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March 08, 2006

Want to withdraw cash? Hold out your palm, please.

Kenji Hall

Fujitsu has just outdone itself in biometrics. Nearly two years ago, the company got rave reviews for developing a security system that can read the veins in a person's hand. That's right--the VEINS. Now, the system just got better. It's smaller, faster and less expensive, and it's so compact that techies might want to hook one up to the USB port of a notebook or desktop PC at home ($4,000, anyone?). Practically speaking, the technology will probably spread in the business world first. Imagine this: You stride up to your bank ATM, hold out your hand and within seconds VOILA! Access to your account. No plastic card and no passcode. Fujitsu thinks its system can be tweaked for home security, library book lending, and--who knows?--maybe even as a payment method for commuters taking the subway.

Called Palm Secure, the biometrics system works by sending out near-infrared rays from a camera/sensor pod the size of a small Post-it note (and an inch thick) to your outstretched palm. In your hand, red blood cells that have let go of their oxygen molecules absorb the rays. That allows the pod to distinguish the veins of your palm from everything else in your hand (which reflects the rays). Fujitsu technicians demonstrated how the software processes the image: A web of black lines signifying the deoxidized blood cells against the white silhouette of a hand.

The palm-vein reader's biggest competition is from digital fingerprint readers. But we've all seen the problems with those at the DMV or (for those of you with traveling companions from other countries) going through U.S. customs. Sometimes, the sensor won't read a finger that's too dry or it just takes its sweet time processing the image. For those who get fingerprinted, there's the unpleasant experience of having to place your digit on a sensor that's been touched by hundreds, if not thousands, of other people before.

With Fujitsu's system, there's no need to touch the sensor. Error rates are low and, as far as I can tell, it seems fail-safe. Fujitsu scientists say there's nothing harmful about the rays emitted, and the whole process is quick--1.5 seconds for a computer equipped with a Centrino microprocessor. Fujitsu predicts $700 million in sales from these vein readers over the next three years, but if you ask me, the company could very well be selling its technology short.

11:57 PM

Technology

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