Over the past two product cycles, Apple has been rumored to be preparing to reveal its Apple AirTags tracking devices that can help iPhone owners find their possessions with augmented reality.
Now, it's 2021, and AppleTags are nowhere to be found. But Samsung has leapfrogged Apple with its own take on the product category.
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During its Unpacked 2021 event on Thursday, where the star of the show was the new Galaxy S21 lineup of smartphones, Samsung also unveiled the new Galaxy SmartTags and SmartTags Plus. The connected devices, powered by enclosed, coin-sized batteries that last for "months," are designed to attach to keychains, backpacks, and pet collars and track them.
Both devices use the SmartThings Find platform (similar to Apple's Find My service) to locate nearby items via Bluetooth. For items that are farther away, SmartTags can connect anonymously to a network of Samsung devices to triangulate the location of the item, which is not unlike Amazon Sidewalk.
SmartTags Plus earns its name with an additional technology that brings AR to the sleuthing experience. The Plus edition includes Ultra-Wideband (UWB) connectivity for greater location accuracy and directional orientation.
With this additional data, UWB-enabled devices (like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy S21+, Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and Galaxy Z Fold2) can navigate to SmartTags Plus with AR finder. Similar to Live View on Google Maps, on-screen navigation prompts will guide users to the direction of their lost items.
The base model SmartTags will be available in four color options on January 29 for $29.99 each, with bulk discounted multi-packs (two for $49.99 and four for $84.99) coming at a later date. SmartTags Plus and its AR capabilities do not have a release date yet, only the dreaded "coming soon" notice. When it arrives, it'll have only two colors, an off-white and greyish blue, and a slightly higher price tag at $39.99 (or two for $64.99).
Samsung also plans an ecosystem of accessories for personalizing the devices. However, Samsung did not address details on the enclosed, coin-sized batteries, only noting that it last for "months." Is the battery replaceable, or are SmartTags disposable? We've asked Samsung, and we'll update this if we hear back.
The AR finder functionality also extends to Samsung's new Digital Key platform, which uses UWB to unlock cars via smartphone. Armed with the same technology, Digital Key can help drivers find their cars in a parking lot with AR. Samsung is working with carmakers Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis to implement the system in their upcoming vehicles.
While Samsung typically follows Apple's lead on new features and products, Samsung has actually arrived at market with new AR hardware ahead of Apple. For example, Samsung began adding depth sensors to its smartphones with the Samsung Galaxy S10 series, though the hardware has disappeared completely from the S21 series.
However, Apple has demonstrated that, when it is late to the party, it is at least fashionably late. Smartphones were drab devices for business people until the iPhone shook things up. PC makers infamously flopped with Windows-based tablets until Apple arrived with the iPad. Now, as Samsung has abandoned depth sensors, Apple has adopted them and innovated the tool's dynamic with its approach, opting for LiDAR sensors for its implementation.
Will history repeat itself with Samsung's early entry with SmartTags Plus and Apple's delayed arrival of AirTags? We'll have to wait and see, but, if history is any indicator, Apple will take its time to get it right rather than rush it.