It apparently adjusts the device's position as it's falling, so it lands on its back or edge instead of the screen. And if you think that's crazy, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Wait until you see how Apple plans to make it work.
The patent is for use in any gizmo with a processor, including tablets and laptops, but the iPhone is specifically mentioned. In order to see how the tumbling tablet or falling phone is positioned, the system will need to use a sensor, which could be the gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS or imaging sensor. A processor tells the system how fast the device is falling, and how far it is from the ground, among other things. It'll remember previous pratfalls too, to help it make its mind up more quickly.
Now, how to actually tilt the device so it doesn't land face first? A number of possible solutions are suggested, including a shifting weight within the phone, lift foils that extend out to the surface, and even a miniature gas canister to act as a thrust, like a tiny jet pack. Amazing.
The patent was originally filed back in September 2011, and was just granted this week. I think it's safe to say we have a while to wait until this finds its way into the iPhone. But it's pretty cool, you have to admit. The only issue -- aside from the problem of how to fit a gas canister to an iPhone -- is that I've known screens to shatter when phones have landed on their edges. So maybe Apple will need to toughen up its handset's chassis somewhat as well.