I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks. Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking: “Who was that masked man?”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth. Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features. We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes. And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people. Are they smiling? Frowning? Grimacing? Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?
I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday. Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions. As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not. It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile. After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues. You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it. Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.
Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while. I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.
And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.