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Microsoft patent eyes ads in streaming online games

Picture your avatar wearing a logo-emblazoned shirt driving past a billboard touting a product

Microsoft appears to be expanding its push to place ads throughout different products to online games.

In a patent filed earlier this year, Microsoft engineers envision an "unintrusive" method for placing personalized ads and other content that can be seen by gamers while they're playing a cloud-based or internet-connected game.

The patent notes the growing popularity of streaming games played on a variety of systems – such as a laptop or cell phone – but that "do not presently provide personalization options that would provide a richer gaming experience."

Microsoft therefore suggests that "A method and system for providing users with immersive, personalized content through the online or cloud-based gaming platform is desired."

Essentially the message is, games are fun, but games with ads embedded in them would be more fun.

The patent describes an overlay technology that could determine when a particular person is playing a streaming game and determining a time within the game when the action has ebbed and the user is "below a threshold interaction count."

During that time, the technology would display the content – of favorite sports teams or brands, for example – on the screen via an overlay video stream that is distinct from the game playing stream and presented on the screen in real time for a least a portion of the low-action intervals.

The time for displaying the ad would be determined by reviewing a database of the user's history playing a game and recordings of the games played, then identifying and aggregating the user's past interactions with the game, to determine when the interactions are below that threshold count. Deciding where to place the ads will employ similar techniques, including finding locations within the game's environment that are continuously visible.

According to drawings accompanying the patent, those locations could include a display behind the goal of a soccer (football) game, on a billboard by a highway, and on the clothes of a game avatar sporting product name, logo, or other information.

The content is selected from personalization modules, or from a library of ads that come from "content providers" including Microsoft customers. The content selection module also gets input via signals from the game being played. The ad selection module gets data from both the personalization and ad collection modules and can include images, stock photos, and the like. Personalized ads can be chosen based on the gamer's profile and content that dovetails with the game.

"For example, a user/gamer is playing a car racing game," Microsoft writes in the patent. "The personalization module 122 may provide categories of a content that include running shoes, tennis gear, and car modification kits. Based on the context of the game (e.g., racing game), the category of content selected for overlay may be car modification kits."

Key to the system is that, as an overlay, the content would be displayed during the game without having to add features to the game itself, which would be costly and put a greater burden on the games' development teams.

The patent, first unearthed by Gamesual, outlines various ways this overlay system could be used beyond gaming services, such as with any application that delivers content through video streams. In addition, service providers could set up online games that would enable users to play the games for free or at discounted pricing if they agree to seeing the ads or other content rather than paying for a subscription to the game, similar to how some streaming video services parse their offerings.

The overlay service is part of Microsoft's ongoing effort to grow its advertising business. Those have included the ads in the Windows 11 Start menu and, even earlier this year, into Windows Insiders' File Explorer. In addition, the company is considering developing low-cost PCs paid for through ads and subscriptions. The Windows giant has also reportedly mulled a "super app" that could help it grow its ad business.

The patent application echoes back a decade, to when the company filed a patent for a content distribution system that would dip into TVs, PCs, and mobile phones to identify each unique viewer of a piece of content and then charge the licensee for every one. ®

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