With the launch of the iPhone X back in 2017, Apple introduced a new way of biometric authentication to the iPhone lineup called Face ID. Enabled by the TrueDepth camera system, this feature has since replaced Touch ID on each numbered iPhone model and even made its way to the iPad with the massive redesign introduced to the iPad Pro series in 2018. But five years on, is Face ID really as revolutionary as Apple made it out to be and how much better has it become?
Well, this article will try to answer that question by exploring how Apple enhanced this form of authentication while navigating through the problems it posed (and still faces), giving you an overview of its current state. I’ve also included information about its working and pointers on how I would like to see Face ID improve in the coming years.
What makes Face ID possible?
Hardware Behind It
Apple’s transition to Face ID brought a drastic change to the iPhone. The Home Button and massive top and bottom bezels were gone. And to replace them, Apple introduced the infamous notch at the top, while the rest of the phone used a uniform black bezel — a look I honestly didn’t mind, as it was nice to see something different after years of similar-looking phones.
Now, housed within that notch are the components responsible for Face ID. The TrueDepth camera system mentioned at the beginning of this article consists of a Dot Projector, Infrared Camera, Flood Illuminator, and a 12MP front camera. These components generate information that works with the Neural Engine on your iPhone’s A Series Processor to unlock the device. We will elaborate more on this in the next segment.
How does it work?
Face ID begins the unlocking process when you glance at your device. Following the look, the Flood Illuminator detects the presence of a face and shines it with infrared light; this allows the infrared camera from the system to capture an IR image. Following this part, the Dot Projector shoots 30,000 IR dots at your face to create a unique pattern of the various surfaces — your phone also stores this information.
The collected data is then sent to the Neural Engine on your iPhone’s SoC to create a mathematical model of your face and its features. Henceforth, whenever you try to unlock your iPhone, the device performs each of the mentioned steps in real-time and compares the generated result with the one stored on the device. A match lets you in, whereas multiple wrong attempts will disable Face ID and require the passcode configured during setup.
Is it safe to use Face ID?
While Face ID has its shortcomings, the overall convenience and security it affords users are real — especially in situations where your fingers may be wet or in those where you’re unaware of what is happening around you.
Face ID is built to require user awareness to function as intended, giving it a significant advantage over fingerprint scanners. Thus, if your eyes are closed or you’re asleep, no third party can come and unlock your device.
Apple also has the following safeguards built to disable Face ID to prevent unauthorized access:
- The device has recently been turned on or restarted.
- The device has not been unlocked in over 48 hours.
- The passcode hasn’t been entered to use the device in the last six and a half days, and Face ID wasn’t used to unlock the device in the last four hours.
- Remote Lock has been activated for the device.
- There have been five unsuccessful attempts to match face data.
- The Power Off or SOS mode has been initiated.
As for the mathematical model, that entity is stored locally on your iPhone and is accessible only with an encrypted key available to the Secure Enclave in Apple’s SoC. So privacy-wise, Face ID is a significant step up, though the presence of mask mandates in regions across the world did throw a wrench in its functioning until Apple came up with some ways to circumvent the situation.
Evolution of Face ID
Now that you’ve brushed up on your knowledge of Face ID and its workings. Let us jump into the part of the article where we go over how it steadily improved to reach its current state.
Year 1 – The Introduction of Face ID
Face ID’s first year in public was one without too many changes. The period went by with exploring the capabilities provided by the authentication system, like quick access to passwords, purchase approvals, Animoji & facial expression tracking, and other features. Though, most of these were already available with Touch ID.
Overall this year ended with Face ID having somewhat-positive reception, but there was some disenchantment due to the back burner treatment Touch ID began receiving. Also, Face ID was not seen as the perfect replacement for fingerprint scanners owing to slow unlocking in unfavorable lighting conditions or other suboptimal situations.
Year 2 – Face ID on iPad
In 2018, i.e., the second year of its availability, Face ID received two improvements, one that didn’t have an extremely significant effect and another that gives us hope for improved unlocking mechanisms.
September featured the launch of the iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max, which gave us access to the A12 Bionic. This chipset came with an 8-core Neural Engine that Apple claimed would make Face ID faster — it can complete five trillion operations per second compared to 600 billion on the A11 Bionic. To its advantage, reviewers mentioned that Face ID did feel snappier, but the next improvement Apple introduced in 2018 was the cream of the crop.
