A little more than six years ago, Apple unveiled Face ID. It was a new method to biometrically unlock iPhones and authenticate purchases by scanning your face. Yet after all this time, there still hasn’t been a meaningful competitor on Android—at least, not with the same level of security and capabilities.

Google’s Pixel 8 has Face Unlock, but it has trouble working in the dark; the Face Unlock available on Samsung smartphones can’t be used for secure applications, such as banking. In Androidland, the fingerprint scanner is king, but that might not be the case for long.

Metalenz, a startup pioneering optics technology called “optical metasurfaces,” is hard at work on introducing secure face authentication to Android with its Polar ID technology. Late last year, it announced a partnership with Qualcomm to port its ongoing development to the chipmaker’s flagship processor. Today, at Mobile World Congress 2024 in Barcelona, it announced that it will be using Samsung’s Isocell Vizion 931 image sensor to power its imaging system.

I visited Metalenz’s headquarters in Boston to get a first look at Polar ID. The system is still in its early stages, and the company is currently gathering large amounts of data to improve its facial recognition machine learning algorithms. But it has plans to send development kits to smartphone manufacturers in the middle of this year for testing, which means there’s a good chance we’ll see a Face ID–like system for Android, one that’s potentially better than Apple’s approach, inside smartphones by early 2026.

New Optics

Metalenz is a startup born out of a research group at Harvard University and was founded by CEO Robert Devlin and physicist Federico Capasso. I’ve been covering its development ever since the company emerged from stealth mode in 2021. That’s when it unveiled its metasurfaces technology—a flat-lens system that takes up far less space than the traditional multi-lens elements used in most smartphones today.

The iPhone 14 Pro, for example, has seven lens elements (layers of glass or plexiglass) stacked above the camera sensor. Having multiple lens elements improves image clarity, captures more light, and corrects issues such as chromatic aberration (where colors are visible on the fringes of images). But it also adds more complexity and requires more space in the smartphone. Metalenz’s metasurfaces is a single lens that uses nanostructures to bend light rays toward the camera sensor, performing the job of multiple lens elements in a much smaller package.

A wafer of multiple metasurfaces, the flat-lens system takes up far less space than multi-lens elements used in most phones currently.

Photograph: Julian Chokkattu


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