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It was once purely the stuff of science fiction and adrenaline action movies. The way Bond entered a secret hideout or technology as distant as the gesture-recognizing computer screens in Minority Report. But far from the stuff of a futuristic villain’s lair, retinal scanning is very much a technology of the present and one that might be looking you right in the eye before you know it. Like the much-ballyhooed “Touch ID” thumbprint recognition system found in Apple’s latest iPhone, iris scanning relies on one of the human body’s most unique markers to determine someone’s identity. The irises – like fingerprints – are unique to each person. Even identical twins have individual patterns.
Of course, some level of iris “scanning” has been around as an identifier for ages. Take a quick look at your driver’s license or passport and note that “eye color” is one of the defining characteristics used by security details around the world to ensure you are who you claim to be. But modern technology goes far beyond “blue” or “brown” to map the subtle texture of a person’s unique, complex patterns.
Iris scanning is just one type of biometric authentication – touted by its proponents as the most accurate – which fundamentally changes the way people identify themselves. Instead of having a printed identification document, something about you becomes your identifier. That could be a fingerprint or facial scan or a peek behind the iris to trace the blood vessels crisscrossing your retina.
So why use the “blue” part of your baby blues? Well, in high-security environments where biometric identification is preferred, there arepotential obstacles for other means of confirming identity. Fingerprints can be altered by cuts, swelling or even too much manual labor. A chest cold can give voice recognition fits. Even retinal scanning, which peers into the back of your eye, can become clouded by glaucoma, diabetes or retinal degeneration.
That, then, leaves the iris; a readily visible – but protected – part of the body that’s one of a kind. To scan the complex iris, a camera along with subtle infrared light is used to isolate the iris from the pupil, eyelids and eyelashes and the rest of the eye. Then, a computer analyzes the pattern using some 200 points of reference (compare that to 60 or 70 points used to identify finger prints) to determine if the person gazing into the camera should be allowed any further.
If that’s not enough, an iris scan is much like taking a picture: stand a foot or so from the camera lens and stare while it essentially snaps a photo. A retina scan is more like a visit to the eye doctor, requiring an up-close position to the lens and a bright light shining into the eye to get a view of the retina at the back.
So is Minority Report coming to a bank or DMV near you? Time will tell, but rumors are already circulating that the next generation cell phones – due later this spring – could pack iris recognition technology.