TV ads may soon be eyeing you up

16:00, Dec 11 2012
Watching TV
WATCHING ME, WATCHING YOU: New technology aims to target advertisements at viewers by observing them.

Imagine this: You're having an argument with your partner while watching television, and suddenly an advertisement comes on for marriage counselling.

Or maybe you're doing some weightlifting while a movie plays in the background, and ads for health food pop up.

In the past, it would have been mere coincidence, but in the future, things look set to change, thanks to Verizon's "gesture recognition technology".

The company has filed a patent for a system designed to be used in the home to target advertisements at people. Using a combination of image and audio sensors, it would detect actions in your living room while you were watching TV.

These sensors, deploying facial and profile recognition, would pick up "physical attributes", such as skin colour, facial features and even hair length, and detect "voice attributes" to help determine the tone of your voice, your accent and the language you speak.

Inanimate objects aren't off limits, either. The technology could also spot beer cans and wall art.


Combined, this would mean that your TV or set-top box would effectively be watching and listening to you while you snuggle up on the couch with your partner to watch the latest episode of Homeland. If the cuddling went a bit further, the chances are the technology would pick up the noises and start to play "a commercial for a contraceptive" or "a commercial for flowers", as outlined in the patent.

The patent also says if the device picks up that the user is suffering from stress, it may select an advertisement for products such as aromatherapy candles or a vacation resort.

It adds: "If a couple are arguing or fighting with each other", the system "may select an advertisement associated marriage or relationship counselling". If the sensors detect that a user is a child, the system will trigger ads targeted at and appropriate for young children.

As FierceCable editor Steve Donohue has noted, Verizon's technology would operate in the same way that Google targets Gmail users based on the content of their emails - only transposing that principle into the home by "scanning conversations of viewers that are within a ‘detection zone' near their TV, including telephone conversations".

Of course, this is only a patent, so you don't have to start eyeing your TV suspiciously - for now.

ArsTechnica points out similar patents have been filed before and have yet to be put into practice, but that doesn't make this latest incarnation any less creepy and perhaps shows how surveillance-style technologies are increasingly encroaching on private life.

Ryan Gallagher is a London-based journalist who reports regularly on surveillance technology for Future Tense.