Three Barriers I Encountered as a Blind Person to Setting up Face ID, and How I trained my Eyes to Use Attention Detection on iPhone XS


Face ID for iPhones has been available for over a year now. Because I learned my lesson about early adopting from the Apple Watch, I decided to stick with a device that still let me unlock my phone with my fingerprint. With the release of this year’s line of iphone’s, one thing was made very clear. Face ID isn’t going away in the near future. So, feeling secure thanks to Apple’s excellent return policy, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try it out.

Okay, you’re blind, but you’re in to Photography. What’s the big deal?

As it turns out, there’s really no big deal at all. When I take a picture, my goal is to get the object or objects centered in the frame and get the picture. Face ID works just like that once it’s set up. Jonathan mosen Published a getting started guide whose directions and security advisories are still current, so I don’t see a need to rehash that here. There’s really only one point on which I disagree with him, and we’ll get to that in a minute. What you’ll find here are some considerations for setting this feature up if you’re totally blind, followed by a description of a training method for using the phone’s attention detection feature.

Roadblocks to setting it Up

The getting started guide I’ve just linked to details the setting up of Face ID with VoiceOver. While it is a very simple process, almost simpler than setting up Touch ID, there are some potential barriers that could impact one’s user experience and first impressions if this new feature. The first one has to do with the attention detection feature.

It’s Disabled by Default for a Reason

When you set up Face ID with VoiceOver on, you get a dialog that tells you that attention detection is disabled, and that you can enable it in Face ID and Passcode settings if you wish. Since I made the mistake of enabling it without any sort of training and had to deal with the results, I feel comfortable telling you that the best thing to do is leave attention detection disabled until you’ve finished setting up your iPhone, which includes but is not limited to the setting up of all accounts, as well as two-factor authentication apps and password managers. Some of these apps make you verify your identity after attention detection is enabled, but trust me when I say that extra bit of effort is a lot easier to swallow than the frustration you’ll experience otherwise. Once you’ve read the training method section of this post, you may wish to consider enabling attention detection if for no other reason than leaving it disabled has security implications. The next issue has to do with lighting.

Finding light

I’ve been dealing with facial recognition apps for awhile now, and proper lighting is important. One of the implications of the condition that causes me to be totally blind is that i have light perception on some days, and I am completely without it on others. The result is I need a reliable way to find light. Seeing AI has a light detection feature, and it lets me do that. It operates on a C-scale, and plays a higher note on the scale when brighter light is detected, and the note becomes extremely high an Atonal if the light is too bright. For the record, the best light for facial recognition is indicated by an E on the scale. For those of you who are unfamiliar with musical scales, this is the first note you sing in many songs, including but not limited to “mary Had a little Lamb,” which many people tend to sing in the key of C for some reason. Since I had an iPhone before, I was able to map out my apartment to find the best lighting prior to the new arrival, but you can do this any time before entering the setup screen. The final barrier has do to with just how to move your face.

Like clockwork? Not exactly.

I said earlier that I disagreed with Mr. Mosen on one point in his getting started guide, and here it is. In his guide, Mr. Mosen says,

Imagine that your nose is a hand of an analogue clock. Your nose needs to reach as many points on the clock as possible. So, after double-tapping the “get started” button, and waiting for confirmation that your head is positioned correctly, point your nose up to 12 o’clock, then move it around to 3 or 4. Point it down to six o’clock. Move your head in the opposite direction, so it reaches 9 or 8. Then conclude by moving it up to 12 again.

Here’s my problem, and i realize it may be a personal one. A clock is a two-dimensional surface, but the circle in which you need to move your head to set up face ID is actually three-dimensional. There are lots of blind people, myself included, who have trouble interpreting two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space and objects. This makes maps and diagrams especially useless for me. Here, when I tried to follow those directions, I tried to get my nose to 6 o’clock, my head ran into my right shoulder, and I got stuck at four or five o’clock. With some help from the VoiceOver prompts, as well as relating it to my own experiences, I came up with the following:

Imagine that your head is a joystick on a game controller or old-style arcade machine. A joystick moves in a total of nine directions: Center, forward, back, left, right, forward and left, forward and right, backward and left, and backward and right. Start with your head in the center, then move it through the remaining eight positions to capture your face, making sure you don’t move outside the phone’s field of vision. If you do, VoiceOver will let you know, and you’ll just have to reposition your head to continue. Once you’ve completed the process and finished setting up the rest of your iPhone, it’s time to train yourself to use attention detection.

How I Trained my unruly Eyes

Another implication of my visual condition is that I have Nystagmus, which for purposes of this discussion means I have absolutely no control over my eye movements. This is what the eye doctors have always told me, this is what I told anyone who asked, and this is what we all believed. Aside from people getting upset because they think I’m rolling my eyes at them, it hasn’t caused me too much trouble. If my experience with Face ID and Attention Detection shows anything, it’s that I may have more control over it than I thought. Here’s the process I wnt through, and I’m betting some of you will be able to do this too.

Taking Selfies to Find the Camera

You might not have realized it, but the iPhone’s front camera has an extremely bright flash. It’s so bright that even though I didn’t have light perception yesterday, I could feel the heat from it. In my case, I still have my eyes rather than prosthetics, so all the nerves are still in tact. I spent a good half hour taking selfie after selfie until I could consistently get the heat of the flash in one or the other of my eyes. You can double-check this by going through photos with VoiceOver, and it will notify you if there are blinking eyes, which tends to happen when a bright light hits them. The next step was to enable Attention Detection, and go through the same process until I could consistently unlock the phone.

Making my eyes move where I want when I want

Here’s the thing to remember: Eyes, regardless of whether or not they are performing their intended function, are a body part. This means, at least for me, that I can make my eyes move in conjunction with another body part, my hands and arms in this case. By holding my phone in both hands at or around the center of my body, I was able to make my eyes go toward the middle of the phone to first find the flash, and to then get that satisfying click sound that means my phone is unlocked. I then had to keep doing it until I could unlock my phone in an amount of time comparable to the time it takes me to use Touch ID.


This post described three barriers I encountered while setting up Face ID on my iPhone, and how I worked around them. I then explained how I trained myself to use the Attention Detection feature to allow myself the most security possible from the device. At this point, I can unlock the phone consistently with Face ID and the Attention feature turned on. I still have failures at this point, but I used to get them all the time with Touch ID. I still haven’t made up my mind on whether or not I like Face ID, but I still have thirteen days. Most telling, though, is the fact I have not brought myself to wipe my old iPhone just yet.

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