One Eye on the Future: Iris Scanners Are Coming


The morning had been full of delays and missed trains, so when my cameraman Matthew and I got to the Harper Collins building at 53rd Street and Madison Avenue in New York City, we were panting a little. But our running had paid off: It was 12:55 p.m. and our appointment was at 1 p.m., so it looked like we were going to make it in time. Even so, we fidgeted while the guy at the security desk peered at our driver's licenses, up at us, and back at our licenses. As we strolled through the security gates, Matthew laughed. "An eye scanner could have sped that up."

I smiled. We were here to visit the Hoyos Group, America's top producers of iris scanning technology, the futuristic identification machines that grace sci-fi movies from The Minority Report to Monsters Versus Aliens. The company had recently joined forces with Stanley Security Solutions, the security arm of Stanley Black and Decker (SWK). As the second-biggest security company in the world, Stanley is in a position to put the scanners in thousands of venues, and it isn't hard to imagine how quickly Hoyos' machines could show up across the country. Matthew was right: The scanners had the power to not only speed up our security check-in, but could potentially revolutionize everything from credit card machines to subway cards.

(Story continues after video)

Part I: Waiting for Anthony

The entrance to Hoyos' office suite is unassuming, apart from the eye scanner mounted just to the right of the door. Looking like the unlikely offspring of an iPod and a 1970s-era View-Master, it is gleaming and promising and new, much like the company's technology. Of course, it only works if you're in the system, so we had to use the old fashioned doorbell located beside it. After an uncomfortably long wait, a woman in her mid-twenties answered the door. "Tracy Hoyos," she said distractedly, gesturing vaguely at a small couch located underneath a Roy Lichtenstein print. As we sat down, she wandered out of the room.

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We were soon joined by Hoyos' public relations representative, a woman I have worked with before. We caught up on each others' lives, but the small talk petered out after a while, and I glanced at my watch. It had been a half hour. The doorbell rang again, but nobody came. As it kept ringing, Matthew and I glanced at each other. Were we supposed to answer it? Eventually, Tracy wandered in, shooting us a glare as she collected the office's Chinese food lunch.

More time passed and Matthew started fidgeting. "Jeez, are these heat lamps?" he whined, trying to get out of the glare of the overhead lighting. "I feel like I'm having hot flashes." Finally, Anthony Antolino, Hoyos' slim, crisp chief marketing officer rushed in, apologized for the delay, and told us that Tracy -- who, it turned out, was the daughter of the company's founder -- was going to escort us to the basement lab, where we could try out the equipment. Jeff Carter, Hoyos' chief development officer, would be joining us later to explain the machines and help us shoot our video. By now, we were almost through the time that I had scheduled for the visit, and waiting for Jeff didn't hold much appeal. "Could Tracy explain it to us on camera?" I asked Anthony. Glancing at Tracy, he shook his head. "Jeff will be down soon."

Part II: Inside the Lab

Full of tubular black furniture and shiny red walls, Hoyos' lab is dominated by a prototype of its iris scanning portal. As visitors approach the doorway, a monitor mounted at the top instructs them to "Look Here" at a video playback of themselves walking through the portal. The video has a slight delay, which creates a strange feeling of disconnection as you watch yourself watching yourself walking beneath it. If you are in the system, the monitor flashes green and welcomes you by name.

On the surface, the portal is moderately cool, but not all that shocking -- an advanced technology that one can easily imagine becoming commonplace in a few years. Under the hood, however, Hoyos' iris-scanning technology is amazing: As one of the engineers pointed out, the scanner can identify up to fifty people per minute, and its database can hold information on hundreds of millions of users. According to Hoyos, it cannot be tricked by dead eyeballs, photos of eyes, nor contact lenses. And in terms of simplicity, adding users seems to be very easy: Entering me into the computer only took a few minutes (it would have taken only a second, had the computer not needed to be rebooted), and I found that walking through the portal at a leisurely pace gave the scanner plenty of time to identify me.

It isn't hard to imagine the machines cropping up in airports -- where they could be used for check-in and ticketing -- subways, secure offices, and hundreds of other operations. Smaller versions, which were mounted around the lab, wouldn't be out of place in supermarkets, clothing stores or anywhere else where an iris scan attached to a bank account could put customers in easy contact with their money. While Hoyos is extremely tight-lipped about its current customers and future plans, it's clear that the company's products could transform daily life in America.

Part III: Waiting for Jeff

Matthew and I quickly filmed most of our video, including several shots of me walking through the portal, looking at the computer, checking out the other scanners and generally wandering around the place. Eventually, however, we ran out of things to film and ended up sitting at a table with Tracy and the publicity rep. "I don't know where Jeff is," Tracy told me as she called upstairs again to hasten his arrival.

Although Hoyos doesn't talk about its future plans, its decision to hire Jeff Carter as chief operations officer hints at where the company is headed. Hector Hoyos, chairman of the company, has described Jeff as "the most innovative and influential technology and operations strategist in the banking and securities industry."

That may not be hyperbole: The founder of the Center for Future Banking at MIT, Carter has worked with Bank of America and holds several patents that link personal information and banking. While Hoyos' has recently focused on moving into airport and civil security, Jeff's background suggests that it may not be long before banks start using iris scanning to control access to money.

While we waited, the four of us made small talk. Tracy grew up in Puerto Rico, where Hoyos was originally based, and we chatted about the island's best restaurants. Noting the high cost of New York real estate, I asked why Hoyos had a lab in the city instead of the island, where it would be cheaper. Tracy sniffed. "It's really not that simple. Our production lab is in Puerto Rico, but most of our executives are up here. It all comes down to where the best people are for each job."

By 2:30, Matthew and I were out of time. As we left, the publicist apologized profusely and assured me that Jeff would call me the following day. (He did.) I told her not to worry, and that I had more than enough information for my story. She promised to send me some press releases.

As we made our way into the subway, Matthew repositioned his backpack "I think that was the most excruciating two hours of my life," he said. I smiled to myself: Matthew is young, and still hasn't seen Godfather III. "Still," he said thoughtfully, "that technology was pretty cool." As I fumbled for my subway card, I had to agree.

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