Apple recently launched their biggest and most expensive iPhone ever, iPhone X, touting it as “the future of smartphones.” One the main features alongside the completely bezel-less front display are what they call Face ID, a facial recognition technology for unlocking the phone and other authentication requiring tasks such as payment with Apple Pay.
Facial recognition authentication on smartphones is not a new thing. Samsung has had iris scanning since as early as last year with the Note 7 and full face recognition on the Galaxy S8 devices and the recently launched Note 8 this year. And although they did actually work quite well too, they had their limitations and were mostly regarded as the usual Samsung gimmick. But now that Apple is doing it, you’ve got to take it seriously, right? Because that’s what Apple does: it picks up existing premature technology and refines it to make it a quality product. The post Steve Jobs Apple at least. They’re not really so much about innovation anymore. But they always have and still continue to be quality. You know it’s real when Apple’s doing it. Which is why it’s still always exciting when Apple does something new even though it maybe something already present in the market for a long time.
But that’s not the only reason you want to take Face ID seriously. Apple didn’t just add Face ID as a fun new additional authentication feature to the existing Touch ID like Samsung did. They replaced it. That’s a huge move. Funny they didn’t mention anything about “courage” this time.
Considering all of this you expect Face ID to be really good. And it does look very promising. It’s got way more than plain digital image processing using the front camera like the usual consumer level face recognition technologies. That’s what Samsung’s is and it’s slow and can be fooled by an image. FaceID makes use of what Apple call a TrueDepth Camera system housed entirely in the tiny black intrusion you see on top of the display. It includes the front camera, an infrared camera to take an infrared image, a flood illuminator to detect your face and a dot projector which projects thousands of infrared dots onto your face. The face data is processed with neural networks (artificial intelligence) and the data set they use is supposed to be very advanced consisting of over a billion faces from all over the world (diversity is critical for face recognition). Face ID works in the dark too and is very fast as we saw in the demo. It adapts to your facial changes over time and is not affected by minor changes like a haircut or facial hair or wearing glasses.
But in spite of everything, in the end, it still is face recognition and no matter how good you make it we still have the unavoidable limitations face recognition as a function has.
Although it may really seem that way a lot of the times, just because a product or service is more ‘technologically advanced’ does not also mean it is automatically superior. You can’t stress that enough in today’s consumer electronics industry. What makes a product good is, of course, its usability. The fingerprint sensor was perfect. Almost magical in how fast it was. It was the best thing to happen to smartphone hardware in recent years.
It’s hard to say too much about Face ID until we actually get to use it but let’s try and do a comparison based on what we know.
Up until now with Touch ID, what you had to do to unlock your phone was to hold it and do this whole thing where you moved your entire finger over to place it on the home button. But thanks to the engineers hard at work at Apple, you don’t need to perform that extra finger placing step with Face ID, right? Wrong. You actually need to do more now. What you need to do now is all the things you did before and then additionally, after you’ve placed your finger at the bottom of the screen (instead of a home button), you then also have to drag it upwards (swipe up gesture). But we’re not done yet and this is the worst part: you also need to be aiming it at your face while you do it. That is an actual inconvenience. Suppose the phone is on a table, thus facing the ceiling. Will you need to pick it up and point it at your face to unlock it? Probably.
So in terms of convenience, it seems to be a total bummer compared to Touch ID since it clearly takes more time and effort.
According to Apple the chances that a random person can unlock your phone with Touch ID is 1 in 50,000 compared to 1 in 1000,1000 for Face ID. While this sounds great it is a pretty irrelevant statistic. Uniqueness does not directly equate to security. Because after a point, it doesn’t matter. 1 in 10,1000 is way more than what you probably need.
But Face ID does beat Touch ID here in a way. Consider that someone wants to gain access to personal data on your phone. They need to first steal your phone and then unlock it. If your iPhone is protected with a pin, that is almost impossible to do as we saw in the FBI case with the San Bernardino shooter. If it is protected with Touch ID, though, they just have to collect your fingerprints from the thousands of places you leave it on every day, make a mold and use it to authenticate Touch ID. With Face ID though, even if they somehow got your face data well enough to make an accurate mask (which itself is a difficult job. Where does one go to make masks? finger molds are easy), Face ID cannot be bypassed by masks according to Apple. Considering this you can say Face ID is more secure than Touch ID.
I must mention here that your face data, just like your fingerprint data is stored in the “Secure Enclave” of the iPhone’s SoC which is a very advanced security architecture almost impossible to break through and the data is also never sent to the cloud.
Coming to a more immediate security concern and a much more likely scenario: what if just someone around you like your friends or family wanted to get into your phone? All they really have to do once they get hold of your phone is get you to look at it. This is as easy as picking up Jony’s iPhone, shouting out “Hey Jony” and holding up the phone screen when Jony turns to look in your direction and you’re in! This should actually work given how fast it seems to be from the demo but we can’t be sure yet.
Also if you’ve ever had to close your fingers in a tight fist with all your strength while your friends tried to forcibly unlock your phone via your fingerprint that is going to you change to you trying to keep your eyes shut in the same situation. Face ID does promise to be a whole lot of fun at least.
This is a very obvious problem with having face recognition on smartphones and Face ID doesn’t do anything to resolve it. The issue once again here is with you having to aim the phone at your face. With Touch ID, you could unlock your phone from literally any position as long as you’re holding it. Suppose you’re in a meeting or in a class. You’d probably find it very difficult to lift the phone in front of your face to unlock it.
There has also been speculation that the device will actually throw visible light on your face if you use Face ID in the dark in which case it creates a huge problem for using it in dark places like a movie theater. But I don’t believe that is true. People were misled by the taking the illustration they showed for the working of the Face ID literally. Anyway, Touch ID definitively wins this one hands down.
This is one aspect where being ‘technologically more advanced’ usually equates to gains. And that is the case here too: Face ID definitely looks ‘cooler.’ Samsung’s face recognition didn’t. It was slow and awkward. But Face ID is fast and it looked quite futuristic in action at the demo.
Touch ID didn’t work through gloves or mittens. Face ID probably will not work when people cover half their faces sometimes in extreme climates or through burkhas. Probably not even through dark sunglasses.
Irrespective of Face ID, the TrueDepth Camera system behind it is an amazing hardware feature that creates a lot of good application opportunities for developers. Some of which they did demonstrate especially Animoji—3D animated emoji that mimic your face movements by mapping 50 facial muscles.
I think Face ID is a great feature and Apple has done an amazing job making face recognition a workable feature. But as a replacement to Touch ID, it’s probably not there yet. I realize they had to remove the home button to go bezel-less. But all other phones that did that included a fingerprint sensor at the back. Of course, none of them had an alternative as good as Face ID, but I don’t Face ID is good enough either.
Failing to work in the very first attempt at their demo doesn’t help either, although, Apple did later clarify it was not a fault of the phone.
Of course, like I mentioned in the beginning, all of this is early speculation. We will know for real only when the phone comes out in November, reviews are made, and we use it long term. Let’s hope it’s better than we think.