Saturday, May 31, 2008

Camera-based audience measurement catches some flak

The New York Times has an unintentionally entertaining piece about privacy (or the lack thereof) due to the use of gaze-tracking cameras on certain billboards. The technology in question, provided by Quividi (one of the better gaze-tracking outfits in our experience), isn't anything extraordinary to those of us in the digital signage world: a little camera follows your eyes and examines the characteristics of your face to figure out what you're looking at, and guess some demographic information about you. I say "guess" because that part of the tech still needs some work, in our own experiments at least.

The goal is twofold: first, count the number of people actually looking at your sign. People have all sorts of different ideas about what qualifies as an engaged glance, but Quividi and others can provide you with data about how long a glance lasted, how many people looked, etc. Second, many want to use the demographic data to modify the content in real-time (for example, figuring out that you're a middle-aged woman and showing you more appropriate content for your market).

I'm unconvinced that this second item will ever be practical. The systems will continue to make numerous mistakes (it's just the law of large numbers kicking in), and the cost to produce all of those extra permutations of content will likely exceed any benefit of having slightly better targeting. Heck, it's a small miracle when we can convince our users to make text on their digital signs bigger than 12 point, or to not divide their 40" screens up into a dozen 8" x 6" zones. I can't imagine that the level of sophistication needed to pull off a demographically-aware content swap is going to become commonplace anytime soon, if ever.

However, plenty of people are interested in the measurement aspect of things, which at least makes more sense to me, and can skirt the pesky privacy issues that start to come up when we talk about doing on-the-fly demographic profiling. So why did I first say that the article was unintentionally funny? It was because of quotes like this:

“I didn’t see that at all, to be honest,” said Sam Cocks, a 26-year-old lawyer, when the camera was pointed out to him by a reporter. “That’s disturbing. I would say it’s arguably an invasion of one’s privacy.”

I hate to break it to you, Mr. Cocks (if that indeed is your real name), but downtown Manhattan has hundreds of cameras monitoring public spaces -- some have been there for over a decade, and gobs more have been added since the 9/11 attacks. So while I agree that privacy is a big issue, and needs to be continually pushed to the forefront when talking about using cameras for measurement and tracking in stores and other public places, the pessimist in me thinks that most people are already to unaware and complacent to ever make a big issue out of it.

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