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1/27/2014
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Google Mulls Boredom Meter

Google patent application describes ways computers can read people's body language to measure their interest in media.

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Google wants to know how you respond to the media content you view. It could ask you, but you might not want to answer, and, even if you did, you might not accurately convey how you feel.

To obtain a more accurate measurement, the company's engineers have been exploring how to read your body language. A patent application published on Thursday describes a way to assess enthusiasm for media content using information captured by a videocamera, the one that will soon be watching you in your home, through your TV, computer, or mobile device, if it isn't there already.

"Determining User Interest Through Detected Physical Indicia" outlines what could be called either an enthusiasm meter or a boredom meter, depending on whether you're a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty sort of person.

"Providers of the media content find great value in determining the user's attentiveness to the displayed media content, as knowing the user's interest in media content can help media providers tailor future content or recommendations more closely to the user's interests," the patent application lyrically explains. "Accordingly, in some implementations, a user's interest in displayed media is determined by analyzing visual data of the user (such as visual data from photographs or video) for physical indicia of user interest. An advantage of such an implementation is that the user does not have to actively indicate their [sic] interest to the system."

[Curious how connected devices could help athletes? See Sports Tech Shows Internet of Things Potential.]

Amazon, Netflix, and other companies augment media transaction data by soliciting user input. Fandango, the online movie ticketing service, will pester you after you've seen a movie to rate it. Social interaction represents free labor for online companies, after all. You're expected to chip in with your opinion to keep the data scientists from starving.

Google does the same thing, but it also sees an opportunity to gather information about what you like without asking for it (beyond a presumed initial grant of permission).

Such ostensibly benign surveillance may not be limited to video. Google's patent application contemplates not only video image analysis, but audio analysis, eye tracking, head position, body inclination, and physical expression as ways to measure interest.

"For example, a user who physically reacts to a surprising visual or startling loud sound in a movie (e.g. by jumping or screaming) is likely more interested in the movie they are watching than a user who does not react to a loud sound in a movie," the patent application said.

In space, no one can hear you scream. In your living room, Google's got your back.

An alternative implementation proposes listening to the music you're playing and comparing the number of beats per minute in the song to your movements. If they match, Google can infer that you're dancing, an action that "indicates positive user engagement."

The patent application does not specifically mention advertising, but it's clear that the ability to assess user interest would be at least as useful for delivering ads as it would be for delivering content. And really, Google doesn't have to specifically describe this research in the context of ads: Social tech companies' tendency is to treat ads and content as the same thing. (It's not an ad, it's a sponsored story!)

There is of course no guarantee Google will ever deploy such a system. Much of its research doesn't make it to market. But in case Google goes ahead with its attention measurement scheme, rest assured that the company is thinking how to preserve your privacy while it watches you dance.

"In some implementations, the client system removes personally identifiable information before sending the interest information to the server system," the patent application stated.

In other implementations, just make sure you activate "Incognito mode" when you get home.

Thomas Claburn is editor-at-large for InformationWeek. He has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and his mobile game Blocfall Free is available for iOSAndroid, and Kindle Fire.

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Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2014 | 10:19:16 AM
Distasteful
The clinical nature of "user engagement," is horrible. It sounds so robotic and inhumane. 

I can also tell you now, any product that tries to track me via camera isn't going in my home. That includes any Google products and Microsoft's Kinect camera. Not a chance. 
gasdetectors
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gasdetectors,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/27/2014 | 10:26:05 AM
Re: Distasteful
extrapolate - if the softare can detect your mood it should also be able to detect other emotions which could tailor games to maximise impact... you could really mess with peoples warm and fuzzies that way.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 10:46:57 AM
Re: Distasteful
Count me out as well. I don't see any direct benefit to me...unless I'm going to be paid for opting in or penalized for opting out.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 12:31:26 PM
Re: Distasteful
This does sound like something that would have to be run in a model similar to paid surveys or focus groups, where people get a modest amount of cash, or maybe a contest entry or merchandise, to give feedback or allow their reactions to be measured. Google could likely charge advertisers a premium over what it pays participants.

Still, it's just creepy. We have a Kinect, and sometimes I swear the thing is staring at me.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2014 | 12:53:55 PM
Re: Distasteful
This validates those paranoid folks at the office that put a post-it over their laptop webcam, even after we've promised that IT isn't watching.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 1:37:21 PM
The younger generation won't look at it that way
I think Google would only have to pay a modest amount for a large number of users to sign up and offer valuable feedback. I don't want to be one of them, but for those already tweeting and living part of their lives on Facebook, they'd be willing to participate partly out of the sense their opinions are having an impact and counting somewhere. That doesn't seem to be the case for any of the commenters here, but we are making use of a more individualized outlet. The younger generation is going to be much more comfortable with social media than we are. There will also be a steady state share of the workforce underemployed and trying to make money from home. Here's a smple way to do it.

 
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/27/2014 | 1:44:09 PM
Re: Distasteful
Not so paranoid, jagibbons - there was a recently published exploit that let an attacker take control of a webcam and spy on the user. I personally stuck some masking tape over my daughter's laptop webcam. There are even reports of disabling warning lights:

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/researchers-hack-webcam-while-disabling-warning-lights/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
1/27/2014 | 1:48:15 PM
Re: Distasteful
Hadn't heard of that one, Lorna Garey. Maybe I'll have to cover mine unless I'm actually using it. Although, I can't image someone wanting to sit and look at my mug all day.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
1/28/2014 | 8:47:42 AM
Re: Distasteful
Well most IT departments have enough to do that they can't sit around watching hundreds of employees sipping coffee at their desks.  The possibility is there though.  I will say from experience, not watching cameras but monitoring communication that most people are very boring to monitor so if Google is going to be keeping track of people like this they better set the bar really low when it comes to detecting mood.  One thing I'm surprised we haven't seen from Google is analysis based on what you didn't click.  Think of how often you search for something then skip over sites because you know they are scraping someone else's content or you know that they have paywalls. If Google could see my face when I hit those sites it would change searching forever.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
1/28/2014 | 9:00:04 AM
Re: Distasteful
That's what I tell folks. There's too much work to do to sit watching employees all day.

As for the low threshold of watching activity, the algorithm would have to be very sensitive to look at miniscule changes in body language, powered by a strong big-data engine in the background to sift through all of that data.
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