Apple has come up with a way to control objects in augmented and virtual reality, according to a recently approved patent. The system involves a touch sensor

If a time traveler from our era dropped his iPhone in 1981 how would scientists understand it and reverse engineer it? Would it change things?

Let’s say 19-year-old Petaluma High School senior Chris Sutton finds it in 1981. I’d ask myself, “What is this mysterious object, obviously made by Apple?” To answer that question I know I would have had the time of my life probing its capabilities. I’m setting origin of the iPhone being 2016 just before universal fingerprint ID would make ferreting out the marvels of the lost iPhone much more difficult.

I have also decided to add a few ‘fantasy’ features such as a solar charger case and the almost always wanted yet never seen, SD card slot—I would also have liked to have had this feature for iPads and iPod Touches as well. So in this fantasy alternate reality where time travel is possible, an iPhone with a few ‘extras’ can be possible as well (the Time Traveler’s iPhone 6 LE). I know purists might be offended, but it’s my fantasy alternate timeline so just try to humor me.

Instead of technological jargon and details, I’ll just give the account of what could have happened if the 19-year-old high school senior (I was held back a year in 5th grade for reasons unrelated to academic progress) I was at the time was the one to find the iPhone 6.

I know this is long, but it was fun to write. I hope it’s as fun to read.

I’m walking along Washington Street in Petaluma after an appointment downtown, and I see a sudden flash, followed by the abrupt appearance of an anonymous character wearing black pants and a gray pullover hoodie who rushes out into the street, grabbing a person just standing in the road to pull him to safety. This person fights the hooded character, causing a few small items to fall down, unnoticed, before the hooded person manages to practically throw the enraged stranger off the road. The stranger runs away down the sidewalk as a speeding car rockets through the place where seconds earlier they had stood. The hooded character, barely managing to get off to the side of the road in time himself, sees that I’m watching and abruptly vanishes in a flash after quickly slapping something hidden under his right hoodie sleeve with his left hand.

I realize in shock that I just saw either an angel saving someone, maybe an alien, possibly some sort of high-tech secret military person, or—as ludicrous as it might sound—a time traveler perhaps saving his or her great-grandfather or more distant ancestor from being killed by a car while the latter is little more than a barely grown teen I don’t happen to recognize.

I see cars passing over a small gray rectangular object that I first take to be a flat wallet or a large checkbook cover. Waiting for a gap in traffic, I run out and grab the mysterious case along with a few scraps of paper and bits of what I think are small metal rectangles (micro SD cards are far in the future), only managing to get some of them before the loud honk of a car’s horn reminds me to get off the road.

The first thought when I open up the case is that it’s some kind of calculator protected by something rubbery with a stiffer plastic frame with an external solar cell array mounted on one side of the exterior. Then I see the Apple logo, and realize that it has to be something high-tech, kind of similar to a Texas Instruments scientific calculator, except made by the same company that makes the desktop BASIC Apple II computers I regularly use in my computers class at Petaluma High. I wonder where the keyboard or number pad is, only seeing a few buttons on the perimeter of the object, and one larger button on the bottom of the flat black area.

I take a closer look and see there’s a tiny lens at the top of the black area next to a small horizontal slot, like a spy camera of some sort—slot for film? I turn over the mysterious object and discover a larger ‘spy camera’ on the back. I can’t find a place where someone might be able to load a roll of film, though for the bigger one. Certainly not through the earphone jack—way too small for anything else. Maybe the lenses are for something else that just looks like a camera, such as a photo-cell for automatically turning this thing on after dark or a miniature solar cell?

I experimentally press the large button on the bottom, and nearly drop the object in shock as I see the purest colored, sharpest, high-resolution television screen I’ve ever seen abruptly lighting up—no wait time for the picture tube to warm up. How is this possible? It has to be the flattest picture tube ever made, I conclude. Aside from a brilliantly detailed and beautiful astrophoto full of pinprick fine star images with some unknown nebula in the lower right corner, all I can see is a row of strange small symbols at the top of the video screen, the time in some sort of projected digital clock, and the date. Both are wrong, though the date is correct. Today is 2:50 pm Monday, May 4th, 1981, and the object shows 10:15 and Wednesday, May 4th. On the bottom of the now glowing screen, just to the right of a blunt ‘greater than’ or “>” sign are the words, “slide to unlock.”

