Originally created 08/08/99

Eyes may unlock future



Someday, experts say, your eye may unlock an array of things.

The pattern of your iris may replace the password to your computer, the personal identification number to your bank account, even the key to your front door.

More than 100 companies are making machines to identify you using distinguishing physical characteristics -- the uniqueness of your eyeball, for example -- or certain behavioral traits -- the way you move your lips when you speak, perhaps.

Experts are predicting that the technology -- known as biometrics -- will become prevalent in many industries within the next few years. Biometrics is being tested and used in automated teller machines and corporate security systems.

"It's becoming a common thing," said Bill Barrett, an adjunct engineering professor at the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University in California. "I think the public is going to welcome it."

Other forward-thinking people are dreaming of other applications, too. Just imagine: No more forgotten passwords. No more lost keys. The safe and convenient identification devices found in James Bond novels and Star Trek films are a reality.

A few them already are in the Augusta area.

Biometric methods

Biometric technology is not new. Experts say it actually dates back thousands of years, when civilizations identified people using scars, complexion, eye color and height. As early as the 19th century, criminologists tried to correlate physical characteristics with criminal behavior.

Now, biometric science is much more sophisticated. There are several biometric identification methods and devices. Here are a few of them:

Signature verification. A process used for a long time by credit card companies. This technology uses your signature or other unique mark for identification.

Fingerprint verification. There is a variety of approaches to this. There are fingerprint scans and fingerprint chips. The FBI has been using fingerprint identification for years. Accuracy in reading and matching fingerprints seems to be good, but it is also easy to fake, experts say.

Hand geometry.

This method measures the physical characteristics of the hand or fingers -- sometimes from a three-dimensional perspective. More than 800 employees at Plant Vogtle use a hand geometry device made by Recognition Systems' ID3D to get clearance into the super secure nuclear facility. A worker puts his or her right hand on a scanner that reads it and the machine matches the image to another one on file.

Face recognition.

This technique compares two images of the face for identification. Customers cashing checks at local convenience stores with Mr. Payroll machines use a face recognition technology that compares a customer's face to a photograph in the system. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company that makes the machines plans to install hundreds more within the next few months, company spokesman David Doremus said.

Voice recognition.

Products that uses voice recognition include the fun, but very real, Star Trek Deep Space Nine Voice Print system. This device locks out unwanted users of home computers by matching spoken words with a person's individual voice characteristics.

Iris scanning. This technology looks at the iris, the round pigmented membrane surrounding the pupil of the eye. Each person's iris is unique. Some experts believe this is the best system because the iris pattern is difficult to duplicate, but it is easy to read. A camera can scan the iris two or three feet away. The problem with the iris scan is that it is difficult to get a reading from brown eyes that are heavily pigmented.

Retinal scanning.

This process looks at the retina with a low intensity light source. It requires the user to look into a device and focus on a given point and therefore is not always convenient -- especially for people with glasses.

Retinal scanning, however, is accurate and hard to trick, local vitreoretinal specialist Randy Dhaliwal said. Each person -- even each eye -- has its own retinal pattern, he said.

The ophthalmologist believes retinal scanning is better than iris scanning.

"Retinal scanning is the ultimate," he said.

`Star Trek' technology

Thirty years ago, when Patrick Blanchard started his banking career, he never imagined that there might be machines that scan a customer's iris or recognize someone by the tremble of their voice.

"I never thought about it," the First Bank chief executive officer said.

But now, the banker predicts that biometric ATMs will be everywhere, including Augusta, in 3 to 5 years. Biometrics has many implications for the banking industry, he said. No one, however, seems to know what will be the standard method for identification.

In Europe, for example, an experimental ATM uses speech and face recognition systems and has a third failsafe device -- it records the way the lips move. Using multiple methods of identification increases the machine's accuracy, experts say.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, then chairman of the domestic and international monetary policy subcommittee, held a hearing on biometrics and the future of money.

"I wonder," Mr. Castle posed during the hearing, "how many of us would cheerfully trade in all of these multidigit codes if we could use one unique, secure, personal identifier for every purpose, one that was always at hand and could not be stolen, lost, forgotten or duplicated."

Jeffrey Dunn, co-chairman of the National Biometric Consortium, spoke at the hearing. Every day, more and more actions are being handled electronically instead of face to face, Mr. Dunn noted.

"Biometric technology," Mr. Dunn said, "is one means to achieve fast, user-friendly authentication with a high level of accuracy."

He sited some examples: fingerprint recognition at Fort Sill, Okla., and hand, voice and face recognition at U.S. border crossings. Even Disney World, he pointed out, uses a finger geometry system that tracks thousands of annual pass holders.

Some companies are finding ways people can use biometrics at home.

New Jersey-based QVoice, is marketing Star Trek Deep Space Nine Voice Print. The voice recognition software allows home computer owners to protect sensitive information. It costs about $80 and simulates the fictional, futuristic technology.

In principal, though, the technology that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry imagined Capt. James T. Kirk using in the future is the same science that you soon might use at your local bank.

"The future," QVoice President Norm Hughes said, "is now."

Frank Witsil can be reached at (706) 823-3352.