Google Patent Application Is Downright Creepy

As you may have noticed, things are becoming more complex. Blame Moore’s Law, or whatever. But things are complicated. To help us manage that complexity, companies are devising even more complicated things that give us, the human users, the illusion of simplicity. However, a recent Google patent application, aimed at simplifying the operation of things like home entertainment systems, is just downright creepy.

The Google patent application in question (DeVaul, et al.) was filed back in 2012 but was just recently published by the U.S. Patent Office. Titled “Agent Interfaces for Interactive Electronics that Support Social Cues,” it proposes a novel way to control media devices. Terrific! I own about 90 remotes and never really learned to use any of them. Maybe this will be better. Well, it might be better, except for all the disturbing nightmares it would give me.

Huge numbers of patents are filed and most are never realized, and I hope this application remains a paper document. For starters, the application suggests that inventors at Google haven’t watched enough Chucky movies. The preferred embodiment calls for “an anthropomorphic device, perhaps in the form factor of a doll or toy [that] may be configured to control one or more media devices.” For example, the invention might be a doll sitting in your home theater chair, with cameras in its eyes and microphones in its ears. When you enter the room, it hears you and turns its head toward you. As the patent application puts it, “the device may aim its gaze at the source of the social cue.” Then it visually recognizes you or listens for your vocal commands and turns on your favorite TV channel or whatever. If ambient sounds prevent voice recognition, the device could simply read your lips.

So, we have an anthropomorphic device operating as an intelligent remote control. At least Google believes the anthropomorphism offers advantages. According to the patent application, “Some users, especially young children, might find these forms to be attractive user interfaces. However, individuals of all ages may find interacting with these anthropomorphic devices to be more natural than interacting with traditional types of user devices.”


The question is, would you really want a device like that in your home? I suppose it could be locally smart enough to handle all the operations, but something tells me that Google would prefer to run it with cloud-based servers. So, this little bugger with cameras for eyes and microphones for ears is hanging out around my house, and it is specially designed to monitor my personal activities, and it’s jacked into the Internet. Riiiiiiiight.

The patent application also describes a feature where the device is still watching and listening even when it appears to be “asleep.” OK, I understand that a sleep mode can save battery power, but that crosses the creepy line. In fact, it’s right up there with the new Hello Barbie doll that converses with kids via ToyTalk technology and a Wi-Fi link. Under Barbie’s terms of service, recordings of the kids’ conversations may be saved and “used for research and development purposes.” Sure, nothing could ever go wrong with that invention, either.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I had a TV in my bedroom, I sure wouldn’t want this little stranger danger in bed with me. And I wouldn’t want it in my home theater, or anywhere in my house. And if my neighbor had one, and I saw it looking out the window holding a tiny pair of binoculars—well, then I’m heading down to my garage and getting out my chain saw.