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Vivo’s new sensor tech could be the future of face unlock

Vivo’s new sensor tech could be the future of face unlock

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Last week Vivo announced its latest innovation in the field of cramming innovative components into phone-sized devices: a time-of-flight 3D scanner with 300,000 sensor points. I had a chance to test the tech out when I dropped in on MWC Shanghai this week, and it’s clear that while things are still very early, we are rapidly approaching the point where your phone is just straight-up going to be able to capture a 3D representation of your head.

The demo Vivo setup starts with a face-registering UI very similar to what you’d see with Face ID — place your head in a circle, turn it left then right, and you’re set. Then, after a bit of loading, you’re presented with a fully textured 3D model of your head that you can rotate at will. You can also strip the textures away to get a better sense of what the phone has actually captured.

The fidelity isn’t great — it kind of looks like you’re in a PS2 game. The demo also didn’t allow me to test Vivo’s claim that the scanner works from three meters away. But it’s at least as good as what I saw Intel demo with Fallout 4 at CES two years ago, and that required you to sit still as someone circled you with a tablet equipped with a camera array. To get similar results from a phone in front of your face with a much more streamlined UI is impressive.

The caveat on that “from a phone” point is that the prototype device is pretty bulky, certainly sharing little in common with Vivo’s recent bezelless exploits — or even the renders in the press release. A company representative told me that Vivo is exploring the possibility of putting this tech in a commercial phone, though they declined to provide a timeline. It should be mentioned, however, that Vivo first exhibited an in-display fingerprint sensor at this very show a year ago — and look where we are today

Secure face-based biometric authentication is the obvious use case for this technology, though it remains to be seen whether Vivo could ever cram it into a pop-up selfie camera. Mounting it on the back of a phone, however, could also have interesting potential for photography and augmented reality.