The Scent Of A Woman, Kiosk Style

Fragrance-dispensing kiosks in France are relying on face-recognition technology to decide whether the spritzes they deliver should be for men or women. Similar technology, recently displayed in Japan, delivers ads based on the ages and genders of people passing by.

These systems illustrate the advances being made in face recognition for retail applications as the technology evolves from the realm of discussion to the reality of the store, sidewalk and mall corridor. For retailers, the goal is targeting advertising to those consumers most likely to be engaged. But the effort is running headlong into some sticky ethical questions involving personal privacy.

What will happen if face-recognition-powered digital signs and kiosks are able to learn the identities of shoppers merely by scanning their faces and matching those images against known consumer images? Such techniques are already being used in airports, with federal agencies comparing file images of suspected terrorists against those that video cameras pick up at the airport.

Could this approach work for a mass consumer audience? Many applications today—such as Xobni—already scour the Web trying to match images of people with those who are apparently sending E-mail to the application's user. But with the E-mail effort, the trick is looking for an E-mail address match and then trying to find a photo. Starting with a photo is a much more challenging task.

But with RFID-tagged loyalty cards, what would be the benefit of face recognition in a store? Would a name do much good without a purchase history?

Of course, there's the question of how reliable such a system would be, especially in the early stages. Face recognition age-verification systems have had more than their share of embarrassingly inaccurate moments.

All Seeing Eyes

But for today, we're quite a ways off from that scenario. To some, however, the "TargetScent" fragrance-dispensing kiosks displayed recently in France are creepy enough.

The units detect human faces in their vicinity, according to an announcement by facial recognition specialist Quividi, which developed the kiosks in partnership with fragrance diffusion device maker Presensia. After determining that the nearby life form is, indeed, human, the units proceed to "estimate the corresponding gender" of the prospective customers and choose an "appropriate fragrance" to be puffed into the air. The kiosks then "can diffuse up to four different scents up to a 5-meter distance," said the company.

TargetScent kiosk's interactions with people are captured by a Webcam, which sends a live video feed to Quividi's software and "analyses it in real time, without recording any image nor extracting any personal information," Quividi promises. The company said anonymous information is "logged to measure the impact of TargetScent."

A less "in your face" approach to face recognition in retail was announced January 28 by NEC. The company has developed face-recognition advertising kiosks that "see" people as they approach, check out their facial characteristics and deliver ads based on what they believe to be their relative age and gender. Even those passionate about privacy are likely to agree both the TargetScent units and NEC's kiosks are rather harmless uses of face-recognition technology.

It could be argued that the worst part of the NEC offering is its mildly nauseating name: "Eye Flavor." Maybe something is lost in the translation from Japanese. However, to those who fear a future where digital signage can identify who they are, not just what they are, by scanning their faces, the name is less distasteful than the potential loss of privacy. Nearly every story these days about face recognition in ad technology mentions Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film featuring shopping malls equipped with eye-scanning signs that identify people and serve very, very personalized ads.