Apple faces our hidden future. This week, the company began testing new software for the iPhone This will allow device owners to unlock the handset while wearing a face mask. There is one catch, however, which fits with Apple’s strategy of locking people into different Apple products and emphasizes how difficult it can be to develop accurate facial recognition technology: the new face unlock feature requires a Apple Watch.
The first developer beta of iOS 14.5 includes updates to app tracking and Siri controls in addition to the face mask feature. App makers usually have early access to the latest version of ios in order to launch or re-equip their applications well before the official release of the software. (Brave souls who don’t mind the risk of potentially breaking their iPhones can also sign up for public beta releases.) The full version of the software is expected to be released to the general public this spring.
This means that by the time most people install the latest version of iOS on their iPhones, we will have been wear masks for a year or more to help prevent the spread of Corona virus. Compared to all the other ways the pandemic has changed our lives, having to use a method other than Apple’s Face ID to unlock your iPhone isn’t a major downside. Still, it’s frustrating to hold your phone to your face to remind yourself that Face ID won’t work because of your mask. The promise of facial recognition technology – which coexists with very valid concerns about its misuse and its error rate for people with darker skin– is that it’s supposed to get smarter and better over time.
With the upcoming software update, Apple is more or less shifting the authentication burden to the Apple Watch. If you are using a newer iPhone model (one with Face ID), have the iOS 14.5 beta software installed, and you are wearing an apple watch with watchOS 7.4, lifting the locked phone to your face will trigger some communication between the phone and the watch. The phone unlocks. The watch will also display a notification that the phone has been unlocked. An iOS developer described it to WIRED as an experience similar to unlocking a Mac with an Apple Watch.
As Mac 9to5 Notes, this is the second change that Apple has made to its Face ID authentication system to accommodate face masks. Last spring, the company released software that made it easier to avoid using Face ID while wearing a mask, by showing the iPhone passcode screen after Face ID first failed. Still, these updates have their limits. New Face ID-with-Face-Mask feature will only work with phone unlocking. So if you are using Face ID for Apple Pay transactions or to sign in to third party apps, you will still need to authenticate in some other way.
But the bigger question is why Apple relies on the Apple Watch to unlock iPhones with face masks, instead of releasing software that simply recognizes the uncovered part of a person’s face. At the time of publication, Apple had yet to respond to WIRED’s questions on this matter. Experts say there are a lot of ethical and technical considerations when deploying any facial recognition technology, but when it comes to performing facial recognition on partially covered faces, it’s especially difficult.
Anil K. Jain, who studies computer vision, machine learning, and biometric recognition at Michigan State University, says that despite advances in facial recognition over the past five to ten years, it is still “sensitive to occlusion, which is what part of the face is not visible. In most cases, the technology assumes that the person will remove their glasses and face covering, the lighting will be even, and the expression will be neutral, like a passport photo. “