Is your TV watching you?

A recent blog post from the website HD Guru caused the consumer spaces to explode with controversy and apprehension. The article's author wrote about a new series of Samsung LED HD televisions that includes a built-in HD camera, stereo microphones and Internet connectivity. The camera and microphones are built into the top screen bezel of the televisions and face viewers. With the technology, these TV sets provide complete two-way communication, some of which enters the Samsung cloud and may be available to third-party companies.

What might be the advantage of a camera, microphone and Internet-equipped television? For one, grandparents could have two-way visits with grandkids using Facetime. One also could Skype with friends around the world from the living room easy chair. These TV sets also support voice commands, opening new ways to control the TV set. Gosh, this all sounds great doesn't it?

Consumers were not impressed. It seems the ugly theme of Big Brother bothered many readers. Then, there was an apparent lack of transparency by Samsung as to who might be able to control this window into the living room.

Anyone reading Broadcast Engineering knows that enabling cozy family conversations was not the reason set makers want to install cameras, microphones and Internet into televisions. They just want to sell TV sets. It is advertisers that want that want to know who's watching.

Samsung is not alone in offering this sort of prying technology. TiVo has applied for a patent that scans users for an RFID. Once detected, the remote control tells the TV device who is operating the controller and then customizes the two-way interface for that person. Adults and children see different content, and the control operates according to user-specific preferences.

Until March 2011, Gerard Kunkel was Comcast's senior vice president of user experience. In an interview with GigaOM, he reportedly said Comcast was experimenting with different camera technologies that could be built into consumer devices. The goal was for the device to recognize people in the room and then make media choices based on viewers' personal profiles. Kunkel said such monitoring represented the “holy grail” for advertisers.

Kunkel has since moved on to Microsoft, which interestingly filed a patent application for similar technology. The application describes a system that would provide personalized TV ads based on facial recognition or a fingerprint scanner contained in the remote control.

My family got our first TV when I was a young lad, perhaps five years old. It displayed black and white images, and we could receive only a single station. One of the first shows I ever saw was “Romper Room.” At the end of the program, Miss Nancy would look at the camera through her magic mirror and recite names of the children she could “see” watching her.

The first time this happened, I freaked out thinking Miss Nancy could see me because I was sitting on the couch, eating cereal, shirtless in my tidy whities. I quickly hid behind the couch, peeking over the top as the show ended. About then, my mother entered the room and asked why I was standing behind the couch. As I explained that the woman on TV said she could see me (in my underwear), mom burst out laughing. She explained that was just a TV show, and people on TV couldn't really see the audience.

While that's still technically true, I'm not excited about the possibility that advertisers may discover that Brad sometimes watches “Swamp People” on the History Channel in shorts and a T-shirt.

Do you care if advertisers can recognize who is in front of your TV set?

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