How to turn your phone into a biometric scanning machine

Story highlights

  • California tech company launches biometric app and scanning tool for iPhone
  • The AOptix Stratus is packed with technology which can scan face, iris, fingerprint and voice.
  • Developers hope police, border agencies and airport customs authorities could all benefit from the technology

Smartphones are powerful tools, and with the right apps and accessories, they can become even more so. A California-based tech company has launched a tool that turns a regular iPhone 4 or 4S into a powerful biometrics scanning tool. AOptix has unveiled its app and a wrap-around device for turning the smartphone into a portable iris, face, fingerprint and voice scanner.

The hardware and software system, the first of its kind for the iPhone, is called AOptix Stratus, which comprises both the iOS app — which will cost $199 — and a wrap around device for an iPhone 4 or 4S. The app uses the iPhone camera to snap pictures of faces and record voices, while there's an extra camera that does iris scanning and a small sensor to scan fingerprints. AOptix will also release a software development kit to its customers so they can customize the app to their own needs.

In February, the Department of Defense paid AOptix $3 million to develop an enhanced solution using the tool that's being launched today.

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The idea behind this system is to make biometrics recognition easier and mobile. Think of a border protection agency that could use iris recognition at an airport's customs checkpoint, or a police or law enforcement agency that needs to verify identities on the go and can't afford large, cumbersome hardware to do so. That's where Stratus comes in.

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Making the system work on an iPhone makes everything easier. "If you used an iPhone before, you can use this," said AOptix's Director of Product Marketing Joey Pritikin.

In a teleconference demonstration, Pritikin showed how the system works. The user inserts the iPhone in the device, plugging it in using the 30-pin connector, and then launches the app. The app interface is user-friendly and simple, and lets the user register the biometrics of the person in front of him with relative ease. Using an iPhone also lets the app register GPS coordinates and transmit all the data through the phone's mobile Internet connection.

The app is designed to help the user determine the distance at which to stand in front of the other person and automatically takes a picture when the subject is in the right range. This automatic capture works both with the iPhone camera and with the built-in iris scanner. All pictures taken are stored and easily accessible within the app. The app allows the user to create a person's profile including his or her iris, face, voice, fingerprints and biographical information. This trove of data is then accessible with the tap of a finger.

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Pritikin explained that when they started working on the project, they had to decide whether they wanted to use an off-the-shelf product like the iPhone, or develop their own, perhaps using a platform like Android. But they eventually settled on the iPhone for various reasons.

"It is very secure as a platform, which is, naturally, important to our customers," he said. "[It is] very stable, you can buy the same device globally. They have a very strong ecosystem for supporting accessories like the one we created."

Pritikin declined to say how much the device costs, stressing the fact that it is not a consumer product but, rather, it is intended for companies or government agencies. Stratus could be used at border crossings, during disaster relief operations (when regular infrastructure for identity verification isn't present), for remote mobile banking or even remote healthcare.

Countries like India, which is deploying national ID programs to give every citizen a unique number linked to biometric data (PDF), could also be target customers.

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Asked if there's any country AOptix would refuse to sell their products to, given that they could be used for surveillance and profiling, Pritikin answered that his company follows the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Commerce and won't export their products to countries like Iran or North Korea.

Pritikin declined to identify specific customers who have already bought Stratus, but said that the first shipments will be at the end of April.

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