Companies that choose to purchase a biometric for access control generally go with fingerprints, face recognition, handprints, or iris scans. But a lesser-known alternative seems poised to gain market share after years of being a niche player in the biometric field. Called vascular biometrics, the technology relies on the unique vein pattern just below the skin surface on a finger or on the back of a hand.
Currently, vein recognition constitutes about 3 percent of the overall biometric market, according to the International Biometric Group (IBG). The most widely used biometric technologies are fingerprint and face recognition devices, which have about 25 and 13 percent of the market, respectively. But IBG is predicting 300 percent growth in the use of vein recognition technology by 2012, up from 2007 revenues of about $90 million. That’s slightly faster than the industry’s growth as a whole, which IBG predicts will go from about $3 billion to about $7.4 billion in the same period.
One development that is expected to aid in the growth of the vein recognition market is the establishment of vascular technology standards by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Standards will help make vein recognition more interoperable by creating a common data record format for storing and transmitting vascular images.
Having an ISO standard “will put us at a level playing field with iris and fingerprints,” says Terry Wheeler, president of Identica Holdings, which produces a vascular-biometric product that uses infrared light to capture an image of capillaries and veins several millimeters below the back of the hand.
“The whole market in the last year and a half has really changed,” says Wheeler. He says he’s made several North American sales in the past year, an uptick from the year before. Among the users are high-risk facilities, such as a nuclear reactor and a biohazard lab, as well as universities. Casinos are using vein recognition technology to protect cash rooms.
The transportation sector is also showing interest in vein recognition devices. For example, Identica is supplying the technology to the Port of Halifax, Canada’s largest port, for credentialing employees and providing access control. The port went with the vascular biometric because of privacy concerns. The workers’ union wouldn’t allow fingerprint scanners, says Wheeler. “We’ve run into that a lot…. Police don’t keep records of people’s veins.” As an additional precaution the port also decided to keep each person’s biometric data on their own smart cards, as opposed to the scanner’s database, to further alleviate concerns about privacy.
Wheeler notes that another benefit over fingerprinting is that the vein technology can be used in rough environments. “Many of the port workers are at risk of getting their fingers oily or dirty, which could affect a fingerprint scanner’s accuracy,” he says.
In anticipation of greater demand, vascular providers are stepping up their distribution capabilities. For example, Identica opened its first European office in Luxemburg in September. In July, the world’s largest vein recognition vendor, Hitachi, made its contactless Finger Vein Authentication device available for worldwide distribution.
Uses extend beyond access control. By mid last year, according to Hitachi, about 85 percent of Japan’s ATMs were using vein recognition to authenticate users.
Hitachi’s first deployment in the United States occurred last year, at the New York branch of Japan’s Shinkin Central Bank, which uses it on certain doors. Aoki says the bank considered iris and palm scanning devices, but it preferred the vascular finger scanning device’s small size, about as large as a cigarette case. He also considered the technology’s lower false-reject rate compared to fingerprint devices. “Employees don’t have to worry that it won’t work because a finger is injured or swelling,” says Aoki.
IBG included vein technology in its annual accuracy tests for the first time this year. Tests showed the technology to be as accurate as fingerprinting devices and in some cases comparable to iris scanning, widely considered the most accurate biometric technology, says senior consultant Victor Lee.
Lee adds that compared to fingerprinting, vein recognition would be harder to spoof. Identica’s Wheeler notes that his device has a liveness detection feature to ensure that a real hand is presented.
Will vendor projections translate into sales? Adaptation of biometric technologies tends to grow slowly, especially when solutions are relatively untested. “Fingerprinting may seem relatively new, but it’s been there for some time,” says Imran Khan, a Frost & Sullivan analyst. He says that while vein recognition vendors claim that vein patterns will not change significantly over time, the technology has only been around for three or four years, so no one knows what will happen to veins as people age. By contrast, “we know for a fact that fingerprints don’t change.”
Current costs could also be a hindrance. Vein scanners run about two to three times as much as many fingerprinting devices, says Khan. But the technology generally costs less than both iris and face recognition, he adds.