Microsoft’s Face Reader

Heavy is the head that wears the VR headset.

Photo by Microsoft Press Resources

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Microsoft wants to really understand the look on your face. 

The tech firm is seeking to patent a “high-sensitivity” facial tracking system for mixed-reality devices. Microsoft says its system can detect facial movement with less hardware at a lower cost. 

Microsoft’s filing is quite technical, but to break it down: Conventional systems track facial movements using circuits which collect sensor data that’s processed by an “analog-to-digital converter.” These converters need to be integrated into different components of the device and take up extra space as they need to be “as large as possible” to get higher-resolution facial tracking. 

In contrast, Microsoft’s system integrates those tracking circuits directly into the components, and instead uses what’s called a “DC-AC converter,” thereby reducing the “required circuit area” needed for processing.  

Basically, Microsoft is trying to cut down the job of the middleman that is the “expensive and bulky inductor.” This not only reduces power consumption, but can cut manufacturing costs by making the hardware itself simpler, and increase device reliability and safety.

By tracking movements so closely, Microsoft said it can “enhance the immersive MR experience.” But conventional systems to do so require high power-supply levels, sucking up battery quickly in a typical headset. 

“Low power and compact form factor are important design issue(s) in such wearable devices, which require portability and long battery life,” Microsoft said in the filing. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

As complicated as this sounds, the outcome matters more than the tech itself. Microsoft’s system could lead to a cheaper, lighter, and longer-lasting artificial reality headset that includes advanced facial tracking. And given how “processor intensive” facial tracking can be, making it energy-affordable and efficient could be the key to increased production, said Jake Maymar, VP of Innovation at The Glimpse Group

And if the tech in this patent works well at capturing facial expressions in an energy-efficient and cost-saving way, Maymar said, Microsoft would have access to “one of the most lucrative metrics you can possibly have” in AR and VR. 

“If Microsoft creates this system, it’s just easy for the manufacturers to implement it, and they’re licensing that technology and making it affordable, that becomes the standard,” said Maymar. “That’s incredibly powerful. You can actually have a clear metric and be able to measure the impact of advertising, the impact of experiences, and the impact of connections with others.” 

Several companies have shown interest in reading the look on your face. Meta files patent applications for VR eye and facial expression tracking at a near-constant pace, Snap has sought to patent several similar tools for its AR spectacles, and Sony is interested in tracking your face for its own gaming purposes. Apple, meanwhile, has touted gaze-tracking as a major feature of its ritzy Vision Pro headset. 

By securing this patent, Microsoft could control a key element that several of these companies could benefit from, said Maymar. “The thing that I’m watching for is who can capture the actual micro expressions of the face,” said Maymar. “The company that can do that in the cheapest and most efficient way is the one that’s going to ultimately win.” 

Microsoft offers a line of mixed-reality headsets called the HoloLens, starting at $3,500 for its cheapest model. With this new tech, it may be able to bring the price down. Plus, Maymar said, with the wide scope that Microsoft’s business now has, it could try to sell this tech to everyone — from businesses looking for ways to connect remote employees to gamers looking for immersive experiences. 

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