The look on our faces says it all

Based on a news story featured on Bloomberg, major companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Walmart have recently announced that they will be looking at facial recognition technology for ads targeting to security and these companies are working with regulators to draw up a (voluntarily) code of conduct. Given that there is no such existing law or practice to safeguard against privacy and personal data; we are essentially leaving it to the mercy of these large corporations to dictate the environment they operate in.

With the launch of the newest iPhone 5S Touch ID, recognition software is turning science fiction into reality. Similarly, facial recognition software looks for our nose, ears and eyes and then checks with the skin texture to make a match. Because of these in-built landmarks (tags), it doesn’t really matter if we decide to change our facial appearances by growing a beard or covering parts of the face.  This facial print is a huge tool for marketers because it acts like the Facebook tagging feature which we all know so well and recognise it as a game changer in social networking.  The opportunity to create a huge database of tags allows for marketers to search, retrieve and create links between the brand and essentially, our lives.

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In a recent research, it is estimated that the facial recognition global market is worth $6.5B by 2018, where cameras could target us with advertisements through the use of geo-location technology. What I dislike about facial recognition today is its inability to capture information beyond demographic data – currently limited to gender and age. In its current form, it only makes for real-time measurement and analysis of ads in the physical space, offering more accountability and precision in ad targeting. However, from an advertising planning perspective, it moves us back to the old days when media (ad space) was bought on pure demographic parameters; programmatic or not.

Without a doubt, the uptake of facial recognition technology has been sporadic.  We are only starting to see developers through apps, such as FaceLock apply this technology to allow us to unlock Android smartphones using our “faceprints,” i.e. maps of the unique structure of our faces. This is just the beginning of face-as-security measure.

On the other end of the scale, the outdoor ad industry has embraced facial-recognition technology as the new, and innovative feature that increases the effectiveness of the medium. But let’s face reality – until today, outdoor ad revenues have remained flat because outdoor globally has always been regarded as an unmeasured medium; and as an unmeasured medium, it has always been undervalued by the advertiser.  With this type of technology, it is now possible to measure with much more accuracy the return on investment for outdoor ads. Hence, the outdoor ad industry has sunk their teeth into this with new initiatives such as Tesco’s use of facial recognition software across Amscreen’s digital display networks, or Plan UK’s outdoor campaign amalgamating facial recognition, touch screen and sound to show selected passersby, appropriate content.

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Where this becomes interesting yet eerie is when the next generation of systems could take this data collection to much further heights – an algorithm that can judge your mood, track and identify shopping histories and social networking profiles to direct personalised ads. Though it creates a new dynamism for personalisation, it also essentially allows for all our information to be on sale. And for a (not so) lucky few, their face is their fortune. In July, a Finnish company called Uniqul released a video of a project in the works, a pay-by-face authentication system. The idea? At a store, rather than paying with cash or a credit card, you give a “meaningful nod” to a scanner to make a purchase. A Huffington Post article describes this new tech, and also gives a peak at the Millennial ATM, which uses facial recognition as its primary security method.

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The possibility of automated facial recognition is on the horizon. Nonetheless, there are still important issues around permissions and what consumers are willing to tolerate to get that personalisation. For some, they will enjoy this greater relevance, while others; they will be turned off by its pure personalised nature.

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