It may not be too long before Minority Report-style billboards reach our high streets. Spielberg’s vision of advertising, where signs target us as individuals, could soon become reality. Are you worried?
When I watched the scene in Minority Report where digital signs called out to Tom Cruise’s character, I remember thinking that one day, far off in the future, it might become reality. I didn’t, however, think we’d be seeing it as soon as 2015.
At first, the prospect of high street signs targeting ads at passer-by is fascinating. Imagine, as you’re trudging into work on a Monday morning a billboard instantly recognises your frown and serves you an ad for a Caribbean holiday.
However, after the initial excitement of being part of my very own Cruise film, there are some implications I can’t shake off.
High street facial recognition
So-called ‘digital signage’ has been around for some time, but it’s now reaching new levels of sophistication. By using cameras and facial recognition software, these signs have the potential to capture and analyse information of people who come into their vicinity, such as a person’s age, ethnicity or gender. This can then be used to target advertising.
One case I’ve read about used facial recognition software to predict the gender of passing customers and then offered them a suitable perfume. Another involved a vending machine awarding passers-by with an ice cream if they gave a big enough smile.
And then there’s a worrying case involving US oil company Castrol. The World Privacy Forum describes Castrol’s 2009 advertising venture in London, where it placed cameras just before billboards to determine the make and model of passing cars. This information was then used to recommend the best oil for their particular car on the approaching billboard.
Castrol’s campaign came to a halt after only four days, perhaps showing that we’re justified in being worried about our privacy being invaded in this way.
Dangers of digital signage
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not whole heartedly against this type of technology. I can see benefits in billboards interacting with my smartphone to remind me of my boyfriend’s birthday and then asking whether he’d like a new laptop, for example.
But I am slightly concerned about my data being captured and analysed without my permission and even without my knowledge. What data will be collected from me? Who will see it and what else could it be used for?
Furthermore, will there come a day when billboards offer different prices depending on a person’s gender or some other demographic factor?
These types of questions didn’t even register when I watched Minority Report, but if digital signage comes to a high street near me soon, then these are the question I’ll want answered. What about you?