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Surveillance Cameras Used To Study Customer Behavior 126

Posted by samzenpus
from the unseen-mechanized-eye dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Technology Review reports on a startup with software used by stores to track, count and log people captured by security cameras. Prism Skylab's technology can produce heatmaps showing where people went and produce other statistics that the company claims offer tracking and analytics like those used online for the real world. One use case is for businesses to correlate online promotions and deals — such as Groupon offers — with real world footfall and in-store behavior."
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Surveillance Cameras Used To Study Customer Behavior

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  • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:07PM (#38879585)

    its not IF but WHEN.

    everyone who has an interest in 'tracking' will want to be able to ID people and know where they are.

    govs want this, businesses want this, 'law' enforcement wants this.

    the only people who don't are the people; and they have no power anymore in the western (or eastern!) countries.

    its been said each generation, but its true here: I fear or the world our kids are going to inherit. it does not sound at all like a world I want want. I can see where things are going. Do Not Want.

    • I think this story illustrates that the RFID is completely unnecessary.

      • by Kozz (7764) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @03:00PM (#38880217)

        I think this story illustrates that the RFID is completely unnecessary.

        True story: a local tv news station was busy showing off their latest scare-piece on RFID technology some months ago. The anchor phonetically pronounced it "ar-fid". *head-shake*

        • by Dhalka226 (559740) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @04:06PM (#38881085)

          You're complaining that he pronounced the acronym? That's a pretty common thing in English, at least in the last few decades.

          Unless you say L-A-S-E-R, N-A-T-O, A-I-D-S and S-C-U-B-A, among others--and though I don't know you, let me say I officially doubt it--then you're really just judging somebody over his decision on where to draw the line between acronyms that should be pronounced and those that should be spelled out. Frankly I have no problem with pronouncing any acronym that pronounces smoothly. (Yes, Slashdotters, I typically pronounce "SQL" -- run in abject horror!)

          • by Anonymous Coward

            You're complaining that he pronounced the acronym? That's a pretty common thing in English, at least in the last few decades.

            Unless you say L-A-S-E-R, N-A-T-O, A-I-D-S and S-C-U-B-A, among others--and though I don't know you, let me say I officially doubt it--then you're really just judging somebody over his decision on where to draw the line between acronyms that should be pronounced and those that should be spelled out. Frankly I have no problem with pronouncing any acronym that pronounces smoothly. (Yes, Slashdotters, I typically pronounce "SQL" -- run in abject horror!)

            RFID is an initialism, not an acronym.

          • by Kozz (7764)

            Check out the difference between an acronym and an initialism. Do you also say "YOO-suh" (USA) or "SEE-oh" (CEO)? The examples you gave are easily (and obviously) pronounced, and most style guides will say that you can spell them with lower case letters.

            I've got an aunt who used to work in sales for Oracle. She also pronounced "SQL", which baffled me, because I thought the "sequel" pronunciation was reserved for the Microsoft product. And yes, I shall now run in abject horror.

            • by adolf (21054)

              Check out the difference between an acronym and an initialism. Do you also say "YOO-suh" (USA) or "SEE-oh" (CEO)? The examples you gave are easily (and obviously) pronounced, and most style guides will say that you can spell them with lower case letters.

              I pronounce "USA" the same as I do "Uma" [wikipedia.org]. In doing so, I haven't confused anyone yet: "Oh look, it's made in ooh-suh!"

              I also got sick of saying V-O-I-P, so I pronounce that too. Along with SAN, NAS, and a bunch of other things. The database hackers I kno

      • why track by RFID when in the future, we'll likely be tracked by DNA alone. It's coming... believe me...

    • Well, considering how hard they are pushing for RFID to be built into every phone as a form of contactless payment (also gets rid of cash, which they love as an idea), we'll be pretty much there in a few years. A mobile phone has become so much part of modern life that many people will still use them, no matter what tracking you stick into them.

