If current tests proceed as expected, automated teller machines may one day ask customers to stare deeply into their eyes-or rather, their cameras.
England's Nationwide Building Society is pilot testing an ATM from NCR Corp. that identifies customers by scanning their irises. More than 1,000 customers-mostly Nationwide employees-have signed up for the program since April.
Sensar Inc. of Princeton, N.J., is providing the $75.2 billion-asset financial institution with the iris-scanning equipment, which is installed at one ATM and three teller stations in the bank's headquarters branch in Swindon. The building society began investigating different verification methods after customers requested alternatives to personal identification numbers, said spokesman Mark Hamilton. "A lot of people don't like their PINS," he said. "They forget their PINs."
Several banks in the United States, including Citicorp, are experimenting with biometrics. But aside from a handful of pilot tests, few if any have implemented such techniques for use with customers. Finger scanning and voice recognition are among the biometric methods banks are testing.
Iris scanning, once thought to be among the most invasive and possibly offensive techniques, is becoming more accepted, said Erik Bowman, industry analyst with CardTech/SecurTech Inc., a sister company of American Banker.
"The perception of the iris scan is changing as more people know about it," he said.
But iris scanning's high price and technological problems may steer some banks away from the approach at this time, Mr. Bowman said. The machines have had trouble when ambient lighting conditions change, he said.
Citicorp plans to conduct an employee test of a Sensar iris scanner at corporate depository boxes and ATMs in the United States in the next six months, said Leon Williams, division executive in the bank's advanced development group. It is the bank's only planned biometric pilot.
"We like the iris scanner because it is passive and doesn't require action on the part of the customer," he said. "Fingerprints require them to do something, to put their hand somewhere."
With a reliable identification system, Citicorp could add additional services at its ATMs, such as transferring or withdrawing larger sums of money, Mr. Williams said. He has not encountered troubles with lighting conditions, he said.
Nationwide is pleased that, with two months left in its pilot, it has reached its goal of 1,000 registrants. However, these were mostly employees who learned of the program through internal mailings and postings, Mr. Hamilton said. About 2,000 people work in the Swindon headquarters.
Customers sign up for iris recognition at the branch, where a scanner takes a picture of either their right or left iris to create a digital template in the form of a bar code. The process takes two or three minutes.
At the ATM or the teller station, users look into a camera, which has a small dot with a blinking light. The camera takes another picture and compares it to the template for identification.
"It's got that novelty attraction," Mr. Hamilton said.