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Japan tests billboards that know your gender, age

Smart digital billboards that scan passersby to determine gender and age and thus tailor their messages are now being tested in commuter stations around Tokyo.

digital billboard in Tokyo
A man walks by a digital advertising display at a Tokyo subway station last week. Digital billboards being tested in Japan are fitted with cameras that read the gender and age group of passersby to tailor their marketing messages. AFP Photo/Yoshikazu Tsuno

Last year, we told you about billboards in development that could tell male faces from female faces and display ads accordingly. Well, such a system is now up and scanning visages in subway stations around Tokyo.

A consortium of 11 railway companies has launched a one-year pilot project to test the signs, setting up 27 of the "Minority Report"-style displays in commuter stations around the Japanese prefecture. But while billboards in that sci-fi flick (see the video below) could recognize people by name and shout out purchasing suggestions, the Japanese signs employ cameras and face recognition software to determine just the gender and age of passersby.

"The camera can distinguish a person's sex and approximate age, even if the person only walks by in front of the display, at least if he or she looks at the screen for a second," a spokesman for the Digital Signage Promotion Project told the Agence France-Presse.

The aim of the project, for now at least, is to collect data on what sorts of people look at which ads at what times of day. Once that data is in, marketers could use the information to schedule their campaigns strategically. Presumably, ads could also be programmed to shift depending on who walks by (we're picturing lots of broad demographic generalizations here: nail polish and romance novels for the gals, mega-huge HDTVs and black-leather recliners for the fellas--red sports cars, naturally, if they're middle-aged!).

Digital Signage Promotion Project officials said they won't store images snapped by the cameras, though that may not do much to assuage those concerned about the privacy implications. Look, with all the super fancy big-screen and interactive billboards, we get that billboards are becoming way more than just giant paper placards. We just hope they won't ever be able to read our minds, as we'd hate to walk by a billboard and have it flash an ad for that stupid reality TV show we'd never publicly admit to watching.