The iPhone’s Incompatibility with Masks

It is harder for phones as well as people to recognize us when we’re masked.

 

When Apple introduced its facial recognition/unlock feature in the iPhone X in 2017, it did away with the formerly present fingerprint sensor.  This is unlike every Android phone I’m aware of – although many Android phones also offer a face-unlock feature, they all still have a fingerprint sensor – either invisibly under the screen, on the side of the phone, or on its rear.

A physician pointed out a problem with his iPhone.  Many medical professionals are spending much of their days with a mask on at present, and when they try to unlock their phone via facial recognition, the phone doesn’t recognize them because of the mask.

This is probably unavoidable.  Masks can take various different shapes and sizes and outlines and colors; it would be almost impossible to recognize a person wearing a mask because the mask part of their face looks different with every wearing.  The only approach would be to ignore the masked part and match only the remaining visible facial features above the mask.

Unfortunately, it is more difficult to reliably recognize a face when all you can see is the forehead, eyes, and the start of a nose.  Most facial recognition algorithms work on the relationship between ears, eyes, nose and mouth.  The reduced number of reference points by taking out most of the nose and all of the mouth makes both false positives and false negatives more likely, and at present we’re unaware of any phone-based facial recognition that will work with a partially visible face.

It might be possible to enhance the recognition software to do a reasonable job of recognizing just the upper half of a face, but so far, all Apple has done is reprogram its software to recognize the presence of a mask and ask the user to remove the mask or enter in their passcode.  That’s of course not always possible, practical, or desirable.

Some websites are suggesting you can try to fool Apple’s FaceID into recognizing your face by registering two versions of your face, each with a mask on half of it.  Based on reader comments, this seems to sometimes work, but often not work, and you might like to try this as a workaround.

To be fair, some people are in environments where they must wear gloves as well as a mask, making fingerprint reading difficult, but many of us are not.  And to be even more fair, some people report having their fingerprints recognized through a thin clear glove.

We understand why Apple removed its distinctive command button with built-in fingerprint reader so as to fit more screen on the phone, but we don’t understand why Apple – innovator and design leader that it claims to be – can’t now build a fingerprint reader into its phone the same way that Android phones have been doing for years.

It is unfortunate that Apple again dictates what its users can and can’t do, and removes things it decides, arbitrarily, users should not be allowed to have – micro SD card slots and headphone jacks come to mind as well as the fingerprint reader.

Something to consider next time you’re deciding what your next phone purchase should be.

1 thought on “The iPhone’s Incompatibility with Masks”

  1. I am struggling with a rational response. Beyond anger.

    Apple — worth about 2 TRILLION dollars — can’t find a way for health care professionals wearing a mask to use their phones without removing it?

    I work in technology, I’m embarrassed.

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