Apple’s newly unveiled biometric recognition system, Face ID, seemingly failed in its very first public appearance. There’s no two ways about it: it was an embarrassing moment for Apple, and probably for iPhone X-wielder Craig Federighi. But what actually happened during that moment? And was it the fault of Face ID, or some other mundane presentation flub?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, including one particularly high-profile publication that said Federighi logged in with a passcode (he didn’t). Let’s dig into the facts and the various theories that have popped up online in the wake of the event.
Federighi picks up the iPhone X and proceeds to “look” at the device in an attempt to unlock it.
He then swipes up on the iPhone, which results in a “passcode required” screen. Definitely cringeworthy, and Federighi responds with a justifiably nervous, “ho ho ho.”
“Let’s go to backup here,” Federighi says. He then puts down the original iPhone X and appears to pick up an alternate device. This time, it appears, Face ID works perfectly, and the Apple SVP moves on with the presentation.
Many skeptics heralded the incident as evidence that Face ID just doesn’t work. Sure, Apple is probably working out the final kinks in the platform, as the device is still a few months away from shipping. But it’s improbable that a company of Apple’s size and stature would debut a feature at such a high-profile announcement event that just didn’t work. Look at how quickly the backup iPhone recognized a face.
Another theory suggests that Face ID may have a hard time scanning a face if it’s oily. Federighi does appear to wipe his face off before authenticating with the backup iPhone X. Of course, an Apple event is a big deal — and nearly everyone is prone to stage jitters, particularly when millions are watching. It could also have been a low-key “signal” to have the audio/visual team switch the projection to the backup device (it’s subtle, but you can see the moment the mirror switches over).
The last theory we’ll cover gets closer to the truth, but doesn’t quite hit it. The iPhone clearly says “your passcode is required to enable Face ID.” That’s similar to the message that pops up when Touch ID fails to authenticate too many times. Here’s the problem: it’s not likely that Apple tested the iPhone’s Face ID before the event, had it fail several times, andthen proceeded without fixing the issue.
What Probably Happened
Put simply, the iPhone X wasn’t set up properly before the event. When an iPhone is restarted, it requires a user to manually input the passcode before it moves on to biometric authentication. Current-generation iPhones with Touch ID do this too. This is a security measure, and it stands to reason that it’s been implemented for Face ID, too.
Somebody at Apple just forgot to input the passcode after the iPhone X was restarted before the keynote. The backup device, on the other hand, was properly set up — and Face ID performed flawlessly.
Some have pointed out the current Touch ID system specifically says a passcode is required when an iPhone is restarted. But, again, the iPhone X is a few months away from shipping. Just last weekend, the iOS 11 GM leaked with Face ID details that still contained placeholder text. Apple obviously didn’t mean for anyone to see the passcode screen, so they probably didn’t bother to change it.
Basically, Face ID itself didn’t cause the blunder. Human error did. Face ID might still have a lot to prove to skeptics, but we’re inclined to think that it’ll surpass people’s expectations.