Newly Discovered Apple Patent Reveals How iPhone Fingerprint Scanner Will Work

A new European patent reveals how a fingerprint Home Button in the iPhone will likely work.

A new European patent reveals how a fingerprint Home Button in the iPhone will likely work.

A newly discovered Apple patent reveals how the iPhone’s redesigned Home button will work as a fingerprint scanner.

It’s widely rumored the iPhone 5S will include a fingerprint scanner built into the Home button. But putting a fingerprint scanner into the Home button presents Apple with a problem. The Home button is used as the primary navigation device. Pressing the Home button quits apps and returns the user to the Home screen. If the fingerprint Home button is used as an authentication device, to conduct a secure online purchase say, the user needs to avoid accidentally pressing it. The last thing they want is to quit the browser and be returned to the Home screen.

The solution is a capacitive ring built around the Home button that detects the user’s finger without a button press.

A recent European patent, discovered by Patently Apple, reveals that Apple engineers have patented a Home button with a sensor ring around it. It closely resembles a purported image of iPhone 5S packaging that leaked out of China last week.

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Like the iPhone’s touchscreen, the metal ring around the button is capacitive. It detects changes in electrical charge when a finger, which is electrically conductive, brushes against it. When the user’s finger is held over the button, it triggers a fingerprint scan without actually pressing the button. What looks like a metal ring around the Home button can be seen in the image above.

As well as the capacitive ring, the European patent describes a Home button that is bristling with other sensors, including NFC and optical input/output sensors that may enable next-generation, super-fast optical docking stations.

The patent describes built-in Near Field Circuit (NFC) capabilities, a wireless technology used for wireless point-of-sale purchases and electronic locks.

A hybrid Home button with NFC could be used for a wide variety of purposes, including an alternative to the traditional username/password process.

It could be used for secure data transfers between an iPhone/iPad and other equipment like a computer. It could be used for authentication during point-of-sale purchases or financial transactions, or as a badge reader for accessing homes, offices, hotel rooms and even a car.

The patent says the hybrid fingerprint/NFC button could be built into a wide range of electronic devices, from MacBooks and iPads, as well as wearable computers like pendants or wristwatch-like devices. It could also be used in headphones, television sets and television remotes.

Next-Gen Docking System

The patent also outlines a next-generation docking system that dispenses with Lightning or USB cables in favor of a wireless system using NFC and/or optical sensors.

A hybrid NFC/Fingerprint Home Button could include optical Input/output to enable next-generation wireless docks.

A hybrid NFC/Fingerprint Home Button could include optical Input/output to enable next-generation wireless docks.

The patent describes a wires-free docking system that uses optical sensors built into the Home Button to communicate with the dock. The dock could be built into an Apple TV, car infotainment system or point-of-sale system. The iPhone can be docked vertically or horizontally. The new Home button lines up with wireless/optical sensors built into the dock. There’s no need for traditional connectors. There’s no mention of charging the device.

This patent hints at what Apple might be up to with the iPhone 5S, but not everything described by the patent should be associated with the 5S specifically. Apple will likely focus on one or two implementations of a capacitive home button at first and iterate with future hardware releases. It seems likely, at least initially, that the 5S will use a scanner to unlock the device and possibly process iTunes payments.

The fingerprint/NFC Home button patent was published in Europe earlier this year. The inventors are Apple engineers, and it compliments a long string of fingerprint/NFC/security patents filed by Apple going back five years.

  • Gadget

    I was kind of “meh” about the iPhone 5s until reading this article. NOW I’m pretty excited!!!

  • HAL8950

    Wondering if the silver ring will really be transparent (crystal) to better scan your finger?

  • lkahney

    @Gadget
    Yeah, I think the fingerprint sensor will be a big deal. It’ll change the whole paradigm of username/passwords. Plus, if third-party scanners take off, it’ll eventually replace all your keys and your wallet.

  • SarcasticMisanthrope

    Nobody knows exactly what the iPhone 5S will do until it comes out. Wild speculation is asinine.

  • Gregory Wright

    SarcasticMisanthrope, why are you surprise? That’s what Apple blogs do, engage in rumors and speculations; some turn out to be true, some close to the truth, and other not true. You should not be surprise by this.

  • Brandon Oleson

    If you look closely, the iOS 7 icons for iTunes and App Store also have the “ring” … A little hint about what applications will work with the sensor, perhaps?

  • Jasona_17

    Can’t wait for samsung to do a half-ass job ripping this technology off!!

  • Gregory Wright

    Jasona_17, didn’t Apple buy Authen Tec to gain access to its fingerprint technology and patents. Fingerprint technology might be new to smartphones but it is not new in the ID world. So, if Samsung decides to implement fingerprint technology into its smartphones you could say it is taking the idea from any company like Apple is taking it from Authen Tec.

  • Gadget

    The silver ring is Siri’s new g-spot

  • kapil833

    exciting :)

  • TylerHoj

    I think there’s going to be a ton of ‘applications’ for this technology throughout iOS 7. For educational purposes, a teacher could prevent a students from leaving an app. Secured folders. Hell you could even use this in a game to prevent another person from completing a level you started. It will be interesting to see what Apple does with this.

  • brentolsen

    Brandon,
    If you look closely that ring has been around those same icons in IOS 6 and I believe in IOS versions before that.

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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