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The Sublime to the Ridiculous

A crude form of video manipulation already is happening in the satellite imagery community. The weekly publication Space News reported earlier this year that the Indian government releases imagery from its remote-sensing satellites only after defense facilities have been “processed out.” In this case, it’s not real-time manipulation and it’s up front, like a censor’s black marker. But pixels are plastic. It is perfectly possible now to insert sets of pixels into satellite imagery data that interpreters would view as battalions of tanks, or war planes, or burial sites, or lines of refugees, or dead cows that activists claim are victims of a biotech accident.

A demo tape supplied by PVI bolsters the point in the prosaic setting of a suburban parking lot. The scene appears ordinary except for a disturbing feature: Amidst the SUVs and minivans are several parked tanks and one armored behemoth rolling incongruously along. Imagine a tape of virtual Pakistani tanks rolling over the border into India pitched to news outlets as authentic, and you get a feel for the kind of trouble that deceptive imagery could stir up.

Commercial suppliers of virtual insertion services are too focused on new marketing opportunities to worry much about geopolitics. They have their eyes on far more lucrative markets. Suddenly those large stretches of programming between commercials-the actual show, that is-become available for billions of dollars worth of primetime advertising. PVI’s demo tape, for instance, includes a scene in which a Microsoft Windows box appears-virtually, of course-on the shelf of Frasier Crane’s studio. This kind of product placement could become more and more important as new video recording technologies such as TiVo and RePlayTV give viewers more power to edit out commercials.

Dennis Wilkinson, a Porsche-driving, sports-loving marketing expert who became CEO of 10-year-old PVI about a year ago, couldn’t be happier about that. Wilkinson’s eyes gleam when he describes a (near) future in which virtual insertion technology pushes advertisements to the personalized extreme. Combined with data-mining services by which browsers’ individual likes, dislikes and purchasing patterns can be relentlessly tracked and analyzed, virtual insertion opens up the ability to shunt personally targeted advertisements over phone lines or cables to Web users and TV viewers. Say you like Pepsi but your neighbor next door likes Coke and your neighbor across the street likes Seven-Up-the kind of data harvestable from supermarket checkout records. It will become possible to tailor the soft-drink image in the broadcast signal to reach each of you with your preferred brand.

Just 15 minutes up the road from PVI, Sarnoff’s Winarsky is also glowing-not so much about capturing market share as about the transforming power of the technology. Sarnoff has a distinguished history in that regard; the company is the descendant of RCA Laboratories, which started innovating in television technology in the early 1940s and has given birth to a plethora of media technologies. The color TV picture tube, liquid crystal displays and high-definition TV all came, at least in part, from RCA qua Sarnoff, which has five technical Emmys in its lobby.

The ability to manipulate video data in real time, he says, has just as much potential as some of these forerunners. “Now that you can alter video in real time, you have changed the world,” he says. That may sound inflated, but after looking at the Katarina Witt demo, Winarsky’s talk of “changing the world” loses some of its air of hyperbole.

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