On the path to Minority Report

There is a rumor floating around that the new iPhone will have a fingerprint scanner built into it. I’ve used a USB fingerprint scanner for years, so it’s not that the concept of using a fingerprint to access a computer is really that revolutionary, but it is cool. However, it turns out that the touchscreen itself may soon be able to read your fingerprint. According to New Scientist magazine, the first touchscreen to recognize you by your fingerprints could usher in a new way of interacting securely with computers in public places.

My first thought is was that people better get used to wiping down stuff after they use it. My next thought was that forget using computers in public places, this would enable a new layer of security on mobile devices. It would be awesome to have a fingerprint scanner on my mobile phone, especially with the rise of NFC, and if separate hardware isn’t required, then fewer parts are required, which means less heat, which means longer battery life and so on.

According to the article, “Displays cannot scan fingerprints and fingerprint sensors cannot display images. What we have invented does both. No one has done this before,” says Christian Holz of the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. Holz and colleague Patrick Baudisch built their screen to overcome a major drawback with current displays: they emit light but cannot sense it. This flaw makes it impossible for the screen itself to recognize a user via their fingerprint, unless a separate sensor is set up beside the screen.

The researchers created their prototype using a glass screen comprised entirely of millions of 3-millimetre-long optical fibres bundled together vertically into a single flat platter. Each fibre pipes out rays of visible light from an image projector mounted below the glass. Meanwhile, infrared light from a source adjacent to the projector bounces off the fingerprints and back down to an infrared camera. Early tests have been encouraging, Holz says, with fingerprint recognition accuracy “up to FBI standards”. They are now working on a touchscreen that won’t need a projector. The researchers envision people in coffee shops being able to do a little work or browse the internet on large, sharable, interactive table-tops instead of having to bring in a laptop or tablet computer. Or customers at a bank could pass secure e-documents across a table and discuss them with a clerk.

Simon Sugar, CEO of Amscreen, based in Bolton, UK, is applying a different biometric technology to screens – face recognition. His firm runs a network of 6000 advertising screens in UK shops and garages. The new tech recognises gender and age and serves up a relevant ad to whoever is in front of the screen. “In coffee shops this fingerprint system might find a role because people hang around much longer than they do in front of an advertising screen,” says Sugar. But he warns that the possibility of storing users’ fingerprint data means that privacy issues will have to be addressed before the screen hits the market.

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