INTERVIEW: FotoNation on the Mobile Biometrics Revolution

Interview with Martin George, Sr. Director, Business Development and Sumat Mehra, SVP, Marketing & Business Development: FotoNation

INTERVIEW: FotoNation on the Mobile Biometrics RevolutionFindBiometric president Peter O’Neill recently had the opportunity to speak with Martin George and Sumat Mehra of FotoNation – a company that specializes in providing face recognition and tracking technology for deployment in high-end digital cameras and smartphones. The conversation touches on the direction of the biometrics market, the company’s recent acquisition of Smart Sensors Ltd., and the unique strengths that set FotoNation apart from the rest of the industry.


Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: Where do you see the Biometrics market moving to over the next 5 years?

Martin George, Sr. Director, Business Development, FotoNation: Biometrics is shaping our future. Although biometrics has uses beyond those associated with human identity, there are so many activities in daily life that rely on proving that you, and maybe someone you want to interact with, are entitled to do so.  For example that might be as users, subscribers, accessing citizen services, paying or transferring money, or even connecting with friends on a social network.  Or, indeed, for users in organisations with several physical locations to gain access to some of their information assets that may be stored in the cloud for example, which might be really important, proprietary and valuable to that company. So we’re seeing that biometrics technology is supporting a really wide range of applications and a lot of these are going to be driven by mobile and handheld devices.

The smartphone market is continuously evolving and imaging technologies – including photography, videos and now biometrics – are becoming a massive decision factor for the final purchase.

Personal security and protection of access e.g. for login, is a growing concern amongst users and organizations. Beyond this people are worried about the privacy of their data and their personal details. We still have a way to go in educating the market, but biometrics will come to be seen as a good way of protecting privacy. We’ll also see biometrics related technologies – especially facial – broadened into enabling interaction with users’ emotions.

FB: I could not agree more Martin. In fact that is exactly the discussion I am moderating at the Global Identity Summit in Tampa in September. As an industry we have not been very pro-active in this regard. We do now have, not only a responsibility, but also a wonderful opportunity to do more.

FotoNation recently acquired Smart Sensors, can you outline for us why this acquisition makes sense?

Martin George, FotoNation: From a Smart Sensors perspective, it really gave us access to a much wider range of resources and a lot of talent in the Tessera group of companies who also have a lot of established supply chain relationships, particularly in the mobile device space. Since we both saw that biometrics technology in mobile devices was going to be incredibly important, this looked like an acquisition or partnership that would really make sense. Of course, Smart Sensors already had a lot of established credibility in the biometrics market, with iris camera partners such as CMITech and LRS Identity (formerly AOptix), along with other partners and deployments in Physical Access Control, Border Control, Civil and Military ID. The MIRLIN matcher is extremely efficient and well suited for embedded solutions. This is where, when combined with FotoNation’s expertise in embedding its face based technologies into mobile platforms, you get the ideal solution: one where user friendliness, performance and security are all offered by a single provider.

Sumat did you want to add anything to that?

Sumat Mehra, SVP, Marketing & Business Development, FotoNation: As you stated the biometrics market is moving toward mobile. People want to be able to authenticate themselves on the move and simply because of that reason we felt that this made perfect sense. Smart Sensors has good credibility and has been well established in the biometric space. FotoNation too in the mobile market, so it is a marriage made in heaven.

FB: I also wanted to ask, now that Smart Sensors is a FotoNation company, what does that mean for the biometric industry in general?

Sumat Mehra, FotoNation: Via the companies that work with FotoNation, as I alluded to earlier, we have significant market share in the mobile space, especially with Tier 1 consumer products. Now these customers have access to all the vital functionalities around facial features etc. where FotoNation has been prevalent in offering solutions such as facial detection and tracking, and facial feature extraction. We also do registration technologies, like compensation for shake and movement, so image stability is an important solution that we offer. Iris recognition encoding and matching adds another functionality to this offering. FotoNation has on its own been working with facial recognition technology for encoding and matching. Adding iris and combining the two will give the market a much more potent solution.

With our own hardware design capabilities, we are able to break up algorithms into RTL’s and software. We have expertise in optics designs and distortion correction – again things which are important for iris and facial recognition. Combined, this will enable a much better solution to offer the industry.

And lastly: all the technologies that FotoNation has developed have always been for embedded platforms. We have a strong legacy in digital still cameras since the early 2000’s with almost a 90 percent market penetration there. And then we moved into mobile in the mid 2000’s and we got significant traction there. So our algorithms are all optimized towards embedded. For existing Smart Sensors customers, it means being backed by a much wider range of resources and talent in the Tessera Group of companies, along with an established set of strategic supply chain relationships. All in all we feel this is extremely good news for the biometrics industry.

