Qualcomm Unveils New Fingerprint Sensor Technology

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Qualcomm has come out with new fingerprint scanning and authentication technology that makes it easier for manufacturers to embed the scanners under the displays of smartphones.

With the latest smartphone designs, the real estate that once housed the “home” button is being replaced in favor of larger display screens that go all the way to the edge of the device.

And that creates a problem for fingerprint “unlock” technology, which doesn’t work through glass or OLED display screens because they’re too thick.

The new ultrasonic fingerprint scanners unveiled by Qualcomm work under displays, glass and metal.

It also can detect heart beat and blood flow for improved mobile authentication — making it harder for thieves to lift a fingerprint and spoof the device into unlocking. It even works underwater.

“You have this trend toward bezel-less and waterproof smartphones,” said Seshu Madhavapeddy, vice president of product management for Qualcomm Technologies. “The new premium tier smartphone designs are mandating fingerprint scanners that can operate through much thicker materials and much more complex materials.”

Qualcomm’s suite of fingerprint scanning technology, which taps ultrasonic scanning techniques, was demonstrated in a prototype device at a mobile industry trade show in Shanghai.

Chinese smartphone maker Vivo teamed up with the San Diego company to show off prototype devices using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sense ID fingerprint technology. The technology is expected to show up in smartphones in the first half of 2018.

By using ultrasonic wavelengths, Qualcomm contends its fingerprint technology provides an accurate, three-dimensional scan that’s more forgiving if the user’s hand is wet or dirty.

That’s an upgrade from standard fingerprint unlock technology, which uses capacitive sensors to essentially get a two-dimensional image of what’s touching it.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone has stretched the display screen all the way to the edge of the device — or a so called bezel-less design. It moved the fingerprint unlock button to the back of the phone near the camera. Google’s new Pixel smartphones also placed the fingerprint unlock button on the back of the device.

These rear located fingerprint unlock buttons require an additional hole in the back casing, which complicates making the device waterproof, said Madhavapeddy.

Qualcomm’s ultrasonic technology allows fingerprint scanning without drilling holes because it can read through aluminum, glass and OLED displays — the materials typically used in front and rear housings of smartphones.

The company will offer the sensors as stand-alone technology for smartphone makers, and also include it with its Snapdragon mobile processor/cellular modem technology that powers many Android smartphones.

Qualcomm contends the technology will give phone makers more flexibility in designing devices. It’s an upgrade to the Sense ID fingerprint technology that Qualcomm announced in 2015. Qualcomm came to the technology through an acquisition of government grade biometric technology company UltraScan.