Microsoft's TV Ads That Watch You

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You know that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character — who has implanted a dead guy’s retinas to remain undetected by the authorities hunting him — is noticed by a camera in a clothing store and a disembodied voice asks whether he wouldn’t like to buy some jeans?

Well, Microsoft has filed a patent application for a system that would kind of do that for TV.

The software company’s application, published on July 26, describes a system that would provide personalized TV ads. Really personalized. One way it might do that is using a camera sitting on top of a television set to detect the presence of viewers and identifying them using facial-recognition software — or perhaps a fingerprint scanner in a remote control.

The system, Microsoft continues, would compile a history of someone’s demographic details, TV-watching habits and ad “preferences,” serving up marketing pitches that would be most relevant.

“For example, if used in a home setting, [the] tracking system may store viewer information for different members of the family,” Microsoft’s patent application reads. “Viewer information may include… interests and hobbies, the person’s sex, age, locale, profession, subscriptions and memberships, ethnicity, marital status, personal characteristics such as parent, pet owner, very tall or short, and the like…”  

So, just theorizing here, the process works something like this: Hey, aren’t you that 47-year-old divorced Icelandic poodle-owning giantess who watches a lot of Cinemax? Have we got a deal on a minivan for you!

Microsoft has already anticipated a backlash from privacy hand-wringers, noting several times in the filing that the system would shield the actual identity of an individual TV viewer from the advertiser. It’s capable of “notifying said advertiser of said opportunity without identifying said person to said advertiser.”

That said… this all sounds a tiny bit spooky, doesn’t it?

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