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?


UPDATE

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.

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch (Updated)

March 14 marked the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.


UPDATE
Eki-net app v1.2 is out and supports Shinkansen eTicket reservations. The reservations process is straight forward and similar to SmartEX: choose the Shinkansen line, set stations points+date+time, select a Shinkansen train. The next step is departs from SmartEx because the Eki-net eTicket service supports up to 6 transit IC cards (plastic, Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO), you select the transit IC card to attach the eTicket. The final step is ticket purchase with the Eki-net account registered credit card. A big difference with the old Suica App Shinkansen service is that Apple Pay in-app purchases are no longer supported.

I hope that JR East restores Apple Pay in-app purchase at some point. Setting up a new account and registering cards for every new JR East service, (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-net, etc.) is also a huge pain and practically impossible for occasional users. Sign in with Apple ID and Apple Pay support for on the spot purchases is a much better deal for people who don’t want to juggle multiple accounts, passwords and credit cards. Last but not least Eki-net is Japanese language only, and account creation/management requires a trip to the awful Eki-net web site. Please fix this JR East, with so few people riding trains right now you have the free time to do it.

New JR East Shinkansen eTicket service is a bumpy transition

Three new Suica App system notices spell out the end of old style in-app Shinkansen ticket purchases ending March 13 for the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launching March 14. The switchover is going to be bumpy and clear as mud. A quick list of things to be careful of:

The Bad Ugly

  • Automatic Apple Pay Suica ID# linking is dead
    You have to manually enter your Apple Pay Suica # in the fugly Japanese only Eki-net online site (not the iOS app). Unfortunately copy/paste from Suica App does not work well because the first 2 letters of the string must be entered via pull down menu (macOS) or scroll wheel (iOS) and the entry field cuts off the final 2 digits of the string. This is stupid UI design in the smartphone era.
  • Suica App Shinkansen in app purchases are dead, new eTicket Shinkansen reservations/purchases have to be made online in Eki-net. The current version of iOS Eki-net has not been updated yet and is only for old style ticket reservations and purchases.

The Good

  • All major transit IC cards can be registered for JR East Shinkansen eTickets on the Eki-net site.

The Missing
From a system standpoint it’s clear that locally processed Shinkansen tickets directly downloaded to Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica are over. All JR systems will use the same smartEX approach of soft-linked transit IC card numbers with the eTicket information stored on the cloud.

We are losing Suica App Shinkansen in-app integration, iOS Eki-net app is not plugged in with Shinkansen eTicketing, taken together with backend system changes I guess JR East is breaking eggs to make a new omelette. Will things end end up bigger and better?

JR group cooperation is a classic cat herd, Shinkansen lines might be connected but they don’t appear to be cooperating on a deep level to integrate eTicketing systems, at least not from the outside. This needs to change. The JR East press releases details the Shinkansen eTicket system merger with JR West which operates the Toyama~Ishikawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. There are a few minor updates on the JR Central EX system, details on the EX site (Japanese), but nothing that indicates more interoperability.

The challenges of operating a massive ticketing system smoothly while rebuilding it must be huge. It will be a longish migration of many moving pieces and even though we know what is going away, it’s not exactly clear what the finished service will include. Let’s hope JR East is up to the job when the real fun starts on March 14, and stay focused while aggressively fixing the inevitable bugs and problems during the transition.

UPDATE
Right on cue JR East Eki-net and JR West e5489 systems have been experiencing occasional credit card processing problems for Shinkansen ticket purchases. These 2 systems are being integrated for Shinkansen eTicket service.

New JR East eTicket service launches March 14

JR East is launching their new eTicket service starting March 14 via the eki-net app for iOS and Android, a refresh for the venerable online eki-net service will be coming as well. The new service is more of a start line than a new start. The eki-net app and website are what we have not changed much these past few months, the change will a gradual ramp up to replace both the old-style online eki-net Shinkansen ticket service and the current Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service, and migrate to ticketless transit on JR East lines with the major JP transit cards. As anticipated the basic concept is similar to the JR Central SmartEX service and app that registers any major transit IC card for Shinkansen eTicketing. JR East is taking it a few steps further with regular express train eTickets but it’s not clear yet how or if this works outside of Suica.

The proof will be in the pudding when new eki-net Shinkansen reservations start on February 14. We should also expect a new Suica App updated for the new eTicket system that includes both Shinkansen and hopefully, regular express trains. Let’s hope it’s the nice valentine present JR East wants it to be.

The Good

  • new eki-net membership is free
  • All major transit IC cards (ICOCA, Toica, PASMO, etc.) can be registered and used for eki-net Shinkansen eTicketing
  • All JR East Shinkansen ticketing and regular express trains ticketing are covered but it’s not clear yet how regular express eTickets work with Mobile Suica
  • Narita Express eTickets are finally easy to reserve and use with Mobile Suica
  • Multi-person eTickets purchases
  • Major credit cards/debit cards accepted (confirming, if non-JP issue cards are a problem this will go in the Bad/Ugly slot)
  • The iOS eki-net app supports Face ID/Touch ID login
  • It appears that JR East will not be following the JR Central approach of different services with different discount

The Bad

  • The new eTicket service is still called eki-net
  • Account creation and updating can only be done online, not in the eki-net app

The Ugly

  • Since the new service has not started yet eki-net app is the same old eki-net online service in a smartphone app with a better UI. The app is not multilingual which does not bode well for a multilingual Suica App in time for the Tokyo Olympics, but we’ll see how things pan out when the new backend system goes online

The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? So far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will have be backwards compatible with current transit card IC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates systemwide starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic transit cards must work seamlessly with the new gates. It doesn’t make any sense to issue yet another card, Super Duper Suica, to work with handsfree touchless. It also doesn’t make sense if touchless is only for smartphones. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users and be used at all, all of it has to work perfectly, out of the gate.