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In Japan, Billboards Watch You Watching Them

NTT Communications has tackled the age-old problem of working out who's paying attention to which sign-based advertising by making the sign watch back. The Japanese company will run an experiment where webcam-equipped digital signs record what's going on then process the data to see how much attention each ad draws from passers by.

Starting in January in a Tokyo railway station, NTT will trial the technology on thousands of passer-by commuters. The system uses two cameras hooked up to a PC: It runs analysis software that computes how many people are in front of the sign, then matches an "averaged" Japanese face to each person to determine whether they're looking at the sign, and for how long.

The data from the system will, if analyzed properly, be invaluable to advertisers in analyzing the attention-grabbing value of particular adverts. NTT's content distribution system for digital will use data to help it select ads for signs appropriately. And though it's a taste of the future—a future of personalized dynamic ad placements that makes me shudder when I think of it—this system isn't exactly Big Brother: it doesn't attempt to identify individuals.