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This smartphone sensor can detect live skin to halt facial login spoofing

Apple’s Face ID is the gold standard in facial recognition tech, but it’s not one hundred percent foolproof. Highly detailed 3D printed masks can trick it. Less sophisticated 2D sensors, still found in many smartphones, can be tricked with a photo.

The next generation of facial recognition technology is on the horizon, however, thanks to 3D imaging and infrared sensing technology company Trinamix. The company’s new skin sensing sensor aims to thwart those would-be impostors with its ‘live skin’ detection system.

It sounds creepy, but its purpose is practical. This sensor can tell the difference between living skin and the silicone materials used to make elaborate masks. That means a mask, even a perfect replica, wouldn’t work.

I had the chance to try it before it comes to smartphones.

How do you ‘detect live skin,’ anyway?

Trinamix Skin Sensing Sensor
John Velasco/Digital Trends

This new optical module shown off by Trinamix at my demo has three components: a 1-megapixel NIR camera, a flood illumination sensor, and a light projector.

The fundamental tech behind Apple’s Face ID tech is here. Infrared beams are blasted to map out the fine structures of the face, creating a 3D representation to verify the user. However, Trinamix goes beyond simple 3D mapping. Its beam profile analysis can differentiate materials based on analyzing how they reflect light. From this data, it can detect if it’s seeing living skin, or a latex replica.

Trinamix Skin Sensing Sensor
John Velasco/Digital Trends

I sat down with Dr. Ingmar Bruder, Managing Director and founder of Trinamix, to check out the module. “Using our patented 3D imaging technology, [it] will enable mobile devices powered by the Hexagon Processor inside Snapdragon mobile platforms to achieve a previously unattainable goal – the ability to sense live skin as part of a secure facial recognition,” said Bruder.

And you know what? It performed flawlessly in my demo.

Trinamix showed me the module attached to a smartphone. To prove the effectiveness of its ‘live skin’ detection, a photo printout of a smartphone owner’s face was placed in front of the sensor, followed by a silicon mask.

These techniques can trick many modern sensors, but the Trinamix sensor accurately detected they were paper and silicon, respectively.With Trinamix’s solution, the sensor can only verify a user once skin is detected. And don’t think you’re going to fool it just by waggling a finger in front of it. The sensor’s resolution is high enough to detect the size and position of objects.

Another demo showed off the tech’s ability to distinguish materials, like plastic and wood boxes, which were represented by colors shown on-screen. That demo showed the sensor’s broad application. The two boxes, painted green, look nearly identical to the human eye. Yet Trinamix’s sensor could tell the difference.

While this new sensor can prevent false authentications with the use of elaborate latex or 3D printed masks, it’s not perfect. It will still allow a twin, or perhaps a clone, to unlock your smartphone.

Beyond facial recognition

While Trinamix is targeting this sensor at smartphones for now, the company thinks it could be used elsewhere. In one example, the company showed how the senor could be linked to a robotic arm used to pick materials from a bin.

Even with modern AI, a robot would be hard pressed to distinguish a plastic bottle from a glass one using an image alone. However, Trinamix’s module gives the robotic arm more concrete data to determine the type of material, making this task a cinch.

Trinamix Skin Sensing Sensor
John Velasco/Digital Trends

Trinamix even thinks the sensor could be great in robot vacuums. Advancements have endowed some models the ability to self empty their bins, adjust suction power according to surfaces, and map rooms for a more efficient cleaning routine. One upcoming model will have a built-in camera for in-home security!

Yet despite these advancements, they can be tripped up by wires, socks, or a gift left behind by your pet. Trinamix’s sensor could help the robot vacuum avoid those obstacles. And your foot.

Coming soon to a smartphone near you

It won’t be long before we see this in a device in the near future, thanks to Trinamix’s collaboration with Qualcomm. Manvinder Singh, VP of Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies, told Digital Trends the copy is “very excited to be working with Trinamix, and look forward to Trinamix getting this novel technology into the hands of customers at the earliest possible opportunity.”

From what I was told, the sensor works behind the glass of a smartphone’s display, eliminating notches altogether for a more seamless, discrete appearance. That alone could make this sensor a winner.

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John Velasco
John is the Smart Home editor at Digital Trends covering all of the latest tech in this emerging market. From uncovering some…
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