The new face of biometrics

The future of facial recognition technology might be skin deep. Earlier this year, Identix Inc. acquired revolutionary skin biometric technology that promises to boost the performance and accuracy of facial recognition technology, said Joseph Atick, chief executive officer and president of the biometrics company based in Minnetonka, Minn. "These types of events happen once every 10 years, in my opinion, in the world of science," he said.

Developed by Delean Vision Worldwide Inc. about two and a half years ago, the technology uses a new class of pattern recognition algorithms called surface texture analysis, which converts images of skin patches into unique mathematical characteristics.

If you think of your face as a painting, then the skin is the canvas underneath, Atick said. It turns out the canvas is just as unique as the painting itself. A person's skin pattern or texture is a unique physical trait and distinguishable among all people, even identical twins.

"What [the technology] does is it breaks up the area of the skin that it's looking at into very small blocks," Atick said. "And in those blocks, it looks to see if there are any lines, what type of texture, how many dermal structures, whether it's melanin. So it looks for the pores or the bumps or the lines, everything in that little block."

It will work for individuals with any skin color and aging doesn't affect results. "The number of pores that exist in any little block on your face, those don't change," he said.

Identix plans to seamlessly integrate the skin biometric software into facial recognition systems, which use a face's geometry to identify a person, and other biometrics, such as fingerprints and palms. No new equipment is needed. Tests show overall accuracy for facial identification improves up to 25 percent, Atick said, adding that skin biometric software can be used on existing digital photographs contained in a database to extract information. It doesn't have to be used on a live person. Company officials also plan to participate in the next round of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Face Recognition Vendor Test.

"It took us five years in the industry to make progress for an increment in accuracy that this [skin biometric] technology is now making available in one fell swoop,"

Atick said.

Trevor Prout, marketing director for the International Biometric Group (IBG), a vendor-independent consulting firm that also assesses companies, technologies and products, said Delean's technology performed well in the group's latest round of biometric testing.

"Apparently Identix has conducted testing that shows that their existing facial recognition solutions together with the algorithms in the Delean technology produce accurate results," he said. "I can't validate that, not seeing the results, but it does make intuitive sense. Multiple biometrics is a fast-growing area because combining different technologies gives you more accurate results."

Experts say that multiple biometrics will increasingly help guard against identity fraud, involving passports, driver's licenses, mug shots and border security technologies. That makes biometrics an important and growing technology.

IBG officials estimate annual global biometric revenues will climb from $719 million in 2003 to $4.6 billion in 2008. Facial recognition technology revenues are estimated to grow from $50 million to

$802 million during the same time frame.

Christopher Miles, acting chief of the Justice Department's research and technology development division, part of the National Institute of Justice, said he had not heard about Identix's plan to integrate skin biometrics with facial recognition.

Miles said his group is sponsoring research to create a smart gun that would identify the user through a series of lights that would read the characteristics of the user's epidermal layer. However, that's still in the development phase.

Identix is testing the skin biometric software coupled with facial recognition systems with some unidentified defense and intelligence agencies, Atick said. Although the company hasn't released any pricing models yet, he said the integrated system should be available in the next three months.

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