Several recent articles I've read about new developments in tracking and advertising in different countries - most of which reference the science fiction movie, Minority Report - reminded me of a quote often attributed to science fiction author, William Gibson:
The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed
The articles describe the ways that various technologies - from special-purpose global positioning system (GPS) devices and face recognition software to general-purpose radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and web browsers - can be used to record information about us, and make it available to prospective advertisers in order to provide more contextually relevant advertising in a broader array of contexts.
The success of these increasingly pervasive personalized advertising systems depends, in part, on how they address three fundamental questions:
- How much control do viewers of such advertising have over the information that is recorded?
- What benefits do the viewers receive?
- What risks do they perceive?
The Minority Report analogies refer to scenes in which iris scanning technology is used to identify shoppers in order to present customized messages. In the scene above, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is offered audio and visual invitations to try products and services from Lexus ("the road you're on, John Anderton, is the road less traveled"), Guinness ("John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now.") and American Express Travel ("Get away, John Anderton; forget your troubles") as he makes his way through a mall on his way to board a train. People in this advertising scenario have little control over being identified (short of, say, eyeball transplants), do not appear to derive any direct benefit, and the risks of ubiquitous identification and tracking go well beyond potentially irritating personalized advertising: an elite Pre-Crime unit of the police may want to apprehend you before you commit a crime you don't even know you're going to commit. These factors may explain why reviews and reactions to this scenario, including the references in these recent articles, are almost universally negative.
On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Richard Gray on Minority Report-style advertising billboards to target consumers, describing a system being developed by the IBM Smarter Planet program in which RFID chips - using near field communication (NFC) with a range of about 4 inches (10 cm) - are used to identify people. Few additional details are provided about the system, but the technology suggests that some kind of explicit "check-in" will be required in order for people to be identified. The article alludes to the Oyster Cards used in the London Underground and other transportation systems as being a compatible technology, and the recent announcement that all of Nokia's new Symbian phones will come equipped with NFC in 2011 suggests that the availability of NFC-enabled devices will continue to grow. I can imagine a context in which "check-ins" used for one purpose (gaining access to a train platform) could be used for another purpose (targeted advertising on nearby displays and/or speakers). If customers are given the control to explicitly opt in to such a system, and were rewarded - perhaps by subsidized fares associated with their cards (or phones) - then I believe the benefits would be perceived as outweighing the privacy risks for at least some of the potential users.
Sunday's article references another Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Hough earlier this year with a similar theme - and a similar title ('Minority Report' digital billboard 'watches consumers shop') - but with a different technology. NEC is developing a Next Generation Digital Signage Solution that combines large displays, video cameras and face recognition software designed to determine the gender and approximate ages of the person or people in front of the display. An AFP report two weeks ago, Tokyo trials digital billboards that scan passers-by, refers to a Digital Signage Promotion Project in which 27 high-tech advertising displays were deployed in commuter stations in Tokyo. I suspect this is a pilot of the NEC system, although NEC is not mentioned anywhere in the report.
While potentially less invasive than the RFID-based approach - inferring age and gender rather than requiring individual identification - the use of cameras may instead be perceived as more invasive, depending on how people believe captured images are being handled, e.g., deleted, saved for internal use only or potentially sold to third parties. There is certainly less control afforded to potential users, aside from cloaking their faces as they pass by. The proposed benefits described in the earlier Daily Telegraph article appear to be targeted primarily toward the advertisers, who potentially will be able to target advertising toward specific demographic groups in proximity to the displays. However, the more recent Telegraph article suggests that personalized advertising might offer indirect benefits to viewers, in that they "may help reduce costs that are passed onto the consumer by reducing the amount of poorly targeted advertising" ... perhaps reflecting progress toward addressing a problem observed by John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising:
Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.
Another advertising campaign - costing $1M - seeks to move pervasive personal advertising from public and semi-public places into the home. In an article asking Is Your Detergent Stalking You?, Laurel Wentz at Advertising Age reports that Omo Detergent has inserted GPS devices in 50 boxes of new, improved detergent scattered in stores throughout Brazil. Owners of the special boxes will be tracked down in their homes - or, I suppose, wherever the detergent box comes to rest for a period of time - whereupon they will be presented with a free video camera and invited to participate in a special company-sponsored event. I don't know enough about Brazilian culture to predict how consumers in that country will respond, but given that they are not informed whether or not any particular box of detergent can be tracked - it's a surprise - I can imagine reactions that may range from the kind of ecstatic joy expressed by those contacted by the Prize Patrol unit in Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials to the abject terror felt by those who are tracked down by John Anderton's Pre-Crime unit in Minority Report.
The Wall Street Journal just launched a series of articles on Internet spyware that may be tracking information through your web browser. In the first installment, The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, Julia Angwin reports that the top 50 web sites installed 3,180 cookies, flash cookies or beacons on computers that visit their web sites, which are then used to either personalize ads shown to the user directly or sold to third parties who aggregate the data. Many users may already be aware of the use of web browser tracking technology, but the extent of the tracking may be disturbing to some, and considerable convenience must be forfeited in order to control the tracking. Perhaps even more disturbing is the potential for the algorithmically personalized advertising to intrude into intimate dimensions of our lives, resulting in psychological harm. The article describes a case of a 17 year old girl whose browsing behavior led to her being [correctly] categorized as someone interested in weight loss programs. Although accurate, the advertising was not always welcome: "I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it." Two years ago, Rachel Beckman wrote a related article for the Washington Post on Facebook ads target you where it hurts, subtitled "My Facebook page called me fat", describing the recurring emotional pain experienced by a user repeatedly exposed to targeted advertising like the Muffin Top ad shown on the right.
The audio and visual advertisements soliciting John Anderton's attention were for products and services that he probably did not mind being associated with - luxury cars, beer and travel to exotic locales. Thinking back to issues I raised about the prospects of personalized, publicly displayed promotions of personal care products in a drug store (represented by OlayForYou screens at WalMart), I wonder what kind of reaction Anderton - and the movie audience - might have to personalized, publicly displayed advertisements for more intimate or personal products and services in a mall - say, Viagra, Hair Club for Men, or WeightWatchers (and as I type these, I can already envision some of the spam comments I'll get on this post).
Despite my concerns about potential abuses and/or unintended consequences that may arise in an era of increasingly pervasive personalized advertising, I believe that well-designed active environments that can sense and respond to people in contextually appropriate ways can offer benefits that outweigh the risks. My own work on proactive displays has involved the linkage of different sensing technologies - infrared badges, RFID, Bluetooth mobile phones and magetically-striped loyalty cards - to social media sites in order to bring some of the richness of what we share in our online social networks into the physical spaces we share with others. Revealing the interestingness of the people nearby, e.g., through showing their photos on a large display, creates new opportunities for enhanced awareness, appreciation, interactions and relationships. Although some of the users of these prototypes have found them intrusive or otherwise undesireable, many users found them sufficiently advantageous to explicitly opt in, and even those who have not opted in have enjoyed seeing the social media (mostly photos) shared by others on the nearby displays.
One of the challenges we have faced in these systems - which I sometimes describe as bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline - is how to bridge the gap between cool research prototypes to sustainable and pervasive product or service. The only way I can envision this happening is with advertising revenue streams, which is the path we were pursuing with CoCollage. A few of the other current generation digital signage solutions include user-generated social media along with advertiser-generated media in their mix (e.g., LocaModa and Aerva), but I think there is still considerable room for next generation digital signage solutions to provide increased control and benefits for their users, to help compensate for real or perceived risks ... and avoid the currently inevitable comparisons to Minority Report.