Everything You Need to Know About Iris Recognition

iris recognition near infraredLast week, Samsung unveiled the next generation of its popular Galaxy smartphone, the Note 7. As many industry pundits predicted, the company included an iris scanner among the model’s newest features. This allows users to leverage iris recognition as an added layer of security, beyond numerical passwords – or even fingerprints.

To most people, this concept seemed possible only in futuristic sci-fi tales or for spy thrillers before Samsung’s announcement. However, we should expect to see more of this technology from mobile manufacturers in the coming years.

For those unfamiliar with iris recognition technology, or wondering “why would I ever want to use this,” here is a brief primer:

Why scan my iris and not my whole face?

As you may recall from Biology 101, the iris (plural: irides) is a thin, colored circular structure in the eye, located just behind the cornea and in front of the lens. It is responsible for controlling the diameter and size of the pupil, as well as the amount of light reaching the retina.

The iris is the only internal organ readily visible from the outside, and unlike facial expressions, aging doesn’t usually alter its pattern, because it is not as exposed to the elements. People’s faces take on a weathered appearance as they age precisely because they are affected by the sun, wind, dirt, and other factors.

How reliable is iris recognition compared to other forms of biometric authentication?

Iris recognition systems are gaining interest because the iris’s rich texture offers a strong biometric characteristic for recognizing individuals. Among the list of existing biometric traits, the iris has been traditionally regarded as one of the most unique, reliable, and accurate.

What type of technology is needed to successfully capture an iris biometric?

Accurate iris recognition is based on the use of near infrared (NIR) cameras. This is because the texture of dark-colored irides are not easily discernible in the visible light spectrum the narrow band of wavelengths by which humans see.

NIR light can penetrate an iris’ surface and reveal the intricate texture details that are present, even in dark-colored irides. NIR images of the iris’s anterior surface ensure a clear image of the complex patterns that visible light cannot capture with ease. Iris recognition systems then use these markings to compare two iris images, and generate a match score that reflects their degree of similarity or dissimilarity.

Will other smartphone manufacturers begin implementing this technology?

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is not a first of its kind. Fujitsu launched the Arrows NX F-04G smartphone with an iris recognition system in Japan in 2015, and Microsoft’s Lumia 950 XL followed later that year. Both feature built-in iris scanning for user authentication.

It is also predicted that Apple will roll out iPhones with iris sensors in 2018. We should expect iris recognition to truly take off once both Apple and Samsung, the two leading global smartphone manufacturers, have added NIR sensors to their devices.

When can I expect iris scanning on my flip phone?

For non-smartphones, iris recognition isn’t likely to come any time soon. NIR sensors require intensive processors that are not suitable for such devices.

Why has iris scanning in mobile devices not been adopted until now?

It’s because of that special NIR sensor that manufacturers have to add. Due to size and price limitation, adding this sensor to smartphones required time for the sensor manufacturers to build more suitable ones for handheld hardware.

Another reason is consumer demand. Apple’s Touch ID made biometric authentication far more mainstream in the production of new smartphones. Mobile manufacturers needed people to start asking for different authentication systems, beyond Touch ID.

Should I be worried about any health issues associated with iris scanning?

No. The NIR light spectrum isn’t seen by the eyes, and doesn’t have any known side effects.

To learn more about how authentication using a highly accurate biometric like the iris can improve security, download our whitepaper, “Proving Identity.”