Billboards that Watch you Back


Small cameras can now be embedded in the screen or hidden around it, tracking who looks at the screen and for how long. The makers of the tracking systems say the software can determine the viewer’s gender, approximate age range and, in some cases, ethnicity—and can change the ads accordingly.

That could mean razor ads for men, cosmetics ads for women and video-game ads for teens.

And even if the ads don’t shift based on which people are watching, the technology’s ability to determine the viewers’ demographics is golden for advertisers who want to know how effectively they’re reaching their target audience.

While the technology remains in limited use for now, advertising industry analysts say it is finally beginning to live up to its promise. The manufacturers say their systems can accurately determine gender 85 to 90 percent of the time, while accuracy for the other measures continues to be refined.

These are ads at eye level: on the streets, in malls, in train stations.

Posted on February 11, 2009 at 2:53 PM46 Comments


Charles Decker February 11, 2009 3:24 PM

You realize, of course, how much fun one could have with one of these with a box of popsicle sticks, some posterboard, and a handful of printouts of other peoples (preferably famous) faces.

I’m thinking a rotation between Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Jim Carrey, Britney Spears, Rush Limbaugh, Thatcher, Snoop Dogg to start, an attachment of wire (coathanger strength) that puts the face at the proper range and just leaving it there. Staring.

RH February 11, 2009 3:38 PM

“Hello Mr. Yakamoto. Welcome back to the GAP. How’d those assorted tank tops work out for you?”
-Minority Report

Garrett G February 11, 2009 3:49 PM

Oh no, the sky is falling!

Seriously, I think it’s a pretty neat idea, assuming it works better than “traditional” methods and is cost-effective (I suspect it will be given enough time).

another bruce February 11, 2009 3:52 PM


why stop there? 100 years from now, in return for certain subsidies (expenses of childbirth, clothing while growing up, college costs) new parents will be able to have special contact lenses microsutured to baby’s eyes, and these lenses will display ads to the wearer as often as ads appear on tv now. no getting out of seeing those, even if baby closes his eyes. television and reality will essentially merge and become utterly indistinct from each other.

Geoffrey Kidd February 11, 2009 3:54 PM

One word: sunglasses.

Alternative: mirrorshades

That and crossdressing can probably result in driving the system crazy. 🙂

34 February 11, 2009 4:05 PM


Exactly! “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness!”

Wonder how long it is before those things are equipped with face recognition databases & speech synthesizers… -_-;

neill February 11, 2009 4:05 PM

i can see privacy lawsuites comeing

e.g. shopping at victorias secrets with your wife and the billboard mentions a recently aquired piece of clothing that she knows nothing about (but your favorite female friend)

Nigel February 11, 2009 4:29 PM

For a vision as to where this will all end up: ‘Merchants War’ by Frederik Pohl.
Once a decade I reread my copy to see how much closer we are getting. Years ago when building a VR world I programmed the intelligent billboards to have custom messages as users went past. This was going to be one of the revenue streams from users, customised adverts suited to the individual. That work started in 1993.
Anyway, here’s a sample from the book.

New York, New York!....I saw a miraculously clear stretch of sidewalk....I walked past — and WOWP a blast of sound shook my skull and FLOOP a great supernova flare of light burned my eyes, and I went staggering and reeling as tiny, tiny elf voices shouted like needles in my ear Mokie-Koke, Mokie-Koke, MokieMokieMokie-Koke!

...."I warned ya," yelled the little old man from a safe distance....He was still waving the signpost, so I staggered closer and blearily managed to deciper the legend under the graffiti:

Enter at Own Risk

...."What's a 'Mokie-Coke'?" I asked.....There was a vending machine, just like all the other Mokie-Koke machines I'd been seeing all along, on the Moon, in the spaceport, along the city streets. "Don't fool with the singles" he advised anxiously. "Go for the six-pack, okay?"....Poor old guy! I felt so sorry for him that I split the six-pack as we headed for the address the Agency had given me. Three shots apiece. He thanked me with tears in his eyes but, all the same, out of the second six-pack I only gave him one.

...."Dr. Mosskristal will review your medical problem for you." And the tone said bad news...."What you have," she explained, "is a Campbellian reflex. Named after Dr. H.J. Campbell. Famous pioneering psychologist in the old days, inventor of limbic-pleasure therapy."...."Let's just say that you've had your limbic areas stimulated; under the influence of that great upwelling of pleasure you've become conditioned to associate Mokie-Koke with joy, and there's nothing to be done about it."

