(originally published on my own site)
I think that the new Apple AirTag is a deceptively revolutionary piece of tech, especially for the experience design and creative technology world.
The ability to track an item with your phone within a foot or a few inches is an amazing feat and is made possible by Ultra Wide Band and Apple’s U1 chipset. You take an AirTag, pair it to your Apple ID and you can track it from about 50ft anywhere around you. The app pops up an arrow and a distance reading and directs you towards it. If you have lost the item, or its even further away, you can put the tag in Lost Mode, and every iPhone in the world can now be used to find the item’s last know whereabouts. If someone does find it, you can sync a message to the tag. That could be anything brief — from your phone number, email or a secret communique URL.
The interaction of finding a small object itself is not new at all, preceded by things like Bluetooth beacons, Tile trackers, other more complicated systems like the Pozyx, and asking your mom if she’s seen it anywhere. There are also many versions of this kind of precise digital positioning stuff in place in automated factories, but moving those systems into the wider world has been a challenge. Apple’s implementation is far and away the best consumer version of this tech compared to others for many reasons, including a smooth user experience and a fairly reliable application of the tech at a reasonable price point. Samsung also has their Galaxy SmartTag that offers 130yds of location sensing and provides an AR view to locate the item, but it’s a similar walled garden situation where you’ll need either a Samsung device to use them. Here is a decent roundup of competitor options.
When I had tried to use similar tools for BLE/bluetooth beacons and distance sensing, the results were always all over the map and just not predictable in many environments. Distance sensing was always a mess, and tended to be a slow and frustrating interaction. Now that this is is becoming more of a solved problem, there are so many fun, stupid, creative ideas to be had. Precise positioning, especially indoors is one of the lingering unsolved problems for many creative tech applications. Knowing the precise 3d position of an object or person in a space can enable a lot of fascinating interactions in public spaces. There are other approaches for this like triangulating Wi-Fi signals (some Wi-Fi routers even offer rudimentary motion sensing). GPS is great, but is only accurate to within about 10ft in ideal conditions, which normally doesn’t include indoor environments.
Whenever a new piece of technology comes becomes available to the broader consumer market, I think it’s important that creative technologists and experience designers start to identify what the technology is really good for, what it’s terrible at, and what is a “reach” use case that the next iteration could become. Let’s take a quick look at the capabilities:
- Can track an item within 50ft of you with approximate distance and direction.
- Uses Haptic feedback on your phone as you get closer.
- Can be triggered to play a fairly loud sound from the AirTag
- They’re waterproof to about 30ft
- Other people’s iPhones can passively be used to track one
- 1yr battery life, replaceable battery.
- Apple Only/Needs a newer model iPhone.
- AirTag functionality can’t be incorporated into other apps (yet)
- One Apple ID to one Tag, no sharing or multiple users (yet)
- Doesn’t provide 3D positioning, just distance and general direction
- Tags do not connect to the internet on their own via cellular, they must connect to a phone or device that is connected to the internet in order to be “found” or activated.
The Apple implementation is not perfect. It is still all within the Apple ecosystem and requires a newer iPhone with a U1 chip, and app developers can’t just get right into integrating the AirTag into their apps for custom use cases. You also can’t easily share the AirTag’s location with other people or your family members if you’re trying to track a common item. The hope is that WWDC 2021, Apple will add the AirTag to their Nearby Interaction framework for other developers to use in creative ways, but as with most things Apple, don’t hold your breath. There is a hidden developer mode currently available for them that does expose some additional information and capabilities, but it will likely be removed in future updates.
Anyway — I find the tech to be a fascinating new tool for enabling various experiences. I’ve compiled a brief list below of some fairly dumb/creative/brilliant/joke/fanciful applications that I could think of for AirTags. Anything from individual uses to large group activities, to scavenger hunts, and then some weirder impractical stuff.
To compile my list, I found it helpful to think of the generalized capabilities first. In a general sense, you can:
- Bring a person to a stationary item
- Bring a person to another person or living/moving thing
- Detect if a person is near something, potentially as security measure — i.e. keep them away from something just as you can bring them close.
- Identify if an object is within another object/container.
- Identify the rough location of a small to large object, even if you never intend on bringing a person to that location
The List of Dumb / Creative / Impractical / Practical Applications I could think of:
Disclaimer: I must note that these ideas below should NOT in any form be tried or carried out. Many are dangerous, very stupid, possibly illegal, wasteful, technically impossible, will break your AirTag, or are just conceptually bereft of substance. They are provided purely as a thought exercises or provocations.
- Track your pets/cats/dogs/birds/items.
- Attach it to your baby/child before heading out in public.
- Mail it across the country with another package and mark it lost. This should allow you to track the path of your package if it comes near other iPhones.
