April 22, 2024

Brighton Journal

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The next Android phone may leave the iPhone's Face ID in the dust

The next Android phone may leave the iPhone's Face ID in the dust

Apple's Face ID is convenient, secure, and fast, but it also has some pretty big limitations. This technology takes up a lot more space than the single front-facing camera you see on most great Android phones, and it costs more. This is where Metalenz, a startup that spun out of Harvard Lab, wants to enter. Thanks to a partnership with Samsung and Qualcomm, it wants to bring the new Polar ID technology to future Android phones, all while eliminating the disadvantages of cost and size. From Apple's approach. I sat down with Metalenz to talk about the future of face unlock at MWC 2024.

Unlike Face ID and other technologies like it, such as the Honor Magic 6 Pro or Google Pixel 4 in the past, Polar ID is based on a completely different approach. Face ID essentially projects an invisible dot matrix onto your face that you capture with a special camera, but Polar ID works by directly capturing polarized light bouncing off your face, providing a signature as unique as your fingerprint.

The new safety mechanism is made possible thanks to special sensors, called metasurfaces, which essentially combine all the optics you know from a regular camera with multiple lenses into one 3D surface. This allows the sensor to directly capture polarized light, enabling fast and secure authentication among many other potential use cases. For the future, the company is also exploring skin health features, measuring air quality,

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Polar ID is ready for the mass market

It is very secure, at least in demos

Metalenz has been turning this technology into a scalable, mass-producible product for a few years, and at MWC 2024, the company believes it's close to completion. It has partnered with Qualcomm to make it easier to integrate the necessary software and hardware into Snapdragon-powered phones, and announced a new collaboration with Samsung to bring Polar ID to the light engine of the company's Vizion 931 Isocell sensor.

The final camera that supports Polar ID is no larger than a regular selfie (left with detached lens, right with full camera)

The kit the company showed me takes up much less space than Face ID in all its dimensions, leaving more internal space for other components as well. Metalenz also says it's about half the price because there are fewer ingredients.

At the show, the company presented a reference phone powered by a Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 processor capable of showcasing the technology in action. Like Face ID, Polar ID supports some advanced security features. It's not possible to fool the sensor with an image, and you can't even use a 3D printed mask to get around it. In a demo, Metallins showed me that polarization differs dramatically between CEO Rob Devlin's face and his own. The same is true for the mask, which has a completely different polaroid image.

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The development toolkit is huge, but it's a testament to how well the technology works

While polarization-based recognition has not yet been used outside of laboratory applications, some smartphone manufacturers are already experimenting with similar technology in their devices. Both the Google Pixel 8 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S24 use similar camera technology for the depth-sensing features on the back of the phones.

When will phones finally get Polar ID?

Metalenz estimates the products will be out in 2025 at the earliest

So, when will we see this technology in Android phones? Metalenz told me that they are preparing to mass produce their technology in the second half of 2024, and are currently talking to several Android manufacturers about cutting deals. Given Qualcomm's native Snapdragon support for this technology, and the fact that Polar ID can be easily integrated with a Samsung sensor, it's likely only a matter of time until we see it in action. Metalins estimates that products are likely to appear in 2025 at the earliest.

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Until then, we'll have to make do with Google and Samsung's RGB-based methods, which are inherently less secure and only work in good lighting conditions.