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Digital signage promises a 'Minority Report' experience, but who's watching the watchers?

Author: Bill Gerba on 2007-12-11 12:38:15

Hardly a week goes by without someone mentioning how digital signage is bringing us closer to the world portrayed in the movie Minority Report. Disturbingly, the people sharing this view often seem to think it's a good thing. I'll admit I like eye candy and special effects as much as the next guy, but can we please, please, please stop using this stupid movie as an industry benchmark? If you haven't seen the movie, here's an extremely short synopsis: The year is 2054, and Washington DC has eliminated murders by exploiting the paranormal abilities of people who can see the future. Civil liberties issues aside, the DC police happily arrest anybody that these "precogs" foresee committing a murder, thus sidestepping the whole nasty due process of law. The system is perfect, because in addition to the infallibility of the precogs, all citizens have their retinas scanned at the entrance to every building or store, and even when they're driving down the highway. Thus, a detailed record of everyone's movements can be kept, making it pretty easy for the cops to get their man. This tracking technology is also featured in elaborate in-store digital signage systems that no doubt give rise to the controversial comparisons that we'll be investigating today.

In fact, when most people in the digital signage industry talk about Minority Report, they're referring to two specific scenes where the protagonist enters a shopping mall. The character is a maligned former police chief being chased down for a murder he didn't commit, or a murder he wasn't about to commit -- foreknowledge of future events makes it hard to get verb tenses right. Holographic avatars greet him by name, having scanned his retinas from afar. They ask how he's enjoying his past purchases. They inquire as to whether he needs anything new. They compliment him. If he picks up an item, they know about it and ask if he needs assistance. In almost every aspect, the real salesperson is supplanted by the virtual: a digital persona with complete, perfect knowledge of his sales history, the ability to spot customers at a distance and track them while they move. Don't want to be followed around or have your every move tracked and recorded for posterity? 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, 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. Case in point: Forbes recently published a commentary titled "Scary Stuff," which describes some of the technologies that will be commercially viable in the next 2-3 years and could make a Minority Report-style environment a real possibility. Taking the place of long-distance retinal scans (for now) are tiny RFID chips that can be placed on or in nearly any product, survive exposure to the weather (and your washing machine), or even be swallowed.

In fact, Adrian at Daily DOOH informs us that there's a Minority Report thesis being assembled to study "what can be achieved if you combine digital signage, item-level RFID tagging and recommendation systems (data mining on past purchases to determine what a customer might be interested in)". While the components sound reasonably innocuous in and of themselves, the combination has the potential to give rise to a loyalty system where shoppers have no choice but to participate. You know those item-level RFID tags? There's no reason to think they'll only be activated at the POS. They're going to be giving away their positions the entire time you're in the store, and possibly even when you're outside of it (for example, at a loyalty partner/affiliate's store). If they're embedded in the product itself (a pair of shoes or an item of clothing, for example), they can be used to identify you the next time you're in scanning range. The loyalty program (which is a bit of a misnomer since it's really an Amazon.com-like recommendation engine) will have access to which items you pick up and put down, which ones make it into your cart, and possibly even where else you shop.

Granted, a Minority Report-style shopping experience could provide tangible benefits to shoppers in the form of streamlined shopping, better personalization of product selection, and more targeted sales offers. But it would come at a price. I have no problem with the tradeoff -- business is a game of give and receive. My concern is that we currently have absolutely no idea what currency we're paying with or how much it's worth. Worse, there's a very real chance that we're paying into this system (and will continue to do so as Minority Report-style technology increasingly comes into play) without even knowing it, and without being given a chance to opt out. Right now, it's pretty easy to decide where and when I'll use trackable loyalty systems. I can choose whether or not to show a loyalty card. I can decide whether to pay in cash or with a credit card. Each of these has a cost and a benefit, and I can use them when it's in my best interest to do so. The nature of a "passive" or "ambient" system, on the other hand, is to always be functioning, regardless of whether customers are conscious of it or not. The customer has no choice but to participate if she wants to shop at that store. I suppose this still leaves you with a choice, albeit a rather crappy one. And when people's choices are taken away, the goodwill that our industry has built up (like the perception that digital signs are less annoying than other media) could be eroded before we know it.

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, but I think it's critical to hear some opinions on the matter before the tech becomes commonplace and there's nothing that anyone can do about it. So I'm particularly pleased to announce that starting today, you can finally add your own comments and feedback to our blog articles. I hope that our readers will help turn this space into an ongoing conversation about digital signage, kiosks, and all the other forms of dynamic communication and interaction that define our industry. If you're an email subscriber, just click the link below to access the comment form. If you're reading this article on our website, simply fill out the form below -- click on the "Comments" link if you don't see it right away. (Anyone can post their feedback, as long as you don't use the system for evil.) In most cases, your comments should appear instantly, so there's no waiting. Hope to see you chime in soon!

Comments (13)

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2007-12-11Jeremy writes:
Does anyone know of any movies that portray digital signage in a positive (or at least neutral) light? If we get enough of them listed here, maybe people can start referring to those instead of "Minority Report". I'll start the list by mentioning the 3D billboards in "Back to the Future".
2007-12-11Bill Gerba writes:
Two that immediately come to mind are Blade Runner and The Fifth Element.

I think Blade Runner was the first to really illustrate the potential of digital out-of-home media
2007-12-11Jayne writes:
Hi Bill,

Excellent post-- extremely thorough and well put, as always. I've been thinking around the same topics lately, and trying to get at the root of the audience fear... An interesting discussion has ensued, both from inside and outside of the industry, which I think is a really great sign.

