I try and make it to a movie theater at least once a month. Inevitably at least a few times during the show someone will turn on their phone and blind half the audience. Whether it was to check messages, see who was calling, or fire off a quick text, it’s still rude. It’s so rude that theaters try to “guilt” their patrons into turning off their phones until after the movie is over. They run public service announcements during the trailers and before the movie runs to try and convince you that you’re the person who will ruin the entire movie for everyone if you don’t silence your phone and keep it put away until the movie is over. (Which, by the way, you are.)
Apparently that’s not working so well. In addition to the “Guilt PSAs” at the last movie I saw, there were ads for not one but two apps which would take care of the silencing for me, and would re-enable my phone when the end credits began to roll. Ironically, both of these ads ran after the other ads that told me to turn off my phone — so I’d have had to turn my phone back on to install one of the apps. I guess they didn’t think that one through very well.
Since we can’t be trusted to be responsible with our phones in movie theaters (or elsewhere for that matter), Microsoft has decided they can solve the problem through technology. And, honestly, what problem can’t be solved by the liberal application of technology?
Sarcasm aside, Microsoft’s patent is called “Inconspicuous Mode” and it’s supposed to put your phone in “stealth mode” when it detects it’s in a movie theater or other sensitive location.
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s solution is brilliant — and full of holes. Their plan, according to the patent, would adjust your smartphone’s visual and audio settings when you are in a theater. You could still get notifications of missed calls and text messages, but ringtones would theoretically be silenced and vibration would be turned on. The brightness of your screen and any notification LEDs would be turned down or turned off.
That’s the first set of problems
Microsoft’s remedy to our poor behavior is to continue to let people use their phones — presumably Windows Phone 8 — while at the movies, making them somehow “special” when compared to Apple or Android users. All this means is people without Microsoft’s fancy-schmancy, patent-pending technology will feel justified in using their phones — which will make things worse, not better.
Next, we assume the tech will use geo-location combined with “at least one environmental criterion” such as the lowered lights in the theater or the audio track of a movie. That means the device will have to expend more energy when it’s near these geo-tagged locations to make sure “Inconspicuous Mode” is being applied correctly. If it doesn’t match the criterion, guess what? We’re back to “rude guy at the movie theater”. If it applies the rules incorrectly, you might not get the call from your date telling you they are running late if the restaurant adjacent to a theater.
More troubling problems
Let’s say I’m completely wrong and the concept of “Inconspicuous Mode” is brilliant and perfect and will make all our movie-going experiences nothing short of perfect — it will still fail. Why? It’s patented.
Let’s step away from this technology for a moment and look at another that’s equally as brilliant: apps that hail a taxi for you. There’s nothing more frustrating than being in an unfamiliar city, standing in the cold or dark, and trying unsuccessfully to hail a cab. Chances are you’re not alone, there are probably at least a few other people right there with you trying to hail that same cab, which only makes things worse! Some bright, entrepreneurial folks figured out a way to use your phone’s geo-location, your internet connection, and their app to help get a cab to you (or you to a cab) quickly and easily. They even went further, letting you select whichever cab company would give you the best rate. Theoretically cab companies could compete for your business and you could pick the best price. After the ride, you could rate the cleanliness of the cab, the demeanor of the driver, the timeliness of the ride, and so on. Sounds great, right? Sure does! But in many places, New York City in particular, it’s illegal. Apparently the government would prefer that your cab experience be miserable before they’d be willing to let someone make a system to improve the taxi experience in their city. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the point.
The way patents are being applied today are no different than the taxi app embarrassment that I just described. Microsoft could (and probably would) use this patent to squash any developer that built an app which applied similar methodologies even though it might be significantly better than what Microsoft could offer — or available on other platforms.
So, regardless of the reason, Microsoft’s Inconspicuous Mode is doomed to fail. What’s the best solution? Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but why not be polite and turn your phone off while you’re at the movies? Can I patent that?