Forget anonymized and aggregated. Facial recognition just got very personal
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Photo Credit: PR-Almax

Retailers are using facial recognition to identify customers as they come in the store. Cool or creepy?

Imagine walking into a store and the shop assistant walks over and says, “Hi Simona, here’s a cappuccino for you. It’s just the way you like it, with extra foam.”

She consults her smart phone for a second and then says:

“I know you put on two extra kilos over the holidays, but we have some navy blue banded tops on sale that are really slimming. Navy is your favorite color, am I right?”

“Sure,” you sputter. “Wow, she knows all about me.” The funny thing is, you have never seen this woman before in your life.

This scenario could soon be a reality if more and more retailers adopt facial recognition technology by companies like Japan’s NEC and California-based FaceFirst.

The BBC reports that both companies use cameras placed at the entrance to stores. Facial recognition software then compares the shoppers to a database of photos from sources like Facebook, the article suggests.

Are you a materialist or a criminal?

The technology recognizes “important visitors,” i.e. customers likely to spend a lot. These customers would get VIP treatment, a free cappuccino, discounts and personalized attention. This means that in the future, if you walk into a store and the sales associate totally ignores you, you might have reason to take in personally.

The technology can also be used to nab potential shoplifters before they commit their crimes. If you have a police record and walk into a high-end shop, this software could scrutinize you extra-carefully. As one marketer put it, “What about privacy? There’s no such thing anymore. At best, privacy is a cherished illusion, and it’s fallen by the wayside as people volunteer more personal data in the interest of greater personalization and convenience.”

In other words, you may think you’re walking around a city anonymously, but you’re actually being followed by a virtual data trail.

According to NEC, its facial recognition software was ranked the best performing earlier this year in NIST’s Face Recognition Vendor Test 2014 performed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Several companies are reportedly planning to deploy the technology in their stores. Chicago-based food manufacturer Mondelez International is working on developing “smart shelves.” For instance, if you’re a diet-conscious young woman, the shelf will give you caloric information when you look at the products.

Photo Credit: PR-Almax

Photo Credit: PR-Almax

If you think that’s cool or creepy, two years ago an Italian mannequin company, Almax S.p.A., started equipping its dummies with video cameras in their eye sockets that track customers’ behavior in stores. The story got a lot of press, some of it negative, and the EyeSee customer-tracking mannequin no longer appears on their website.

Geektime has contacted the company to see if the mannequin is still available. Perhaps the public wasn’t ready to give up their privacy to mannequins with moving eyeballs, even though it’s an ingenious idea. Maybe we watched too much Chuckie?

GIF credit: Sweetlilmama on Tumblr

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Simona Weinglass

About Simona Weinglass


I’m an old-school journalist who recently decided to pivot into high-tech. I work in high-tech marketing as well as print and broadcast media covering politics, business culture and everything in between.

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