FB: Well thank you very much for outlining that for us. What other types of differentiators do FotoNation and Smart Sensors joining bring to the marketplace?

Martin George, FotoNation: A major one is that FotoNation has a tradition of being extremely strong in computational imaging and in particular making that work on the very small footprint capability that you find in mobile devices. So, whilst Smart Sensors MIRLIN algorithms were relatively low complexity, nevertheless the ability to port those into hardware based implementations that could run fast in mobile devices is extremely important.

The skill set that FotoNation has in RTL ports and the relationships where it gets designs embedded into mobile devices is really important to us. And, along with that, FotoNation’s design capability means that we can embed secure handling of biometric data via secure elements. As you know everybody is really concerned about the privacy of their biometric and personal data, and while I think there is a way to go in educating the market, nevertheless we have the technical capability to make this happen and to deliver excellent security through the range of partners that we have in place.

Sumat: I’ll just add a couple of things to what Martin has just said. The way FotoNation has been offering its solutions in the embedded space is via algorithms – which are capable of running in extremely small form factors whether it be in the code size, or in the form of RTL – that gives a very low gate count. We have also been delivering to SOC design companies or companies which are vertically integrated and have their own SOC’s. So we have relevant experience to offer our capabilities through this channel avoiding many of the pitfalls which come through pure software implementations; like man-in-the-middle attacks for example.

From the user perspective, where we come from in terms of finding faces, finding the eye, knowing there is a person there, and where they are looking, we are able to automate a lot of the user experience. So you can see there’s a current capabilities set that gives us a strong offering.

FB: You know, when I first heard of this joining of FotoNation and Smart Sensors I really thought it was going to be quite a unique and valuable scenario, and certainly my experience at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona reinforced that. I think you are both heading in a good direction with the joining of the two companies. Can you outline your current capability set?

Sumat Mehra, FotoNation: We have deep know-how in mobile computational imaging. We have low complexity, high accuracy algorithms, so we are able to apply our algorithms in a very small footprint. Because we are designing for embedded platforms we are very efficient in how we implement things. We take into consideration power consumption at all times, because if you are on a mobile device we are very aware that the draining of the battery is one of the most important problems that everyone is dealing with.

So everything that we do is extremely efficient.  Because we work with chip companies our intention is to offer these solutions via secure processing elements primarily to avoid hijacking of application data and man-in-the-middle attacks. And also in our background we have been working very closely with camera sensor makers, with a combination of sensor and optical elements companies, so we are familiar with the camera module side of things. All of these have led to a good relationship with the manufacturers who are OEMs and ODMs. We think that these current capabilities are fairly important in building our collaborative efforts.

Martin George, FotoNation: Having these manufacturing relationships is very important for customers. It is very, very difficult – as people who have tried in the past will know – to break into the mobile device market at the right level. The fact that FotoNation has about 60 percent of the Tier 1 customers in this space gives us a wide range of relationships to draw from, so we can back this up when we are working with the customer.

FB: It is a tremendous asset. What are the main challenges that need to be addressed for biometrics to enter the mainstream?

Martin George, FotoNation: I will probably answer that by saying that it is rapidly becoming mainstream.  I think that might seem a bit glib but as you have seen yourself, as a kind of custodian of many, many announcements and press releases in this space, consumer and mobile devices are really at the forefront of all this activity. A key area for this – and I think this is really important for, if you like making sure that everyone who wants to make or use some kind of biometric device – is the improvement of the user experience. I think that is particularly important for iris and face based technologies.

Now, facial recognition itself may be pretty quick to pick up, but it is not always known as being the most accurate of biometrics. If you combined that with iris it really helpsm especially by using things like face tracking and eye detection, then using that to focus in on the iris itself and picking out the iris area that we need. So improving that user interface, capturing at a comfortable stand off distance, and then improving the way that the user can interact if they are perhaps moving or where there is the natural kind of shake that you get when you are holding cameras, we can really improve that experience for the user. Along with that we are embedding our algorithms in hardware so it becomes really quick to process images in real time. And again that goes back to the capabilities set that we were describing because in order to make that really fast processing happen you actually need to have hardware accelerated algorithms. There is no other way around it.
FB: I want to thank you both for taking the time to speak with us today and I look forward to discussing further as you continue along your path.