I avoid Black Friday like the plague. First of all, I pretty much hate people, and right behind that, I hate shopping, so the two together combine to make me pretty surly. However, it never occurred to me that me being surly could result in getting better promotions on products and services. According to an article by Eric Niiler, writing on Discovery.com, that’s just what could be happening.
Black Friday retailers aren’t just seducing customers with flashy deals, price discounts and shiny wrappers, some may also be using advanced facial recognition technology to find out what you like and what it would take to get you to spend your money. By combining new kinds of face and emotion recognition technology with old-fashioned advertising psychology, companies are better understanding how people react to their products online, or through ads on Facebook, Vine or Instagram, for example.
“The magical thing about using facial coding is that faces don’t lie,” said Rada el Kaliouby, chief science officer of Affectiva, a Waltham, Mass firm. “It’s very transparent.” And feelings affect our buying decisions, she said.
Affectiva and other tech companies have developed methods to distinguish a potential shopper’s moods in regard to a product by watching how a face responds. All that’s needed is a webcam to tell if the person is pleased, happy, displeased, smirking, confused or angry. The software can also tell whether the person’s heart rate level is rising or falling through tiny changes in the his or her skin color. “Emotions drive aspects of our everyday life, not only how we interact with each other but how we make decisions about what type of house or car you’re going to buy,” el Kaliouby said. “It’s not really a surprise that brand creators and marketers have been interested in understanding how they drive thing like brand perception and brand loyalty. They’ve struggled to do that, the typical approach is you just ask people. You watch an ad and ask them are you more willing to buy the product.”
Affective and other firms like London-based Real Eyes sell their services to market research firms, which in turn work for big retailers in food, clothing and consumer goods.
Right now, all these webcam and software tests are done with volunteers who first consent to have their faces scanned as part of a survey. But in the near future, unsuspecting shoppers may get the same treatment when they walk into the local mall or big box retailer. Jeffrey Cohn, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, notes that security cameras are already ubiquitous — in buses, shopping malls, and even at the gas station. Could these images, designed to stop shoplifting, also be used to gather and process facial response data? “Where are the rules?” said Cohn, who noted that he was asked recently by a company to develop a camera to do just that. He declined.
Once retailers can watch your expression without you knowing it, some experts believe we may be seeing “smart” advertising that can quickly adapt to the customer’s moods. Martin Salo, CEO of Real Eyes, notes that 3D cameras already can track body movements using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, a popular gaming device. But what if facial and body recognition software gets embedded in your personal smartphone or tablet? “These sensors allow you to track body movements more accurately and capture body language,” Salo said from Tallinn, Estonia. “They will be everywhere, even in your phones in the future. In your iPhone, just as you have your geo-location chip turned on or off, you will have the ability to turn your behavioral sensors on or off.”
Given that cameras are everywhere, and faces are no longer anonymous, there may be big looming privacy questions that perhaps aren’t being asked, according to Rosalind Picard, director of the Affective Computing Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder of Affectiva, along with El Kaliouby. “I’d like to know what a company does with that information,” Picard said. “Obviously, the person wants to sell me something, but I would like to know how much they know about me. Then I probably want some controls.” For their part, representatives at Affectiva reassure that the people whose faces they scan are volunteers and the company strictly protects their privacy.