The new Apple patent concerns a system which scans the user’s face with the front-facing camera of a smartphone, and unlocks the device if the face matches one which is stored in an existing photo. The patent is called “Locking and unlocking a mobile device using facial recognition”.

Apple Selfie Patent
Image: USPTO

Automatically unlock your iPhone with your face

The wording of the patent says that existing unlocking methods are “inconvenient and time consuming,” and Apple now has a method for automatically unlocking a device. The system involves “capturing an initial image while the device is locked, monitoring a motion state of the mobile device to determine whether the device is moving or is motionless; analyzing the images to detect a user’s face and unlocking the device.”

Interestingly, an almost identical feature known as “Trusted face” is already available to users of Android Lollipop. Android Ice Cream Sandwich featured Face Unlock, but the later version improved on the feature. Once the screen of an Android device is enabled and the camera is held in front of a user’s face, the screen unlocks automatically.

The system relies on the user enabling the screen by pressing the power button on the device. Apple’s potential system would instead track the movement of the phone in order to determine whether it is in use or not, without the screen being enabled.

Apple pioneers fully automated unlocking

An Apple user would simply have to move the phone in front of their face for the camera to start scanning, and the phone would only unlock if the angle of the face is the same, or similar to, the one stored on file.

“In one embodiment, the image is analysed for a facial profile of a human face, without regard to a specific user. The predetermined facial profile may be determined from an image that was previously captured by the device’s camera and stored in a storage of images of authorized users,” Apple explained.

It appears that multiple faces could be added to the feature, just as multiple fingerprints can be added to the Apple Touch ID system. Each authorized user could also be associated with a specific profile which allows access to certain apps, allowing for greater parental control, for example.