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Fingerprint sensors head into mainstream markets

Posted: 28 Feb 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:sensor? fingerprint ID? mainstream market? biometric security?

Fingerprint authentication technology is gaining headway into the mainstream consumer market with the efforts of fingerprint sensor developer AuthenTec Inc., as well as other startups.

AuthenTec has rolled out a low-power fingerprint sensor for handsets, the Borah, which it claims is the industry's first "single-chip, match-on-a-sensor" device for use in notebook PCs.

The emerging security feature works though a tiny fingerprint sensor embedded in a laptop, cellphone or other system. Users must brush their fingertip over the sensor to gain access to the system.

Customer reluctance
There is one major drawback with the technology: Most consumers are reluctant to use it. "The technology has come of age," but "only one in five end-users are using" fingerprint authentication in notebook PCs equipped with the technology, said Imran Khan, an analyst with market researcher Frost & Sullivan.

AuthenTec claims to have found the right formula to boost acceptance of the technology. Borah, to be marketed by AuthenTec as the AES2810, promises to bring a new level of fingerprint-based biometric security at a lower price.

Many fingerprint sensors are two-chip solutions that require an ASIC or companion chip. Much, if not all, fingerprint matching is handled by a separate host processor. But the AES2810 integrates several components on the same device, including its proprietary RF-based sensor technology, a hardware security module and a matching engine that performs 128bit encryption and decryption.

The ability to handle the matching functions on the chip "significantly reduces BOM costs" for OEMs, said Jeff Lee, director of product marketing for AuthenTec. The company was spun out from Harris Corp. in 1998.

How it started
Fingerprint sensor technology has been in development for decades. The technology began to gain traction in the consumer markets in 2005, when IBM Corp.'s rolled out a PC with an embedded fingerprint sensor. In the notebook PC market, "we saw the ignition point in 2005," said Greg Goelz, VP of marketing at Upek Inc., the world's second largest supplier of fingerprint sensors, behind AuthenTec. Upek was spun off from STMicroelectronics Inc. in 2004.

The technology is now moving to cars, cellphones, USB drives and even garage door openers, Goelz said. For example, the Chamberlain Group Inc.'s LiftMaster brand is selling a keyless garage door opener based on a fingerprint sensor from Upek.

Players, projections
About 18 vendors are scrambling to develop and ship fingerprint sensor devices. In total, the silicon-based fingerprint market is projected to reach $234.9 million in 2008, up 47.6 percent from 2007, according to Frost & Sullivan. By 2013, the business is expected to hit $2 billion for a CAGR of 50.6 percent, according to the market researcher.

Many of the emerging players are startups, including Atrua, AuthenTec, Idex, Fingerprint Cards, Upek and Validity Sensors. Larger vendors such as Atmel and Fujitsu appear to be losing steam in the segment, according to analysts.

Fingerprint sensors are geared for three basic markets: notebook PCs, wireless devices and access control. The traditional access control market involves the use of fingerprint or other type of biometric technologies in airports and government buildings. Vendors also sell expensive optical fingerprint sensors with high resolutions.

But the current market is relatively small, making up only about 5 percent of the overall fingerprint sensor market, said Khan. The more attractive market centers on silicon-based fingerprint sensors in PCs and cellphones, he said.

Besides security issues, the technology is said to save corporations millions of dollars in security costs generated by password maintenance. "Individuals are forced to remember an average of 30 passwords, and companies often spend $25 to $100 annually per employee to resolve password problems," according to AuthenTec.

OEMs are jumping on the bandwagon. In 2006, only 10 percent of the world's notebook PCs were shipped with fingerprint sensors. Today, an estimated 20 percent of all notebook PCs are shipped with the technology, according to Frost & Sullivan. Apple Computer Inc. is the only computer OEM that does not ship a system with a fingerprint sensor.

The lingering problem, however, is that few consumers and businesses are actually using this technology. Lack of training and awareness are part of the problem, Khan said. "End users tend to say, 'We have [fingerprint authentication], but what do we do with it?'"

Performance concerns
"There are some concerns regarding the accuracy levels of the silicon chip fingerprint sensors," according to Frost & Sullivan report. "Electrostatic discharge is a concern as well. Performance levels need to improve to raise confidence among customers."

For similar reasons, the penetration rate for fingerprint sensors is extremely low in the handset market. Some vendors in Japan and South Korea are beginning to sell handsets with the technology to capitalize on the possible migration towards mobile commerce. But U.S. carriers "have not figured out how to capitalize" on this technology, Khan said.

Handset sensor volumes are expected to jump in 2009. "This market will take off in 2010," Upek's Goelz predicted.

Mobile moves
Some are already making inroads in the mobile market. Startup Atrua Technologies Inc. is touting a "made-for-mobile fingerprint solution" and claims to have gained the lead in the mobile market, according to Carl Temme, VP of marketing and business development.

Last week, Japan's Fujitsu Ltd rolled out the FOMA F905i, a new mobile phone with integrated fingerprint sensor security. The phone is designed to safeguard personal information and mobile commerce transactions. The phone comes with a fingerprint sensor provided by AuthenTec.

Earlier this month, AuthenTec introduced a series of fingerprint sensors targeting the mobile wireless market. The AES1711 consumes 88 percent less power in finger detect mode than earlier models, according to the company.

Next, the company is rolling out the AES2810 for notebook PCs. AuthenTec's sensors use small RF signals to detect a users the fingerprint pattern, "thus capturing sharp and clear fingerprint patterns from the live layer of skin just beneath the surface," the company said. AuthenTec claims its approach is superior to competitive products, which use optical, thermal and DC capacitive technologies.

The AES2810 is a 0.18?m device equipped with unique a "personal data vault" within the fingerprint sensor. The device uses a four-step matching process to access sensitive and encrypted data from a system.

The single-chip device includes a security and matching engine, 128bit AES encryption/decryption technology, encrypted USB, nonvolatile RAM and other components.

It also uses RF-based sensor technology, dubbed TruePrint. The sensor is a 192-by-8 array of pixels. The device has a 1.8V core and a 3.3V USB I/O. Measuring 13.8mm x 5mm x 1.68mm, it comes in a 44-pin BGA package.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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