Wednesday, November 17, 2004

“Consuming” Biometrics

Biometrics is no longer a futuristic concept as more consumer-related deployments take place. In this issue, A&S features four such installations which have, or will become, a reality.

By Jason Tan

Patrons of Mary Chia Beauty & Slimming Specialist in Singapore were surprised this April when they had to use their fingerprints to open lockers.

Fingerprint Lockers
With the totally self-administered Biolocker system, patrons need only press the register button and scan their fingerprints. Enrolment and identification takes just a second or two and the system randomly assigns lockers.

Patrons then place belongings in lockers. When they are ready to leave, they place fingers on lockers again to retrieve property. All this is done without keys or PINs.

Moreover, patrons can choose whether to delete fingerprints after each use. As the solution has a supervisory over-write function, center supervisors may log onto the system and clean up fingerprint data at the end of the day, allowing new patrons to use it again the next morning.

Even though it cost US$48,365, Mary Chia decided to introduce biometrics technology to its seven outlets anyway to offer customers enhanced security, said Angelia Tan, sales director of IDLink Systems Pte. Ltd.

IDLink is the solution provider of Mary Chia’s project and is a biometrics house headquartered in Singapore, with offices in Malaysia, India and the Middle East.

The project started in February, with the first commercial rollout in April. To date, five outlets have deployed the Biolocker solution; implementation for the sixth is scheduled for next February.

After trying out the biometrics lockers, the majority of customers find the new mechanism pleasing and convenient as they do not need to carry keys to treatment rooms. Furthermore, it reduces the risks of one key opening up multiple lockers, explained Tan.

However, nontechnical-savvy clients did feel slightly intimidated by the new solution at the initial stage, said Tan. But after a few visits, they get acquainted.

This benefits Mary Chia as it projects a professional image by conveying the message “customers are very important to us,” claimed Tan.

Not content with the slimming center, IDLink is targeting the service industry, including gymnasiums, country clubs and fitness centers.

“We are currently working with potential clients, and hope to establish more reputable references next year. It is a challenging task as the startup cost is not low, considering the fact that country clubs and fitness centers can have hundreds of lockers,” observed Tan.

She stressed, however, that the money is well invested as self-administered biolockers help deployers cut manpower costs, not to mention saving money for key replacement. More important, secure solutions saves the company from getting a bad reputation if something is stolen.

“Biometrics is generally deployed in corporate environments for access control. No one expected that biometrics would find uses in the service industry. This is significant as it convinces people that even such high technologies can go as layman as Mary Chia,” concluded Tan.

Renting DVDs with a Flick of the Thumb
Meanwhile, Play! Entertainment, a Singapore video-rental company established in September, recently introduced biometrics technology to its four DVD rental kiosks. Play! is essentially a kiosk that dispenses DVDs for rental and has the added innovation of automated identification-card registration booths.

On top of that, it has added biometrics at a wider level by using it as an identification tool fixated on kiosks. To begin, customers must first register with Play! by scanning their ICs into kiosk machines. These store information like thumbprints and date of birth. Whenever customers rent DVDs, all they need to do is to scan thumbprints. Images are then compared with those on ICs. One advantage is ability to verify client age, ensuring that restricted movies stay out of minor hands.

“In Singapore, videos are classified NC16 and M18; retailers are responsible for ensuring compliance. At registration points, we incorporated biometrics to capture registrant thumbprints and match these against the Singaporean IC to confirm identity,” a company official told A&S. “After the membership is processed, members go to kiosks, scans thumbs and we recognize them and allow access to NC16 and M18 DVDs.”

So far, “The response has been unexpectedly good; we have reached more than our forecasted number of members after seven weeks in operation,” claimed the official. There are currently four Play! kiosks in Singapore. Holding 700 DVDs each, the kiosks have between 100 and 150 titles of the latest movie releases--a mixture of Hollywood and Asian tastes. They are located at Parkway Parade, Caltex House, North Point Shopping Centre and West Mall. The company intends to add two more kiosks by year end.

Play!’s thumbprint-recognition process was developed by Upek Inc., a fingerprint security-solution provider based in the U.S., with offices in Singapore and the Czech Republic.

“In this partnership, we provided TouchChip solutions with our biometrics readers and algorithms to match fingerprint printed on Singapore ICs,” explained Karl Audaert, regional sales manager. In addition to the Play! deployment, the company’s solution has been deployed by IBM in notebooks to replace password log-on.

IBM Introduces Fingerprint Laptop
In October, IBM introduced a fingerprint reader built into its newest ThinkPad laptop, the ThinkPad T42. A finger scan is required to gain log-on access to the portable computer and its contents, delivering simplified access to password-protected personal and financial information, Web sites, documents and e-mail.

