Albeit too fast for privacy advocates, face recognition technologies appear to be advancing far enough to finally offer a real solution for retailers.
NEC just launched a facial recognition system in Japan that lets retailers profile customers to estimate not only gender and age but whether the shopper has been at the store before and how frequently she shops there. Using only a security camera and an internet browser connected to NEC's cloud computing technology, the service, NeoFace, also apparently comes at a budget-friendly $800 U.S. per month.
NeoFace is intended for retailers with multiple stores, enabling them to detect repeat customers across locations. Individuals are recognized regardless of changing facial expressions, facial hair or eyeglasses.
"Retailers can find out how many customers visit their stores at each time of day, and what customer's attributes are," said an NEC spokesperson in an interview with Japan's DigInfo.
Another option is the EyeSee from Italy's Almax SpA. A camera embedded in a mannequin's eye gives reads on ages, sex and race. Store associates can even be scanned out.
Online, Facebook is employing facial-recognition technology to assist in photo tagging.
PC Magazine likened the technology's potential at retail to the scene in the movie, "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise walks into a Gap store and is "instantly recognized, prompting the system to suggest new purchases based on that customer's purchase history." Knowing the general makeup of customer traffic can also help stores maximize window displays, layouts, personal and promotions by time of day.
But most facial recognition articles ultimately bring up security and privacy concerns. Encrypting the biometric data and not storing the images may address some of these issues.
On the privacy side, the FTC in October released guidelines basically saying consumers had to opt-in to allow businesses to use facial recognition technology. Details on how the captured images are being used also have to be given. But some extra language added to those signs indicating that cameras are installed for security purposes may fulfill those guidelines.
While Almax claims a "few dozen" retailers in Europe and the U.S. are using its EyeSee mannequins since its launch last December, Nordstrom is at least one believing facial recognition crosses the privacy line. Nordstrom spokesman Colin Johnson told Bloomberg News, "It's a changing landscape but we're always going to be sensitive about respecting the customer's boundaries."
What's the likelihood that facial recognition technologies will become fairly common at retail over the next three to five years?