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Patent Office Rejects Verizon's TV Snooping Tech Application

In addition to invalidating Apple's "Steve Jobs patent" on a non-final basis last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has rejected a patent application on a non-final basis submitted by Verizon. This application caused quite a stir over the past week because the tech promised to serve up targeted ads based on what TV viewers were doing, saying and watching in front of their sets.

FierceCable uncovered the patent last week, reporting that the proposed advertising tech -- likely mounted in a set-top box, tablet or smartphone -- could determine if the viewer was laughing, playing a music instrument, cuddling, sleeping or singing. The information provided by the viewer's motions, expressions and words would be captured by infrared cameras and a microphone. The tech could even distinguish between people, objects and animals that were near the TV.

"If detection facility detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), advertising facility may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words," Verizon states in its patent application.

By detecting the mood and/or actions of the viewer, the tech would be capable of triggering specific advertisements matching that data. The technology described in the patent claims it can provide 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."

That said, someone exercising in front of the TV would likely see advertisements about gym memberships, vitamin supplements and other related material. A couple cuddling on the couch might see an advertisement about a romantic cruise, a romantic comedy playing in the movie theater, and so on.

FierceCable said that the proposed targeted advertising system may be developed through a joint innovation lab it has created with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. This speculation stems from a comment Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis made in November, saying that engineers from Comcast and Verizon have been meeting together on the West Coast to develop products and services.

"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," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House. "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."

As it stands now, the patent application has been returned to Verizon who must now decide if it wants to abandon the patent, or to keep developing the technology until its finally approved. Computerworld said that a Verizon spokesperson "downplayed" the concerns over the patent, adding that the company has a "well-established track record of respecting its customers' privacy and protecting their personal information."

"Verizon takes pride in its innovators whose work is represented in our patents and patent applications," the Verizon rep added.


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