“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But sometimes, by breaking something, there might just be a better solution. And you’ll never know it till you try.
Face ID on the new iPhone X works the same way. Apple could very well have waited to implement a secondary (and reassuring) Touch ID sensor under the glass or simply move it to the back of the device like most Android phones, but they claim that they somewhere along the development of the technology, they felt that sweet spot of accomplishment. And now they’re (probably) never turning back.
However, Apple is also good at PR and marketing, so they do feel that assuring potential $999 and up customers of Face ID is the right way to go and answered some of the common FAQs to Tech Crunch, which is worth reading in full for an in-depth understanding:
On how it’s trained across a wide demographic:
“Phil mentioned that we’d gathered a billion images and that we’d done data gathering around the globe to make sure that we had broad geographic and ethnic data sets. Both for testing and validation for great recognition rates,” says Federighi. “That wasn’t just something you could go pull off the internet.”
There have been plenty of examples of theoretically accessible technology not living up to the actual cultural diversity of our world. A recent example that went viral was a soap dispenser that didn’t recognize a man’s hand because his skin was dark. Apple has gone through some efforts in hardware and software to make sure that this doesn’t happen with Face ID.
When it comes to customers — users — Apple gathers absolutely nothing itself. Federighi was very explicit on this point.
“We do not gather customer data when you enroll in Face ID, it stays on your device, we do not send it to the cloud for training data,” he notes.
There is an adaptive feature of Face ID that allows it to continue to recognize your changing face as you change hair styles, grow a beard or have plastic surgery. This adaptation is done completely on device by applying re-training and deep learning in the redesigned Secure Enclave. None of that training or re-training is done in Apple’s cloud. And Apple has stated that it will not give access to that data to anyone, for any price.
On security, law enforcement requests:
The simple answer, which is identical to the answer for Touch ID, by the way, is that Apple does not even have a way to give it to law enforcement. Apple never takes possession of the data, anonymized or otherwise. When you train the data it gets immediately stored in the Secure Enclave as a mathematical model that cannot be reverse-engineered back into a model of a face.”
“On newer phones like iPhone 8 and iPhone X, if you grip the side buttons on either side and hold them a little while — we’ll take you to the power down [screen]. But that also has the effect of disabling Face ID,”
On how well it works:
One anecdotal thing: If you lift your phone and swipe up immediately, there’s a good chance that the Face ID system will have performed its authentication fast enough to have unlocked your device by the time you finish your swipe. That’s how fast it is.
Face ID is not a simple image recognition system. It looks at a three-dimensional model of your entire face, recognizing features at a level of detail high enough that Apple is confident that masks will not fool it. It’s a different ballgame entirely.
What if you wear sunglasses or are visually impaired?
But the speed isn’t the only question. Sunglasses, for instance, are fairly commonly worn outdoors. Federighi had mentioned in an email to a user that “most” sunglasses would work fine. “There are some lenses whose coatings block IR. In those cases the customer can just use a passcode or take them off.”
He notes there are some people for whom the “attention” feature just won’t work. If you’re blind or vision impaired for instance, you may not be able to stare directly at the phone to communicate your intent. In those cases, where a face is recognized (even with sunglasses on), but it can’t see your eyes, you can just turn off the “attention detection” feature. You still get Face ID, but at a lower level of overall security because it’s not ensuring that your eyes are directly focused on it.
Tough luck for people who cover their faces (not to be confused with scarfs around the head):
“If you’re a surgeon or someone who wears a garment that covers your face, it’s not going to work,” says Federighi. “But if you’re wearing a helmet or scarf, it works quite well.”
This means that Face ID is not going to be a viable option for people who wear a mask for work or wear a niqab, for instance. They would need to use a passcode. Federighi notes that this limitation is similar to Touch ID, which simply didn’t work if you wore gloves or had wet fingers.
On the range of angles and distances:
“It’s quite similar to the ranges you’d be at if you put your phone in front-facing camera mode [to take a picture],” says Federighi. Once your space from eyes to mouth come into view that would be the matching range — it can work at fairly extreme angles — if it’s down low because your phone is in your lap it can unlock it as long as it can see those features.”
This is why it won’t work when you’re asleep if someone tries to unlock your phone, or if you’re talking to someone and a third party tries to point the phone at your face to unlock it. You have to be paying attention.
On additional benefits:
As far as the TrueDepth camera, there are also some side benefits for developers that use ARKit or the depth map to create effects.
“With both the rear-facing cameras and front-facing system [on iPhone X] we expose to developers a depth map, so ARKit will take depth from a photo and create a mesh, but it’s not raw sensor data. It’s depth that can be used for photographic effects,” says Federighi when I ask about other uses for the array. “It’s designed to be very good at close range where the rear-facing cameras are good at greater distances. It’s different technology with a different purpose — as far as selfie range — the probing dot pattern provides a great solution [for a depth map].”
And that by itself should be a no-brainer over Touch ID; I would bet that Portrait Mode with the selfie camera will be used far more than the rear camera.