Is Israeli tech behind iPhone X’s new facial recognition feature?

Apple mum as TV report says Israel team ‘partially responsible’; reports in February said Apple bought Israel’s Realface, a facial recognition technology pioneer

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Apple's iPhone X with facial recognition (Courtesy)
Apple's iPhone X with facial recognition (Courtesy)

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday that Israeli technology is partially behind the facial recognition technology of Apple Inc.’s new flagship device, the iPhone X, which the Cupertino, California firm unveiled on Tuesday.

Called Face ID, facial recognition will be the main way users unlock the new iPhone, which ditches Apple’s familiar home button. The iPhone X is scheduled to start shipping in November, priced from $999.

An Apple spokesman in Israel declined to comment on the Channel 2 report, which cited unnamed Apple sources, or on the use of Israeli technology in Apple’s products.

But in February, the Calcalist financial website said the US giant had acquired Israel’s Realface, a cybertechnology startup whose facial recognition technology can be used to authenticate users, for several millions of dollars.

Apple’s iPhone X homescreen (Courtesy: Apple)

Set up in 2014 by Adi Eckhouse Barzilai and Aviv Mader, Realface has developed a facial recognition software that offers users a smart biometric login, aiming to make passwords redundant when accessing mobile devices or PCs.

According to Startup Nation Central, a database for Israeli tech companies, the Tel Aviv-based firm had raised $1 million prior to the acquisition and employed up to 10 people. The company had sales in China, Israel, Europe and the US, according to the data firm.

The iPhone X also features the new A11 Bionic chip, which Apple has described as “the most powerful and smartest chip ever in a smartphone.” The chip enables the phone to handle machine learning algorithms, which are what power various advanced features of the phone, such as Face ID, augmented reality apps and Animoji – emojis that are animated using facial tracking technology. Israeli engineers and developers are widely renowned for prowess in machine learning and artificial intelligence skills.

Apple is generally secretive about its developments and its acquisitions around the world. An employee of the firm recently told The Times of Israel that its various teams often work separately, without knowing what the other teams are working on, and that information is shared on a need-to-know basis.

Apple has also been reported to have used its Israeli office to develop the hardware for its new iPhone 8, which was also unveiled on Tuesday. “Some hardware for the iPhone 8 is being created in Herzliya, Israel, according to a local Apple employee,” Business Insider reported last September.

Apple started its activities in Israel after it bought Anobit Technologies Ltd. in 2012.

Its Herzliya office has approximately 800 employees, and Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that it is the company’s second-largest research and development office in the world. There is another Apple center in Haifa.

The iPhone X will be available for pre-order beginning Friday, October 27 in more than 55 countries and territories, and in stores beginning Friday, November 3, Apple said. Israel is scheduled to get the iPhone 8 and 8+ at the end of the month.

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