Why you should care

Because companies will soon be able to recognize your face.

As you may already be aware, we know a lot about you. Yes, you! We know whether you clicked here from Facebook or if you came via our home page. We will know how long you spend reading this article and what you click to read next. That information enables us to figure out what interests you, which may affect what shows up next time you visit our site. If OZY were as big a part of your life as Facebook or Google is — if not yet, then soon! — we would know so much about you that we could show you advertisements targeted to your every interest.

But what if we could recognize your face? If so, we might adjust our messages to you depending on whether you look happy or sad, distracted or engaged. We’d adjust if you were looking to the left of the screen, or to the right. We’re not watching you read us, at least not yet, but the capability might not be too far away.

Indeed, facial recognition technology is almost ready for the mainstream. “Computer vision” is “moving very fast” toward the creation of browsers of the visual world, says Ambarish Mitra, co-founder and CEO of Blippar, an app that scans and recognizes images and faces and then shows you search and social-network results on your screen, combining two of the tech world’s current favorite functionalities — machine learning and augmented reality (AR). The dream, so it seems, is to become like a real-time, image-based search engine, a face-based social network and Pokémon Go, all rolled into one. Blippar is not the only “facial network” out there. The Russian website FindFace generated controversy last year when its search-by-faces function was used to reveal the identities of porn actresses. And just as a website to connect college students created by a fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room eventually revolutionized the news media and advertising industries, these technologies could change how companies market products — and a whole lot more — in untold ways.

“We’re producing a paradigm shift in thinking in marketing and advertising,” says Mitra. His superlatives aren’t entirely unjustified: The Blippar logo has appeared on 12 billion products in the past four years through the company’s marketing partnerships with more than 1,500 brands, including Heinz, Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch. These “Blippable” products can be scanned in Blippar’s smartphone app, but rather than just linking to a webpage the way QR codes do, the phone displays interactive AR marketing features. “And why should I need to recognize an ugly square,” Mitra asks, referring to QR codes, “when I can recognize something on its own?”

What [Apple’s] Siri is trying to be for the audio world, Blippar is trying to be for the visual world.

Ambarish Mitra, CEO, Blippar

Imagine scanning the face of a billboard model to see an AR version of you wearing the same necklace, or scanning the car in front of you through your screen to get information on where you can buy the same model at local dealerships. (If this sounds like something from Netflix’s dystopian satire Black Mirror, it is — check out the first episode of the third season.) And what about a future where you walk into a store that recognizes your face and then offers you bespoke deals based on the shopping habits you revealed during your previous visit? That’s possible, says Dr. Gary Wilcox, a leading expert on social media and advertising. Indeed, it’s only an extension of existing geolocated marketing techniques that ping deals to your phone when you’re near a certain brand’s store — or its competitor’s.

“There’s a history of advertising staying pretty close to technological developments,” says Wilcox. But as technologies have evolved from print to radio to TV to the internet, marketers have largely relied on trial and error to find the techniques that work best, so “some of these early ideas” for virtual and augmented reality ads “are kinda silly,” he says. For Mitra, one medium remains to be conquered — the visual world: “What a lot of CMOs do not understand is that the biggest [form of] media in the world is actually products themselves. … We will reach a stage where if someone is curious about something, that’s the exact point [where] advertisers will put a very contextual message.”

Somewhat ironically, the personalization of technology that enables marketers to know everything about you essentially brings us back to the pretechnology era of personalized commerce when you were friends with the local store manager, says Harikesh Nair, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. If you’re a little freaked out by the idea of companies recognizing your face, “the market will determine” how much of this intrusion society will accept, says Nair — humans will probably never be comfortable having medical, family or financial details digitally attached to their faces as they walk down the street, he thinks. But as far as he’s concerned, if it makes it easier for him to find a suit he likes, it’s all good. “I think we as a society have already implicitly accepted that trade-off,” he says.

To be sure, Blippar isn’t the new Facebook or Google — at least not yet. “You would have to have a [new piece of] hardware that aids these sorts of applications,” says Dokyun Lee, a professor of business analytics at Carnegie Mellon University, insisting that people aren’t going to walk around viewing the entire world through smartphone cameras all the time. Facial-recognition software was banned from Google Glass because it was considered too creepy, and even then the product never made it to market. The future would certainly be more awkward than most sci-fi films suggest if we have to view everything — and everyone’s faces — through our phone screens.

But for the Blippar CEO, the Pokémon Go mania wasn’t some alienating dystopia; it was the start of an enlightened future. “Mark my words,” says Mitra, “computer vision and AR will go mainstream well before head-mounted devices take off, and it’s gonna happen through phones.” Just be sure to watch where you’re going when some irritating ad pops into your AR universe.

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