Rethinking Face ID in the Face Mask Touchless Era (Updated)

When iPhone X came out in November 2017, IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa named Suica the Apple Pay winner. What he really meant to say was that Suica Express Transit was the only easy way to use Face ID Apple Pay. It took me a long time to get used to Face ID Apple Pay but now with the COVDID-19 crisis and regulation face masks, the choices are back at square one: (1) yank down the face mask to Face ID anything, (2) use a passcode instead, (3) use Apple Pay Suica set with Express Transit. Yeah, the last one. More people have Express Transit now in China, TfL-land and little bits of the MTA OMNY system but nobody has it for purchases. Except Apple Pay Suica, still the only Express Transit card for contactless payments at stores.

In the sudden era of face masks and plastic curtained checkout areas, dealing with Face ID as little as possible, and using Apple Pay Suica as much as possible, makes life easier and safer: experts in Japan instruct people not to touch face mask surfaces and you don’t want to be yanking down a face mask to use Face ID Apple Pay at close proximity checkout. The interim solution is Apple Pay on Apple Watch which does not use Face/Touch ID at all. But there is that social distance problem: your arm has to reach the reader. That’s the thing about NFC, it’s close proximity technology. So are QR Codes.

The Touchless Distance
When I first saw the NTT Docomo Ultra Wideband Touchless Mobile FeliCa demo I though why would anybody want to pay a few feet away from the reader? Outside of paying while sitting in the drive thru I could not think of a reason. After living with Face ID, face masks and COVID-19 social distancing, I see the reason now at every checkout at every store. I want it. You will too (the 1:20 mark):

And for cars too, CarKey will work like this at some point (0:13 mark):

Touchless Transit Gate vs Facial Recognition
The COVID-19 crisis upends another Face ID related technology fantasy: facial recognition transit gates. NEC is working on face recognition that works with face masks. If anybody can deliver viable face recognition with face masks NEC will certainly be one of the first, but there are cost, performance and privacy issues to consider for transit gates: how fast is the transaction speed, how well does it scale for commuter rush, how do you register faces? Who controls all that transit gate face data and is it stored domestically or data farmed out internationally?

Mobile FeliCa and MIFARE Touchless is the same device level security model we have now with Apple Pay Suica and Student ID, and what we will have with CarKey and shared ‘keys’. UWB is a new hardware layer on top of what already exists, it bridges the NFC infrastructure and contactless payment methods we have now and extends it to the future instead of junking it.

Osaka Metro plans to have face recognition transit gates deployed in time for Osaka Expo 2025. It’s a risky transition plan. Touchless transit gates are the safer bet. Sony, Docomo, NXP, JR East, JREM are doing the necessary hardware and software development with the same embedded secure element security and local processing architecture we have now. Osaka Metro can buy the finished goods from them instead of reinventing the wheel.

Fixing Face ID Shortcomings
On the smartphone side Apple already has the Ultra Wideband U1 chip in iPhone 11. The next step is Apple Pay support as outlined in the iOS 14 Apple Pay post. I hope Apple uses the opportunity of adding UWB Touchless Apple Pay to enhance Face ID with improved technology and controls. Express Card/Express Transit is the Apple Pay method to bypass Face/Touch ID for transit, purchases (Suica) and ID door access (Student ID and CarKey). Extending the Express Card/Express Transit model as much as possible, while keeping the high level of security, is one practical way Apple Pay can address some of the Face ID in face mask era pain points.

Longer term, Face ID has to evolve to securely read faces with face masks reliably. If Face ID cannot be secure, intuitive and face mask user friendly, I don’t see a future for it, or being the iPhone model that customers want to buy. This is why iPhone SE is looking like Apple’s most important product launch of 2020.

Last but not least I don’t see Open Loop transit ever working with Touchless technology. Open Loop will likely remain a NFC only service because EMVCo partners are invested in lower common hardware standards like ISO14443 and plastic cards and probably loath to update them. Certainly they don’t want to lose the plastic card issue business because it’s more profitable than issuing digital ones. EMVCo certainly didn’t see the current situation coming, nor did Apple of course. But then again who did?


