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Sensor To Monitor TV Watchers Demoed At Cable Labs 302

An anonymous reader writes "Cable operators at the semi-annual CableLab's Innovation Showcase have informally voted as best new product a gizmo that can determine how many people are watching a TV. Developed by Israeli company PrimeSense, the product lets digital devices see a 3-D view of the world (the images look like something from thermal imaging). In other words, that cable set-top box will know whether three people are sitting on the sofa watching TV and how many are adults vs. children. Do we really need cable and/or video service operators knowing this? It all happens via a chip that resides in a camera that plugs into the set-top box."
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Sensor To Monitor TV Watchers Demoed At Cable Labs

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  • Limits? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @06:49PM (#29031179) Journal

    I can see some obvious uses here that I hope never happen, like, "Sorry, but you only purchased one ticket to your pay-per-view movie, and three people are watching! Purchase additional tickets or ask some of the viewers to leave."

    Of course, even if it gets that bad, I suspect it'd be defeated with something like duct tape. So, while it's kind of evil that someone might want to do this, I'm not all that worried that it would actually work.

  • duct tape (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @06:57PM (#29031313) Homepage Journal

    Of course, even if it gets that bad, I suspect it'd be defeated with something like duct tape. .

    And then the box detects its 'blind' and refuses to run your movie, or worse, calls the MPAA for a violation of terms, and perhaps some 'circumvention prevention law' they will have bought by then, bringing down the black van onto your home..

  • Rebus tape (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:01PM (#29031343)

    Looks like Max Headroom was once again ahead of its time. Bring on the Blipverts.

  • Can it ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SlashDev ( 627697 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:02PM (#29031353) Homepage
    .. tell if I get a hard-on watching Jessica Biel?
  • Re:Nielson boxes? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by yuna49 ( 905461 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:07PM (#29031423)

    Ratings companies like Nielsen have been using "people meters" for years now. However the current technology relies on household members pressing a button to register their presence in the room. Nielsen experimented with infrared sensors over twenty years ago. Trust me, this is hardly new technology.

    Of course, becoming a member of one of the Nielsen meter panels depends on your agreeing to participate. A system where one is automatically monitored by a set-top box with or without prior agreement raises enormous privacy issues. I'd assume if this takes off it'll just be another one of the 175 clauses contained in your "agreement" with the cable operator.

  • Re:duct tape (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:16PM (#29031515)

    Easily solved, thanks to the 5th element:

    The cash man! Don't fuck with me or I'll blow you to tomorrow! []

    Take a picture of your living room with x number of people in it, and mount it in front of the camera

    Problem solved!

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:19PM (#29031553) Homepage

    A few weeks ago I unplugged my cable box as an experiment. You know, just to get an idea of what that would actually do to my life.

    I did notice a difference. The difference was that I spent more of my time doing things that were actually rewarding, like reading the book I'd wanted to get to, learning to play a few pieces of music I'd been wanting to work on, and writing down my thoughts on life the universe and everything. In short, it's a lot better for me, for my eyes, for my health, and my sleep schedule.

    So with the use of cable boxes to spy on me, it's time for me to get on the phone, get through arguing with the poor call center rep, and get rid of the problem for good.

  • by mister_playboy ( 1474163 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:38PM (#29031753)

    My roommate and I decided to try a no TV policy in our dorm room at the start of my second year of college.

    That was 7 years ago, and I never went back to watching TV.

  • I predict (Score:4, Interesting)

    by taustin ( 171655 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:39PM (#29031767) Homepage Journal

    that if you could get the internal memos on this, it would turn out that the idea is to be able to charge a per-viewer fee. In the same way that ASCAP is threatening lawsuits if you don't have a public performance license for the ringtone on your cell phone.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @07:52PM (#29031881) Homepage

    IIRC I read this in one of Lawrence Lessig's books.

    Movie studio executives, of course, hated the idea of home video. Their business model was tied to getting paid for each showing, payment per showing, and also per viewer; the rents charged to movie theatres were set on a sliding scale based on the seating capacity of the house).

    RCA thought they had a breakthrough, when they showed Disney executives a cassette they had developed. It was designed for rental and could only be played once. A mechanical locking arrangement was engaged when the cassette had finished playing. The consumer would then have to return it to the rental store, which had the special tool needed to unlock and rewind it.

    They demonstrated it proudly to Disney execs who said, dismissively, "This is no good to us. We have absolutely no way of knowing how many people are in the room."

  • by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @08:12PM (#29032039)

    funny, just today I cancelled my direct-tv sub.

    it was 'on hold' (their way of trying to keep you as a sub) for 6mos. a postcard came today saying it would auto-renew (how nice of them) if I didn't call to make other plans. like cancel.

    I was on the phone for a hour with their 'retentions' dept.

    in short, I told them: drm killed the deal. I've had my tivo content locked up whenever a motherboard in the tivo breaks. the hard drives are locked (unless you hack around it, if you even can). the phone rep tried to convince me to use the analog hole. lol! on an HD dvr, no less. yeah, sure, I'll PAY for HD service and then copy the data out of the 75ohm composite rca jack in SD format, letterboxed, fit into a 4:3 frame and poorly transcoded. yeah, right.

    so it was kind of funny that this topic came up. one of the things I told the phone rep guy was that I was not happy about even having my keypresses logged (anon or not, I don't care). when I press 'play' I don't need a data record sent home telling you that.

    so I cancelled. took an hour of my time on the phone (I did want to give that guy as much of an earful as he was trying to give me!) - but I'm now done with broadcast tv. its netflix for me, for now on. no remote 'loggers' when I spin a silver disc!

    broadcast tv is dying. I give it 10 yrs more, tops, before IP broadband takes completely over.

