Live skin detection tech aims to one-up Apple's Face ID security

Qualcomm is betting on a German technology company that analyzes backscatter reflections to defeat face detection spoofs.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

On the same day that I saw Apple introduce Face ID at the Steve Jobs Theater in 2017, I headed north to a wireless trade show, where a vendor was showing off a competitive version of the technology for licensing. Today, a few Android vendors have implemented Face ID-style recognition, and Google applied radar to the task for the Pixel 4. But Apple's implementation, while of course still imperfect, remains the one to beat.

A division of German chemical giant BASF is hoping to change that. Trinamix has developed an implementation of face recognition that goes a step beyond Apple's in that it relies not only on the shapes of faces but on the detection of live skin itself, thus foiling even the most elaborate masks. The company does this via patented algorithms that process backscatter reflections that are unique to a wide range of materials, including live versus dead skin. In one demonstration, the company shows off two identically shaped blocks painted the same Pantone color and how its technology can distinguish between the wood and plastic ones. The company says it can identify thousands of materials based on its process.

Spoofing face detection with masks or the deceased doesn't seem like an everyday security issue for the vast majority of Android users abstaining from Hollywood-worthy grisly espionage or criminal activity. Nevertheless, when combined with a high-quality depth-sensor/infrared projection system like the one Apple uses, though it provides an extra level of assurance, particularly for phone manufacturers in economies where Apple may not have a strong presence.

That's been a strong enough argument to convince Qualcomm to partner with the company to offer the technology as a competitive answer to Face ID, which Apple is also rumored to be improving. In the case of Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips, material detection runs on the SoC's Hexagon digital signal processor. While Trinamix offers its own optical module for smartphones, its approach relies completely on software. Therefore, for the (of course, undisclosed) cost of a license, it should be able to be implemented by a range of smartphone brands regardless of which sensor vendors they use. Trinamix expects to announce its first major licensee soon.

PCs that use Microsoft's Hello face-based authentication would also befit Trinamix technology. And material detection has applications beyond face detection, although, as with baseline face detection based on 3D depth scanning, there are practical distance limitations. The company highlights scenarios that could, for example, help pick-and-pack warehouse robots better distinguish objects in bins with less precise placement than is sometimes required today. However, tapping into the giant smartphone market represents the largest opportunity for Trinamix. Zombie hackers, consider a career change.


Is Pixel 4 face unlock faster than iPhone's Face ID? We found out
We tested Google's secure face unlock versus Apple's Face ID in the four most common scenarios.

iPhone 12, 12 Pro and 12 Max rumors: Release date, specs, screen sizes, and 5G predictions
Here are the standout rumors about upcoming iPhones.

Face ID is so good you won't miss the Home button
The removal of the iPhone's Home button has required some tradeoffs, but the superior usability of Face ID sets a new standard for secure access.

Editorial standards