Guest Blog: David Johnston on I Origins and Iris Biometrics

The FindBiometrics blog space, Pop Cultural Identity Management is a celebration and examination of biometrics and identity tech topics in film and TV. In most cases, movie biometrics serve as a high-stakes barrier that characters must overcome in order to succeed in the movie plot. Rarely, if ever, are biometrics shown working perfectly: keeping access managed to authorized personnel only. This is the reason in this blog we like to use the mantra “There’s nothing interesting about a locked door.”

There are exceptions to this trend in popular media, though they are few and far between.

Today on the blog we are featuring a guest contributor, David Johnston, VP-Market Development AOptix Technologies Identity Solutions. He will be examining the significant role that iris biometrics plays in the new film by writer-director Mike Cahill, I Origins, starring Michael Pitt and Steven Yeun.

In Newly Released Film, Iris Biometrics Play Critical Supporting Role

by David Johnston, VP-Market Development AOptix Technologies Identity Solutions

I Origins Poster

I Origins is simply a film that would not be possible without iris recognition.

I Origins – which won the Alfred Sloan Award at this spring’s Sundance Film Festival for best exposition of technology – is simply a film that would not be possible without iris recognition.

In the opening moments of this film, a voiceover explains and the camera beautifully displays just how unique human irides are, setting up the proposition for unique identification. The story that unfolds is one of convergence asking the viewer to join in on a voyage to the crossroads of science and spirituality.

I will disclose nothing of the plot, because that isn’t what compelled me to write. What did, is that this film relates iris biometrics to our modern 21st century existence. For the first time, the technology is introduced to film differently than the fanciful fashion in which it and other biometrics have been depicted in spy thrillers or spoofs – as thwarts to progress or something to overcome by means that simply don’t work anywhere – except Hollywood.   

From a biometrics understanding standpoint, the pleasing news is that writer, director and editor Mike Cahill did his homework. There are little details sprinkled through the film that show he gets it. He brings iris recognition to life with on-camera dialog reference to Dr. J. G. Daugman’s work. The word “Iriscode®” is mentioned, and the National Geographic cover of the issue detailing the true story of finding the Afghan woman years later (via iris pattern recognition—when 2D anti-spoof was shut off) is shown tacked to the wall – a subtle, well-researched and totally appropriate prop.    

In the film, iris identification is seen early on as a means of access control. In a scene years after the beginning of the film (and assumed to be present day) hospital personnel relates to protagonist and wife that iris data is often collected, with parental consent, from newborns. Upon receipt of consent of obviously informed parents, we learn what a false match is, and about the infinitely small chance of this happening. We see iris capture on infants in color, and in the b/w fashion that allows them to be codified is explained.  We see two handheld iris collection devices at work—neither as elegant a solution as AOptix Stratus, but at work just the same (so what if this part is Hollywood).

As the plot unfolds, a global database of iris information is alleged. And as my intent is not to cheat filmgoers, I will volunteer nothing save acknowledging that access to that database appears highly privileged and limited. Again, Mr. Cahill has done his homework. He establishes that an individual’s existence in the database can at least be traced to places that have actually deployed iris recognition technology: in this instance, London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airports—and India.

It is entirely fitting that the film ends in India, where the use of iris, and the rationale for the technology’s selection in UIDAI’s AADHAR program is actually spelled out. We even get to visit a data collection center.

There is another line of dialogue that says use of “iris biometrics is exploding.” As an aside and having been around this field for more than a decade, I can only say I wish it had exploded faster. Having spent way too much time in presentations delivering the message that  “The iris is not the retina,” this film makes me feel like members in the biometrics community, and especially iris recognition adherents, are finally getting somewhere.  It’s fun to think about how far things have come, even if that is nowhere as far or as fast as we’d wished.


Do you have a favorite instance of biometrics in pop culture you would like to see in this blog? Contact Peter B. Counter through the findBIOMETRICS about page and let him know via email.

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