Intellectual Properly is a series where we seek to set the record straight on the day's hottest patent, copyright and related intellectual property issues in the tech world.
Google was awarded a patent on Tuesday for a method of using image recognition to access a device, but it's probably not what you're thinking. The utility patent — US 8,261,090 — is titled "login to a computing device based on facial recognition" but its claim coverage is specifically limited to using an image recognition feature to distinguish between multiple users. Namely, the broadest claims recite a method of receiving image captures of two users from a device camera and prompting to log out the first user once the second user is recognized.
1. A method of logging a first user in to a computing device comprising: receiving a first image of the first user via a camera operably coupled with the computing device; determining an identity of the first user based on the received first image; if the determined identity of the first user matches a first predetermined identity, then, based at least on the identity of the first user matching the first predetermined identity, logging the first user in to the computing device; receiving a second image of a second user via the camera operably coupled with the computing device; determining an identity of the second user based on the received second image; and if the determined identity of the second user matches a second predetermined identity, then, issuing a prompt to confirm that the first user should be logged off of the computing device and that the second user should be logged on to the computing device; receiving a valid confirmation from the first or second user in response to the prompt; in response to receiving the valid confirmation, logging the first user off of the computing device and logging the second user in to the computing device.
You can see it's really more about user management and switching than it is about Android's general Face Unlock feature. In fact, it's worth noting that while the title and written details of the patent clearly reference using facial features to distinguish between users, the broadest claims aren't concerned with unlocking the device and don't require that the image recognition element correlate with the user's face at all — just that it must be some image of the user. We can't say Google won't be able to get overarching patent coverage on face-to-unlock, but it's clear it didn't quite get there with this one.