Why Apple Wants to Put Tiny Holes in Your iPhone’s Display

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For a company that has supposedly been all-in on Face ID from the beginning, Apple has certainly spent a lot of time figuring out how to implement an under-display fingerprint reader.

This week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published yet another Apple patent application detailing a way to have fingerprint-based authentication on a device with no visible fingerprint reader. Here’s what you should know (and what the tech could mean for future iPhones).

What About Tiny Holes?

The patent, in the simplest terms possible, describes an array of tiny pinholes in a display panel. These pinholes would be invisible to the end user, but would allow for light to pass through the screen and display panel to a suite of optical sensors below.

Apple’s system would then shine a light on a user’s fingerprint and use the reflected light to produce a fingerprint image that could be analyzed for authentication.

That sounds simple enough, but it actually takes some clever engineering to work properly.

For example, there needs to be a relatively large number of holes for the system to work. But those holes also need to be spaced out between individual pixels on a display panel so they aren’t visible to the user. The system also describes various light source methods besides the display itself, including infrared or ultraviolet lights.

And pinholes are rather small, so it means that there needs to be quite a few of them for the system to even produce an image that a fingerprint authentication platform can use.

Apple’s Other In-Display Technology

This is far from the first in-display fingerprint reading technology that Apple has patented. But it is a fairly unique solution to the problem of not having a physical fingerprint reader.

Apple has looked into other solutions that could do away with that particular issue, including acoustic transducers that could reproduce an image of the ridges on a finger by vibrating the display.

It’s worth noting that several of Apple’s in-display fingerprint readers focus on platforms that can essentially turn the entire display into a fingerprint reader. That’s unlike rival systems that only allocate a set portion of the total screen real estate for fingerprint authentication.

What This Means for You

Does this mean that Apple is going to bring Touch ID back to its lineup of smartphones? Not necessarily.

For one, it’s highly unlikely that Apple is going to replace Face ID on its devices. A more likely scenario would be the addition of in-display fingerprint technology as a complementary system to facial recognition. In fact, Apple has filed patents that depict a dual authentication system.

That would carry a number of benefits for end users.

  1. Touch ID could be used as a back-up system in case Face ID fails, and vice versa.
  2. Some particularly sensitive apps could use both Face ID and Touch ID in conjunction for ultra-secure, dual-authentication.

Still, there’s no guarantee that Apple will release an iPhone with both Touch ID and Face ID — and we don’t know when such a device will hit the market if it does.

But what we do know is that Apple has spent a lot of time working on in-display fingerprint technology, and it would certainly be a waste for all of that tech to go unused.

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