Video services

Comcast Goes Sci-Fi With Sensor-Driven UI Plans

Comcast's latest patent application for a user interface control system reads like the script notes for a sci-fi TV show.

In the application, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) describes a process of projecting electromagnetic radiation to create a field or zone against which small gestures can be recorded and analyzed as interface commands. At a basic level, such a system would allow users to perform a gesture -- such as drawing a letter in the air -- that could then be tied to actions such as pausing television playback, or changing a thermostat setting. However, the broad outlines of the document open the door to a much wider range of applications.

Titled "System and Methods for Controlling a User Experience," the Comcast patent filing was first uncovered by Fierce Cable. The concepts in the application are not unlike those in other natural user interface systems, but the scope of the filing is significant. Comcast details the use of cameras and a wide range of sensor types from thermal, to infrared, to biometric, to RF "and/or any other device for determining a user state or condition."

It also refers to the use of "facial recognition, gesture recognition, body heat analysis, behavioral analysis, eye tracking, head tracking, biometric analysis and/or other means of determining a user characteristic and or a change in a user characteristic."

In addition to enabling gesture-based commands for TV and home control systems, the technology covered in Comcast's patent application would support machine-learning processes for distinguishing between different individuals in a household and delivering personalized content. For example, Comcast describes configuring a personalization server to learn the behavior of a particular user profile in order to "provide a customized user experience." This might mean automatically tuning to a specific TV channel based on known user preference, dimming the lights in certain conditions, or some other similar action type.

There are numerous companies working on motion-based television UI technologies, including Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Hillcrest Labs and YOUi Labs Inc. , just to name a few. (See Microsoft Eyes OTT Set-Top, Hisense Adds Hillcrest Motion Control to TVs, and Motion Control UI Scores Big )

However, Comcast's patent filing also overlaps with technology from companies outside the TV UI space, such as SmartThings, StickNFind, and Xsens.

Not only is the industry around sensor-driven interfaces getting crowded, but it also has the potential to be highly controversial. Given the sensitivity surrounding set-top data privacy, it's reasonable to assume there will be a major backlash if and when users' movements in their own homes are recorded and analyzed by the cable TV company… or anyone else.

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading Cable

albreznick 11/19/2013 | 3:58:13 PM
Re: So, Comcast Kinect Do you really think it'll take another 10 years, Karl? Aren't devices like the Xbox getting people used to that invasion of privacy pretty quickly? 
albreznick 11/19/2013 | 3:51:25 PM
Re: They didn't think it through A real romance killer, eh? Maybe you better move that coffee table now, just in case. 
KBode 11/19/2013 | 9:34:48 AM
So, Comcast Kinect So essentially Comcast's probably very clunky version of Kinect.

I know they patented technology (as did Verizon and Microsoft, or at least attempted to) that would allow a set top camera to watch users in a room and then market specifically to them. I know that's the holy grail of marketing but it doesn't seem like we're going to reach a point anytime soon where consumers feel good about such a prospect.

Perhaps in 10 years as people warm to the idea that there is no such thing as privacy online.

PaulERainford 11/19/2013 | 7:57:56 AM
They didn't think it through I see danger ahead with all this: You walk into the living room carrying two glasses of red wine and the lights automatically dim as Songs of Praise appears on the TV screen. Crash! Oops! Who left that coffee table there?! Where's the stain remover kept?
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