      Wouldn't surprise me if in a few years they can track everyone with a mobile phone via rfid, and perhaps even get to read their bank balance to see how good a poten

      • by Gilmoure (18428)

        Yup, walk into a store, your projected purchasing power (not to mention history) is overlaid on all sales and security associates glasses so they all know with just a glance if you're a customer who likes sales help, knows what they're after, just browsing, or looking for five-finger discounts.

        Same thing will occur in school. Teachers and administration will get a quick graphical label of what kind of student you are.

        • by Gilmoure (18428)

          Ooh, dating/meat-market glasses; those'll go over well. Folks good for buying an attractive person a drink will be flagged, tramp stamps will show up on people's foreheads, etc.

          • by Talderas (1212466)

            It's not as though tramp stamps are hard to spot. They're usually displayed. Inadvertently but displayed none the less.

        • by arose (644256)
          Relevant [escapepod.org].
  • An Idea... (Score:2, Redundant)

    by the_other_one (178565)

    When you think you may be on a security camera behave oddly.

    • OLD OLD news (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:16PM (#38879695)

      Target has been doing this for many years; in house. They have had software for years which spots people who move around like a shop lifter and many years before that they kept logs of the parking lot car plates so they could ID a crook from anywhere in the store by following them back to their car. This was not widely known either... now people probably assume the parking lot has cameras but back in the 90s not so much. BTW, they are interested in ID of people by their walking gate and I would be surprised if they weren't supporting such research along with the UK.

      Target also has one of the best computer forensics teams in the nation, way better than the FBI and they even do work for the government. All in house; if they didn't contract it out we'd probably not know about it.

      • by drnb (2434720)
        And on a friendlier note I recall, years ago, seeing a system where shoppers were tracked in a large warehouse type store and if someone stood in one spot for "too long", presumable confused or undecided, a clerk was sent over to ask if they could answer any questions or help in some manner.
        • by PRMan (959735)
          That sounds great! I would love that. Usually, they only bother me when I know what I want (half the time making me forget something I came in to get) and when I actually need something, they're nowhere to be found.
          • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

            That sounds great! I would love that. Usually, they only bother me when I know what I want (half the time making me forget something I came in to get) and when I actually need something, they're nowhere to be found.

            I have a little trick that I use. I'm pretty formidable looking, and sales people tend to avoid me. My wife on the other hand , is a whole lot more presentable than me. So we do the old trick of standing off to the side, then when the helpful guy salesman stops to ask her if she needs anything, I step in and ask the questions.

            We do the same where I leave work. There is a busy intersection where I have to wait fifteen minutes sometimes for someone to let me out. I have her drive when I can, because just a

      • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

        Interesting. I was doing some Christmas shopping out of season, basically wandering around aimlessly. A security guard type walked from the employees only area straight to me, on the other side of the store, and asked me if I needed any help.

        I just looked at him and said, "No?" with a question mark, implying "And why do you ask?" The response was something like "Well if you need help with someone, you can ask me or anyone else out here."

        I said, "I used to work here, in this very store, you'd think I wou

      • I agree that this is old news. I had a job interview with Reveal NZ [reveal.co.nz] in 2004 who did exactly this. Their job advertisement required regular software engineers, or image processing engineers with at least a PhD in image processing!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jpwilliams (2430348)
      I guess I better start behaving oddly all the time whenever I'm in a major city. Maybe that's why there are so many oddly-behaving people in major cities ...
  • So they identifying the people and sending them personal targeted spam? ( after they confirm your bank balance of course )

    • by stanlyb (1839382)
      And if you try to steel a copyrighted food, you will be put in the blacklist, and will die from starvation. Remember remember THE SOPA is watching you...
    • by PPH (736903)

      So its time for a makeover [ahprojects.com].

      • by gknoy (899301)

        I think that might attract non-machine attention though, when they tell their security guards to turn away clowns and Lady Gaga impersonators. ;)

    • by vlm (69642)

      "Smithers! He's standing in front of the coors beer cooler! Quick, send him SMS spam for miller!"