UPDATES

iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak
iOS 13.5 beta 3 has a Face ID tweak: when it detects a face mask it no longer delays the swipe up Passcode pop up with a 2nd read attempt, it goes straight to Passcode pop up. This small tweak remove a tiny bit of Face ID with face mask stress, but tiny things add up when unlocking iPhone many times a day. But for me Passcode pop up was only one stumbling block, a second bigger stumbling block is Passcode entry via the numeric keyboard.

There is a curious lag between what your fingers are tapping, the feedback click sound and what tap the iPhone actually registers. If you closely inspect the visual tap feedback, it flashes white then fades slowly, while the click just clicks.Taken all together, my brain wants to type fast and tells me the my 2 thumb input is going fast, but the iPhone Passcode numeric keyboard wants me to type slow with 1 thumb. Perhaps it’s just me but I only get correct passcode entry 50% of the time unless I slow way down and type with 1 thumb.

Overall the Face ID with face mask tweak seems more for iPhone unlock, it’s much less useful for Apple Pay. I hope Apple continues to tweak Face ID before iOS 13.5 ships but the reality is Apple can’t do very much in a short time.

John Gruber had an interesting observation regarding another iOS 13.5 beta 3 tweak, this one for Group FaceTime:

methinks a lot of folks at Apple (executives included) are using group FaceTime chats more than ever before lately, and have realized that in practice, especially in larger groups, it’s not a good experience.

Daring Fireball: ANOTHER IOS 13.5 BETA TWEAK: AN OPTION TO DISABLE ‘AUTOMATIC PROMINENCE’ FOR THE CURRENT SPEAKER’S TILE IN GROUP FACETIME

Unfortunately it’s the same for Face ID: Apple is only addressing it because Apple execs are wearing face masks. It’s very frustrating that Apple is only dealing with the Face ID with face mask issue now that it’s on their face. Customers in Asia have been wrestling with it since iPhone X day one November 2017. At any rate I hope Apple puts the experience to good use for a better future version of Face ID.

The return of Touch ID?
The release of iPhone SE and iPad Air with Touch ID on the power button has some tech bloggers speculating if this means a dual biometric approach for future iPhone models. I don’t think so.

Open loop wishful thinking trashes Apple Pay Express Transit reputation

The latest OMNY bump in the road perfectly captures the downside of making contactless credit/debit cards a one size fits all solution. As the New York Post piece (via MacRumors) points out, some Apple Pay Express Transit users are being double charged for fares. Perhaps they didn’t know that Express Transit was enabled in the first place, perhaps the iPhone passed too close to the OMNY transit gate reader. It’s a classic “you’re holding it wrong” situation that has nothing to do with Apple Pay Express Transit and everything to do with the current EMV architecture and how banks implement it.

Part of the problem is that OMNY is new, it’s not working across the entire MTA system yet, and open loop EMV bank cards will never replace all classic MetroCard fare options. That job is for the MIFARE based OMNY transit card due in late 2021. Until the system is complete Metro users will have to juggle different cards and deal with a very long transition. Transport for London (TfL) users have had MIFARE based Oyster cards since 2003, contactless credit/debit cards have been ubiquitous since the 2012 London Olympics when open loop was added to the TfL Oyster fare system.

To Biometric or not Biometric?
Open Loop credit/debit cards on transit gates instead of native transit cards always come with banking and credit industry baggage. Even in the contactless card heaven that is said to be London, there are a surprisingly number of gotchas: minimum limits for using cards, max limits that require PIN codes. It’s an endless loop of banks pushing one way and merchants pushing back.

The golden uptake for Apple Pay in Japan was Suica and is the same story everywhere: it’s all about getting rid of coins for transit, coffee, sandwiches, etc. The small stuff. This is the 20,000 JPY prepaid heavenly region where Apple Pay Suica sings and banks so desperately want to shut out all other players and keep all the marbles. But bank cards have an authorization problem: banks set spending limits not the card architecture. The line is always changing, what works today might not work tomorrow. The prepaid Suica architecture itself is the firewall that does away with user authorization because local processing transaction at the transit gate or store reader is all the authorization necessary.

