Another year, another iPhone update purporting to "revolutionize" the smartphone game. The big new thing in this round of updates (unless you're excited by bezel-removals) is the replacement of fingerprint access with a new facial recognition system. It's undoubtedly a high-tech addition, but is it anything more than a gimmick?
Apple is known for its big technological gambits. After helping defining the path of modern technology for the first decade of the new millennium with its iPod, iPhone and iPad, the company has been desperately trying to maintain its role of technology leader and not fall into the category of follower. And so, at the big launch of the new iPhone, we were triumphantly introduced to Face ID, a key function in the new iPhone X, replacing the Touch ID fingerprint technology.
"Face ID is the future of how we unlock our smartphones and protect our sensitive information," declared senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller during theproduct launch. Of course, moments later during the onstage demo the Face ID system embarrassingly failed before a backup phone was swiftly snapped up to show it actually does work.
Face recognition technology has been floating around the periphery of smartphone innovations for a few years now, albeit in a more primitive form than what Apple has revealed. When a Samsung Galaxy S8 user demonstrated earlier this year how its face recognition system could be tricked with a simple photograph the company quickly followed up by suggesting it wasn't the highest level of security the device could offer.
In announcing Apple's new phone range, a much more sophisticated system was revealed. The iPhone X has several sensors packed into the device, including an infrared camera, dot projector, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor. In scanning a user's face the device projects 30,000 infrared dots that are used to create a complex 3D model of the face.
The system is called TrueDepth, and it can supposedly track a user's face accurately even when the user is wearing glasses, a hat, in low-light conditions or in the presence of unexpected facial hair. The system is also claimed to have been tested thoroughly on detecting fake 3D models of faces created by Hollywood special effects artists.
So despite the amusing demonstration error during the launch, it seems the technology is strong – or at least the most advanced we have seen delivered commercially to consumers thus far. Apple is so confident that the Face ID system is the future that it is connecting it to Apple Pay and opening it up to third-party apps.
But how secure is it?
Apple claims the 3D Face ID generated by the device will not be uploaded to the cloud, but will be stored locally on the user's phone. This will avoid the reasonably widespread cloud hacks that have been occurring in recent years, but that surely doesn't mean the data is completely secure.
Another concern is how easily someone could be forced into unlocking their phone. Be it the government or a street thief, this system seems much easier to circumvent than a pin code or a fingerprint. Apple demonstrations seem to show the iPhone X being rather swiftly opened with a simple glance, suggesting it wouldn't be too difficult for someone to steal your phone and unlock it with a straightforward wave past your face.
Privacy specialists are already voicing concerns at the degree of detail in the system's facial scanning technology and what this could mean in terms of nefarious surveillance or advertisement tracking. For the system to work it would potentially need the tracking cameras to be always on, something that is bound to be concerning to many people.
The most fundamental question to ask here is, do people want this? Is this a technological innovation that will make our lives easier or is it a flashy gimmick with mostly negative side effects?
Of course, the answer is subjective, but it's hard to make an argument that the Touch ID system was a huge hassle. How many seconds were you wasting with your finger on the home button? This new facial recognition feature arguably doesn't save any time for the user. So why do we need this? Innovation for innovation's sake?
Apple is gambling big on Face ID. Bigger than when it dropped the headphone jack last year. Touch ID was an efficient and easy way to unlock a phone. Removing it and replacing it with Face ID may backfire and simply push people back to good, old passcode security. Or maybe Apple has again made a prescient prediction and such technology will become standard in the coming years.