  • The outrage... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jellomizer (103300) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:18PM (#38879713)
    You know with all the outrage Slashdot has with this type of stuff...
    You got to admit it is pretty cool use of computer science....
    • by mr1911 (1942298)

      You got to admit it is pretty cool use of computer science....

      I do not because it is not.

      • Well maybe if they titled it

        Using Video Cameras to Optimize Store Layouts

        but instead they used words like "tracking" and "surveillance. I think it's a really cool problem: creating software that uniquely identifies a person in your store and sees how they interact with your floorplan. It'd be even cooler if the software could generate a better floorplan using that information and made it easier for people to move about and naturally tend toward the places you'd like them to go. I know you hate being m
        • by mr1911 (1942298)
          It is all about personal opinion. Some folks might prefer

          there's something exciting about seeing a blunt striking tool result in a consciousness change in human behavior

        • by Talderas (1212466)

          Optimization, of course, means to place the most desired items in the back of the store while making the easiest paths to reach it pass by high velocity items to encourage impulse buying.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by scot4875 (542869)

      You got to admit it is pretty cool use of computer science....

      No, we don't. I had the opportunity upon completion of my degree in computer science to go work for the NSA. I chose not to because I don't believe that's a "cool" use of my ability. Similarly, the work being done here is by people with dubious ethics.

      I suppose that you'd think that malware is a "cool" use of computer science as well because of all the work and research that goes into producing it?

      --Jeremy

  • What is next? Mind reader? Do we have to wear tin caps not because we are crazy, but because we want to stay normal, not-tracked and not-measured???
    • by DogDude (805747)
      Have you ever considered taking your business to a non-evil retailer? I know most /.'ers worship at the altar of the Big Box stores, but there *are* still some independent retailers left that don't do this kind of thing.
      • by stanlyb (1839382)
        Since the removal of the "protective duty/prohibitive duty" over China's Mexico's USA's imports, there is no such a think as a "independent retailer"
  • by icebike (68054) * on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:18PM (#38879725)

    Football? What?, oh wait, misread. Someone tell me I'm not alone in that error.

    At the end of the day does this yield better results than counting sales at the close of business?
    More complicated results, perhaps, but after analyzing traffic patterns all day long studying dwell time at displays, does it really yield anything useful that the store owner can actually act upon, re-arranging the displays, etc?

    And if they do act on the data, it will almost certainly be to benefit one product area vs another. Will there be any net gain for the store as a whole?

    Won't wholesalers with clout demand the data and push hard for the best locations or shelving decisions? If you have data, you are going to be forced to share it sooner or later, and when everyone is rushing past the Laptop counters to get to the TV display area, is there anything short of re-arranging the store you can do about it? Won't Dell, HP, and Apple, insist on being on the high traffic routes? Didn't the store owner just lose control?

    And at the end of the day, is it different in any way from just tallying sales ?

    • You have little to no idea of exactly how this data is sliced and diced.
      A lot of fashion type stores are completely reset each season just to correct for WHAT IS BEING BOUGHT NOW
      Tech type stores often times move entire sections just to fix traffic issues.

      You want to get a "featured item" type display in a store?? Your cost (on a per square foot) will vary according to where in the store you want to be placed You want to be in the first several feet of the store?? Near cash wrap (as an impulse item)?? expect

    • All this has been done for a long time. Why do you think grocery stores are laid out the way they are? Product boxes have specific colors?

      Yes, the big wholesalers can demand (and get) better shelf space. And the 'store owner' never had control to begin with. This is for big box chains. BestBuy/Target/OfficeMax dictate to the store manager where things go. Changed weekly, if necessary.

      And this data is aggregated over regions, not just 'a store'.
      "When the snow shovels are on the right of the store entra
      • by icebike (68054) *

        Exactly my point.
        This is well known already in big store chains, and probably this method costs just as much.

        Most big stores don't care how much time you spend in the store (as long as you don't consume a sales clerk's time), and the longer you spend the more likely you are to buy. They know how to place impulse items, and have been doing that well since the Pleistocene. They know exactly how well their advertising works.