Express Transit was developed for Apple Pay Suica in 2016, it remains the best matchup because the feature is a basic part of the Suica card architecture that is not a bank card. Apple Pay Express Transit for EMV payment cards that appeared with iOS 12.3 is a retrofit job that I predicted would have problems because retrofits are about dealing with baggage, not creating a better long term solution. 7 months later we are already there. This problem isn’t going away, not as long as banks and EMV keep operating the way that they do.

The Global NFC + Background Tag Reading iPhone SE2

Update: iPhone SE is here and goes on sale April 24, the perfect iPhone for these Face ID with face mask challenged times. The secret sauce is A13 Bionic powered Secure Element + global NFC that delivers Express Card power reserve plus Background NFC tag reading Apple Pay Equation, on an entry level iPhone.


The on again, off again iPhone SE2 is on again now that Delphic oracle analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has checked in. As I wrote before, the iPhone/Apple Watch 2019 lineup is now entirely global NFC. The price cuts are great but there needs to be a lower priced entry model below the iPhone XR with:

  • NFC background tag reading in place for new Apple Pay features going forward.
  • Touch ID that removes the Face ID face mask problem in markets like China and Japan. This issue is a constant blind spot in the western tech press ‘In-screen Touch ID vs Face ID’ debate.
  • A13 Bionic powered Secure Element + global NFC for Express Card with power reserve and Background NFC tag reading
  • Cheaper battery friendly Haptic Touch instead of the more expensive battery hungry iPhone 8 3D Touch.

There kind of device is perfect for the Japan and Hong Kong markets:

The rumored A12 chip iPhone SE2 may well be pie in the sky, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t market appeal for an inexpensive global NFC iPhone for places like Japan and Hong Kong. Those markets have highly integrated transit networks coupled with highly evolved transit card systems like Suica and Octopus. With both of these on Apple Pay there’s a good opening for a small SE size inexpensive global NFC iPhone, it would do very well.

I imagine the iPhone SE2 could do well in a lot of markets.

iOS 13 Wallet Suica

The arrival of the Suica transit platform on the Apple Pay platform heralded a progression of innovation.

  • October 2016 : Suica is the first transit card on Apple Pay and also the debut of Express Transit and FeliCa
  • September 2017: global NFC Apple Pay arrives with iPhone 8/X/Apple Watch Series 3
  • September 2018: A12 Bionic NFC delivers Express Cards with power reserve and Background NFC tag reading
  • September 2019: direct creation of Suica in Wallet

The last one is a small step with big implications that people are only beginning to see. Instead of a plastic card that is read into Wallet or added to Wallet with a 3rd party app, Suica creation is now a basic function of iOS 13 Wallet that works with other Apple Pay cards from anywhere to add money. Suica is part of iOS. Think about that.

All of these developments have been driven by Suica, this is why Suica is the Apple Pay bellweather. Transit card creation in Wallet and adding money with Apple Pay cards from anywhere will undoubtedly be part of Apple Pay Octopus and migrate to other Apple Pay Transit cards over time. If you want to see where the Apple Pay puck is going, keep an eye on Apple Pay Suica developments. What arrives on Suica first becomes standard later.

Apple’s Secret Weapon

Technology is hard to cover well in a way that’s clear and easy to understand, that educates and elevates without dumbing down the technology or it’s intended audience. Technology like Apple Pay Suica is especially hard to cover well because it is multifaceted: it merges the Apple Pay platform of Global NFC technology deployed on iPhone and Apple Watch, with the Suica Transit Platform of FeliCa NFC deployed for transit and eMoney on a national scale, and how Apple delivers all of this to a global user base.

With so many parts it’s difficult to explain the greatness and importance of Apple Pay Suica, simply and clearly, and what connects it to Apple Card. Ken Bolido who is the production lead and creative director for Austin Evans, has created a video titled Apple’s SECRET Weapon aka Your iPhone has Super Powers…in Japan. Ken ‘get’s it’ and captures all of it brilliantly: why Apple Pay is Apple’s Secret Weapon, how Apple Pay Suica is a perfect embodiment of that secret weapon, and how it relates to Apple Card. If you want to understand any of this and how it will play out, watch Apple’s SECRET Weapon. It’s essential viewing and a perfect primer for the role Apple Pay Suica will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.