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Startup promises super-accurate fingerprint sensor

Vkansee has a working model of an optical fingerprint sensor that it claims is more accurate and secure than the competition.

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BARCELONA -- Vkansee believes it can do fingerprint sensors better.

The New York-based startup has developed a way to verify the identity of a person by scanning the fingerprint, but with far more accuracy and security. The module is almost small enough that it can discreetly pack into any smartphone.

How does it achieve all of this? Vkansee found a way to shove an optical sensor -- the type of high-powered reader used in immigration offices -- and condense it into the size of a tiny memory card.

"We're able to support a more elegant design by giving it more options," said Jason Chaikin, CEO of the startup.

Vkansee is just one of the many companies looking to improve upon existing fingerprint readers, which Apple popularized by installing one into its smartphones starting with the iPhone 5S. Other high-profile companies such as Samsung have also incorporated fingerprint sensors in their smartphones, while chipmaker Qualcomm has shown off technology that uses ultrasonic sound wave technology to detect fingerprints.

The problem is the fingerprint readers use a capacitive technology -- Apple gets its component from its own Authentec unit, and Samsung gets its reader from Synaptics. These allow for 550 pixels per inch when capturing the fingerprint, said Chaikin, who has worked in the biometrics industry for the past 15 years. This resolution means these sensors can only gather 10 or 11 data points, whereas Vkansee's 2,000 pixel-per-inch system can capture 150 data points. That means it can capture each individual sweat pore of your finger.

Apple and Synaptics were not immediately available for comment.

Vkansee has a working sensor that it is showing off at the conference. Sarah Tew/CNET

An optical sensor, however, is big and bulky, requiring several components like a prism. Vkansee's sensor uses a pinhole like the old style of photography. The whole component can be applied to a flat strip. The sensor also uses near-infrared light to detect the fingerprint, so it can be embedded under the faceplate (for smartphones with no physical home button) or placed on top like the Touch ID.

The sensors can be slimmed down to no bigger than a memory card. Sarah Tew/CNET

Enhanced security is on the mind of consumers due to the myriad of hacking stories and security issues over the past several months. In December, a hacker claimed he was able to create a fingerprint based on a high-resolution photo of a person's hand.

The stumbling block has been the small startup's ability to work with the larger smartphone manufacturers, which are its primary target customers. It boosted its profile in December after raising $7 million in funding, and has spent the Mobile World Congress show talking to potential clients.