Microsoft patents tech that would silence your phone for you

New technology would automatically switch mobile devices to stealthy 'Inconspicuous Mode' based on GPS info, environmental cues

Microsoft has patented a technology called "Inconspicuous Mode," a setting that could put a mobile device into a stealth mode in response to, say, the lights going out in a movie theater. That way, you remain reachable on your phone without disrupting the guy beside you weeping during the "Les Miserables."

It's an interesting technology, as described in the patent authored by Jordan Naftolin -- but it also may be a candidate for mobile technologies that are kinda cool and kinda creepy.

Per the patent, Inconspicuous Mode would be a setting that adjusts your smartphone's visual and audio levels, based on GPS information and at least one environmental criterion. Take the latter to mean some particular visual and audio data that your device's camera lens and microphone might pick up when the device is powered on.

For example, if the phone knew it was in a theater (through GPS data) and "saw" everything within the lens' visual range go dark, it would switch to Inconspicuous Mode and adjust audio and visual output accordingly.

The resulting change in audio level is straightforward: Your phone quiets down and no one in the theater knows your ring is "Weird" Al's "It's All About the Pentiums." In terms of visual levels, screen brightness would decrease, plus fewer elements would flash on the screen when, say, a text message arrives; rather than the first sentence of a message and the sender's name brightly filling the screen, a little envelope would subtly appear in a corner.

It's an interesting-sounding technology, at least in terms of reducing social faux pas. No one (hopefully) really wants to be that jerk who disrupts meetings or movies or meals with flashing screens and phone chirps. With this technology, the idea seems to be that you could set it and forget it -- the phone would quiet itself when you showed up for a night at the opera or for an important client meeting at the fancy hotel downtown. It could also be a boon for the education market, reducing phone-related disruptions during class.

On the other hand, what if someone were to tuck his or her phone into a bag or a pocket -- but within earshot in case it rang -- yet the phone had switched itself into Inconspicuous Mode, so they missed that vital, last-minute "Change of plans!" call from the boss or a panicked call from the babysitter? Perhaps those scenarios aren't entirely likely, but the technology is arguably invasive enough to give the privacy police pause.

Or what if hackers come up with clever ways to exploit Inconspicuous Modes, such as devising malware to trick phones into going into Inconspicuous Mode at venues beyond theaters, such as convention centers or emergency facilities?

These certainly aren't bright red flags so much as contemplations -- no need to knock an interesting technology this early on.

This story, "Microsoft patents tech that would silence your phone for you," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.