The Portable People Meter
By Mark Frauenfelder, Fri Mar 26 12:00:00 GMT 2004

The Portable People Meter monitors its wearer throughout the day - picking up specially encoded signals from the environment - keeping a perfect record of all the broadcast media consumed.

I once read a creepy science fiction story about a world where people clipped a pager-sized electronic device to their belts each morning upon arising. This device, called a "Portable People Meter," was able to pick up specially encoded signals coming from televisions and radios. The signals had been "psychoacoustically masked" to render them inaudible to the human ear, and contained the name of the program that the PPM wearer was watching or listening to. The meter kept a perfect record of all the broadcast media the wearer consumed, making a note of the date, time, and duration of consumption.

The device also had a motion detector built into it, so it "knew" when it was being worn. Wearing the device was strictly voluntary, but people who enlisted to wear it were rewarded with a cash payment. The more they wore the device throughout the day, the more money they got paid.

At night, when the wearers were finished watching television for the night, and were ready to go to sleep, they'd unclip their meters and place them in special cradles on their bed tables. The cradles were connected to a central computer, which analyzed all the data it collected from the meter wearers. The company that made the PPM then sold this information to large corporations who wanted to monitor media consumption.

Bikini Insanity vs. Meet the Press

The reason I didn't tell you the name of this story is because there really isn't a science fiction story about a Portable People Meter. The Portable People Meter is a real device, manufactured by the Arbitron corporation, and it works exactly like I explained above. People in 15 countries are wearing Portable People Meters at this moment, and media companies are analyzing this information to figure out ways to get you to consume more media and buy more stuff.

The Portable People Meter is a big hit with media companies, because it doesn't require the wearer to do any work, and it keeps them honest. Before the PPM entered the scene, the companies that ran monitoring services gave notebooks to volunteers to write down the shows they watched. But people are forgetful and they're lazy, so notebook data is a little iffy. Worse, people fib. They'll watch Bikini Insanity on cable, and write Meet the Press in their notebook.

The Portable People Meter has a lot going for it. So much, that Arbitron is adding GPS capability to the device so it can tell where its wearer is consuming media. That's key, because the Portable People Meter is all about monitoring people, not TVs or radios. While TiVo collects aggregate data of peoples' viewing habits, the Portable People Meter measures a peoples' viewing habits whether they're watching TiVo at their own house or a friend's place. Arbitron is also going Portable People Meter that so it can track wearers' print, cinema video games, and in-store media exposure, in addition to TV and Radio. Web browsing will certainly come into play as well.

But why stop there? Why not equip mobile phones with PPM chips that would keep tabs on its owners' media diets, and send the reports wirelessly? I'm not entirely against this idea. While I value my privacy, I also like things like Amazon's recommendation service that suggests books and DVDs it thinks I might be interested in, based on my past purchases and the purchases made by people who have bought the same things I've bought from Amazon.

The wireless PPM could track all the CDs I listen to, the DVDs I watch, the books I read, the movies I go to see, and since it will have GPS, it will be able to track the stores and business I frequent. The system would be able to present me with spot-on recommendations, and use location services to tempt me to buy something there-and-now.

Penelope and Preferences

I can imagine driving down Ventura Boulevard when my mobile phone rings: I answer, and a synthetic voice greets me on the phone. "Hi, Mark, it's Penelope PPM here to let you know that you're just a couple of blocks away from Border's Books and Music. They've got a copy of Chuck Amuck: The Life and Time of an Animated Cartoonist for sale, and we think you'd love this book. According to our records, you don't own it. If you want to buy it, press 'one' and the book will be waiting for you at the checkout counter. We'll charge your credit card on file. If you already own the book, press 'two.' If you're not interested, press 'three.'"

There's a certain appeal here. But I'm not sure I'm willing to trade the last remnants of my privacy for this level of convenience. Are you?