A Japanese company proposes billboards capable of automatically recognizing the age and sex of people passing by. The goal is to let companies better know customers in order to target them in an even more efficient way.

The project, called the Digital Signage Promotion Project, has been adopted by 11 transit companies, with 27 “vigilant” ad billboards installed so far in Tokyo subway stations.

The idea is both simple and innovative. Smart billboards have embedded cameras that scan people’s faces. The system detects age and sex whether or not they stop to look at the ad. Time spent looking at the ad can also be evaluated.

For companies that have launched the project, these billboards were first conceived as an efficient way to have a better understanding of people watching ads in the subway. For advertisers and marketers, these smart billboards are a true game-changer. Until now, collected data was mainly focused on press and television. Street billboard data was rare and often confusing.

Largely inspired by the smart billboards Steven Spielberg’s movie Minority Report - a source of inspiration for a lot of research and development labs - these billboards are not yet capable of calling out the names of people, but are observant enough to glean some key information for marketers.

Even if demographic data gathered by these futuristic advertisements is still basic, this project asks important questions about privacy. Advertisers have promised not to keep any video but there is not full disclosure - people passing by these ads are never informed of what is going on. Smart billboards are discrete and look like any other billboard.

Smart billboards reveal a strong trend: new technologies are encroaching more and more upon the public space and previously "dumb" objects now share information and use it for an advantage.

By Frédéric Tardy