iPhone X First Look: Let's Talk About That Whole Face ID Thing...

The iPhone X's Face ID camera module has received a bit more press than Apple probably intended. The facial recognition security tech was the whiz-bang feature that caught everybody's eye during the Tim Cook and friends keynote -- and later it was repeatedly fingered as the culprit behind the long-rumoured iPhone X shortages and delays. So what's the deal with it?

All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

I picked up an iPhone X review unit yesterday afternoon from Apple, and the first thing I did -- the first thing I needed to do -- was test out the much ballyhooed Face ID (a more complete review will happen once I've actually had a few days with the damn thing). The better camera and the gorgeous display are definitely crucial features, but no component of the iPhone X is more critical to its long-term success than Face ID.

This is Apple's next big stab at biometric security, and if the company flubs it up, if a cheap sensor in the Home button is a better solution than a delicate sensor array in the display, then Apple's has built nothing more than a really nice Galaxy S8.

And that can't happen. Apple's strength isn't in bleeding edge hardware, it's in the most friendly user interface and experience available in a phone today. The new Face ID module should allow you to just glance at your phone and swipe to access your home screen. But is that easier than a fingerprint sensor really?

I should note, that Face ID is also supposed to make the phone more secure. Touch ID is definitely neat, but has always been fairly susceptible to spoof attempts. Nasir Memon, chair of the New York University Tandon School of Engineering spoke with Gizmodo earlier this year and explained that Touch ID actually takes multiple tiny photos of a person's fingerprints. "What it's doing is capturing small, small squares -- little partial fingerprints," he said.

According to Apple, that means there's a one in 50,000 chance that stranger can access a phone via Touch ID. With Face ID, Apple claims that number jumps to one in a million. (Though Apple says the number falls significantly if you have an identical twin or other relative with remarkably similar features).

Setting up Face ID is as easy as looking at the camera and slowly turning your head.

But it needs to see your entire face to work, and as we approach winter, you start to see some of the shortcomings inherent in the new technology. Both Touch ID and Face ID require you to remove your gloves, but, as I noted in a test this afternoon, Face ID also demands you lose the scarf over your nose or the hat pulled down past your eyebrows.

In fact, for all of Apple's bluster, in some situations, Face ID starts to feel less convenient. I can't blindly unlock my phone while it's still in my pocket, and because you have to swipe up to unlock the phone, it feels like there's an extra step sometimes when I unlock the iPhone X.

In regular practice, Face ID actually works almost perfectly much of the time. I don't even think about it. I tilt the phone towards my face and swipe. No patient holding of a button. The little lock at the top of the display simply switches over, and I'm in. To my amusement, it even unlocks if I make a funny face, and I've got to admit, having my phone unlock while I'm doing a monkey face is a delight.

Best yet, it works totally well even in situations when you would expect a facial recognition system to definitely fail. Trying to open my phone in pitch black room or after whipping my glasses off my face? No problem!

Glasses are an important thing to discuss, though. I've only had the iPhone X a few hours, and it's taken that long for the Face ID module to understand the big planes of plastic in front of my face. After the initial setup of Face ID, in which you rotate your face slowly while staring at the camera, the technology takes time to learn your features, becoming smarter the longer you use it.

That means the first time you try to open your phone in a dark room, or while wearing glasses, it might fail. But after you've done it a few dozen times, it knows your every contour and crevice, and, according to Apple, it might even work when you have a monster beard or forget to Nair the mustache your hirsute genetics gave you.

But this was only at the beginning of my week with this phone. I'll report back as I've had more time to play with the device, and I learn more.


    it works totally well even in situations when you would expect a facial recognition system to definitely fail

    Actually, I'd expect it to fail in bright sunlight and that is where most struggle. Especially with the sun behind you. In a dark room it should be close to its best because they system is in complete control of the light source (i.e. the IR LED).

      In bright sunlight surely trhere is more IR spectrum light to aid the facial recognition? I wonder if you sat in a room only lit with a bright IR light it would fall over?

        I think in some outdoor situations there can be too much and it actually overwhelms the sensor, e.g. especially if the light is from behind the user where it can't make out a face through the backlight. That's my experience with Windows Hello (which is a similar system to Face ID) and iris scanners (which also use IR).

        I'm sure Apple has done a lot of work on usability but that would still be my expected test case for things to fail. A dark room is where I would expect them to work best.

        From The Verge's review:

        "I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and Face ID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and Face ID also got significantly more inconsistent."

        The facial recognition is a mapping of your face from 'echoes' of IR sent by the sensor. High ambient IR could drown it out. Overall, so far it doesn't seem very convincing that it's any better than iris recognition (which works with my glasses). Iris scanning is highly secure, projects IR and needs the phone to be lifted towards your face. On the Note 8 it;s very fast and works nearly always, which sounds like the best case for 'FaceID'.

        The IR sensor works by pulsing tiny dots of IR light at the face then measuring the deformation of these dots to create a facial contour map.

        If there is a lot of ambient IR light, then this will obviously interfere with the sensing, as it will overwhelm the dot map generated by the sensor.

    A lack of multiple faces limits its use in my case - my wife and daughter regularly need to unlock my phone. Ah well.

      I think you can still fall back to PIN? And still need a PIN set up to use Face ID. Just like with Touch ID currently. Face is convenient for you but others who need access can use PIN.

        Fall back solutions aren't really solutions when you're talking about a $1579/$1829 device.

          Not for the primary user sure, but this will work fine for the primary user and the issue is only for secondary users. A phone is generally considered a personal device for the primary user. Touch ID probably gives the option to register the fingerprint of another user? (I've never tried) So you do lose some convenience there.

    My family use my pin to unlock, touch ID is just for me really.

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