- Put it on your drone, just in case you lose it in flight.
- Put it on your car in a large parking lot.
- Tie one to a big balloon or a model rocket and send it off.
- Put it on some luggage to find it more easily at the airport baggage claim.
- Put one in a bottle and toss it in the ocean. Make a new friend in a far away land.
- Put it on your kid’s favorite stuffed animal in case they toss it off their stroller for the 50th time in the middle of the street. Ask me how I know this one.
- Trade tags with someone else, put them in Lost Mode, and change the Lost Mode message every so often. When the other person checks the tag, they will see the updated message. You can use this as a sort of asynchronous digital communication with the other person and could be placed inside a personal object or something like a public dead-drop or geocaching.
- The tags can emit sounds when pinged by the nearby phone. Place a bunch of them around an empty warehouse, turn all the lights off, and try to find your way to a goal in the dark.
- Detect if someone with an iPhone gets near something you’ve hidden — almost like a weak security gate or detection system. You could put them all around your secret hideout as a clever way to keep Apple Fanboys out (or at least know when they’re coming).
- With the above idea, you could create an invisible maze in a large park. They must navigate the invisible maze and get from point A to B using their skills and cunning. If their iPhone detects your “Lost” AirTag and an alert gets sent to you, they lose.
- Hold a party where everyone comes with an iPhone and an AirTag already set up. Put all of their AirTags in a bowl. Mix them up and hand them out. Spend the rest of the party trying to locate who has your tag. Is this just a modern upgrade to those weird swingers key parties?
- Buy 101 tags. Set them all up. Take the batteries out of 100 of them, leave a battery in one. Put them all in a big container. Spend the afternoon trying to find the only active one in the mix. Question your life decisions up until this point.
- A mixer where people put and pick up their tags in specific “interest” bowls could help you find people with similar interests at a party.
- Give one to a friend if you’re worried if they’ll make it home ok. Also — Apple has thought about how to mitigate the use case of stalkers using these to track unsuspecting people, but the real world results are mixed.
- Use another piece of tech to detect the Lost “Ping” sound from the AirTag and use that sound trigger to cause something else to happen like turn on a light or activate an installation.
- Hide a tag in your favorite tree. Wait 50 years. Find your long lost favorite tree in a densely wooded forest. Don’t forget to ask a bird to change the battery.
- Learn sleight of hand and slip an AirTag into one of the cups in a street Shell Game. Use your phone to locate which cup has the ball in it. Profit, there’s no way the street grifter can get mad at you for that genius.
- Put an AirTag in a heavy container and drop it in a body of water. Use your waterproof iPhone to dive and recover the item in a high stakes scavenger hunt.
- If your toilet or pipes are clogged, flush an AirTag and use it to help locate where the clog is.
- Put one on a fish in a pond or a wild animal and try to find it another day. (Please don’t).
- Put an AirTag in something large and soft and have someone drop it from a high height while watching the distance reading on your phone. Step out of the way milliseconds before the object hits you, Looney Toons-style. (The refresh-rate of the distance wouldn’t work for this, but hey, I’m trying to come up with dumb ideas here)
- Put an AirTag in every bag of garbage that you throw out and name it with the date. Just in case you accidentally threw out something important, you can go to the landfill and try to locate it with your nearby trash.
- Skip meditation. Swallow an AirTag and find yourself.
If Apple opens up API access or a way for people to publicly access and locate the same AirTag, even more possibilities become available. Some of these ideas are already enabled with Apple’s Nearby Interaction protocol, but it requires that all users have a newer model iPhone with a U1 chip — this allows you to detect how close you are to another phone and their general direction.
- Big public scavenger hunts where they are placed around a park or in different objects and people have to track them down based on clues saved with the Tags.
- Hide AirTags in a store for shoppers to find special limited items that are announced on social but not in the store.
- Host a murder mystery party with an app where some people are the detectives with a special locator and the other people are suspects that must be located. Tags can be passed off between suspects to throw off the trail of the killer or aliens or whatever the theme may be. Add rules for how the locators can be used — cool down, etc.
- Use AR combined with the LiDAR scanner in the phone to locate the tag in your space and associate it with a 3D object in the AR scene. If multiple tags and objects are used, you could create a hybrid physical/digital puzzle that could be solved by moving large blocks around, or some other kind of physical interaction.
- Put 3–4 AirTags in the corners of a room and use them as a sort of inverse positioning system for a phone. You could triangulate the position of the phone in the room relative to the AirTags. This is a sort of redundant piece of tech compared to most LiDAR things though.
- Hold an AirTag over your phone and use the distance and rough position reading as a sort of funky musical Theremin or conductor apparatus.
Have more creative AirTag ideas and want to include them? Please leave them in the comments and I’ll update the list! Thanks for reading!