Is facial recognition Apple’s next big innovation refinement?

iPhone 4S

Apple has a track record of taking products that work but haven’t caught on and redesigning them to give them the appeal that makes them catch fire with the general buying public. The iPad is one good example, and Siri is another. Now, there’s a new patent that suggests Apple could tackle facial recognition next.

A patent application published by the USPTO on Dec. 29 and spotted by Patently Apple describes a system for presence detection that builds on two earlier patents Apple filed related to the technology, but this time with a specific take aimed at its use in mobile devices. Prior patents dealt with presence detection on MacBooks, and advanced recognition systems for use in processor-heavy home and business applications, but this one combines sophistication with a light footprint for practical, everyday mobile use.

Source: Patently Apple

Having recently used the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for a while, what Apple’s new patent proposes to fix about presence detection sounds appealing. It describes a system in which lighting conditions, angles and scale could all be accounted for, making face recognition usable on mobiles without strict caveats and conditions. The Galaxy Nexus’s ICS face unlock feature is cute, but that’s about as far as it goes, since it fails to match in most cases and also can be fooled with a still photograph of the subject who set it up.

Apple’s new method would use shortcuts to accurately determine who’s using a device, without requiring the heavy computational costs normally involved in such a process, by ignoring face biometrics and judging the position of features to compensate for changes in subject orientation. Other advantages include a built-in feature that judges a person’s level of attentiveness when using the system, which could help it avoid being duped by still photographs.

The new patent also describes other neat tricks, like recognizing other faces among your family members, friends and co-workers and delivering different screen savers or non-secured information to those individuals. That’s a great step for shared use devices, and sounds like it could even eventually be used to set different parental restriction levels for family members who share an iPad, for instance.

Apple specifically envisions the tech for use in iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and MacBook devices, and although patents sometime never see practical application, this one does seem both useful and realistically achievable in the next couple of years. It would definitely add to Apple’s personal edge in combination with its Siri assistant, and could make iOS devices even more accessible to a broader swath of the population than they already are.

What do you think? Is this the next place we can expect Apple to take a good thing and make it better?

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