Face Unlock has its flaws, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: December 16, 2011

Google's latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, came last month with a plethora of new features, alongside a revamped interface. Some of those new features include a better folder system, Android Beam, better camera software with zero shutter lag, a native screenshot function and a revamped multitasking and notification system. But one of the more standout features – love it or hate it – is Face Unlock.

As the name suggests, Face Unlock is a way for users to unlock their phones with, well ... their face. When you press the power button, the front-facing camera on the phone activates and scans your face through recognition software. If your face matches the one used to setup Face Unlock, the phone is unlocked. If it does not match, however, you're not out of luck just yet – there is a fail-safe in place. If for whatever reason, the software fails to recognize your beautiful face, you will be met with a secondary lock screen of your choice: pattern or PIN.

I've been carrying the Galaxy Nexus for almost a full week now. Unsurprisingly, the first feature I wanted to try when I got my filthy paws on the Nexus was not Face Unlock, but Android Beam. Since I don't know anyone else with a Galaxy Nexus (who is readily willing to meet me just so I can Beam them an app or something ... ahem, Aaron), I had to settle for testing out Face Unlock first. I figured it would be neat, fun and cool to show off. And it was ... for the first few hours. That's when the fun wore off and I just wanted to get into my phone without having to hold it a certain way or wait for it to fail and send me to my pattern lock screen. While it's fun at first, it can be finicky and there are definitely some kinks to work out, along with some fundamental flaws. Some of those shortcomings and flaws are (but are not limited to):

 

Pictures

After we first learned of the new unlocking method being added in Ice Cream Sandwich, many people questioned just how secure it is. In short, it isn't. It's not meant to lock your phone down like Fort Knox. But it does make getting into your phone more difficult for anyone that doesn't know you. The first flaw was discovered long before any of us had ever tried ICS. Holding a picture of the owner of the phone up to the camera will unlock the phone. While this may be easy for a friend or family member (or anyone who may have a picture of you on hand) to get into, if you leave your phone on a bus, or anywhere in public, the chances of whoever finds your phone also having a picture of you handy are pretty darn slim.

Just for safe measure, though, I took a picture of my dog and scanned his face for the unlock. Sure, I have to unlock my Nexus by holding up a picture of my dog on my iPhone, but at least nobody will see that curve ball coming! (Kidding. Animals don't work. What were you thinking?)

 

Holding your phone and head a certain way

On a more serious note, the most common issue I have ran into with Face Unlock is my inability to remember that you have to hold your phone a certain way to unlock it. If I were going to use one of the more traditional methods of unlocking my phone, I would normally hold the phone between shoulder- and waist-high, facing straight up. With Face Unlock, however, you obviously have to point it at your face. And rather than just directing your eyes toward the display, you have to tilt your whole head in the direction of the phone. It's not what I would consider a flaw, but something that is extremely difficult to get used to and continually remember to do.

 

Lighting

Since I started using Face Unlock again at night time, I quickly learned that it does not perform well in low lighting. If the brightness of the display is enough to illuminate your face, then you should be okay. But while I was walking my dog in near pitch black, I had to revert to the trusty ol' pattern unlock to get into my phone. Face Unlock kept greeting me with, "Sorry, I don't recognize you," or, "Lighting is too low." Good thing there's a fail-safe in place, eh?

 

Sunglasses/Facial hair

Another problem with Face Unlock is the fact that our faces don't always look the same. Two of the most common cases – that I can think of at least – are sunglasses and facial hair. Someone asked me about optical glasses, and my answer was that they're generally small enough that it probably won't throw the software off too much. But sunglasses are typically big (for a reason). Unlike optical glasses, which are meant to be as subtle as possible, sunglasses are supposed to block the sun from your eyes. The bigger, the better, right? Well, not for Face Unlock. You'll have to take them off before unlocking your phone, or simply revert to your fail-safe password.

The other, facial hair, is up in the air right now. I can't grow enough of a beard to even consider testing. It's going to require some brave individual to sacrifice one big, burly beard to tell if this might be a problem. But putting my brain to work, I decided to test this by holding a folded sheet of paper over my face. I figure if a big, white square over half of my face works, a beard should, too. It worked about half the time. The good news is, an enormous beard doesn't grow overnight (at least not for normal people). The worst that could happen is you shave and have to setup Face Unlock again or that while your beard grows, Face Unlock starts failing more each day. My answer to that? Update Face Unlock (it takes maybe 20 seconds, tops) or ... shave. Or better yet, don't use Face Unlock if you plan on growing a beard.

 

Evil twins and doppelgangers

Lastly, and certainly most important are those pesky evil twins and doppelgangers. If there is someone who looks like you and manages to get a hold of your phone ... Face Unlock isn't going to stop them from digging through your emails and text messages. Lucky for most of us, we don't have twins or lookalikes just wandering the streets in search of our lost Android phones. But for you people with twins, you better use something other than Face Unlock if you want to keep your sibling locked out of your phone. Or just throw on a pair of sunglasses, or grow a beard.

 

Yesterday, for whatever reason, I decided I wanted to start using Face Unlock again. I recall really liking the added security without having to slide a white circle over a padlock like a circus animal every time I want to use my phone. Sure, Face Unlock is a bit silly, and there's no denying it's gimmicky or that it will definitely take some getting used to. More or less, though, I'm just curious as to whether I can get used to it and if it works well in everyday use. So far, so good. But will it stand the test of time and repetition? Possibly.

Have any of you Galaxy Nexus owners (or those with Ice Cream Sandwich ROMs) tried Face Unlock yet? What do you think? Have you found any flaws? Do you find it to be just another gimmick to show off to your friends?

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