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Making Smartphones Smarter with New See-Through Sensors

Jun 20, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

It looks as though researchers may have found a way to make smartphone apps even smarter with new see-through sensors that could possibly commercialize phones to have biomedical and additional computing capabilities.

The findings were published today in the journal Optics Express.

Researchers from Montreal and the New York-based company Corning Incorporated created the first laser-written light-guiding system that could essentially open up a whole new avenue of real estate on your smartphone. They were able to build two completely transparent systems - a temperature sensor and a new system for authenticating a smartphone using infrared light - into a type of glass typically used in such devices.

Embedded in the glass display are layers upon layers of sensors that could perform biomedical tasks like taking your temperature, assessing your blood sugar levels if you're diabetic, or even analyzing DNA.

In addition, the technology could one day expand to include computing systems as well, such as windows, tabletops or transparent touchscreens, the researchers say.

"We're opening the Pandora's box at the moment," paper co-author Raman Kashyap said in a press release. Now that the technique is viable, "it's up to people to invent new uses" for it, he added.

Photonics is the key to this revolutionary technology. An invisible waveguide (pathway for light) is written via laser into a smartphone's display glass. The waveguide is a horizontal line from the left side of the screen, but it cannot be seen with the naked eye. While this technique has been used before, this team's creation is 10 times better at preventing light from leaking out.

The technology could also yield an authentication system for smartphones. By etching in waveguides with holes at various locations in the glass, the light that shines through those holes will create a pattern unique to each person, almost like a fingerprint. This "fingerprint" could be read using an infrared detector to confirm the phone's identity.

Both the temperature sensor and authentication system are being patented and the team hopes to make the technology commercially available within a year.

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