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