|Building The Leading Facial Recognition System |
Among the new features of iPhones X Apple reeled off, Face ID is redoubtably the most captivating. Commonwealth has determined that Tainan-based Himax Technologies Inc and the industry leader Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) are the two major suppliers for Face ID’s key components after six months of research. The two latest “World-leading” from Taiwan are thus keen on proclaiming themselves.
By Liang-Rong Chen
Bordering on the Southern Taiwan Science Park to the east, Tree Valley Park was set up more than a decade ago, dedicated to housing Chimei Group’s LCD TV faction during its prime. Despite Chimei Group having lapsed from the industry, the now verdant industrial park has bolstered the next prodigy in high tech industry.
A sturdy tech plant was seen taking shape, with cranes, grout truck and over hundreds of workers toiling day and night. Himax announced affixing a new 8-inch wafer-level optic production line in its new plant, where Himax invested US$80 million (approximated NT$2.4 billion), its largest investment to date.
The construction for Himax’s wafer-level optic plant took shape after merely six months, with workers toiling day and night. The new plant is expected to be put into operation by the beginning of next year, supporting Android phones’ face recognition system.
Himax Technologies Inc was the driver IC supplier under Chimei Group, then the second-largest panel manufacturer in Taiwan. Led by Chimei’s founder Hsu Wen-long’s top aide Wu Biing-seng as the chairman, Himax, along with Novatek Microelectronics Corp, were once the largest two driver IC companies in the world.
However, the latest momentum to its growth came from optical lens, which is no bigger than a grain of rice. Himax positioned itself as the new challenger to usurp Largan Precision Co, which holds the highest stock price in Taiwan market.
“The minuscule glass lenses will be installed on the front of Apple’s forthcoming iPhone X, becoming the key component of its tantalizing Face ID system.”
The Key Component for Face Recognition System coming from Himax
The wafer-level component was the achievement of the process technology boasting astounding efficiency and precision, which was only made possible by decades of painstaking efforts and resources pooled from the semiconductor industry.
In the Himax headquarters over 600 meters away, the office space on the ground floor, as well as parts of the office canteen and parking lot, have resigned to the expanded optic plant, cranking up the shipments in the third quarter this year.
Himax forecasted in the earning conference call, with its new optic production lines going into operation, its non-Driver IC sectors would drive a steep rise in sales, and the company expected revenue growth of NT$800 million.
It is public knowledge in the industry that the very specific and urgent need could only come from one client: Apple Inc.
On Himax’s second quarter conference call one month ahead Apple’s launch event, Wu Biing-seng’s brother, Himax CEO Jordan Wu was clearly animated, elaborating on for more than an hour.
Morgan Stanley analyst Charlie Chan posed a trap question to Wu, inquiring after Himax’s respective revenue proportion from Android and non-Android operation system.
Jordan Wu declined to answer, for “far as I know, there’s only one company (Apple Inc) running in the non-Android campaign,” while others bursted into laughter.
Yet he made mention of it in his answer to another query. “If there’s anyone claiming revenue yielded from 3D sensor (the technology behind Apple’s Face ID), it could from no other company than Apple Inc, for none of the competitors have had such feature yet,” he said.
It was seen as an indirect recognition of partnering with Apple Inc, since Jordan Wu underscored 3D sensor as the top priority shipment of Himax’s wafer-level optic products only minutes ago.
Spokesperson for Himax declined to comment. But a manager from a major company collaborating with Himax on 3D sensor products corroborated that Himax did ship its optic products to Apple Inc.
TSMC’s secret weapon
Aside from Himax, TSMC was the other pivotal powerhouse in Apple’s 3D sensor scheme.
TSMC was commissioned to produce the NIR image sensor, which would be placed on the front of iPhone X, designed to receive laser light. Sources in the industry said the supply might come as monopoly, or STMicroelectronics from Europe might have the equal shares from the order.
This was the very first time TSMC unsheathed its long-prepared secret weapon.
It’s rare knowledge that TSMC also produces digital cameras, surveillance camera and CMOS image sensor, which, however, has always trailed behind Japan’s Sony Corp and Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. “Despite 20 years of travails, TSMC still comes third,” said Liu Hsin-sen, the director in TSMC’s sensor and monitor sales department, during the company’s tech forum this May. It is a humongous disgrace to people working for TSMC, who seek to champion in every regard.
TSMC might finally have the chance of topping the world in the emerging NIR sensor field.
TSMC’s confidence lies in its capability of integrating the invisible-to-human-eye spectrum in the NIR range: 940nm wavelengths light. The spectrum is deemed more than ideal, for the sunlight hardly emit the spectrum after the scattering in the atmosphere.
The flood illuminator on the front of iPhone X would project tens of thousands lights at 940 nanometer onto the human face, and then a TSMC-made camera would read the pattern from reflection. Liu Hsin-sen said the process “would be hardly interrupted by other rays of light”, regardless of surroundings because of the property of 940nm light source.
The industry expected the range of laser light be widely applied to other domains, ranging from augmented reality devices, autonomous vehicles and other products embedded with Internet of Things, becoming the key force of light in the booming field of machine vision technology.
Liu Hsin-sen went on claiming the future smartphone would at least carry three to four sets of “machine eye” designed to read the specific spectra, and “as reported by our INTEL, TSMC is on the leading.”
