Published on April 9th, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
Facial Recognition is No Match for Face Masks, but Things are Changing Fast
It’s a pretty safe bet that when facial recognition technology was being created that the developers were not considering that a majority of users might be wearing face masks. Khari Johnson has a post on VentureBeat on how tech companies like Google and Apple are adapting their facial recognition tech to this new normal in a COVID-19 world. What will win the battle? Technology or face masks? Certainly there are other ways to identify a user like fingerprints and logins but it’s another safe bet that facial recognition will win the day and adapt to face masks.
Image Credit: Khari Johnson / VentureBeat
In a major about-face in public health policy, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, and state and local health officials around the country recently began urging people to wear homemade face masks when they’re out in public. The directive is not meant to replace social distancing, but to reduce the spread of infection and ensure the most effective personal protective equipment goes to health care workers on the front line.
But it could also throw a wrench in a number of facial recognition applications, including those used to unlock smartphones.
Less than a year old, Google’s facial recognition system on Pixel 4 smartphones is built to recognize a person even if they’ve shaved their beard or are wearing sunglasses, but Face Unlock for Pixel 4 is rendered virtually useless by homemade face masks. A Google spokesperson told VentureBeat that Face Unlock isn’t made to recognize people wearing face masks and declined to say whether the company is working to add that capability to its system.
The Pixel 4 isn’t alone. Apple’s Face ID for iPhones launched in 2017 as one of the first facial recognition systems for smartphones. Some of the initial complaints about face masks rendering facial recognition inoperable were against Apple’s Face ID and came from Californians who kept their faces covered during the 2018 wildfire season, as well as people in parts of Asia, where it’s common for people to wear face masks when they’re sick.
Those frustrations have resurfaced with the emergence of COVID-19. As a workaround, in a video published last month a Tencent security employee demonstrated the ability to train Apple’s Face ID to recognize a smartphone user by doing a new facial scan with half of their face covered by a mask and the other half uncovered.
COVID-19 is expected to change the world in significant ways, from an increase in telehealth and video calls to shifts in economic and public health policy, but it may also lead to more facial recognition technology that’s capable of identifying people in masks. That technology will surely live on well after the pandemic to unlock your phone, enable purchases, and recognize people at protests or political rallies.
The new face mask recommendation from public health officials means facial recognition systems for smartphones and other settings must either adapt and grow more robust or be put on hold for a range of applications. Facial recognition is also in use in some workplaces for clocking in and clocking out of work, identity verification, and in parts of China for making purchases.