FP February 11, 2009 5:28 PM

I remember being in an arcade in Tokyo maybe 5 years ago. They had a horse racing simulation game with maybe 20 seats. They had large screens at the perimeter, where a beautiful blonde would entice you to play. It didn’t work on me since I don’t understand Japanese, but the screens would detect you approaching the screen and your orientation towards the screen, and it would play the prerecorded video sequence so that the blonde appeared to be looking you in the eye. It was quite a startling effect.

So “billboards” detecting your presence and looking back at you is not new.

askme233 February 11, 2009 5:47 PM

I actually prefer to have Google present ads I care about andcan imagine the billboards could go the same route.

For a proposal to the Defense Dept we gave hardcopy presentations to each General. The presentations each had unique powered RFID chips in them.

Then, as the Generals were headed out to the Beltway we had billboards that detected which General was driving by and thanked him personally. We won the work.

Anon February 11, 2009 5:51 PM

“Anonymous” masks and ankle-length hooded robes.

Because it is so embarrassing when the billboard asks in a loud blaring voice if you want to renew your subscription to or recognises you and offers you the latest in haemorrhoid treatments.

kashmarek February 11, 2009 5:57 PM

I wonder if they recognize the standard single digit salute? Truely, invasion of the mind snatchers.

Ravan February 11, 2009 5:58 PM

Great. Being a middle aged female, I will now be inundated with yet more ads targeted to the pink ghetto: diet plans, makeup, tarty dresses, high heels, hair dye, celebrity tips, weight loss books, anti-aging gimmicks, low-cal “meals”, perfume, fat pills, face creams, useless supplements, blah, blah, blah. Never mind that I don’t buy any of this crap, and am rather revolted by the assumption that as a female over 40 I am automatically a shallow, appearance obsessed spendthrift. Who knows, maybe the cameras will pick up my upraised middle finger and switch the display to an ad for alternative rock.

George February 11, 2009 6:02 PM

I wonder if it’s smart enough to notice, for example, that I have a beard and therefore not show me a razor ad….

Clive Robinson February 11, 2009 6:23 PM

@ Ravan,

“will pick up my upraised middle finger and switch the display to an ad for alternative rock”

Would that be for diamond or zirconium?

@ Anon

“or recognises you and offers you the latest in haemorrhoid treatments.”

Would that be the one Steve Martin advertised with the extra lanoline for improved comfort?

Filias Cupio February 11, 2009 7:28 PM

What if there is another billboard opposite this one with a picture of a person? Better yet, two of these billboards that can see each other could start trying to sell to each other.

Trevor Stone February 11, 2009 7:55 PM

In defense, we should only go out in public wearing a clown outfit.

In addition to foiling automatic recognition systems, just think of the mental health benefits!

Peter E Retep February 11, 2009 8:50 PM

Real spies have been wearing clown outfits for decades, just look at REAL SPIES the movie with Mr. Belushi!

King February 12, 2009 2:51 AM

This really isn’t really any creepier than an automatic door opening for me. So the sign can determine (let’s assume correctly) my gender and approximate age. How is my privacy affected? Anybody standing by the sign with me knows the same thing.

I suspect people messing with it to fool it will dilute any usefulness it might actually have.

A nonny bunny February 12, 2009 3:31 AM

They really only need to recognize if there’s someone in front of the board; soon enough they can get the rest of the information by probing the RFID chip in people’s ID.

Tim February 12, 2009 3:53 AM

In the article, it states “even if it gets to 70 percent accuracy, that’s still giving you a wealth of information”. I feel they really ought not overlook it is giving them the, er, opportunity to deeply offend 30% of their potential customers.

Troy February 12, 2009 4:48 AM

In fairness, I think the media is picking up the wrong side of this technology. This seems much more useful for demographic tracking than ad tailoring. From the article: “A 15-second video ad that replays across Adspace’s national network can cost as much as $765,000 per month. So advertisers expect rigorous information about who sees the spots – information that face tracking can now provide, Ketcham said.”

So really, compare this to paying a guy to sit next to the ad and take notes about who looks at the ad and for how long. You might think the guy was a little weird, but most people wouldn’t think it’s worth wearing a clown costume just to mess with him (it would be much more worthwhile to wear a clown costume to mess with everyone!).

Also from the article: “So a video screen might show a motorcycle ad for a group of men, but switch to a minivan ad when women and children join them”

Okay… so the motorcycle ad is cut off half-way through, upsetting the motorcycle advertiser, and the group of men who were watching the ad. Not to mention the women and kids who came over to see the bikes, too!

