One of the major new features expected in the next iPhone is a new way to unlock the smartphone: with your face.
At first blush, this may not sound like a big deal. Android has had a version of facial recognition in its operating system, called Face Unlock, since 2011. Samsung, Apple's chief smartphone rival, has its own version of facial recognition — as well as iris-scanning and the standard fingerprint reader.
But, thanks to major advances in face-scanning technology, this method is on the rise — and Apple is not the only company interested in taking a new look at the technology. Several companies, including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and Citibank have piloted or launched programs that use the technology as a means of verification in the past year.
Companies have been pitching facial recognition as an easier and more efficient way for consumers to verify their identity. Yes, you may have to hold a phone at an odd angle to line up your head just right. But there are no pins, no passwords. Unlike with fingerprints, you will never forget which face you've programmed into your phone.
In the past, there have been limitations. Hackers thwarted facial recognition sensors with photos or videos of a phone's owner. Hats or even certain skin tones bewildered sensors. And, of course, there's the problem of identical twins — a relatively rare, but real authentication problem that could come up.
But recent advances in facial recognition technology have addressed some of these issues. Depth-sensing cameras, which are used in advanced scans, are able to chart a sort of three-dimensional map of a face, rather than simply relying on images. That makes it harder to fool. Even twins often have slight differences in their bone structure or head shape, which make for a much more accurate individual identification. An accessory may still throw off a sensor's recognition, experts say, but not as easily. So, while not perfect, facial recognition is becoming more than just a gimmick.
Apple has acquired at least two notable facial recognition companies in recent years, including PrimeSense, which developed the original face-sensing and motion-sensing Kinect for the Xbox. Apple also bought a firm called RealFace, which specialized in security applications for facial recognition. Both firms have worked extensively on facial recognition technologies that wouldn't be fooled by a photo or video, for example.
The push behind that move is simple, said Gene Munster, managing partner of Loup Ventures: Apple wants to deliver a bigger screen.
On current iPhones, the fingerprint sensor is in the home button on the front of the phone. But Apple is said to be ditching the home button completely, as part of a goal to make the front of the phone nearly all screen and give users more room on which to browse, watch video and buy apps.
The company's goal is to “make things more secure and also to advance the design of devices,” he said.
Adding facial recognition — at least of the kind expected in the next iPhone — should accomplish both.
Apple declined to comment.
If Apple uses facial recognition for payments and purchases, it would be a first. Samsung told the Korea Herald in April that it doesn't need advanced facial recognition for banking, thanks to the existence of other “high-level biometric technologies" such as iris- and fingerprint-scanning.
Other companies have used facial recognition for identification, including from airlines at check-in and from MasterCard, which has a program called “Identity Check” that lets you verify purchases with a picture. (This is more informally known as “selfie pay.") In MasterCard's case, the company tries to get around fraud by asking users to blink at certain times, to verify that they are a live person.
These programs, however, use facial recognition as just one option for biometric security, giving consumers other options. For the iPhone — if rumors are true — facial recognition may be the only biometric option.