Will Apple Take Facial Recognition Mobile?

Apple has a track record of taking products that work but haven’t yet caught on, then redesigning them with the appeal that makes them catch fire with the general buying public. The iPad is one example and Siri is another. Now there’s a new patent that suggests Apple could next tackle facial recognition.

A patent application published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Dec. 29—and spotted by Patently Apple—describes a system for presence detection that builds on two patents Apple had already filed related to the technology, but this one has a specific take aimed at use in mobile devices. Prior patents dealt with presence detection on MacBooks and with advanced recognition systems for use in processor-heavy home and business applications. This one (see graphic) combines sophistication with a light footprint for practical, everyday, mobile use.

Having used the Samsung (005930:KS) Galaxy Nexus for a while, I’m pleased to see what Apple’s new patent proposes to fix about presence detection. It describes a system in which lighting conditions, angles, and scale could all be accounted for, making face recognition usable on mobiles without strict caveats and conditions. The Galaxy Nexus’s ICS face-unlock feature is cute, but that’s about as far as it goes: It fails to match in most cases and can be fooled with a still photograph of the subject who activated the recognition feature.

Working Around Biometrics

Apple’s new method would use shortcuts to accurately determine who is using a device without requiring the heavy computational costs normally involved in such a process. It achieves this by ignoring facial biometrics and assessing the position of personal features to compensate for changes in subject orientation. Other advantages include a built-in feature that would evaluate a person’s level of attentiveness when using the system, which could help the system avoid being duped by still photographs.

The new patent also describes such other neat tricks as recognizing faces among family members, friends, and co-workers, then delivering different screen savers or non-secured information to those individuals. That’s a great advance for shared-use devices. It sounds as if it could eventually be used, for instance, to set varied parental restriction levels for family members who share an iPad.

Apple specifically envisions the tech for use in iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and MacBook devices. Although some patents never evolve to practical application, this one seems both useful and achievable in the next couple of years. It would decidedly add to Apple’s personal edge, in combination with its Siri assistant, and could make iOS devices even more accessible to a broader swath of the population.

What do you think? Is this the next technology in which we can expect Apple to make a good thing much better?

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