The fingerprint reader is combined with an embedded security subsystem to provide a layer of security that is built-in, but not bolted-on. Registered templates of authorized users are stored on security chips within scanner devices. Fingerprint readers are located on wrist rests below arrow keys near the lower right edge of notebooks. Users swipe their fingers across small, horizontal sensors to log on to computers, software applications, Web sites and databases.

According to IBM, this type of fingerprint reader captures more data than traditional picture-capture windows. It scans more of fingertip surface areas, helping prevent misidentification. The swiping and recognition process takes less than one minute. In the same timeframe, multiple users can be registered with scans and added to approved boot sequences in much the same fashion as shared users register passwords in Windows.

“With IBM jumping on the bandwagon, it will stir up the market so more vendors are expected to follow suit,” said Audaert.

As recently as two years ago, the company had worked with Samsung on fingerprint notebooks. Since then, it has roped in more clientele, such as Micron PC, Gateway and Asustek, for similar partnerships, providing fingerprint sensor and application software. “More and more notebooks will come with fingerprint devices to secure data without need to remember passwords. This is the beauty,” stressed Audaert. In addition, system administrators will no longer need manage passwords, and this will drive down the cost of corporate password management, he claimed.


Biometrics Keeps Handbags Safe
In England, design graduate Louise Wilson, frustrated after having her own handbag pick pocketed, used biometrics technology to give handbags enhanced security.

According to CNN, the 23-year-old is currently in talks with manufacturers about producing a line of handbags that feature the security device. It could be on shop shelves by end of next year. Wilson's anti-theft handbag works through a rechargeable battery-powered biometrics-reader device, which stores fingerprint details of registered bag owners. The device, which fits inside handbag linings, will not unlock bags until fingerprints it recognizes are touched over a discreet five centimeter scanner using technology similar to that on door-entry security systems. Once matches have been made, sensors flash green and bags open.

Wilson, who graduated from London's Brunel University in industrial design earlier this year, said women often carry "their whole lives" in their handbags and losing all or some of the contents could be devastating. "I had heard about biometrics technology and wanted to apply it to something used in everyday life," she was quoted as saying. "Being pick-pocketed or having your handbag stolen is so frustrating. It is so easy for opportunists to help themselves, especially in noisy, crowded public situations like shopping in busy streets or using public transport."

A recent survey revealed that more than 2 million British holidaymakers have had their handbags or wallets stolen while traveling abroad, said CNN. Most thefts happened in public places. Spain was the worst country, followed by France and the Netherlands, according to the survey of 1,004 adults.

Paul Turnock, design director at Brunel University's department of design, said Wilson's design had the potential to become the next must-have fashion accessory and could significantly reduce similar types of crime.


Biometrics Set for Strong Growth
Biometrics is poised for explosive growth in network security and mobile commerce.

Three technologies in particular--fingerprint scanning, iris scanning and face recognition--have benefited most from homeland security and law enforcement activities, said Erik Michielsen, director of RFID and ubiquitous wireless at ABI Research. "Because of the market opportunities biometrics developers and vendors have been afforded in the last three years, biometrics is now moving to broader markets based on low-cost, high-volume deployments,” said Michielsen.

According to ABI Research, both silicon-based and software-based technologies will play a role. Biometrics chips for fingerprint scanners are already going into WCDMA mobile phone handsets in Korea (Korea Telecom) and Japan (NTT DoCoMo). The fingerprint scanning market alone has experienced over 300 percent growth in 2004. In addition, fingerprint scanning used to secure personal property (such as IBM ThinkPad notebooks), not only eases password problems, but also provides better security and cuts down expensive helpdesk support calls. It also finds uses in access and attendance control.

At the network level, Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn operating system includes an updated biometrics suite, and other PC makers are backing the technology. All this will drive down costs and spur further innovation in the consumer and corporate markets. “Though many deployments in the commercial and consumer markets will also look for added value in security, biometrics can also be leveraged to automate business processes in the case of enterprises, and improving convenience for consumer applications,” said Prianka Chopra, program manager of biometrics, smartcards and security at Frost and Sullivan.

For example, in some corporations where regular password changes need to be made, rather than have a helpdesk with human agents to resolve password issues, voice biometrics can be used to verify oneself and obtain new passwords. “This reduces costs in terms of human-agent time spent on password issues. An example in the consumer market is use of silicon-sweep fingerprint sensors as navigation tools used in games,” she told A&S. Compared with government and enterprise segments, the consumer market is the third, smaller market, said Chopra. “There are several applications where individual consumers can benefit from biometrics technologies such as home security and usage in automobiles for convenience by storing seat positions or favorite radio stations and mirror positions for different drivers. It includes usage of PDAs to secure access to content in cell phones.”

More Education
For biometrics applications to fully take off in the consumer market, consumer education is a challenge, pointed out Chopra. However, as usage of biometrics increases and individuals are exposed to devices in interactions with the government or at workplaces, this challenge will diminish. “Another challenge is reducing the price to make it affordable for mass consumers; the consumer market is the most price-sensitive,” noted Chopra.


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