Here's a scenario for you: at some point in the the near future, you sit down in front of your Xbox 720/960/1080 and queue up a little video-on-demand from the Live Arcade selection of movies. You select a film from the menu and, before you can press the "Play" button, you are greeted with another menu giving you several price points, depending on how many people will be watching.
It sounds ridiculous, but Microsoft has applied for a patent covering a method that could make this a reality. Geekwire (via Slashdot
) has the details on a patent application utilizing the Kinect (or its successor) to count noses for content providers
The patent application, filed under the heading “Content Distribution Regulation by Viewing User,” proposes to use cameras and sensors like those in the Xbox 360 Kinect controller to monitor, count and in some cases identify the people in a room watching television, movies and other content. The filing refers to the technology as a “consumer detector.”
In one scenario, the system would then charge for the television show or movie based on the number of viewers in the room. Or, if the number of viewers exceeds the limits laid out by a particular content license, the system would halt playback unless additional viewing rights were purchased.
While it's a little early in the process to decide whether this is actually a pursuit Microsoft deems worthy of implementing or just some brainstorming put on paper, there's no denying that media companies and content providers would certainly not mind at all
if an enterprising group could create something that would allow them to monetize every eyeball in the house.
While Kinect hackers have managed to crank out some very interesting uses of the body-tracking technology, it looks as though the in-house team has something a bit more devious up its collective sleeve. With this in place, PPV events could move to the Xbox to get the most bang for their buck during prize fights and MMA bouts. Movies rented through XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) could rake in even more money by charging for each additional set of eyeballs, leading to Xbox owners treating their own living rooms like drive-ins and sneaking in additional viewers through piles of coats lying strategically on the floor.
Every use may not be as mercenary as the above scenario, however. The Kinect "Consumer Detector" could also prevent younger (or at least, shorter) eyeballs from being sullied by R-rated movies or, god forbid, porn.
The system could also take into account the age of viewers, limiting playback of mature content to adults, for example. This patent application doesn’t explain how that would work, but a separate Microsoft patent application last year described a system for using sensors to estimate age based on the proportions of their body.
Unfortunately, this will prevent pornstar midgets from viewing porn, but please, let's think of the children, each of whom represents a potential income stream.
The intro paragraph of the application lends itself to use for many different royalty collecting entities. In addition to the mentioned Pay Per View/Video-on-Demand possibilities, there's also performance rights organizations to be considered, because once you start talking licenses, they're never far behind.
A method of distributing content to a user, comprising: providing a selection of content available to the user; for each content, presenting a licensing option comprising associating a performance of the content with an individual user's consumption of the content at a display device; receiving a selection of one of the content and a license display option for said content; presenting the content to the display device if a number of user performances allowed for the content is equal to or less than the license option for which the selection is received; and monitoring the presentation of the content at the device to determine the number of users consuming the content during the performance.
This description, along with the methods listed below it in the filing, seem to indicate that your fully-paid and relatively peaceful viewing of a movie or prize fight could come to an instant halt and ask you to feed the meter any time someone new walks into the room. Or better yet, the new system could push already-strained friendships to the limit. "Oh, hey. I'd invite you in but I'm only got enough money for five people. Sorry, man. Maybe next time." AWKWARD.
But beyond the fact that this patent, if granted and implemented, will create a whole new level of rent-seeking across a wide swath of the "creative industries," there's also privacy issues that need to be addressed. Does any company, whether it's Microsoft or any of the upstream content providers, have the right to basically scan your living room for signs of life simply because they're the one licensing the content? For that matter, is it any of their business how many people you have watching a movie or listening to music in your private residence? It certainly never has been before, but with the advent of digital distribution (and its accompanying "licenses"), the attempts to wring every last dollar out of every bit of content will continue.
Will "buying for five but watching for ten" become the new "piracy?" Pursuing this angle isn't going to make Microsoft any friends, at least not in terms of customers. Consumers' first reaction would probably be to toss the "Consumer Detector," in which case it's not difficult to imagine it becoming a mandatory piece of equipment for certain applications. After that, for consumers concerned about this, their only option would be to toss the Xbox. I don't think Microsoft has enough confidence in the future of its console line to take that chance.
Or maybe it's got nothing to do with the console. Maybe it's some groundwork for the new "Cloud TV" service Microsoft inadvertently announced
via a job posting.
Microsoft is known for revealing additional product details in job postings, but a new round of listings has unveiled a brand new TV service. Described as a "Cloud-based TV platform," Microsoft is looking to hire engineers to build client applications for the service. LiveSide spotted several job postings related to Cloud TV recently that tempt job candidates to "get in on the ground floor of an ambitious new project."
Combining this with the above patent opens up the possibility that Microsoft could be crafting the content delivery system that watches you back, delivering headcounts to media companies and cutting off customers who violate the license terms by exceeding the limits declared by the copyright holder. At this point, the whole setup is full of easily exploitable holes. The odds of this coming to market are extremely low, if for no other reason than the potential backlash against any company involved. But it's not impossible, either. There are many rent-seekers in the content market and many of them have never shied away from a new source of income just because it might be unpopular. (At least, not at first. Many have walked back ideas due to public outcry, but they rarely seem to discard bad ideas before trying to implement them first.) Microsoft doesn't seem to share the same enthusiasm for angering the public to make incremental gains, but its design team has crafted a handy backdoor for a whole new level of IP enforcement—one that will only widen the gap between what consumers feel are acceptable limitations and what the content industries believe they should be.