For years, broadcasters and cable operators have tried to push the boundaries of good taste and advertising revenue generation. Whether that's trying to prevent consumers from skipping ads
to patenting technology that will use cameras
embedded in set tops to watch you
watching TV, there's a relentless thirst for new realms of ad revenue. As a sense of futility extends into the quest for more meaningful privacy protections in the new age of smart hardware and deep packet inspection, cable operators continue to nudge the boundaries of revenue collection ever further.
Comcast's latest foray into this arena is its new voice-controlled remote, which lets users give some basic keywords to control the company's set top box. Like similar services, it's a relatively useful concept, though if it works as well as most such efforts, most people will stick with old-fashioned buttons. Meanwhile, Comcast has apparently started using the technology to strike deals that market certain films to kids
"Just say the word ‘banana’ into the remote and you’ll get a list of food programs as the minions talk back. Saying ‘kudos’ will take you to the Despicable Me 2 movie, and the minions will say ‘kudos!’ right back. Test out other words in Minionese to see what comes up, and keep checking the Xfinity and Minions social channels for new commands as they’re added. And if you want to get ready for the movie that comes out on July 10, just say ‘Minions’ to see the trailer."
To be clear, I don't think this is all that big of a deal, even though I understand the concerns of those who aren't thrilled about direct marketing to (and data collection of) children (as we recently saw with the new Wi-Fi-connected Barbie
). After all, Minions ads are everywhere. Amazon's featuring the yellow pill-shaped little rabblerousers on their boxes during a limited cross-promotion. This is just kind of cute, right?
The problem is one of slowly-established precedent (think about the boiling frog anecdote
) and the fact that privacy and security have historically been afterthoughts when it comes to these kinds of services. You'll recall of course that Samsung just got run through the wringer
doesn't reference the company's voice-remote service specifically at all, but does generally suggest it can do pretty much whatever it likes with data collected from your usage of its technology. The company's FAQ for the service
only has this to say about what happens to your kids' commands once they hit the internet:
"After you speak into the remote, the voice commands are sent to Comcast and its contracted service provider for processing. Comcast and its provider use these voice commands to provide the voice control service (including for quality assurance, troubleshooting, and customer support), improve Comcast’s products and services and improve their voice recognition algorithms."
Another issue is that as cable operators face increasing competition from internet video, their response so far has been two-fold: to raise rates
like it's going out of style, and to try to cram more and more ads
into every minute of television (sometimes by cutting programs shorter
). So paying customers are already being bombarded with ads, and now their remotes
are pitching product. As cable operators begin losing internet voice and traditional TV customers to over-the-top services, the lust for new revenue streams is only going to accelerate this dissolution of product value further.
Again, I don't think your cable remote "speaking Minion gibberish" to your tot is that big of a deal in and of itself, but we need to be wary of the temperature of the water we're collectively sitting in. As noted previously
, there's going to be a pretty fine line between useful and invasive, or cute and terrifying, and contrary to what many think it's not going to be entirely clear when we've crossed the Rubicon.