Face Unlock… a gimmick or actually usable?

For me, one of the stand out features that Google presented to the world when they announced the Google Galaxy Nexus, was Face Unlock. My thoughts ran wild with ideas about how this technology could be useful… at least for me.

Shortly after their announcement, various people demonstrated that the phone could be unlocked with a photo. Videos appeared on YouTube, showing this, but I wanted to try the technology for myself.

I managed to stop myself going out the day it was released and buying a Galaxy Nexus, so as soon as a ROM of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS) appeared for my Samsung Galaxy S2 (don’t ask in the comments for this…. Google will be your friend on this one!) I immediately flashed it to give Face Unlock a whirl.

These are my thoughts…

The first thing you need to do, as you’d imagine, is allow the device to identify your face. This is done by holding the phone at eye level and far enough away so that your face is sitting nicely in the face shaped outline shown on the screen. The dots appear whiter and slightly bigger as it is identifying your face and recording the data in a progress bar type of way. Get used to this… it won’t be the last time you have to do it!

Face Unlock... a gimmick or actually usable?

"Face Captured"

You are then asked to set up a backup unlock system that will allow you to unlock the phone if it fails to recognise your face. Choose from either PIN or PATTERN and enter them as you normally would.

The first time I set my phone to use face unlock, I immediately gave it a try by locking my phone. I managed to successfully unlock it again with my face! Cool! One of my colleague’s walked in to my office, so I thought I’d show this off. I stood up out of my chair and walked over to him  a couple of metres away from my desk and attempted to unlock the device…

Face Unlock... a gimmick or actually usable?

"Sorry, don't recognise you!"

… it hadn’t worked. Never mind.

It seems that to get Face Unlock to work reliably, you need to continue to improve Face Unlock’s ability to recognise you under different light conditions, for example. This is done using the menu option: “Improve Face Matching”, and requires you to scan your face as you did earlier. Remember I mentioned earlier that you’d need to get used to scanning your face… this is why.

I’ve found that even the smallest of changes to lighting conditions or the position of my body (i.e. slouching on the sofa) meant that Face Unlock wouldn’t recognise me. Each time it didn’t recognise me I’d just go back and “Improve Face matching”. It always seemed to fail when I wanted to demonstrate it working to someone too!

I found that over time, the more scans I did, the better it became. However, because it wouldn’t always work, I was having to continually “improve” Face Unlock’s ability to recognise me, and this was my biggest problem. I gradually found myself automatically reaching for the little button that would skip face recognition and jump straight to my alternative unlock scheme.

Face Unlock... a gimmick or actually usable?

"Improve Face Matching"

Whilst using it I also loaded an ICS ROM onto my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 to experience ICS on a tablet. This made me think. All the face recognition efforts I had put in would be lost once I changed device, or I’d need to “improve” multiple devices. I realise this is a security system, but without the ability to have this data portable, the effort involved in getting it to work is too great to then have it reset with a new device or if you have to factory reset your device.

So, after around 2 weeks, I have stopped using Face Unlock. When (or if) I ever get a Galaxy Nexus, or when I get a stable release of ICS, I’ll give it another go, but I’m just not so sure that it’s worth the effort!

This brings me back around to unlocking with a photo. I can’t comment on the videos that show it working as I have no knowledge about the environment and photo they used. I suspect that some took a photo in very similar lighting at the same time they were demonstrating a photo working, which is a valid demonstration.

In my house, my girlfriend and I have quite a few photos of us around the house. Some taken in 2011, some earlier. I tried several of these photos, but I never managed to once get them to unlock my phone. For one, the screen shone onto the photo, I suspect, making it harder to recognise me. I also tried loading photos that I have on Picasa on my computer screen and trying them. Again, I never got it to work.

My tests have been in no way extensive, so I can’t say that this won’t work, it just didn’t for me. In my opinion, Face Unlock has a future as a method of unlocking your device, it just needs some work to improve recognition (and thus reduce the number of improvements needed) and some way of moving this data between devices, without security concerns.

Let us know your experiences of Face Unlock or if it is something you are looking forward to trying out in the comments below!