December 6, 2012
Big Bother Will Be Watching
That's not a typo in the title. One of my regular topics for this blog is developments in privacy. One thread is typically about how we are tracked via the Internet for the sake of providing us with targeted ads based on our interests. Here’s an example. I tend to read a lot of news about Windows 8 and the various kinds of hardware that runs it. I also tend to see a lot of ads for the Microsoft Surface tablet. Likely a lot of these displays are based on Microsoft buying a lot of ad space to promote the device. I suspect, however, that I may see more Surface ads than the average person due to my reading habits. There are efforts to create a standard for protecting consumers from tracking, but these are mired in disagreement. See here and here, for example.
The only reason targeted behavioral advertising is possible is because the web is interactive. Its very nature allows for bits and pieces of information to be transmitted and stored against profiles to provide this delightful service to advertisers. Google at its heart is really an advertising agency with a very good search engine that helps drive its product. Some media, such as television, do not have the built in advantage of interactivity. At least not yet.
Enter Verizon with a patent application submitted on May 26, 2011 and published on November 29, 2012 titled Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User. It describes a system that includes a way to track immediate activity (the ambient stuff) by television users through cameras and microphones placed in the set-top box. Commercial breaks on television programs would be based on the immediate activity that is detected. Here are some selected descriptions and examples from the application:
3. The method of claim 1, wherein the ambient action comprises at least one of eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, singing, humming, cleaning, and playing a musical instrument.
4. The method of claim 3, wherein the interaction between the user and [sic] the another user comprises at least one of cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event, and talking.
8. The method of claim 1, wherein the detecting comprises utilizing at least one of a gesture recognition technology, a profile recognition technology, a facial recognition technology, and a voice recognition technology.
10. The method of claim 1, further comprising: determining, by the media content presentation system, a mood of the user in accordance with the detected ambient action; wherein the selecting of the advertisement comprises selecting the advertisement based on the determined mood of the user.
11. The method of claim 1, further comprising identifying, by the media content presentation system, one or more physical attributes associated with the user.
14. The method of claim 1, wherein: the detecting of the ambient action comprises detecting at least one word spoken by the user; and the selected advertisement is associated with the at least one word spoken by the user.
20. The system of claim 19, wherein the detection facility is implemented by a detection device comprising at least one of a depth sensor, an image sensor, an audio sensor, and a thermal sensor.
 To illustrate, an exemplary ambient action may include the user eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, singing, humming, cleaning, playing a musical instrument, performing any other suitable action, and/or engaging in any other physical activity during the presentation of the media content. In certain examples, the ambient action may include an interaction by the user with another user (e.g., another user physically located in the same room as the user). To illustrate, the ambient action may include the user talking to, cuddling with, fighting with, wrestling with, playing a game with, competing with, and/or otherwise interacting with the other user. In further examples, the ambient action may include the user interacting with a separate media content access device (e.g., a media content access device separate from the media content access device presenting the media content). For example, the ambient action may include the user interacting with a mobile device (e.g., a mobile phone device, a tablet computer, a laptop computer, etc.) during the presentation of a media content program by a set-top box ("STB") device.
 In certain examples, detection facility 104 may be configured to obtain data (e.g., image data, audio data, 3D spatial data, thermal image data, etc.) by way of a detection device. For example, detection facility 104 may be configured to utilize a detection device to receive an RGB video stream, a monochrome depth sensing video stream, and/or a multi-array audio stream representative of persons, objects, movements, gestures, and/or sounds from a detection zone associated with the detection device.
I can’t speak for others, but I don’t believe I would be interested in sharing personal details of my life with Verizon, from boring to intimate merely to get targeted advertising based on whatever I happened to be doing at the time. Other articles on this development speculate on the types of ads that might pop up if the patent were implemented. Some of them were pretty lurid or embarrassing. I’ll leave it at that.
I realize that a patent does not mean the technology will ever be implemented, or if it is, what the terms of service will be. Let’s say that this kind of capability does find its way into living rooms. Will it be active only when the set-top box is on? Consider that any profile it generates can be combined with other profiles to create super profiles no matter what media is involved. Moreover, how is the information represented in these profiles? Physical attributes? Facial and voice recognition? How would these characteristics be tracked over time? And most importantly, who would have access to this information? Would the government be able to subpoena collected information or even use the detectors as super wiretaps? Data mining is already creepy. It will take an exponential leap if this comes to pass.