Could Software Allow Shelves To Look Back At Consumers?

Technology that has been deployed to digitally watch—and analyze—how consumers interact with digital signage could also be used to interpret what they are doing while looking at a cereal shelf. Are they ignoring the product or are they picking it up, reading the label and then quickly putting it back? Does the timing and eye movement indicate they were repulsed by the sugar content (near the bottom) or the low fiber count?

The in-store digital technology approach comes from a Bellevue, WA, vendor called Intava, and it's boasting "a new audience measurement tool that tracks consumers' faces as they look at interactive displays. A small camera mounted on a digital display follows a customer's eyes and examines the characteristics of the face to determine if the shopper looked at the screen and for how long," said a statement from the 8-year-old 30-employee company with revenues "greater than $5 million," according to Intava CEO Troy Carroll.

But Carroll said there's no reason—aside from privacy concerns—that the cameras and software couldn't be set up to monitor and analyze consumer product interactions.

"We can definitely set up a zone of an aisle and we can definitely track how long did they linger" and could "analyze the angle of the person's face" to determine the direction they are looking, Carroll said.

With a large enough budget, he said, the ultimate test would be to capture customers as soon as they enter the store (akin to what Home Depot is doing with a kiosk trial, where customers are being given loyalty cards with embedded RFID active tags) and use a series of digital cameras to track them throughout the store.

"We could track what they are looking at, where they are lingering," Carroll speculated. "We'd have a log that contains every important fact about that store visit."

True enough. Indeed, if consumers are also using retailer-issued-and-owned credit cards, the surveillance could extend to what retailers they visited after they left the store and how much they bought there, assuming they use the same merchant-owned credit card.

Carroll questioned aloud how far this might go. "In the future, how much privacy invasion are you going to allow?" he said, adding "I can imagine the rules will be much more stringent in Europe and less so in the United States."