Microsoft has filed a patent for a system that will let it watch consumers to ensure that they're complying with content licensing restrictions.
"Big Brother is watching" hyperbole usually tends to be overblown and knee-jerkish, but it's hard not to go straight to it with regards to Microsoft's patent filing for a system of "content distribution regulation by viewing user." Filed in April 2011 and published on November 1 of 2012, the system literally seeks to watch consumers in their home to ensure that their digital content consumption stays within the rules.
"Content is distributed [with] an associated license option on the number of individual consumers or viewers allowed to consume the content. Consumers are presented with a content selection and a choice of licenses allowing consumption of the content," the abstract says. "The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken."
Simplistically, it works like this: Content - say, a movie - is distributed to "consuming devices" in the home, like televisions, set-top boxes or digital displays, along with "an associated license option on the number of individual consumers or viewers allowed to consume the content." The consumer selects a desired license, which could be based on a number of views over time, the number of people who watch it simultaneously or other factors, and then a camera, perhaps not too unlike the one in the Kinect that's already sitting on top of your set, keeps an eye on you and your guests to ensure that the rules are followed.
The system is designed to be able to handle things like people entering and leaving the viewing area, or who are in the same room as the content being displayed but not actually partaking in it. "Once the presentation begins, the users in the field of view may change over the course of the presentation. Users may enter or leave the display area of a display device, for example," the detailed description explains. "The display area for the display device is re-scanned [and] a determination is made as to whether the consuming user count has changed. Again, the content provider based on information provided to the content provider by the display device may [take remedial action]."
It's unlikely that a system like this will come to fruition any time soon, if ever, but it's still creepy as hell. The convenience of digital distribution is nice and will become increasingly commonplace as broadband coverage expands and improves, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. The kind of obscenely invasive monitoring proposed by this patent might be a good place.