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Stan and Ollie with ads

What you see on the internet might really be different

Technology is fantastic to most people.

Each new invention becomes a marvel aimed solely at making our lives better, easier, happier ... doesn't it? Well, with a little thought it becomes uncomfortably clear that's not always the case. Sometimes new inventions just end up blighting our lives, examples being nuclear bombs, diesel automobiles and reality TV. The internet is generally seen as positive, for as long as it remains neutral, but even then there is scope for skullduggery.

Editing the past

Wherever there are masses of eyeballs, there's scope for the advertisers to worm their way in somehow. Modern TV and movies are produced digitally these days, which makes manipulation far easier as the content can be created specifically with that in mind. Special digital fingerprints can be inserted right there with the footage, an obvious example being subtitles. However, now attention is being turned towards the pre-digital era now we have suitably advanced AI and computer technology which could allow us to engineer in content which wasn't there first time round. And if there's money involved, this can mean only one thing - ads.

Entirely new content - that looks old

The technology available today is so advanced it can even generate ultra realistic content from scratch. We really aren't that far away from seeing, for example, Elvis, Marylin Monroe or James Dean again. In many ways, this video shows how powerful and dangerous this technology can be:

Of course, these generated characters can do or say whatever the controllers want them to, including sell you burgers and life insurance. Or cars - remember the Volkswagen advert from 2005?

It's not just the clumsy placement of soda cans any more

As far back as 2011, there was controversy over the digital placement of ads for new products in old shows. Reruns of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother showed ads for movies which were produced after the original broadcast date. Examples include Bad Teacher and Zookeeper. The work to do this was doen by a company called SeamBI, which specialises in digitally altering old broadcast content. Their CEO, Roy Baharav said:

What we do is we insert, very efficiently, brands into content in a natural way and in a way that is valuable to advertisers. So we find the balance between not compromising the integrity of the content and, on the other end, bring a lot of value to the advertiser.

It's important to realise the level of integration which was achieved here. A "live" plasma TV screen was inserted in a scene, which showed the ads in the background. The TV wasn't there the first time round. It doesn't end there, either. Clearly, later re-runs can show different adverts, or the ads themselves can be changed according the the target audience, for example into a different language.

The software to do this was all specialised in-house back then, but today you'd be surprised how far things have come. We're at the point where many high-end 3D video/modelling packages - available off the shelf - offer a motion tracking feature. This usually involves a first pass of the video to recreate where the camera would have been, using distance, perspective and relative motion calculations. It sounds complicated, and behind the scenes it is, but to the user it's just a single click and wait job. Once completed, a 3D map over time is generated alongside the original video. These have names such as "point clouds" and "meshes". The software then knows exactly how any object in that map moves with the camera, so can then place a new 3D one in there which moves exactly the same way.

Here's how it works in Cinema 4D:

And here's the kind of results you can get:

Obviously Hollywood has had access to this for years - we famously saw it in the re-release of a few Star Wars films where scenes containing more spaceships and creatures were added. How long before these appear as Mandela Effects? "Hey did anyone see that huge beast in the desert behind Luke, I swear it wasn't there in the original!". Well, this time they're right. And of course the idea of creating ultra-realistic characters evolved further with the appearance of the young Princess Leia and even the long passed-away Peter Cushing in Star Wars Rogue One. 

It can even be done live without the broadcasters involvement

Some Samsung smart TV's are now being reported as inserting ads into the content which were never there originally. They are not recorded, nor are they transmitted when the user recieves them, yet the user is forced to watch anyway. This is even true for users with DVR's, meaning the content exists entirely locally within their system - it could even happen when watching a DVD if the Smart TV system is in control of that, too.

Users reported :

Every movie I play 20-30 minutes in it plays the pepsi ad, no audio but crisp clear ad. It has happened on 6 movies today,

Again, since these smart devices are aware of their location and context, they can learn from your activity, so generate custom ads just for you. How long before they do it in live scenes?

How can you tell?

Here's the interesting part. So far, these have all been well-executed but obvious digital manipulations. Everyone knows Gene Kelly didn't breakdance, although he most certainly could have done had he wanted. So how can we tell this isn't being done covertly right now?

And if it was, only those who remember it the old way would be talking about how it used to be.

Sound familiar?