Omniveillance: Tokyo’s intelligent digital billboards mirror Minority Report, can tell gender, age of passerby

July 18th, 2010

Another Omniveillance See I Told You So, from the Land of the Rising Sun.

In a scene right out of Minority Report, billboards in Japan can discern a person’s gender and age in order to deliver tailored advertisements. From Smart Planet (H/T Gizmodo):

Tokyo, Japan’s Digital Signage Promotion Project is currently trying out digital advertising billboards fitted with cameras that can discern the gender and age group of passerby who look at them.

The point? To tailor their commercial messages to the onlooker.

“The camera can distinguish a person’s sex and approximate age, even if the person only walks by in front of the display, at least if he or she looks at the screen for a second,” said a spokesman for the project to the AFP.

As you might expect, the billboards’ operators promise that they will not save recorded images. What they will do is collect data about groups of people, which will help advertisers learn what works best at which locations in the city and at what time during the day.

Remember this scene from Minority Report?

I discussed this issue at some length in Omniveillance two years ago:

An example of such a bridge between a person’s online presence and the real world takes the form of new smart billboards, a preview of omniveillant technologies to come. A French company called Quividi has installed billboards in New York City equipped with cameras and powerful computers.151 By analyzing the facial characteristics of a person walking in front of the camera (e.g., “cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin”), the billboard can roughly determine the age and gender of a passerby.152 Based on this profile, the billboard, equipped with a large flat-screen television, delivers advertisements specifically targeted to the particular demographic.153 The goal of this technology is “to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it—to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.”154

But omniviellance doesn’t stop there. Think a bit forward of how this technology could evolve:

Imagine an alternative business model in an omniveillant society, wherein these cameras do not simply analyze the facial features of a promenading consumer, but rather snap a photo, and search tagged images on the Internet to ascertain the identity of the person. With this technique, the billboard does not simply know the person’s age or gender, but can ascertain what online stores the person frequents, who the person’s friends are, and volumes of other personal information. An advertiser’s dream, indeed! Imagine further that the billboard recorded how long a person stared at the billboard, in order to gauge his interest at a particular advertisement, or even whether a person began discussing the billboard with a fellow spectator. Unassuming spectators would be unknowingly conscripted into serving as a veritable Nielsen rating focus group. This information could be further disseminated throughout the Internet to create a profile about a person’s likes, dislikes, and preferences. The information gleaned from these billboards could serve as a perfect conduit for an omniveiller to gather more information about people from the real world, in order to tell them things like “ ‘[w]hat shall [they] do tomorrow’ ” or “ ‘[w]hat job [should they] take.’ ”155

Currently, people who seek to stay out of the limelight can avoid using a computer, abstain from posting to blogs, and miss out on all of the fun of social networking. However, under this new regime, you can’t run; you can’t hide; there is no escape.