Depth-sensing lasers to offer better facial recognition

When it comes to imaging sensors, whether for smartphones or DSLR cameras, Sony has been the indubitable global leader. With its latest 3-D sensors, Sony is aiming to entrench that leadership and become the go-to vendor for next-generation visual-processing chips.

In a media interview last week, Sony’s sensor division boss Satoshi Yoshihara said Sony plans to ramp up production of chips to power front and rear 3D cameras in late summer, responding to demand from multiple smartphone manufacturers. Though there was plenty of potential for the new sensors in augmented reality applications, the most intriguing aspect of the new technology would decidedly come from its use in better face identification on mobile devices.

The Face ID approach that Apple first brought into use on the iPhone X — and others like Xiaomi, Huawei, and Vivo have since emulated — works by projecting out a grid of invisible dots and detecting the user’s face by the deformations of that grid in 3D space. Sony’s 3D sensor, on the hand, is said to deploy laser pulses, which creates a depth map of its surroundings by measuring how long a pulse takes to bounce back. Sony’s sensor chief argues this produces more detailed models of users’ faces, plus it apparently works from as far away as five meters.

The Japanese giant acquired a Belgian outfit called SoftKinetic a few years ago, which was renamed to Sony Depth-sensing a year ago. The potential applications for depth-sensing technology could come from various sectors, including autonomous cars, drones, robotics, head-mounted displays, gaming, and for unlocking devices by identifying owners.

Current face-unlocking methods, such as the basic ones seen in some mobile devices use the selfie-camera to identify the user’s face, but has poor response in dark environments, unless one is willing to have a bright flash lighting up their face each time they want to switch on their devices in the dark.

In addition, at present all facial recognition applications are built using multiple components that demand a significant chunk of real estate at the top of the device and is a big hurdle for any phone designer eager to achieve the ultimate all-screen design. Sony’s 3D sensors would be an instant winner if they prove capable of shrinking the size of required parts while also ensuring security and accuracy.

While Sony did not indicate any hardware partners for the new technology, the company already provides imaging sensors to most of the leading mobile phone vendors and it is reasonable to expect that new flagship phones touting the new technology could begin arriving sometime this year.