New documents revealed on Wednesday show that Apple was toying with a gesture-based unlock function for its mobile devices some four years after the idea was introduced in the Android operating system. Cupertino’s version, however, is arguably far more sophisticated than even the latest redesigns from Google, and also includes a number of provisions to make the encryption even harder.
The U.S.P.T.O. on Wednesday published two Apple patent applications (1, 2), both titled “Gesture entry techniques,” that together form the basis of a device unlocking feature in which a user draws a pattern on the screen with the help of illuminated discs. One patent filing deals with the system as a whole, while the other focuses on entering and setting gestures on a mobile device.
Apple’s patent describes gesture lock screen user interface elements that can be changed by a user, in terms of both size and position. Changing size makes them easier or harder to hit, and rearranging their position could also frustrate potential hacking attempts by making patterns more unpredictable. The system can also selectively use invisible dots too, which aren’t present on the UI but which work in tandem with visible hit points to track a path. Other variables that could add to gesture complexity include counting things like the speed of entry, pauses and other timing elements into the code. Entering the same gesture different ways would therefore produce different results, with only one right way to trigger an unlock.
In 2008, Google introduced pattern unlocking in its Android operating system, which accepts gesture input on a grid of dots to unlock a device. The feature has been adapted with so-called “picture passwords” (both on Android and Microsoft’s Windows 8) that accept various gestures arranged on a photo, but the basic idea still involves entering a series of shapes onto an onscreen image.
There’s still more, too – the system supports the use of multi-finger input, and even has a code strength support meter pretty much like those used for text and number based passcodes today. It would rank patterns as high or low based on how long they were, how complex, how random and other factors.
Apple isn’t likely to build this system into any devices in the near future, since it skirts too closely to drawing comparisons to Android, but it does show that Apple thought in-depth about what comes after the alphanumeric password, since conceivably future systems will need much more complex security measures to frustrate hacking attempts.