In Apple's shadow, Google is taking a new path to facial recognition on Pixel phones

In Apple’s shadow, Google is taking a new path to facial recognition on Pixel phones

By Paresh Dave

– Facial recognition returned to Google’s latest Pixel phones on Thursday after a brief hiatus due to price and performance issues, according to three former employees of the Alphabet Inc unit briefed on the effort.

The feature on the new Pixel 7 isn’t as good as Apple Inc’s Face ID unlocking mechanism, as it can struggle in low light and is more prone to spoofing. In addition, Google said it was not secure enough to allow logging into apps or making payments.

The return comes after Google tightened up on launching products with facial recognition, in part because of questions about its performance on darker skin. The company has taken time to review its approach to facial recognition training and testing since the previous Pixel, with the feature launching in 2019, one of the sources said.

Google declined to comment on several specific questions about its face unlock history. In general, it said, “Thanks to advanced machine learning models for facial recognition, the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro have Face Unlock, but we do it a little differently.” He adds, “We achieve good facial accuracy performance with the front camera.”

Google’s push for face unlock for Android smartphones has been going on for at least a decade, but came under more pressure when Apple released Face ID in September 2017, sources said.

Until then, Google has struggled to come up with a system that works quickly and is resistant to spoofing or using photos or hyper-realistic costumes to trick someone else’s phone into unlocking, one of the sources said. Engineers toyed with requiring a smile or a wink — which proves a person’s “aliveness” — to combat spoofing, but it was awkward and slow, the source said.

Another source noted that following the arrival of Apple’s Face ID, which uses depth sensing and an infrared camera called TrueDepth to map the face, Google executives signed off on a comparable technology. Google’s Pixel 4, released in 2019, called the infrared depth-sensing setup uDepth.

It worked well, even in the dark, with no more than a 1 in 50,000 chance of unlocking the phone for an unauthorized face, according to Google.

But the equipment was expensive. And while Apple sells 240 million iPhones a year, Google has topped several million, which prevents it from buying parts at the volume discounts Apple does.

Google dropped uDepth in the Pixel 5 in 2020 due to costs, sources said.

Face masking due to the pandemic gave Google reason to exclude the feature from last year’s Pixel 6 and additional research time, two sources said.

Face unlock on the new phones relies on the typical front-facing camera. However, unlike the previous system, it cannot securely unlock apps and payments, as Google says the probability of tampering – for example by withholding a user’s photo – is more than 20%, above the 7% threshold it requires to be considered “most secure”.

Low light and sunglasses can also cause problems, Google says, but fingerprint unlocking remains an option.

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