Intel Set-Top Box Camera Controversy: Much Ado About Nothing

By Patrick Moorhead - February 18, 2013
Last Tuesday, Erik Huggers, Intel‘s corporate vice president of Intel Media,  announced at D:Dive Into Media that Intel is building a set top box and pay TV service that includes live TV.  Huggers talked about the service which will most likely include friendlier bundling and also about the living-room device itself, which will operate more like a 21st century media device, not the slow and unfriendly devices most consumers use today. Intel has assembled a group of entertainment veterans from companies from around the media industry blended with Intel employees to attempt to pull off this new form of TV entertainment nirvana.  The ensuing press coverage ranged from optimistic to a bit skeptical about their chances, but that’s to be expected as many have tried and failed in this space, including Apple andGoogle.  One element some in the press criticized was the camera, which some fantasized as some big brother nightmare come to life.   I want to provide the reality of what is going on, which after a bit of research, is much ado about nothing. The Camera Shutter
While I would rather start with what the camera does and why it’s a benefit, I think it’s important to air out what Intel’s camera has that most cameras don’t have… a shutter.  That’s right, the Intel STB camera has a shutter that viewers can close if they don’t want to use it.  Think about how many devices with a camera that do not provide the option of a cover.
In 2012, there were approximately 675M smartphones shipped with a camera.  At CES 2012, Samsung showed off their latest HDTVs that came with a camera that had a dial to cover the lens.  In 2013, they subsequently added the ability to hide the entire camera inside the bezel. (NOTE: CORRECTED)  Microsoftannounced last week they had shipped 24M Kinect devices since inception which come with cameras… without a shutter.  Nearly 200M notebooks with a camera… and no shutter.  Adding smartphones and notebooks just sold in 2012, that’s over three-quarter of a billion devices sold just in 2012 that could be used in the home that include a camera without a physical shutter.  You get the idea.  Intel’s camera is opt-in and also provides a physical shutter that the viewer can close if they choose.
Let’s now talk about why a viewer would want to use the camera. Room-Sized Video Conferencing Today’s Skype and FaceTime experience is optimized for 1:1 communications, not room-size communications.  Intel is optimizing their set top box experience so an entire family could sit on the couch and interact with their friends and family remotely.  A wide angle lens and high quality mics are included to facilitate the 10′ experience.  Today, my family crowds around on PC and tries to do the same thing, but ultimately, the crowd disperses and it falls back to 1:1 video conferencing.  In FaceTime, the phone is transferred from person to person during holiday events. Fast, Personalized Experience  It seems that every electronic device allows some form of  personalization…. except for the TV experience.  Whether it’s a smart watch, phone, tablet, PC and even Google search results, the user can customize the experience to suit their needs the best. Netflix tries, but it is also the best example of customization gone wrong.  It does household-level recommendations, not individual.  I have three kids who also use the Netflix account and this week, my Netflix recommendations include “Pretty Little Liars“,  “The Hills”, and“Teen Spirit”.  Problem is, that’s all from my two teenager daughters and not from my viewing habtis. Intel will use the camera to automatically login the user and customize the experience based on their distinct needs and habits.  According to Intel, the communications are local only and doesn’t “phone home”.  It can also serve as an intelligent parent filter, too, blocking parentally-selected content from children’s eyes.   In the future, I’d love to see some sort of real-time censorship so I could watch an R-rated movie and it would “bleep” or cover the portions I don’t want the kids to see. If you want a deeper dive into media personalization, recommendation and suggestion engines, check out this panel I did last year. Social and Synced Viewing Years ago when I lived at home, I would watch NFL games with my dad and two brothers.  Those were great times and we always talk about doing it more.  Now, that just happens every three years or so over the holidays as we are geographically dispersed between the southwest, midwest and southeast part of the U.S.  Today, we may watch the games at the same time from around the country and text each other other if there is a good or bad play. Because we are on different time zones, sometimes it makes it hard to all be watching at the same time. Intel is using the camera to provide social viewing where I could see a small, live video of my dad and brothers as we all watch the game.  Additionally, if we can’t all watch it live, the Intel STB will put the video in sync so we are all watching it at the same time. Big Brother, I Think Not While Intel’s STB camera may have been sensationalized by some in the press, the reality is that it provides the choice and control that nearly three-quarters of a billion camera-installed devices shipped in 2012 don’t offer.  If you want the camera, it’s there, if you don’t, then you can close the physical shutter.  Personally, I’ve been frustrated for years with the problems with my set top box and will leave the shutter open.  For those who don’t want that, the choice and control is theirs.  
Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.