2017 is the year smartphone manufacturers fit bigger screens by slashing bezel size. The iPhone 8 is expected to follow suit and that means removing the iconic home button with much talk of new facial recognition technology replacing it. And now how this would work suddenly makes sense…

The information comes straight from Apple AAPL -0.53% itself after AppleInsider spotted the company has published a new application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for "Locking and unlocking a mobile device using facial recognition".

As AppleInsider notes: “The core idea of the patent is that an iPhone uses the front-facing camera to detect and recognize the user’s face, unlocking the device if the face it sees belongs to the authorized device owner… if the iPhone has been motionless for a period of time, and the camera cannot see the user, it can automatically lock. The reverse is also possible, namely if the iPhone starts moving and the facial recognition detects the user’s face, it can be unlocked without needing to enter a PIN or use Touch ID.”

This form of automatic locking and unlocking would go a long way to removing the number 1 pain point of iris and facial recognition: namely it is a multistep process compared to the single step unlocking of a fingerprint sensor.

Apple’s new smartphone recognition patent solves a major pain point for the technology. Image credit: Apple

Digging deeper is where things get more exciting though because while patents usually relate to technology planned long into the future, Apple’s 2017 application states it is a continuation of a previous 2016 patent which in itself builds on a patent filed in 2012 and granted in 2015. In short: this is technology Apple is fine tuning after years of pre-existing work.

Building further on this is a move Apple made in February to buy Tel Aviv startup Realface, which specialises on the integration of facial recognition software and artificial intelligence specifically to improve smart login systems.

All of which builds towards the same question: is facial recognition technology coming to the iPhone 8? While it is impossible to say for certain until Tim Cook is holding the iPhone 8 aloft at the official unveiling in September, the pieces are certainly falling into place.

Firstly its moves in 2017 have shown Apple is deeply invested in this technology and this latest patent shows another step forward has been taken with its development. Secondly the acquisition of Realface is another sign of intention at long term development and (while undoubtedly too soon for the iPhone 8 launch) potentially will provide future software integration that could be tied into an iPhone 8 facial recognition sensor at a later date.

iPhone facial recognition concept showing how further uses of the technology could determine health. Image credit: Gábor Balogh

Finally we have the iPhone 8 itself which is widely and repeatedly tipped to remove the home button, making the timing right for Apple to produce a polished version of tech which rivals have previously shipped but not perfected. A famous Apple business strategy.

Of course there is a flipside to all of this, namely that Apple is expected to integrate Touch ID directly into the iPhone 8’s display. That’s all well and good but without the marker of a physical button this will make positioning a finger more difficult and is just the kind of minor inconvenience Apple likes to make to push its users to newer, often better, technologies.

Personally I still have some issues with facial recognition technology. Alignment when walking, accuracy if the user is wearing sunglasses/glasses/contact lenses or in the dark and the act itself of having to deliberately point your phone at your face in the first place are all concerns for me that impact how intuitive it can feel.

But if anyone can revolutionise a technology where others have struggled, the last decade in particular has showed few are better at this than Apple…

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