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Billboards displayed in different spaces and dashboard with data related to a billboard performance

AI-driven signs are deciding what to display based on data harvested from passersby.

What’s new: Companies that sell advertising in public spaces use face analysis and personal data to match ads with potential viewers in real time, civil-liberties watchdog Big Brother UK detailed in a new report.

How it works: The report compiles applications and case studies drawn from product summaries and blog posts published by ad-tech companies.

  • Quividi, a French maker of smart signs, offers a system that analyzes up to 100 faces at a time, identifying their gender, age, and mood along with the direction they’re facing and how long they look at the screen. UK advertising company Ocean Outdoor uses Quividi’s technology in shopping malls and commercial districts in five UK cities. One of its ads promoted Emoji Movie by showing passersby with their faces overlaid by emojis. Another that was intended to raise awareness of suicide risk depicted a girl with a sad expression who smiled when people looked at the ad.
  • Digital displays built by Florida-based Alfi include smart cameras that estimate the age and gender of nearby people. (They can also detect race or ethnicity, although the company says it doesn’t currently use this capability.) The company combines this information with data such as weather and time to select which ads to display. At least two UK shopping malls use Alfi systems, and taxis and ride-share vehicles in the UK and U.S. use them to control back-of-headrest screens.
  • ClearChannel, based in Texas, analyzes faces via 3,000 electronic billboards and 1,200 bus-stop signs in the UK. Many of its signs integrate technology from the German company Adsquare, which classifies groups such as “fast-food enthusiasts,” and “interested in organic and eco-conscious” food based on cell phone user data that details their locations, demographics, and interests. The system alters which ads it shows depending on which groups are passing by.

Behind the news: These companies walk a tightrope over local privacy protections. Adsquare, Alfi, and Quividi tout their compliance with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which protects privacy in member countries. Last year, U.S. lawmakers sent letters of concern to Lyft and Uber after some drivers independently put Alfi-equipped advertising screens in their vehicles. Both ride-share companies responded that equipment installed by drivers was beyond their control.

Why it matters: The combination of electronic signage, computer vision, and cloud computing brings to the real world practices that are common in advertising on the internet.

We’re thinking: Online advertising has flourished as increased personalization allowed more precise targeting. Public advertising is poised to do the same.


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