Google raised ad industry eyebrows on Friday after reports that it had patented the ability to use its mobile computing device Google Glass to track how consumers view and react to ads.
The news, first reported by Mashable, came as a surprise given the terms of service for Google Mirror -- the application programming interface (API) that lets software developers build apps for Google Glass -- explicitly forbid ads on the device.
"No Ads," section two of the terms of service reads. "You may not serve or include any advertisements in your API Client." The section goes on to say that personal data collected from "Glassware," Google Glass apps, cannot be sold to third parties for advertising or marketing purposes.
Asked to comment, a Google spokesman said: "We hold patents on a variety of ideas. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents."
But what if it's not about ads on Glass, but ads merely seen through Glass? Upon closer inspection, the patent appears to be using Glass to monitor "external" ads. That is, Google has patented the ability to identify an ad via Glass's image-recording capabilities and subsequently judge people's reactions by measuring their pupil dilation.
Google said these features are not yet available. Still, they could result in a compelling new data-collection and revenue proposition for the company.
Such a tracking function would allow Google to measure how many people viewed a specific ad and what emotional reaction (if any) it elicited. This new measurement capability could in turn allow for a new ad payment model: "pay per gaze."
"Pay per gaze" would function as its name implies: every time an ad is registered as viewed on Google Glass, the advertiser gets charged. Those views are then connected to the people's emotional responses to the ad as determined by how dilated their pupils were at that given time. Dilated pupils are associated with feelings of arousal and surprise, according to a 2011 study cited by the National Institute of Health.
Google references "pay per gaze" five times in one section of the patent and says the model "need not be limited to on-line advertisements, but rather can be extended to conventional advertisement media including billboards, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of conventional print media."
This would suggest that Glass could be used to measure the effectiveness of almost any ad that uses text and static imagery. Providing a robust data set will be tough considering how few people currently have Glass. Currently there are only about 10,000 of these devices in the world.
Still, the effectiveness-tracking capabilities are unprecedented. Google would potentially know how many people saw a certain ad at a given time, how long each person looked at said ad, whether people looked at that ad more than once in a given time period and aggregate how visceral a reaction it caused among that population.
Executives familiar with Glass's product roadmap said that there are no plans to allow ads on Glass or to implement pay per gaze within the next year.
Pay per gaze would not violate Glass's no ads policy, but it would mean eliminating the ban on sharing information gathered through Glass with data brokers, advertisers, marketers and other third parties.
Of course, the patent filing could be a maneuver to simply block other companies from developing a similar ad-tracking technique or to prevent litigation if Google were to develop something analogous to pay per gaze. The scourge of "patent trolls" -- companies that file wide reaching patent claims in order to solely make money through litigation -- has become a hot-button issue in the tech community recently, even to the point that President Obama vowed in June to rein in firms that abuse the patent system and hinder innovation.
The patent does not mention Glass by name, rather referring to "a head mounted gaze tracking device." Google's only such device is Glass.
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