ISU business professor sees 'mavatars' becoming marketing wave of the future

AMES, Iowa -- The motion picture "Minority Report" gave the audience a look into the future of retail marketing as retina scans were used to project customized digital advertisements for consumers in public spaces. And while an Iowa State University management information systems professor says that kind of technology isn't prominent this holiday shopping season, retailers aren't too far away from making that a reality -- with an interesting twist.

Brian Mennecke, an ISU associate professor of MIS, has been studying trends in advertising and social media and the use of facial and body recognition technologies in digital signage displays and product marketing. He foresees facial recognition technology creating new "marketing avatars" -- which he calls "mavatars" in an unpublished research paper -- to be used by savvy business marketers in the not-too-distant future.

"It's not a commercial product yet and to make it really work, you're going to need Facebook or Google or one of these companies to be able to supply what I call the mavatar database," said Mennecke, who has reviewed technologies that are relevant to collecting data, displaying content and interacting with users for his paper. "And as I said in the paper, Google's already built the app [facial recognition app]. They're just afraid to release it."

Facial recognition technologies being applied

Mennecke wrote that facial recognition technologies being applied in public digital signage displays and on social networking sites like Facebook capture and create a database that is essentially an avatar-like profile that can be used for marketing products and supporting customer applications.

Facebook recently introduced a new feature called "Tag Suggestions," Mennecke says, which scans images uploaded by users and matches those images with existing users through facial recognition software. Because Facebook users have existing profiles that includes photos of themselves in various contexts, Mennecke says the image scanning software can be used to build a robust profile that includes demographics and other attributes of the user -- including how they engage in social, work or leisure activities.

"Facebook's been up front about it, but they've couched it in, 'Hey we're giving you this great app that allows you to figure out a person's name in a picture from their face,'" Mennecke said. "But if you know what's going on behind the scenes in terms of customer profiles, it's really scary stuff. And our paper's implication from an IT perspective is that you have no control of this stuff, which is why I discuss HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] regulations.

"I'm not a big one for government regulation, but I'd really like to not have people have the ability to just take a picture of me and know where I live and that kind of stuff," he continued. "And I think people are going to be up in arms about it once they know this technology is out there."

With a growing number of people taking photos through their cell phones, Mennecke suspects the demand for this application may become increasingly popular. And as users opt-in to applications such as Facebook's "Tag Suggestions," he contends that users may unknowingly be helping build a substantial facial recognition database which could later be sold to business marketers.

Technology being used in anti-terrorism efforts

He reports that both the United States and United Kingdom already use the technology in their anti-terrorism efforts. And since some of the best business applications originate from military and law enforcement, it may just be a matter of time before the technology finds its way to the marketplace.

"Facebook and Google are already working on and looking at doing something with this facial recognition technology," he said. "And this generation is much more willing to opt into those kinds of things. Foursquare is a great example of people sharing their location at a particular point in time.

"So what's the advantage to a marketer of that? Well, they can more precisely target the ads and know precisely what you may be seeking at that time," he continued. "Marketing firms today are very interested in what's called 'customer engagement,' which means they are trying to find better ways to attract your attention and get you to stick around their stores longer. They do this better if they can determine who you are, what you like, and what you are likely to do."

Having businesses more precisely target their products to you, the consumer, may sound appealing. But Mennecke is concerned about the possible invasion of privacy cost associated with the application of mavatars in the future. He knows consumers will ultimately determine that cost.

"We're always willing to sell our privacy if we get an application that we perceive has benefits that outweigh the costs associated with our loss of privacy," Mennecke said.