While we typically hear about Qualcomm for its Snapdragon mobile processors, the San Diego based company has announced a next-Gen fingerprint reading technology, which is based on ultrasound, which makes it possible to perceive the fingerprints in 3-dimensions. This is a step up from the 2D-based fingerprint reading methods that are commonly employed.
In 2D, the goal is to “see” the fingerprint pattern and try to match it with one that is known in a database. The downside of 2D is that because it is based on a visual perception, it is possible to “fake” a fingerprint by various subterfuges (see an example here). It is even easier as the fingerprint reader is cheaper, but fundamentally, there’s only so much that the reader can “see”.
"THE USER EXPERIENCE SHOULD BE IMPROVED IMMEDIATELY"With an ultra-sonic technology, things are quite different. It works by sending ultrasound waves like a radar, and retrieve a 3D image of the solid (skin) surface it bounced from (the finger).
The equivalent of a 3D fingerprint map (or height map) can be constructed from this, and it ignores everything that has a density too low to reflect the ultrasounds (sweat, hand cream, condensation). In short, the odds of getting a “clean” reading despite various real-world difficulties is much higher, so the user experience should be improved immediately.
Beyond the mere convenience, the 3D fingerprint is also much harder to fake because it would be extremely hard to print a surface with the same ridges etc.
Qualcomm didn’t mention this explicitly, but a 3D fingerprint offers much more information per square-inch, so it is possible that sensors could get smaller. The immediate effect of using ultrasound technology is that the sensor does not need to make direct (visual) contact with the skin. This would allow designers to hide it behind aluminum or glass without compromising its performance. The reader could become completely invisible.
At the moment, no customers have been announced, but if it works as advertised, it just seems too good to pass on, so we would expect phones to start using it relatively quickly. The good news is that this function is available as a stand-alone solution which can be added to any new design using Snapdragon 400, 600 and 800 series chips.
And because there is support for the 400-series, which is an entry-level product, we can hope that this technology isn’t very expensive for phone makers. When asked, Qualcomm says that the price is “competitive” with existing solutions, but my guess is that this is likely going to take hold in higher priced phones simply because entry-level ones don’t even have the cheap readers.