      • by KhabaLox (1906148)

        BestBuy/Target/OfficeMax dictate to the store manager where things go.

        I'm not sure about your examples, but that's not the case for Costco, at least for food.

        I used to work for a food manufacturer who's biggest customer was Costco. On of the constant drumbeats for our merchandisers was to push the store manager (the manager of that section of the store, not the GM) for more/better shelf space. "Did we get the End Cap? Are they giving us more space for the salads?" Some of this was dictated from higher levels (and the company would exert what pressure they could on the Cos

    • by DogDude (805747)
      At the end of the day does this yield better results than counting sales at the close of business?
      Yes.

      More complicated results, perhaps, but after analyzing traffic patterns all day long studying dwell time at displays, does it really yield anything useful that the store owner can actually act upon, re-arranging the displays, etc?
      Yes.

      Won't wholesalers with clout demand the data and push hard for the best locations or shelving decisions?
      No.

      If you have data, you are going to be forced to share
  • by PPH (736903) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:21PM (#38879743)

    The Hentai row in the comic book store isn't as private as you think it is.

  • Doubtless there will be volumous FUD in relation to this technology, however I don't see there being a problem here. Consider a book shop. This technology could be utilised to provide the book shop with verifiable information regarding what the most popular categories of books are and thus enable them to make informed decisions about which departments / shelves / sections to expand and which they could safely contract. The end effect being that customers gain access to a greater variety of books concerning
    • by n5vb (587569)

      Doubtless there will be volumous FUD in relation to this technology, however I don't see there being a problem here.

      Whether it's FUD or not depends completely on the balance of the risk/benefit analysis in terms of deploying it in this society. Given that the overall attitude of the known players both in government and corporate management is that technology of this kind is for their benefit and not ours (however much the corporate management may claim otherwise!), it's kind of a nice fantasy to believe that something that invasive will only ever be used to make the customer experience better. It probably will, but onl

      • by DogDude (805747)
        Law enforcement and politics don't enter into it. It's a private business, and people voluntarily walk into it to spend money. The only thing relevant to "society" is how utterly stupid and short sighted most people are to still shop at these kinds of places.
        • by arose (644256)
          You are free to the country. Ergo, you are there voluntarely your lack of viable choices nothwitstanding. So politics and law enforcment don't enter into anything until they stop you from leaving.
  • It seems to me that a lot of people who have studied image processing/video processing cannot come up with a benevolent/non-malignant use of their skills that also generates an income they can live on, and wind up building some computer vision algorithm or software that tracks/identifies/spies on people for profit instead. There are so many positive things that can be done with image processing, like - to name just one example - upgrading/restoring 1000s of hours of old archive footage to 21st Century clari
  • Guess I'll have to carry binoculars so I can walk in the door and look around without visiting everything.
  • by roguegramma (982660) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:31PM (#38879883) Journal

    step 1: observe correlation: the more time people spend in your store, the more they buy

    step 2: optimize placement of stuff so that people stay longer in store

    step 3: profit!

    side effect: waste time of peoples' time.

    • by DriveDog (822962)
      Young children years ago quickly learned to hide the park exit in Roller Coaster Tycoon for just this reason. Same with the water fountains and selling drinks, something I observe in almost every building where drinks are sold.
    • by forkfail (228161)

      You listed step 2. Now it'll never work. It's like having a 999,999:1 or a 1,000,001:1 chance - those never work either.

  • As a marketer... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Picardo85 (1408929) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:40PM (#38879981)
    As a marketer I can tell you that we have been doing this in one way or the other for the last 50 years or so ... the only thing interesting here is that they're doing it with more advanced algorithms. This is stuff we had in the basic course of consumer behavior. The only real difference is that today you OFTEN do these studies in person instead of having computers to do it for you. Results and findings will most probably be the same from this as it is from regular observation studies.

