Apple has been awarded a patent for advanced facial recognition technology boosting rumors about features in the upcoming iPhone 8 and hinting at future areas such as augmented reality (AR) and driverless cars.
A number of reports have suggested bolstered recognition technology. Top Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a note last month that the iPhone 8 would feature a camera and infrared module that can detect faces and even lead to 3D selfies which could then be used to replace a character's face in a game, for example.
JPMorgan analyst Rod Hall published a report claiming that the iPhone 8 might forgo a fingerprint sensor and home button in favor of a 3-D scanner which could carry out biometric facial scanning. This could be used to unlock the phone as well as authenticate a user for the App Store or Apple Pay.
Apple's patent filing is for an "enhanced face detection using depth information". The Cupertino, CA-based firm has not mentioned the iPhone 8 in the document, but much of the technology outlined appears to mirror what the analysts have said.
The technology would work by scanning a scene via the camera, with the software able to detect human faces.
Apple outlined how its technology would be able to detect faces depending on where people were standing in a shot. For example, if there were two people in the shot and one person was closer to the camera than another, it would still be able to identify both faces accurately.
The technology is not just to detect faces, but can be used to analyze other objects too, Apple said.
Such innovation outlined in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) filing, could lay the groundwork for a number of technologies.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has talked up augmented reality (AR), which refers to digital images being overlaid on the real world. The impact of AR could be as large as the iPhone, Cook said. "I think AR is that big," the Apple boss said in an interview with The Independent newspaper in February. A camera with 3-D sensing technology is key for advanced augmented reality.
But the patent also hints at other areas that this technology could be used in.
"For example, the methods described herein may be applied in detecting the locations of the hands in an image of a user of a gesture-controlled computerized system, so that the posture and motions of the hand can be recognized quickly and reliably. As another example, these methods may be used in a vehicle-mounted system for automatic detection and reading of traffic signs," Apple said.
So 3-D recognition technology could also give hints as to what Apple is thinking about the way we will interact with future devices. For example, a TV could be controlled via gestures. And the patent also mentioned this camera technology on cars. Rumors have been swirling around since 2015 that Apple is building a car. If the patented technology can read traffic signs, then it could be a key component of autonomous vehicles for Apple.
The patent was acquired by Apple in 2013 when it bought Israeli computer vision company PrimeSense. Even though Apple has been awarded the patent, it does not necessarily mean this technology will see the light of day in its products.