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Apple ponders facial recognition features for iOS

A new Apple patent details a system that uses front-facing cameras to keep an eye out for faces, possibly using the technology to unlock phones, and sign in users.

Facial recognition on the iPhone 4S' camera app.
Facial recognition on the iPhone 4S' camera app. Apple

Instead of sliding to unlock your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, you could one day simply point it at your face.

That future, which already exists on some devices running Google's latest version of Android, may end up on Apple's mobile software platform too.

A patent application, published today by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and picked up by Apple Insider, details a system of using on-board cameras to recognize when faces are in the frame, as well as recognizing whose face it is. It could then set up the device for each particular user's individual profile, or do something as simple as turning the screen back on.

Apple's patent diagram showing off low threshold facial recognition.
Apple's patent diagram showing off low threshold facial recognition. USPTO

Apple argues that its proposed solution runs counter to two existing classifications of facial recognition tools: "robust" ones that are "computationally expensive" (read: will grind your phone to a halt), and ones designed with security in mind but that happen to be mighty particular about the ambient lighting conditions.

Apple's system, which it calls "low threshold face recognition" claims to fall into its own category, handling various types of lighting conditions, and without over-taxing the hardware. The patent describes it as being nimble enough to work on "smart phones, tablet computers, laptops and the like."

Tech rival Google introduced facial recognition technology for its Android OS earlier this month with the release of the Galaxy Nexus phone. It uses the front-facing camera on the device to scan a user's face and cross reference it with what it has on file, unlocking the device for use when it finds a match.

The underlying security of the feature was immediately called into question, with users suggesting that it could be tricked with something as simple as a printed photo. That doomsday scenario played out in a video demonstration of such a trick working. Google responded by calling the feature a low security option, and less secure than a pattern, PIN, or password.

What Apple could offer in terms of security beyond what Google has is unclear from the patent, however the company makes mention of tracking skin tones and unique facial features to authorize a given user with access to that device.

The patent is of special interest given its filing near the end of June last year, some five months after a Wall Street Journal story which came just days ahead of the unveiling of the first iPad. In that story, which contained a number of correct details about the device, the Journal made mention of the company putting "significant resources" into making the iPad easy to share, including a feature that would recognize users with a built-in camera.

What ended up happening, of course, was that the first iPad shipped without any built-in cameras, or support for multiple users. While its successor, the iPad 2 came with two separate cameras, facial recognition and multiple user accounts remained out of the picture.

One thing worth pointing out is that Apple is already using face detection (which is not the same thing as recognition) on its latest smartphone, the iPhone 4S. The device is the first from Apple to pick up people's faces and set that as the focus point. Apple says it can handle up to 10 faces, putting the focus on "the most prominent" of the bunch.