Through the Looking Glass
VeinViewer technology becomes foolproof identification method
By Amy O. Williams
Imagine just waving your hand over a screen to pay the check at a restaurant.
It might sound like something from a "Star Trek" episode, but researchers at Snowflake Technologies in Memphis are well on their way to making it happen.
Using technology developed by their parent company, Luminetx Corp., Snowflake personnel are in the process of developing a device that can identify a person by the patterns of veins in his or her hand.
"We read your veins like barcodes - and no two are alike," said Jim Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Memphis-based Luminetx.
Better than a driver's license
Luminetx is the company behind the VeinViewer, a medical device that promises to revolutionize the way people have blood drawn by projecting an image of a person's veins right onto their skin using infrared light and a computer.
Using that same technology, Snowflake is developing a device designed on the concept of biometrics, which are automated methods of identifying, or authenticating, the identity of a living person based on a unique physiological or behavioral characteristic.
In this case, the unique characteristic is a pattern of veins on any part of human anatomy, from the foot to the forehead. The technology works because every person has a unique vein pattern, even identical twins.
Other forms of biometric IDs include fingerprinting and iris scans, but Phillips said the device Snowflake is developing beats the others hands down. Fingerprints, he said, can be left behind on a surface and easily lifted. Irises can be altered with contact lenses.
Also, for a fingerprint to be used, individuals must touch a surface.
"It is inevitable that all forms of ID will move to biometrics," he said.
A golden standard
With the vein scanning device, no touching is required, which makes it much more hygienic than prints or iris scans. Phillips envisions people one day using the vein scan in place of a key to enter their homes or offices.
"You just have to hold up your hand," he said.
And there is no way to beat the technology, Phillips said. For an identity to be recognized and the veins to be detected, blood must be flowing through the veins.
Phillips was in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss the technology of the vein scan and VeinViewer with a group of congressional aides.
Phillips said he believes the vein-scanning device will be on the market some time in 2008. The technology eventually could be marketed to government and law enforcement entities, as well as financial and retail industries. And life could change dramatically for people who travel for a living.
"It could be a real key in bringing convenience back to airline travel," said Phil Trenary, president and chief executive officer of Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines Corp., a regional carrier of Northwest Airlines. "One of the prices we have had to pay for security - which is absolutely necessary - is that it is less convenient now. And what this technology does is allow the government, in a very non-invasive way, to positively ID a customer in record time.
Compared to other types of biometric identification, such as fingerprints and iris scans, the new technology is more accurate, said Trenary, who also sits on the board of directors for Snowflake Technologies.
"For airline travel, the key is to develop a standard," he said. "And in our opinion, this is the best standard."
Among its many other potential applications, the Snowflake technology also might be developed into the Veincell, which would allow a cell phone user to ensure the security of his or her mobile devices. The Veincell only would be activated when it recognized the pattern of veins in the owner's hand.
The technology one day even could replace wallets, Phillips said. Instead of pulling out a wallet and a credit card that potentially could be stolen, people would just swipe their hands across a surface and reveal their account information. It also would make it much more difficult for thieves to steal someone's identity if it was connected to their vein pattern and not a plastic card.
"In the future, vascular identification will become commonplace," Phillips said. "What could be easier? It will be as common as an ID card."