The Bus Stop That Knows You're a Lady

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A new billboard at a London bus stop uses facial recognition technology to send gender-specific messages.

Remember those personalized billboards in Minority Report? Remember how cool and creepy they were at the same time?

Well, starting tomorrow, if you're walking down Oxford Street in London, you may see a billboard that knows who you are ... or at least what kind of who you are. The children's charity Plan UK has developed an interactive ad, attached to a bus stop, that uses facial-recognition technology to determine the gender of the people who walk by the ad's screen. Women are shown a commercial -- a 40-second-long promotion of the charity's "Because I Am a Girl" campaign, which works to ensure education for girls in developing countries. Men, on the other hand, see nothing save for the charity's campaign website.

It's an attempt, Plan UK says, to demonstrate to people -- and to men in particular, it seems -- what it means to be stripped of "basic choices," and to "make them aware about gender discrimination."

The ad's interface uses the same kind of facial recognition technology employed by Facebook to identify users in photos, by artists to imagine literary characters' appearances, and, yes, by marketers to create personalized ads. It just takes that technology a step further, by placing it in the most analog environment imaginable: the bustling city sidewalk. A camera built into the ad display measures a viewer's facial features (assessing, for example, the distances between the viewer's eyes, the width of the nose, the curve of the cheekbone and jaw) to determine whether the viewer is male or female. It works, apparently, with 90 percent accuracy.

Though -- oof! -- in that other 10 percent ... awkwardness. 

We tend to talk about interactive billboards -- and "augmented reality," and all the other euphemisms we've come up with to describe the creepy-cool collision between the physical and the digital -- in the conditional tense. That would be cool. That would be creepy. Etc. However: That a charity can install a semi-personalized billboard at a random bus stop on a random Wednesday is a nice reminder that we need to change the tenses of our discussion. Those technologies are here. And they're coming to a street corner near you. 


Image: YouTube.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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