The Case for Iris Recognition

March 17, 2017
Integrators experienced with the technology weigh in on its viability

Some installing dealers and integrators may feel the price of biometric devices still limits them to high-security government installations. Perhaps the devices are considered difficult to install and maintain. Whatever the case, many leave them off their equipment checklists.

But as end-users see the value of biometrics – often beyond basic, traditional security applications – that perception is changing. Recent market research reports project annual worldwide sales growth of 13 to 19 percent into 2020, reaching $44 billion. Iris-recognition systems are leading the charge with estimated annual growth rates in excess of 20 percent.

As prices fall, iris-based systems’ speed, accuracy and scalability are making them a viable choice for a wide variety of uses, from access control to time-and-attendance and ID authentication.

Is the time right for dealers and installers to take the plunge and offer these solutions to their customers?

Doug Gervais, president of Doro Safety and Security in Ottawa, says some dealers focus on one area of security, such as locks or alarms; however, those not willing to branch out and add new technologies may find a different group of competitors ready to take their business.

“IT, fire and life safety, and electrical firms are already onsite pulling cable,” Gervais says. “If a customer asks for iris readers, these companies are all too happy to do the job. There is an old saying: ‘If you’re not looking after your business, someone else will.’”

Gervais says iris readers are now plug-and-play, making it easy for almost any technician to install them, and the technology easily integrates with existing access systems. His first iris-based biometrics project was a 2000 installation for an Ottawa datacenter.

“When we installed our first iris-recognition solution 15 years ago, these systems were still pretty rare,” says Richard Lee, integrated systems consultant for Atlanta-based Operational Security Systems. “But they are becoming much more common now. One reason is the high reliability of these systems.”

Adds Tim Ortscheid, biometric and access control specialist for Color ID of Cornelius, N.C.: “For the first couple of years, we sold almost exclusively to government agencies where there was a need for stronger security,” he says, noting his company began selling iris biometric solutions in 2006. “But it in the last three years, it is like the faucet has been turned on. Biometrics now represent about 20 percent of our business. Why? Prox cards can be replicated at the drop of a hat. Plus, a younger generation of security professionals is more open to newer technologies.”

Despite their rise in popularity, Ortscheid does not expect to see traditional access control systems be replaced solely with biometrics anytime soon. In many cases, iris readers are requested to add a layer of security and convenience to existing access systems –adding a unique identifier good for access control, ID authentication or time and attendance, he says.

“That being said, we had a client with about 200 employees that was averse to keeping cards and maintaining the database,” he adds. “We replaced it with an iris recognition system and it has worked well.”

Iris vs. the Alternatives

Lee says iris systems are comparable to other biometric modalities on the market with fewer problems, especially with employee enrollment. Fingerprint systems often require re-enrollments, because as people age, the ridges on their fingers change resulting in a relatively high number of false rejections, he says. Manual labor can cause changes in fingerprints due to cuts and scars; and facilities, such as laboratories, may require employees to wear gloves.

Operational Security Systems has had some success with facial recognition systems, Lee says, but enrollment and authentication can be more difficult and less precise. “The iris readers automatically adjust for height differences between people,” he says. “Facial systems require manual adjustments, which sometimes means a person has to bend at the knees or stand on tiptoes. Overall, iris-based systems have proven effective more often than facial.”

All three integrators agree that a fingerprint system is the least expensive biometric, with a basic installation running about half the cost of an iris system; however, the cost difference tends to shrink the larger the systems get. They say facial recognition technology is slightly more expensive than an iris system.

The speed of an iris recognition system is also a strong selling point for customers, according to Ortscheid. ColorID has installed systems in the dining commons of several major universities, including Georgia Southern and Virginia Commonwealth University. Students purchasing food can still use a card to debit their accounts, but most choose to use the hands-free iris readers. Georgia Southern also added iris readers at the entry to its recreation center. Although there are also fingerprint readers, students use the iris readers by a three-to-one margin, he says.

“In a one-to-many search, an iris system is much faster than fingerprint or card technology,” Ortscheid says. “On a campus with more than 20,000 students, the iris readers confirm identity in a second.”

Also, iris systems are probably the most difficult biometric to spoof or fool. Iris readers never return a false acceptance and very rarely return a false rejection, Ortscheid says. “This is important,” he says. “A false rejection is an inconvenience, but a false acceptance could lead to a very serious security breach.”

Enrollment in an iris recognition system is easy. A person stands about 10 inches away from a digital camera that captures a picture of the iris. The non-contact process involves no lasers or bright lights. The subject can even wear glasses or contact lenses without compromising accuracy.

Software algorithms convert the photo into an encrypted 512-byte template that can’t be re-engineered or reconstituted to produce any sort of visual image. The small templates contain more data that is collected in creating templates for a finger, face and hand combined.

Few people cannot use an iris-based system; in fact, in a few instances, even a blind person has successfully used iris recognition – as the technology is iris pattern-dependent, not sight dependent.

Convincing Your Customer

Gervais warns that as the popularity of iris systems increases, more manufacturers are getting into the marketplace. “It is important to deal with a manufacturer that’s been around for years, offers a proven technology and has a sales and service support team in place,” he says.

How does an integrator convince a customer to adopt an iris biometric solution? Demonstrate it, says Ortsheid. “Show them iris readers are just another reader with higher performance and security values,” he says. “They are easily integrated into any existing Wiegand-based access control system and other identification systems by simply adding CAT-5 cabling for networking the devices and using existing wiring to report back to the original system. End-users are often hesitant to adopt something new. But the iris technology sells itself. When they see it, they will want it.”

Still, both Lee and Gervais caution that the technology isn’t right for every user and all installations. “Learn what’s important to the customer to determine how an iris system will fit,” Lee says. “By getting it right the first time, everyone will be happy.”

Market Opportunity

Biometric data already represents the wave of the future for U.S. government agencies. The Pentagon recently said its Common Access Card program for network login will be phased out over the next two years, replaced by biometric authentication — including iris scans and behavioral analytics.

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division is now entering the fourth year of its Next Generation Identification pilot program, which aims to augment fingerprint databases with iris scans, palm prints and facial recognition. Working with multiple police departments, the Pentagon and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the FBI has collected more than 400,000 iris scans.

Ortscheid says fingerprints will always play a vital role in criminal forensic investigations, because “people don’t leave an iris print behind,” he says.

Meanwhile, iris recognition technology continues to add users as an identity authenticator on mobile phones and at bank ATMs. This spring, India’s national identity program surpassed 1 billion enrollees with iris recognition playing a major role; and several countries worldwide are using iris systems for voter registration programs.

Tim Meyerhoff is director, North America for Iris ID. Request more info about the company at