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Yes, Big Brother is watching


Adam Courtenay

He's looking at you from billboards and he knows your age, sex and a lot more too. Should we be worried?

Chris Muir: says it's too early to tell where the ABODS technology will lead.

Chris Muir: says it's too early to tell where the ABODS technology will lead.

Any fears you might have that Big Brother is watching you can now be officially confirmed. Come March, he will be.

Next month the advertising industry will be employing new technology known as Anonymous Biometric and Objects Data Sensors (ABODS). Put simply, sensor cameras are placed behind or close to the screen frame of a digital billboard, biometrically sizing you up as you walk past.

ABODS can tell age, gender and colour and also the number of people in front of a digital screen. This is advertising gold. 

It will be able to tell your age range, sex and the colour of your clothes. Armed with this information, it will throw the ads at you that best fit your demographic.

If an advertiser wants to target a 20-something female, the first suitable passer-by will be served up an appropriately aligned ad. ABODS has already been trialled in a Melbourne shopping centre and deemed a success.

Are you worried about billboards watching you? Post a comment and let us know.

ABODS is the brainwave of Chris Muir, 42, an expert in experiential advertising - a modern form of marketing that encourages consumers to experience a product or service before buying it, rather than just delivering a sales message - who dreamed up the idea 18 months ago. He went on to form AdBidx with his chief technology officer, Dapeng Ni. The past year has all been about “getting the algorithm right”, says Muir. This means they have spent the time working on the technology behind ABODS. Most of that came down to Ni's talent as a software engineer, but they also had to employ computer vision experts. They now have university researchers working on a next-generation version of ABODS.

Muir says he has never heard of “real-time demographically targeted advertising” being used on digital billboards anywhere in the world. ABODS can tell age, gender and colour and also the number of people in front of a digital screen. It can pinpoint the range of ages present at a certain time of day, where those ages tend to congregate, which shops they favour and whether most of the people in that age group prefer a particular colour. This is advertising gold.

Muir hastens to add: “What we do is totally anonymous – we take no record of any personal info – the sensors are very broad and can only capture age range and gender, but no personal information.

“There's no way we can recall the data of any personal connection to anyone and a person's image is never recorded.”

Muir is offering just what advertisers are looking for. They want to understand more about how they reach customers, and how to use information to create better results for the money they spend.

Until now advertising on digital screens has worked on a rotational policy. Advertisers book the screen for a month and hope for the best. ABODS offers the kind of targeting accuracy advertisers normally associate with marketing via the internet, he says.

Despite the high-brow technology it is not hard to see some weaknesses in the methodology. If, say, a 70-year-old woman approaches the screen at the same time as a 15-year-old male – what ad is thrown up? Muir admits this was one of the most important difficulties the AdBidx team encountered.

“We worked out that this would be done on a system of priority,” he says. “It might not target the elderly lady because it is looking for the right person for which to showcase a particular ad.”

The technology will be used in shopping centres, cafes and airports at first – the technology isn't yet effective in larger spaces such as train stations, where too many people pass by too quickly.

“It's not for a train station where thousands of commuters pass by in rush hour. We couldn't deploy the computers or the software,” Muir says.

Already Muir says the Melbourne shopping centre, “beta-trialled” in January, has served ads to 1.6 million people. On average, four people passed the screen every eight seconds.

“One advertiser, a mobile phone app, said it had a 100 per cent increase in downloads after using this form of targeted advertising,” Muir says. And it's not the preserve of the big brands; small, local businesses can have their ads uploaded to a screen too. But he won't say how much it costs.

“We charge per hit. We're still working out the revenue model with advertisers – so we don't yet have a rate card open to the public.”

But he claims the ads will be six times more cost-effective than traditional advertising, although that can't yet be substantiated.

So will consumers finally get what they want to see? Or will they feel constantly bombarded with the same advertising wherever they go? Will this be adapted to larger venues, such as rock concerts and football stadiums?

Theoretically yes, but Muir cannot say where it will all lead. What he does know is that it will go live on 800 screens in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane next month.

You have been warned.

44 comments so far

  • This is not good.

    Cool? Yes. Technology is 'cool' but it always comes at a price and that price will be this:

    What's next?

    As we get used to these intrusions into our lives, it becomes expected that we surrender our rights to privacy and our right to protect personal information from those that will abuse it.

