Sony Patents Technology To Put Camera And Sensors Behind Smartphone Display

Jedidiah Becker for

Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Sony the rights to a patent that will allow them to place front-facing cameras on smartphones behind rather than on top of the display screen. Not only will this allow smartphone makers to make display screens a little taller, it also opens the door for new technologies such as touch-screen fingerprint scans for heightening security on the increasingly versatile devices.

The patent request describes a “sensor-equipped display apparatus” made up of three different elements: several types of sensors placed behind a “light-transmissive display screen” and an unnamed material that will hide the sensors from the viewer.

The hidden sensors include a proximity sensor, a fingerprint sensor, an illuminance sensor and the camera sensor.

Essentially, the material of the screen itself will be able to allow light to pass through it in both directions. However, to ensure that users aren´t able to see the little sensors behind their screen, the interior of the display screen will be covered with a substance that blocks entering light from re-exiting — similar to those one-way mirrors used in interrogation rooms in the movies.

Although, since filing for the patent in May 2011, Sony has had plenty of time to contemplate what the first devices will be to utilize the technology, they have not yet announced when we can expect to see the high-tech screens hitting the market.

Sony´s patent will not be the first bit of technology to showcase a fingerprint lock. Last year, Motorola Mobility released its Atrix smartphone which also comes equipped with a biometric scanner on the backside of the device.

In Sony´s version of fingerprint-sensing technology, however, the technology is essentially streamlined and simplified.

According to the patent application, the technology would “allow even a user who is not familiar with the fingerprint authentication to readily execute an input manipulation for the fingerprint authentication.”


What´s more, the design idea of placing cameras and sensors behind a one-way “light-transmissive” display screen promises to have ramifications for the whole industry and opens the door for an endless variety of new, related technologies.

For starters, the fingerprint-identification technology is likely to become a standard feature on all smartphones in the not-so-distant future, adding an extra level of security to devices that continue to play an ever larger role in our personal and professional lives.

Moreover, the eventual ubiquity of the technology is likely to serve as a significant theft deterrent, which currently remains a big problem for owners of the pricey little devices. As the devices´ security mechanisms become virtually uncrackable to anyone but the device owner, there becomes little incentive for anyone but the savviest tech-hackers to steal them.

Smartphone security features like Android´s sophisticated “pattern” and “memory” locks have already made it extremely difficult for non-owners to get into the devices. Much to the embarrassed chagrin of FBI officials, a California-branch of the federal agency had to enlist the help of Google earlier this month just to retrieve information from a criminal suspect´s smartphone. After numerous bungled attempts to get past the gadget´s lighter pattern lock, investigators set off the virtually impregnable memory lock and had to get a warrant from a judge forcing Google technicians to unlock the ironclad device.

But in a world where every user´s smartphone is accessible only with his or her fingerprint, the incentive to steal the devices could conceivably sink to almost nil.

Sony´s patent also alluded to the fact that the technology will likely lead to an immediately improved video-calling experience.

Without the little camera at the top, smartphone makers will be able to make the screen about a third- to a half-inch taller. And perhaps even more important, users will no longer have that awkward feeling that comes from trying to keep eye contact by looking into the camera while simultaneously watching the video of the person on screen. Because the camera and sensors will be directly behind the screen, users will more or less be able to look at the person on the other end square in the eyes, providing a more natural video-calling experience.

Still, it remains anyone´s guess when consumers can expect to see the technology in new smartphones.

It´s noteworthy that Apple Inc. filed much earlier for a similar patent in a behind-the-screen camera for its laptops. Yet four years after filing, the California-based tech wizards have for reasons unknown not yet introduced the technology to any of their products.

One conceivable explanation for the delay in coming to the market could concern the creation of a substance that allows for the one-way light-transmissive screen.

Sony has not identified what that substance is and likely has not yet produced it.