Oh, Give Me a Sign . . . And Paint it with My Data


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There seems to be a phenomenon at work that sees to it that anything that is capable of being implemented using digital technology eventually will be. Sometimes this can be rather scary as in the case of the huge interest in collecting the GPS-generated data unbeknownst to the world’s smartphone users. But that is really just one public example of what can be done given the proliferation of phones and tablets and the explosion of apps that can do who knows what with data generated by simply living our daily lives. This, of course, is in addition to all that useful data that is incidentally generated by everyone who even casually uses the Internet.

That data is out there. It will remain there and grow, and there are any number of groups both private and governmental, both benign and sinister, busily mining it for purposes fair and foul. At the same time there are innovations being created daily to both acquire more such data and to utilize it even more creatively. For example, recently the data contained in an airbag controller was used in a court case to decide who was really at fault in an accident. By now I am sure there are apps that let private users track individual GPS locations—as in, “Molly and Billy have been parked down by the lake for a lo-o-ong time!” Let’s just face it. True privacy is a delusion.

Given that fact, we can move on with attractive applications and apps—realizing that there is now a distinct difference between the two terms. One of the areas with huge growth potential appears to be digital signage, of which we will mention just two possible examples here. The term is initially deceptive. Of course newer signage will be digital—what isn’t? But there are many creative ways that are being found to utilize the huge amount of data that is lying around to serve the commercial interests of those organizations that invest in digital signage. Part of this has to do with the ability to identify individuals and then make use of the data that pertains specifically to them.

Among the more obvious approaches is to sense the presence of a smartphone (previous targets were PDAs) and then link it to data of first, previous purchases or even to data generated from browsing in a given retail location. This can lead to a sign in the vicinity of the customer suddenly signaling for that person’s attention and presenting attractive items. If an image is to be used, it can either be taken on the spot or retrieved and presented, for example, with the desired piece of attire. The customer can then interact and have the image “try on” various other pieces.

We are hearing ideas about using facial recognition software to identify customers as well. There could well be a growing business of establishments sharing—for fees—tailored or customized excerpts from their customer databases. Interactive signage will also pull up selections of accessories for items on which the customer has settled or expressed an interest. Then, of course, there will be the constant email alerts for new stuff that could amount to a constant barrage of sales pitching. And we haven’t even gotten out of the department store yet.

We already have digital airport kiosks hawking high-end gadgets to complement the overpriced in-flight catalogs that are everywhere. “Have this waiting at your destination,” will soon be the constant refrain from kiosks and duty-free shops. Now let’s go to the other universal venue, the automobile.

There is little doubt as to the usefulness of digital signage along our roads and Interstates. From the rather primitive Amber Alert and hazard notifications, we are about to blossom into full-fledged commercial billboards and driver interaction. Imagine what could happen if signage along the freeway could identify cars not only by their driver/owner but also by sensing destination data in the GPS. Your history of preferring Thai food at home and on business trips could trigger custom restaurant ads popping up on signs along the way. At some point (a touch on the auto’s display perhaps?) the system could download directions to the restaurant or motel or gas station—or maybe even the battery swap station—to the car’s GPS system.

All this, of course, depends on the relatively trivial task of integrating enough intelligence and wireless communication into the automobile. The Chevy Volt already contains the modest amount of over 10 million lines of code. But it also depends on the availability of vast amounts of data on very large numbers of people. All that must be mined for the data relevant to the aims of the particular system or application. Then there must be some means of selection and distribution to reward the data miners. A whole new industry appears ready to emerge to do just that. And it’s all just a matter of time.