"On the cusp." That’s how almost everyone I spoke with described the biometrics industry, which seems poised for massive growth over the next few years. Why is that? Biometrics ï¿½ the ability to automatically identify people by their physical characteristics or other traits ï¿½ has been around for years, most notably in security applications, but Apple’s recent addition of a fingerprint scanner to the iPhone 5 has kicked off a wave of new interest in biometric applications for consumer devices.
As a result, Rawlson King, contributing editor of the news site BiometricUpdate.com, says "I think we’re about to see an explosion in the industry." Art Stewart, vice president of the biometric products division at Synaptics, agrees: "We’re in a massive period of growth compared to the past 10 years," he says.
It’s not just consumer products: there are still plenty of brand-new applications for biometrics that could be rolled out over the next few years. "There’s a lot of interest in biometrics because biometrics offers a one true way to know you are who you say you are," says David Tunnell, CTO of NXT-ID. "Even though people have been working on biometrics for several decades, there’s still a lot of room for innovation."
As with any industry experiencing growth, the companies and organizations involved in biometrics are looking for employees to help take the technologies to the next levels. But rapid growth also means risks. In some cases companies are still figuring out how to reach consumers with biometrics applications, while consumers themselves are still figuring out if they want to embrace these new technologies.
A Truly Multidisciplinary Field
The broad term "biometrics" actually refers to an incredibly wide range of applications, including (but hardly limited to) surveillance, voice verification, iris verification, facial recognition, fingerprint recognition, smart cards, network access, software, criminal IDs and much, much more.
Developing the technologies to enable all of these applications requires people from a wide range of disciplines. "It can span everything from electrical engineering to computer science to mechanical and system engineering," Tunnell says. The field also needs people to write algorithms, come up with interfaces or the sensors, develop security protocols, worry about the legal ramifications of the technologies and applications, and understand the biology of the people who are being verified in the first place. Understanding exactly how the technologies will be used in the real world ï¿½ in "CSI"-style forensics, for example ï¿½ is also an important piece of the puzzle.
Creating technology that taps so many varied skills requires assembling a team capable of working together. "Collaboration is valued maybe a little more in this profession than in others," Tunnell says. "You need good sensor people. You need people who love algorithms. You need people who love the mechanicals and very strong software engineers, and then some hardware engineers for the integration. All the disciplines are important." So, too, are the interpersonal skills that will help all of these people work together.
Because the field employs so many disciplines, people can make the most of the passions as they start working in biometrics. "You can carve out your own specialty," says Arun Ross, associate professor at Michigan State University and vice president of education for the IEEE Biometrics Council. "If you are interested in sensors you can focus on developing biometric sensors. Others might be experts in image processing or computer vision." Still others might concentrate on the end-use that interests them the most, for example, applications in healthcare or in homeland security.
In fact, the experts I spoke with don’t expect many people to enter the field with specific "biometrics" degrees. Instead, "you’re coming out of school with a discipline such as digital or analogue design and using that toolset to create methodologies of imaging a fingerprint or scanning an iris or something like that," says Stewart.
Even if you didn’t set out to go specifically into biometrics, you can still gain the experience necessary to get into the field, often in the comfort of home. "The great thing about biometrics is that everyone’s got a camera," Tunnell says. "There’s not a very high barrier to entry. Buy a sensor and play with the hardware or the algorithm." After that, he says, "you can pretty much insert yourself in at any level and gain experience in that way."
King suspects that many of the people just entering the field won’t be biometrics experts on their first day. "The labor force won’t be quite ready for these jobs," he says. "This type of work will require a lot of on-the-job training or exposure or experience." As a result of this, he says "we can foresee somewhat of an employment gap within the sector," which may actually create opportunities for people to enter the field and grow within it.
What’s Coming Next?
Although a lot of research into biometrics will continue to be conducted in academia, it will fall to industry to commercialize the technology and applications, especially for consumer electronics. "You’re going to have to have somebody figure out the application, make it at the price point, and then be able to gain massive opt-in through making the technology a value-add in peoples’ lives," says Tunnell. King points out that some companies already have the technology in place but haven’t quite figured out how to market it to a broad audience yet. "That’s a big focus of these companies right now," he says.
There are some risks to the field. For one thing, biometrics devices raise some consumers’ hackles so there may yet be barriers to consumer acceptance. "There’s a perception barrier that everyone’s watching everybody else," Tunnell says. Fear of Big Brother or misuse of biometric data remains a fear in many minds, something the industry will need to turn around.
In addition, Ross points out that biometrics have entered the consumer electronics market at a slower rate than expected, which has slowed the industry’s growth to a degree. "A compelling case has not been made yet as to why we need to replace traditional authentication methods," he says. But King thinks that it won’t take long before consumers adopt biometrics. "Then you’ll really see an explosion in the industry."
Meanwhile, the technology will continue to evolve and improve. "We want to ensure that a fingerprint placed on a sensor is a live fingerprint," not a piece of plastic, Ross says. "We also want to be able to combine multiple biometric traits to improve recognition performance." Methods will also need to be developed to search databases consisting of millions of records so these technologies work quickly and accurately, and in ensuring that these records are secure. "There are a myriad of problems that are yet to be solved in this field," he says.
Most of the work being done in biometrics right now is with mid-sized to large companies. "It requires probably a larger amount of capital than a lot of startups can obtain," King says. All the same, the industry is likely to consolidate as it moves forward. There have already been several mergers in the past year, and King says "our feeling is that you’ll see a lot of acquisitions" as the major consumer electronics companies absorb existing know-how. As we have seen in other industries, this could result in layoffs somewhere down the line.
But despite the risks, the experts I spoke with all had high expectations both financial growth and employment in biometrics. "It’s one of those areas where there will be a tremendous demand for jobs, especially in the future," says King.