Archive for May 2008

NY Times has a gaze at face-tracking “controversy”

May 31, 2008

Maybe I’m naive, but the whole fuss that seems to be bubbling up about face tracking technology for digital billboards and screens has that much ado about nothing feel to it.

As an old newspaper editor I have too many times been in slow news day planning meetings that ended up with reporters being sent out to find people who were upset with something or other, often people who weren’t terribly well informed on the issue of the day or who had all of 10 seconds to develop an opinion.

Now the New York Times has smarter people than the papers I worked for — they hired me, so they were obviously damaged souls — but they nonetheless sent out a reporter and did a piece that really reaches to drum up a fuss.

Saturday’s edition has a story headlined “Billboards that look back” – which starts with a set-up of how the out of home industry is experimenting with biometric face-tracking technology that can count and even demographically segment faces.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a Quividi camera was installed on a billboard on Eighth Avenue near Columbus Circle in Manhattan that was playing a trailer for “The Andromeda Strain,” a mini-series on the cable channel A&E.

“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.”

Organized privacy groups agree, though so far the practice of monitoring billboards is too new and minimal to have drawn much opposition. But the placement of surreptitious cameras in public places has been a flashpoint in London, where cameras are used to look for terrorists, as well as in Lower Manhattan, where there is a similar initiative.

Although surveillance cameras have become commonplace in banks, stores and office buildings, their presence takes on a different meaning when they are meant to sell products rather than fight crime. So while the billboard technology may solve a problem for advertisers, it may also stumble over issues of public acceptance.

“I guess one would expect that if you go into a closed store, it’s very likely you’d be under surveillance, but out here on the street?” Mr. Cocks asked. At the least, he said, there should be a sign alerting people to the camera and its purpose.


OK, so first of all companies like Quividi, TruMedia, CognoVision and Video Mining don’t capture faces and record them. The software just uses little cameras to count faces that engage with a screen and then try to sort out demographics like age and gender, and eventually very general ethnicity. The images are not stored and the guys who run these companies uniformly say they don’t want to do that.

The surveillance cameras in public areas are completely different animals and the linkage between the two is at best tenuous.

The story floats the idea that a government could push a court order to force a switch to start storing recorded faces, but that’s a lot more than flicking a switch. It’s re-engineering the products, adding MUCH more bandwidth, and probably changing the gear at each location to actually pull that off.

This versus using surveillance gear already in place in many or most retail and public environments.

If people are going to get jumpy about the privacy issue of a little gadget sorting out if you are looking at a screen or not, and vaguely capturing your demographics, then I guess they have troubled lives. How do they react when there are people in stores with clipboards counting people and watching what they do?

There are also other widely used devices that can be used to track where you go and what you do. They’re called credit cards and cell phones, to name just a couple.


How to do cinemas well …

May 29, 2008

The guys at Minicom — whose blog is always much more than a soap box for the company’s gear — have a great set of photos showing a new install at a movie house in the UK. The install shows targeted screens over the concessions areas, ticketing and along the hallways in poster format. It looks really well executed.

South African operator reports big-time sales impacts across retail network

May 29, 2008

As reported in a blog called espaces, South African firm One Digital Media’s CEO told the crowd at a recent Marketing-at-Retail Workshop in Johannesburg how research is showing significant sales impacts in installed locations.

Mike Bosman said independent research conducted recently on 22 brands showed those brands stood out 33% more when the particular brand advertises on screen, and awareness of the screen by the shopper was mapped to a 29.6% boost in sales made.

In the past year, One Digital Media has driven the roll-out of a first-of-its-kind digital network – with over 5000 screens installed in hundreds of supermarkets, shebeens, liquor stores and other outlets country-wide, and the system is working with 98% compliance.

Many of the installations have been in Spar stores and are able to run up to 45 screens and 45 channels per store – and the impact of the content that’s been broadcast is reported to be a considerable 9.6% average increase in sales for the brands that advertised using the digital media infrastructure, content development and delivery mechanisms that One Digital Media has pioneered.

