Synaptics Optical Fingerprint Sensors 2017: Biometrics Supplier Plans To Top Its Own Capacitive Sensors; Usher In Bezel-Less Displays

Synaptics optical scanner prototype device Fionna Agomuoh

Smartphones have become ubiquitous, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from trying to push the envelope on largely commonplace designs and features. One breakout feature turned tech trend for 2017 and beyond sees manufacturers moving away from capacitive fingerprint sensors to those imbedded deep under the display glass.

This design shift may give way to bezel-less displays, where the entire front of a smartphone can serve as a biometric factor. This innovation remains in its early days, but consumers can expect to see companies pushing the technology to its limits.

“The trend we see is thicker glass for industrial design reasons and a display that covers the entire phone, but you can’t do that with a capacitive sensor,” Marc Ostrowski, director of product marketing at Synaptics told iDigitalTimes.

Synaptics is at the forefront of the new trend, having announced its optical fingerprint sensors in December 2016 and showcasing the technology during CES 2017 in January. The component, which is the first optical sensor developed specifically for smartphones, can detect fingerprints through up to one meter of glass. Demos showcased at CES were able to detect a fingerprint image through 650 microns of glass. Still, this is a major development from Synaptics Natural ID capacitive sensor, which can detect a fingerprint image through 300 microns of glass.

Optical fingerprint sensors may be the solution manufacturers have been looking for in opening screen real estate on devices. So far, they have tackled this pain point by removing the home button and moving fingerprint sensors to the back of smartphones; however, rear fingerprint sensors have challenges of their own.

“A lot of care has to be taken into making sure the placement of the fingerprint sensor is intuitive enough because it is a blind touch,” Wayne Lam, IHS Markit principal analyst for mobile electronics told iDigitalTimes.

Oftentimes, manufacturers go for symmetry, placing fingerprint sensors in the center of a phone’s back panel. Issues arise when handsets get too large for comfortable hand placement, or when sensors are placed too close to other components, such as camera lenses, which users may touch instead.

Optical sensors have the potential to help manufacturers keep fingerprint sensors in the front, while also getting rid of bezels, which often act as guides for home buttons and front-facing capacitive sensors. Once on the market, consumers can expect Synaptics to rapidly expand on the concept.

“First generation [optical sensors] it will be a fixed area on the screen, but we’re also developing for anywhere on screen,” Ostrowski told iDigi.

Capacitive sensors will continue to be a staple on the market, especially on rear of phones, according to Ostrowski. Rumors for devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 suggest the smartphone may feature what is being called an “infinity screen,” with no bezels. However, recent reports also suggest the device may feature a rear-panel fingerprint sensor, as opposed to a front-facing optical sensor.

The Galaxy S8 may release too early in the year to take advantage of this technology. Synaptics’ optical sensors are set to go into mass production in the second quarter of 2017, which suggests devices released in the latter half of the year could implement the feature.

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