March 11th, 2010
10:35 AM GMT
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Tokyo, Japan – There's a scene in Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie "Minority Report" that’s stuck with me, even many years after I initially saw the film. As Tom Cruise walks through a mall, cameras lining the ceilings and walls scan his retinas and advertisements custom-made for him pop up. He enjoys beer, so up pops a Guinness ad. But the electronic tracking becomes problematic when Cruise is trying to hide from the authorities, realizing that it’s impossible in his futuristic world.

Well, that future has arrived in Tokyo. NEC has developed an advertisement that follows a similar idea to what was imagined in "Minority Report," with a camera installed inside an electronic billboard that reads your face.

Using facial recognition technology, an internal computer determines your gender and your age. The billboard then pulls up an ad based on your demographic, targeting your best possible interest. The billboard I tried out saw that I was indeed a woman in her thirties and... lo and behold, pulled up a very appealing lunch advertisement.

To be clear, it didn’t read my retina and didn’t talk to me. But the billboard did capture my image, store my demographic data and will send that information on to the company.

How can this work so quickly and so accurately, I asked NEC's engineer Junko Amagai. She started waxing engineer-like and lost me fairly quickly, talking about numbers, logarithms and data storage. But the bottom line is that facial-recognition technology has just gotten much more pedestrian - down to the pedestrians walking by these digital ads.

"This is a new age of advertising," Amagai said. "We can learn something we never knew for marketing." Amagai explained how currently street advertising is a one-way game and companies never get real-time data from passers-by. This system changes that.

The NEC technology estimates your age to within 10 years. The technology is even more accurate for a new system it is testing and had on display at a recent fair in Tokyo. I was surprised to see it nail my age nearly every time.

Does it make one feel a little, say, overly-observed? Art Frickus, a consultant from the Netherlands, certainly didn’t feel that way. "I believe in one-on-one communication," said Frickus. “All your messages must be relevant. So that’s why I believe in this kind of thing. As long as the content is not objectionable, I don't see any problem with it."

NEC, aware of some potential unease as it launches the product for testing in the United States, says signs will clearly state to observers that a camera is installed in the billboard. Images will not be saved, stressed NEC. The company then made a bold statement about the global prospects for such electronic advertising.

"Ten percent of digital signage will be like this," said NEC spokesman Kosuke Yamauchi. How soon? In two to three years, he explained. That’s not within tech-loving Japan, he said. That's a global prediction, from the United States to the EU to China.

So, naturally, one must wonder what will happen in say, 10 years. Will we see electronic tracking as sophisticated as what was imagined in "Minority Report?"

I dare not even try and guess.



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