Changing the ad based on who’s looking at it doesn’t make sense… at least not until people are trained to look at every ad board, in case it changes to something they’re interested in. I mean, currently if I want to look at an ad board, it’s because I’m curious about what’s on there NOW, not (necessarily) what some marketer thinks someone in my estimated demographic wants to see.

In fact, I could imagine that after being caught a couple of times with the ad I actually looked at the poster for disappearing when I start to look at it, I’d probably end up not bothering to look at the ad posters any more at that venue.

Troy February 12, 2009 4:56 AM

This is a security blog, better post something about security 🙂

Except I’m just not sure this technology is particularly exciting from a security point of view. The CCTV camera comparison has already been brought up… if a CCTV network isn’t able to feasibly track or identify people in public, then I don’t think a system which might get gender accurate 70% of the time is going to bring anything to the table here.

Particular Random Guy February 12, 2009 6:42 AM

@Tom: What makes thing even worse: The same 30% people will be misadvertized over and over again.

“This will teach those damn rockers to cut heir long hair” 🙂

DZG February 12, 2009 8:11 AM

So my thought process goes like this :

How long before this is a full blown facial recognition system?

How long before that system gets tied into a giant commercial database that has a record of your on-line activities already aggregated by on-line advertisers?

How long before the system is co-opted through function creep for the purposes of “public safety”, and every time it detects a sex offender walking by the billboard snaps a picture, changes the display to that picture with their face highlighted and the brilliant bold words “Sex Offender” under it? How often will there be false positives with this system? How often will there be false negatives?

jammit February 12, 2009 10:03 AM

…There /has/ to be a way to get yourself on some sort of ad list for doctors who do penis shortening operations.
I could see trying to hack the system. Maybe I could wear a shirt (possibly embedded with e-paper) that fuzzes the system with bar codes. Maybe we’ll find a code that gets us in.

Clive Robinson February 12, 2009 10:51 AM

Just a thought,

What if they put the technology in TV’s…

It could randomly change adverts and see which you are interested in, and after only a short while have a profile of each family members likes and dislikes…

Now if it was in the “cable TV box” then it could send the profiles back to base knowing exactly which house etc you are in. And the companies systems also probably know your credit card or bank account number to add to the data.

I suspect it would make a very very profitable service as advertisers products could be quickly tested by the brand holder for effectivness…

Bryan Feir February 12, 2009 11:12 AM

@Clive Robinson:
And the world of Max Headroom inches closer to being true… using Nielsen Ratings to decide elections, anybody?

mark r February 12, 2009 11:53 AM

It would be cool if it could respond to gestures – change the ad if I give it a thumbs-down, more of the same if I like it… If i’m waiting for a train or something, I’ve got nothing better to do. But it seems like advertising always gets more annoying rather than less.

cedk421 February 12, 2009 12:14 PM

@Bryan Feir
“And the world of Max Headroom inches closer to being true… using Nielsen Ratings to decide elections, anybody?”

Didn’t that just happen?

bob February 12, 2009 1:05 PM

@ Ravan,
“will pick up my upraised middle finger and switch the display to an ad for alternative rock”

Or it will remember you as a possible doctor who wants to advertise prostate-exams.

Annie Nomous February 12, 2009 2:36 PM


Being a middle-aged female who gives the finger to the ads for high heels and makeup, you’ll get a Harley Davidson ad. The catchline will be “Not available in pink.”

EJ February 13, 2009 12:43 AM

So, if I avoid looking at the screens, I’m safe?

Also, I could see this going beyond the merely annoying:

Let’s say a billboard notices that a person watching is heavier than average, and so shows an ad for weight-loss products. Every time this person looks at the billboard: weight-loss products. Now, let’s say the same person has a history of problems with eating disorders, and every time they look at the billboard: weight-loss products.

At what point does this become harassment?

Red February 14, 2009 7:09 PM

So if a bus goes past with an advert + face then it switches. What if two bill boards were placed on opposite sides of street. Would they fight it out.

Time I got one of those pico projectors out and nailed to my hat. I could project a mustache/beard or lipstick at will onto my face.

Could you harass other passers by by popping up suitable images of people that trigger individually offensive adverts ? As the tech gets more and more targeted the scope for abuse gets more rampant particularly when ordinary people get to know that these are individually selected ads just for them.

Somautota April 24, 2009 5:52 PM

I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…

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