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Meet The Face Of
NEC’s Face Recognition Technology

The current state and future outlook of NEC's face recognition technology adopted at the last G7 Summit and at major airports around the world as told by its "creator"

Hitoshi Imaoka, a recipient of the Japanese government’s Medal with Purple Ribbon award and creator of NEC’s award-winning face recognition technology, talks about the present state of the technology and future growth opportunities in the biometrics industry.

As a global leader in biometrics technology, NEC is proud to have introduced face recognition to many countries and governments around the world. Recently, it was showcased at the entrance/exit gates of the G7 Digital and Tech Ministers’ Meeting in Takasaki, Gunma in April 2023. In the following months, another demonstration was also conducted at the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May and NEC's initiatives in the field were further showcased at an exhibition during the G7 Mie-Ise-Shima Transportation Ministers’ Meeting in June.

Face recognition has played a pivotal role in reshaping the security landscape and reimagining the customer experience. Yet, many think its full potential remains untapped. We talked about the current state and future outlook of face recognition with NEC Fellow Hitoshi Imaoka, who was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon last spring and who is in charge of biometric authentication technology.

Leading the way in the biometric authentication industry

On April 29 and 30, 2023, the G7 Digital and Tech Ministers' Meeting was held in Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture. On that occasion, NEC's face recognition devices were installed at the entrance/exit gates and contributed to the smooth running of the meeting.

Entrance/exit gates at the G7 Digital and Tech Ministers' Meeting in Takasaki, Gunma, held on April 29 and 30

NEC's face recognition has been ranked No. 1 multiple times in benchmark tests by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The fact that it was adopted at the G7 stage was further proof of NEC's superiority in this field.

*Ranked No. 1 multiple times in the past by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
NIST's evaluations do not constitute an endorsement by the US government of any particular system, product, service, or company.

During the event, about 1,000 people, including G7 digital and technology ministers and government officials, experienced the seamless process of face recognition for access control. Pre-registration of facial data, which had initially caused some concern, was reported to have been completed for all attendees without any problems.

“I heard that while many Japanese nationals apparently stopped in front of the cameras, most foreigners just walked past the gate without paying particular attention to them. This made me realize how much more face recognition is widespread globally than in Japan," said NEC Fellow Hitoshi Imaoka.

In recent years, an increase in demand for security in many different areas has led to the rapid diffusion of face recognition technology. In the future, its use is expected to expand beyond access control use cases to encompass a wide array of situations and locales, from stores to transportation and online identity verification.

“In the aftermath of the pandemic, people have started connecting again with each other in a variety of ways, and new uses for face recognition have increased accordingly. NEC is currently focusing its efforts on multimodal biometric authentication which combines face recognition and iris recognition to achieve even higher accuracy. (*) As multimodal biometric authentication becomes more widespread, it will be probably used more widely for high-volume payments requiring stricter standards as well as in critical facilities requiring multiple modes of biometric authentication.

Facial systems combining face recognition and iris recognition present the advantage that registration and authentication can be completed in a single step. Since the same is true for hand systems combining fingerprint authentication and finger vein authentication, NEC is actively at work on both facial systems and hand systems.” (Imaoka)

  • *
    NEC has begun marketing multimodal biometric authentication solutions equipped with its world's No. 1 face recognition technology and iris recognition technology

Gateless access control system: Seamless entry of more than 100 people per minute utilizing biometric recognition

In addition to multimodal biometric authentication, NEC is also working on commercializing gateless access control system, a conceptually new biometric authentication system that does away with flapper gates at buildings and ticketed gates.

Conventional face recognition requires that each person be authenticated individually, and this has sometimes caused crowding and congestion at high traffic areas. This is where the combined use of person-matching technology, tracking individual characteristics like people’s clothes or the way they move, comes in, making it possible to track large numbers of people in real time. By performing face recognition whenever faces reappear, it has become possible to authenticate more than 100 people per minute with a single camera.

Authentication flow of gateless biometric authentication

NEC's face recognition technology makes it possible to authenticate people even when they are wearing masks or sunglasses. Additionally, face recognition can be performed as people walk by naturally without the need to stop and turn one’s face to the camera, which is expected to facilitate the process of entering facilities and to alleviate congestion.

“By combining face recognition and person matching technologies, it is possible to identify a person even if they are looking away from the camera. And by further combining it with technology for tracking a specific person, we can track the same person by checking their clothing and movement characteristics, even if their faces are occulded." (Imaoka)

If the above-mentioned multimodal biometric authentication is a technology that makes personal authentication more rigorous, gateless biometric authentication is expected to have more sophisticated applications.

“For example, when visiting a place for the first time, you may unintentionally end up in a restricted area. In such cases, facial recognition can be used to identify an individual and issue a warning or notify security guards to urge them to leave.

If two-level authentication is incorporated into this system, it will be possible to allow people to freely pass through the first level and only let in those who are qualified to enter at the second level. Once face recognition has been done, records are kept so as to prevent that person from entering the pay area without paying the entrance fee, or from entering the venue by impersonating another person." (Imaoka)

Showcasing state-of-the-art boarding procedures that received favorable reviews at G7-related ministerial meetings

If we further link gateless biometric authentication to payment systems, it will be possible to introduce automatic payments at ticketed areas.

