Startup: Fingerprint Reading through Gloves

By Brian Rhodes, Published May 07, 2014, 12:00am EDT

A fundamental limitation of typical fingerprint readers is that users must expose their fingers to be read. This is a serious issue in harsh environments where gloves are worn for warmth or protection. A startup has developed a new method to read fingerprints entirely: ultrasonically.

Inside, we examine the new product, what makes it fundamentally different, and what to expect for access control applications.

Sound, not Images

Ultrasonics developer Sonavation [link no longer available] has adapted a technology called "Ultrasound Impediography" into a fingerprint fob it calls AXISKEY [link no longer available] to be sold through an upcoming Indiegogo campaign. While credentialing based on fingerprints is not unique, Sonavation's approach is different than most methods. Instead of using an optical scanner or conductive-style sensor that captures physical features of a print, AXISKEY uses ultrasonics to sample finger depth.

The developer explained the technology to us like this:

"[Sonavation] ultrasonic fingerprint sensors read not just the surface fingerprint ridges and swirls, like conventional optical sensors. Instead, using ultrasound they extract a dynamic, deep tissue and vascular map of the fingertip that encompasses all seven layers of the epidermis, plus the underlying fat pad, fascia, microvascular and vascular, plus the arterial blood flow, bone structure, and nail bed."

Unlike traditional sensors that only read the dermis/epidermis layers, AXISKEY reads much deeper into the tissue sampling other 'unique' features like blood vessels, bones, and fingernails. Then data collected by the sensor is compared against a pre-enrolled template reading. If the scan matches the template, the credential then validates the user and unlocks the fob to share information.

Product Details

The company is focusing on introducing ultrasonic fingerprinting through a keyfob first. The AXISKEY fob is about the size of an battery-powered automotive wireless keyfob intended to be carried in user pockets or keyrings:

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Key Features

AXISKEY has one function: store passwords and other credentials until unlocked by a verified user. To that end, these are the keys for access control applications:

  • Stay Bundled Up: Because the fob uses ultrasound to verify identity and does not read surface ridges and swirls, it works through gloves. This is the key advantage compared to other offerings that may slow or stop users before they are ready to scan a print.
  • BLE or NFC Only: At the current time, AXISKEY does not support 13.56 MHz or 125 kHz RFID communication.  This excludes a huge swath of the existing access reader market, although it is designed to work with new Bluetooth of NFC enabled door readers, a trend we cover in this note: "NFC vs BLE For the Future of Access Control"
  • Battery Powered: AXISKEY needs power. The onboard battery is a field-replaceable/ rechargeable (common) coin-cell Lithium 2450 battery. The developer estimates battery life will last approximately 2 months on a full charge.

Enrollment & Use

We asked the company to explain the enrollment process and use in the field. They responded with:

"The user creates their profile on the Sonavation app (iPhone and Android) while enrolling various online services to the app, i.e. Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, PayPal, Door Locks, etc. After connecting the AXISKEY Fob to your smartphone via low-energy Bluetooth, the user swipes their finger several times to personalize their device and complete their enrollment. From then on, the user can access their online accounts using their fingerprint, not PINs and passwords."

Essentially, the user manages the fob through a smartphone app. This illustrates a fundamental weakness for enterprise use, as there is no method of managing all potential fobs through a central application, and invalidating users for access applications would rely entirely on networked doors or manually updating the settings in every offline lock - not a common requirement of other commercial smartphone based credentials.

This gap limits current potential applications to mostly personal password use rather than commercial access control platforms, although it could be used with products like Lockitron, UniKEY, and Schlage AptiQ [link no longer available] or iClass SE reader based access systems.

Cost & Availability

When the product is released in the upcoming Indiegogo campaign, it will be offered for $99.95.  Future MSRP will be $149.95, but no distribution agreements have been formalized yet.


When it comes to alternatives, Zwipe's Combo fingerprint reader/ credential card draws comparisons. Zwipe's cards cost significantly less per unit at ~$65 each, and have a head start on the access vertical by native support of 13.56 MHz formats like MiFARE & DESFire.

However, despite AXISKEY's higher cost and lack of RFID reader support, it works using common BLE and NFC formats and can be applied as the primary credential for logical access systems as well, beyond the tight access vertical Zwipe is useful for.

And functionally, Zwipe could be more intrusive to use requiring the user to expose bare fingers to the card's conductive sensor, while AXISKEY's ultrasonic sensor does not require the same.

The Future

AXISKEY is not 'the next big thing' for fingerprint readers/credentials, but the sensor technology has potential. Sonavation hopes the exposure of the fob product gains interest from OEM partners looking to license the reading method. Given the reportedly low manufacturing costs and high performance of the underlying ultrasound impediographic sensor compared to current optical sensor mainstays, the access market could see more from Sonavation [link no longer available] in the years ahead.


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