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The patented technology behind the Face ID feature of the new Apple iPhone X

The iPhone X has now been announced by Apple, Inc. (‘Apple’) with expected fanfare. Most consumers will be interested in the new OLED screen and the elimination of the home button in the new iPhone X, but there is also an important new security feature in the new iPhone called ‘Face ID’.

‘Face ID’ is a security feature that replaces the Touch ID fingerprint scanner of earlier iPhone models with a new 3D facial scanning system. While the iPhone X is not being shipped until November, we can gain a better understanding of the operation of that scanning system by investigating the patenting activity of Apple, Inc. This company is a prolific user of the patent system, and new features of the iPhone will most likely be covered by one or more granted US patents or US patent applications.

Apple’s advertising suggests that ‘Face ID’ conducts 3D scanning using more than 30,000 infrared dots to create a precise depth map of the face. Apple has sought patent protection directed to 3D mapping. The most relevant of their patents and applications appears to relate to a method for depth mapping that involves projecting a pattern of infrared optical radiation onto an object (US Patent No. 9582889 and US App. 15/271,398). The application describes a method for depth mapping which combines the pattern based depth data with stereoscopic data obtained from a second image of the object.

The sophisticated 3D scanning conducted by the iPhone X is made possible by the sophisticated True Depth camera used on that phone which uses an infrared dot projector to create the 3D depth map. Apple considers that Face ID will provide better security than a fingerprint scan. Unlike facial recognition systems used in competitors phones, which rely on 2D images, the Face ID system cannot be fooled by using a photo of a person’s face.

A review of the various patent applications filed by Apple provides a better understanding of the technology behind features in newly released products, as well as up and coming products.

Monitoring the patent activity of competitors can help to gain a better understanding of the direction of their research and development activities, and can potentially provide advance notice of future features that may provide a competitive advantage for their up and coming products. This information can assist to better manage and direct one’s own research and development.

Michael Chin Quan, Senior Patent Attorney

2 October 2017