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Here’s why your next TV will watch you

When you are surfing the web, it’s pretty clear you are being monitored. Using several technologies, most notably website cookies, your browsing habits can be tracked, and ads can be served up based on your interests. But what if your TV had the same capability? It will. The future is about to arrive, and it actually will happen this year. But are you ready to have your viewing habits and interests tracked in your own living room?

Digital sleuthing technology is a new form of tracking that monitors what you watch live or record on your DVR. Companies such as Cognitive and Gracenote, which create all the software for this to happen, track viewing information in real time and sync the information to a database through the web, via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Marketers get a rich data mine to create tailored messages tying in to the likes and dislikes of the viewer. This technology, called video fingerprinting, extends to TV series, movies and commercials, as well as set-top boxes, streaming devices and Blu-ray players. TV sets from manufacturers such as Samsung, Vizio and Sony are in talks to incorporate this type of software, with some companies such as LG Electronics already displaying, at IFA in Berlin, the tech built in to sets about to ship. The technology and techniques will most likely also filter down to mobile TV. Right now, there are various app-based hooks in place to track what users are doing, but the advancements to mobile will ramp up the sync between viewing and real-time ads being displayed.

As Smart TVs get smarter, the one drawback is that they are still pretty dumb at accessing the needs of viewers. With the Internet and portable tablet devices, as well as smartphones, it has become easier to track mobile units, but living room TVs are still somewhat of a disconnected island. A lot of that changed with the Netflix button. As Netflix became standard on more and more TVs, viewers suddenly had a strong incentive to connect their TV to their home network. Once connected, they could get Netflix streaming, but it also allowed the TV makers to offer other apps, firmware updates and old school banner ads. These rudimentary ads that may appear when you access your TV’s internal menu screen are very reminiscent of the Internet 15 years ago. The landscape of banners ads for TV are very fragmented now, but its clear that this prime space is the next wild west that advertisers can stream into. The one drawback is that as slick (or as complicated) as these TV menus and screens are, they are almost always pretty disconnected from the actual TV sources plugged into them. 

What about privacy? Who is going to want a TV to track their every move? Currently, this technology is opt-in, meaning that the viewer has to sign in for the tracking to begin. Of course, this could be tied in to features, so viewers will need to sign up as well as in to access some form of content. Tracking will most likely be described in a long scrolling terms of service that few will read. But once a viewer is in, the data will become extremely powerful and valuable. Imagine a 24/7 Nielsen box that tracks whatever is playing on the TV from whatever device. This is not too dissimilar to second-screen apps that rely on audio tracking currently out. Many apps on iOS 7, Android and Windows Phone allow “following along” with chats, message boards and info as you watch a program. The tablet or smartphone listens to your TV audio (much like Shazam) and figures out what you are currently watching via audio thumbprints. Video thumb prints take this to the next level and happen globally on your TV set, no matter what you watch. 

Complexities arise once you start to think this through. What if you have kids and adults and visitors all watching different types of shows at all different times of the day or night? Will this new technology track all this intelligently and systematically, serving the right content to the correct person? This has been a struggle for many companies. Recently, Netflix tried to solve this problem with breaking out its one streaming account into multiple user accounts. So now, primarily and currently on the website version, before you go in to watch, you need to stop and click what user is going to be viewing. This allows Netflix to track recommendations on a more granular user basis, but it also causes an interface speed bump and user interaction. People just want to sit down and watch without designating users, or worse, having to log out of one user and into another just because some people left the couch or returned. 

It’s fair to say that video tracking on a TV set basis is the next big thing. Ads have permeated so much of our life; the relatively calm waters of TV were bound to be disrupted at some point. Hardware such as the Kinect and Xbox One include technology that tracks, but it is (fairly) clear exactly what they are doing. With video thumb printing, advertiser tracking could be as murky and frustrating as online web ads and cookies have become. But be aware: TV tracking is not just coming; it is already here. The only choice we have to decide on is if we are ready for it.