Apple has been using facial recognition for some time to manage images in its iPhoto app, but a patent awarded to the company by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday combines that tech with facial detection to control a computing device.
Samsung has incorporated face and eye recognition technologies in its smartphones for a while, but Apple’s technology improves on what’s in the market now, according to the new patent.
It “addresses deficiencies in the prior art by providing systems, methods and devices that enable a personal computing device to detect the presence of at least one user, without the need for receiving active user input information, and control certain device operations depending on whether a user is present,” the patent says.
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Apple’s facial recognition system could be used to identify the authorized user of a device. It also could be used for giving a device a measure of situational awareness, the patent suggests.
For example, many users are familiar with the irritating tendency of computers to turn on their screen savers after a certain period of inactivity, whether they’re looking at the screen or not. With the system in Apple’s patent, a computer could override those screen saver settings if an authorized user’s face were in front of its screen.
The system also could be used to unlock a device when it recognizes the face of an authorized user, or log in a particular user on a machine used by multiple persons.
The system could be used to control applications on a device — log into a Web service without typing in a user name and password, for example.
The patent may be giving the public some insight into Apple’s future security plans for its hardware products.
“It’s a logical step for Apple in the sense that it’s another body part that it can use to ensure a greater level of security,” Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told us.
“These devices are beginning to hold our personal histories — our banking information, our social records, etc.,” Bajarin said. “The demand by the consumer over time is going to be that they want more security. Apple is anticipating that future demand.”
That demand can better be met by augmenting Apple’s existing use of biometric authentication — fingerprinting — with the identification of mugs.
“Facial recognition was less important to Apple before it had fingerprint scanning,” Michael Morgan, a mobile devices analyst with ABI Research, told us.
“When you combine two different pieces of biometric data, you get a stronger two-factor authentication procedure,” he explained.b”The fingerprint scanner in combination with a face scanner is a nice combination.”
Patents, however, do not a product make.
“Whenever I see someone saying they have a patent, I say, ‘so what?'” Gartner Vice President for Mobile Computing Ken Dulaney told MacNewsWorld.
“Until you’ve been to court or you scare someone to pay you licensing fees for it, it’s irrelevant,” he said. “The Patent Office is better than it used to be, but it’s basically a loose filter for things that might be patentable.”
Many patents are used to stake out territory for a company, rather than describe something that will end up in a product.
“Patents these days are purchased defensively,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst with the Enderle Group, told us.
“This allows Apple to put capability into a product and not get sued by someone else with intellectual property in the same area,” he said. “Security on smartphones and tablets is going to move to some kind of facial recognition technology because it’s easy, so this is Apple getting warmed up to that, and it wants to make sure it doesn’t get sued.”