Apple Patent Shows iPhone Facial Recognition for Security

A new patent application filed by Apple Inc. shows that the company is working on ways for its iOS devices to use both the presence of a user and the face of that user as a security feature. The method described includes detecting the presence of a person, matching the face of that person to a normalized image of the device’s owner, and even determining intent based on facial expression to unlock the device.

Apple Patent Figure

Apple Patent Figure, as republished by PatentlyApple
(Click the image for a larger version)

As with many patent application, this one lays out the problem the invention seeks to solve. Namely that existing facial recognition methods either require a high computer processing tax or require such things as specialized lighting or locations.

As noted in the comments below, for instance, Google’s Android offers a feature in Ice Cream Sandwich called Face Unlock for some devices, including the highly touted Samsung Galaxy Nexus. That feature has had a rough launch, and (as noted by PC Magazine) it can currently be circumvented by a photo.

Apple wants to overcome these, and other issues the company thinks are shortcomings in existing facial recognition security implementations with a series of steps it said offer a better solution.

Discovered by PatentlyApple, the new application was filed in the second quarter of 2010, and published on Thursday, December 29th, 2011, by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. It describes a series of steps, as illustrated in the figure below, that a portable iOS device can use to compare a target face to a test face. The patent text goes on to specify a number of different tests that can be performed on the images to determine if the user is authorized on the device in question.

The application also describes methods for recognizing the presence of someone in the first place. In addition, the invention would allow the device to determine intent, which would be useful for separating someone walking by or just looking at the device from someone intent on actually using it.

One figure, as seen below, shows how these methods could be used to provide a customized interface, greeting, or configuration based on the individual recognized. This has implications for devices where multiple users are authorized to use it.

Apple Patent Figure

Apple Patent Figure
(Click the image for a larger version)

PatentlyApple has more details on the workings of the patent.

We’ll also add a couple of caveats. The first is that this is a patent application, not a granted patent. It could take years before it is granted, and it’s always possible that it will not be granted at all.

The second caveat is a reminder that Apple files for hundreds of patents every year. Some of them are for features in shipping products and some of them are ideas that will some day be included in a shipping product.

Most, however, are not; they are simply inventions Apple’s engineers developed in the course of researching some new idea. As such, those inventions may or may not ever see the light of day in the form of a shipping product.

If this one makes it onto the market, however, it could mean that rather than swiping to unlock a device, we could unlock our iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads merely by looking at them.