Questions Raised About iPhone X Facial Recognition Testing Standards

NEWS ANALYSIS: Preorders for Apple’s iPhone X start early Friday morning amid rumors that the company reduced the testing standards for a critical part of the handset's facial recognition system.

iPhone X

With the long-awaited iPhone X going on sale Nov.3 and preorders starting at midnight on Oct. 27, Apple is denying a recent news report that suggests that the iPhone X's facial recognition feature might not perform quite as well as the company originally stated.

A report from Bloomberg is saying that the testing standards for a component crucial to Apple’s facial recognition had been relaxed slightly to keep production rates up. That component is the dot projector, which illuminates a grid of some 30,000 infrared dots on the users face.

Those dots are used to create a virtual 3D image of a user so that the phone can tell if it’s the person who registered their face when the iPhone was set up.

The dot projector consists of an array of lenses and lasers that requires extreme accuracy. This array is apparently very fragile, and it requires great precision to assemble it into a working iPhone.

This meant that the component had to be tested to a very high degree of accuracy before it would be accepted for production. The units that didn’t pass inspection would be sent back to the factory, which would delay production.

This has given rise to speculation and comments in mobile market analyst reports indicating that the new addition to the iPhone lineup will be available in smaller numbers than expected, which may translate into longer wait times for potential customers.

Apple, as you’d expect, is denying that standards were relaxed and is maintaining its position that the accuracy is sufficiently robust that the chances of a false positive are 1,000,000 to 1, as the company stated when it introduced iPhone X in September.

While the most obvious question that goes with this report by Bloomberg isn’t whether it’s correct, but rather whether it matters. It’s important to remember that there are many things that change when planning the production of any a new product, including smartphones. These things can include anything from machining tolerances to testing standards and they’re revised as a product goes into production.

This means that a set of testing standards was developed as the iPhone X production was being planned and then modified as planning continued. Those modifications may have included a reduction in a feature performance standard. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That's because the original standards were likely beyond the capabilities of the production process, resulted in too many device failures, or they may have cost too much.

But as long as the original requirements were met, such as Apple's stated standard of one false positive out of a million scans, then expecting production devices will exceed requirements is pointless. In fact, requirements beyond what’s necessary cost money, slow down production and don’t result in a better product.

What this means is that both Apple and Bloomberg may be right. Apple probably did change some testing requirement specifications and Bloomberg is likely correct with its report. But that doesn’t mean it will make a difference in the number of iPhone Xs that are available for delivery on Nov. 3.

If Apple is correct that the chance of a false positive with its Face ID is a million in one, then the fact that testing standards were changed at some point in the past is irrelevant.

What’s more is that it’s unlikely that such a change was made recently. The components for the iPhone X had to be made well in advance of the phone itself and those phones have been in production for months.

It’s also important to put the report into context. Even if the change in testing standards did happen, and even if the incidence of false positives have risen slightly, it’s still far better than the fifty thousand to one level that Apple gives for Touch ID. No matter how you look at it, Face ID will be far more secure than its predecessor.

The lack of context in the Bloomberg report is similar to many of the other rumors and reports that swirl around any major product introduction. Without knowing where such a change may have taken place in the production cycle, it’s impossible to know what effect it will have on the finished product – if any.

Likewise, if such a report surfaces about the production of a product already being built, it’s important to know if the issue is serious enough to bring production to a halt or cause recall after delivery. The production process for a new product can stretch months or even years in the past. Actions taken now can’t possibly affect it, but they might affect next year’s products.

So perhaps the change in testing standards might affect the iPhone XI when it appears in a year or so. Or maybe it won’t affect the iPhone X at all.  

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...