    Corporation WILL push the envelope of what is acceptable and will 'lure' the youth with pretty, shiny gadgets and features - all they have to do is give the Corporate rights to YOU.

    Track you. E-mail you. Watch your spending. Who are you with? What is your sexuality? How much do you earn? Where were you on Saturday? What did you have for breakfast? Who do you vote for?

    One day soon, you won't be asked. You will be told.

    Halcyon Ford
    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 9:06AM
    • Yet smoking is banned in public places.... Worth a read - Inquiry into the regulation of billboard and outdoor advertising 2011

      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 2:32PM
    • I don't know if it is better to be ignorant of where this is all leading, or to actually research & study what has been going on over the last 50-100yrs on a global scale?

      If you actually think about it on numerous levels, it starts to reek of George Orwell's ‘1984’ as being prophecy & not just fiction :/

      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 3:43PM
  • What bothers me, along with the fact, that this is where we, as a populous, are at, is where this will lead.
    We all should always, not only react to what we are having imposed upon us but try to imagine where this is leading. As an old man I can only see a world where personal privacy is being eroded to a point where we all may become pawns in a game of money and power.

    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 9:11AM
    • We are already "pawns in a game of money and power", the question remaining is how much self-identity we retain.
      As the NSA have proven, and the Germans are getting officially upset about, if you collect the data it seems like a very small step to store, analyse, and profile that data to target individuals. There's something in there about the rights of an individual, but I'm no constitutional expert.
      I expect a shopping mall is a privately-owned space, so they can collect whatever they like - it's not hard to imagine that data being held "for quality and coaching purposes", for example. There might be bigger issues doing this in a public space, where people have an expectation of anonymity, but it's surely just a matter of time.
      As Google has proven with AdChoices, nobody complains if they can see ads that genuinely interest them. Everyone comes out feeling like they've done well. The hidden cost is that Google gets to shape your identity, and you love it.

      Evil C
      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 10:25AM
  • No. Just No.

    Any of these start sizing me up and advertising unwanted crap at me, especially they are networked and the advertising follows me around, then that store will not only lose my business, they might also lose a screen or two as I put my boot through them.

    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 9:45AM
    • Do you have any 'smart' devices in your lounge room? Have you connected them to the internet?
      Microsoft, Google TV, Verison and Comcast are all working on patents to watch you in your home.
      Televisions manufactured after1995 can not only receive signals but send them as well. Another reason why we all need to switch from analogue to digital.

      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 2:34PM
    • As a person who is somewhat involved in this type of project. I can tell you I am personally extremely mindful and concerned about privacy both my own and everyone else's. I would never be involved in a project that collected information about anyone, me and my family included. At every level these systems are engineered around eliminating the possibility of being used to track people. On top of that in my experience the engineers and advertisers are extremely worried about being intrusive. The aim is to create a useful service that shows me what I, as a young guy am more likely to want. Sneakers instead of highheels... and no its not gonna be showing men penile enhancement pills and funeral homes to the elderly or callingout to me minority report style. Any sensible person would know if such a thing were to happen the company would be kicked out of the shopping centre/be vandalized (rightly)/legislated against. The people who work on these projects are ordinary people wanting to make the world better not worse. If something is created that upon being experienced made me/you uncomfortable the the creators have completely failed (note use of the word 'experience' and not 'read about').

      I've given away all my deepest darkest secrets to google's search engine things I've not shared with anyone... and they know my name my address my movements my emails my work my documents, virtually everything about me, yet we all accept it cause all I have to do is google cinema and my local theatre's ad come up instantly on my phone... but a billboard that knows a young guy walked in front of it?... That! that's where we draw the line!!

      true blue
      Date and time
      February 18, 2014, 6:51PM
  • Good luck, Big Brother! My consciousness can hardly be transformed by a flick of smart technology. Big Brother cannot possibly know what goes on inside my head every contours of reality colonising my consciousness. Billboards are simply superficial instruments trying to create one-dimension reality. It is distracting but no more than just an optical delusion perpetrated by capitalists. Big Brother wants to treat privacy a passing fad but not everyone's name is on a government folder. Perhaps at the end of the day, when you lose privacy, at least your integrity is intact.

    Lady AKA
    Date and time
    February 11, 2014, 9:47AM
    • Yeah, in fact, you should log onto your Facebook account and tell the whole internet just how much privacy means to you.

      Date and time
      February 11, 2014, 1:59PM

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