In October, Apple unveiled a redesigned iPad Pro with a near bezel-less look, and in its small display borders was Face ID hardware that allowed the device to unlock regardless of the held orientation. It featured an A12X Bionic SoC, so the improved Face ID speed was already there, but the freedom of unlocking your device from landscape or portrait was great!
I still use my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro and don’t really see the need to upgrade my tablet. Though I do wish my iPhone 12 (released in 2020) had the same Face ID capability.
Year 3 – Faster Recognition with iOS 13
In Year 3, Face ID didn’t see any hardware changes, but the improvements on the software end brought about a whole new feeling. Journalists and reviewers reported that the unlocking tool now “just works.” And the user experience was miles apart if you compared any new iPhone with the iPhone X, which featured the first-generation hardware supporting Face ID.
Apple made a carefully worded statement saying that there was an “up to 30% improvement in speed” on all devices with Face ID running iOS 13. The update had the most profound effect on the latest (at the time) iPhone 11 Series.
Year 4 – Face ID assisted by Unlock with Apple Watch
Unfortunately, Year 4 is when the bubble around Face ID came tumbling down, as, in March 2020, countries around the world began implementing mask mandates to deal with the explosive spread of COVID-19.
During this period, every time a user needed to unlock their iPhone, they would have to wait for the initial scan to fail, bringing up the passcode prompt or make a second tap to skip right over. A hassle when you’re already struggling with long queues and time constraints.
The situation led to several call-outs, asking Apple to improve Face ID to work with face masks, and slowly but surely, the company did deliver a solution. Although it also stuck to its guns by only offering a fingerprint-based authentication method on iPad Air and iPhone SE. Other iPhones and iPad Pro models launched in 2020 still depended upon Face ID.
Hence to assist users in accessing their smartphones quicker, Apple introduced Unlock with Apple Watch for iPhone. This feature allowed users who have paired Apple’s wearable with their iPhone to bypass the stringent checking of Face ID — allowing them to keep their mask on and still scan their face.
If a mask is noticed and a paired and unlocked Apple Watch is within range, your iPhone would let you in and provide a short vibratory feedback on your wrist. The vibration was a response on the Apple Watch to bring your attention to a prompt indicating that your iPhone is unlocked. If the unlock was an error, you could quickly lock your iPhone via Apple Watch to prevent unauthorized access.
Using this prompt also disables Face ID, requiring you to enter your PIN the next time you try to unlock your phone.
Year 5 – Face ID with Mask
Now, while Unlock with Apple Watch allowed you to get into your iPhone, access to banking applications, Apple Pay, Keychain, and other such features were still limited. But with iOS 15.4, Apple introduced Face ID with Mask for iPhone 12 and later.
Note: Hardware-wise, Face ID saw its equipment shrunk by 20% and fit into a smaller notch on the iPhone 13 lineup. There were no claimed speed improvements.
This latest update to Face ID uses an additional set of facial scans (explained in the beginning) to collect data for a mathematical model that focuses on unique characteristics around your eyes. The update also means users can now authenticate payments and access banking applications with a mask on!
iOS 15.4 has been a godsend! Here in India, shopping at supermarkets or street stalls was always a task. In addition to holding several bags, I often found myself doing some sort of gymnastics to pull down my mask and authenticate into Google Pay to complete the payment process — waiting for the passcode prompt was an annoyance.
This has been dramatized a bit, but if you depend on mobile payments, you probably know what I’m talking about right?
Regardless, the fifth year is still ongoing. While we don’t think we will see any more substantial changes to the authentication system until the next iPhone launches, Face ID with Mask has been a long overdue update, and we’re glad it made its way to iPhone.
What’s next for Face ID?
Improvements we’d like to see!
Before we end this article, five years on (or nearly five), Face ID is finally at a place where it can function and deal with most obstacles the current world can throw at it, but there is still some room for improvement.
Over the coming years, I would like the hardware to become capable of scanning my face at more challenging angles. Essentially, I shouldn’t have to lean over to get my device to unlock. It would also be a positive if iPhones allow users to pass through when held in landscape. iPads can do this due to the less stringent space constraints, and I hope the over-engineering geniuses at Apple can do this for the iPhone too!
And how can I forget the Mac lineup! The latest MacBook Pro already has a notch, so they’re halfway there (joke intended), while the iMac has a decent bezel. Face ID on these devices, while not entirely necessary in my opinion, would still be great to have!
These wishes are probably at the top of the list for many of our readers, but if you have some of your own suggestions, feel free to let us know in the comments below. Perhaps we can have a great discussion over the tech that we love and use.