In one sense, the field of biometrics-identifying individuals by specific biological traits-has already emerged. Large companies use fingerprint sensors for logging on to corporate networks, state driver's license authorities employ face recognition for capturing and storing digital photographs, and the first iris-scan-protected ATM in the nation was introduced in Texas in May 1999. Yet consumers have been reluctant to adopt the technology, and so far, it remains largely relegated to military and government applications.
But the emergence of another technology-the wireless Web-could soon change all that, according to Joseph Atick, president and CEO of Visionics, one of the leaders in face recognition technology. "Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones are becoming our portal to the world, our transaction devices, our ID and maybe one day our passport," says Atick. But entrusting these small gadgets with so much of our personal and financial information carries with it a great risk. "It is this need for security," Atick says, "that is going to drive biometrics."
And while the need for security is pushing the demand for biometric systems, other technology developments-increased bandwidth, new cell phones and handheld computers equipped with digital cameras-will create an infrastructure capable of putting biometrics into the hands of consumers. Visionics is taking advantage of this combination of need and infrastructure by developing tools to enable people to authenticate any transaction they make over the wireless Web using their own faces.
Even those in the industry who are skeptical of Atick's vision of a biometric-enabled wireless Web can't deny his ingenuity and ambition. At the age of 15, while living in Israel, Atick dropped out of school to write a 600-page physics textbook entitled Introduction to Modern Physics. "I was bored in school. I wanted to show the establishment I was serious about my interests," says Atick. "This book was my ticket to grad school." Remarkably, Stanford University accepted him at 16 into its graduate program, where he earned his master's degree in physics and PhD in mathematical physics.
After graduation, Atick applied his math skills to the study of the human mind. While heading the Computational and Neuroscience Laboratory at Rockefeller University, he sought to understand how the brain processes the abundance of visual information thrown at it by the environment. He and his colleagues discovered that the brain deals with visual information much as computer algorithms compress files. Because everyone has two eyes, a nose and lips, the brain extracts only those features that typically show deviations from the norm, such as the bridge of the nose or the upper cheekbones. The rest it fills in. "We soon realized there was tremendous commercial value to this process," says Atick. In 1994, he and colleagues Paul Griffin and Norman Redlich founded Visionics.
Based in Jersey City, N.J., Visionics develops and markets pattern-recognition software called FaceIt. In contrast to the main competing technology, which relies on data from the entire face, FaceIt verifies a person's identity based on a set of four facial features that are unique to the individual and unaffected by the presence of facial hair or changes in expression. In the past few years, the system has found success fighting crime in England and election fraud in Mexico.
In October, the company signed a merger agreement with Digital Biometrics, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based biometric systems engineering firm. Together they plan to build the first line of "biometric network appliances-computers hooked to the Net with the capacity to store and search large databases of facial or other biometric information. The appliances, containing customers' identification data, can then receive queries from companies wanting to authenticate e-transactions. And while consumers will be able to access the system from a cell phone, PDA or desktop computer, Atick expects handheld devices to be the biggest market. Visionics is also working with companies in Japan and Europe to have FaceIt software installed on new Web-ready mobile devices so consumers can capture their own faces and submit encrypted versions over the Net.
Is that it for PINs and passwords? Atick predicts it will still be two to three years before PDA- and cell-phone-wielding consumers are likely to use biometrics instead. And as futuristic as his vision is, he is really striving toward something a bit old-fashioned. "Essentially, we are bringing back an old element of human commerce," says Atick-restoring the confidence that comes with doing business face to face.
Others in Biometrics
|Visage Technology (Littleton, Mass.)||Face recognition|
Iridian Technologies (Marlton, N.J.)
DigitalPersona (Redwood City, Calif.)
Cyber-SIGN (San Jose, Calif.)
|Dynamic signature verification|
|T-NETIX (Englewood, Colo.)||Voice recognition|