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To make things a little bit easier on 1981 Chris, our time traveler, knowing the need for a charger would have a solar-cell-powered unit with an optional 110 V plug (fully compatible with 1981 electrical outlets, since they’re almost exactly the same as 2016 outlets in the US), possibly integrated into the presumably removable case. So the iPhone going dead wouldn’t be an insurmountable issue. This iPhone would also have the traditional removable lithium hydride battery. Also slightly earlier iPhone 6, so various jacks and interfaces would be easier to deal with than iPhone X, but still pretty futuristic.

To keep frustration levels low for 1981 Chris, the time traveler would be as trusting as I am—I don’t lock my cell phone often since I don’t do any financial transactions with it, neither does the time traveler for the same reason—nor does he use any of the personalized features such as email or leave any identifying details for curious 20th century folks to find. He also doesn’t bother to set the early version fingerprint ID security feature.

Since the time traveler needs to know where to go in his time so he will be in the right place in 1981 to save his dopey grandfather, he downloads the Maps app data from 2016 cellular G3 to get the pretty colorful map that 19-year-old me sees. As any iOS user knows, the app merely goes into the background rather than completely shutting down when the app is closed, so when younger Chris turns on Maps in 1981, the street data for that immediate part of town is still available despite the total loss of cellular service. The GPS data would only update the phone’s position relative to the already downloaded map. I also chose that particular intersection in old town Petaluma because the street layout is exactly the same now as it was in 1981, with even the same stores and gas stations open in 1981 are still open and in business in 2016. Old Chris would not see enough differences to suspect the Maps street data was from the future version of Petaluma.

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I can’t find anything to slide, thinking that there has to be something to slide across the bezel just below where the screen ends in the direction the “>” indicates. No matter how close I look (I had excellent close-up vision back then) I can’t find any switch to move in the indicated direction. The screen times out and the mysterious object seems to turn itself back off again, and I feel scared that I messed up. Hope against hope, I again press the home button and accidentally touch the screen the moment it lights up again. Something happens. The object emits a pleasant sound, and a circle appears right where I touched the screen and vanishes a moment later.

I put it together in my mind that this thing’s screen reacted to my fingertip somehow, and I experimentally lower my finger to the “>” sign and slide it across the words. I’m astonished to see I’m somehow dragging the “>” sign image with my fingertip. When the “>” covers the “k” at the end of “unlock” the screen radically changes.

Flying in from the edges are a bunch of what I first think is some sort of cartoon of moving abstract art consisting of colorful glowing squares, but in moments I can see they’re actually tiny glowing pictures of various items with single or two-word titles below them. A green square has a drawing of a phone receiver in the middle and says “phone.” I wonder how something that looks like a very compact mini-television set would have anything to do with a telephone. There’s a compass thing that says “Safari,” is it some sort of map? Then I see another square that has “Maps” below it. Messages with a comic strip bubble—another kind of cartoon? Then “Music.” I figure that this is the least risky one to touch.

Very high quality music comes from very tiny speakers on the bottom of the object when I touch the play button image. I listen to a disco song by someone named Katy Perry, not knowing she won’t be born until 1984, then some slow music where some guy seems to be reading rhyming verses in some strange kind of chanting manner to the rhythm of the song (I had no idea what rap was in 1981), then another really nice disco song called Titanium by someone named David Guetta, but it sounds like a woman singing it. Or maybe David is a boy singer like Michael Jackson or Donny Osmond were until recently.

Enough of that! I find the image of the square stop button that looks just like the one on my cassette player, and am relieved that it works the same way. After a few wrong buttons pushed, I find I can quit the music player (How did the time traveler get music micro-cassette inside?) and make the colored squares come back on by pressing the large indented button on the bottom of the mini-TV screen.

I really want to know what this thing is. I check the “Phone” one and a screen showing touch-tone buttons appears. As an experiment I try to call my home number, getting touch-tone sounds like an actual telephone would have as I pick out each of the numbers in my home phone number, but neglect to touch the green phone button on the bottom, so nothing happens. I belatedly notice that there was no dial tone—so no wonder it doesn’t work. I fail to notice in the busy tiny print at the top of the mini flat picture tube there’s “no service,” so even if I had touched the green phone image, it still would have done nothing. It’s obviously not a telephone—just some useless detailed light-up picture of a touch-tone pad with special effect sounds. Maybe it’s a play telephone computer program for kids? I find that I can quit this program just like I did the music one by pushing the indented button at the bottom of the TV screen. The array of squares appears once again.

I touch each little square and find various functions. The Safari thing just shows a blank page and “No Internet connection.” What is an Internet? I ask myself.

