Your Apple devices may someday recognize your face and unlock themselves

Someday soon you may be able to unlock your iPhone or iPad (heck, maybe even your Mac) by looking at it (or rather having it look at you). Apple has been granted a parent (number 9,477,829) for “locking and unlocking a mobile device using facial recognition.” 

Per the patent, an unlocked mobile device is configured to capture images, analyze the images to detect a user's face, and automatically lock the device in response to determining that a user's face doesn’t appear in the images. The camera capturing and face recognition processing may be triggered by the device having detected that it has been motionless for a set period of time. 

The locked mobile device can also be configured to capture an initial image using its camera, capture a new image in response to detecting movement of the device, determine that the device moved to a use position, capture a subsequent image in response to determining that the device moved to a use position, analyze the subsequent image to detect a user's face, and unlock the device in response to detecting the user's face.

In the patent filing, Apple notes that, generally, mobile devices are programmed to enter the lock mode when a user presses a specific button or a series of buttons or when it has been idle for a certain period of time. When a user desires to use a device that is locked, the user will typically be required to drag a slide bar, press a specific button or a series of buttons (e.g., to enter a password) to unlock the device. Apple says, that however, a user may find these steps inconvenient and time consuming. 

For example, a user may be reading a document using the device when the device detects that it has been idle for a certain period of time. In this case, the device will automatically enter the lock mode where it turns off or dims its display screen, and the user will be required to unlock the device before being able to resume reading the document. In another example, a user may be prone to forgetting the password needed to unlock the device. As a result, the user may decide to configure the device so that it does not automatically lock. If she then forgets or chooses not to manually lock her device, that leaves the device susceptible to inadvertent operation or unauthorized use. Apple thinks its facial recognition solution overcomes such problems.

Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.