What do the stars of futuristic thrillers such as “The Matrix” and residents living in a multifamily property in the year 2012 have in common? Both will likely use biometrics—retina scans, thumbprints, and other biological data—to gain access into secure areas such as apartment buildings.

Global biometric revenues are projected to double—to more than $7 billion—by 2012, according to the International Biometric Group, based in New York. With interest in the technology on the rise in the private sector, some companies are looking at the multifamily housing industry as a potentially lucrative market. “Eventually, [the industry] will have the technology as it becomes more cost-effective,” says Dan Haefner, senior vice president and CIO at Lane Co., Atlanta, Ga.

A number of factors, from cost to privacy concerns, prohibit widespread implementation of biometrics in the industry today. Haefner readily admits that his company isn't currently courting biometrics-based solutions for security. And Greg McDonald, the chief technology officer at Camden Property Trust in Houston, notes that Camden is still putting more effort into traditional solutions like key fobs and electronic card keys. But that doesn't stop vendors like Ingersoll-Rand Security Technologies, Protection One, and Ultimate Systems from touting the access control aspects of their biometrics technology. The challenge for high-tech companies is to close the gap between the obstacles and the needs facing the multifamily housing industry.

BIOMETRIC HURDLES Today, biometrics has been put to work primarily for government applications. The Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 in 2005, for example, called for all government agencies to submit a personal identification card plan for workers, and many will include biometric information.

In the multifamily industry, though, biometrics-based security is largely confined to a smattering of high-tech buildings in high-profile cities such as New York. Although security tops the list of reasons for the industry to consider biometrics, one of the most notable uses of biometrics in apartment living today contains an equal dose of economic sense: blocking nonresidents from entering the fitness center at an Archstone-Smith property in Manhattan. After all, unlike with keys and smart cards, residents can't hand their thumbs or retinas over to friends, family members, or anyone else.

Biometrics nearly always ensures that the person presenting the body part at the door is the person on file who has access rights. For security-conscious residents, that can be a big plus. “It can be a selling point if it works,” says Chris Acker, manager of ancillary services at Forest City Residential Management in Cleveland.

Proponents note that biometrics can be worked into almost any existing security scheme by attaching a bio reader—instead of a card reader or similar device—to existing wireless and wired systems.

So what's the holdup? Predictably, cost leads the charge. While the price tags on smart card readers have dropped down into the hundreds of dollars, biometric readers, such as those for thumbprints or retina scans, cost somewhere in the thousands.

Many property management companies and developers find it difficult, if not impossible, to justify the high price tag if the security risk is relatively low. “So far, I can't think of one incident in an apartment setting where something like this would have prevented an incident from occurring,” says McDonald.

Then there are the technical glitches. Although residents will not leave home without their eyes or thumbs, those elements are subject to change. An injury to the thumb, for instance, can throw a thumb scan off and block a resident from access to a building or apartment unit.