By Sidney Fussell
London’s famous Piccadilly Circus is getting an immense and terrifying new video display called Piccadilly Lights. According to its maker, the enormous screen (which is almost the size of two professional basketball courts) can detect the vehicles, ages, and even emotions of people nearby, and respond by playing targeted ads. Imagine New York’s Time Square with a makeover from John Carpenter’s They Live—but without any pretense of deception.
“Screen content can be influenced by the characteristics of the crowd around it, such as gender, age group and even emotions,” Landsec, which owns the screen, brags on its site. “It is also able to respond and deliver bespoke ad content triggered by surroundings in the area.”
A write-up of Piccadilly Lights by Wired specifically focusses on the advertising potential of passing cars:
Cameras concealed within the screen will track the make, model and colour of passing cars to deliver more targeted adverts. Brands can even pre-program triggers so that specific adverts are played when a certain model of car passes the screen, according to Landsec, the company the owns the screens.
According to the magazine, the screen and its hidden cameras won’t go live until later this month, but Landsec’s original press release contains more than enough dystopian marketing spin to start worrying now. In it, Piccadilly Lights is praised as a “live, responsive site” with “one of the highest resolution LED displays of this size in the world.” The hidden cameras go unmentioned, of course, but the installation is advertised as “creating experiences that emotionally resonate” using “social listening” so it can “be more agile and tailor our messages in real-time.”
Make no mistake, however, this is an enormous consumer surveillance apparatus that is being advertised as a way to monitor a public space to sell people TVs and sports bras. Adding to the creep factor, most of this tech is already being used by police to track and surveil suspects.
Police departments currently use object recognition to spot the make and model of cars. And back in February, the company formerly known as Taser announced their body cameras will soon recognize and sort people in real-time based on their age, gender and even what they’re wearing. Emotion detection has been touted as a way to predict violent attacks, as has monitoring Twitterand Facebook for keywords that may belie a threat or implicate criminals. Bill Bratton, who at different times in his life has led the NYPD and LAPD, said last year that social media often “forms the foundation” of New York City’s criminal cases against suspects.
Responding to The Verge, a Landsec spokesperson said the screen can react to “external factors,” but wouldn’t collect or store personal data. That’s reassuring, but it would certainly be valuable to advertisers (who are shelling out big money to be featured on this uber-screen) to know which ads people are responding to and what type of people (based on age, gender, and car model) responded to each ad.
Landsec gives the examples of cars, age and gender, but what else can their cameras spot? Presumably, if there are four Lamborghinis in the area, that means rich people with disposable income are nearby. Can the apparatus make similar income and lifestyle judgements based on factors like skin color and body type? Imagine realizing the 400-foot ad for a dieting campaign was meant specifically for you.
Emotion recognition is the wildcard in all this. Disney, for example, is using face recognition to spot smiles and frowns among moviegoers. How does Landsec do it? Does it similarly scans faces? Or does it use body language? What do four angry faces and a smile mean to the all-seeing eye of capitalism? Landsec could save us all some stress and tell us more about how it works and what it looks for.
We’ve reached out Landsec for comment and will update this story if and when we hear back. Until then, it’s easy to see this as just another step in surveillance capitalism’s death march to tracking every move we make.