Do we really want gadgets that watch us all the time?
14th Feb 2013 | 11:23
The latest round of tech patents have their eyes on you
The next Xbox, currently dubbed the Xbox 720, will switch itself on when you say "Xbox on". That sounds good until you realise that for it to work, your Xbox will be listening to you all the time - and potentially watching you too, because apparently it's going to have Kinect as standard.
I'm not sure I like that idea.
Don't get me wrong. Kinect is fun, and it's nice to spend four hours watching my daughter shout "Xbox!" at the top of her voice while the dogs wander past and Xbox signs her out and them in. But the idea of a console or any other gadget paying attention to me all the time makes me uneasy. Not because I'm paranoid, but because I've seen the patents.
Here's one unearthed by GeekWire: Content Distribution Regulation by Viewing User, aka the Xbox nose counter. It details how a Kinect-style system might count or even identify the people in your room and then adjust the price you're paying for a movie based on how many people it sees. Alternatively, it might stop playback until you purchased additional viewing rights, or decide you aren't old enough to view the content.
Who watches the watch things?
Here's another one, unearthed by Public Intelligence: a patent from Verizon for a digital video recorder that watches its users. Methods and Systems For Presenting An Advertisement Associated With An Ambient Action Of A User suggests that your set-top box might look to see if you're "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".
Engaging in any other physical activity? What could they possibly mean?
Better still, if someone else is in the room with you it might watch you "talking to, cuddling with, fighting with, wrestling with, playing a game with, competing with, and/or otherwise interacting with the other user." And if you do any of those things, it'll sound the klaxons and bellow STOP THAT! STOP THAT AT ONCE! WATCH THE SCREEN! WATCH THE SCREEEEEEEEEEN!
I made that last bit up, but you get the idea.
I found that patent via TechDirt, whose Tim Cushing notes: "There's also wording in the application regarding recognizing the tune a viewer is humming and reacting accordingly (presumably by contacting the nearest PRO [Public Record Office] and reporting an unlicensed public performance). It also leaves the option open for detecting other animate and inanimate objects, including pets and branded products."
Just because there's a patent for it doesn't mean it's going to happen, or happen soon - among other things, people have patented time machines and magic shoes - but you can see which way the wind is blowing: as Friedrich Nietzche almost put it, when you stare into the Xbox 720, the Xbox 720 stares back into you.