Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was awarded a patent on Tuesday that may have just upped the iPhone security ante — because who needs fingerprint recognition technology when you have facial recognition?
According to Apple Insider, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple U.S. Patent No. 8,600,120 for “Personal computing device control using face detection and recognition.” The patent uses facial recognition technology to allow a computing device like an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to promise a secure operating environment, and it comes at no inconvenience to users.
Apple already rolled out highly anticipated fingerprint technology with its newest iPhone 5S device, but the latest patent shows that the company may already be preparing for new products down the line.
The patent awarded to Apple on Tuesday is different from those it has been granted in the past. The document notes two different processes covered by the license: face detection and recognition. Apple Insider reports that detection involves locating faces within an image, while recognition matches those faces with a person or user — the latter follows the former.
Apple’s patent then covers three distinct systems, a face detection decision application, a face recognition application, and an input/output control application. Separately, these pieces are useless, but together, they can recognize whether a user is authorized to operate a given device and then act accordingly, either activating functions on the phone or tablet, or disabling them.
The patent sounds complicated but may actually be significantly useful in practice, considering a user’s face can easily be detected in a defined area. The technology allows the detection application to scan a defined area in which a user is expected to appear. It then identifies a face by taking into consideration a number of matching techniques, including relationships of facial features and facial structures, and then determines whether a user is authorized to operate the device.
Apple Insider uses an example of an incoming call on an iPhone. If the phone determines that the person looking at the device’s screen is not an authorized user, the iPhone’s screen remains off, and only a ringtone is provided. On the other hand, if the person is an authorized user, the usual incoming call information is displayed.
The technology can apparently identify facial features like skin tone, shape, and skin texture, and it can recognize a face by comparing face feature vector data. Apple Insider explains that this information can be gathered from an image output by an on-board camera with stored vector data, and the vectors can range from face shapes to distance between facial features.
The patent goes on to describe the unique algorithm that uses face pattern recognition to “learn” a user’s face, but it is still unclear how Apple intends to use this new high-end technology. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has already employed facial recognition with its new Xbox One, as has Sony (NYSE:SNE) with its Playstation 4, but smartphone makers have yet to to dip into the market and launch a device that promises the facial recognition guarantee. Apple may be vying to be first.