Soon 'TVs will know who is watching them, and . . . advertisers will know shortly thereafter'

A world where your TV watches you


In the new world of technology, television is not just for watching — it is also watching you.

So-called smart TVs being unveiled this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show offer technologies that watch the viewer, in an effort to offer more relevant programming.

The idea may sound eerie to those familiar with George Orwell’s novel “1984” but people in the industry say this is the next step in the evolution of TV viewing.

At the show, Chinese manufacturer TCL unveiled a new TV and set-top box that recognizes who is watching in order to suggest potential programs. The package will go on sale later this year in the U.S. using the Google TV platform.

The new TV developed with Marvell Technology Group uses sensors and voice recognition to determine who is viewing and can offer streamed or live programs that appeal to individuals or entire families.

“We have developed many innovations to personalize the viewing experience,” said Haohong Wang, general manager in the U.S. for TCL, a major global manufacturer that has made TVs under the RCA and Thomson brands.

This offers a “game-changing entertainment experience for consumers around the world that will drive the smart TV market forward at a rapid pace,” said Weili Dai, cofounder of Marvell.

Panasonic also used CES to showcase its new Viera smart television, which can recognize users and create a home screen that allows programming tailored for each individual.

Other manufacturers are working on similar technology that takes advantage of television over the Internet.

This new interactivity opens up possibilities for advertisers to develop more targeted pitches, but it also raises some familiar privacy concerns about data collection on the Web.

“The concept is not so much Big Brother as ‘Big Marketer,’ ” said Thomas Coughlin of data consulting firm Coughlin Associates, who is attending the Las Vegas gathering.

“This could be creepy to some of us because it is making use of data in a way that has (not) been done before.”

Coughlin said consumers will want to know where the data is and how it might be shared, and says there also may be questions about security of the data in the cloud.

Rob Enderle, an analyst and consultant with Enderle Group, said this model will become the norm as television gravitates to Internet platforms.

“Increasingly, TVs will know who is watching them, and I expect advertisers will know shortly thereafter. This should result in shows and commercials you like more and even better products, but far less privacy.”

Stu Lipoff, a fellow at the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said TV on mobile devices will have similar characteristics, with considerable amounts of data that can be gleaned about viewers.

“The website not only knows you are interested in Chevy, but knows where you are,” he said.

James McQuivey at Forrester Research said consumers will accept these privacy trade-offs if they see an advantage to the new style of television.

“If you ask people, of course they will say no,” McQuivey said, while noting that millions have accepted this type of tracing by connecting their TVs to Xbox consoles with Kinect motion detection where “the camera is tracking you all the time.”

“This tells me Orwell got it wrong,” he said. “Orwell’s camera did the bidding of the state, and these cameras do your bidding.”

But he said companies should be prepared to develop privacy policies to avoid government intervention.

Haohong Wang, TCL’s U.S. general manager, says the TV makers are not interested in tracking people and will allow them options.

“We are an equipment company. What we want is to give a good user experience,” he said. And if viewers feel uncomfortable with being monitored, they don’t have to use those features, he said: “They can just turn it off.”