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Face ID and masks

First posted in Apple; updated 18th February 2021

I’ve had a Face ID iPhone for a couple of years now; I love it, and couldn’t imagine going back to a Touch ID finger print sensor on my phone again. I never have to think about unlocking my phone or authorising a banking app; it just works.

Well, mostly… I’ve written about the problem sunglasses present, but the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new (and very necessary!) barrier to Face ID: masks.

Paying for stuff hasn’t been much of an issue as I have an Apple Watch, but if I want to check my shopping list or text my wife when I’m browsing the supermarket aisles, I have to type my passcode or surreptitiously lower my mask to get past my lock screen.

When the new iPad Air with Touch ID integrated in the lock button was announced, I thought Apple might integrate a fall-back Touch ID sensor in the same place in the iPhones 12, but I guess:

  • hardware design and manufacturing lead-time is much longer than the 9 or 10 months between the onset of the pandemic and the new phones being released
  • it’s almost certainly an expensive thing to add, and the amount of use it would get would make an increased handset cost (or reduced profit margins!) a difficult sell
  • some compromises (battery life?) would have to be made to physically accommodate the extra hardware for the sensor
  • phone cases would probably cover the sensor, or make the now-indented exposed button less easy to press

Anyway, Apple have something much smarter in the pipeline, in the form of a software feature in iOS 14.5:

there’s a new option to unlock an iPhone with Face ID and an Apple Watch paired together … If you’re wearing an unlocked Apple Watch and use Face ID as you normally would, the iPhone will unlock after a partial face scan.

I know it relies on an Apple Watch, which might not be within many people’s financial reach, but:

  • for those that do have an Apple Watch, it’s going to be very helpful
  • it provides another reason to buy an Apple Watch for those that don’t have one

I very much doubt the partial scan will extend to mask and sunglasses, but I wonder if it will work when the nose and mouth are exposed, but not the eyes, putting an end to the sunglasses issue?

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