Your face rings a bell: the ‘dark art’ of facial recognition software

While the idea of facial recognition software alarms many, the reality is that the application is far more impersonal than is perceived

It is a shame that, although widely discussed, facial recognition solutions for the DOOH industry continue to be disparaged. It is hardly a new idea, after all: companies such as Facebook and Picasa have used such features for a while now and they come in handy for tagging and organisation. Are these online applications attempting to become Big Brother? No. On the contrary, they are trying to provide us with a service and make our lives easier using the technology available. The case is similar when it comes to facial recognition within DOOH.

The greatest controversy circulates around the fear that these screens will log information about passers-by and create invasive, Minority Report-style advertising. While that is certainly possible, especially if the software interacts with mobile devices, the reality is that media owners and advertisers aren’t interested in recognising one specific individual. Their aim is to gather information about gender and age in groups of people transiting a specific public area. These statistical data allow them to predict of the type of people on a street or in a store at a particular time of day so that advertisers can capture the audience’s attention by providing content tailored to both location and demographic.

It’s a marketing concept as old as soap operas, so named after the traditional broadcast slot at a time when housewives would be likely to watch some television while carrying out domestic chores. Given the likely audience then, the most frequent ads were for different types of soap. DOOH is trying to provide advertisers with a similar type of audience targeting but with better knowledge of the intended audience.

The most popular software provider for this type of application is French company Quividi. In the UK MediaCo and Amscreen are using the software, each having adapted it to its own needs, for the imminent launch of their own facial recognition networks.

In less than a month MediaCo will introduce its CityLive network to Manchester. The interactive six-sheet displays will be installed in 20 key locations around the city. Each screen is fitted with HD cameras, an interactive touch surface, active NFC and facial recognition software.

Richard Blackburn, MediaCo commercial director, indicates that we should talk about facial detection rather than recognition, since the display will not recall any particular faces. “What we are doing with these displays is assessing the number of men, women, young people or senior citizens that are exposed to them and the ads at a given time of day and in a particular location,” he explains. “We have developed our own software solution, with the help of Quividi. Advertisers using our network will be able to log in remotely and assess their campaigns live.”

Amscreen, meanwhile, is due to launch its OptimEyes displays and facial recognition solution this autumn, which will provide its clients with minute-by-minute, hourly or weekly access to the information gathered. This company’s network is vast and its first such rollout, which includes the replacement of many displays, will be of 460 screens. The new displays are portrait 24″ (61cm) flat-panel screens fitted with an eye-tracking webcam and audience measuring software, which feeds back to the Amscreen system.

Mike Hemming, Amscreen marketing director, explains that the idea is to provide advertisers with contextual ad targeting: “So far DOOH has been quite difficult to measure, in particular if we compare it to the internet. We want to help our clients to get accurate and accountable campaigns at [the] point of sale. The solution should also save money for advertisers by being able to fine-tune their marketing strategy and deliver it instantly.”

With the data collected, media owners will be able to identify key demographics and trends and then feed them back to media agencies and advertisers. MediaCo will collate the information in an annual database, which includes calendar events such as bank holidays and festive celebrations. This data will then be enriched by what the screens capture on a daily basis. Amscreen is building an insight platform and will employ a specialist simply to analyse the data provided by its displays.

Although this technology is not new, it has only now arrived at the maturity needed to provide useful and accurate information. Privacy issues are being taken seriously by the companies implementing it and, given that we have an increasingly competitive advertising market, it looks like the facial recognition trend might well be here to stay.