Apple won’t let apps turn the iPad’s camera into a button

Image: Astro HQ

Earlier this month, drawing app developer Astro HQ released a video of a really clever new idea for its apps: it turned the iPad’s front camera into a button, letting you tap on the lens to activate things on screen. It was a smart way to free up screen space, but as it turns out, Apple doesn’t agree. Astro said today that its app was rejected from the App Store for violating Apple’s guidelines.

In particular, Apple pointed to a section saying that apps couldn’t “alter or disable the functions of standard switches, such as the Volume Up/Down and Ring/Silent switches, or other native user interface elements or behaviors.” While Astro’s app, Astropad Studio, wasn’t strictly altering a switch, it did make the camera stop acting like a camera, which seems to at least break the spirit of the rule.

Apple is extremely strict about what it does and does not allow into its App Store, so this rejection isn’t a huge surprise. The company uses its position as a gatekeeper to make sure that apps don’t alter the experience of using its devices, maintaining consistency in a way that’ll be clear to users. It seems hard to argue that a small tweak like this in an app meant for professional illustrators really would have had a deleterious effect on the platform, but Apple has rejected apps for less.


That’s too bad. Using the front camera as a button is an absolutely brilliant idea.

I would think it would eat battery life hence it not being allowed. The proximity sensor (not on iPad) would be better.

How would it work when you’re multitasking a video call with the app?

Could this be more of a security issue in Apple’s opinion? A feature like this would require the camera to be always on in the app, so couldn’t certain developers sneak through nefarious uses in app updates that would be difficult for Apple to track?

I am not sure how much different this is than using the rear camera as a heart rate monitor which I used on my 4s at the time. I guess technically that’s not a switch.

Not at all security related. Their app audit would’ve revealed any foul play. Not to mentions that many apps require the camera to be on 90% of the time, if not all the time (like, off the top of my head, Vine Camera). Apple just doesn’t like people messing around too much with input devices, that’s all.

You act as if the App submission process catches everything in audit. There’s been plenty of examples of rule-breaking apps or uses of private APIs being accepted then later removed when the violation gains attention.

Apple’s submission process doesn’t have 100% code/feature coverage and they don’t have the source code. Developers could easily hide things via server-side switches or geofencing.

Vine camera is an actual camera app – it keeps the camera active because on older phones the delay to turn on the camera could be a few seconds. Using the camera as a button is clearly not as designed and sets a precedent that can lull users into a pattern of allowing camera access to apps that shouldn’t have it.

No matter, the move is still not immediately security motivated. If somebody had ulterior motives, they could just disguise their app as a legitimate camera app and collect the data unhindered. I agree the audit process isn’t perfect, but that’s the official procedure in place to limit abuse, not these per-case rulings.

The motivation, for me, is one of user experience, not security.

The "user experience" reasoning is to avoid training users that it’s fine to allow camera access for non-camera apps. They’re trying to avoid security "fiasco" stories like this.

What’s your agenda?

I can tell you from experience that Apple deciding they don’t like something in an app is all they need to reject it. Security is not the prime consideration – even though it arguably should be the only one Apple should get involved in deciding over.

Yes, too bad. I am also still surprised that Apple didn’t use the front camera as TouchID replacement in some way. I remember reading articles saying that fingerprints could be cloned from high resolution pictures of a hand/finger. Imagine that in addition to FaceID you could have a TouchID version where you just hover your finger above the camera.

Can you provide any sources for the articles that you read? I was about to say that I don’t think the camera’s functionality would be able to replicate that of TouchID – but I would love to be proven wrong.

I was thinking about this:
I know it’s probably a long way from that to straight up using the camera for fingerprint scanning directly but the processing power is probably there in modern phones and it sounds feasible.

Cameras rely on light. Putting your finger over the camera would just cause a black image. That’s without taking into account not camera has a high enough resolution for a decent image of a fingerprint.

I wasn’t thinking about completely blocking the camera with a finger. More like holding it 4-5 inches above the camera… like a FaceID for fingerprints that uses the regular camera. Not saying that it would be super useful or anything, just that it could have been a possibility to implement something like this in addition to FaceID. More like a concept.
And looking at the articles it seems like most cameras’ resolution would be enough to be able to replicate fingerprints/read them.

Heart rate monitoring apps came from creative use of the camera/flash. Why wasn’t this rule invoked then? Why now? Looks like a reach.

But heart rate monitors still use camera for imaging – just not in a way you’re used to.

But this button app also uses the camera for imaging. Just not in the way you’re used to.

It tells you whether something is covering the camera or not.

You can’t use the heart rate monitor without the camera but you can use Luna without the camera "button".

Seems like this would make the CPU run in a high power draw mode at a time when it would otherwise be idle and drawing almost zero power.

Unnecessary battery consumption is also not allowed.

You’re right, I once developed a camera app, an always on front camera of an iPhone 6 consumed at least 22% CPU to capture frames at 60fps.

I guess only Apple can innovate. And by innovate, I mean enforce their ridiculous walled garden. And create stupid $1k bucktoothed monstrosities. No thanks.

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