A Chinese company you've never heard of beat Samsung to the punch by putting a fingerprint sensor underneath a smartphone's screen

CNET/YouTubeThe sensor stays invisible unless necessary; when a user picks the phone up, a visual clue will appear on screen.
  • A Chinese smartphone manufacturer, Vivo, made a smartphone that, for the first time, uses a fingerprint scanner that works from underneath the display.
  • This eliminates the need for front bezels, and avoids compromises such as putting the sensor on the back.
  • Some companies, however – namely Apple – have moved to other forms of biometric recognition, so it’s unclear whether 2018 flagships will focus more on that or follow Vivo’s lead instead.

Fingerprint readers that hide underneath the display have long been rumoured and talked about, and today, Chinese smartphone maker Vivo is actually making that a reality.

At CES 2018, the company unveiled a production-ready (but, as of yet, unnamed) smartphone that has both a near-borderless display as well as a fingerprint reader, but the scanner itself is nowhere to be seen.

That’s because, for the first time in a finalised product, the scanner is hidden behind the display, at the bottom, and it uses a sensor from technology firm Synaptics to authenticate a user’s unique fingerprint by peering through the gaps in between the screen’s pixels.

Clear ID (Synaptics)MrMobile/YouTubeSynaptics’ Clear ID sensor.

The biometric identification tech itself isn’t new, and neither is the concept; Qualcomm has showcased a number of prototypes over the last few years, and its own ultrasonic reader (which aims to achieve the same purpose as Synaptics’) is said to make its way to actual devices in 2018.

Synaptics’ reader, however, is not ultrasonic, but optical: The so-called Clear ID is actually a small sensor that sits right beneath the device’s organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display, and can recognise a fingerprint by scanning the space in between each individual pixel.

It’s important to note that the display technology is OLED; OLED panels, in fact, have those light-emitting diodes that light up individually, and therefore don’t require the presence of a backlight, which would make it impossible for a sensor like Clear ID to see between each pixel.

MrMobile YouTube channel’s owner Michael Fisher, who is attending Las Vegas’ CES and got some hands-on time with the device, says that the sensor itself is relatively fast, too, although not as quick as more recent capacitive keys like the ones the OnePlus 5T or Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro have. It takes about 0.7 seconds, which is more or less as fast as first-generation fingerprint readers were.

Clear ID (visible)MrMobile/YouTubeClear ID can only be seen if the phone is tilted and hit by direct light — it’s otherwise invisible, and only lights up when necessary.

What is worthy of note, however, is that Vivo – a big but relatively unknown manufacturer – managed to get the technology right (with Synaptics’ help, of course) and create a production-ready device before giants like Samsung and Apple.

For almost the entirety of 2017, before the iPhone X was announced, rumours kept going around until as late as August (a month before the unveiling) about Apple scrambling to fit Touch ID under the OLED panel.

Apple has since dismissed these rumours, and has insisted the choice to invest in Face ID’s facial-recognition technology was made long before the rumours began. The company said that Face ID was their plan from the start, and that they consider facial recognition as a superior technology, but that didn’t stop speculation. Samsung was another victim of such speculation, and possibly even worse than Apple.

Samsung reportedly first tried to embed a fingerprint scanner in last year’s Galaxy S8, but without much luck, which forced them to take a last-minute decision and slap an unergonomic reader on the back – something the company did again with the Galaxy Note 8 some six months later.

The Galaxy S9 will likely be announced within a few months, and the final product is arguably going to be very close to ready by now (Samsung has massive production demands which force them to start operations well in advance); the latest rumours are all pointing out to a device that will still use a capacitive reader, possibly somewhere else on the back.

Vivo In Display Fingerprint ScanningVivoVivo places the Clear ID sensor under the OLED display, and that allows it to see through both that and the glass panel on top of it.

This won’t stop other forthcoming flagships from following in Vivo’s footsteps, however, as the trend of borderless displays takes over the entire industry and facial recognition systems are harder to implement.

“According to statistics from global consultancy Canalys, smartphone vendors shipped 22 million full-screen smartphones worldwide in the second quarter in 2017, up from 700,000 in the first quarter of this year,” Vivo wrote in a blog post. “UBI Research predicted that bezel-less displays will grow in market share from 20% in 2017 to over 50% by 2020.”

Because of Apple’s decision to move forward with face recognition, however, smartphones in 2018 will likely be divided into two camps: Those who are able to replicate Face ID’s mixture of convenience and security, and those who will seek to stick with a more advanced version of a proven biometric system (fingerprint reading).

For a full hands-on, you can watch MrMobile’s video down below.

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