“For example, we can use face recognition to check whether or not a person has purchased a ticket and guide those who have completed payment to zone A and those who have not yet paid to zone B. The former is let into the premises while the latter are guided to different zones based on the payment method. This way we can streamline the process for ticket purchases and facilitate the flow of people.” (Imaoka)

Demonstration at the G7 Hiroshima Summit 2023

NEC held a demonstration of gateless biometric authentication at the International Media Center of the G7 Hiroshima Summit, with many members of the media and participating companies taking an interest in advanced face recognition technology and participated in the demonstration. Additionally, at the G7 Mie-Ise-Shima Transport Ministers' Meeting, ministers from various countries and Japanese MLIT executives were introduced to the concept of smart airports proposed by NEC.

As part of the latter, we introduced the face recognition-based boarding procedures which have been adopted at several airports around the world, including both Narita and Haneda airports, as well as at other airports around the world After experiencing the live demonstration,, ministers from different countries got a better understanding of NEC’s vision of future airports and asked questions with regard to their own country's airports on how they can embark on their next travel journey with face recognition technology.

Demonstration of the gateless biometric authentication system held at the G7 Mie-Ise-Shima Transportation Ministers' Meeting

The acceleration of post-pandemic travel around the worldhas presented an unprecedented challenge to the travel industry as airports face staff shortages. Against this backdrop, face recognition-based boarding procedures like Face Express (*), which enable smooth boarding, have already been put in place. In the future, NEC will use gateless biometric authentication technology to enable more customers to not only check in quickly and smoothly but also to pay for purchases and meals at airports. This stems from our desire to create a world where you can use face recognition to complete procedures and make payments at hotels near the airport or even at home. For example, consider how short transit times can be and how problematic currency exchange can become if you don't understand the local language. However, after utilizing face recognition to easily verify a traveler’s identity during transits, you could enjoy seamless and hassle-free shopping and dining - without wallet or phones. We wish people could make the most of their short stay and have a memorable experience,” says Imaoka.

In recognition of his contribution to safety and security around the world through the practical application of highly accurate face recognition technology, in the spring of 2023, Imaoka was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon given to those who have made remarkable achievements in fields like science, art, and technological development.

“While NEC has been working on biometric authentication for about 50 years, we were constantly reminded that biometric authentication, especially face recognition would not be useful in the real world. Despite this, we persevered and pioneered the development and commercialization of this technology, and the award is proof of the appreciation of our outstanding achievements in this area. However, I can't obviously spread this technology all over the world by myself. In that sense, this award is not for an individual, but for our research team and for NEC as a whole.” (Imaoka)

Technology that opens a new world of possibilities and passing on the leadership baton

Looking ahead, in what direction will NEC develop face recognition and biometric authentication? Imaoka had the following to say about future prospects.

“Ordinary face recognition, complemented by gateless biometric authentication and multimodal authentication, can now be used in a wide range of applications for a more comfortable user experience. Thanks to that, possible uses have multiplied across countless environments.”

For example, visitors who have pre-registered and opted in to share their personal information with a theme park can now receive surprises on their birthdays and anniversaries upon visiting the park. Therefore, if facial information is used as a key and linked with personal information, it is possible to provide a personalized experience.

“Imagine a child’s joy and delight if their favorite character appears in the window of a ride they are on. And imagine that when a different child takes a peek out of the same window, a different character appears. I think that theme parks can offer a wide array of such experiences and services to suit individual tastes.

And if biometric authentication were to be combined with healthcare, face recognition may end up contributing to extending life expectancy, for example by making it possible to check a person's health status through their face. I would like to create such an exciting world with the latest technology." (Imaoka)

However, in order to pioneer such a new world, it is essential to nurture the younger generation. “I was motivated to continue to develop face recognition technology when I learned in 2004 that NEC's fingerprint recognition system was the top in the world and thought that it might be possible to do something interesting with face recognition technology too.

In recent years, NEC's iris recognition technology has been ranked No. 1 by NIST’s benchmarks, and this is also proof that the passion of our predecessors has been passed down to younger people. I hope that the biometric authentication technology developed by NEC will continue to be similarly handed down to the younger generation." (Imaoka)

While we move forward with such research and development, it also becomes necessarily have a frank discussion about its ethical aspects in the future. We have therefore undertaken activities to share insights and NEC's thought leadership on this issue, such as holding a lecture with Christian Beyson, CEO of the Danish Design Center, in February 2023.

“Biometric authentication is just a means to create a people-centered world which will increase safety, security, comfort, and convenience. If we can raise its social acceptance, we will be one step closer to a convenient, safe, and exciting world. However, face recognition is just the beginning. Its true value can be demonstrated only by combining it with other services and technologies. Based on this idea, we would like to further engage in co-creation activities with other companies in the future to promote it and expand its possibilities," said Imaoka.

Japan’s prestigious "Medal with Purple Ribbon" award is presented by the Cabinet Office to persons who have made outstanding achievements in science and technology, academia, and the field of sports and culture.

August 7, 2023