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Picture passwords help to unlock a new layer of design meaning

Ever forget your password? Or your pin number?

Or your mother's maiden name? These errors are so common that experts now agree that they may not be early indications of Alzheimer's disease after all, which is a relief to those of us who have been worrying about the connection. Better still, research into the problems caused by this sort of security failure has been going on for some time.

Unhelpfully, the most popular password in the English speaking world is 'password' so the problem is to encourage the individuality necessary to enable identifiers like the above to do their job, without actually making the job itself more complicated.

Perhaps the best known outcome of this research was demonstrated by Microsoft last year. The system in question was based on the use of invisible click points on a single complicated image - typically an anatomical drawing, an engineering cutaway or an architectural working drawing with many service overlays - thus dispensing with combinations of letters and numbers altogether.

To create a password, the user would simply click on two or three of the numerous line concentrations, nodes or spaces within the image and consign them, and the sequence in which they had been clicked, to memory. When accessing the system the user would then do his or her best to click on the same points in the same sequence.

This was the basic principle, but because it was always highly unlikely that the user would click on exactly the same pixel each time, in its most sophisticated form the system could be made to accept clicks on pixels within a given range of the target point and still recognise the user. Provided the original image had enough concentrations of detail to make 'shoulder surfing' unrewarding (eavesdropping over the user's shoulder), it was claimed that three or four clicks on a screen-size image was as secure an access system as a typical eight-character password. Furthermore, adding more click points could always increase security.

In the same way the choice of image could become important as a means of increasing or decreasing security. Nonetheless, according to reports, Microsoft will now develop the pictorial password project chiefly as a software package designed to help the selection of the best images for optimum speed and security, rather than as a complete nonalphanumeric password system.

There are, however, indications that the criteria used will surface in other fields as well.

The use of architectural working drawings, for instance, not only holds out the promise of a digital evaluation system for measuring and altering the complexity of images but for the design of facades as well. It offers a means of obtaining a neutral assessment of structures on an 'events per square metre' basis.

In this connection, the increasing use of abstract alphanumeric information in building facades may simply represent another approach to this same new 'dialup'hierarchy of complexity.

The richness of this approach in terms of art appreciation had already surfaced in the earlier research, but the contrast in complexity offered by the stark horizontals and verticals of an abstract by Mondrian and the numinous wealth of representational paintings by the Breughels or Hieronymus Bosch is no more striking than the contrast between a villa by Le Corbusier and a Gothic cathedral.

What the system can do for architecture in the future will be to add a third dimension to the imagery selected by the process of security itself - a new layer of meaning accessible by way of something dismissed as a humble screen saver for years.

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