One of the biggest features of Google and Samsung’s new Galaxy Nexus phone is its face unlock feature: using the device’s front-facing camera, users can unlock their phones just by showing it their faces. Though the feature is not without its flaws (apparently it can be unlocked using a picture of the phone’s owner), it is one of the more interesting features of the new phone. It is also one of the most unique features, since none of the Galaxy Nexus’s competitors have anything like it yet.
Now, however, it looks like Apple may be looking to get into the facial recognition business too. Today the US Patent Office published a patent application (PDF) filed by Apple in June 2010 for “Low Threshold Face Recognition.” The application covers “[m]ethods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs” to provide “reasonably effective (low threshold) face recognition.” While images from the application appear to focus on the technology’s use in iOS devices, it could certainly be adapted for Apple’s computers as well.
A flow chart also included in the application shows the process by which the technology will recognize users’ faces. The software will check a number of factors, including skin tone, and perform a simple comparison with stored profile photos.
Normally Apple’s patent applications, though noteworthy, should not be used for speculation about upcoming products in the short-term. For example, on Tuesday we ran a story about a patent application Apple filed covering fuel cell technology in mobile devices. Normally such applications only mean that Apple is exploring a certain kind of technology, and that we should not expect to see it any time soon, if at all. This case might - just might - be a little different, however. For one thing, Apple filed this application eighteen months ago, which means that the concept has been on the company’s radar for even longer. Also, there’s the presence of the technology on the Galaxy Nexus. Now that the Android operating system has the capability, you can expect to see it cropping up on new Android-based phones as quickly as their manufacturers can crank them out. That being the case, it is at least possible that we will see some sort of face recognition technology in next year’s iPhone.
Now, that is still speculation - this is just a patent application, after all. But it is a particularly interesting bit of news.