• 06.19.14

Researchers Figured Out A Way To Embed Sensors In Smartphone Screens

Laser-carved microscopic tunnels could place a world of sensors at our fingertips.

Researchers Figured Out A Way To Embed Sensors In Smartphone Screens
[Images: Touch and touchscreen via Shuttestock]

Most sensors on phones can be buried within the inscrutable guts of the device, but some, the ones you need to physically interact with, have to be on the outside. That’s necessarily kind of annoying, since our phones are mostly screen, but the sensors have to be somewhere else–think of the fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 5S or the heart rate monitor awkwardly placed on the back of the Samsung Galaxy S5. But a new development from the makers of Gorilla Glass and a professor at Polytechnique Montreal could lead to sensors being embedded in the screen itself


Mathieu Gagné of Polytechnique Montreal and Ming-Jun Li of Corning co-authored a paper in the journal Optics Express that lays out a new way of wiring a regular electronic sensor (something simple, like, say, a temperature sensor) so that it can carry the electrical data from the implanted sensor to the interior of the phone where it can be analyzed. Typically it’s those wires that are often the biggest and most visually present part of that whole system.

But electricity is not the only way to transmit data–there are also light-based photonic sensors. So what the researchers did was use lasers to carve tiny, microscopic tunnels for the light-data to hurtle down on its way to the processing center of the phone. It’s been done before, but glass is typically a messy, inexact material, which leads to a lot of that light escaping, causing a loss in data: bad! Luckily, Corning’s glass, which is used in many smartphones including the iPhone, is not a regular type of glass, and the researchers say it’s ten times more reliable than previous photonic methods.

OK, science out of the way. Get outta here, science! What does this mean for our cool toys? Well, so far, the team has managed to create two totally transparent sensor systems built into the glass of a phone: one is a basic temperature sensor. The other is a sort of bar code that could turn your phone into a permanent authentication card (so you could scan the front of the phone instead of a credit card or a subway card or whatever). But there are lots more possibilities. How about a fitness tracking app that just tells you to lay your thumb down on the screen to track your heart rate? Or what if those temperature sensors could gather the weather and submit it to an app that can predict the weather in your specific location?

It all adds up to a streamlining of smartphone hardware: no more extraneous stuff on the back or sides of the phone. It could be all about the screen, just the way it should be.

Read more about the research here.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.