    Besides, when doing observation studies the point is not to disturb consumers so they are usually done from a surveillance room or such to monitor consumers movements. Marketers are very seldom interested in individual interactions but when consumers do stand out from the norm it's good to have the possibility to interact with said consumer.

    I see this as a possible solution for very large shopping centers and their likes but I don't think there's anything special about this thing in particular.
  • How is this different from hiring low-paid staff to log traffic and follow suspicious looking people? And looking at checkout sales summaries is not enough - some places might want to know simply how many people walk in/out. Or maybe identify locations in a store where people look for an item but don't actually pick up something to buy - this could mean insufficient product choice or low inventory. I'm sure software hooked into already existent cameras is more efficient than minimum wage patrol staff who
    • How is this different from hiring low-paid staff to log traffic and follow suspicious looking people?

      The difference is that a human worker can't follow everyone around 24/7 and watch their every move like cameras can. This results in a much greater loss of privacy (yes, yes, privacy in a public setting) for more people. Hiring people to follow others around takes quite a bit of time and resources, and they can't be everywhere at once.

      • "Greater loss of privacy" sounds like "almost pregnant" or "greater loss of virginity"
        • Maybe I should have just said that tracking becomes much more simple and effective. You really don't have much privacy in a public setting, but usually someone isn't constantly watching you when you're in a specific area, or recording your every move (unlike a human).

      • by DogDude (805747)
        The difference is that a human worker can't follow everyone around 24/7 and watch their every move like cameras can.

        Are you suggesting that there are people who live in Best Buy stores? I have not heard of this. I thought this article was talking about tracking customers who voluntarily go into a private business.
        • No, I wasn't. I simply told about the difference between hiring a worker to follow someone around and using cameras to track people. Change the "24/7" to something else, if you want.

          In short: tracking people is much easier and more effective.

          That said, I'm really not a fan of cameras being everywhere (I see them as almost pointless). You may voluntarily visit a business, but if the cameras are everywhere, your options are severely limited.

          • by DogDude (805747)
            I agree 100%. But I think there's a world of difference between cameras in Best Buy and cameras on street corners. I can choose what businesses I go into (I generally choose not to), but I shouldn't have to choose which public street I walk down.
  • Considering the number of times I go into a store to where I think the product I want should be, only to find it doesn't exist (empty shelves), not in my size (I'm not a hippo), or ugly color (brown is not a fashion statement), and repeat this month after month, I can assure you retailers don't care about their customers.

    If they did, they would see people like me leaving empty handed and make changes. The fact that I go into the same stores and get the same results (insanity I know), shows no matter how tec

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      If they did, they would see people like me leaving empty handed and make changes.

      How do they know what to change? Unless they've tracked you through the store to see where you go, see you shaking your head in dissappointment while standing in front of a shelf of wrong-sized items, and then done some biometrics to determine which size it is that they are missing that would make you happy, they have no idea why you left empty-handed. Maybe you realized you left your wallet in the car. Maybe you are just comparison shopping today and will come back tomorrow to buy a dozen of the things t

    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      Hmmm... sold out of preferred item, in your size, and colors you'd find acceptable? Sounds like they're doing ok and just don't stock around your schedule.

  • by roc97007 (608802) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @02:54PM (#38880143) Journal

    Stay home. Buy online.

    • by ve3oat (884827)

      Stay home. Buy online.

      ... and be tracked by Google and other companies' cookies.

      • by roc97007 (608802)

        >>Stay home. Buy online.

        >... and be tracked by Google and other companies' cookies.

        It's not a perfect solution.

  • Retailers have been doing this for years as an extension of counting traffic in and out of the store (to calculate conversion rate) following customers by heat signature through the inside of the store can show you where your visual merchandising is not having enough of an impact. Sure, there could be some limited room for abuse, but without tying identity into those heat signatures somehow, all we know is *someone* took a certain path through the store - We don't know *who* that is. In any case, this dat
  • Online stores have been doing it all along and many stores track customer habits using discount cards. It was only a matter of time until technology caught up to track in store behavior.

