Fingerprint sensors score in handsets
While Authentec Inc.'s sophisticated fingerprint sensor chips failed to take off in a presumably tailor-made market law enforcement, the company has found success pursuing consumer product vendors and mobile phone manufacturers. The latter have become Authentec's biggest customers.
Now the company is looking to build momentum in mobile applications with the EntrePad AES2500, a fingerprint sensor that can also serve as a navigation device on a handset.
Mobile phone manufacturers gave Authentec its first big break after it rolled out its first product in 2000, when Fujitsu Ltd designed the chip into mobile phones it was making for NTT Docomo of Japan. Scott Moody, president and CEO at five-year-old Authentec, said at the Cartes 2003 smart card conference that the 54-person company will ship 1.6 million fingerprint sensors.
Authentec credits its patented imaging technology, called TruePrint. Unlike the "surface-based" technologies used in fingerprint sensors from competitors such as STMicroelectronics and Infineon Technologies, TruePrint penetrates the skin surface to "the living layer" below, where the unique ridge and valley patterns of the fingerprint originate, according to the company.
Authentec's "X-ray vision" technology offers greater assurance than competing technologies that any person's identity can be verified under any conditions, Moody said. Surface technologies, based on optical techniques or CMOS capacitance, and finger thermal sensors sometimes falter because of "problem finger types, surface contaminants or spoofing," he said.
The EntrePad AES2500 reads prints when a finger is pulled across its rectangular surface. The new swipe sensor, whose size is substantially reduced from the company's previous-generation sensors, can acquire a full fingerprint. A block called dynamic optimization, built onto the silicon-based sensor, makes it possible for the AES2500 to deliver multiple image slices when the finger is pulled across its surface, according to Authentec.
The chip includes proprietary sensor control and matching algorithms for biometric authentication. Once fingerprint images are captured, the computation required for matching algorithms is run on a host processor on a handset, Moody said.
The AES2500 includes five-way navigation functions, so the chip can facilitate menu navigation and scrolling without additional hardware.
Moody said that two unidentified customers in Japan will ship mobile phones with AES2500 this quarter.
Mobile phone users find fingerprint sensors useful for asset and data protection as well as password replacement according to Moody. Service and application providers find the fingerprint sensor on a handset comforting as an anti-fraud measure, especially with the anticipated acceleration of mobile commerce, including micro-payments via handset smart cards.
But the biggest value of the fingerprint sensor for handset manufacturers and service providers is product differentiation, Moody said. As a navigation device, the AES2500 could offer "a lot more flexibility" for those who play games on mobile phones, filling in as a joystick, Moody said. The AES2500 could eventually replace the current navigation buttons on handsets, thereby reducing a system's overall cost and size, he claimed.
Housed in a 48-pad BGA measuring 13.8-by-5-by-1.3mm, the chip features an asynchronous serial interface, 2Mbps synchronous serial interface and USB 2.0 full-speed interface. The sensor is capable of image capture at up to 162fps. With advanced power management features embedded, the AES2500 operating on 2.5V consumes 30mA peak in image mode, 3mA in hardware finger detect mode and 300mA in navigation mode.
Fingerprint sensors will not become a must-have for mobile handsets, believes Derrick Robinson, senior analyst at IMS Research.
"You don't have a market for such sensors unless there's a lot of valuable data stored in mobile phones," he said.
But with the design wins Authentec has in place, Moody is bullish. "2004 will be a good year, but 2005 will be a bang-up year for us," he said.
- Junko Yoshida
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