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'Intelligent' ads can see the kind of person you are

A scanner will determine the sex of the reader and send different messages to men and women
  • @S_R_Morrison

In Minority Report, when Tom Cruise walks into a shopping centre, an advertising board scans his retina and a video advert greets him by name and suggests he knock back a Guinness. In Britain this week, sci-fi is about to become sci-fact. And the target audience is women only.

A 40-second interactive advert is about to be launched that uses facial-recognition technology to decide the gender of the person looking at it and then vary its content. It will be unveiled on a bus stop on Oxford Street in London's West End on Wednesday.

Only women will be able to view the full £30,000 advert commissioned by the children's charity Plan UK as part of its "Because I Am a Girl" campaign, which aims to ensure girls in the world's poorest countries are able to receive a good education.

If the device recognises a man it will display a message directing him to the charity's website.

The advert, which will have a two-week trial, will use a high-definition camera to scan hundreds of thousands of passers-by. It will guess their gender based on the distance between their eyes, the width of their nose, length of the jawline and shape of their cheekbones. With a built-in computer, touchscreen and sound, it will be 90 per cent accurate, its designers say.

"We're not giving men and boys the choice to see the full ad on this occasion – so they get a glimpse of what it's like to have basic choices taken away," said Marie Staunton, Plan UK's chief executive.

But privacy campaigners have expressed concern about the ad. The Open Rights Group called it "creepy". Neil Chapman, the head of the creative team at Clear Channel UK, the company who designed the ad, said full-blown Minority Report advertising would be his "idea of hell". He stressed his advert would not record or save any of the data it detects. His company is already in talks with many other clients to get more targeted advertising campaigns launched this year.

The technology, a first in the UK, has been trialled in other countries: Facebook launched facial-recognition software for its photo services last year, the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas has used it on digital displays to tailor recommendations to passers-by, while the electrical giant NEC is using it to collect information on the age range and gender of customers at shops across Japan.

Steven Hess, a digital marketing consultant, said such technology marks the "beginning of a shift from essentially dumb advertising to intelligent advertising" in the UK. He added that we could expect to see a future of personal advertising with "no boundaries".

What's next? Interactive advertising to keep you spending

Mirror images The use of digital cameras within advertisements to overlay products on top of real images. So, for example, a shopper could look at an advert and see a picture of the hat she is thinking of buying as it would look on her own head.

Buy-as-you-browse Touch-screen adverts could enable you to book a table at your local restaurant via the ad hoarding while, for example, waiting at your underground station or bus stop.

Age-appropriate ads As facial-recognition technology becomes more sophisticated, retailers will be able to work out what age bracket you belong to and direct age-specific commercials your way.