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Google Pixel phones: In Apple’s shadow, Google takes new route to face recognition on Pixel phones

Facial recognition returned to the latest Google Pixel phones on Thursday after a brief hiatus due to cost and performance challenges, according to three former Alphabet Inc unit employees who were aware of the effort.

The feature on the new Pixel 7 isn’t quite as good as Apple Inc’s Face ID unlocking mechanism, as it can struggle in low light and is more vulnerable to spoofing. In addition, Google has said it is not secure enough to sign in to apps or make payments.

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

Google declined to comment on several specific questions about its face unlock history. It generally said, “Thanks to advanced machine learning models for facial recognition, Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro have Face Unlock, but we’re doing it a little differently.” It added: “We achieve good facial accuracy performance with the front-facing camera.”

Google’s push for face unlock for Android smartphones spans at least a decade, but it came under greater pressure when Apple released Face ID in September 2017, the sources said.

Until then, Google had struggled to come up with a system that was both fast-paced and impervious to spoofing, or using photos or hyper-realistic costumes to trick someone else’s phone into unlocking, according to one of the researchers. sources. Engineers toyed with requiring a smile or a wink — proving a person’s “liveliness” — to combat spoofing, but it was clunky and slow, the source said.

Another source noted that after the arrival of Apple’s Face ID, which uses a depth sensor and infrared camera called TrueDepth to map a face, Google executives approved a similar technology. Google’s Pixel 4, released in 2019, called its infrared depth-sensing setup uDepth.

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

But the equipment was expensive. And while Apple sells 240 million iPhones annually, Google has peaked at a few million, preventing it from buying parts at Apple’s volume discounts.

Google dropped uDepth in the Pixel 5 in 2020 due to cost, the 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 a typical front camera. But unlike the previous system, it can’t securely unlock apps and payments, as Google says the probability of spoofing — such as holding up a user’s photo — is greater than 20%, above the 7% threshold that needed to be considered the most ‘safe’.

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

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