With retail rents sky-high in New York City, the decision of where to put a store can make or break a business. So when the chain Dylan’s Candy Bar wanted to open up its first location downtown, it needed to get pick the right location, where it would draw the most customers with its sweet offerings.
It looked to a startup called Placemeter. At the two buildings where it was considering a space, it asked the landlords to hang a video camera trained on the sidewalk for a month. From there, Placemeter’s software was able to count each and every person walking by. The data guided the candy store chain’s decision: It turned out that the lower rent locale had less overall foot traffic outside overall, but had more foot traffic in the afternoon–when people are most likely to visit a candy store. Dylan’s Candy Bar will be opening there this year.
The key to Placemeter’s technology is that it recognizes and follows every object it sees, and retailers aren’t the only types of organizations interested in using it. The company, which is launching its public platform today, already works with urban planners and city governments to help them quantify the movements and flows of modern cities. For example, the Center City District of Philadelphia used the platform with its existing surveillance cameras to understand how the newly-opened Dilworth Park and cafe changed foot traffic in the area. Boston, Montreal, and Tokyo are also customers.
“Every city in the world is going to, on average, double its population in 30 years. And 30 years–it’s a blip. It’s basically tomorrow. There’s a need to optimize the way the world works, but to optimize things you first need to codify them, to measure them,” says Placemeter CEO Alex Winters.
In the past, an organization or government would have to fund expensive surveys to measure car or pedestrian traffic. With Placemeter, which operates as a monthly subscription service, all they’d need to do is put a few Internet-connected cameras at appropriate vantage points, activate the company’s computer vision software, and tell it what it exactly where to count. The company provides charts and analysis in real-time. Anyone can sign up today using their own camera or uploading archival video footage, and the company is also taking pre-orders for its own $99 video camera device, which will easily affix to windows. A previous version of Placemeter’s service, which Co.Exist covered here, was looking to crowdsource this data, but now the company realizes it should just sell directly to customers.
Using different technologies including satellites, GPS, and Wi-Fi pinging, a number of firms with similar ideas are now competing to create the Google Analytics of the real world. Even mobile phone providers like Verizon are now tracking how devices move and selling anonymous data about where people go and when. Google itself launched a company called Sidewalk Labs that will work to gather and analyze data about cities.
The most interesting advantage of Placemeter is that it’s relatively easy and inexpensive for a city or even a small civic organization to collect comprehensive data. Winters notes that bike activists interested in making the case for bike lanes could find it useful. “Typically, that kind of data has been out of reach for most community groups,” Winters says. Later this year, Placemeter plans to launch new features, including measuring speed, recognizing whether a vehicle is a car, bus, or truck, and analyzing trajectories and interactions, such as near misses between cars and pedestrians.
All of this seems like it would be a major privacy concern. Placemeter says it processes the raw video data remotely on the camera device, and does not send or save the video feed on its servers (except a small percentage for quality assurance). It also says it won’t use facial recognition to pinpoint individuals, nor will any people watch the video feeds. It is purposefully staying away from any security-related applications or customers, says Winters, and couldn’t, say, help with a police search even if it wanted to.