AirTags (1/3). A concept more powerful than the product will ever be

This article will feel like a déjà-vu if you have seen Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. However, don’t worry, Apple will not kick-off a dystopia in which we can see our future play out on a screen. Quite the opposite actually. The concept underlying Apple’s AirTags, which we will call ‘Digital Twin’, will enable us to replay and analyze the past. In essence, it will go far beyond the intended use case of recovering lost items. We expect the Digital Twin to enable an entire range of sci-fi B2C and B2B products. But it all starts with the AirTag and its underlying concept, so here we go.

What is an AirTag?

With the release of iOS 13.2, new evidence has been emerging for Apple’s release of a tracking device called the AirTag. Last year Apple accidentally confirmed its development of small UWB-enabled tracking device that can help customers find missing items . The latest iOS release, as well as filings for patents and trademarks now draw clearer picture around the product.

Source: Apple accidentally leaking AirTag development

Apple’s AirTag can be attached to a handbag, backpack, keys or other valuables. When the item is missing, one would use the Find My functionality in the iPhone to retrieve the lost item. For short distances that fall within the UWB-range of the AirTag, the tag would emit a sound in order to help the user locate the item. It’s the same principle as to how Apple users locate their iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch today, except that it can be expanded now across low-tech items.

For long distances where the missing item is truly lost and not just hiding below the couch or in a cupboard, it is rumoured that Apple will use other iPhones to locate the item’s position. As soon as another iPhone receives the UWB signal of the AirTag that is attached to the missing item, it will notify the item’s original owner.

Alternative products exist already that leverage either Bluetooth® or UWB signals (e.g. Tile or Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag). However, given Apple’s dominant smartphone market share they will be able to leverage their network effects to provide an unparalleled value proposition.

Digital Twin Enablers

Underneath the AirTags product rests a very powerful concept which we will refer to as ‘Digital Twin’. In order to understand what the Digital Twin is, let’s extract the essence of what is possible with tracking devices such as AirTags:

1. We can establish interactions between a person and an object (high- or low-tech) by attaching a tag to it. We can even establish the interaction between a person and a location if the tag is static and assigned to a permanent location. The industry term for a static tag is ‘beacon’, however for simplicity reasons we will refer to them as tags since they are the same device as the mobile tags.

2. To understand an interaction between two parties, for example between an object and a person, we do not need a direct interaction with the object. Instead, we can rely on another person who had a connection with the object if he/she is on the same network or platform. This significantly increases scalability and accuracy of mapping interactions between people, objects and locations. 

Digital Twin — A powerful concept

When we combine direct and indirect interactions across people, objects and locations we create a digital copy of our physical world, hence the name ‘Digital Twin’. If we add time as a fourth dimension to the interactions between humans, objects and locations we bring the Digital Twin alive. We could have two worlds running at the same time, the physical real one and a perfect digital copy.

So for now we can take Steven Spielberg’s idea in Minority Report and reverse it to look into the past. Doing that will enable a variety of novel use cases (which we’ll cover in-depth with another blog post). It will allow us to understand complex relationships and interactions between humans, objects and locations across time in a cost-efficient and scalable manner. I guess we will also be interested in using the Digital Twin to optimise our present interactions based on past ones. And in the future we might even try to predict some of the interactions. So really different to Spielberg’s dystopian movie, or maybe not after all?


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