Just How Revolutionary Is Apple’s Face ID System?

Apple has created quite a stir with its unveiling of the iPhone X, and not least because of its Face ID facial recognition system.Just How Revolutionary Is Apple's Face ID System? Together with Apple’s framing of the issue, and the media response it has provoked, casual observers might be led to believe it’s a revolutionary new technology. But facial recognition in general has been around for decades, and has had a presence on mobile devices for years.

On Mobile, Software Has Led the Charge

Smartphone have long featured front-facing cameras for selfies, and that has prompted some enterprising tech firms to develop facial recognition systems entirely based on software that can be run on a standard phone. Daon, for example, was an early pioneer with its IdentityX platform, which combines face scanning with voice and fingerprint recognition capabilities, and has seen a range of deployments with high-profile brands such as Mastercard. FacePhi, meanwhile, has been pushing facial recognition software in the financial services sector, and Jumio has combined it with document reading for ID verification. More recently, FaceTec launched an SDK for a system that uses mobile video for 3D facial recognition. And Sensory, Inc. recently revealed a system combining facial and speech recognition technologies to create a mobile-based virtual bank teller.

Apple’s Rivals Anticipated the Shift to Face Scanning

Speaking of Sensory, it’s that company’s software powering the facial recognition capability of LG’s V30 smartphone, which also supports voice and fingerprint recognition. And Samsung’s latest smartphones, from the Galaxy S8 smartphones launched at the start of this year to its new Note8 device, also support facial recognition right out of the box. Whether these OEMs knew Apple was exploring facial recognition and sought to beat it to the punch, or they simply took the initiative to differentiate their devices from the many others that also support fingerprint recognition, they challenge the iPhone X’s claim to being the pioneer of mobile face scanning.

What is Different About Face ID

To be clear, Apple’s facial recognition system is different in at least one crucial respect: Its facial recognition system is based on a special infrared scanning system that projects an invisible grid onto a user’s face, allowing it to create a 3D biometric profile. While infrared sensors aren’t new to mobile devices, they remain uncommon; and while video-based facial recognition can also create 3D templates, the iPhone X’s infrared scanners can read the user’s face in light or dark conditions. And Apple says Face ID is accurate to one in a million users, which puts it perhaps several steps ahead of systems like Samsung’s, which that company says won’t be appropriate for things like mobile payment confirmation for years. It’s also worth noting that Apple has long shown a talent for branding that can bring a sense of novelty to things that aren’t new, at least among consumers.

None of this is bad news for the rest of the mobile facial recognition industry. Apple’s rising tide tends to lift all ships, and there already seems to be a shift underway in excitement for mobile facial recognition technologies in general, and not just those that require infrared hardware. Apple may not be the first to this frontier, but it is blazing a trail.