Tuesday, 21 January 2014

From Swipe to Touch to Invisible Touch - The Evolution of Fingerprint Sensors in Smart Mobile Devices

From Swipe to Touch to Invisible Touch - The Evolution of Fingerprint Sensors in Smart Mobile Devices

Readers of a certain age will possibly remember Genesis, the English prog-rock band that featured first Peter Gabriel and then Phil Collins on vocals. In the 1980s they released a rather poor 13th album called ‘Invisible Touch’. Little did they know that we would use that title in a rather obscure pun in an article on the evolution of fingerprint sensors in smart mobile devices (SMD) – the album cover is rather relevant though! And if you hear ‘Invisible Touch’ wafting over the speakers at a product launch at MWC 2014 – you know where they got their idea from.

This blog explores the evolution of fingerprint sensors designed for consumer electronic devices including smart mobile devices; from swipe to touch to ‘invisible touch'. This blog first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Goode Intelligence Market Intelligence publication; "Fingerprint Biometrics Market Intelligence" (published 28 January 2014). 

Smartphone OEMs rush to embed fingerprint sensors

Despite the intense media attention that accompanied Apple’s launch of Touch ID embedded fingerprint sensors on mobile phones have been around since 1998. Ever since Siemens developed its prototype device back in 1998 there has been steady stream of handsets being biometric-enabled.

Fingerprint sensors are becoming a common-feature of flagship smartphones with an increasing number of mobile device OEMs joining Apple in launching high-end devices during the latter part of 2013. This included HTC, Fujitsu and Pantech. So far, all these Android-based devices have used swipe fingerprint sensors, sourced from either Fingerprint Cards (FPC) or Validity Sensors. For these android devices, the sensor is being located on the rear of the smartphone (see image of HTC One max below).

HTC One max (with Validity swipe sensor located underneath rear camera)

Apple Touch ID - leader for smartphone touch sensor

Apple is so far the only mobile device OEM to have launched a device with an embedded Touch Capacitive sensor (shown below). The sensor uses capacitive touch technology to take a high resolution (500 pixels per inch or ppi) from small sections of a fingerprint (from the subepidermal layers of the skin).

Source: Apple

There are advantages in using a touch sensor over a swipe sensor on a mobile device:
  • The user experience is usually superior
  • Greater accuracy;  there appears to be fewer failures as the finger is better positioned for touch. For swipe, the finger has to be swiped accurately over the sensor to ensure that the fingerprint is read correctly. On some smartphone implementations, especially on larger devices (phablets), the location of the sensor on the rear of the device makes this difficult when holding the device with one hand 
  • The sensor can be built into a hard button on the front of the mobile device, e.g. home/power button

Non-Apple smartphones - first swipe then touch

Goode Intelligence believes that for the first quarter of 2014 a number of Tier 1 mobile device OEMs will launch flagship models that incorporate a swipe sensor. This will include further HTC models and releases from LG, Lenovo and Samsung (Samsung may want to launch with a touch sensor to match the user experience of Apple’s Touch ID).

The three remaining fingerprint sensor manufacturers who can supply to the mobile device industry, Fingerprint Cards, Idex and Validity Sensors (part of Synaptics) are all in the process of commercialising their versions of the mobile-ready touch sensor.

Fingerprint Cards is probably in a more advanced state of commercialisation and has gone on record to say that their touch sensor (FPC1020) has been sold to a “Tier 1 OEM” for a “flagship smartphone with a targeted launch date in the summer of 2014”[1]

Idex and Validity will follow FPC in launching their own touch sensors during 2014 and GI expects to see them appear in smart mobile devices and other consumer electronic devices.

Next generation consumer fingerprint sensors - Invisible Touch

The third stage to the evolution of mobile device-based fingerprint sensors is driven by the need for greater user convenience combined with a trend to remove physical buttons from smart mobile devices. Partly as a result of the reduction of the bezel-size and driven by the trend for larger touch screen sizes.

The elimination of physical buttons creates a problem for component suppliers including fingerprint sensor manufacturers as it removes an obvious place to position the sensor. It also provides them with an opportunity for new markets for their products.

The positioning of the fingerprint sensor underneath, or within the touch screen, is the next stage in the evolution of consumer fingerprint biometrics and enables mobile device OEMs to remove physical buttons. It also ensures that the convenience of identification, touching a finger on the front of a mobile device, is maintained.

GI believes that all of the fingerprint sensor manufacturers currently operating in the consumer and mobile space are well advanced in their research and development efforts to make this a reality:
  • Idex released this video after demonstrating a proof-of-concept device that placed the fingerprint sensor within the touch screen display
  • Validity Sensors is now part of Synaptics who are one of the world’s largest suppliers of touchscreen technology. Synaptics are also developing fingerprint sensors built into the touchpads that are embedded into laptops and notebooks
  • FPC has demoed demoed touch sensor capabilities with Windows for integration into Windows 8 (8.1) products and also works with CrucialTec, manufacturer of the optical TrackPad (OTP)
This includes Apple and the resources that were integrated as a result of the AuthenTec acquisition.

Invisible Touch’ is not only suitable for smart mobile devices; any consumer electronic device that uses a screen has the potential to integrate a touch fingerprint under or within the screen. This could include smart TVs, single-use gaming handhelds, tablets, touchscreen monitors, hybrid notebooks and touchscreens integrated into domestic appliances and smart house control technology. Whether anybody would want to authenticate using their fingerprint for their fridge is debatable (although perhaps if you wanted to stop a young child from turning on an oven or keeping your teenager out of your wine cooler?).

This is a potentially huge market and is part of the wider Consumerisation of biometrics that will revolutionise how we interact with technology.

This opportunity will be explored in an upcoming analyst report published by Goode Intelligence; "Emerging Markets for Fingerprint Biometrics".

[1] FPC wins first 1020 touch sensor DW from Global Tier 1 OEM for their flagship smartphone. 20 December 2013: http://www.fingerprints.com/blog/2013/12/20/fpc-wins-first-1020-touch-sensor-dw-from-global-tier-1-oem-for-their-flagship-smartphone/

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