The first fully functional item that really gives me a chill is the Maps function. The GPS network is still classified in 1981, but there have been fully functional GPS satellites up since 1978. Apparently this Apple mysterious object is getting live positioning data, and actually shows a light circular blue spot on a finely detailed and beautifully colored video street map (I have no idea at the time that the map graphics were preloaded in the future by cellular data, and am later perplexed as to why the beautifully detailed map graphics are gone the next time I restart the Maps app after rebooting the mysterious object—though the glowing spot that moves when I do reappears) right next to glowing line images of Washington Street by Howard Street positioned exactly where I’m standing. I start to walk, while holding this mysterious object out in front of me, and a speed of 2 mph shows up, the circular spot starts to move, with a fuzzy flashlight-beam glow appearing, seemingly coming from the spot that shows exactly that I’m walking toward the west. I increase my walking speed and turn the corner onto Howard Street, and the glowing ‘beam’ in front of the spot turns to the left on the video screen with me and stabilizes again, now showing that I’m going 5 mph and moving south this time. I’m pretty freaked out, and push the home button to Exit the Map program.

I figure out the lens system on the back of the mysterious object is really both a still camera and a video camera in one. It seems the yellow dot next to the lens is a reusable flash. I can view still pictures of stuff and a short video on the mini-TV screen. I can’t figure out how to make this thing eject the picture like a Polaroid camera would do, though.

I find the Calculator app and a few games (some are pretty strange) and am amazed at the computational speed, but I cannot find a way to enter BASIC so I can write a graphics program to see how fast it renders compared to how fast I remember it ran on the Apple II I use in class. Oh well…

I finally conclude it’s a hand-held computer with lots of software it can access just by touching a lit square, with incredible capabilities including the touch screen interaction, (though it will take me a while {with some expert help} to figure out it’s also a microwave radio transceiver on four different frequencies {Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, and cellular digital carrier signal}, and that the ‘non-functional’ digital touch-tone phone image with sound-effects actually means something after all.) Since I’ve figured out that each colored square corresponds to a switch that makes the mysterious object load software related to the picture, I wonder how many miniaturized floppy disks are squeezed inside this compact marvel.

The Calculator app is the most familiar once I get used to the touch screen virtual buttons. I can do square roots and multiple powers of stuff with instantaneous results—my calculator is pretty slow compared to this.

When I drive my car (I had a Mazda Rx4 at the time) back home, I decide to keep the phone a secret for a bit, due to my then distrust of my father (we got along a lot better in later years), and continue to probe its capabilities.

The moment I get home I use my microscope to inspect the screen and the various images. Despite being much finer in detail, the magnified screen consists of patterns of red, green, and blue dots just like a color TV but in far smaller lines of each color in pairs of microscopic squares alternating with tiny gaps. This in stark contrast to the much larger triangular RGB groups of round dots I’m familiar with that are large enough for me to see close-up with my naked eye on a normal color TV picture tube. I can’t fathom how somebody could make a color picture tube this small, cool to the touch, that has such wonderfully finely detailed color, and the ability to apparently turn instantaneously on—it’s beyond amazing.

I have absolutely no idea how touching the mini-TV screen actually controls this mysterious object. I just have to accept this magical ability at face value and simply make use of it.

For some reason I have skipped looking at the Calendar app while exploring the other mysterious object’s capabilities. Now that I’m safely in my bedroom back in the rural location of my family’s farm about three miles west of Petaluma, I decide to take a look, and find out why the days of the week are wrong. Turns out they’re correct, but not for 1981. This Apple mysterious object is from 2016. My heart skips a beat; then it starts to pound.

This Apple gizmo is proof of time travel! This thing has futuristic capabilities because it’s from the future! Thrills shoot up and down my spine like crazy as I try to get my mind around what I’ve just discovered.

It all makes sense now why it has so much capability in such a tiny device. Miniaturization apparently has continued over the next 30–35 years until it’s compact enough for a computer more powerful than a modern main-frame to fit inside of something thinner than a cigarette pack. They must have also figured out how to make ultra-small picture tubes that fit inside this mysterious object during the same 35 years and somehow manage to use the front of the picture tube to allow control of the computer with fingertips touching the screen over glowing images of the programs I want to load.

I belatedly get out a few of the scraps of paper I had grabbed, most turning out to be receipts with strange extra numbers and lines besides prices, and dates ranging from 4/3/13 to 5/1/16, but a larger wrinkled handwritten note definitely catches my eye.

Remember that you have only twenty seconds and no second chances.

