Rumors have been flying around for months about the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5. Both seem ready to have an official reveal in the near future, but nothing is set in stone just yet. Of the many rumored features each phone has been graced with, one of the more out-of-left-field new features mentioned for both is iris scanning capability. This has been featured on a few phones in the past and is readily available, but has yet to grace any major Android flagships. It was found on Microsoft's Lumia 950 and 950 XL, but failed to achieve mainstream adoption from there. If the rumors prove true, however, there is a chance that being featured on two major flagships might just help iris scanning security to become mainstream. Before going into why iris scanners have failed to achieve mainstream adoption until now and how these phones may change that, let's take a minute or two to go over how iris scanners work.
The very first iris scanner algorithms came about in the 1990s and began seeing slow implementation for security devices. Fast forward to modern mobile devices and you'll find a few different technologies for eye-based authentication. The traditional iris scanner, featured on the Fujitsu NX F-04G, uses infrared light. An infrared lamp illuminates your eye, regardless of lighting, then a special infrared camera captures what's reflected in your eye. Your specific iris pattern is represented as infrared light, then the picture is read by your phone. An algorithm matches up the eye being scanned against the eye that was originally recorded. If it's a match, the device unlocks.
A second type of eye scanning technology, featured on the Umi Iron and Vivo X5 Pro, was developed by startup EyeVerify out of Kansas City. Using a device's front camera, the unique pattern of veins in the whites of a user's eyes are registered and read in much the same way as an iris would be. This method does not use infrared and needs no additional equipment, but may also not work well in poor lighting and could take longer than infrared solutions.
As for the two upcoming flagships, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is likely to feature a hybrid approach, according to a Samsung patent. With Samsung being an investor in EyeVerify, they laid out a patent for an infrared-based system that uses the veins in the whites of a user's eyes. In registering the eyeprint, multiple shots and angles are used to ensure that possible image noise is accounted for. The LG G5, on the other hand, is apparently being developed in tandem with Korean firm Irience. The device is set to use a more traditional iris scanner, for which the hardware work is rumored to be complete. Work on the software is focused on increasing the scanner's range, allowing users to unlock the phone while it's a bit further from their face. Irience's proprietary technology that's set to be used has been in development for 15 years.
Moving on to why eye-based authentication has yet to reach mainstream adoption, most of it is in the technology involved. The scanner present in Microsoft's Lumia 950 line is supposedly the most advanced on the market, but still boasts a 30 percent failure rate in scans and tends to fail if the user is holding the phone just a bit too far away or not staring directly at the infrared sensor. This kind of experience is simply no match for other authentication tech at the moment, despite the obvious benefits of being contactless. The tech is improving, slowly but surely. With continued development, the scanners on the LG G5 and Samsung Galaxy S7 may just be good enough to best fingerprint scanners and passcodes.
If the scanners on the new flagships are well-received, the tech may just go mainstream. In any case, development will be faster and more OEMs will begin to embrace eye scanning tech in all forms. Eventually, users may be able to simply tap their phone to a pay terminal while looking at the screen, a perfectly natural gesture. Unlocking could become fast and seamless, given the right advancements in the technology. Should this happen, we may start seeing eye scanners on just about every device both in and out of the mobile space. Imagine turning on your desktop computer and looking at the screen, then being instantly logged in. Imagine powering on a game console, looking at your TV as it powers on and having your profile loaded instantly. Imagine walking up to your car, looking at a small black surface and hearing the door unlock, then looking at the rearview mirror and hearing the ignition turn over. These are all far-fetched scenarios and would require significant advancement over current eye scanning tech, especially to prevent fooling or hacking the sensor, but they are all possible. How soon those possibilities become feasible may just depend on the commercial success of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5.