Wireless TVs use built-in cameras, NFC readers to sell you stuff you see on TV

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / A closeup of the webcam on the Displace TV announced in January.
Dislace

It’s no secret that TV makers are seriously invested in pushing ads. Using TVs for advertising goes back to 1941 when the first TV commercial aired. But as we trudge our way through the 21st century, TV vendors are becoming more involved in ensuring that their hardware is used to sell stuff and add to their own recurring revenue.

This has taken various forms, but in some cases, we’re seeing increasingly invasive strategies for turning TVs into a primary place for shopping. The latest approach catching attention comes from the startup Displace. Its upcoming TVs will use integrated webcams and NFC payment readers to make it easy for people to buy stuff they see on TV.

Displace hasn’t officially released a product yet, so skepticism about the TVs it says it will demo at CES 2024 in Las Vegas next month, as spotted by sites like Wifi Hifi, is warranted. (Displace said it would have images of the newly announced TVs to share next year). The startup specializes in wireless TVs with hot-swappable batteries that can vacuum suction-mount to a wall and zip-line slowly off said wall when sensing an unstable connection or low battery. The original “Displace TV” that Displace announced in January is supposed to ship in mid-2024. Displace has been taking preorders for those.

The two new TVs Displace is adding to its 2024 release plans, the Displace Flex and Displace Mini, are all about making watching TV shopping better.

Stop & shop: TV edition

According to Displace’s announcement, the Displace Flex (a 55-inch 4K OLED TV) and Displace Mini (a 27-inch 4K OLED TV) will use proprietary gesture technology and each TV’s integrated 4K camera to tell when a user is raising their hand. It’s unclear how accurate that will be (could the shopping experience accidentally be activated if I raised my hand to tie my hair up, for example?), but at that point, the TV is supposed to pause the content being played. Then, it uses computer vision to “analyze the screen to find products available for sale. Once they see something they want to purchase, viewers drag and drop the product into the global Displace Shopping Cart,” the announcement says.

Displace Shopping will work at any moment the TV is on, and users can buy stuff they see in commercials by using the TVs.

Displace’s December 14 announcement said:

As soon as the viewer is ready to checkout, Displace Payments makes paying as easy as bringing a user’s smartphone or watch near the TV’s built-in NFC payment reader, a fully secure process that requires no credit card info. Viewers can also pay from within the Displace app.

If the TV can’t find a specific product for sale, it will “search for similar items” without user intervention, according to Displace. The TV will show products from any available online retailers, allowing users to select where they want to make their purchase.

Displace hasn’t provided full details about how it will make money off these transactions, but when reached for comment, founder and CEO Balaji Krishnan told Ars Technica that Displace has “different business models, and one of them is to take a transaction fee,” and that Displace will share more details “later.”

Displace also sees people using Displace Payments to pay for telehealth applications and equipped the Flex and Mini with thermal cameras.

Displace’s response to privacy and ad fatigue concerns

A camera constantly watching you as you’re watching TV, purportedly to sense when you’re ready to spend money, won’t sit well with users who prioritize privacy. I asked Displace about this, and Krishnan pointed out that the integrated cameras can be folded into the TVs.

“It’s a mechanical lock, so the user can choose to push the camera unit inside the TV if they need privacy,” he said.

But what would actually drive someone to keep that camera out? One could argue that the TV experience—from live TV commercials, to the addition of ad tiers to streaming services, and banner ads on TV menus and pause screens—is already filled with attempts at trying to get people to buy stuff when they’re trying to relax and watch TV. How do the Displace TVs’ new shopping features actually benefit users, rather than advertisers and companies (like Displace) selling things?

I shared these concerns with Krishnan, who responded partially by framing more targeted, personalized ads as a benefit for TV users.

“Here’s an example: If you see an ad from Chick-fil-A, and with just a wave of your hand if you can order this from DoorDash, that’s a valuable ad for you. This is how we are revolutionizing ads on the TVs,” the exec said.

