How will Apple replace FaceID now we’re wearing masks?

Apple needs to find a way to make FaceID actually useful when wearing masks, and manual passcode entry isn't it.

Apple, iOS, iPhone, Face ID, Touch ID, Covid-19
Apple

Apple’s FaceID just isn’t what it used to be. Millions of iPhone users are now wearing masks, which means we need to enter passcodes manually to unlock our phones – making Touch ID more relevant than before.

Apple recognizes the challenge

We know Apple appreciates the problems of wearing masks during the pandemic.

Apple’s iOS 13.5 update now understands when you are wearing a mask and immediately defaults to the manual passcode screen when using FaceID on an iPhone.

This answers a pressing need, but also shows us how great technology can be overtaken by events.

Is the age of FaceID already over?

FaceID is such a useful technology. A glance at your display and your iPhone springs into life.

Want to disable it temporarily? Just press the volume up/down and power buttons together until the Medical ID screen appears.

Most savvy iPhoneistas have been using the latter trick to disable FaceID when wearing masks as they attempt to protect others against accidental transmission of COVID-19. What’s sad about this is that the need to wear masks means FaceID won’t be anything as useful as it once was for some time.

What can Apple do instead?

All of the speculation I’ve seen around the next edition iPhone 12 suggests the company will retain FaceID in the device. The thing is, is that really what you need?

After all, when in transit more people will likely prefer to wear a mask than not, given the cost of treatment, which means they will need to open their phones the old-fashioned way – with a passcode.

With enterprises, service providers and others making more and more use of FaceID for access to important apps and online services, the importance of Apple’s authentication tech can’t be overstated.

That’s why Apple must already be considering how to replace or improve FaceID with a technology that provides convenience, security and works with masks.

There are three solutions it may be exploring.

  • A revised FaceID system developed to work with masks.
  • In-display fingerprint authentication.
  • Retina scans.

Revised Face ID

It is questionable if the 3D sensing technologies Apple has developed for FaceID can deliver the same ‘one in a million’ level of protection the technology now provides if it is given a more limited set of data to use.

Can the top half of a face alone deliver this?

In-display fingerprint authentication

Apple was originally thought to be developing in-display fingerprint authentication in advance of the introduction of iPhone X. Did it stop working on it then? It seems not, given an April 2020 report that suggested the company planned to introduce this technology within at least one 2020 iPhone model.

However, with face mask use making the TouchID-capable iPhone SE 2 an easier to launch device than your $1,000+ iPhone X series device, Apple may want to consider making in-display Touch ID available across a wider range of iPhones. These will likely rely on some form of haptic or ultrasonic under-display sensor.

Retina scans

Apple has another alternative – retina scans. While patents don’t always become products, a recent European patent filing from Apple references a biometric retina scanner in a description of some kind of new Touch Bar system. It is also interesting to note the retina-like appearance of QR designs we were recently told form part of Apple’s AR app, allegedly called "Gobi."

However, where we are at the moment is that if you are a responsible person wearing a face mask to prevent accidentally infecting others with an illness you may not know you carry, and you are using an X-series iPhone, you’ll be getting used to typing in your passcode manually – which is a real chore when you follow the best securty advice and use a lengthy alphanumeric ID.

Because FaceID is now a solution to a problem from a different time.

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