  1. Don’t hesitate before saving Grandpa. When you see him, immediately run out to him on the road—there will be a sufficient gap in traffic.
  2. Remember, he will fight you, so be ready to pin his arms.
  3. Throw him off the road after you pin him—he remembers you doing it.
  4. Get off the road yourself ASAP—and don’t get hit by the same car that killed Grandpa!
  5. If someone besides Grandpa sees you, signal for immediate retrieval.
  6. Most importantly: DON’T DROP ANYTHING!!!
  7. Good luck in saving our timeline.

The note just confirms my unbelievable and astounding conclusion that the Apple ‘mysterious object’ is from the future. He definitely messed up on #6, though. I figure his loss is now my gain. And what a gain!!!

I get visions of becoming rich from selling the future technology—it won’t really be stealing, since the technology probably hasn’t even been thought of yet by its future inventors, much less patented or even partly invented. They can invent other stuff instead. With all the money I’m about to make on the reverse engineered tech, I’ll be able to help NASA get to Mars by 1985 or maybe a little bit sooner. Maybe I’ll be able to go along myself! (My imagination was pretty unfettered by reality back in 1981.)

What marvels this thing must have inside of it! I have to know, but I’m still terrified that Dad will confiscate it and turn it into the US government, so I continue to hide it from him and Mom. It’s too big of a discovery for me to keep it a secret forever, though. I soberly realize that I also have no idea on how to get to the technology hidden in this Apple mysterious object, and figure out how to meaningfully analyze and use the technology found in this wonder. I certainly don’t want to damage it.

In other words, I need help.

I first reveal it to Bob F., a really intelligent private investigator and avid amateur astronomer—and a true friend who I can fully trust to keep a confidence. He’s as puzzled as I am as to what it is. He recommends I find somebody with greater familiarity with micro electronics.

For useful help I turn to a neighbor I have babysat for and have become friends with, a real-life genius engineer, Joe W., who works for Hewlett-Packard in the microchips R&D department. I swear him to secrecy, and then reveal the ‘mysterious object’ to him. He almost faints in shock, since he’s bright enough to guess what it is when I turn it on—and that it’s impossible with current technology for a device like this to exist now. Once catching his breath and letting me fill him in on how I got it, I give it to him to examine and he pores over it like a paleontologist pores over a delicate hominid fossil, using the brightest lights and most powerful magnifiers and binocular microscopes he owns. We then start to take notes—lots of notes.

Joe sneaks it into work several nights over the next few weeks and on weekends during times of ‘extended research’ on ‘classified’ matters he cannot share with others in his group, and is able to obtain soft X-ray and other high resolution analytical images and data. In addition to checking over the Apple mysterious object he also analyzes a couple of the micro SD cards I had picked up along with the ‘mysterious object’ under the lab’s electron microscope, discovering each are ultra-miniaturized, high-density data storage modules with unique circuitry to allow access far more quickly to data than currently developed hard drives and floppy disks.

He’s thrilled it’s a ‘perfect machine’ with no moving parts—a concept we both got from reading Arthur C. Clarke works. It boggles his mind that these tiny things, about the size of his thumb nail, have 32 or 64 Gigabytes storage capacity, more than all of this particular Hewlett-Packard facility’s mainframe storage at the time. He discovers the Apple mysterious object has a slot in the phone’s interior near the battery that these micro SD cards can fit into one at a time—sad to say there’s no data except music and games on any of the fingernail-sized removable memory (I know real iPhones don’t have micro SD slots like this, but this is the very limited edition “Time Traveler iPhone 6” model, so this one does!). He of course documents the holder and contact configurations, knowing now what it’s for. Joe finds the mysterious object also has ultra-compact memory similar to the micro SD cards permanently wired into the rest of its electronics.

He brings his findings home to share with me over the rest of May. It’s now time to seriously get to work, since summer vacation has just begun (I barely register graduation I’m so enthralled with my ‘secret’ project with Joe). I have never been so eager in my life to explore the wonders of the Apple mysterious object, now that, thanks to Joe W., we have the means and time to do so.

To make sure we haven’t broken anything, we reassemble the mysterious object and make sure it still works. Joe’s hands are so steady he probably could write legibly on a grain of rice, and he needs to be this steady-handed since the wiring connectors are so fine. Much to our relief it starts up normally when we put it all back together again.

After booting it back up and checking over and writing down some settings information we had not previously looked at, I introduce him to a game I found earlier called Angry Birds, which he plays for a minute. He soon stops playing and shakes his head sadly at the ‘waste’ of such magnificent graphics technology and computational power on a game consisting of nothing more than strange round ‘birds’ that are supposed to be thrown by slingshots and other means at pig images, and shuts it down to the home screen. He likes the graphics calculator a lot more, and plays with a few complex equations he types in from memory with much greater enthusiasm, being totally awed by the functions’ projections on the xyz rotating grid, but realizes that time’s a wasting, so he shuts down the app. We turn the mysterious object off and carefully take it apart again.

