That Ad Thinks You Look Familiar

PHOTO: Amscreens new facial-recognition technology called OptimEyes is being used by retailers in the UK for advertising audience planning.

What if a video advertisement could gaze into your face, and, by using its own intelligence, correctly guess your age and gender? At 450 gas stations in 12 countries, that's either happening already, or it's about to.

Customers waiting in the checkout lines of gas station convenience stores owned by U.K. retailer Tesco, look up and see a flat-panel video display advertising, say, potato chips. The display looks back at them: An internal camera studies every person's face, and the system, by using algorithms, assigns each one a gender and an age.

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The technology isn't meant to be precise enough to permit individual recognition—it doesn't say, figuratively, "There's good old Jim Jarvis of 32 Palm Court. Nice to see you again, Jim." It merely detects the presence of a face, decides if it's male or female, and puts it into one of four age groups: child, young adult, adult or a senior.

Called OptimEyes, is the system is the creation of UK digital advertising company Amscreen.

OptimEyes, explains Amscreen in a release, is designed to give advertisers "real-time audience insight at the touch of a button, allowing advertisers to not only gain an understanding of the type and volume of people viewing their ads, but also to amend their campaigns on-the-fly, to increase their likelihood of reaching them through an understanding of real-time traffic flow and make-up."

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The company argues that advertisers aren't the only ones to benefit. In Tesco's case, it says, OptimEye's ability to comprehend the general demographics of the customer means that the content of the ads can be made more relevant to each viewer. No need, after all, to advertise denture paste to a teen.

A Tesco spokesperson stresses to ABC News that no images of customers are retained or stockpiled, and that the only data kept are the macro numbers for how many shoppers during a given time period were of what age and sex.

Some wary Britons, however, smelling Big Brother, have vehemently spoken out against the technology as the first step towards true facial recognition.

"The potential for abuse is chilling," writes the Daily Mirror.

For though OptimEyes, by design, sees only through a glass, darkly; plenty of other systems in use by law enforcement and the military see face to face, recognizing individuals. Britain alone reportedly has 1.85 million closed-circuit cameras. Variations of such systems are in use already by private industry.

There's even a dating site (FaceMate) that uses facial recognition technology help match potential sweethearts.

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If you were hoping to elude OptimEyes by wearing glasses or a hat, you won't. The system, explains Amscreen's literature, has been taught to make allowances for hats, glasses and head scarves. People wearing these will have their faces detected and scanned nonetheless.

Which is not to say there's no way to escape detection.

Says Amscreen of the technology, "It cannot detect individuals in full head coverings, such as someone wearing a burka. Also, if an image does not move for a period of time, is discounts this as it is unlikely to be an actual viewer."

No word yet on if or when this technology is coming to the US.

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