Feb 7, 2012Science and Technology
Surveillance cameras study store customers with marketing analysis software

One of the key components for companies looking to make money on the Internet is their ability to mine customer data. Web sites will take some of your data, such as a history of clicks that you’ve made, and sell it to other entities or use it themselves to target product sales.

It’s probably natural that transferring that ability to gather data covertly from the world of the Internet into the physical world was inevitable. Short of having someone follow a customer around, writing down every product they consider, it hasn’t exactly been practical to mine customer data in this way.

A start-up software company, Prism Skylabs, has figured out a way to make this process easier by tracking customer decisions as they walk through an actual store, using surveillance camera footage.

While this might sound like something straight out of the new television show, Person of Interest, where extensive video surveillance and intuitive computing software are used to find people who may be in danger, Prism Skylabs’ ideas are much more simplistic. With surveillance video cameras growing in popularity in the United States -- Prism Skylabs estimates about 40 million of them are in use -- the system can provide some useful data, as long as the software is in place to properly decipher it.

For example, the Prism Skylabs software can monitor the way customers move through the store, giving companies the ability to position displays for the most effect. Some companies may use the software to determine which products people consider most often, but ultimately choose not to buy. With that information, marketing information could be changed to encourage them to ultimately make the purchase.

As of now, the Prism Skylabs software is specifically designed to ensure that no unique personal data is collected. Prism Skylabs has gone as far in its demonstrations as to show people represented by colored trails as they move through a store to make them anonymous.

However, once it’s shown that video surveillance can work to collect meaningful data, it’s probably not long before some companies begin connecting personal information to the collected data. Even as Prism Skylabs has shown that its software can make individuals anonymous, it also has shown how its software can enhance the typically poor quality of surveillance video cameras to create high resolution images by virtually combining several frames of video data.

Certainly, the idea of detailed video surveillance has long been a worrisome sticking point for some organizations concerned with invasion of privacy issues. Additionally, the gathering of personal data for use in business has sparked various privacy acts from the federal government. Combining the two seems to be a natural area where privacy laws should protect individuals.

But, when it comes to tracking you inside a store, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the company that’s paying for the surveillance software wouldn’t want the most benefit for each dollar it’s spending. How valuable would it be for a company to have a software system that recognizes you through video surveillance as you enter the store, allowing the store to tailor its in-store advertising and graphical displays to your particular tastes? The store might even be able to offer you instant coupons for products that you’ve bought in the past, should you agree to spend, say, at least 15 minutes browsing in the store. The video surveillance software could measure your time in the store automatically, generating the savings with no interaction required by the store’s personnel. Although some people may find this to be a significant invasion of privacy, others might appreciate the opportunity to receive these kinds of targeted advertising and discounts, feeling that the gathered information is harmless to their privacy.

Regardless of which side of the fence you fall upon, there’s little doubt that these types of ideas are just in the infancy stages -- they aren’t going away. Businesses are going to look for ways to use the tools they already have in place more efficiently, including video cameras and customer data gathering software. Businesses have seen the effectiveness of collecting customer data through social media and Internet tools, and they’re interested in bringing that success into their actual stores.

As with any tool that technology brings to us, there are ways to use it that most people feel are harmless. However, some people will choose to push those technological boundaries, causing potential problems and claims of invasion of privacy. It’ll be up to individuals to work through governmental representatives to determine whether laws will be required to keep these types of video surveillance techniques in check.

In a society where social media has publicized many personal aspects of people’s lives, privacy concerns seem to be eroding, at least when it comes to what people decide is harmless information. Watching how you move around a store seems harmless enough at face value. If that’s truly the case, Prism Skylabs may have just the right product appearing at just the right time to become successful.

Andrei IvanovBig Brother. Always watching. Always selling his merchandise.
Feb 8, 2012
Richard NoguchiPretty interesting stuff.
Feb 7, 2012