The latest misinterpreted, over-torqued Minority Report hoo-hah

April 10, 2009 by Dave Haynes

I have read two or three gadget blog pieces about a Japanese company that plans to blend biometric technology with digital ad boards.

Most of the descriptions are going off in one direction, but when you actually read what’s planned, it’s nowhere near the nightmare Minority Report-Blade Runner thing at least some commenters are trying to conjure up.

It is being described as an intrusive digital billboard that will spit out ads by gender as people walk by.

Reports CruchGearA Tokyo-based company called Comel has teamed up with Yahoo and is responsible for the hardware. NEC Soft provides the facial analysis technology. Yahoo Japan will start using a total of 500 billboards in train stations and shopping malls in Fukuoka (Southern Japan), displaying content like news, weather and –  of course – ads. 

The post also notes: Starting this fall, these camera-equipped billboards will take pictures of people walking past by them, detecting a person’s age and sex. Once these characteristics are determined, the billboards will display content tailor-made (as good as it can get) for the person in question. This is a creepy and intrusive way to use digital signage technology, but it’s most probably more effective than static billboards. 

It’s pretty obvious from the picture and the description that this thing is just an information kiosk, and what it will do is have a little camera attached that can look at what’s standing in front of it, trying to get some information, and skew the returned information according to the best guess of male versus female, and possibly by age. In a place like a train station or mall in a busy Japanese city, an ad board that was actually trying to tailor ads to people walking by would be trying to change ads by the millisecond and the unit would be a smoking, melted ruin within hours.

The CrunchGear report also shows a screen shot, which clearly shows how this kiosk will make something like a dining recommendation, using Yahoo Japan content.

Is this interesting? Yeah, sorta. Touchscreen interfaces will get people to what they want to see without needing help from a camera sorting out who they are. But what the cameras can do is track how long people spend in front of the screens, and how many walk up but don’t even engage the things. They can also do an imperfect version of the whole presence and notice audience thing.

Is it intrusive? No more so than most advertising. I’ll take this every day of the week over some field marketing team getting in the way of people at that train station or mall, trying to hand out perfume swatches to all the young women stampeding their way through. 

Is it an invasion of privacy? Well maybe if the camera actually captures and archives the bracketed faces, but most if not all of the audience technology stuff I know about just counts and discards the image captures. I also have a pretty strong sense Japanese train stations are littered with surveillance cameras that ARE watching and remembering what’s going on.

Update: Engadget has also posted, with a different pic, and yet another Minority Report reference. On the plus side it does confirm face captures are discarded. 

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