Do you remember that scene in the movie "Minority Report" when Tom Cruise's character is in the mall, and stores identify him and show him personalized ads? In the movie, the stores were using retina scanners, but we've known for a while that facial recognition scanners could do something similar.
Facial scanners have gotten advanced enough to scan entire crowds and pick out just one person. Of course, any store that installed these scanners and used them to serve personalized advertisements would face a big backlash from customers worried about their privacy. It turns out, though, that stores might be able to fly under the radar if they used the scanners for something else.
A company called FaceFirst has a facial recognition system geared specifically toward retail stores. It uses multiple security cameras to map each shopper's face using 16,384 reference points. It can then analyze more than 1 million face matches per second, and that's just with a single server. FaceFirst says the system is between 98% and 100% accurate.
FaceFirst pitches the system as a way to spot known shoplifters. Once the shoplifter enters the store, security gets an alert to take action. FaceFirst also says this system could be used to spot high-value or loyal customers entering the store so staff could be alerted.
Of course, the store does need to have a photo of the person in the system first before a match can be made. FaceFirst doesn't seem to have a centralized database of people available for stores to use, so the system can't actually identify regular shoppers by name.
FaceFirst says that a number of Fortune 500 retailers are using this technology, however the only known one is Wal-Mart. Or at least it was. Wal-Mart admits it tried the system in several of its stores for a few months, but didn't see any benefit. There was no mention of which stores.
Naturally, privacy groups are worried. There are no laws at the moment stopping stores for using this type of technology to identify people. Several groups tried to work out some voluntary rules with retailers regarding the use of facial and other biometric scanners, but didn't get anywhere.
Facial recognition isn't the only new technology that retailers are testing out. Find out how they use beacons to try to make your in-store experience better, and how you can stay in control of what stores can do with your smartphone.