The concept was detailed in a new patent application discovered this week by AppleInsider entitled "3D Object Recognition." Assigned to Apple, the new application actually stems from an earlier patent filing in Sweden which the company now owns, thanks to its acquisition of Polar Rose for $29 million in 2010.
Because the application was filed by Polar Rose before the company was purchased by Apple, parts of it are less consumer-oriented than Apple would likely utilize. For example, the filing goes into detail on potential government security uses, such as verifying that a person matches their passport or other identification card, and automatically identifying a person's face from a live video without their knowledge.
Last year, with the launch of the iPhone 4S, Apple introduced face detection when shooting still images. Apple's technology allows the iPhone 4S to detect up to 10 faces in a single photo.
The company has also offered facial recognition in iPhoto for years, letting users match a name to a face in pictures, and the system will automatically recognize them in other photos.
But the application published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week suggests Apple could go beyond simply detecting a face or recognizing it in still photos. By rendering a two-dimensional image of a person from a photo or video in three dimensions, Apple could implement new security features in Macs or iOS devices, allowing it to more accurately identify an individual person.
Google introduced a "Face Unlock" feature with its Galaxy Nexus smartphone and Android 4.0 released last October. But some tests have found that the system can be tricked by holding the picture of a person in front of the device rather than having them physically present.
But with the technology from Polar Rose, Apple's filing describes a more accurate method of identifying a person's face by utilizing a 3D rendering. When setting up a facial recognition system, users could provide a more accurate render of their face to a device like an iPhone by using pictures or video from multiple angles.
This original 3D image would then be the source that the system would refer to when attempting to identify an individual user. The system could then take a two-dimensional image of the person, render it in 3D, and compare it to the original 3D model to verify a person's identity.
Apple has shown interest in secure face detection in the past. For example, last month AppleInsider detailed a separate patent application that described using a forward facing camera on devices like the iPhone to unlock the device and customize its layout based on detecting the identity of the person using it. And a similar filing from last year described iPhones and iPads that would automatically customize applications, settings and features to a user's personal preference once they pick up the device.
The latest application goes well beyond face detection, and describes methods for identifying a range of features such as an entire human body, inner organs, blood vessels, or even tumors. It also mentions inanimate items like vehicles, aircrafts, ships, and military objects.
The application, made public this week, was first filed by Apple with the USPTO in November of 2011. The proposed invention is credited to Jan Eric Solem and Fredrik Kahl of Polar Rose.