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Jan. 2003, Vol 28 No. 1
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A University of Hawai’i Feature Article
Printed in Malamalama Magazine, January 2003

Identified in the blink of an eye, the shape of a hand or even the way you use a mouse—
That’s biometrics

by Janine Tully

Imagine a car device that alerts drivers that they are about to fall asleep at the wheel. Or a computer mouse that not only monitors your concentration and stress level but identifies who you are. How about a computer system that automatically filters information according to the user’s needs. Science fiction? Hardly. It’s biometrics, a computer technology that registers physical and behavioral responses through the iris, retina, fingerprints, facial structure, voice—even hand pressure and shape, and then compares the collected data against a database.

While the technology may not yet flag potential buyers (picture the personalized billboard messages pitched to a stressed-out Tom Cruise as he walks by in the film Minority Report), some biometric devices are already operating in Honolulu and on the U.S. mainland. Iris scanners check tenants’ identity in an apartment building on Ala Moana Boulevard; Hawaiian Airlines is testing hand geometry to identify employees, and finger scanners are slated for installation at the Honolulu Federal Building.

And, for the last two years, scientists from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s Department of Information and Computer Science have been applying biometrics to study cognitive overload in specific situations.

From information overload to cyber security

"Computers are capable of instantly providing large amounts of information, but if too much is presented at once, human efficiency in processing this information can drop dramatically," says Martha Crosby, a member of the UH team working on cognitive assessment. "A primary goal of this project is to come up with strategies that people can use to extract information from computer screens more efficiently." Tasks that measure cognitive awareness vary in difficulty—from simply searching for information to analyzing complex data and problem-solving.

"We have noticed that there’s a strategic pattern individuals use when tackling a task," says Crosby. "If you know what you’re going to do, technology can help you do it. You can tailor the software to your needs, optimizing learning and performance."

These groundbreaking experiments are taking place in the Adaptive Multimodal Interactive Laboratory, a small room on the third floor of Manoa’s Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building. The lab is filled with computer equipment, video cameras, computer screens and two of the most important pieces of hardware: an eye-tracking system and a computer mouse with electronic sensors. These tools measure people’s physical and psychological responses, including eye fixation, blink rates and hand pressure. Used with sensors attached to the hand or finger, the equipment can also measure blood flow, heart rate and skin temperature.

Eye-tracking is the gold standard for measuring attention, says Curtis Ikehara, a psychologist with a computer and electronics background. "If we know where you’re looking, we can tell if you’re paying attention." Eye-tracking can also help determine what "catches people’s eyes," he adds, making it ideal for marketing. However, at about $20,000 apiece, eye-tracking systems are mostly used for research.

To test what people see in an open environment, UH researchers use a portable eye-tracking system that consists of a tiny camera attached to headgear that makes the subject look like a Star Trek character. The camera follows the movements of one eye as the person walks around. The image is then transmitted to a video recorder and displayed on a screen. As people focus on specific points—a chair, a window, a person—their gaze jumps from point to point in rapid succession. Because our eyes move faster (in milliseconds) than we can perceive, we have the impression that we are looking at a room as a whole.

Funded by the Defense Advance Research Project Agency and the Office of Naval Research, the project aims at developing software that detects information overload. It is of particular interest to the military, where clear thinking at times of crisis is critical. Pilots have to look at many instruments at once, sometimes under duress, says principal investigator David Chin. A device that detects their cognitive load and takes over some of the tasks would be of great use, he says.

Biometrics has many applications in education, medicine, economics, banking, e-commerce and for identification purposes. Developed about 40 years ago, the technology has drawn renewed interest as a security measure since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack spurred research in identification methods.

Pressure mouse recognizes users

At Manoa, Ikehara has developed a computer mouse (known as the Pressure Mouse) that can identify the user by the way he or she clicks it. "The mouse is nothing to look at," he says, pointing to the generic-looking hardware. "It looks like any other mouse." Yet it packs a wallop. Electronic sensors affixed inside the mouse register hand pressure, speed and number of clicks exerted on the mouse’s buttons.

No current technology assures 100 percent recognition, says Ikehara, but the Pressure Mouse could serve as a computer signature. "It’s nearly impossible to replicate human movements. People click the mouse in very recognizable ways." The Pressure Mouse also offers continuous authentication and it’s cheap, says Chin. Mass production of the hardware would add only $10 to $20 to the cost of a mouse—bringing potential applications, such as detecting cheating in exams administered online, into the realm of possibility. While other groups, including the MIT Media Lab, are exploring biometric computer mice, UH may be the only one to have tucked sensors inside the mouse and analyzed data obtained for identification and cognitive state assessment. A provisional patent has been filed by the university.

The UH research team presented its findings at a conference on biometrics, the first of its kind in Hawai‘i, sponsored by Windward Community College in November 2002. The conference focused on homeland security, identity theft, administrative and criminal applications, e-commerce and privacy issues.

Along with the excitement about the new technology is concern about its intrusive nature and Orwellian connotations. "The potential for misuse is there," Ikehara acknowledges. "To ensure privacy, personal biometric data should have safeguards similar to those accorded to personal medical data." Fortunately, he adds, the federal Privacy Act is already in place to safeguard appropriate release and protection of such information.

Janine Tully (BA ’87 Manoa) is a Hawai'i freelance writer.

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