Apple seeks patent on display-blurring technology using face detection and gaze tracking

A recent patent application by Apple describes a system using face recognition and eye-tracking to prevent privacy invasion by people looking over the shoulder of an electronic device user.

The application filed for “Gaze-Dependent Display Encryption,” published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), was filed in September, 2019. It describes a system for obscuring images and other screen contents that are not being looked at in the moment by the rightful user. This means that an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch could leave only a certain region of a display clear, and the patent suggests this can be done without disrupting the user’s visual experience, by using visual encryption which retains “the overall look and structure of that region.”

“(A) single shift in ASCII codes can be used to hide the meaning of text content without changing the shape or the white space of the displayed text,” the eight California-based researchers listed as inventors write in the application. Within-word shuffling of letters is another way of obscuring text that is not being read by the device owner without disrupting the overall look of the page. Color altering and image warping are also mentioned as possible techniques for visual encryption.

The primary user could be identified or authenticated with facial recognition, and display areas visually encrypted based on tracking the gaze location of the legitimate user, and possibly of onlookers.

Peripheral vision is limited compared to “central vision,” the researchers note, and visual clutter can impede human recognition, which enables the use of other techniques such as metamers for visual encryption. Metamers are visual stimuli that are “perceptually indistinguishable, even though they are physically different” from another stimulus present. The researchers note that metamers are challenging for rapidly changing display frames, such as in video.

The technology may also never see the light of day, as Apple applies for patents on many technologies that are not necessarily in development for commercial production. The company had a filing for biometric authentication to unlock multiple devices published by the USPTO in February.

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