Front-facing cameras are everywhere on laptops, tablets and phones. If the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was any indication, they're about to become ubiquitous on TVs as well.
New TVs from Samsung and Lenovo used the show to introduce TVs that recognize you and others in the room, automatically logging you into Facebook and pulling up your favorite channels or websites. Lenovo's TV lets you use the camera as an ID service that blocks access to certain content or channels if a child is in the room.
For Samsung's 7500 and 8000 series TVs, all you have to do is say "Hi, TV," when you walk into a room for the TV to turn on and know who's there.
As one can imagine, this is all very exciting to the world's biggest advertisers, many of whom saw these new applications for the first time this week when they toured the show floor. These are the execs who spend billions on TV advertising but really don't know who's in the room when their ads air -- or whether their intended audience is busy with a mobile phone or tablet anyway.
"Is anyone watching? This is why advertisers are so excited about front-facing cameras," Frank Barbieri, exec VP of emerging platforms at Yume, told a group of ad agency execs and clients during a tour. Yume powers advertising on smart TVs from Samsung and LG.
Think of it: The tech means an advertiser or TV programmer could, for the first time, know which members of a Nielsen household are watching a show or an ad. Cisco has even developed a system meant to read facial expressions and determine whether you're entertained or bored.
No mass marketer cares what's happening in any individual home, of course, but in aggregate, this data could give them new insight into how advertising actually works or doesn't work. As TV moves to the cloud and on-demand delivery, more accurate ways of measurement will be required to keep TV's ad model intact. You can imagine advertisers one day insisting on verification that an ad was actually watched to count as an "impression."
Many people in the living room are multitasking with other devices. "We're paying for that ," said Rex Harris, innovations supervisor at SMGX, a unit of ad agency holding company Publicis Groupe . "If you're looking at other screens, then you're not paying attention. We would like to know if we're getting accurate impressions."
Consumers stand to gain too, according to Mr. Harris. "The idea is , if the ad is more targeted to you, you will get more value out of it," he said. "When your device knows where you are and knows what you like, it will be a more valuable experience for you."
Microsoft has sold 18 million Xbox Kinect units since introducing it in November 2010, sparking the first mass adoption of front-facing cameras in the living room. But the addition of cameras to TVs means the addition of cameras to even more rooms of the house.
Forrester analyst James McQuivey says there's "a great screening of American households" that 's yet to come, driven by super-thin, beautiful OLED TVs that disappear behind the image they're projecting -- more like wall art than a black box.
While consumers will no doubt get benefits from customized content, ease of use and a social layer on their TV experiences, the inherent privacy issues are immense. When it comes to tracking consumers' behavior on the web, the biggest buyers and sellers of advertising are united behind the "opt out" approach -- meaning each consumer has to figure out and take specific steps in order to stop being tracked. How the industry handles TVs that can watch their own viewers could make the debate over web privacy seem quaint.
The industry may hesitate to engage the subject. "Who is going to dare talk about that first out loud?" Mr. McQuivey said.
But cameras on smart TVs will arrive with some significant implications. Marketers and the consumer-electronics industry probably ought to start thinking about those before plunging ahead.