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Tokyo's intelligent digital billboards can tell gender, age of passersby

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Tokyo is currently testing digital advertising billboards that use cameras to understand the gender and age group of passersby who look at them.

Every time a new technology is announced, it's tempting to make a reference to the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report.

This time it's for real.

Tokyo, Japan's Digital Signage Promotion Project is currently trying out digital advertising billboards fitted with cameras that can discern the gender and age group of passersby who look at them.

The point? To tailor their commercial messages to the onlooker.

A consortium of 11 railway companies launched the pilot project last month, and has since set up 27 intelligent displays in subway commuter stations around Tokyo.

In JR Shinjuku station, straphangers are informed about two 52-inch smart billboards by a panel that reads, "Advertising survey under way; images being recorded to determine gender and age groups."

"The camera can distinguish a person's sex and approximate age, even if the person only walks by in front of the display, at least if he or she looks at the screen for a second," said a spokesman for the project to the AFP.

As you might expect, the billboards' operators promise that they will not save recorded images. What they will do is collect data about groups of people, which will help advertisers learn what works best at which locations in the city and at what time during the day.

To compare, here's the scene from the film:

According to the annual Digital Signage Japan show, the applications are almost endless:

  • Shopping malls
  • Department stores
  • Convenience stores
  • Amusement parks
  • Arcades
  • Bowling alleys
  • Sports stadiums
  • Hotels
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Transportation terminals
  • Highways (!)
  • Offices
  • Homes

What do you think: invasion of privacy, or brilliance in marketing?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure