The U.S. Patent Office has delivered a "non-final" rejection of a Verizon patent application for a controversial technology that would serve targeted ads to TV viewers based on what they're doing or saying in front of their sets.
In what is known formally as an Office action, the Patent Office sent the application back to Verizon, which must now decide whether it wants to pursue the technology further or abandon the patent claims.
The patent has been the subject of intense media scrutiny since FierceCable uncovered it last week. Verizon somewhat laboriously titled the patent application "Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a Use."
The application says the technology would be capable of triggering different advertisements based on whether viewers are eating, playing, cuddling, laughing, singing, fighting or gesturing in front of their sets. Specifically, the patent covers technology that can serve ads "...targeted to the user based on what the user is doing, who the user is, the user's surroundings, and/or any other suitable information associated with the user."
The goal is to provide "the user with advertising content that is relevant to the user's current situation and/or likely to be of interest to the user."
So a couple cuddling in front of the TV might see a commercial associated with cuddling, such as a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, or a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie, the application notes.
Similarly, a user singing or humming a generally "happy" song, or laughing in front of the TV, playing a musical instrument or exhibiting some other indication of their mood would see an advertisement appropriate to what they're doing.
The technology is ostensibly designed for integration with set-top boxes and would be capable of determining whether a TV viewer is using a mobile device like a phone, laptop or tablet. In some cases, the set-top box could be configured to communicate with the device to see whether a viewer was using it to "browse the Web, draft an email, review a document, read an e-book, etc." It could also get a sample of the content on the device.
The capabilities don't stop there. The technology would also be capable of serving up ads based on one or more physical attributes such as a person's size, build, skin color, hair length, facial features, voice tone and accent. And it could spot pets or objects in front of the TV, such as a bag of chips or a can of beer to serve up related ads.
According to the patent, each "ambient" action in front of the TV would be associated with keywords that would match keywords in the ads' metadata or reference table.
The technology is likely many years away, even if the patent is eventually granted. But the privacy implications are troubling now, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House. "Of all the privacy-intrusive technology developments that I've become aware of in recent years, this one is at the extreme end of the scale," Givens said.
"One of the things that troubles me about this patent, aside from the extraordinary privacy-invasiveness of it, is that there are engineers at Verizon sitting around thinking up such things" she said. "It's quite obvious that for this to have gotten to the patent-filing stage, Verizon engineers have been allowed -- even encouraged -- to take privacy-intrusion to the max, all in the name of advertising dollars."
A Verizon spokesman today downplayed the concerns and pointed to the recent non-final rejection by the patent office.
"Verizon has a well-established track record of respecting its customers' privacy and protecting their personal information," the spokesman said in an emailed statement. " As a company that prizes innovation, Verizon takes pride in its innovators whose work is represented in our patents and patent applications."
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.