Notebook > Technology
Immersive Labs

Facial marketing

Technology | New sidewalk billboards aim to recognize pedestrians' buying habits by their faces

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

Immersive Labs, an advertising startup in Manhattan, planned to unveil new digital billboards in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco last month that will change the way pedestrians view ads-and ads view pedestrians. The sidewalk billboards use cameras and facial recognition technology to identify the age and gender of whoever is passing by at the moment, then serve up an ad targeted to that demographic (Nike running shoes, perhaps). The internet-connected billboards collect some data, such as how long people tend to look at a particular ad, and provide the feedback to businesses.

Although Immersive Labs doesn't keep a database of faces or store any personally identifiable info, it's not hard to imagine this sort of marketing becoming a privacy hazard or a plain annoyance. Could such systems display ads in response to a bystander's ethnicity (cosmetics), facial expression (antidepressants), or clothing style? Facebook already serves ads on its social media website that are tailored to the profiles of users, according to topics they like and keywords they've posted in status updates.

Facial recognition is advanced enough, theoretically, to allow advertisers to target a specific individual, assuming details about the person were publicly available online. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used a software called PittPatt (bought by Google in July) to match pedestrians on a college campus to their Facebook identities, and then predicted their interests and partial Social Security numbers.

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The Federal Trade Commission is slated to host a workshop in December discussing the privacy concerns of recognition technology. In November, officials in Germany were threatening to sue Facebook for storing biometric data of faces, used to automatically identify friends when a user uploads a photo.

Honey pot trap

Associated Press photo

The Department of Defense is funding research that could stymie the next WikiLeaks-style hacker. Allure Security Technology in New York is developing a computer security system with "mechanisms for identifying likely malicious insiders" who might steal and leak sensitive data. One such high-profile insider, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, has been charged with smuggling 250,000 classified diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, a whistleblower website that began releasing the cables in November 2010. Allure's technique uses a "honey pot" strategy, in which fake classified documents are stored on a server along with legitimate files. When a user attempts to open the fake documents, the system alerts an administrator to the hacker's Internet Protocol address and time of entry. Just having these digital landmines on government computers is expected to discourage would-be leakers from probing around.-Daniel James Devine

3D revolution

Makerbot Industries

Computers and inkjet printers have found their places in our daily lives, but are 3D printers next? As their name implies, these geeky machines "print" solid objects by squirting out melted plastic layer by layer, building any design a computer sends to them. Amazon.com offers a build-it-yourself 3D printer for $1,699. Once it is assembled, the user can go to a website like Thingiverse.com and freely download designs people from around the world have created-bracelets, toys, clothespins, puzzles, molecular models, repair parts-then print them immediately. Or, software can convert cell phone photos of an object into a three-dimensional rendering, enabling the printer to produce a scale model.-Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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