Smartphones Getting a Face Lift


Facial recognition is no longer the stuff of James Bond movies. In fact, it is now as accessible as your back pocket, and according to one research group, it will soon be a common feature in most mobile devices.

Estimates from ABI Research,, say by the end of the year almost 20% of annual smartphone shipments will include facial recognition capabilities. And in just five year’s time, the firm expects smartphones and tablets that can recognize your mug to increase to 665 million shipments annually.

Currently, only Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean mobile operating systems support the technology in significant volumes. The most notable device is the Samsung Galaxy SIII, which uses its Face Unlock feature as a security measure. However, ABI says in the next two-to-three years, many more operating systems and mobile OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers) will incorporate the technology.

As evidenced by decades of spy movies, facial recognition has been on the technology radar for some time. Some of the first applications were developed in the 1960s by three scientists Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson. Historically, the major challenge for using the technology in mobile devices has been incorporating an accurate enough sensor and a powerful enough processor to undertake the complex algorithms while limiting power consumption. Thanks to advancements in technology, that is changing.

Shortly after releasing the Galaxy SIII late last year, Samsung and Google received a lot of flack for Face Unlock after users proved you could hack into the smartphones using photos instead of a “live” person. To combat this issue, Google updated software with a "liveness check" option, which requires users to blink their eyes to confirm that a real person is trying to access the phone. The update seemed to appease most critics, although some continue to say there are still ways around the system.

Although obviously still a developing technology, ABI Research projects a steady adoption of facial recognition in mobile devices. According to the research firm, numerous mobile device application processor makers have already begun drawing plans and benefits for the technology. It is also being actively marketed and implemented in smart TVs, although it is being used to enhance user experiences and not as a security feature. For example, your TV would instantly turn on your favorite channel or recorded programs just by recognizing your face.

With cameras already being an integral part of smartphone and tablet design, it’s easy to see facial recognition getting built into mobile operating systems. However, until all the bugs are worked out, it will likely only be a fun, low security feature. For now, most experts agree users should still rely more heavily on a PIN or pattern unlock to truly secure sensitive data.

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June/July 2014
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