Content is flighted to any one particular screen in the network around South Africa or to any group of screens. In-store digital networks typically do not flight TV commercials as the screens do not broadcast sound and shoppers do not hang around for 30 seconds watching the screens. Content is very short and the placement and positioning of the screens in the store is critically important to their effectiveness.

Shebeens, by the way, are unlicensed but allowed pubs, usually in the townships.

Loto-Quebec screens

May 28, 2008

I am at the main office in wonderful Montreal for a couple of days, mainly for the last of three Ingram Micro show and tell sessions.

Spotted in a couple of stores, Loto-Quebec’s approach to digital screens. They did a trial with a local company, but ultimately opted to build out their own solution, cooked up by the IT group.

The screens are 4:3 20 inchers, I think, and are mounted BELOW eye level, which is a very different approach. I didn’t look closely — I had a pressing engagement at some place called MacLean’s (19 types on tap!) — but I think the screens are attached to the actual wagering terminals.

The pic is from a Jean Coutu store, the dominant chain drug in Francophone Canada. Boy, the “Oh dear, there’s a nutbar in the store” looks you get when you ask if it is OK to take a snappie of this stuff.

Big-ass Walgreens’ board to dwarf other LED screens in Times Square

May 27, 2008

Walgreens is opening chain drug stores in the US at a record pace, so why not set another record – the biggest big-ass LED board.

Tech blog Gizmodo is reporting via a couple of other sources that the retailer is installing a capital M Massive LED board at its flasgship store in the global centre of slowly rotating and gawking in circles.

The company is building the world’s “most complex, powerful and digitally advanced” sign to hover over their new flagship store. And 17,000 feet of it is covered with 12 million LEDs capable of producing a trillion colors. But that’s only part of the sign.

250,000 pounds in weight, the entire sign spans 43,720 square feet when including vinyl components. That easily trumps the old Times Square champion from NASDAQ, which covered a suddenly modest 11,000 square feet.

Cumulatively, all of this sign will cover three sides of 1 Times Square with a solitary animation. Never has a sale on pantyhose been so grossly over-promoted.

Oh, to be the guy/woman who bagged that deal …

How to get noticed in a shopping mall – Go BIG

May 27, 2008

Like many in this industry, I have at various times been involved in plans to put screens into big shopping malls.

I have seen looney-tune plans to install screens no bigger than 27″ and other ones that cascaded screens along corridors. A lot of people have thoughts around doing them at or near the wayfinding areas.

The problem is, malls are generally big yawning spaces and atriums or lower slung corridors with all kinds of stuff like temporary booths and trees in the way, usually leading to big yawning spaces. It is very hard to get noticed, unless you go really big.

Digital Signage Universe has a piece about a shopping mall in Kent, England that dealt with that by focusing all of the screens into one central wall. They tiled 16 panels in a 4 by 4 configuration, and used plasmas with high brightness and contrast and minimal bezels. What came out of the wash is a big-ass display that has the scale needed to get noticed, but the tight pixels and therefore image clarity that LED boards are not yet set-up to do.

When I first read the post’s kicker headline I interpreted it as meaning there are 16 of these around the mall, which would certainly have pop. It’s just a single, and you’d hope there would be multiples to get noticed and get more attention from media buyers.

However, the release suggests this wall of panels is for mall promos and messaging, not third-party ads.

If you have a challenging visual environment with no end of bright and shiny objects,  there will often be far greater benefit in taking the many screens intended to be scattered around a site and ganging them all together. Roughly the same cost, quite possibly less, but MUCH more impact.

Three-Minute Ad Age look at interactive LED boards

May 27, 2008

Advertising Age online does a regular video feature called 3-Minute Ad Age that does a quick blast through a selected topic.

There’s a piece up today about some cool interactive applications involving cell phones and the big, honkin’ aggregate of LED boards that Thomson Reuters has at NYC’s Times Square.

Among the campaigns are those for greeting card photos and one that allowed people to design their own custom Nike sneakers. One woman pretty much has a sidewalk orgasm after seeing her creation up in LED lights.

The things that tickle people …