HTC wins patent for Face Unlock

HTC has basically been granted a patent on Face Unlock. This is interesting, because that feature was first added to Android by Google, in its 4.0 release. It has subsequently made its way onto the very few devices that have so far been updated to Android Ice Cream Sandwich, but also to the Samsung i9000 Galaxy S and the Samsung i8150 Galaxy W via ‘value pack’ updates recently.

That creates a rather strange situation in the Android world. While it’s really unlikely that HTC would use this patent against Google, things aren’t as certain when it comes to direct competitors such as Samsung. So it may very well be that in the future Face Unlock will become a feature exclusive to HTC mobile devices.

The patent covers “a method for unlocking a locked computing device” (which can obviously be a smartphone or tablet) via biometric information. This biometric information can consist either in an image of a person’s face (in the Face Unlock-like embodiment), but it can also be a fingerprint. That doesn’t have much bearing in the mobile space just yet, since we’re struggling to remember a mobile device in recent memory (except for the original Motorola Atrix) that has used a fingerprint sensor. However, it is conceivable that companies would try to use fingerprint sensors in smartphones and tablets in the future. In which case it looks like they’ll have to get HTC’s permission first.

I won’t go into many details regarding the patent, since it basically describes the existing Face Unlock functionality on Android 4.0 to the letter (in legalese, of course). As mentioned above, it also covers using a fingerprint instead of an image in order to unlock a device.

One thing is a bit different than Google’s current Face Unlock implementation. In HTC’s ‘invention’, if Face Unlock is activated, and your face isn’t recognized, you’ll need to enter a password. This is how it works in Android right now too. However, HTC wants your face scan to be kept and, should you enter the correct password, be automatically added to the list of allowed faces. So the next time you’ll try to unlock that device with your face, it will work.

Other than this, it’s all what you’d expect. Oh, and it’s probably worth noting that HTC filed for this patent in November 2008. That’s quite some time before Google added this functionality to Ice Cream Sandwich (three years, give or take). So one question must be asked: was this patent the ‘inspiration’ for Google’s Face Unlock?

Author: Vlad Bobleanta

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  • Anonymous

    hmm. I was co-founder & CEO of a biometrics start-up, I pitched that feature to Samsung in 2003.
    Something is definitely rotten in the kingdom of patents…

  • Cycad007

    Great job getting the patent, HTC!  Another (patent) bullet to ensure the big boys (Apple, Samsung, etc) play fair.

  • Observer

    I saw a Panasonic handset with this feature at the 3gsm congress in 2006

  • Anonymous

    So now you can unlock people’s HTC phones by holding it up to their Facebook profile. Brilliant.