It seems that the next wave of innovation in smartphones will be driven by fingerprint readers, which so far have been integrated on the front or back of the handsets. Now Vivo has partnered with Qualcomm to develop a new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor that can be placed under the phone’s display.

Fingerprint sensor
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Qualcomm’s under-display fingerprint sensor

Qualcomm presented its new solution at the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai, saying its new fingerprint sensor can be integrated under OLED displays and be dipped in water without any chance of damage. The system works under glass and metal too.

Vivo demonstrated the new technology on a prototype smartphone at the event. Qualcomm’s fingerprint sensors for glass and metal are compatible with both its Snapdragon 660 and 630 mobile platforms. Vivo’s prototype that hosted Qualcomm’s latest tech was based on the existing Xplay6.

This tech has a higher tolerance for dirt and sweat on skin than its older capacitive tech counterpart. It also has better penetration. Earlier, it was 400um for both glass and aluminum, but now, it is up to 800um for glass and 650um for aluminum, notes Engadget.

“We are excited to announce Qualcomm Fingerprint Sensors because they can be designed to support sleeker, cutting-edge form factors, unique mobile authentication experiences, and enhanced security authentication,” the chip maker said in a press release on Thursday.

Though Apple’s next iPhone is expected to have the fingerprint sensor under the display, Vivo has clearly beaten Apple in the introduction of a fingerprint sensor that works under a display. The technology, however, has yet to be commercialized. The sensors for glass and metal will likely become available to OEMs this month, and the handsets based on them will probably hit the market in the first half of next year.

How it could be made better

According to Engadget’s Richard Lai, the fingerprint registration process is similar to the method that already exists. The only difference is that there is an area marked on the screen where the finger is to be placed for the tech to work, and it is located just above the old fingerprint button. The phone can be unlocked by placing the registered finger on the same spot when needed. No other finger will work.

The recognition area is quite small. Vivo said that it is possible to apply the sensing technology to the entire screen, but that would incur huge production costs. As a result, the company might consider covering the bottom half of the screen with it.

Qualcomm’s new fingerprint sensor is surely innovative, but still, it needs to improve a lot to be able to overthrow the ubiquitous traditional fingerprint readers. The first need is speed, and the other issue for now is determining the ideal recognition area. It is neither safe nor convenient to have the entire display of a smartphone ready to unlock at the slightest touch of the user’s thumb.

Hence, it is important for OEMs to find the best fingerprint sensor-to-display ratio that serves the dual purpose of being practical and cost-effective.