Since cell phones hit the market a couple decades ago, the irritating glow of a smartphone screen or the discordant blaring of a ringtone has ruined many a theatergoing experience. And they continue to do so no matter how many PSAs run before the trailers at the cinema (or how adorable said PSAs are). Some theaters, like the famed Alamo Drafthouse, have responded by getting extra strict with their no-talking, no-texting policy. Other exhibitors have gone in the complete opposite direction, accepting cell phone use in theaters as the new normal and considering special phone-friendly theaters or screenings.

Turns out there could be a third way, brought to you by science. Apple — yes, the makers of the very same devices that irritate us to no end in the theater — has just won a patent for geo-fencing technology that could stop people from using their iPhones in the theater. Read more after the jump.

The patent was originally filed in 2008, but just received approval today. It covers “[a]pparatus and methods for changing one or more functional or operational aspects of a wireless device, such as upon the occurrence of a certain event.” In plain English, that means Apple could change your settings automatically based on where you are. There are plenty of potentially useful applications for this feature — classrooms and airplanes come to mind — but blocking cell phone use in theaters is one obvious possibility.

The patent would allow Apple to introduce an iPhone feature that would dim your iPhone’s display, disable its calling and texting functions, silence its ringtone, or turn off its camera the second you walked into a theater. Interestingly, Peter predicted this very possibility last year when the Sun reported on a patent for a technology that could shut down video during live events. As he noted then, Apple could conceivably fine-tune the feature so your phone doesn’t simply turn off. For example, Apple could design it so that even in movie-theater-lockdown mode, you’d still be able to make emergency calls or check the time.

But all of this is predicated on several big ifs. Apple would have to decide it wants to develop this application, movie theaters would have to agree to install new systems to trigger the feature, and consumers would have to learn to deal with not checking Twitter for two whole hours. Then there’s the legal side of it — the patent may have been okayed, but if Apple actually starts working on such an application it’d have to tread carefully to avoid breaking any FCC laws. And even in the best-case scenario, the feature would likely still be a few years away. A movie lover can dream, though.

[Source: Engadget]

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