Billboards that look back

New technology has made it possible, using tiny cameras, to gather details about people looking at billboard ads, such as their age or gender. (From The New York Times)

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.

The goal, these companies say, is to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it--to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.

"Everything we do is completely anonymous," said Paolo Prandoni, the founder and chief scientific officer of Quividi, a 2-year-old company based in Paris that is gearing up billboards in the United States and abroad. Quividi and its competitors use small digital billboards, which tend to play short videos as advertisements, to reach certain audiences.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a Quividi camera was installed on a billboard on Eighth Avenue near Columbus Circle in Manhattan that was playing a trailer for "The Andromeda Strain," a miniseries on the cable channel A&E.

"I didn't see that at all, to be honest," said Sam Cocks, a 26-year-old lawyer, when the camera was pointed out to him by a reporter. "That's disturbing. I would say it's arguably an invasion of one's privacy."

Organized privacy groups agree, though so far the practice of monitoring billboards is too new and minimal to have drawn much opposition. But , where cameras are used to look for terrorists, as well as in Lower Manhattan, where there is a similar initiative.

"Everything we do is completely anonymous."
--Paolo Prandoni, chief scientific officer, Quividi

Although surveillance cameras have become commonplace in banks, stores, and office buildings, their presence takes on a different meaning when they are meant to sell products rather than fight crime. So while the billboard technology may solve a problem for advertisers, it may also stumble over issues of public acceptance.

"I guess one would expect that if you go into a closed store, it's very likely you'd be under surveillance, but out here on the street?" Cocks asked. At the least, he said, there should be a sign alerting people to the camera and its purpose.

Quividi's technology has been used in Ikea stores in Europe and McDonald's restaurants in Singapore, but it has just come to the United States. Another Quividi billboard is in a Philadelphia commuter station with an advertisement for the Philadelphia Soul, an indoor football team. Both Quividi-equipped boards were installed by Motomedia, a London-based company that converts retail and street space into advertisements.

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