Roku plans to hijack HDMI feeds to show ads when your console is idle

Mike Wheatley

Roku is reportedly researching ways to expand the reach of its ads, with a plan to inject them into the feeds of third-party devices such as consoles that are connected to its TVs via HDMI.


The idea is that when a Roku TV owner takes a short break – whether they’re playing an Xbox or PlayStation 5 game, or streaming a movie via an Apple TV device – Roku will identify that user has temporarily paused what they’re doing, and use that opportunity to display relevant ads.

It could end up making Roku a lot of money, for the streaming device and smart TV developer has long realized that such breaks are the perfect opportunity to deliver ads.

For instance, Roku has monetized its iconic Roku City screensaver, which delivers an animated city skyline and sunset backdrop that appears when the user stops watching and leaves the TV idle. In May, the company began selling sponsored ad placements for its screensaver, giving advertisers the chance to interrupt the Roku City skyline and display ads that appear at regular intervals. Some of the companies that have paid for Roku’s screensaver ads include Walmart and McDonalds.

The venture seems to have been quite successful, as Roku has since blocked app developers from bypassing its idle screensaver to display their own. So if you happen to be running Netflix on a Roku TV, instead of seeing the streaming giant’s content recommendations when you leave the TV idle, you’ll see Roku’s screensaver override Netflix’s.

However, Roku has so far only been able to do this for third-party apps running directly on its hardware. Devices that are connected to its TV or streaming stick via HDMI can still display their own screensaver. But Roku has devised a plan to wrest back the screensaver limelight.

HDMI Customized Ad Insertion

A patent filing that was first spotted by Janko Roettgers at Lowpass shows that Roku has created a kind of workaround that’s able to inject its own, sponsored content into the idle display shown by apps connected to its devices via HDMI. The patent, which explains how this is achieved, can be seen here.

What this means is that anyone who’s using a console or Apple TV device that’s hooked up to their Roku TV via HDMI cable will be unable to escape Roku’s ads.

But doing so could be risky for Roku, as it lacks the same ability to understand what third-party devices are actually doing, unlike with its own TVs. This means there’s a danger that its sponsored ads might suddenly appear at the wrong time, popping up at a crucial moment as someone is playing their favorite Xbox game, or interrupting their movie experience.

Roku’s patent explains how it plans to safeguard against this by grabbing frames from the HDMI feed to compare differences. Assuming there are none, it will be able to recognize when a game or movie has been paused. There’s still the risk of ads popping up when a movie or game has a “freeze-frame” moment though, and so Roku will also monitor the HDMI’s audio feed to try and identify prolonged silences, which will confirm that the user has paused their game or movie. Roku can do this by taking advantage of the HDMI CEC specification, which enables tighter integration between HDMI-based soundbars, Blu-ray players and AV receivers.

To ensure the ads are relevant, Roku will also rely on audio and visual content recognition systems via the ACR standard, to ensure its ads can match the on-screen content to the information within its advertising database.

It may be that Roku ultimately decides not to go ahead with this plan. After all, the patent is already somewhat aged, first being filed in 2022, and we still haven’t seen any injected ads on Roku TVs yet. But then again, it could just be that the company is taking its time to perfect the system before it implements it. After all, it would only take one ad popping up at an inopportune moment to infuriate its users, and possibly influence them to ditch their Roku TV for something else.