See you at the DSE!
2007-12-11Bill Gerba writes:
Hey Jayne,

I just read up on your "creepy digital signage" thread (http://www.theweboutside.com/?p=49) - the comments are really excellent.

The main source of negativity towards digital out-of-home thus far has been from folks that feel that any kind of advertising blights the landscape (rightly or wrongly). I think privacy issues are starting to crop up (thanks to crappy e-voting, e-passport and federal ID action), but not many people have put two and two together yet.
2007-12-11devang writes:
Hi Bill, you hit upon the right note here..
Recognition Technologies, Recommendation Engines & Screens are a lethal combo for a marketer, but it need not be otherwise for shoppers.

my guess is that retailers who decide to have a ambient system where shoppers cannot opt-out will suffer. also, one must not ignore that we're already experiencing something very similar with online. It took us less than 7 years to start seeing everything around us through the google lens. we depend on it to make sense of the what's around the internet. with clutter becoming commonplace, the choices before consumers are overwhelming and my guess is we'd be happy to accept anything that makes our lives simpler. making content relevant, making it personal beyond the internet has already begun..
2007-12-12Laura Davis-Taylor writes:
Excellent post as always Bill...and a much needed POV for the industry as we attack new measurement tools slowly and steadily. Just looking at recent articles within DMNews about activity with Do Not Call, Do Not Mail and the new Do Not Track online proposal, it's not hard to assume that privacy advocates will not take this kind of scenario lying down. Philips Design did an extensive worldwide research study on the subject 6 years ago (they were thinking ahead I suppose!) and found that customers would be open to being tracked IF they could control what level, what brand/s and when. Otherwise, no way. Seems we need to tread very carefully here and be sure that initial tracking is not personalized in any way unless 100% opt-in.
2007-12-12DailyDOOH writes:
Excellent post Bill!

The film Children of Men is (IMO) a bit depressing but it is set in the near future and shows digital screens everywhere (including a nice shot of a red London Bus complete with digital screens on the sides - but then, hey! we have those already!)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_Men
2007-12-12Jayne writes:
Hi Bill,

Thanks for checking out the thread... It's great to have the slippery and elusive mass audience involved in these conversations, since for a "not-so-new-but-still-new" medium like DS, the kinks (both content and platform wise) are still being worked out in huge chunks... The more the end-viewer gets involved, the more like we are to have a medium that's worthy of their eyeballs.

Laura, Do you have a link to the Philips Study? Would love to take a look.
2007-12-12Bill Gerba writes:
Laura: Hopefully you can dig up that Philips study, as it's gone against most of the research that I've seen recently (at least wrt online privacy, which is admittedly a bit different from the end-user's perspective). In fact, I don't know if you remember, but I asked Dave Polinchock about privacy back at ARM 2006, and his take was that most shoppers don't really seem too concerned about it right now. Of course, we don't know if that's because they're unaware of the potential havoc on the horizon...

Adrian: Ah, Children of Men. I knew that movie wasn't totally forgettable for some reason :)
2007-12-12Jeremy writes:
Although the discussion about online privacy is certainly more advanced than anything we're seeing in out-of-home media right now, it does seem like most consumers don't really care what's being collected about their behavior. In fact, most of the articles I've seen about the "Eraser" feature that was just introduced by Ask.com (see http://sp.ask.com/en/docs/about/askeraser.shtml) have pretty much said the same thing: it's a neat idea, but until more consumers start demanding it, the big players like Google and Yahoo won't be volunteering to erase their valuable data when and how consumers see fit. I just hope that the companies that are collecting this data within the digital signage industry are using it responsibly and taking steps to protect it. Just think about how scary it would be if the viewer tracking data from your local grocery store ended up on the web, and people could look for your face and then cross-reference it to find all the times and dates that you shop there.
2007-12-13Matthew writes:
Bill,
Love your columns. Very insightful and speak to the plain and simple minded folk like myself. :)

Just posted a entry on our company blog:
http://www.nmotiontech.com/displaydiary/2007/12/13/which-space-has-the-most-potential-for-advertisers/

was wondering if you wouldn't mind commenting on it?

thanks
Matthew J. Olivieri
2007-12-13Bill Gerba writes:
Hi Matthew,

So your question relates to the efficacy rather than the ethics of using traffic data to target content towards users. It's slightly off-topic for this post, but obviously quite central to the development of the industry...

If you're an advertiser looking to bring in foot traffic, a multi-venue approach is usually best, as it lets you focus on the places where your target customers are most likely to be found. You can do this by studying the venues and their audience by hand, subscribing to research data, or using a booking platform like SeeSaw. In any event, you need to figure out who you're trying to reach based on their demographics and psychographics, and then target the places they visit so your ads reach them accordingly. Of course, the holy grail (from a marketer's perspective, anyway) would be tracking every consumer individually rather than just looking at aggregate groups.

This takes us back to the privacy concerns covered in this article. Once the technology is there to allow this level of tracking (and it's not far off), we need to be very careful as an industry to disclose what we're collecting and what we do with it, and provide people a way to opt-out, particularly if data-sharing arrangements between multiple vendors or retailers become commonplace.
2007-12-17Josh Tonasket writes:
Facial recognition software is already hot off the presses and being used in the security industry. I promote interactive digital signage that offers the ability to data mine, but you still have to opt in by touching the screen. Once Retailers starting using the facial recognition software under the "security" guise, the Marketing Department will slip in and data mine the tapes which will reveal the shopping habits of unaware shoppers. They can mine for product placement results, shopping behavior and how different ethnicities purchase or respond best to products. These are only the first offers from facial recognition software companies. Forget about it if you so happen to look like someone earmarked on their system for shoplifting. I think we should warn our customers about what is too much big brother marketing.

Josh Tonasket

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