Qualcomm reveals new phone fingerprint sensors that slot beneath glass

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Maurizio Pesce / Flickr
Smartphone fingerprint sensors haven’t changed all that much since the debut of Touch ID on Apple’s iPhone. They’re round, circular, and typically situated in the bottom bezels of smartphones, adjacent to the touchscreen. But Qualcomm’s next-gen tech is poised to shift the paradigm.

On Tuesday, Qualcomm announced its newest generation of fingerprint sensors. They’re the first capable of scanning through glass and aluminum, and they’re latest fully compatible with Qualcomm’s existing processors, including the Snapdragon 800 series, 600 series, 400 series, and 200 series platforms.

They’re not all the same, though. One for “premium” devices that slots under the screen, and one for “high [end]” devices that sits beneath metal or display digitizers. (A third model designed for “mid and low [end] phones” is embedded in the glass.) The company’s betting that most OEMs will place sensors near devices’ bottoms, underneath devices’ home buttons, but it’s not dictating placement. Smartphone makers are free to embed them wherever they choose, and to place as many as they’d like.

“We’re seeing new premium-tier smartphone designs right now,” Seshu Madhavapeddy, vice president of Qualcomm’s Internet of Things division, told Digital Trends during a phone briefing ahead of the unveiling. “You want to minimize the number of holes you have to drill in the outer casing […] because you want to keep a clean look and a waterproof design. We’re able to give smartphone manufacturers the choice to design phones without having to worry about […] giving up on fingerprint operation.”

The biometric scanners use ultrasonic technology to capture the shape of your fingertip through water, sweat, and other debris, and employ heartbeat- and blood flow-detecting techniques to deter would-be hackers. They’ll work through scratched glass and dented cases, Qualcomm says, and respond even when the display is off.

“Fingerprint sensors today don’t quite work when you have forms of contaminants,” Madhavapeddy said. “These work just as efficiently if your finger is wet or oily as it does otherwise.”

The sensors’ smarts don’t stop there. Qualcomm’s tech can estimate your heartbeat without the need for hear rate sensor, and detect swipe-like gestures smartphone makers can map to functions, shortcuts, and actions. “If you have oily fingers from cooking, you don’t have to worry about smudging the screen,” Madhavapeddy said.

Despite the technological leap, the new sensors aren’t expected to inflate the price of future smartphones, Madhavapeddy said. But it’ll be a while before they hit most commercial markets — as of now, Qualcomm’s expecting samples for the glass, metal, and display sensors to become available in the second half of 2017, and devices with in-screen fingerprint sensors to ship in summer 2018.

At Mobile World Congress in Shanghai, Qualcomm’s partnered with Chinese smartphone maker Vivo to manufacture reference devices with sensors mounted below the display.

“New premium-tier smartphone designs are what’s unfolding in the industry right now,” Madhavapeddy said. “They’ll be on par with the best of operation in the market today.”

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