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Microsoft patent points to 'inconspicuous mode' for smartphones

According to a newly published patent application, Microsoft is working to build a function that could save cinema-frequenting smartphone users a lot of grief.

"Inconspicuous mode," as the application calls it, aims to lighten the device's load by turning home screen text and images off while also lowering the backlighting to appear, well, inconspicuous.

The feature may activate by user request, or simply based on its environment - say, in a darkened cinema or a quiet classroom.

"Mobile communication devices are increasingly important and are in common use in many environments," Microsoft's patent application, which was filed in July 2011, said. "One problem with the ubiquity of these devices in so many different environments is that their use is not appropriate in all settings."

The filing points directly to movie-goers who incessantly text during a film, or even those courteous enough to disable audio notifications but who instead pull a smartphone out of their pocket halfway through the movie to check the time.

"Even this use of the device can be distracting to other theater patrons because of the light emanating from the display when the user looks at the time display," the application said, adding that the same issues arise in venues like a meeting room, a car, or even a bedroom.

Microsoft's patent application detailed possible features like decreased brightness, increased contrast, removal of information and notifications from the screen, and background images replaced by a dark solid color.

Applying for a patent doesn't mean immediate implementation or that the next Windows Phone OS will include this stealth mode. "Microsoft regularly applies for and receives patents as part of its business practice," a spokesman said. "Not all patents applied for or received will be incorporated into a Microsoft product."

Redmond is not the first to come up with an incognito function, though it is hoping to turn it into more than just an app feature.

Late last year, Cinemark theatres in the US added the CineMode feature of its mobile app, which dims screens during a movie and asks people to put their device on vibrate. At any Cinemark location, a message is screened to the auditorium audience before the movie, reminding users to turn on CineMode, which stays on for the duration of the film. The app is available for free on iOS and Android devices.

Minneapolis's famed Guthrie Theater, meanwhile, took a slightly different approach to showtime distractions in December, when it encouraged cell phone use during a performance of The Servant of Two Masters, as long as people sat in a designated section of the cinema.

For the first time, the Guthrie offered "Tweet Seats" during all four performances, allowing social media users a place to interact during the show without irritating other paying customers.

"This cast is an incredible ensemble of comedians," Guthrie external relations director Trish Santini said last month about the Two Masters actors. "And night after night they're riffing and improvising — it's the kind of show that makes you ask, 'Did they just say that?' Usually they did — and tweeting should be a great way to talk about it."