We decide to record about 350 cassette tapes of the future music first, then we take it back apart, making sure we have written down the song name, artist, year released, and album first for each song. Just in case the tech sales don’t pan out, we could sell the music back to the original artists a few years before they were going to come up with the same songs anyway. That way we would not be stealing, merely inspiring the artists ahead of time. When the tech does prove profitable, we decide to not scoop the music industry and privately enjoy the sneak peeks instead, though we do make the occasional private bet about which new songs will become hits—we have an amazing track record of being right.

To make a long story short(ish), after Joe is able to verify its year of production (he finds the information in the settings, and that this mysterious object is actually called an iPhone), we carefully dissect and document the iPhone’s technology (we finally figure out its primary function) so we’re able to obtain patents on much of the technology we can find and successfully analyze and document, and then we contact Apple and offer to sell the phone to them for a billion dollars or negotiate for a lower amount if they can’t handle that much of an expenditure—they can deal with the stuff we can’t figure out.

They aren’t interested at first until the fifty or so 3 X 5 glossy photographs we mail to them (lots of closeup pictures of processors, connectors, screen layers, etc.) prove this is not only futuristic, it’s apparently their own technology. Then they’re very interested. In fact Steve Jobs, Jef Raskin, and Stephen Wozniak all burst into tears of happiness and giggles of sheer glee when they examine what I had found and we are about to give to them at a private meeting in exchange for the cashier’s check.

We settle for $20 million—well, even fantasies have their limits.

Once they’re convinced the tech is actually profitable, the offers become more generous.

We negotiate a 10% profit share with each patent they subsequently purchase from us, and both Joe’s family and mine are multi-billionaires by 1985. Our first valuable patent is on the solid state memory technology ‘gleaned’ from the micro SD cards and the permanently mounted interior one inside the iPhone itself. That technology is one of the first we license to Apple, IBM, Cray, Xerox, Texas Instruments, and Microsoft. Motorola buys most of licensing rights to the processors patents, Hewlett-Packard buying up the rest. The Retina LCD and touchscreen patent licensing is the most lucrative, as every other computer company in the world wants touchscreen and high resolution LCD technology. Profits from our lithium hydride battery patent license sales aren’t so bad, either.

In this re-engineered reality, Apple releases the iPhone 1 in 1986, totally skipping by the idea of the Newton, and the first 2.0 GHz processor, made by Motorola, comes out by 1988 in a Macintosh of course (takes Apple, Motorola, and HP a few extra years to figure out the manufacturing technology needed to get the size down and the speed up in the processors).

Cellphones abruptly go from brick-sized (and weight) monstrosities to digital devices almost indistinguishable appearance-wise from 2010s smartphones from our reality over a period of just two years from 1984 to 1986. They would be significantly slower and graphics of somewhat lower resolution due to reverse engineering of the processors taking longer than other aspects of technology, and very primitive when it comes to Internet—at least at first (no SIRI for you!—with apologies to the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame). Cellular technology would be a work in progress, being just a few steps up from analog microwave telephony in 1986. They would function quite adequately as mobile phones of course right from day one. Within a few years, though, the differences become much less significant as data transfer protocols catch up with the tech.

The historical introduction of the Macintosh is quite different than in our reality. In 1984 the first millions of colors desktop Macintosh is dramatically introduced to American football fans as a fantastic new leap forward in the world of desktop microcomputers with innovative flat-touchscreen technology (‘with the brightest and most detailed images you have ever seen on a screen, yet it has no picture tube’—<dramatic voice>) during Superbowl XVIII.

By 1986, when the iPhone 1 is released they also introduce the iPod 1 (with touchscreen and solid state memory of course) and have a fully functional iPad with Retina display ready for Patrick Stewart to use as Captain Picard’s Padd prop on the Enterprise bridge set in Star Trek the Next Generation in 1987.

All Macs after 1988 have a mouse, a keyboard, and of course an HD Retina LCD touchscreen technology monitor, but no spinning hard drive or floppy disk slots—why would Apple perpetuate obsolete technology when there’s something more cool with no moving parts? Solid state memory quickly becomes universal for internal data storage, portable memory, and retail software packaging; only CD/ROM and DVD drives in later models have moving parts.

Life was good; now it’s a tad bit better.

As for Mars, it isn’t until 1997 before we finally get a crew of 8 there. That little ‘anonymous’ $50 billion donation to NASA helps some.