Fingerprint sensors have become common on modern smartphones — even midrange devices
are starting to ship with them. The hardware has gotten much better than it was just
a few years ago when Samsung used those atrocious swipe-style sensors.
Qualcomm is showing off a new type of ultrasonic fingerprint reader at CES that
might be even better than the capacitive sensors on devices like the iPhone and Nexus 6P.
Capacitive sensors use physical contact with your skin to generate a high-resolution
map of your fingerprint. Qualcomm’s new Sense ID tech is doing something
similar with sound. According to Qualcomm, Sense ID sonic technology has enough
resolution to detect the location of ridges and even sweat pores to build a 3D map
of your finger. That data can be matched against previously registered fingerprints
to grant access to a device.
The important innovation here is that Sense ID doesn’t rely on capacitance — that is,
you don’t have you physically touch the sensor. It would work through a wide variety
of materials like glass, aluminum, and sapphire. That means the sensor could be inside
a phone or tablet without an external component. We might finally be able to put the
fingerprint reader behind the touchscreen, which makes a ton more sense than touching
a specific spot on the case to unlock a device. There have been joke apps that fake
fingerprint reading on the screen for years, so clearly people think this is a cool
idea in the abstract.
Qualcomm also claims Sense ID is more secure than a traditional fingerprint scanner.
Many current scanners can be fooled if you have a stolen imprint of someone’s fingerprint.
This would apparently not be possible with Sense ID; it can tell the difference between a
copy and a real finger, because the ultrasonic waves actually penetrate several layers
Sense ID will debut in the LeTV Le Max Pro, which is the first device to pack a
Snapdragon 820 SoC. LeTV is a Chinese OEM that’s scarcely known outside of Asia.
This phone has a big 6.33-inch screen and a fingerprint sensor window on the back.
So, at least in this case, it’s not using the more sci-fi capabilities of Sense ID.
Most flagship phones in 2016 are expected to run Qualcomm chips, so there’s a chance
we’ll see more Sense ID implementations. Android has full support for fingerprint
sensors as of v6.0, so OEMs no longer have to roll their own code to make this feature
work. That should encourage adoption of technologies like Sense ID.