When you look at a billboard, you don't expect the billboard to look back at you.
Advertisements aren't human, but an Ontario company will soon be giving them the gift of sight with a new technology that allows signs to see if people are staring at them.
A camera called the eyebox2 monitors eye movements from as far away as 10 metres, enabling a measurement that should make advertisers slobber with excitement. The device uses an infrared technology to photograph eye movements so it can detect when someone glances its way. Affixing the eyebox2 to a billboard lets advertisers know if the signage is getting solid eye traffic. Basically, it's like measuring page views on a website.
"Measuring how many eyeballs look at an ad can correlate with actual interest and buying behaviour," says eyebox2 inventor Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Laboratory at Queen's University and CEO of Xuuk, which manufactures the device. Selling for $1,000, it's is being marketed to big-name advertising companies, Vertegaal adds.
The idea came to him more than 10 years ago, when he was developing some of the first software programs for Web-conferencing videos. "I could see people but they couldn't see me, and I wanted to change that," Vertegaal says.
His team of researchers decided to leverage the red-eye effect that annoys photographers. The eyebox2 registers a view by causing a moment of red-eye when heads swivel in its direction. Vertegaal is quick to point out that the camera doesn't register who it watches, only how many people look its way.
"It's a passive technology that simply counts how many people have been looking at a particular ad and for how long, just as a door sensor observes whether people might be interested in going through the doorway," says Vertegaal.
While that may allay Big Brother-type fears, some advertising experts believe that lack of identification is a major shortcoming of the device.
"Advertisers need to understand the kind of people they're reaching, not just how many, " says Fred Forster, president of PHD Canada, a company that plans media strategies for advertisers. He says the eyebox2 doesn't make financial sense because it simply highlights an ad's visibility and not its efficacy.
Vertegaal counters by claiming that there is demand from companies to count eyeball traffic as opposed to pinpointing demographic groups.
"Iris-scanning is difficult, expensive and comes with a host of problems for the public," he notes. "If the market turns that way, we'll catch up, but for now we don't see it that way."
The market may already be leaning to more eye-tracking gadgetry. Australia-based TABANAR (Targeted Advertising Based on Audience Natural Response) uses an LCD screen and a camera to change ads based on how a passerby responds.
If someone turns away from the ad (and from the camera attached to the screen), the LCD quickly shows another ad. But if the camera notices a face watching the screen front-on, the system assumes the person likes the ad and will continue playing it. The camera can also track the angle of a person's face to determine which part of the ad is being watched.
Undoubtedly, TANBAR's and Vertegaal's projects have the potential to usher in a new era of eye-tracking technology. Whether that's good news for society at large, no one can determine just yet. This sector of digital signage media is too young to label as invasive or unobtrusive. But don't think the sci-tech behind eyebox2 will stop at supplying sighted ads.
Vertegaal wants to turn eye contact into a marketable tool. His wide-ranging vision includes hearing aids that amplify the voice of the person you're looking at, and TV sets that turn off when you're not watching them.
Now, those are ideas any Luddite could support. But will the ever-watching adverts find favour with a skeptical public that likes to keep its billboards blind?