The iPhone X has now been in the hands of reviewers for just over a week and in the hands of real-life customers for a bit less than that. A lot is different, but the focus of many early reviews was Face ID, the most significant change of all. In a way, Face ID is the “mother of all changes” for iPhone X. Because Face ID replaced Touch ID, the UI on iPhone X has been redesigned with new gestures that let you navigate the content on your phone effortlessly although those gestures are still somewhat foreign to users.
Some of the reviewers tried to spoof the iPhone X using hats, scarves, sunglasses even masks and twins with some of the commentary turning negative if Face ID failed to work under those circumstances.
I am as blind as a bat, and I usually wear contact lenses, but in the evening or when I travel I do wear glasses. Like many women, I also wear makeup and wear my hair in different ways. Looking different is a real life thing for me so figuring out if Face ID worked in all of those occasions was not just an interesting experiment, it was a necessity. Face ID worked better than I expected. My expectation was what it would fail in a similar way that Windows Hello had been doing on my PCs before I could train it every time I was wearing glasses by having the camera re-scan my face. But Face ID needed no training.
If you watched the excellent video that The Verge posted, you see the amount of technology that is involved in making an identification every time you engage with Face ID to unlock your iPhone X.
Here's how the iPhone X's Face ID works pic.twitter.com/GmOPZpKLgF
— The Verge (@verge) November 5, 2017
Failure to Authenticate is by Design
There was one time when Face ID did not work for me. It was the morning after getting the iPhone X when I woke up in a dark bedroom and like always do I reached out and grabbed the phone that was sitting on the bedside table. The room was dark, I had no makeup on, my hair was a mess, and I was squinting adjusting to the brightness of the screen. Face ID did not authenticate me and why should it?
— Carolina Milanesi (She/Her) (@caro_milanesi) October 31, 2017
Husband joke aside, why would we expect something different from Apple’s technology that we do from any other ID service? Look at what most governments require as a suitable picture for a passport:
- Your head must face the camera directly with full face in view.
- You must have a neutral facial expression or a natural smile, with both eyes open.
- Taken in clothing normally worn on a daily basis
- You cannot wear glasses.
- You cannot wear a hat or head covering.
- You cannot wear headphones or wireless hands-free devices.
Face ID works by taking a mathematical model of your face and checking it against the original scan of your face that you registered for Face ID on your new iPhone X. Thanks to the TrueDepth camera this is not just a flat image but a depth mapping of the face and all the features that make it up. It also uses Attention Awareness, which means it uses your eyes too so that if you are not looking at the screen, your iPhone X stays locked.
When you understand how the technology works you know why Face ID should not unlock your phone if you have a scarf covering half of your face or glasses that prevent Face ID from seeing your eyes, or even if you try to use it when you first wake up in the morning, and your face is half buried in a pillow. If you think about it, this is not very different from how Touch ID works. If your finger was wet or too cold or you had a cut, Touch ID would not authenticate because your fingerprint would be different from the one you registered when you set it up.
We also know that for some changes, you can train Face ID. Say, for instance, that you start wearing glasses or you start growing a beard, or you change your haircut, for all those things you can train Face ID. As every time you enter your pin code after Face ID does not unlock your phone, you are telling the neural networks that it was indeed you who just tried to use Face ID to unlock your phone. This explains why twins who share their passwords might be able to open the other sibling’s phone. This way of training compared to Windows Hello, where I need to go into settings and rescan my face, also underlines the machine learning aspect of Face ID.
So, while Face ID’s refusal to let us into our own phone might be an inconvenience, it is absolutely how I would want it to work to feel confident that my phone remains secure.
Building Trust for the Future
Building trust around Face ID is paramount for Apple. First, because they took away Touch ID when nobody asked. We were all very happy about how Touch ID worked and more importantly we all knew and trusted it was secure. Second, gaining trust now is vital to building a foundation for the future.
It is reasonable to think that, as the technology matures and costs are coming down, Face ID could trickle down in the iPhone portfolio. Maybe not all the way, as for now, at least, some people are just not comfortable with it. It is also natural to expect Face ID to be added to the iPad Pro so it would gain more screen real-estate without making the overall device larger. I also see some interesting use cases with Attention Awareness when it comes to page scrolling or app switching that Apple might want to explore on iPad. The same can be said, of course, about the Mac where I personally would love to be able to use Face ID to log in and bring up a specific setup or user. I know that Apple will always prefer if we all had individual devices but some larger and more expensive devices are shared in the home and Face ID could become not just the way into the device but also a personalization tool.
I also do wonder about use cases in the home where Face ID and voice could work together to provide added layers of security to access certain things from the front door to content on your TV. A long way away? Maybe. But what really matters is that whenever the technology is ready for us, we are ready to embrace it because we trust it and this is precisely what Apple is working on right now with Face ID on the iPhone X.