/ 2 June 2013

Xbox One checking if you’re watching ads? Less ‘gee-whiz’, more WTF

Xbox One.
Xbox One.

Ever felt like sitting through the ad breaks was an achievement of sorts? That you should be rewarded for those portions of your life lost to inane jingles and lingering slow-mo shots of unfeasibly shiny hair? Well, it seems as if Microsoft feels the same way. A patent filed by the technology giant suggests its new Xbox One games console may be able to track what users watch on TV, and reward them for watching adverts.

The patent, snappily titled "Awards and achievements across TV ecosystem", describes camera sensors monitoring the eye movements and heartbeats of TV viewers. Which means a console will know if you're in the room when an ad break is on, or if you've popped out to make tea. It'll also be able to tell whether you're actually watching the ad or if you're engrossed in the latest issue of Heat magazine. And don't even think about gaming the system by watching telly with the lights off: the XBox would be able to monitor you even in the dark.

Creeped out? Don't be. Every move you make, every breath you take, the Xbox would be watching you – but also rewarding you. The patent suggests that sitting through commercial breaks would rack you up points to buy both virtual and physical awards. The thinking behind this being that people today need to be bribed in order to sit still and watch a commercial. As the patent application explains: "With the proliferation of digital video recording devices, advertisers are finding it increasingly difficult to introduce their advertisements to viewers."

I love the idea of advertisers "introducing" their ads to viewers. As if, all over the world, people are sitting at home just waiting to be introduced to the right advert. Hey there, Arwa! Here's a new and improved yoghurt commercial, I think you two might get along … This fine specimen contains 89% more guttus bacterius than the last commercial we introduced you to.

The proliferation of digital video recording devices is something of a red herring when it comes to ad-viewing. After all, people aren't forced to skip the ads when they watch a time-shifted show; rather, they're free to watch them over and over again if they like. Just, err, most people don't like. Research conducted by Deloitte in 2010 found that 90% of TV viewers always skip through the adverts on their DVR. But the answer to stopping this behaviour doesn't lie in sophisticated motion-detecting technology, it lies in making ads that people actually want to watch. The biggest threat to advertising isn't technology like Sky+; the biggest threat to advertising is bad advertising.

The future of privacy
While the Microsoft patent raises interesting questions about how advertisers are responding to the growth in technology such as Sky+, it also makes a more pressing point about the future of privacy. Microsoft's ad-tracking system may currently be confined to a patent application, but similar technology is already operational, and this sort of "perceptive media" is proliferating fast. The same sort of data-tracking we've become accustomed to online is beginning to seep into our offline lives.

Intel, for example, has developed technology that senses viewer responsiveness, gender and age, and adapts advertising accordingly. Jell-O recently used this technology to create a vending machine that detected people's ages and dispensed free snacks exclusively to adults. If a child approached the vending machine hoping to receive a complimentary gelatinous dessert an alarm sounded and the machine asked the child to step away. A spokesman from Kraft, which owns Jell-O, noted this technology has "a big gee-whiz factor … This is intelligent marketing. We're making certain we get the right sample to the right consumer."

Intel is now bringing this same technology into people's living rooms. The company has created a camera-equipped set-top box that tracks viewers of its forthcoming Web TV service. Like the Microsoft concept, this monitors direction of gaze, so it can tell if you're paying attention to the ads or otherwise distracted. It can also identify gender and track historical viewing trends.

A number of alarms might be sounding right now. This sort of technology may have a "gee-whiz factor" but it also has a WTF? factor. While we've become more aware that our online activity produces a stream of digital exhaust, we are not yet accustomed to the idea that what we do in the privacy of our living rooms might also be producing data for advertisers. We may have learned how to go about limiting our online footprint, but how do you disable cookies in the real world?© Guardian News and Media 2013