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Innovation & Design

Fingerprint Startup Claims Smartphone Security Breakthrough

innerID app

Courtesy IDair

innerID app

Apple (AAPL) makes the Touch ID sensor released last year with the iPhone 5s sound truly amazing. To squeeze the fingerprint reader into the “home” button on the iPhone, Apple had to make the sensor 170 microns thick—or a skosh more than a human hair. The button is then made out of sapphire crystal, “one of the clearest, hardest materials available,” according to Apple’s website. And there’s some more capacitive touch magic, subepidermal photography, and data analysis jobs to determine whether your fingerprint is of the arch, loop, or whorl variety. It’s a dazzling technological achievement, no matter what people with nipples claim.

Now a small startup based in Huntsville, Ala., thinks it can replicate the wonders of the Touch ID sensor with a much simpler approach. IDair’s technology uses the existing cameras on smartphones, coupled with its own software, to take pictures of users’ fingers and pull their fingerprints from these files. The process relies on an algorithm the company has patented, which turns the image into a useful means of identification. “We convert the low-contrast image into an FBI-quality fingerprint in a second or less,” says Jim Cantrell, chief executive officer of IDair.

Advanced Optical Systems developed the original technology behind the fingerprint scanner. Among other projects, AOS has done image-processing work for the government. It has software used in defense operations that can pore over a large image and determine, for example, if there’s a tank hidden in a stand of trees. The company also sells a device called AIRprint, a sensor that can read a fingerprint from a distance of 3 meters (9.8 feet).

IDair was formed to turn these inventions into commercial products. The company recently released a software development kit that iPhone and Android coders can use to add the fingerprint technology to their apps. The idea is that fingerprint recognition is an easier, more secure way to get into sensitive data on your phone. “We are going to put it into laptops as well,” says Cantrell. “There are lots of places this algorithm can go.”

Cantrell showed me a demo of the app, and it worked as billed. He registered my fingerprint on a smartphone in a few seconds. Then, when an app asked for my fingerprint, it took a photo, confirmed my identity, and let me in in short order.

Along with the smartphone and long-range products, IDair sells a short-range scanner aimed at gyms and offices.

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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