Thursday, July 31, 2008

MediaPost promises a Minority Report experience in 5-10 years

So here's what Erik Sass says in a recent MediaPost article:
The movie "Minority Report" is coming to pass. Okay, probably not the part with the slime-covered "pre-cogs" who can see into the future. But digital out-of-home technology is making possible a revolution in addressable, interactive advertising in public places, well before the movie's setting in 2054. In fact, the question is no longer one of technical limitations, but which limits advertisers choose to observe voluntarily, and which are imposed by consumers through regulation.
RFID chips may be unnecessary given the emergence of technology that can scan the faces of passers-by to determine their age, gender, and ethnicity. This facial-recognition technology has been incorporated into "billboards that look back" by a company called TruMedia, the New York Times reported in May, and allows out-of-home advertisers to serve up advertising that targets viewers by their demographic characteristics. The news caused a small controversy, with predictable objections on the grounds of privacy and counter-claims from TruMedia, which vows it doesn't record any of the data and would never share it with other companies.

If consumers gave their consent, cell phone IDs, RFID chips, or facial recognition technology could identify them wherever they go, allowing advertisers to deliver targeted advertising that "follows" them from one place to another. At this stage, digital out-of-home advertising begins to merge with behavioral targeting of the sort already in use on the Internet, according to Dave Martin, director of interactive media for Ignited. Agreeing with Herigstad that "'Minority Report' isn't so far away," Martin predicted that "digital, addressable media will go from just your PC to your living room, your kids at school, in your car, at work."

Ultimately, advertisers should be able to combine demographic data, Internet usage, physical location, and purchases with credit cards and cash (including plane tickets, car rentals and hotel reservations) to invent the next generation of roaming, behavioral, out-of-home targeting (ROBOT?). For example, as you walk down the street, you might see a series of video ads telling a multi-part story, delivered by screens in different venues. To do this, advertisers would simply have to aggregate different place-based networks, a service already provided by companies like SeeSaw and AdCentricity. This is already possible online; if consumers opt in, it would simply enable the "real world" version.

Now here's what I say (and wrote in 2007) every time somebody brings up the similarities between digital out-of-home (and where it seems to be headed) and Minority Report:

Don't worry, there's a simple solution: cut your eyeballs out. I'm not kidding. To get off the grid, the protagonist gets his eyes removed and replaced with new ones from a cadaver. As simple as that, [the character that Tom Cruise plays in the movie] John Anderton suddenly becomes Mr. Yakamoto to the retina scanning systems, and he's thus able to move about freely again -- or at least free of the data stream that accompanied his former self.

The Minority Report conversation has come up at nearly every digital signage conference and convention that I've been to. If people insist on using it as an image of how cool and shiny the future will be, fine. But should you decide to broach the conversation with me, I won't be asking questions about haptic interfaces, holographic displays or loyalty programs. I'll be asking about privacy law, public governance in private spaces, and the ethics of using increasingly-powerful customer tracking systems. Some people think I'm being melodramatic when I use my typical "he had to lop out his eyeballs!" counter-argument, but if anything, I don't think I'm doing enough to convey the seriousness of the matter.

Now thankfully, we still have some time. As ominous as Trumedia's (and others's) "true" capabilities are made out to be above, if their face recognition technology is anything like that developed by US companies, actual recognition rate is still terrible, particularly in crowds. Heck, we've had enough trouble using their kit to identify gender differences in simple, lab-condition experiments, so it's clear that there's more work to be done before it's a viable life tracking technology. However, scarier still is the fact that nobody to date - -not even Sass in this Media Post article -- has touched on the real issue: data ownership. Sure, he gives lip service to personal privacy by indicating that there'd need to be an opt-in for any kind of global surveilance and ad delivery service. But that's just so people will be willing to sign up. No, the real issue is even more basic: who owns (or is allowed to own) the rights to you when you're in a public space? Who should be allowed to take pictures? Who should be able to track your path and store that data? What kind of signage and notification needs to be given that this is taking place?

After all, walk into a mall or department store, and you're already being tracked from the get-go. While retailers have been extremely reluctant to use security camera data for any purposes other than security (in order to avoid public outcry), who's to say that they can't, particularly as people become more comfortable with having less and less privacy to begin with? And what if -- in the name of efficiency -- the original owner of the data outsources the processing of it in the name of efficiency to say, Google? The company already tracks your presence online (at least to any site with Google AdSense... and soon Doubleclick ads). They already drive trucks through towns and cities taking tens of millions of photographs for their Streetview mapping service (which, granted, has this couple filing a lawsuit for invasion of privacy, has recorded all sorts of personal moments to the chagrin of photographed individuals, and has been entirely banned by this town in Minnesota). So far, Google has complied with requests for privacy, but just a few hours ago noted that complete privacy no longer exists, and is exploring more (and creepier - check out the pics) ways to put more photographic data into their system.

Is it still fair to say that Google is merely showing data that anybody out on the street would be able to see anyway? Or does something else happen when said 'guy on the street' is omnipresent? Or when he has perfect memory, forever. Or when he can share what he's seeing with anybody, anywhere in the world, instantly. I'd argue that it does. And this is precisely the question that needs to be addressed before loyalty and tracking systems start getting linked together. Unfortunately, all we seem to be getting are more articles talking about cool holographic interfaces and sophisticated loyalty programs. They all seem to forget the part where... he had to lop out his eyeballs!

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