In "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," a distinctively shaped ear gives a suspect away.
Life imitates art as Nixon pioneers biometrics research using the ear, rather than the face or other features, for identification purposes.
Using photos of individual ears matched against a comparative database, Nixon and other researchers believe they have a means of identification as distinctive as fingerprints.
Though ear identification has yet to find use in any commercial application, security will be the best use of the technology, Nixon said in a phone interview last week
In a March 2010 paper, “A Survey on Ear Biometrics,” Nixon and researchers Ayman Abaza, Christina Herbert, and Mary Ann F. Harrison of the West Virginia High Tech Consortium Foundation and Arun Ross of West Virginia University write:
Humans have used body characteristics such as face and voice for thousands of years to recognize each other. In contemporary society, there is a pronounced interest in developing machine recognition systems that can be used for automated human recognition. With applications ranging from forensics to national security, biometrics is slowly becoming an integral part of modern society.
Using ears for identification has clear advantages over other kinds of biometric identifications, Nixon said. Once developed, the ear changes little throughout a person’s life, providing a cradle-to-grave method of identification, he explained.
Ear identification also could offer an important, non-contact alternative to fingerprints or retina scan. During walk-throughs at security checkpoints, cameras could digitally photograph passersby, comparing their ears against others in a database.
Even among other non-contact biometrics, ear identification offers key advantages. Used in combination with face recognition, ear recognition offers a second point of comparison in cases where all or part of a face might be obstructed, for example, by makeup or some other alteration.
Ear identification trumps other, more-intrusive approaches, Nixon told me. Keeping images of ears, as opposed to faces for comparisons, may raise fewer privacy concerns, he believes.
Watch a presentation from Nixon on the History of Biometrics at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Joint Conference on Biometrics in the US in 2011.
What do you think of the use of ear identification or recognition for security applications? Leave your comments below.