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Jennifer Aniston, your sweater is here: Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and the future of shopping

Jennifer Aniston, your sweater is here: Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and the future of shopping


Sean Hollister explains how Kindle X-Ray and Jennifer Aniston's sweater point the way to a future filled with product placement

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Amazon Kindle Fire HD X-Ray for movies
Amazon Kindle Fire HD X-Ray for movies

Last week, Amazon unveiled the Kindle Fire HD, a shopping portal cleverly disguised as an Android tablet, and one partially subsidized by advertising. You'll find ads on the lockscreen you have to bypass in order to start using the machine, and "recommendations" to accompany the multimedia you watch, hear, and read. In fact, there are ads almost everywhere — and Amazon might be well on its way to building the ultimate ad. An ad that was only a dream in the late 90s. A dream about Jennifer Aniston's sweater.

The key is Amazon's new X-Ray for Movies feature, which does something pretty neat: It consults the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to give you a list of actors in any scene, and can show you other movies they've appeared in, which you can bookmark for later viewing. Did you know The Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence also braved the wilderness in Winter's Bone? That's the kind of connection that Jeff Bezos is presently selling.

If you've been following technology for over a decade, though, you might recognize the potential goldmine that Amazon's sitting on right now. Around the turn of the millennium, when people discussed the idea of a television that could find actors in a scene, they couldn't stop talking about Jennifer Aniston's sweater.

The one with the interactive product placement

By 1996, researchers figured out that hyperlinks could be embedded in video recordings. Later that year, IBM began developing a method for attaching those links to objects in a scene. In 1998, the MIT Media Lab first realized the technology's potential for advertising. JCPenney sponsored a project called HyperSoap, a mock soap opera which allowed the viewer to click on an actress's earrings to display their brand and pricing. The university spun off a company called Watchpoint Media to develop the tech. Before long, Jennifer Aniston made her mark:

While the video we dug up depicts a JCrew dress, it's the sweater that had legs: it would be be the symbol for interactive shopping for years to come.

Back in 1999, the idea that you could reach out and buy the latest fashion right from your TV was extremely enticing. As the TiVo DVR threatened to allow viewers to skip right past commercials, interactive product placement was heralded as a incredible solution, and during the dot-com boom more companies sprung up to make it happen. In 2001, Jupiter Media Matrix predicted that US households would spend $4.3 billion dollars shopping with their remote control by 2005, including $300 million on products actually embedded in interactive TV programs and commercials.

Originally, the sweater stood for the incredible potential of interactive TV advertising, but by the time Jupiter made that claim, Aniston's instantly accessible wardrobe had become a symbol of failed progress. In an 2001 article titled "Peering behind Jennifer Aniston's sweater," Multichannel News reported that both the economics and terrible UI design were at fault for the technology's demise. Interactive product placement had to be proactively prepared by an advertiser, embedded in the program, and respond to the network operator's remote, and everyone involved wanted a cut of the profits. Meanwhile, the early interfaces were often obtrusive, blocking the shows people watched. The author, Craig Leddy, believed the business needed a "driving force" like the Home Shopping Network if it was to survive.

Eleven years later, the idea suddenly makes sense again

Eleven years later, the idea suddenly makes sense again. Forget the Home Shopping Network: Amazon not only has a universal store that sells most any legal product you can imagine, but it owns the tablet interface, too. Its customers often have credit cards and addresses on file so they can make purchases with a single click, and they're comfortable doing so on a regular basis. The studios and TV networks are more in tune with product placement than ever before — integrating with X-Ray is almost a no-brainer, assuming they can negotiate the right split of profits with Amazon.

And the future could hold even more. The world's seen major developments in facial and object recognition as of late, and Amazon has the cloud compute power to brute force those algorithms into submission. If Amazon can identify objects in a scene after they've been uploaded and add shopping links, there may be no one else it has to pay before it can enjoy the spoils of victory.

With X-Ray for Movies, the company's taken the penultimate step. It's only a matter of time before you can buy most anything you see on your Amazon tablet. No doubt an Amazon set-top box will follow. At this point, Jennifer Aniston's sweater may be lost to the vicissitudes of time, but you might be able to impulse-buy Effie Trinket's wig when the third Hunger Games film arrives.