Stories

How Apple is changing facial recognition with the next iPhone

Rebecca Zisser/Axios

While the broad outlines of the new iPhone are now widely known, both literally and metaphorically, some of its new features have to be seen to really be appreciated, sources said. That's especially true with the facial recognition that serves as the primary means of logging into the new iPhone.

The bottom line: Those who have seen the technology say it is light years ahead of anything that has been tried commercially. A good parallel is the Touch ID fingerprint reader Apple introduced with the iPhone 5s in 2013. There had been fingerprint sensors on phones before, but none with the speed and accuracy Apple introduced. Now Apple is doing the same for faces.

The iPhone's new facial recognition feature is the result of several years of evolution of the technology Apple acquired with its 2013 acquisition of Israeli 3D sensor company PrimeSense. At that point the technology was designed for larger devices and could detect bodies and body parts, but under Apple its capabilities have vastly expanded. Apple's face recognition technology makes use of several sensors on the front of the iPhone, as previously reported by Bloomberg.

Unlike the glitch-prone facial recognition technologies that are out there, such as the iris reader on the Samsung Galaxy S8, the facial recognition on the new iPhone has been trained to seamlessly handle things like eyeglasses and easily adjust to changes in appearance such as beards and mustaches, sources said. It's also extremely fast. And no, it's not likely to be fooled by a photograph, sources say.

The challenges: While Apple has been testing the technology against a wide range of skin tones and changes in appearance, real world conditions will surely throw things the technology can't handle. And Apple needs the technology to work as advertised if it is to replace its rock solid Touch ID as a means of unlocking an iPhone and authenticating Apple Pay purchases.

Apple has been testing the technology with some of its own employees but when it gets into the real world there will surely be issues that haven't cropped up in internal testing,.

There are other limits, including a few particularly tough lighting conditions and how far the phone can be from the face.

Timing: That's Apple's other big challenge: getting this new phone to market. The new iPhone, unlike the incremental updates to the iPhone 7, incorporates a bunch of new technologies. In addition to the face recognition, there is also the fact Apple is switching to a new screen technology and having the screen go nearly edge to edge on all sides. That makes for a much more complex manufacturing process.

As a result, the new iPhone may ship a month or more after the other new iPhones. That poses a tricky situation for both Apple and its customers. The company faces the risk that too many customers want to wait for the new model, freezing sales of the other models. At the same time, those who opt for the evolutionary upgrades may quickly develop buyer's remorse upon seeing the more radically improved model.

All three phones are expected to be introduced at a Sept. 12 event, along with updates to Apple Watch and Apple TV.

More stories loading.