Kiwi's billboards know your face

By Billy Adams

Facial recognition technology is moving into the commercial world _ but it's anonymous, unlike the movies

Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, featured advertisements targeted at individuals. The technology being used in Australia is moving towards the kind of targeting now used online.
Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, featured advertisements targeted at individuals. The technology being used in Australia is moving towards the kind of targeting now used online.

It's 2054 when a talking billboard in the sci-fi movie Minority Report tells Tom Cruise's on-the-run character: "John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now."

Rewind to real life in 2014 and Steven Spielberg's Orwellian-like prophecies, if not fully formed, are about to take shape in Australian shops, thanks to an enterprising Kiwi.

From next month, cameras fixed to 22 digital billboards in Sydney will size up passers-by and show them adverts based, among other things, on their sex and age.

No longer just another face in the crowd, a young mother might see a perfume promotion while her father is more likely to be urged to buy golf clubs.

The personalised ads have been made possible by dramatic advances in facial recognition technology, which is now many times faster, cheaper and more accurate than even a decade ago.

New Zealand expat Chris Muir is the founder of one business that has jumped aboard a global bandwagon chasing the advertising holy grail of being able to serve the most seductive message to the right person at the right time in the right place.

The 42-year-old believes the kind of targeted ads we're regularly exposed to online will soon become commonplace in the real world.

Mr Muir's AdBidx platform will allow businesses to serve targeted ads based on where and when a certain type of person walks past a digital billboard.

No photos are taken. All biometric and demographic data remains anonymous.

"In Minority Report they knew his name and who he was," says Mr Muir, who is from Invercargill. "But we have no idea who they are or any way to find out."

He likens the technology to a temperature sensor, saying both help provide people with a more comfortable shopping environment. "We cut out all the noise with targeted advertising messages," he says.

Demographically targeted digital billboards first appeared in Japan, where vending machines now suggest beverages based not only on the drinker but also the weather.

UK supermarket chain Tesco is introducing face-reading technology to make suggestions to customers based on gender and age as they wait to pay for petrol.

Across the Atlantic ad agency Redpepper developed Facedeals, a facial-recognition app that allows cameras at shops and restaurants to pinpoint a face, find its owner's Facebook profile and make an instant offer based on their "likes".

It requires prior consent from users, which privacy campaigners argue should apply to all emerging real-world identification software.

They say legislation has failed to keep up with technology, leaving consumers vulnerable as companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook, as well as Governments and law enforcement agencies, invest heavily in facial recognition.

Despite growing public concern after revelations of mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency, Mr Muir believes business will shy away from the Hollywood vision of the future. "I personally wouldn't want my name spoken by a billboard and my personal information called up and shared," he says.

His Sydney-based start-up has just concluded a trial using three billboards at a shopping centre in Melbourne.

Mr Muir hopes to have 1000 billboards over the next year, and expand into New Zealand and Asia.

"I think this will be driven by the public and I think advertisers will follow their lead," he says. "If it's anonymised and provides a better visual environment I'm totally comfortable with that. And most of the billboard owners and their customers who we've spoken to support that."

- NZ Herald

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