High-tech billboards and plasma screens are becoming more than just eye-catching -- they're developing ''eyes'' of their own that can detect when people are looking and when they turn away.
A Canadian startup company is testing the technology in Kingston, Ont., where a 107-centimetre plasma screen has been outfitted with an eye-tracking sensor and positioned in front of a Tim Hortons restaurant on the Queen's University campus, says creator Roel Vertegaal.
Vertegaal predicts the palm-sized device, called an Eyebox2, could revolutionize the digital-signage industry by letting marketers know just how many people actually look at their ads.
''There's a huge market for knowing whether people are looking at an ad or not,'' says Vertegaal, an associate professor in human-computing interaction at Queen's.
''It means you can start selling those ads by the eyeball.''
Marketers have long been able to track ad exposure on the Internet by counting clicks on a website, but it's been much harder to determine the impact of an increasing number of plasma screens with ads turning up in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places, notes Vertegaal, CEO of Xuuk Inc.
He says the Eyebox2 can detect when eyes are focused in its direction up to 10 metres away and can be attached to any number of objects -- a plasma panel, a poster, even a product on a store shelf.
It works by soliciting the red-eye effect you get in flash photography. Eyeballs aimed in its direction reflect light back to a camera, in effect telling the device that someone is looking at it.
But even though a camera is part of the device, Vertegaal insists that no identifying information is captured. He says the gadget only retains data concerning the number of people looking and for how long.
''Every image that's captured by the camera is thrown away immediately, it's not stored,'' he says, adding the device does not have the resolution capability to conduct something as detailed as iris scanning.
''It's exactly like a door sensor, except it knows you're looking at it.''
Business expert Ashwin Joshi says Canadian privacy regulations offer sufficient protections. He notes the device is just one in a series of increasingly high-tech ways that Canadian businesses are keeping track of customers.
He pointed to Brickstream, an Atlanta, Ga.-based company that provides computerized camera equipment to RBC and Rogers.
The Brickstream Clarity-2100 combines a ''stereo vision camera'' with an on-board computer that automatically converts surveillance footage into data about customers.
Joshi says such devices provide instant feedback to companies wanting to improve service.
''One of the things banks want to do is they want to minimize waiting time -- they don't want people waiting because it ticks them off,'' explains Joshi, director of the MBA program at York University's Schulich School of Business.