Author(s): Raghu Gopal
In early 2015, CCS Insight highlighted the potential for iris scanning (see Multimodal Biometrics — Iris Scanning Looks to Be Next). We predicted that Samsung would introduce the feature in a phone to counter Apple's mindshare lead with the cleverly-branded Touch ID. Samsung has just done this.
This week, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note7 phablet at coordinated Unpacked events in New York, London and Rio de Janeiro, the latter in recognition of the Olympic Games. The Note7 is a striking device further establishing Samsung's design language, which has been propelling the manufacturer in recent quarters. With the new phone, Samsung dips into the same gene pool as its curved-screen Galaxy S6 edge and S7 edge devices, creating an enterprise-minded sibling for them.
In terms of hardware, the Note7 is an upgraded version of the Note 5 — Samsung is aligning flagship iteration numbers — with an improved S Pen stylus, a 5.7-inch AMOLED display, IP68 certification, USB Type-C , Android 6 Marshmallow running on top of 4GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor for US units or a Samsung Exynos 8890 chipset for other regions.
A distinguishing feature of the Note7 device is its front-facing iris scanner, which can authenticate the user. It can be used by apps as an alternative to password logins or the fingerprint scanner. Samsung has implemented it to work with Samsung Pay and Knox, Samsung's mobile security platform. Demonstrations show that the system works quickly and accurately.
Just as Apple wasn't the first to include a fingerprint scanner in a smartphone — that would be the Motorola Atrix 4G introduced in 2011, two years before Touch ID — Samsung isn't the first to launch an iris scanner. But Apple was the company that solidified the fingerprint trend with the launch of the iPhone 5s in 2013 and it has since become an essential feature in flagships. It takes high-profile hardware and truly practical usage to make a trend stick.
In 2015, Fujitsu introduced its Android-based Arrows NX F-04G with iris scanning. It was the first known device on the market to have this feature. Shortly after, Microsoft launched its Lumia 950 XL device also with iris scanning. More recently, TCL, Vivo and ZTE have introduced phones with the eye-scanning technology.
We note that iris scanning differs from retina scanning, which scans blood vessels in the back of the eye. This tends to be a more foolproof system. Retina scanning requires specialized hardware unlike iris scanning, which can use a camera to identify patterns in the colour of the eyes.
Iris scanning might not be an immediate must-have feature, but expectations will grow in the coming years as will uses for it to complement fingerprint sensors. (Samsung is currently partnering with companies including the Bank of America to integrate iris scanning into mobile banking.) But the higher production cost will make the feature prohibitive in all but top-tier phones and will take several replacement cycles to become common. Iris scanning requires a powerful processor and accurate imaging hardware. And the technology has shortcomings: for example, it's best to use the scanner without glasses or contact lenses and can't be used as a verification feature for the blind or those with cataracts. It also tends to require good lighting conditions and, for now, patience from the user.
Galaxy Note7 is the second major product launch by Samsung in 2016 after its successful Galaxy S7 and S7 edge devices. As it seeks to build on its recent achievements, Samsung is hoping to cement its innovative image. The company wasn't the first to introduce iris scanning, but it's perhaps the best and biggest. Samsung is looking to become a market leader and with the Galaxy Note7, it could open the door for a new generation of biometric security.