  • The book "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy" by Martin Lindstrom explains in great detail the (crazy) lengths companies/stores go to gleam as much - normally private - information on shoppers as possible. Its very readable, quite frightening (the bits about loyalty cards and credit cards especially), and written by someone who comes from the marketing/behavioral study field, and seems keen on fully exposing the shady practices of the industry to average readers
    • Am I the only one that finds it funny that a person posting info about a book describing how companies collect personal information and influence people posted a link to Amazon of all places....? That's like going to Wal-Mart to buy a copy of "Nickel and Dimed".
      • by dryriver (1010635)
        I DID point out that its available at Amazon AND other book sellers. You're nitpicking, bro.
        • by DogDude (805747)
          Your post was about abusive companies, yet you post a link to one of the most egregious companies in order to buy the book. That's pretty absurd, unless the conclusion that this book reaches is, "Don't worry about it, Amazon and their friends aren't doing anything unseemly."
          • by dryriver (1010635)
            I don't live in the U.S., so I wouldn't know where to send people (e.g. bricks and mortar stores) to find this particular book. It isn't a huge bestseller, and thus probably not in stock everywhere. The Amazon link has a lot of info + customer reviews of the book, so I posted that. Feel free to buy (or not buy) this book wherever it is you shop for books.
            • by Gilmoure (18428)

              But, but, DogDude might be a weak-willed git and susceptible to Amazon's siren song.

              • by DogDude (805747)
                No, I'm not, but I agree with what I'm guessing is the general point of the book, thus I would never suggest that somebody buy something at Amazon. I've seen how they do business from the seller's end, and I wouldn't do business with them as a consumer.
  • This is only useful to track a customer's flow through a store to produce a more efficient layout. Sure this might increase sales, but you can't tell what and why they are purchasing what they do.
  • He may have gotten his start in the public realm, but he's sure gone private these days.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that this sort of technology won't be used for other purposes eventually. Since we already have thought [slashdot.org] crime [slashdot.org], the next step will be to wire these things us to cameras on the street [boston.com].

    Yeah, it sounds tin foil hat to me too - or would, if I hadn't experienced the changes over the last few decades.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @03:34PM (#38880589)
    Here. [cnn.com] And the data is already in numerical form.
  • Haven't they been doing this for years? Path Intelligence's patent application [faqs.org] for the system that tracks cell phones in shopping centers cites this kind of thing as prior art...
  • This submission reads more like a PR guy shilling his stuff than news for nerds. There are a bunch of companies that have had this capability for some time, from very large networking and video folks down to startups. Not sure this is noteworthy.
  • Anyone know if there is a list of the stores that implement this or plan to so those of us who don't wish to be tracked and don't trust their "we totally won't abuse this and care about your privacy" lies can vote with our wallets?

  • I read the responses so far and none mentioned probably the biggest analytical factor, minimizing labor costs (in form of salespeople / managers) while retaining maximum sales, hard as it is to believe for those that see very little sales help when needed.

    Chains have been analyzing store traffic for a number of years with a combination of movement detectors and / or surveillance cameras. Shoppertrak was a major vendor. I wrote an app system for a large retailer correlating Shoppertrak customer counts, cash

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWT5ZJG7CRg [youtube.com]
    http://www.lighthausvci.com/ [lighthausvci.com]

    Lighthaus does this too. Go by a major sports team/shoe store in your local mall and you'll see an IP camera above the main door pointed straight down. The computer watches which angle you enter the store at, what display you head toward and how long you linger at the entrance. The info isn't even seen by the store manager, it goes right to corporate.

  • I might be just guessing here but the use of this technology might be a bit overrated. Customers are not sheep and they are not that easily tricked into buying something just because it is placed on a specific shelf. The shops know what they sold, where they had that thing placed and they can even identify specific customers and their bought goods because now everybody pays electronically - so really, what kind of a big revolution this surveillance can bring to the shop owner?

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