Notwithstanding Samsung and Sony having hammered into the field, TSMC has boasted the best quantum efficiency on the manufacturing process so far, reaching 35% in the wavelengths of 940 nanometer, which spells TSMC’s capacity of reading laser with lower power. As a result, TSMC’s model offers better battery performance, which has the strategic importance in the smartphone market.
Himax’s NIR sensor model is also built by TSMC, which Jordan Wu spoke highly of. “Its quantum efficiency is more than twice as much as its rivals in the market,” Wu said.
As the ultra expensive model set its price at NT$35,900 in Taiwan, iPhone X’ sales remain to be seen.
However, Himax is sanguine about its future in the next two years. Not only will the new plant be completed towards the end of the year, but adjacent vacancy could accommodate another two new plants, which might soon be put into operation, too.
“Judging from our client’s excitement,” said Jordan Wu in the conference call, “the plant expansion in the second quarter would happen much sooner than expected, to meet the upcoming demands in the next two or three years,” he said. It was because the largest maker of smartphone chips, Qualcomm Inc has allied itself to Himax and TSMC, delivering a fully integrated 3D solution, drafted to be the standard equipment for billions of advanced Android phones worldwide.
“Apple’s technologies aren’t definitely more advanced, they have their fair share, and so do we,” said Chang Chieng-chung confidently, Qualcomm’s vice president of engineering piloting the 3D solution. Chang hails from Taiwan. He majored in electrical engineering at National Tsing Hua University, having working for Qualcomm Inc to date after completion of his Ph.D in the States.
A Taiwanese in Qualcomm
More than a month prior to iPhone launch event, Chang had already illustrated the feature which resembled Apple’s Face ID to Taiwanese visiting media at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters. Once the user takes up the phone, it could recognize user’s contour within few thousandth of a second and boot itself.
“This is what a true smartphone user interface should be like, booting itself once it sees you,” he said. “After all, the pet should be able to recognize the owner.”
Qualcomm architected the entire technology concept, where the most decisive part sketching out the human face, the 3D depth sensing mapping algorithms, was under Qualcomm’s exclusive rights.
Himax shouldered carrying through the hardware building from the scratch. Jordan Wu revealed in the conference call conceitedly that Himax had formed an “A-Team” tackling the 3D sensor project. A few of the key components in the technology will be developed and manufactured by Himax itself, including wafer-level optic items and laser drivers IC, and among the others are the NIR sensor in cooperation with TSMC, and the ASIC chips for accelerating the 3D depth mapping algorithms.
The insider disclosed that the other essentials and lasers were supplied by U.S. firm Lumentum, in line with iPhone X, and Truly Opto-electronics Ltd. from Hong Kong assumed the module assembly works.
Quote: Jordan Wu dwelled on company’s caliber on independently developing the bulk of major components. “We could tailor to smartphone clientele’s use promptly,” he said, “which would be exceedingly big hurdles for newcomers.”
Jordan Wu maintained that the 3D solution dubbed “SLiM” might have the selling price US$15-20 per unit, while Himax chalking up the major presence in the solution.
“This would be a game changer for Himax,” Wu continued. “If everything went as planned, it would take Himax to the very next level.”
As for the Qualcomm, the dominant presence in wireless communication, grander ambitions are at work.
Notably, the solution SLiM could only attune Qualcomm’s latest processor. Northland Capital Markets’ analyst Tom Sepenzis raised Qualcomm’s target price subsequently, believing Samsung and Huawei would be forced to adopt Qualcomm’s processors in some of their flagship models in order to rival iPhone X, renouncing their recent efforts in shoring up their own processor businesses.
The optimal strategy for Qualcomm is to aid the Android campaign
Qualcomm has feuded Apple Inc lately, facing off in court over licensing for modem chips. It would be merely a matter of time for Apple Inc to expel Qualcomm from its supply chain.
The optimal and most pragmatic revenge would be aiding Android campaign to jockey for position matching Apple’s newest innovations.
To Qualcomm’s dismay, KGI Securities’ Kuo Ming-chi, dubbed “the best Apple analyst on the planet”, alleged in his late August report that Qualcomm lagged behind in both software and hardware development for 3D sensing, and wouldn’t be able to haul significant shipments until 2019.
Qualcomm and Himax rose to riposte. In a joint statement, they targeted mass production by the first quarter of 2018, less than 3 months from iPhone X’ release date. “Our client runs a very bold schedule for mass production,” Jordan Wu said. The market forecasted that the smartphone firms taking after the rash of solution SLiM would be Xiaomi and Oppo from China.
In the full escalation of current smartphone strife, Himax and TSMC are instead bound to profit, seeing their products, wafer-level optics and NIR sensor subcontracting, adopted by both the warring campaigns.
Himax’s wafer level optics sales and the stock listed on NASDAQ pulled out a rather unremarkable performance, with HoloLens, Microsoft's augmented reality (AR) viewer, following after Google Glass both opting for that of Himax.
Nonetheless, with Apple’s Face ID’s stunning launch, Himax’s wafer level optics just might have its breakout in sales.
The city Tainan has fostered yet another “world champion” in the vanguard technology field.
Translated from the Chinese: Squirtle
Editor: Maureen Wang, Fiona Chou
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