Gary Marshall goes panning in the river of rumour for nuggets of knowledge
Apple has been tracking us all for some time: Passbook uses your location to automatically show you concert tickets, airline boarding passes and other useful information where and when you need it, and you can ask Siri to remind you to get something when you’re at a particular place. But that tracking’s going to become a little more annoying and possibly even a little bit sinister.
Apple has dozens of patents around geofencing, doing particular things based on where you are, and location services, and the recently granted patent 8,996,030 makes its device tracking considerably more accurate through the use of a “beacon”. That might be a Bluetooth low energy beacon, such as Apple’s own iBeacons, which are rolling out in airports, supermarkets and sports venues near you; it might be an infrared transmitter; or it might be as simple as an RFID tag. Whatever the beacon, it helps your device pinpoint your location (which is handy for indoor mapping) and then either do something such as tell you about a special offer or stop you from doing what you want.
That latter option is what patent 20110128384, filed in 2009, is all about. It describes how your phone camera could detect an invisible infrared “kill switch”, an encoded transmission that prevents you from using your camera at the cinema, at a concert or in any place where the owners don’t want you to take pictures (which, as amateur photographers know, is a lot of places). The technology can be used for nice things too, such as triggering augmented reality apps or helping you navigate, but you can see the appeal for mall owners, cinema chains, concert promoters and sinister organisations with secrets they’d rather keep.
The real danger to iBeacon probably isn’t heavy-handed control freakery by the fun police, though: it’s cack-handed targeting of advertising. The prospect of a relevant in-store coupon from a place you’re already in is fine; the prospect of every high street or mall becoming Notification Hell as every single shop tries to clamour for your attention (iBeacons’ range can be up to 50 metres) is considerably less so. If retailers get it wrong, the only thing that’ll be getting killed is iBeacon itself.
Apple’s iBeacons may soon get an ‘upgrade’ that could mean you’ll be prevented from using certain applications in some locations.