We tested Apple’s new option to unlock an iPhone while wearing a mask

We tested Apple's new option to unlock an iPhone while wearing a mask

But my iPhone immediately recognized me as its rightful owner, without needing me to uncover my face. The device quickly unlocked when I swiped to use Face ID.

For much of the last two years, many iPhone users, myself included, lost some of the convenience of being able to unlock the device seamlessly with their face because they were hidden. Apple’s latest software update is meant to solve this pandemic headache.

The update, iOS 15.4, aims to ensure Face ID, one of the iPhone’s signature features, works without requiring the phone’s owner to remove their mask in public, a technical feat given how little facial detail it has to analyze. The new feature is still in beta and could be released to the public for iPhone 12 and newer devices in the coming weeks or months. (The timing is perhaps a little ironic given that many states are actively lifting mask mandates.)

I downloaded an early version of the update and tested Face ID with a series of patterned masks, black K95 masks, beard masks, and even one with Kevin’s face from the movie “Home Alone.” Face ID worked with many of them on the first try, but the overall experience was inconsistent. I was often asked to type in my password after an unsuccessful attempt.

Despite unlocking the device in incognito mode with sunglasses and a hat on my first try, repeating this feat was also hit or miss. Apple later told me that the software update was intended to work with glasses, but may work with sunglasses in certain situations when Face ID can collect enough information to identify a user. It is, however, designed to work with a hat. Pairing the two worked about half the time.

While impressive, the feature worked as often as it did, mixed results highlight the challenge Apple (AAPL) and other tech companies must compete to allow users to unlock their devices with their face – a feature also available on other smartphones – when part of the user’s face is obscured.

Facial recognition software typically works by comparing measurements between different facial features in one image to those of one or more other images. Apple’s Face ID tool compares a stored image of the smartphone owner’s face with an image taken when they attempt to unlock the handset. Mask-wearing has prompted many companies – including Apple – to focus on better identifying and verifying people based on the part of the face above the nose and, in particular, the eye area.

The company said that Face ID with a mask uses less biometric information, there may be circumstances where a user is not as easily recognized as when their full face is visible and therefore a user may need enter their password.

Since the software is still in beta, Apple will likely be on the lookout for information to refine the experience.

Apple has tried other approaches to unlock iPhone while wearing a mask. Last year, Apple rolled out a partial fix that would allow anyone with an Apple Watch to use the device to authenticate their identity without removing their mask.

Still, there were limits: the devices had to be nearby; you still had to enter an access code to transact via Apple Pay, the App Store or iTunes if you were wearing a mask; and obviously, you had to own an Apple Watch.

Rachel Metz contributed to this story.