The evolution and prospects of face unlock technology on the Pixel 7

In October of last year, Google re-introduced Face Unlock to its smartphone lineup with the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, marking a departure from the approach employed in the Pixel 4. The technology, although functional, prompts questions about its future development and potential advancements.

During the launch event, Google highlighted the innovative application of its front camera in the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro. Advanced machine learning models for face recognition were employed to power the Face Unlock feature, offering users a convenient alternative to the under-display fingerprint reader.

Contrary to the Pixel 4’s reliance on a combination of dot projector, flood illuminator, IR cameras, and Soli radar, the Pixel 7 series leverages a front-facing camera equipped with Dual-Pixel Auto-Focus (DPAF) technology. This camera presumably generates a depth map, enhancing the accuracy of the machine-learning models. Notably, Google has yet to release a comprehensive technical explanation of this Face Unlock approach through its AI/Research channels, as it has done previously.

While the overall experience of the Face Unlock feature has been satisfactory, it falls short of the dedicated hardware systems seen in the Pixel 4 and Face ID on iPhones. These hardware-intensive approaches ensure reliable face recognition in various lighting conditions. The Pixel 7’s reliance on the front-facing camera, by contrast, exhibits better performance during daytime than at night.

However, this technology’s security level doesn’t align with Android’s standards for secure methods of unlocking, particularly concerning sensitive actions such as payments, password access, and passkeys. This represents an unfortunate regression from previous standards. Had Google continued with the Pixel 4 lineage, the design trajectory might have been different, potentially avoiding the current hole-punch design.

Presently, Face Unlock on devices like the Pixel 7, 7 Pro, 7a, and Fold emphasizes convenience. Users find this feature especially handy in transitioning from under-display to side-mounted fingerprint sensors, such as those in the Pixel Fold. The practical synergy between hardware and software is evident, notably in optimal conditions where Face Unlock operates swiftly, facilitating quick access to the device.

Nonetheless, security and external conditions remain significant roadblocks to the widespread adoption of Face Unlock. The question arises whether Google’s software-driven approach to this technology holds promise for the future. Can the recognition algorithms be perfected to a point where security concerns are effectively addressed, potentially making it a secure unlock method? This endeavor might necessitate enhancements in front-facing camera technology, increased on-device processing capabilities, or an entirely novel innovation.

Alternatively, could the Pixel’s future iterations revert to Infrared (IR)-based solutions? This approach, while enhancing security and convenience, might relegate the current Face Unlock feature to a one-off experiment. As technology advances, the trajectory of Face Unlock on the Pixel hinges on a delicate balance between innovation and practicality.


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