Scenario 1: A man walks into a bar and sits down. The bartender walks up to him and says, “Hi, Joe. We just got a new ale on tap that I think you’ll like. Here, try the first one on the house and see what you think.”
Scenario 2: A man walks into a bar and sits down. His smartphone chimes and he looks at the message on the screen. It reads “Welcome back to Barney’s Bar. Show this message to the bartender for a free ’I See You IPA’ that we think you’ll like.”
Do you have different reactions to these two scenarios? The first one is made possible by the age-old relationship between a bartender and his regular customers. He recognizes their faces, and in many cases, knows them by name. And it’s good for a business to give regulars a free drink or some other little bonus. It helps to strengthen the relationship, and demonstrates to the frequent customers that they are appreciated and acknowledged.
The second scenario is made possible by a new technology with the working name of “Facedeals” that has been developed by the ad agency Redpepper, based in Nashville. This experimental system relies on stand-alone cameras that are installed near the entrance to a retail store, where it can see the faces of customers as they enter.
“Facedeals” is the working name for an experimental system that uses facial recognition technology to offer rewards and discounts to registered shoppers. Credit: Redpepper.
Facedeals then sends these images via the Internet to a service that searches for a match to the faces. The way the system currently works is that customers must opt-in for the service on Facebook and provide some sample photos to be used to develop their visual identity. The service has no connection with Facebook, but it does use the Facebook check-in feature to automatically place the customer at the specific establishment.
Once the system identifies a face of a registered person, it can send a notification to the customer’s smartphone with a message about a discount or some other special offer.
Creepy or Crafty?
It seems that people tend to react in one of two ways to the idea of Facedeals. Some view it as a clever mash-up of various technologies, akin to FourSquare and other location and gamification schemes, while others have qualms about participating in a “Big Brother” surveillance system. In many ways, both reactions are reasonable.
From the technology side, Facedeals makes good sense. It takes computing power and communications channels that are widely available at extremely low cost and combines them in a way that creates a novel and potentially useful service. According to the Redpepper website, the cameras rely on open source technology, including Raspberry Pi, Arduino, OpenCV, and the Facebook Graph API.
The cameras only need a standard 110 volt power source and a Wi-Fi connection so that they can reach the Internet. This means that they do not need any expensive cabling; you can install one just about any place you have a wall outlet or a lamp.
In an era of Groupon, Yelp offers, and other shopping incentives, Facedeals makes it possible for retailers to offer a deal to their customers while they are present in the establishment. Sure, it would be great if all members of a store’s staff could recognize every repeat customer on sight, but that’s hardly practical. And it’s simply impossible if you want to extend the benefits across multiple locations of the same chain.
The system could ultimately take advantage of personalized data. Walk into a favorite clothing store: Facedeals would know that there are items in your size and style available on clearance. Or it could automatically track points in a customer loyalty program and put a coupon on your phone for a bonus discount or free item when you reach certain threshold levels. You wouldn’t have to carry a stack of loyalty cards for different stores.
On the darker side, there is a creepy aspect to the program. We tend to associate facial recognition systems and surveillance cameras more with Homeland Security and anti-terrorist activities than with our local coffee shop. Many of us appreciate a certain level of anonymity in our daily lives, even when we don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when we move about in public places.
While Facedeals would require that you register to participate, you never really know where your data goes if you choose to opt in to a service such as this. For example, personalized ad campaigns on Internet sites are becoming commonplace. If you buy something from Amazon, your next visit to a news site might show a related product in an advertisement. Where would your data end up if retailers had access to your location and buying habits?
If the Facedeals system gets adopted by a large number of retailers, it might be able to map your activities in great detail: where you went and when, and what you purchased or ate or drank. When added to all the other digital breadcrumbs that we leave in our wake when we use our credit cards, cell phones, and transit passes, the aggregated data can paint a fine-grained picture of our individual lives.
Not Ready Yet
According to the Redpepper website, the system is not yet available commercially, and the company is also seeking investors who want to help fund the project. As a result, it is not likely that you’ll be faced with the choice of whether or not to opt into a system like this in the near future. But it is safe to say that you’ll be asked to choose sooner or later, if not for Facedeals then for some other similar system.
The low-cost technology does offer benefits to both retailers and consumers, and it will be up to each of us individually to decide what information we’re willing to share in order to get that free glass of beer.