Interview: Next Biometrics’ CEO Tore Etholm-Idsoe on biometric smartcards
14 December 2016 14:03 GMT

By Craig Guthrie, editor

From conference sessions to lightning pitches and an abundance of exhibition stands, smartcards featuring biometric security tech seemed to be everywhere at Trustech in Cannes this year. 

There weren’t just fingerprint sensors, some companies had also added microphones, LED displays and other processing capabilities to the slices of plastic that have become so vital in our everyday lives.

For the more experienced in the industry, this was far from new – biometric firms have been trying for years to develop a card that meets stringent thinness and flexibility standards (and that meets banks’ equally strict usability needs).

But there seemed a new momentum behind the innovation that was on show. Perhaps representing a convergence of recent technological advances and rapidly evolving market trends.

Before the show, Norway’s NEXT Biometrics has been among the forerunners in the emerging sector – the company has already secured three major deals for its flexible smartcard-focused sensors, and it has a production capacity target of 10 million per month for these in 2018.

Planet Biometrics sat down with NEXT Biometrics’ CEO Tore Etholm-Idsoe in Cannes to explore the surge in interest in smartcards.

Why are so many firms moving towards smartcards?

This space in the smartphone sector is getting congested. Since 2013 when Apple launched Touch ID, a lot of companies - in China in particular - have been on a path towards copies.

There are now more than 10 companies offering small sensors for smartphones – so the market needs another truly high volume application. The obvious big one is smart cards, which has major volume potential.

Companies have been trying to develop ISO-standard cards with fingerprint sensors for more than a decade - why has it taken so long to get to this point?

It’s not easy – and this is due to two main elements.

First, there is the motivation within the smartcard industry. This was not great up until implementation of fingerprint sensors on the iPhone and with the emergence of competing payments schemes.

The traditional payment industry is under increasing pressure – general user adoption of Touch ID has become so enormously good – and key companies within payment, government and corporate access applications are now also focusing on fingerprint sensors.

The second issue is the complexity, this task is not easy.  A sensor on a smartcard needs to be flexible, low coast and at the same time large- Size is key because a smartcard application is something entirely different from a smartphone - it is not OK that it works securely and conveniently for a limited percentage of the users  it needs to work for close to 100% of the target population.

This is why the biometric system on cards ISO standards now demands a minimum size of 169 square mm -  13x13 mm, which is consistent with what is documented at university level and also what real life biometric industry experience dictates.

We have followed all the requirements of the smart card and the biometric industry and made ur sensors large and fully flexible  - the smartcard industry don’t want a rigid component inside the card, longer or wider than 3 mm. 

At this show and elsewhere, you may have seen conceptual projects using silicon sensors. These are not approved in the industry. You may find them in some initial pilots or niche applications, but it is not applicable in mass market payment or governmental applications - Large volume players can’t accept silicon-based sensors. 

Another major challenge has been the fact that flexible electronics do not yet exist in mass applications – we have had to create solutions.

Fortunately for us, our low temperature process, or the one that our mass production partner Innolux is offering, exists in the same tech as used in flexible displays.

This gives us a fast and credible route to mass production , and we are already several years down the road in this process.

What would you say are the benefits of your system over others?

Quite simply no others meet all the fundamental requirements, we are obviously focused on the sensor side and have partners that are working on the card element. But this combination of size, flexibility  and meeting all relevant ISO standards, thus meeting the true mass-market requirements – there are no others.

What are the remaining barriers towards wide-scale biometric smart card adoption?

Smartphones have really paved the way for this. Users are now ready and willing to use fingerprinting in a wide range of applications. Large sensors provide a true and recognised sense of security, and are very convenient.  

The smart card industry is ready but many people have also had bad experiences with fingerprint sensors on smartphones – this has been an important challenge to overcome because you will never see governments or major banks or payment providers rolling these out in the millions if the solutions do not work for close to 100% of users.

Our smart card partners and the end organizations buying our product are very solid – they are starting by looking at governmental and financial applications for multi-functional cards. And they are typically starting out in markets segments with high crime rates and/or low smart card penetration or in premium segments – where fast and secure use authentication offers an attractive value proposition.

 

 

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