SEP 21, 2019 3:42 PM PDT

Unlock Your Smartphone with Earbuds?

WRITTEN BY: Nouran Amin

Visit any public space from coffee shops to the library and you will come across multiple people wearing earbuds or earphones. This inspired computer scientist Zhanpeng Jim, from the University at Buffalo (UB), to begin a unique project. "We have so many students walking around with speakers in their ears. It led me to wonder what else we could do with them," says Jin, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

This inspiration led to ‘EarEcho’--the biometric tool led by Jin’s research team and are now creating new uses for modified wireless earbuds to authenticate smartphone users via the geometry of their ear canal. The prototype was proven 95% effective and described in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. The findings have led to UB's Technology Transfer Office to file a provisional patent application for the technology.

How does EarEcho work? The anatomy of EarEcho includes off-the-shelf products, such as in-ear earphones and a tiny microphone. This allowed researchers to develop acoustic signal processing techniques that limit noise interference along with models that share information between EarEcho's components. For example, once a sound is played, it will propagate through allowing reflection and absorption by the ear canal.

"It doesn't matter what the sound is, everyone's ears are different and we can show that in the audio recording," says Jin. "This uniqueness can lead to a new way of confirming the identity of the user, equivalent to fingerprinting."

Credit: University of Buffalo (UB)

Information that is collected through the microphone and sent by the earbuds' Bluetooth connection to the smartphone—for analysis. The device was tested by 20 subjects who listened to audio samples including speech, music and other content. Tests were conducted in different environmental settings such as coffee shops, walking on the streets, or shopping malls. EarEcho was proven to be 95 percent effective and gives 1 second of time to authenticate the subjects—this allowed 97.5 percent effectiveness.

How EarEcho can be used? It can be used to unlock smartphones! Such capability can reduce the need other security measures such as passcodes, fingerprints, facial recognition and other biometrics. "Think about that," says Jin, "just by wearing the earphones, which many people already do, you wouldn't have to do anything to unlock your phone. EarEcho, which works when users are listening to their earbuds, is a passive system, meaning users need not take any action, such as submitting a fingerprint or voice command, for it to work.”

Source: University of Buffalo

About the Author
  • Nouran is a scientist, educator, and life-long learner with a passion for making science more communicable. When not busy in the lab isolating blood macrophages, she enjoys writing on various STEM topics.
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