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CIA Venture Group And Motorola Arm Invest In Emerging 3-D Biometrics

Joint-development effort should result in lower biometric-device manufacturing costs, miniaturized biometric cameras, and improved products.
An emerging area of biometric-security technology got a lift Monday when a CIA-backed venture group and the venture-capital arm of Motorola Inc. disclosed about $6 million in investments in A4Vision Inc., a provider of 3-D facial-scanning and -recognition software and equipment.

A4Vision will work with In-Q-Tel to develop technology that will benefit the CIA as well as the broader technology market, A4Vision CEO Grant Evans says. The joint development is expected to result in lower biometric-device manufacturing costs, miniaturized biometric cameras, and improved product performance, he adds.

In-Q-Tel also is making an equity investment in A4Vision worth couple of million dollars, Evans says. This is part of A4Vision's $22 million series B round of funding, which includes contributions from Larry Ellison's TAKO Ventures investment group, Singapore Technologies Engineering subsidiary FusionTech, EuroQube, Logitech, Stanford University, and, most recently, Motorola Ventures. Motorola is investing $4 million in a move to add 3-D capabilities to its own biometric-scanning and -ID technology. The companies expect to have a jointly developed product in July.

Biometric hardware and software are key elements of homeland security, and sales are expected to reach $4.6 billion in 2008, up from an estimated $1.9 billion this year, according to International Biometric Group, a biometric security consulting and technology services firm. The technology's improved accuracy and ease of use, along with lower costs, are fueling the market's rapid growth, says David Fisch, an International Biometric Group consultant.

Biometrics plays a key role in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-Visit) program, which was implemented early last year and calls for using technology to better track foreigners entering and leaving the United States. Biometric technology is in use throughout the federal government, including in the Defense Department's Common Access Card credentialing program and the State Department's Biometrics Logical Access Development and Execution program.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security said it would expand over the next few months the latest phase of its biometric-based Transportation Worker Identification Credential prototype to about 200,000 workers from maritime, rail, aviation, and ground modes of transportation at 34 sites in three regions across the country. Saflink Corp., a maker of biometric-security software, is working with lead contractor BearingPoint, as well as Anteon, Lockheed Martin, and Unisys, on the $12 million contract to develop smart cards that provide physical access to secure facilities and logical access to data.

Improvements in 3-D facial recognition make it more accurate than 2-D and very promising for surveillance where iris or finger scanning isn't possible, Fisch says. Casinos, airports, and high-security facilities are likely candidates for facial-recognition technology.

The most significant attributes of 3-D facial-recognition technology are speed and accuracy. 3-D facial images are captured by a number of digital cameras positioned around the subject's face or by using a structured light grid that captures facial-structure data. This data is then stored in a back-end database, where it can be retrieved and compared with other facial images.

More work remains before facial recognition, much less 3-D facial recognition, becomes a mainstream technology for securing access to facilities or identifying people captured by video surveillance. "In video-surveillance environments, facial recognition requires very specific lighting and very specific facial poses," Fisch says. "I'm not sure how ready 3-D is to replace 2-D facial recognition."

The majority of A4Vision's revenue has come from pilot projects, as opposed to production deployments. The Defense Department two years ago contracted with A4Vision to develop a system for mobile 3-D facial recognition and identification that would let users carry portable cameras for authentication of people in the field. Most of A4Vision's technology is designed to be used as part of biometric kiosks and other stationary devices. The project last summer produced a small prototype camera that works in a variety of lighting conditions and can perform authentication locally from the camera as well as wirelessly transmit the data to a hub. "Our goal is to have a product generally available by the end of the year," Evans says.

Countries worldwide have identified biometric technology as a critical tool for preventing terrorism and sabotage to their transportation infrastructures. The French Civil Aviation Authority has been working since the beginning of the year at Lyon's airport with French IT-service provider Euxia SA and Belgian biometric-systems integrator BioWise NV to use A4Vision's 3-D facial-imaging and -recognition systems to create security badges containing facial-recognition data for 500 pilots, mechanics, and other employees with access to the airport's highly secure tarmac. The airport hopes by June to issue as many as 5,000 badges to its employees.

Integrators working in Lyon are writing the specifications needed to roll out 3-D biometric systems throughout France at additional airports in Bordeaux, Lille, Nice, Paris, and Toulouse. The Lyon test demonstrated that 3-D biometric technology is reliable, with only a small number of incidents where the system enrolled a subject who shouldn't have been allowed to enroll or failed to enroll an eligible employee, Evans says. "They're now defining what's needed in a fully deployable system. It's very different when you actually deploy a system for tens of thousands of people to use." Evans is confident that A4Vision will be retained for the deployment phase of the project, particularly because of their involvement defining 3-D facial-recognition specifications for the project's early phase.

France's airports must also weigh the costs of deploying wide-scale 3-D facial-recognition systems, which can cost about $500,000 for a deployment of about 160 machines, Evans says.

One of the keys to further developing 3-D facial-recognition biometrics is to create standards that govern how the technology is developed and deployed. A4Vision said Monday that the American National Standards Institute has adopted the company's proposal, co-sponsored Motorola, Oracle, and Unisys, to amend the U.S. standard for facial-recognition format and data interchange to include 3-D facial-image data. A4Vision and its partners will now seek international recognition via the International Standards Organization in June.

Evans sees standards as the key to the widespread adoption of 3-D facial-recognition technology. "When you don't have a standard, customers get concerned because they wonder why you're the only game in town," he says.

The 3-D standard amends the current 2-D standard and provides vendors with instructions for storing high-resolution facial images. One component of the 3-D biometrics included in the standard is facial-feature-point data, which allows forensic specialists and law enforcement to query databases using descriptions of facial features, such as nose size, eye placement, and facial contours.