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!