Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sense ID: A Game Changer?

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Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon Sense ID fingerprint sensor at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  Hard on the heels of that announcement, Qualcomm last week presented a webinar on the new product.  This webinar had the two refreshing features that I wish every webinar had:  it was full of information and it finished ahead of schedule.  I cannot remember the last time a webinar host was willing to shut down before the allotted 60 minutes had expired.

In case you’ve missed the hoopla, Snapdragon Sense ID is a fingerprint reader that relies upon ultrasonic rather than photographic or capacitive signal inputs.  Already used in medical and automated manufacturing applications, ultrasonic waves can penetrate many surfaces, such as aluminum, plastics, glass, steel, and let’s not forget sweat.  In theory, the Snapdragon Sense ID reader can be placed anywhere in a mobile device – front, back, sides – wherever the device designers think best.

Ultrasonic waves with three-dimensional imaging capability also have a greater chance of distinguishing a live specimen from a copy.  Now that researchers have reproduced a usable fingerprint identified from a photograph of a public figure, better liveliness detection has become important for applications beyond authentication to one’s own device.  Ultrasonic technology may not rival finger vein imaging for liveliness verification, but it is a huge advance from fingerprint readers than can be fooled by photographs or fingerprint lifts.

So, here we have a better fingerprint reader for smartphones that will likely give device designers more freedom in where they place the reader.  But how is that different from Apple’s TouchID?  Well first, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip is used in many Android phones, so Qualcomm has potentially made fingerprint reading available to many other brands.

Beyond that, Qualcomm gave two interesting answers to questions during the webinar:

  1. The Snapdragon Sense ID fingerprint reader will be cost-competitive with capacitive sensing solutions. Allowing for some leniency with the term “cost-competitive”, this implies a similar cost point to TouchID.
  2. Qualcomm said that their labs are pursuing FBI Appendix F certification for the Snapdragon Sense ID reader. This could be huge, if it is achieved.

Qualcomm said during the webinar that they will initially target their series 800 chipsets for this capability, although an earlier press release specifically mentioned the 810 and 425 chipsets.  Regardless, they expect availability “in the second half of 2015”.  The sensors will be manufactured by Primax and CTC.

For me, Appendix F certification could be huge.  Today, certified fingerprint readers are typically standalone devices that are not always easy to use in their environments.  In addition, those standalone devices represent additional costs that users such as law enforcement agencies would like to avoid.  An FBI-approved capability at roughly the same cost point as TouchID could be a game changer.  And it could mean trouble for some standalone devices.

Even without Appendix F approval, Snapdragon Sense ID seems likely to make an impact simply by offering a low-cost and pre-integrated fingerprint reading solution to mobile device manufacturers.  But certification would sure be nice.

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