Biometrics have long been the territory of top secret military sites and Hollywood movies. But prices are coming down and very soon your voice, your face, or your fingerprint, may be your passport to the Internet.
"It's all come together in the last year," said Jeff Anthony, president and chief executive officer of Saflink.
The algorithms used to identify a voice or a fingerprint are computationally intense, but are now well within reach of the typical desktop PC. The rise of the Internet and ecommerce have made it more important to reliably identify customers and business partners in a user friendly way.
Biometrics vendors are involved in a number of standardisation projects, such as the Human Authentication application programming interface (HA-API) that may soon lead to a single standard biometrics API.
The Biometric Pavillion at Comdex/Spring featured about a dozen vendors in this burgeoning field. Several companies, including NEC, were demonstrating low priced fingerprint scanning. While they do not offer the accuracy of the fingerprint systems used in law enforcement, they work well enough to replace a password on a secure computer system. NEC's Touchpass product is priced at $300 per client for the scanner and software and about $1,000 for a server license.
The latest advance in fingerprint scanning is a single chip that registers a print. Users simply touch the chip and tiny capacitators instantly measure the surface of the finger. Infineon demonstrated such a chip that will cost only $20 to OEMs when it ships in June.
International Biometric Group was demonstrating a PC keyboard manufactured by Keytronic that has a similar fingerprint chip built in. Such keyboards are now selling for about $150, but prices are expected to come down to $60 or $50 by the end of the year.
But even if fingerprint scanners do not become ubiquitous, other biometric technology will. More and more PCs are equipped with microphones and even video cameras used for applications such as video conferencing.
"That same infrastructure can be used for voice and facial recognition," said Jeff Anthony of Saflink.
Saflink at the show launched Saf2000, a package that combines voice recognition, facial recognition and fingerprints. A 10 user version will sell for $199.
Saflink is also selling a similar package, Safsite, for use on the Internet. The company has developed a Web browser plug-in that can be used by websites to identify users by their voice.
Technology such as voice or face recognition can replace a password or digital certificate. It can authenticate, with a high degree of certainty, that a user is who they say they are. But these methods are generally not capable of independently identifying a user. This requires more complex biometric technology, such as high quality finger print scanning and iris scanning, that was more pricey but is getting cheaper.
Iriscan demonstrated a prototype of a new $1,000 scanner that looks a bit like a telephone horn and plugs into a special video card on a PC. Users bring it up to their eye to take a high resolution picture.
By the end of this year, Iriscan hopes to embed some of the technology for analysing the iris image directly into the scanning device, eliminating the need for a special video card and driving the cost down to $500 per unit.
The same iris technology from Iriscan is also being used in a ground breaking trial in the UK with Nationwide building society. Nationwide has been testing ATM machines that use iris recognition instead of a password to verify the identity of a card holder.
Later this year, a trial at an unnamed US bank will take this one step further. It will no longer require users to insert their ATM card, using the iris scanner as the only means of identification.
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