In the movie “Minority Report” Tom Cruise is harassed by tiny spider robots that invade his apartment and scan his iris to confirm his identity. Like many other inventions from the 2002 sci-fi crime drama, iris scans have become a reality at airports and security checkpoints all over the world (no spider robots … yet.)
Like a fingerprint, the image of a person’s iris is unique and can be used for identification. But many of these scanners have a drawback — the subject has to hold still and look at a scanner for a few seconds in order to make a proper identification. For that reason, British authorities recently withdrew a program from their airports that allowed travelers to get through security by undergoing an iris scan.
Mark Clifton, vice president of SRI International Sarnoff’s Products and Service Division, says his company’s “Iris on the Move” technology has bypassed this limitation.
“We can determine the person’s iris not only when they’re on the move, but in all lighting conditions. Other vendors’ biometrics have specialized conditions or the subject has to get very close,” Clifton says. “We’re also lowering the cost of the ability to recognize an iris. Later this year, we are going to be bringing out some extremely low-cost products and widen our market with low-cost products.”
Think of an iris scanner so cheap it could be used on a mobile phone to replace a thumbprint or password for security. That’s what the future holds, according to Clifton.
Clifton is part of a panel of technology company representatives who will make up the New Jersey Tech Council’s 2015 Innovation Forecast on Tuesday, February 10, at 1 p.m. at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
The other speakers include Brenda Dennis of Cisco Systems, Mohit Bhatia of Celgene Cellular, Kathleen Coviello of the NJEDA, Bruce Flitcroft of Alliant Technologies, Andrew Garman of New Ventures Partners, Kevin Grant of Morgan Lewis Associates, Sanjay Macwan of NBC Universal, Daniel S. Wakeman of Educational Testing Service, and Ed Zabar of Fairmount Partners. Tickets are $75, $150 for nonmembers. Visit www.njtc.org or E-mail email@example.com.
Clifton says he hopes the iris scanner can be used in airports to speed up security lines — each device can identify 30 people per minute. “You can reduce queuing and all the other problems you have at airports and still get a very high accuracy,” he says. It could also be used in sporting facilities.
Already, the iris scanner is being used at Auburn University’s athletic facilities. A large construction company in the Middle East is using it at 64 sites to mark time and attendance 40,000 times a day, Clifton says.
As with any technology company, innovation is the key to making new products. “We have an entire innovation process,” Clifton says. “We really stress not only the technology side, but the marketing side. Coming up with good ideas and good technology has never been SRI’s problem. But how do you communicate that information — how does it make its way through to the market side? Is there someone who could use this, and then how would you present that to the market to make it a killer application?”
SRI has had failures and successes in this arena. Although most people are familiar with the Siri personal assistant application found on all iPhone products, the technology was developed not by Apple but by SRI’s Artificial Intelligence Center in Menlo Park, California. Siri was spun off into its own company and bought by Apple.
A notable failure was iris recognition technology.
“Back in the 1990s, we spun out a company called Sensare and its sole purpose was to develop iris recognition for banking ATM machines,” Clifton recalls. “It didn’t go anywhere. It eventually died because the technology was too expensive to implement.”
Clifton says both examples illustrate how marketing is the key to successful innovation. Siri had a built-in market with the iPhones, and while the technology allowed for iris recognition on ATMs, it wasn’t economically practical.
“The ability to capitalize on innovation is important for a company’s long-term health,” Clifton says. “Sometimes the market’s not ready and our technologies are way ahead of their time.”
Clifton grew up in Florida, where his mother was a teacher and his father was a vice squad detective. “I had a penchant for math, and both my parents pushed me into engineering,” he says. Clifton earned a bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering from Florida Atlantic University and a master’s in engineering from the University of Connecticut.
His first job was for Electric Boat, the submarine company. He later worked for BBN Technologies before founding his own company, Acoustics and Mechanics, which was acquired by Anteon in 1989. He led R&D at Anteon until he joined DRS Technologies in 2004. He became CEO of Sarnoff in 2009.
Much of Clifton’s career has been focused on bringing new technology to market. “In a tech company, the one thing you have to be wary of is tech push versus market pull,” he says. “You can’t just build a better mousetrap and hope people will come.”