it was missing from the 2020 iPhone SE announcement as well.
It’s not clear when Apple will actually do something meaningful with this functionality, which is probably why the company hasn’t made a big deal out of it so far. Apple is hoping to add it to its digital car keys idea in the not-too-distant future, and it’s part of a consortium pushing that tech. But it’s not clear if any automakers are on board: the first iteration of the Digital Key idea will rely on tapping an NFC equipped device to your car.
It also might help Apple create a powerful way to find lost items. Apple recently offered an olive branch to companies that sell GPS and Bluetooth-based trackers by offering to extend its Find My network to their devices, and it has long been rumored to be working on an “AirTag” device that you could use like a more accurate Tile tracker. You’d stick it onto an object or throw it in your bag, and your U1 device could theoretically show you exactly where your remote control, purse, keys, or laptop bag is hiding.
But so far, the U1 has been laughably limited to a way to share photos with another iPhone user in the same room. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, Apple will let your iPhone and Watch find one another soon.