Cell phone passwords are so passé. With the launch of the iPhone 5s, the new way to unlock your cell phone is with a fingerprint. It is one of the latest - and most visible - ways biometrics is going from the realm of sci-fi fantasy to mainstream reality.
Biometrics holds the potential to do everything from enhance national security to improve marketing displays in stores. It's a hot field that isn't going to be replaced anytime soon, meaning there should be plenty of jobs in the biometric field for years to come.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, biometrics are biological or behavioral characteristics that can be measured. In other words, biometrics is what allows Facebook to suggest you tag your roommate in that photo on your newsfeed. It also includes voice recognition, optical scans and even the keystroke dynamics of how someone types on the computer.
Despite the recent hype around biometrics with the iPhone launch, it is nothing new. The granddaddy of biometrics is fingerprinting, and the FBI has been amassing a collection of fingerprints since 1924. Even the more high tech biometric applications aren't all that new. Consider that more than 20 years ago, Robert Redford was fumbling to convince a security system "My voice is my passport" as he worked to bypass a biometric system in 1992's minor cult classic Sneakers.
What is new is the price. While biometric systems were previously so expensive that their applications were limited, technology has advanced to the point where the cost can be comparable to other non-biometric systems.
Christian Petrou is the CEO of RVNUE Technologies which recently partnered with Korean company Suprema to launch a face recognition terminal that could replace other security measures in luxury high rises. "The price point is similar to key cards," said Petrou, "but biometrics gave us a better way to access control - it manages [an individual's] identity, not their credentials."
The next generation of biometrics
As far as Petrou is concerned, identifying people is only scratching the surface of what biometrics can do. "Right now, we are scanning faces and fingerprints," he said. "The next step is analyzing that information into a consumable format."
For example, Petrou notes that face recognition systems can actually detect when someone is under duress. That may be as dramatic as having someone with a gun behind them or as subtle as a medical condition such as low blood sugar. With the right programming, a biometric system can read the presence of distress and then notify authorities to check on the individual.
The International Biometrics & Identification Association has identified 15 categories of common applications for biometrics systems. These range from more novel uses, such as identifying cheaters on casino gaming floors and recognizing students eligible for subsidized meals in elementary schools, to more common applications, such as allowing access to buildings and verifying the identity of travelers.
Breaking into the field
However, to create systems this responsive, workers in the field need to not only understand the tech behind biometrics but the human element as well.
"The analytical information is only as good as the person behind it," said Petrou, suggesting this is an area ripe for women who are interested in breaking into a tech field. "Typically, we see females do very well. They pick up behavioral patterns right away."
To give students the comprehensive skills needed for a career in biometrics, some schools are launching new degrees in the field. As of September 2013, the Purdue College of Technology is now offering a master's degree in biometrics online. Meanwhile, West Virginia University says it is the first to offer a bachelor's degree in biometric systems.
However, a specialized degree may not be necessary says Petrou. He notes that these programs may lack a strong focus on the business models that are critical to making biometrics work in the real world.
For instance, a retail store might use biometrics to analyze shopper behavior and determine whether a display is attracting customers and converting sales. However, to make this type of system work, one would need a firm foundation in human behavior as well as in technology.
"I can see the course curriculum being psychology, behavioral analysis, forensics and then translating that to tech," said Petrou, when asked what sort of educational background those working in biometrics should have.
In addition, he notes science fundamentals, IT networking, statistical analysis and even anatomy are important components for every biometric professional to understand.
Double digit growth in the biometrics market
As an emerging field, there are no hard numbers on employment and average salaries for those working with biometrics.
However, Transparency Market Research says the market for biometric readers is expected to have a compound annual growth of 48 percent, reaching $363 million by 2018. The market for automated fingerprint identification systems is expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2015, while the market for facial, iris and voice recognition systems should be valued at $3.5 billion that same year. Both are expected to have growth nearing 20 percent.
For those interested in a career that's ahead of the curve, evidence points to biometrics being an area that will rapidly expand to fill all aspects of life. That wide reach may be some of the best security a job can provide.
Bachelor of Science in Biometric Systems, West Virginia University
"Biometrics Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast 2012 - 2018", Transparency Market Research (Accessed October 1, 2013)
"Common Applications," International Biometrics & Identification Association (Accessed October 1, 2013)
"Fingerprints & Other Biometrics," Federal Bureau of Identification (Accessed October 1, 2013)
MS in Biometrics Online, Purdue College of Technology