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Apple gains facial recognition patent

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Just another pretty face? That may be just fine for your iPhone. Apple recently landed Patent Number 8,600,120 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a facial recognition and detection system that may someday be the way you unlock your phone and its apps.

If this sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before. Google also holds a patent for this kind of facial recognition technology although it's not entirely clear how the two patents are different. Google won the race and was awarded theirs first—but only if the two giants are the only dogs in the fight. Samsung, for example, has also made this kind of app available before now.

The current state of patent law in the United States is confusing at best. It's sort of a “shoot first, ask questions later,” situation in which patents are granted provisionally and then challenged afterwards. Patent trolling and battles are both common occurrences, and this could easily happen here. Issues that will matter will include whether there are original differences between the facial recognition technologies described in the patents and when the applications were filed.

If Apple has any advantage here it is likely that they know who to buy up in support of their ventures. Apple recently purchased PrimeSense, the company connected to Microsoft's first Kinect sensor. Based in Israel, PrimeSense is a motion-sensing hardware and software firm whose facial recognition technology makes the Apple patent look rudimentary. This purchase is most likely part of an overall plan on Apple's part to train their sights on user input innovation—a smart move.

Facial detection and facial recognition are two different things, and detection is actually sort of the first step in recognition. For a device to detect faces it looks at images and locates faces within them; recognition takes the next step and matches those faces with specific users. Obviously if a device has facial recognition, detection is part of its process.

The Apple patent itself is really for three different systems, and according to the application it is designed to improve device security and convenience. First the patent concerns the facial detection app, and second it includes the recognition app. It also has an app for input and output control. This part simply controls data input and output based on the user authorization granted or denied by the first two apps.

How sophisticated are the facial detection and recognition components of Apple's patent? They will be able to use a variety of facial feature data including facial shape, skin tone, and skin texture, along with their own internal learning models. They will also assess things like the distance between facial features.

Practically, the device will ideally “sense” when a face is there—or isn't. If you're getting an incoming call but someone other than you is looking at your screen, this technology is designed to keep your screen off and produce only a ringtone. This would work in a similar way for email; only if your face was present would part of your incoming message show up in your locked screen. Naturally, there will be a variety of personalized settings for these apps.

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