A memorable moment in Pixar’s 2004 classic “The Incredibles,” seemed wildly futuristic at the time: Mr. Incredible picks up a thin tablet computer, and it scans his face to verify his identity before divulging his secret mission.
Thirteen years later, and our homes are filled with slim phones and tablets which can identify us personally with the press of a thumb, but mobile facial scanning is in its infancy; soon to become a way of life.
Passwords and even fingerprint identification will soon fade away along with multiple layers of sign-in requirements. Eventually, even physical keys won’t be needed to unlock our homes and cars.
A handful of laptops and mobile devices can now read facial features, and the technique is about to get a boost from specialized hardware small enough to fit into our phones.
An industry leader in mobile device chips, Qualcomm Inc. recently introduced its Spectra imaging system, which can extract depth information from objects — and that includes faces. The company plans to include the technology in a forthcoming generation of its flagship Snapdragon mobile processors.
Meanwhile, when firmware for Apple Inc.’s forthcoming HomePod speaker leaked online, developers spotted clues suggesting that an upcoming iPhone might have similar depth perception and facial recognition.
Facial recognition technology is increasingly built into security cameras around the world and can cross-reference pictures of your face against databases of millions, but this is different than surveillance equipment in that it doesn’t need to spot you in a crowd. It just needs to distinguish one face—yours.
Depth-sensing technology, generally called “structured light,” sprays thousands of tiny infrared dots across a person’s face or any other target, which helps the camera interpret what it’s looking at. Unlike humans, the phone’s camera can see infrared, which means this system could allow the phone to unlock in complete darkness.
Apple hasn’t even confirmed whether facial recognition technology will exist inside the widely expected 10th-anniversary iPhone, but the company has previously been granted patents describing nearly identical processes.
Meanwhile, Qualcomm says it plans to make its Spectra processor available for future Android phones. Previous Samsung image processors that did face recognition could be fooled by holding up a photo of someone’s face to a phone’s camera, so depth perception provides extra security to make sure the person looking at the phone is actually in-person. As a result, a 3-D printed mask wouldn’t be able to fool the system, but the company admits that identical twins might.
Teaching our phones what our faces look like will be just like teaching them our fingerprints, says Sy Choudhury, a senior director at Qualcomm responsible for security and machine-intelligence products. An image of your face is captured, relevant features are extracted and the phone stores them for comparison with your face when you unlock the phone.
Facial images would be securely stored only on the device itself, not in the cloud.
Laptops already use Microsoft’s Windows Hello face recognition for easier unlocking, and some devices are equipped with Intel ’s RealSense 3-D depth camera, which preceded Qualcomm’s Spectra.
As technology like this gets into the mobile supply chain, it will eventually spread until it’s a commonplace fact of life; appearing in camera-enabled smart doorbells and locks, as well as in smart speakers like Amazon’s camera-equipped Echo Show, where personalization would be a benefit.
According to Joey Pritikin, founder and co-chief executive of biometrics company Tascent, “The interesting thing about face recognition is that it has the ability to be much more ubiquitous than fingerprint scanning because camera sensors are that much easier to deploy. I think it’s just a matter of time before our daily routine will reflect a number of seamless biometric authentications.”
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