Seemingly trying to further frame personalized ads as a good thing, Krishnan pointed to potential improvements for personalized ads. However, they sound more beneficial to advertisers than to someone trying to watch a show or movie:

Today, ads on TVs are cost-per-impression and hard to measure the performance. We are bringing the cost-per-click and cost-per-acquisition to the TV ads, which is huge for the advertisers so they can have better targeted ads.

Krishnan also pointed to users easily being able to buy things they truly want that they’re seeing on TV, like a handbag an actor is carrying. At this point, it’s worth noting that we don’t yet know how accurate Displace’s technology for identifying on-screen products or providing accurate or reliable shopping links will be.

Displace sees itself eventually working with content publishers (Krishnan named TV networks like QVC and HSN as examples) to lay its shopping UI over actively playing content. Users would see a workable buy button right on top of the playing video.

“This enables brands like QVC to make their content interactive and transactional,” Krishnan said.

Krishnan’s comments and Displace’s announcement make claims alluding to some sort of revolution around the ad industry’s relationship with TVs and TV users.

“Unlike the non-scalable process of humans tagging items in a movie or show or sending viewers off to different sites that require entering passwords and credit card info, Displace delivers an automated, ambient, seamless shopping experience. It offers viewers true interactivity with ads and product placements,” Displace’s announcement said.

But when considering the things that TV users most frequently seek to improve their TV-watching experience, better product placement doesn’t come to mind.

Good for TV brands, not TV owners

To be fair, there are other mediums (streaming services like Hulu) that automatically display an ad when you pause the video you’re watching. But attempts to push this initiative further don’t seem to prioritize the people spending money on TVs.

However, these advertising-focused innovations do seem like ways to help ensure that TV vendors see recurring revenue generated from people who already bought a TV and, thus, may not spend money on another one for years.

TV OEMs’ growing interest in ads illustrates an ongoing shift in the industry that may help bottom lines but can also lead to worse user experiences. To start, we’ve already touched on the privacy concerns inherent with integrated cameras being on all the time (Displace TVs won’t come with remotes and will rely on gesture controls).

There’s also real concern about ads wrecking the relaxing TV-watching experience. Amazon Fire TVs, for example, debuted as a viable option for people seeking easily accessible budget TVs. But Amazon has been adding more ads to the devices’ UI lately, diminishing the value of those price savings.

Telly, another TV startup, this year started shipping its free TVs that have a second screen largely dedicated to showing ads. The TVs also require users to accept the collection of their data.

Longstanding names in the TV industry are also exhibiting a shift toward advertising. Vizio’s Platform+ ad business revenue increased 22 percent from Q2 2022 to Q2 2023, for example, compared to 12 percent for its devices business. LG has been open about its intentions to change its “TV business portfolio into a ‘media and entertainment service provider’ by expanding content, services, and advertisement in products,” as per a company press release from July.

Unfortunately, while such strategic moves could help TV vendors diversify and grow, it’s hard to see a legitimate benefit for users that makes watching TV better and isn’t tied to a purported thrill created by seeing an ad for something you’re more likely to be interested in (but not even guaranteed to buy).

Early this year, a long-held Sony patent made Internet rounds again. Granted in 2012, it shows TV watchers able to skip an ad if they say the brand name at the TV.

An illustration from Sony's patent.
Enlarge / An illustration from Sony’s patent.
Sony

I’ll admit that I initially overlooked the newfound hype around the patent. But upon reconsideration, and with Displace and other TV brands in mind, a future where some TVs have users jump through such extreme hoops to benefit advertisers doesn’t actually seem that farfetched.

Prices and release dates

Displace’s Flex will be $5,999, and the Mini will be $2,499 (the original Displace TV is $4,499). Displace says reservations for the new TVs will start January 9, and deposits are completely refundable. The TVs will ship “by late 2024.”

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