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What is Iris Recognition and how does it work?

Iris Recognition is a biometric method of identifying people based on unique patterns within the ring-shaped region surrounding the pupil of the eye. Every iris is unique to an individual, making it an ideal form of biometric verification. 

Whilst Iris Recognition remains a niche form of biometric identification, we can expect it to become more prevalent over the coming years. Immigration control is one area expected to push forward with wider use of Iris Recognition as a safety measure and a response to the threat of terrorism around the world. 

One of the reasons Iris Recognition is such a sought after method of identifying individuals, especially in sectors such as law enforcement and border control, is that iris is a very strong biometric, highly resistant to false matches and the high search speed against large databases. Iris Recognition is an extremely reliable and strong method to accurately identify individuals. 

How Iris Recognition works 

The process of Iris Recognition involves the use of a specialised digital camera. The camera will use both visible and near-infrared light to take a clear, high contrast picture of a person’s iris. With Iris Recognition, the camera focusses in on your eye and locates the centre of the pupil, edge of the pupil, edge of the iris and your eyelids and eyelashes. This information is then fed through Iris Recognition software where the unique pattern of the iris is analysed and translated to and iris template 

Iris Recognition is compatible with contact lenses and even eyeglasses and can be used by blind people, as long as they have an iris. This makes it an extremely versatile technology when it comes to securely identification. 

Five benefits of Iris Recognition 

The characteristics of an iris are unique for each individual and even between eyes – your right and left eye both have unique iris patterns. Being a highly accurate way of identifying people, there are many advantages of the technology: 

  • Accuracy – Iris Recognition is one of the most accurate forms of biometric authentication and here at NEC, our Iris Recognition technology has been identified as the most accurate, achieving the highest matching accuracy evaluation in the Iris Exchange (IREX) IX evaluations performed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 
  • Contactless – whilst proximity to the iris scanner is necessary, Iris Recognition provides a contactless solution which makes it hygienic to use and less intrusive to the end user. 
  • Flexible and Scalable – Iris recognition is extremely flexible. The use of an infrared camera means scanners can be used at night or in the dark.  Because of its flexibility, Iris Recognition is also highly scalable and has been deployed by government and other agencies worldwide. 
  • Liveness Detection – one area which NEC is pioneering is Liveness Detection. The technology in the iris scanner detects movement of the iris which identifies the liveness of the individual, reducing the risk of forged access through high quality static images. 
  • Fast Matching – if an individual is already enrolled in the biometric system, Iris Recognition is one of the fastest forms of biometric identification. 

Five Disadvantages of Iris Recognition 

Whilst the benefits of Iris Recognition are numerous, there are potential issues to be considered, some of which relate to the technology or to the way the technology is deployed. Things to consider include: 

  • Distance – whilst we have discussed the merits of contactless technology, there is still a maximum distance a person can stand from an iris scanner which may be challenging in certain environments 
  • Movement – to accurately scan the iris, the technology relies on the subject remaining as still as possible. If a handheld scanner is being used, it also relies on the operator having a steady hand, otherwise, iris scanning may be tricky. 
  • Memory – computer memory is required for the data storage; however, this is becoming less of an issue as we move towards cloud-based storage solutions. 
  • Reflection – placement of the scanner is important to the elimination of reflections due to contact lenses and eyeglasses. 
  • Cost – due to their high levels of accuracy, iris scanners may be more expensive than other forms of biometric hardware. Fingerprint Recognition and Facial Recognition may represent provide more cost-effective solutions in some circumstances.  

NEC and the future of Iris Recognition 

There are many companies out there who provide Iris Recognition as a biometric authentication solution. Where NEC continues to break new boundaries is our commitment to continual R&D. NEC has patented the entire process from the detection of the iris from photographed images, extraction of the feature values, matching of features, to noise removal (unnecessary parts like eyelashes and eyelids).  

We are continually working to improve our Iris Recognition technology, leveraging our expertise in fingerprint identification, face recognition and other biometric authentication technologies that have been recognised as the world’s most accurate. 

Our recognition and matching algorithms can be integrated into third party solutions from providers who may already be working with customers and partners. 


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