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From iris and fingerprint scanning to voice and face recognition, biometric technology is poised to step out of the pages of science fiction and take over the world.
The International Biometric Industry Association (IBIA) has recently doubled its estimates for revenue growth. Its current projection is that the market will be worth $2.2bn (£1.5bn) worldwide by 2006, solely at the manufacturer and developer level. But the applications which are likely to drive the market are a far cry from the nightmarish Big Brother images that the technology often conjures up.
First and best-known is security. But while the high-profile airport and airline contracts are likely to be sewn up by vendors and the larger integrators, there are plenty of opportunities for mainstream VARs and solution providers.
Claudia Natanson is head of BT Ignite Solutions' Secure Business Service which implemented an iris-recognition system at the company's showcase security centre. She says: "For me, what biometrics is all about is not having to remember 3,000 passwords. It will mean not having to introduce another security system that people don't like and don't use securely - and it will mean having identifiers that are unique to an individual."
Indeed, password-based security has always been the bane of the network manager's existence. People leave them lying about on Post-It Notes, give them out over the phone to any old hacker pretending to be a member of the tech support team, or use easy-to-guess passwords such as their pet's name. But iris recognition is still a comparatively expensive solution for most companies.
However, fingerprint recognition is relatively mature and the cost has plummeted to an almost universally affordable level. Mark Yadegar, CEO of biometric systems developer and distributor Bio4, says: "Fingerprint readers for PCs and laptops are selling at between £100-£200. And when selling PCs with fingerprint readers, a reseller can practically double the margin on a PC."
Yadegar predicts that corporate PC security will be one of the first big growth markets for the technology. "Studies have shown that it costs about $300 per user per annum to maintain user names and passwords - with a fingerprint system that cost disappears. So the cost savings can be phenomenal, particularly for corporates.
"It's a great argument for resellers to use. And the market's definitely growing. We're working with a lot of corporates and financial services houses who are finishing trials and saying they want to deploy a couple of hundred fingerprint readers across the organisation."
Another big growth area is access control. With walk-in thefts on the increase, many companies are eager to improve their door-entry systems. And then of course there's the current worry about terrorist attacks. ID cards - even magstripe or smart cards - are relatively easy to fake. As Leslie Bowie, technical director of biometric solution provider ABM UK, points out: "A big fallback with ID cards is that you get a lot of tailgating. If you have some sort of personal biometric authentication at the door you'd stop tailgating completely."
Bio4 sells a fingerprint door-access system which is about £1,500. Moving up the scale, a 2D face-recognition door-entry system would cost between £3,500-£4,000, while an iris recognition system would cost between £6,000-£6,500.
But although it is expensive, there are some applications where only iris recognition will do. Yadegar cites the example of a time-and-attendance system that Bio4 implemented for shipping company DFDS. "The company wanted to stop overtime fraud among dockers. It knew that many of them were clocking in and out for colleagues who weren't there and decided to implement a biometric system.
"It couldn't use a fingerprint system because the dockers' fingers would be covered in dirt. And likewise it couldn't use face recognition because it doesn't work too well with filthy faces. So what doesn't get dirty? Irises don't. And how much do shipping companies lose in false overtime claims by dockers? Significantly more than the £6,000 a unit it spent. The company spent around £25,000 which was quickly recouped by the elimination of false overtime claims."
Yadegar adds that he daren't ever show his face down at the docks. However, his fear hasn't stopped him selling a similar system to a mining company.
Bowie also believes time and attendance will be a key driver for adoption of the biometrics market. "It generally cuts down the overtime claims by about 20 per cent," he says. "So, when you're talking about rolling these systems out, there's a cost benefit that's pretty instantaneous."
Another market that Bowie cites as being potentially lucrative is the health sector - for protection of patient records - "so that anybody can have network access but only certain individuals are allowed access to specific records".
Sometimes, a bit of creative thinking will allow you to dream up all sorts of applications. "I've heard that some car parks in the UK not only have number plate reading systems but also compare the face of the driver who comes in with the face of the driver leaving, alerting the guard if it's a different person," he says.
One market that's still a long way off though, is biometric payment systems. This may come as a surprise, given that so much of the industry hype surrounds the potential for biometrics to increase security in electronic transactions.
But most independent observers believe that it will be at least five to ten years before the standards and technology have matured sufficiently and the cost becomes viable - in which time, the retail industry may have found other solutions.
Leedor Agam, a consultant at security specialist Aladdin, believes there are better ways to secure electronic transactions that are equally effective and much more cost-effective: "There are ways to dramatically reduce credit card fraud with smartcard technology. There is no need for biometrics," he says. "For example, in France you are already required to enter a PIN at the checkout. And we're probably looking at the medium-term for widespread implementation of even those technologies."
As to which, if any, biometric technology wins out in the end, it's anybody's guess. Mark Grossi, chief technology officer at NCR's Advanced Concepts Laboratory in Dundee, says: "I think over the next ten years we're going to see a race between different technologies. For example, we'll probably see a big growth in voice recognition for call centre applications.
"One of the biggest issues is in where and how we store the biometric information at the back-end - that's a huge issue. It could be held by trusted third parties but whoever it is will have to have total consumer confidence. Then I think we'll start to see a common interface emerging."
As a developer of 3D facial recognition systems, Bio4 hopes this will eventually become the dominant biometric technology. "Had face recognition developed quicker than fingerprint and iris technology then it would always have been the dominant biometric. I believe it will eventually become dominant because it's the universal way that people recognise each other," says Yadegar.
But whatever technology or technologies win out - be it fingerprint, face, DNA sampling or aura-reading - it looks like there will plenty of opportunities for resellers to make a buck or two from biometrics in the interim.
Read part one of our look at biometric technology >>