Local startup Delta ID brings iris scanning to smartphones

In Japan, some people now can use their eyes to unlock their smartphones, rather than their fingers.

If Delta ID has its way, smartphone users in the United States and other countries will soon have the same option.

A startup based in Newark, California, Delta ID specializes in iris recognition technology. Dubbed ActiveIris, that technology can allow devices to identify individual users by the unique patterns in the irises inside their eyes. After debuting the technology on a pair of Fujitsu phones last year, Delta ID is in talks with all of the top 10 smartphone makers to bring ActiveIris to their devices, Salil Prabhakar, Delta ID’s CEO, said.

“Everyone’s engaged,” he said.

If its technology catches on it could offer phone makers a cheaper way to secure customers’ phones. For consumers it could mean a more secure lock for their devices that’s at the same time more reliable and easier to use.

Iris recognition technology itself isn’t new. Government agencies such as those that oversee border control have been using iris recognition devices for years. And EyeLock, a New York-based startup, has developed a portable iris sensor targeted at consumers and small business that can be plugged into PCs.

But Delta ID is pioneering the use of iris recognition in smartphones, where it could replace fingerprint sensors and passcodes. The company has developed software called ActiveIris that can use off-the-shelf infrared LEDs and infrared cameras placed in the front of a smartphone to illuminate and identify individual irises.

Iris recognition technology offers several advantages over fingerprint sensors. Iris detection systems are generally thought to be significantly more secure than those based on fingerprints, with far less chance of mistaken identity. They also can be more reliable; fingerprint sensors can be bedeviled by wet or cold fingers, for example. But iris sensors can work even if a person is wearing dark sunglasses or is on the move.

And Delta ID’s system appears to work just as fast as the latest version fingerprint sensors. At least on the Fujitsu phone I tested it on, it identified me almost instantaneously, even when it could only see one of my eyes or when I was viewing the screen at a slight angle.

ActiveIris could offer benefits for phone manufacturers also. The hardware needed for it is inexpensive; the system will work with cameras that cost around $2 each, Prabhakar said. Because the hardware is almost identical to the cameras and flashes that phone manufacturers already put in their devices, it should also be relatively inexpensive for them to incorporate the ActiveIris system, he said. Indeed, the total cost of the ActiveIris system should be much lower than that for fingerprint sensors, he said.

Although ActiveIris is initially being developed as a means to unlock phones, it could also be used instead of fingerprint sensors to make mobile payments, Prabhakar said. Instead of pressing on a fingerprint sensor as they tap their phone on a register, as they do with Apple Pay or Samsung Pay, phone users could identify themselves first with the iris scan and then tap their phone to the payment terminal, he said.

Photo: Tech Files columnist Troy Wolverton demonstrates Delta ID’s ActiveIris system on a Fujitsu smartphone. (Troy Wolverton/Mercury News)


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