Apple’s patent suggests that future iterations of the iPhone camera could be made sensitive to infrared light. Back-end electronics would monitor the infrared channel to look for telltale signs that digital data is being transmitted. Some movie theaters use a proprietary infrared transmission system to send audio signals to special hearing aids–but in Apple’s imagination, that signal could also be used to make an iPhone location aware.
That’s immediately useful for automatically prohibiting filming inside of cinemas–one route through which pirated movies reach the Internet. Though current iPhone cameras aren’t necessarily of high enough quality to produce a pirated shoot of any useful quality, that’s not going to be true for future iPhone versions–and indeed we’re hearing the iPhone 5 may have an 8-megapixel camera. iPhones are also frequently used at concerts, and though you could argue this only helps spread the word about artists, it’s actually illegal, as it’s a violation of an artist’s IP.
If this potential sop to the music and film industry by Apple upsets you, then comfort yourself with the idea that the exact same system could have much more benign uses. As a kind of hyper-local signaling system in venues like museums, the infrared signal could convey data about, for example, a museum exhibit. And the data could be used to auto-watermark it, making it easy to file and retrieve the image from an archive later. It could also assist in real time as a kind of tour assistant–using a far simpler tech than alternatives like NFC.
Will it end up in future tech from Apple? Possibly. It’s pretty low tech and thus easy to implement. But most likely it’s a protective patent to cover future use of simple IR data transmissions to iPhones, iPads, and so on. Apple would probably prefer to avoid the controversy involved in barring people from capturing video under certain circumstances–but if this comes to pass, get your Phish bootlegs now while you still can.