Intel web TV spy camera plans axed

Intel has dropped controversial plans to outfit its upcoming web TV set-top box with a face-recognition camera, admitting that a combination of privacy concerns and performance issues forced its hand. The original goal had been to use a combination of age, gender, and other identification features to track viewers of the web TV service and tailor advertising to suit; however, Intel's web TV chief Erik Huggers told the WSJ, that's now been abandoned, at least in the first-gen box.

According to Huggers, Intel Vice President and General Manager of Intel Media, the camera system did not work as well in low-light settings as the company hoped, a vital feature given the sort of environments in which people generally watch TV. Intel had never detailed its exact system, though concepts by the company had been demonstrated publicly built into set-top boxes.

The goal had been to endear Intel's fledgling on-demand and live TV service to content owners, by promising them far more comprehensive viewer metrics on which promotional campaigns could be based. Whereas existing advertising takes a relatively blunt-brush approach to who is watching what, Intel's system could have pinpointed demographics down to relatively narrow age brackets, tracked the gender of multiple viewers, and more.

Intel Web TV viewer-tracking demo:

That, coupled with on-demand access to different advertising content, could have allowed Intel to show tailored playlists of commercials depending on who was watching at any one time. The system could also have made suggestions for other shows the viewer might enjoy, based on their age and gender along with what they'd already been watching, in effect supercharging Netflix-style recommendations with demographic awareness.

Unsurprisingly, even with Intel insisting its eye-on-the-sofa would take a relatively vague view of who was watching, privacy advocates weren't impressed with the scheme. Those privacy questions were another part of Intel's decision to backtrack on the camera, Huggins conceded.

The as-yet-unnamed service – rumored to be dubbed Intel OnCue when it launches – is currently in testing in the homes of around 2,500 Intel employees, Huggins says. Despite rumored struggles to secure content licensing, which Intel has insisted will not affect a 2013 launch, the web TV chief is confident that the service will find favor among consumers, not least because of its comprehensive cloud DVR system.

That, it's expected, will include full recording of all programming into a cloud-based store, with access to at least three days of retrospective viewing. Subscribers will be able to rewind any channel they choose should they miss something, even if they didn't specifically mark it for recording.