Get ready for in-store advertising that looks you straight in the eye

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Male, mid-40s, bears a striking resemblance to Tom Cruise.
Male, mid-40s, bears a striking resemblance to Tom Cruise.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox

The next time you’re waiting to pay at Tesco, the ads you’re watching may be watching you back. Britain’s biggest retailer is rolling out screens with built-in cameras at its petrol stations that can identify people by their gender and approximate age, and customize ads based on who is watching.

The ads will come from UK digital media company Amscreen, which uses face-tracking technology from French firm Quividi to identify key traits in individuals and relay information back to marketers in real time. The system also measures how long people pay attention to the ads, which could theoretically let companies tweak their ads to make them more effective, much as online advertisers do with Google AdWords.

“Yes, it’s like something out of Minority Report,” Amscreen CEO Simon Sugar told UK trade publication The Grocer. He hopes to roll out the screens in UK supermarkets as well. In Tesco’s 450 UK petrol stations, ads will run for 10 seconds each in a 100-second loop; the screens are expected to see and be seen by about 5 million adults a week.

The data that is collected and aggregated by Amscreen isn’t as quite creepy as some competing systems: Japan’s NEC uses face recognition to measure how often individuals shop at a given store, and Italy’s Almax has a camera embedded in a mannequin’s eye that can identify not only age and sex but also race. Brickstream uses cameras to track shoppers.

Quartz revealed in August that recycling bins in London were monitoring the movements of passers-by via their smartphones, and US retailer Nordstrom was hit with complaints  in July after it installed technology within its stores to track customers using the Wi-Fi on their smartphones.

Correction (November 5): Brickstream does not monitor customers’ mobile phones to see if they are repeat shoppers, according to a spokeswoman for the company. This article originally reported that it does. The article also referred to Brickstream and RetailNext as though they are distinct services; in fact, RetailNext is a reseller for Brickstream.