Houston’s Zenus Brings Facial Recognition Software to Event Check-Ins

Houston—For all the technological innovation on display at the annual South By Southwest Interactive festival, registration and check-in is still largely done the old-fashioned way.

Similar to other large conventions, an attendee waits in line, hands over an ID to a registrar, gets a picture taken for a badge, and then receives the usual conference swag bag.

Now, a Houston startup called Zenus says it can use imaging technology to automate steps in the process, reducing the time and effort required to check in. “The check-in process is the first thing attendees experience at the venue; it’s very important to get it right,” says Panos Moutafis, co-founder and CEO of Zenus.

It works like this: Attendees have registered for a conference ahead of time, providing pertinent personal information and uploading a photo. On-site at the conference, that person steps up to a device—usually a tablet—where a camera scans the person’s face, using the image to call up her information and completing the check-in process digitally. (An attendant is nearby to help if needed.)

Eventinterface and Mitingu are among the organizations that have used Zenus’s cloud-based facial recognition software. Earlier this month, Moutafis traveled to London to attend the International Corporate Event awards, an industry conference of predominantly in-house corporate event organizers.

Zenus provided the software to event organizer Ya-Ya Regie, which incorporates Zenus’ API into their own platforms for free in exchange for advertising at the event, Moutafis says. “Some of the event planners who attended represented companies such as BBC, EY, Barclays, Bayer Life Sciences, ITV, Stroke Association, Universities UK, and RBS,” he adds. “It was important for us to get our name out there.”

(Zenus’s core business model is software-as-a-service, where customers pay fees to license and use the company’s digital tools.)

Moutafis says the trial run was successful. More than 26 organizations contacted the conference organizers about the software, he says. “People loved the system,” he says. “The organizer told us that it was five times faster than typical scanning methods.”

Traditional check-in processes using QR codes or printed tickets can take more than a minute per person, Moutafis says. At the London conference, videos of attendees checking in showed the process being completed in about 20 seconds. Moutafis recommends event coordinators use one scanning device per 100 attendees to keep lines from getting too long.

That experience has led to Ya-Ya Regie being a paying customer with plans to use Zenus’ system for upcoming conferences for Hyatt hotels and the commercial real estate firm CBRE.

Zenus has also developed a second, “premium,” version of its software. That version, which is now available, conducts check-ins in real time, authenticating attendees as they walk past the camera.

Facial recognition technology is also a more secure alternative to current practices; QR codes are easily shared, Moutafis says.

“We don’t transfer any e-mails or names, just the images,” he says. “There is no personal information transferred from the platform, just the ‘face geometry’ that distinguishes individuals.”

Moutafis adds that a third-party, whether that’s someone at an event-planning organization or a hacker, can’t reconstruct the original image, using this “geometry.” That’s because the process of taking an image and turning it into this face geometry is a one-way street, Moutafis explains. “The process can’t be reversed,” he says.

Moutafis, a native of Greece who came to the University of Houston in 2011 to work in its Computational Biomedicine Lab, founded Zenus last year and has so far raised funding from private individuals. (He declined to specify the amount.)

The idea to use facial recognition technology first came to Moutafis and co-founder Rakshak Talwar while waiting in line at Houston’s NRG Stadium. “One thing that most people agree on is that waiting in line is frustrating,” he says.

Zenus’ solution is simple, he adds: “You just need your face; that, and an Internet connection.”

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