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Today’s nomination for Wackiest Microsoft Idea of the Week is a newly surfaced U.S. patent application with this head-scratching title: “System and Method for Encouraging Viewers to Watch Television.”

Of course, this would seem like the last area where society is in need of technological innovation. Haven’t all of us couch potatoes pretty much solved this particular problem? But digging deeper, it turns out Microsoft isn’t aiming to get people to watch television, generally, but rather television commercials, specifically.

Here’s the abstract from the patent application.

Methods and apparatus for encouraging viewers to pay attention to commercials by incentivizing viewers to watch. Viewers are notified that they can receive rewards for answering one or more questions during or at the conclusion of the commercial. To verify that the viewer paid attention to the commercial, the answer to the question may be based on the content of the commercial. A sponsor might ask, for example, that the viewer identify the name of the sponsor or the color of an announcer’s shirt. A correct answer indicates that the viewer watched the commercial, and the viewer is therefore entitled to some reward. For example, viewers who watch the commercial may be entered in a prize drawing, or may receive prize points, such as frequent-flier miles. In other embodiments, viewers may verify that they watched a given program by selecting an icon or pressing a button on a remote control.

Basically, it’s a contest. Why the company deems this worthy of a patent application isn’t clear, but you could say that about a lot of things presented to patent examiners these days.

It’s actually not the first time Microsoft has floated the idea. In fact, it has been granted similar patents previously, and the idea appears to trace its roots to the company’s WebTV acquisition.

As with most of these things, it’s not clear whether or when Microsoft might look to roll out this particular innovation to its products. However, it would seem like a natural for the company’s Mediaroom IPTV system, which powers AT&T U-Verse and other TV services from telecom providers. The company applied for the patent in November, and it was made public last week.

Here’s the description of the components of the diagram above.

FIG. 2 illustrates a communication system 200 that enables television sponsors to reward viewers for paying attention to broadcast television commercials and other types of broadcast programs. System 200 includes a broadcaster 205 broadcasting a video signal 210 to a receiver 215. Receiver 215 is adapted to communicate with a remote server 220 via a bi-directional network connection 225 and the Internet 230. Internet 230 is understood to include all required modems, lines, and other components.

Receiver 215 includes a television set 235 connected via a video line 240 to a set-top box 245 similar to set-top box 110 of FIG. 1. Television set 235 and set-top box 245 work together to display Web pages, broadcast television, or both. Web pages are typically downloaded over the Internet 230, but may also be received from video signal 210 or retrieved from a local memory, such as a disk drive 250 in set-top box 245. Set-top box 245 stores pages locally in each case.

In accordance with the invention, broadcaster 205 notifies viewers of television set 235 that they may be rewarded for paying attention to a current or upcoming program, typically a commercial. Later, viewers are presented a question, the answer to which is based upon the content of the program. Viewers that provide the correct answer are entitled to the reward. The identities of viewers who provide correct answers to the question are therefore forwarded to server 220, within which is maintained a database of viewers and corresponding earned entitlements.

Previously: The patents Microsoft is using to sue Barnes & Noble

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