The rise of contactless biometrics has been one of the biggest stories of the past few years, and much of that can be attributed to COVID-19. People were worried that someone with COVID-19 could pass on their infection to the next person to use a device, and that prompted people to search for alternatives to the touch-based payment terminals, kiosks, and shared infrastructure that often appears in shops and other public settings.
That trend was beneficial to facial recognition providers that could step in to meet the demand for contactless access control. Unfortunately, their success came at the expense of fingerprint recognition. Many organizations that had previously relied on fingerprint scanners for security abandoned their use of such systems, and those that kept them were forced to commit to tedious cleaning routines to ensure user hygiene.
That had an obvious impact on the fingerprint recognition market. The technology is not yet obsolete, but it is not well suited to the current moment. Is that a blip, or is it a harbinger of a more permanent shift in the public’s biometric tastes?
The demand for physical fingerprint scanners has unquestionably cooled. The research firm MarketsandMarkets predicted that the fingerprint sensor market would hit $6 billion in 2025, and grow at a modest but steady CAGR of 15.2 percent. However, that report was released in July of 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. The prospects have declined in the year since, to the point that MarketsandMarkets now believes that the market won’t reach $5.8 billion until 2026, with a more meager CAGR of 10.9 percent.
That flattening trajectory is obviously cause for concern, but it does distract from a broader point. A positive CAGR – no matter how small – still represents positive growth. That means that the demand for fingerprint sensors is still expected to increase in the next few years. Product manufacturers are finding new uses for fingerprint sensors, and consumers are still willing to pay good money for those devices.
So what is it that’s keeping the sensor market afloat? Why are people going to continue to buy contact-based devices in a world that incentivizes contactless experiences?
What Was Lost
The recent downturn in the market reflects the fact that some applications of fingerprint technology have fallen out of favor in the past two years. That’s especially true in the security sector, where contact-based fingerprint sensors have previously been used for access control in offices and other facilities.
The problem, of course, is that a fingerprint sensor installed at a turnstile or at a door could be used hundreds (or even thousands) of times over the course of a single day. That makes for a less-than-hygienic situation, which is why many organizations suspended their use of such technologies and sought out cleaner contactless solutions. Much of the attention in access control is now going to facial recognition, iris recognition, and even to contactless fingerprint scanners that do not require the same physical contact.
In that regard, the impact of COVID-19 on the market is very real. Those common touchpoints probably aren’t coming back now that people are becoming more comfortable with contactless alternatives.
Thankfully, the decline of the fingerprint access market has coincided with the rise of several others. Most notably, the biometric payment card market is finally reaching maturity, with several providers moving forward with commercial launches in 2021. More banks and card issuers are expected to follow suit, eventually making the biometric card the standard for the payments industry.
That represents a lot of fingerprint sensors when you consider that millions of people carry (at least) one debit or credit card in their wallet, and use those cards on a daily basis. Digital wallets like Apple Pay have gained traction in recent years, but cards are still the payment option of choice for people all over the world. With that in mind, fingerprint sensors are poised to become an increasingly ubiquitous biometric technology in the foreseeable future.
What Else Can You Do For Me?
Payment providers are using fingerprint sensors because the technology is easy to use and difficult to spoof. That makes them an appealing option when security and performance are the primary considerations, as is the case when a device is only intended for personal use. Such a device is not shared with the general public, and therefore does not raise the same health concerns as a sensor deployed in a high-traffic situation.
The sensors themselves also have a small form factor, which means that they can be deployed in devices like biometric cards. These same factors make fingerprint sensors well-suited to any consumer device with limited space and computational power. That category includes a wide variety of electronic products, many of which are used even more frequently than payment cards. For example, fingerprint sensors have become a standard authentication option in smartphones since Apple kicked off the trend with the introduction of Touch ID, and more and more companies are letting people use those sensors to sign into online accounts.
In fact, fingerprint sensors are still one of the security options in virtually any online and offline environment – assuming that only a few people will be using the device. Yubico and BIO-key have both released security keys with biometric sensors in the past few months, while Genesis has revealed that it will be using a fingerprint sensor in cars to enable biometric ignition. The technology has turned up in everything from padlocks to luggage, and the demand is likely to only go up as manufacturers release more connected devices with higher security requirements.
That smartphone market also offers a glimpse at the future of fingerprint technology. Historically speaking, capacitive sensors have been the gold standard, and such sensors are still popular in biometric cards and other devices that have enough real estate for a dedicated sensor. The same is not true of smartphones, where screen space is often at a premium.
However, equipment manufacturers have found a way to get around that problem with optical sensors and ultrasonic sensors that can be placed underneath a screen. Those sensors still have some performance issues, but the technology is improving rapidly and those additional form factors create more flexibility for manufacturers. That, in turn, ensures that fingerprint sensors will still have a place in the next generation of devices.
At the end of the day, fingerprint sensors are an effective form of identity verification. That hasn’t changed despite the recent emphasis on contactless technologies, and that utility will make fingerprint sensors an integral part of the biometric landscape for many years to come.
(Originally posted on FindBiometrics)