For Spring Technologies Inc., the eyes are more than simply windows to the soul.
The Falls Church firm sees a strong business future in new technology that identifies individuals by their unique iris patterns. This foolproof identification, the company says, will enable consumers to do without passports, driver's licenses and Social Security cards when they board their flights or attend events.
Stewart M. Mann, chairman, founder and chief executive, and the man behind the marketing vision for the two-year-old company, maintains that the decade-old technology signals a "paradigm shift" in the way consumer commerce is done. Henceforth, transactions that have required tickets, registrations or photo identifications will be not only faster and easier, but also more secure, he said.
The way the technology works is this: At initial enrollment, a closed-circuit video camera takes a picture of your eye and translates the picture into a 512-byte code, which is entered into a computer. Thereafter, the camera can recognize your iris and unlock information registered under that code. With more than 300 characteristics in an iris pattern -- striations, curves, undulations -- the resulting code is certain identification for flight booking, payment, seating, and other information, Mann said.
So far, the company is licensed to design and market the patented technology in two forms: Tran Scan and Sport Scan.
Tran Scan is an electronic kiosk that tracks flight, seating and baggage information, and eliminates the need for long lines at conventional check-in counters, Mann said. A pilot program at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport will start early next year. In the $1.5 billion world airline travel market, frequent fliers -- who account for 70 percent of it -- are likely to appreciate this one-second check-in service, Mann said.
Businesses will benefit because the technology cuts ticketing operation costs by 50 to 70 percent, reducing paperwork, labor and hassle with little attendant risk, Mann said. Security is enhanced because the chances that two people could have the same iris code are basically nil -- one out of 10 to the power of 76, according to Mann.
The company is negotiating pilot programs with airlines and stadiums in the United States, Europe and Asia, and those pilot programs should be available by the second quarter of 2000, Mann said.
Richard Norton, executive director of the International Biometric Industry Association in Washington, says biometric technology such as iris recognition "is hitting a critical mass" and is about to go commercial on a large scale. As technology in general becomes less expensive, "biometrics [will] replace the need for more expensive identification [systems]," he said.
The technology is applicable "anywhere you have to identify yourself," said Kelly L. Gates, director of marketing for Marlton, N.J.-based IriScan Inc., the company that patented the original idea for the technology in the mid-1980s. So far, IriScan has about 15 licensees, including Spring Technologies. The technology has been used to control access to rooms, to identify prisoners, to secure bank vaults, and as a substitute for automated teller machine cards, she said.
Sensar Inc. in Moorestown, N.J., is licensed to use the technology for financial services, and has launched 13 pilot ATM projects in nine countries, said David Shane, spokesman for the company. "It is going to be the global standard for personal identification," he said.
A 1998 trial of iris recognition at the Nationwide Building Society branch in Swindon, England, found that 91 percent of those who tried the technology preferred it to conventional signatures and personal identification numbers. "What we've been learning from our customers is that they use this because of the convenience aspect," Shane said.
That bodes well for Spring Technologies, because the company's financial success depends on how well consumers take to the product. Revenue is based on the number of transactions, with each airline or stadium paying a portion of the money it saves by not having to produce as much paperwork, Mann said.
The company will start to turn a profit after the pilot programs are installed, or by the end of 2000, he predicted. Eventually, Spring may go public to raise money for global expansion, but the company has enough capital now for the initial investments in the pilot programs, he said. He and a handful of investors formed the company with $100,000 in start-up capital; since then, investors have contributed almost $2 million more, he said.
Mann admits there is some potential for fraud. If someone were to register under a false name, the iris-scanning technology would forevermore "recognize" that person under his assumed identity, he said. But the camera can differentiate between a live eye and a photograph, so even the best con artist with a high-resolution photograph of your eye would not be able to gain access to your information, he said. Iris-scanning programs are completely voluntary; an iris cannot be recognized until a person enrolls.
To date, there have been no incidents of mix-up or fraud involving iris scanning, according to Mann.
Chun Rhee, president of the Falls Church Jhoon Rhee martial arts studio, agreed to start using iris scanning this spring after Mann, whose four children take classes at the studio, told him about it. Under Rhee's old system, attendance records and other student information were kept on index cards, which sometimes were torn or lost. The system was time-consuming, Rhee said. Sport Scan has reduced the time spent on administrative details, and only one parent has expressed privacy concerns, he said.
"It's noninvasive, and we just use it to gather information," he said. "It is still in a trial program," but Rhee plans to start paying the company on a lease basis to keep the scanner.
When Jhoon Rhee student Teri Ballou stares into the Sport Scan camera, she sees a black-and-white reflection of her own eye. In the second that it takes the electronic kiosk to recognize her iris, the computer can call up information such as her class schedule (she attends twice a week), her attendance record, her progress (she has a green belt in tae kwon do), and when she is scheduled for an advancement test. Eventually, the software will also be able to pull up her payment schedule at the studio.
Ballou, a homemaker from Falls Church, says she has no qualms about using the technology at the studio, and would also use it in lieu of an ATM card and in other applications. "I would because I would think it makes it safer," she said.
A Look at ...
Spring Technologies Inc.
Headquarters: Falls Church
Chairman and chief executive: Stewart M. Mann
Products: Sport Scan and Trans Scan, using iris-recognition technology to secure admission to transportation and sports venues.