In advertising these days, the brass ring goes to those who can measure everything – how many people see a particular advertisement, when they see it, who they are. All of that is easy on the Internet, and getting easier in television and print.
Billboards are a different story. For the most part, they are still a relic of old-world media, and the best guesses about viewership numbers come from foot traffic counts or highway reports, neither of which guarantees that the people passing by were really looking at the billboard, or that they were the ones sought out.
Now, some entrepreneurs have introduced technology to solve that problem. They are equipping billboards with tiny cameras that gather details about passers-by – their gender, approximate age and how long they looked at the billboard. These details are transmitted to a central database.
Behind the technology are small start-ups that say they are not storing actual images of the passers-by, so privacy should not be a concern. The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon.
And the issue gets thornier: the companies that make these systems, like Quividi and TruMedia Technologies, say that with a slight technological addition, they could easily store pictures of people who look at their cameras.
The companies say they do not plan to do this, but Mr. Tien said he thought their intentions were beside the point. The companies are not currently storing video images, but they could if compelled by something like a court order, he said.
For now, “there’s nothing you could go back to and look at,” said George E. Murphy, the chief executive of TruMedia who was previously a marketing executive at DaimlerChrysler. “All it needs to do is look at the audience, process what it sees and convert that to digital fields that we upload to our servers.”
TruMedia’s technology is an offshoot of surveillance work for the Israeli government. The company, whose slogan is “Every Face Counts,” is testing the cameras in about 30 locations nationwide. One TruMedia client is Adspace Networks, which runs a network of digital screens in shopping malls and is testing the system at malls in Chesterfield, Mo., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Monroeville, Pa. Adspace’s screens show a mix of content, like the top retail deals at the mall that day, and advertisements for DVDs, movies or consumer products.