Identify, verify, secure – The Polish biometrics industry
Improving security standards is a main concern of many companies, especially those operating with sensitive data. But anyone who has tried to log onto his bank account and had to struggle through numerous steps of verifying his identity knows that better security does not always translate into better user experience, especially when many of the services that need to be carefully protected are being used by people who demand mobility, speed and comfort on a daily basis
This is one of many fields where biometrics is the answer for the needs of both sides: providers and users. Voice recognition and the services linked to it have been proven to be the best solution, being an efficient and reliable technology, easy to adapt and with many possible applications.
The first steps in advanced biometrics technology were made by Polish universities. In 2011, AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow founded the Digital Signal Processing (DSP) unit. From then on, their scope of interest has been technologies focused on voice recognition, speech operated interfaces and dialogue systems. The practical applications of their discoveries are possible thanks to the scientific background of the university in the field of wave modulation and transmission, FPGA systems (field programmable gate array, basically a chip that allows its reconfiguration while operating) and software design for administrating telecoms systems.
Dr. Bartosz Ziółko from AGH explains: “Voice recognition is divided into several steps. First we need to record the sound, which is then segmented and parameterized – we adjust the numbers that will represent a given piece of recording. We can compare this set of numbers with previous recordings, pick our hypothesis and prove the language modeling. In that process we are using additional sets of data, such as statistics of word occurrence.”
DSP AGH does not limit itself just to research, providing their services on a market that includes conducting ordered research and implementation of their discoveries, such as RAYA, an innovative sound engine for games that can process audio in real time while taking into account the geometry and shape of virtual surroundings. It is currently the most advanced acoustic model simulator, created in close cooperation with Teyon, a game developing and publishing company.
Another company linked closely to AGH University is Techmo, a spin-off project created in 2013. Funded by private investors, it shares 20% of its capital with Innoagh (a private limited company owned by AGH and dedicated to foster innovative, entrepreneurial initiatives based on the university's intellectual property and newest research results). The main field of Techmo's operations is the deployment of voice recognition and processing technologies that were created by DSP AGH.
Their leading project is Sarmata, system that is designed especially for the Polish language, which is very specific because of existing dialects, occurrence of high frequency vowels and non-positional syntax. Among the side projects are a voice-based breathalyzer, annotation system for recordings base (which helps create annotations for gathered voice samples), and non-vocabulary letter sequence vocalizer (solution that allows machine to read text such as acronyms properly) . Voice Color is a solution for security based on an identity certification, including an analysis of the speaker's voice timbre and color.
Polish start-ups get in the game
Despite the scientific background of universities, voice biometrics in Poland is now a domain of quickly developing start-ups and private companies, such as VoicePIN and VoiceLab.
VoiceLab is a company from Gdansk which is specialized in speech signal processing, speech recognition and analytics. The winners of the Innowator contest (held in 2008) and a U.S. competition for inventors, Inpex 2013, have been developing their ideas and providing services to banks, telecoms and insurance companies. Now they are working on solutions for IoT (Internet of Things), focusing on home devices and the automotive industry.
VoicePIN qualified in September 2015 to the TOP10 companies present at the Startup Alley expo during the prestigious TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. When they were starting four years ago, they came up with the idea of Dronn, a virtual agent for customer service intended to replace the dual-tone based scheme of guiding the user through the service system with voice commands. Their solution was quickly deployed by leading Polish insurance company PZU, which used it in its helpline.
Their second project is Witkom, which translates video recorded gestures into text, image or speech. Thanks to integration with the Dronn voice recognition system, it is also able to reverse the process, translating speech into sign language. That was a feature that led to their cooperation with another successful Polish start-up: Migam (Migam.org helps deaf people to communicate by allowing them to use their phone as a personal sign language translator).
But what brought VoicePIN to Silicon Valley was their biometrics technology. It started from a collaboration with banks looking for a modern way of improving their security measures. This has created a demand for mobile apps able to connect with the banking system via phone and log in the user by verifying him by his voice. But it takes more than just one solution to converge all of the technologies needed to create a secure, user friendly application that has many layers and systems integrated.
In that particular case, the app itself was made by Miquido and Software Minds. Miquido was the developer of the app itself while Software Minds provided their experience in cooperation with banks and telecoms. VoiceLab was responsible for the voice-driven navigation tool and VoicePIN provided the crucial feature - identity verification based on the biometric measurements of audio recordings.
Bartosz Pawłowicz, CTO at VoicePIN, describes the philosophy of their approach: "It takes a lot of cooperation to successfully deploy a product or an offered service. We do not hesitate to work with other companies or to utilize knowledge and the newest research results from universities. It is all about the customer's satisfaction and efficient work. That is why we always want to combine talented people's competencies with proper components (outsourced, if needed) and add our own vision of the way we achieve our goals."
Polish companies' way of work is very agile and goal oriented. And they are very open and eager to cooperate and share their experiences. Although it takes a lot of knowledge and advanced technology to work with such systems, the main idea behind their products is to bring biometrics to everyday life and business as well. There are plans of creating a SaaS platform (software as a service) to facilitate the further deployment of voice recognition and verification for anyone who is interested in this kind of service. As VoicePIN’s executives stated, there is no need to be a huge company and spend millions of dollars if the proper infrastructure and specialists are provided. The simplicity of VoicePIN's approach is best described by their contribution to a Star Wars-themed edition of a hackathon. They equipped one of the teams with their API, to prove that the integration of the system is easy and quick. It took no more than a few hours to create a miniature door that could be open only by the voice of Luke Skywalker himself.
Another feature of VoicePIN's biometric security technology is its hardware simplicity. It doesn't need any sensors and scanners, just a phone's built-in microphone. Its deployment is inexpensive and it is very easy to adjust to a user's preferences. The safety standards are the highest. Financial companies are especially sensitive about that issue. But the system allows the user to balance the setting between security and convenience, to adjust to the desired protection level. Any safety measures need to be easy in use to be followed. Automation of the process and additional features (such as playback detection) ensure the safety of the whole process. VoicePIN knows its strengths and perceives their approach as superior to foreign competition, preparing to become a world leader in voice biometrics.
Read also: The five hottest Polish fintech start-ups
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