Sameer Borate has a new post to his blog today talking about a method for unpacking binary data directly in PHP - specifically in working with images.
To set the stage we will start with a programming problem, this will keep the discussion anchored to a relevant context. The problem is this : We want to write a function that takes a image file as an argument and tells us whether the file is a GIF image; irrelevant with whatever the extension the file may have. We are not to use any GD library functions.
He shows how to use the unpack function to open up the file and pull out the raw data - including the header information that tells you what kind of file it is you're working with. There's also an example of unpacking the header contents and grabbing things like height, width and the aspect of the image.