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Monday, Oct. 27, 9:27 a.m.
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Dining has no qualms with palm scans

: Unlimited meal plans to demand hand readings by fall 2011

Jamie Ford gets his hand scanned at York Dining Hall. The new biometric hand scanning technology allows students to access meal plans without having to use a MaineCard.
Haley Johnston
Jamie Ford gets his hand scanned at York Dining Hall. The new biometric hand scanning technology allows students to access meal plans without having to use a MaineCard.

University of Maine Dining Services is testing a program for entry to its facilities that could replace the use of MaineCards with a “hands-on” experience for students with meal plans.

Over the next month, Dining Services will be testing a pilot program that uses a scan of an individual’s palm in place of his or her MaineCard. The program uses infrared technology to recognize the meal plan user’s palm and links that image to that person’s MaineCard account.

“Instead of swiping your MaineCard, the program is going to identify you by the palm of your hand,” said Benny Veenhof, director of technology management at UMaine. “It takes a snapshot of the veins and creates a black pattern that it then converts into an encrypted algorithm.”

Veenhof said each hand scanner will resemble a bucket and will be placed next to the cash register. Upon checkout, students will be asked to place their hands in the bucket, allowing the scanner to read their palms in seconds.

The computer will have access to all of a student’s meal plan information. Students with resident meal plans will have to sign up for the program and have their hand scanned into the database at no cost in order to use meal plans next fall.

Dining Services advertised times last week for students wanting to register early. The staff plans to offer more registration periods during new student orientations as well. Students who did not make last week’s sign-ups can get their hands scanned in the Student Service Center on the first floor of the Memorial Union.

Veenhof said the registration process should be easier than obtaining a new MaineCard. Students who scanned their hands into the database last week will be part of the pilot program for the rest of the semester.

“This is a pilot program, as we are testing its effectiveness out for the next month,” said Kathy Kittridge, director of operations for Black Bear Dining. “We anticipate it will be successful but want to be sure it will work for our needs, so we have introduced this now through the rest of the semester.”

She hopes the trial period this spring will help Dining Services work out any kinks in the system.

“We do have 650 people signed up to trial it through the semester,” Kittridge said.  “If people have concerns, I welcome them to contact me so that I can address those.”

Veenhof said the purchase and installation of the hand-scan technology will cost roughly $5,000 — a relatively inexpensive cost, according to his calculations.

“It’s not as if Dining Services spent a lot of money on this,” Veenhof said. “We’re using our existing system as is. It is just a little addition which translates your palm into your MaineCard number at the register.”

In order to pick the right program, Veenhof said he and other staff members traveled to multiple universities to investigate what was being used at these locations. He pointed out most of the systems they looked into would require a new computer system. Along with installation expenses, the program could cost more than $15,000.

“This technology, believe it or not, is being used all over the country in middle schools in lunch programs for small kids,” Veenhof said. “It intrigued us that it is a middlewear solution, so we can just plug it into our existing [system] so it is a lot cheaper that way and it is as secure and safe as can be.”

The hand-scan program is one of several changes Dining Services will be making to its operations by next year. These changes include an unlimited meal plan that allows students to eat as many times as they like throughout the day at the Hilltop, York and Wells dining commons.

“We’re going to be changing to a new, unlimited meal plan for next year,” Kittridge said. “This program will help us with the speed of our service as well as accurately identifying students on meal plans.”

The new hand-scan program is being implemented in hopes of preventing students from passing MaineCards on to others so they can receive free meals. In the long run, ensuring a student’s meal plan is only used by that student will save Dining Services money and keep prices as low as possible.

“This system allows us to accurately identify the meal plan holder for this plan,” Kittridge said. “The more misuse of MaineCards and meal plans means the higher the cost for Dining Services, which eventually causes us to have to raise prices.”

Kittridge added that Dining Services plans to maintain prices for meal plans with no increase for next year. The hand-scan program is a major factor in making this financially possible. She explained that the misuse of a meal plan by one student could cost UMaine thousands of dollars.

“If the meal plan purchaser shares their meal plan for the full year with someone else by passing off their MaineCard, this potentially increases our costs by $4,100 just on this one misuse alone,” Kittridge said, adding that this system will help eliminate such misuse. “Those who purchase a meal plan will have three additional guest meals next year, which is the appropriate use for sharing a meal plan.”

She added that, along with the money the hand-scan system could save by helping to eliminate misuse, the speed of service and the convenience of the program helped make it an easy choice.

Kittridge said this program will not eliminate jobs for students because the cashier is still needed to validate the transaction at the register and MaineCards will still be needed for certain transactions involving Black Bear Bucks. She added that if for some reason a student cannot use the hand-scan system, a MaineCard would still be effective.

“The majority of the people I talked to saw how quick it was and thought it was kind of cool,” she said. “If you forget your MaineCard, you will always have your hand.”