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Big Brother Screen in Piccadilly Wants to Get to Know You--Really, Really Well

A giant pixel-screen in the middle of London has started using facial and object-recognition technology to scan cars as well as pedestrians—making judgments about age, gender, income and even mood and language.

London's Piccadilly Circus has lit up what’s being un-affectionately called the “Big Brother billboard”, which scans you and your accoutrements to find out pretty much anything it can in order to serve up “relevant” messages and marketing. It also takes into account real-time environmental data, like weather, to curate zeitgeisty branded content.

Targeted advertising is the holy grail for brands and marketers, but recently they seem to have forgotten that the line between “useful” and “full-on creepy stalker” is very thin indeed. To wit: This billboard wants to know everything about you. It watches all, with an array of hidden cameras, a giant eye-of-eyes towering above the statue of Eros, mixing in with the neon and the flashing of the surrounding signage. But it’s all for YOU—it wants to give you ads that fit YOU. It’s frankly pretty obsessed with you.

Is it concerning? The company that owns the billboard, Landsec, said that it will not be collecting or storing any personal details, and said that it’s up to each advertiser how they want to use the technology. Coca-Cola, Hyundai, L’Oréal and Samsung have all signed up to share the screen.

Tim Bleakley, CEO at the company running ads for the board, Ocean Outdoor, explained a bit to the Daily Mail about how it works earlier in the year: “Coca-Cola, for example, can log on at any given moment, see a large group of Spanish tourists and change the copy of the ad from ‘hello,’ to ‘buenos dias’.”

Errr…that’s not creepy or anything...right?

Big Brother also beams out free Wi-Fi, which could be used to gather more details on visitors to the iconic London landmark roundabout—should our dark billboard overlords choose.

“The reality of this digital game is that the free Wi-Fi you connect to is the real gold-mine for the sponsors of this technology,” said Douglas Crawford, an analyst with BestVPN.com, speaking to MailOnline.

To be fair, this sort of thing in and of itself isn’t totally new technology—billboards like this one that track the make and model of cars whizzing by on the motorway have been around for a while, and the principle there is fairly straightforward. As Kevin Foreman, general manager of geoanalytics at INRIX, a real-time traffic information company, told the Miami Herald: “Often your car is a proxy for demographics. We get several ad agencies who say, I want to advertise to affluent men over $100,000 [in annual salary] with XYZ education. Often driving a BMW or an Audi is a proxy for that.”

But does it cross the line when a hidden camera is scanning facial expressions for individuals without their consent or perhaps even knowledge? It’s reminiscent of the Black Mirror episode, 15 Million Merits, where one’s facial expression is constantly monitored and projected onto a digital avatar. That monitoring is also used in the episode to know when a person is closing their eyes to an advertisement—with punishment ensuing.

Not to mention the annoyance factor. I can envision a campaign for a certain soft drink that may or may not have been mentioned earlier in this article (and which has built its brand around making people feel happy) that targets anyone who appears to be upset, crying, frowning, etc. Maybe the message is “cheer up! Have a soda!” Or, “turn that frown upside down and buy a soda!” But if I’m upset, do I really need a huge billboard the size of three (maybe four—reports vary) tennis courts to give me a targeted pep talk in a thinly veiled attempt to part me from my two quid? Nope. That’s not relevant, that’s just going to want me to punch something.

The board continues to be controversial, but it’s unlikely it will be coming down anytime soon. And there are some cool things about it: While at certain times a brand will have access to all of the screen’s real estate for an ad, most of the time it will be divided into six separate chunks, all streaming live video, social media feeds, news and sports results—and there will be opportunities for visitors to interact with the screen content (by choice). This is similar to some of the approaches found in New York’s Times Square, including a large Forever 21 billboard that allows people shopping in the store to become amateur “models” for a few minutes, broadcasting their image from the screen. 

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