When it was announced last month that Apple had won approval for a patent which would allow infrared signals to send data to cell phones and other devices, the news was met with mixed reactions. While the technology has a wide variety of potential uses, perhaps most notably for blocking cameras and video recordings at concerts and other events, fears were also sparked that it could be used to suppress documenting incidents involving police violence.
Some observers have pointed out that the company are more likely to use the technology for augmented reality purposes, in which a user could point their camera at their surroundings and receive additional information, or have advertisements appear on their phones in specific physical locations. To help understand the patent and whether or not it could mean the end of shaky concert videos, we spoke to Robert Kori Golding, an augmented platform reality developer at Toronto's Albedo Informatics, to find out more.
THUMP: Is this patent about blocking cameras or is it really just about serving ads to people in public spaces?
Robert Kori Golding: It's about infrared beacon technology and all the different things that it can do to a phone. Basically, you can put an IR beacon somewhere and the phone's IR sensor will recognize the beacon, then it will receive a packet of data. That packet of data can be anything from a photo, a video, an advertisement, or information that augments your location, but it could also be a trigger or kill signal that turns your camera off, turns off your ability to make calls, or even disables your phone. The example they used in the patent was to stop people from recording concerts, but that's just one example of how the technology could be used.
Does it cover such a broad range of uses because they're trying to patent everything you could possibly do with an IR beacon?
Apple has been moving into the augmented reality space, they're potentially working on glasses, and they may be putting more augmented reality and virtual reality functionality into their next generation phones. But you don't necessarily need IR to do these things though. IR works well indoors or places where there is low light, where there's lots of movement, or where you don't get a good GPS signal.
They may just be building up their augmented reality portfolio to deal with those situations. You could install beacons in every movie theatre, and people wouldn't be able to film inside the theatre. You could do it at concerts to prevent bootleg concert videos. It's very far reaching but it's problematic that they're potentially putting technology in a phone that would allow you to basically shut it off with a signal. That's really what people are finding troubling. I don't think they would do that, because it doesn't seem a very Apple thing to do, but who knows.
So it would be effective at blocking recording of a movie or a concert, but not very efficient at blocking recording of a political rally?
Rallies move around a lot and they'd have to use a lot of beacons. They'd have to have them everywhere. It's not like it's broadcasting a frequency that blankets the area. It only works if the phone is pointed in that direction.
What are some other positive things this technology could be used for?
Any type of experience in a dark or crowded space. That's why it could be useful for firefighters, because their vision would be obscured and conventional computer vision would be useless. It would also work well in malls, amusement parks, and for helping people find where they are. GPS is getting better, but even with WiFi triangulation, it's only accurate within about 15 meters. This would be completely accurate, so things would appear exactly where you want them to.
What would you tell people who are concerned about the patent?
If people are really worried, they could switch to Android. Apple phones are very common, but there's a lot of Android phones too, and this would be specific to the Apple ecosystem.
Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.