  • by skuzzlebutt ( 177224 ) <> on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @10:05PM (#29032725) Homepage

    To paraphrase Tycho Brahe, "Having a webcam is the first step toward getting caught masturbating."

  • Re:Oblig: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @10:44PM (#29032961)

    Possibly will watch? We were watching you back in 2004-2006 when I was there. I was pulling data from set top boxes that showed what channel you were on and the time stamps when you changed. Heck even the Pause FFW and REW date and time stamps are available in the box.

    I could aggregate the data and tell you if I cross referenced to the Schedules could tell you the probability of a child or adult were watching. If I further was able to access the billing records and the demographics collected on the customer I could get even more accurate data.

    The camera simply reduces the margin of error from 35% to 5% and gives you a number of viewers.

    Granted, this will fail for most rich people's homes. As their cable boxes are in the media racks stuffed in the Utility room.

  • by michael_cain ( 66650 ) on Tuesday August 11, 2009 @11:21PM (#29033167) Journal
    Some years ago, I developed a small box for the research organization in one of the cable companies that monitored the IR remote control to track button presses and did screen grabs of the STB output in order to allow in-home monitoring of customers' use of the various UI features (needed both because the STB in question was notorious for missing button presses). One version of the little box added a camera pointing out at the viewers and grabbed those images at the same time. The original intent was to allow researchers to check who was in the room when strange button sequences were encountered in the data; while testing the box in a researcher's home, the odd sequences turned out to occur when the three-year-old got her hands on the remote control. The human factors types loved having the snapshots available; again during in-house testing, the image sequences jogged peoples' memories: "Yeah, Bobby was there and that was when this odd thing happened..."

    The version that took pictures of viewers never got used in customers' homes. The legal department was seriously concerned about how to write an agreement regarding the use of those images. I certainly have to wonder whether Comcast's legal department has looked at what needs to be added to the terms of service, and what the privacy requirements will be. If I believe my spouse has been cheating on me, can I get access to what was observed while I was out of town?

    The members of the research group and I did have some odd conversations about whether the viewer snapshots should be disabled based on which channel was being watched...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @01:51AM (#29034045)

    I heard about this years ago!
    Not only that but they were playing with microphones and I was told many boxes already have mics built into them and are out there today listening to who knows what!
    I also heard that they were trying to figure out how to make it usable because full video was too much to deal with-- the camera and box most likely get a full video signal and process it down into something simple and from there a simple stat to upload to the company. IR-like support wouldn't be difficult to do by removing the IR filter on the lens of the CCD and just picking up a little IR from the cam (no IR LEDs required or special CCD.)

    What sorts of things can the system do? well... if they didn't have the ideas at the time I talked with him... he may have given them my ideas. Such as-- detecting the TEMP of people in the room; could be used for marketing data once some stats can be found on body temp. (obviously you could do useless stuff like men getting turned on by something on PPV.) You could detect kids and censor stuff. Loud sounds in the room could wake up the box when its "off." Tech support could use it with the box instead of a phone. Firmware updates could allow for expression detection or estimates on where the viewer is looking at the screen (well these are beyond the current hardware most likely... although you only need to pre-process to compress data down and then the uploaded data can be further processed by a server.) IT staff could spy on people for fun. Marketing could spy on people for marketing purposes (this call may be recorded for training purposes...) On-Demand advertising; especially useful if you can guess WHO in the house is watching-- when somebody walks away you could trigger stuff to get them back.. Detect CRIMES... Photograph everybody watching channel X at a point in the show. Attach the viewing habits ALREADY NOT private to individuals, making that data far more useful (not sure they want to admit to anybody that stuff...)

    Now for the truely odd ideas-- try to mess with the signal based on a feedback loop from observing the viewer. change frame rate timings slightly, audio slightly (both easily possible on current hardware; well, observing the viewer being is difficult part.) could insert subliminal messages (well, thats illegal in the usa; although there are legal techniques still possible...) Its known that 24fps and 30fps actually subconsciously impact the viewer differently...

  • by wowbagger ( 69688 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @09:50AM (#29037455) Homepage Journal

    Unfortunately, this sort of thing - "Proles! Welcome Big Brother into your home! Allow our cameras/microphones/tracking devices into your lives! We will give you shiny things!" - is becoming ever more common.

    Where I am (Central KS) the radio stations are running an ad, trying to drum up "volunteers" to for "an exciting study of a potential new way to fund the highway system". Guess what: they want people to voluntarily submit to putting a GPS logger on their car, to track where they drive, for the purpose of "usage-based taxation". The very idea of which "makes me ill and angry" to quote The Outer Limits! But the idea that people, rather than rising up with metaphorical pitchforks and torches, are VOLUNTEERING to have this ... Folks, we are on the downhill slide - get used to it.

    Or rather, DON'T get used to it! Fight it at every step!

Never buy from a rich salesman. -- Goldenstern