The Dawn of a New Dystopian Nightmare: Are Truly Unskippable Ads Coming?

The Dawn of a New Dystopian Nightmare: Are Truly Unskippable Ads Coming?

504 days ago I wrote a slightly humorous Reddit comment charting a potential path towards a dystopian future of truly unskippable ads. That future recently got a whole lot nearer. It didn’t play out quite as I predicted, but I was more right than I had imagined.

Two weeks ago TechCrunch reported that Stacy Spikes the founding CEO of Moviepass -  a controversy-ridden subscription-based movie ticketing service -  had launched a Kickstarter to fund a new venture called PreShow. At the heart of PreShow is a simple premise: if its users watch 15 to 20 minutes of adverts, they will receive a credit redeemable for a movie ticket. The PreShow app is still in beta mode and is tentatively due to launch for Kickstarter backers in July.

Some readers are undoubtedly already thinking of ways to game this system. Some may be thinking of pressing play on the adverts on their phone and then going to play video games in another room while the ads play. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch: PreShow will be using Apples facial recognition features to assure you’re looking at the ads and will pause them if you look away for more than 5 seconds.

I will return to that in a moment, but in the meantime let’s see how the predictions I made in my November 2017 Reddit comment have panned out. I started by writing:

Accurate retinal scanning/face scanning to check where you're looking on a screen will start off being a “fun” feature unrelated to ads. Like the new emoji thing on the iPhone X that lets you control them with your facial expressions [editors note: the name for those is “Animoji”, could you really not have googled that at the time?] or Snapchat filters

Maybe Apple or Google will add it as an optional feature to their alarm apps “to make sure you’re awake” or to their cameras to help “take the perfect selfie every time.”

Although I was not aware of it at the time I wrote the comment, Apple was already using the facial recognition capabilities of the iPhone X to interact with the alarms to make waking up easier.

Then just under a month after I wrote the comment, a Reddit user helpfully linked me to an app developed by Google which promised to “to capture photos automatically each time you pose, encouraging you to capture your best self.”  With the launch of the Pixel 3, Google rolled this feature out within the camera app.  That makes me two for two so far. My next sentence was a bit more speculative:

Maybe some game and app developers will make use of the function and people won’t mind. Pretty soon Google will integrate it into YouTube “so you don’t miss a moment and can pause videos with ease.”

Addressing the second sentence the Google Chrome browser has had an experimental FaceDetector API since January 2017 however in 2018 an independent developer created a chrome extension that allowed users to pause Youtube videos if they looked away from the screen.

Whether Google or a similarly large company will attempt to add a feature to pause videos automatically when you look away as standard remains to be seen. That said the above examples aren’t even the first.

Way back in 2013 three intrepid silicon valley developers created an IOS app called ‘LookAway Player’ in their spare time. The app would respond to gestures, for example muting the audio if you made a “shh” gesture by bringing a finger over your mouth, or pausing if you looked away.  The Samsung Galaxy S4 also brought eye control to its products.

So far so unproblematic right? All the apps or features above are reasonably innocuous, nothing much to worry about. They’re primarily just gimmicks to help improve the consumer experience. PreShow changes all of that. For the first time, the facial recognition technology is being used not for convenience but for forcing someone to view something. If companies like PreShow succeed, they may well start something that ends in a future where completely unskippable ads become the norm.

Another big concern with this sort of technology is what happens with the facial data being gathered. PreShow has promised that “privacy is a top concern” and that “nobody is recorded, no personally identifiable data is shared, all data is aggregated and anonymized to brand partners.” As the example of Facebook demonstrates: just because a company promises that privacy is a chief concern it doesn’t follow that it actually is. As Digital Trends writes:

it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something vaguely dystopian about the whole system, like it was plucked directly from Charlie Brooker’s satirical sci-fi series, Black Mirror.

I ended my  Reddit comment by writing:

Then Google and the social media companies will offer ad companies, “content creators,” and media organisations access to their “premium tier ad service” that will allow them to initially just monitor how people respond to their content . Later they’ll be able to use the tech to advertise and when people start complaining it’ll be too late.

That may currently sound improbable, and you may even accuse me of making a slippery slope argument, but it’s not an entirely hypothetical scenario. We’re not standing at the top of a slope peering over its edge, we’re already halfway down hurtling towards a nightmarish future.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope my thought experiment remains just that. We’ll just have to wait and see. Oh and don’t forget to blink…..

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