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Google patent suggests using background noise to generate mobile ads

Patented ideas can often sound fanciful, outlandish and even just plain silly, but that’s exactly because they propose ideas that we’ve usually never thought of before. Earlier this week, for example, we heard that Nokia had patented the concept of a vibrating tattoo which would let you know who’s calling. A vibrating tattoo? Who’d have thought it?

And now it’s emerged that Google has just been awarded a patent for “advertising based on environmental conditions.” The patent concerns an idea which would apparently involve mobile phones or tablets laden with sensors, gathering information about the person’s surroundings and serving up relevant ads.

The patent, first reported on by PC World, gives the following explanation: “A web browser or search engine located at the user’s site may obtain information on the environment (e.g., temperature, humidity, light, sound, air composition) from sensors. Advertisers may specify that the ads are shown to users whose environmental conditions meet certain criteria.”

So if you’re walking along the street and temperatures are below zero, ads could be pushed to your phone by Google for winter wear, or perhaps for stores selling warm clothes at locations close to where you are at the time. Conversely, if it’s sweltering hot, ads for air conditioners might appear.

But the sensors would deal with more than just weather-related data. Sound could also be analyzed. So does that mean if we get excessive wind after eating a spicy curry, ads for flatulence will start turning up on our smartphone? Quite possibly, though you’ll have to be in the middle of a call for any noises to be detected.

In its report, PC World gives an example: “If you’re at a sports event and you call GOOG-411 for info about a nearby restaurant, Google will be able to identify the sporting event based on background noise heard through the handset’s microphone, and ads related to fans of that sport will be pumped to your phone.”

It also says that if, for example, you make a call from a music concert, Google will be able to determine your musical taste from the background noise, and then push relevant ads to your phone.

Executive director of Privacy International, Greg Hosein, is concerned about the direction Google appears to be heading in with its patent.

Speaking to the BBC, he said, “Not content with collecting vast amounts of information from your online activities, it seems Google are looking to start exploiting the offline space as well.

“Patents like this may never come to fruition, but they force us to ask ourselves: how many aspects of our lives will advertisers try to exploit, and where will it end? This is an attempt to turn our devices into personal spying devices, just so a company can try to sell you a coat on a cold day.”

Google said that if the technology is ever implemented, it will allow users to switch off the environmental monitoring element of the device. If you had an environmentally-aware phone, would you leave the sensors on or be happy to receive ads relevant to your surroundings?

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Trevor Mogg
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