Immersive Labs upgrades digital signs so that they know if a person is paying attention. By linking demographics to behavior, the intelligent billboards can predict which ads you may want to see as you walk by.

Talk to any human face to face and right away they'll be able to guess your age, gender, and interest in the conversation. Now digital ads can do the same. Immersive Labs is creating the next generation of video billboards that gather anonymous demographic data about you while you watch. Pass by a digital poster they've enhanced, and sensors detect if you're paying attention. The screen can then adjust the image to one it thinks will be more appealing to you. It only takes a tenth of a second, and the system works up to 25 feet away. Preliminary testing by Immersive Labs shows they can increase viewer attention by 60%. Get a taste for the new intelligent ad technology in the videos below. I talked with CEO Jason Sosa about their upcoming launch this fall and about the future of the company. Don't worry about invasive ads that stalk you wherever you go, Immersive Labs is making digital signs smart enough that you'll want to come to them.

You can't really talk about intelligent billboards without discussing Minority Report. In Speilberg's film, futuristic commercial displays have become so powerful that they can scan your retinas and provide you with personalized ads as you walk by. Immersive Labs isn't Minority Report. While their sensors do record demographic information about you (gender and approximate age mostly) that data is anonymous. In other words, if I walked in front of one it wouldn't record "Aaron Saenz", it would mark me as "(young?) adult male". In fact, while demographic data is an important part of Immersive Labs, the key metric is attention. Are you looking at the screen? How close are you? How often do you glance in that direction? Would some other ad engage your attention better? Those are the factors Immersive Labs is focused on. As you'll see in the following two demonstrations, the question of attention is always at the forefront. Demographics are just a way of breaking down the results into trends companies can hopefully act upon:

There are currently about 3 million digital signs in the US alone. The market is roughly $3.5 billion (~$7.5B worldwide) and growing about 22% year over year! The vast majority of these video displays have internet connectivity and embedded computer processing so they can download new ads as desired by their owners. In essence, however, they are simply replacing paper with LCD. There's no real innovation there besides including video.

Adding in just a few sensors and some smart software allows Immersive Labs to transform these screens into displays that react to their audiences. They can switch between ads in a blink of an eye if they think there's something you'd prefer to watch. They can perform ongoing market research by collecting pertinent demographic information linked to data on your interest level. In essence, making digital signs intelligent will give these physical ads all the benefits we see with their online cousins. Knowing more about your customer, and being able to cater to them, is a key ingredient in advertising, and one that billboards have lacked for far too long.

Sosa wants to be the one to provide you with that ingredient. The first full launch for Immersive Labs is coming this fall to Los Angeles and New York. An undisclosed business partner will install intelligent systems in ten locations, mostly indoors and probably using existing screens. If all goes according to plan most people passing by won't really notice the upgrade. The video below is a quick look at a pilot test in Colorado to give you a taste of what we can expect in LA and New York.

Talking with Sosa about Immersive Labs, I was amazed by how ready this technology really was. Their software is certainly new, but when it comes to hardware they're basically just using off-the-shelf parts so the upgrades are fairly quick and cheap. Demographic accuracy is about 90%, the range (~25 feet) and number of trackable faces (~50) are more than reasonable, and reaction time (100 ms) is stupidly fast. Current versions of their system can account for gender and age as well as more generic factors like time of day, date, and weather. When I look at the targeted ads and market research Immersive Labs is ready to offer to its partners I have little doubt that this technology (or something very much like it) will make big inroads in the upcoming years. The digital screens are already out there, and Sosa says industry projections are that there will be 22 million of them in the US alone by 2015. Rest assured, companies are going to want to use these displays better. Immersive Labs is filling a niche that most of us probably didn't realize was so mature.

In fact, it seems certain that other companies will arise to become serious competitors with Immersive. The launch this fall, while exciting, isn't that large. There's still plenty of room for some other name to come in and take a dominant role in intelligent ads. An inferior, but still sell-able, product wouldn't be hard to make. All it would take is some good software and some cheap cameras - and there's plenty of both floating around.

That being said, as a company, Immersive Labs is doing fairly well. They've got more than $850,000 in seed funding, and Sosa expects to be able to announce more soon. Sosa hopes to have thousands or tens of thousands of Immersive-enabled signs up in the next few years. To that end, the company is "hiring like crazy". If you're an expert in computer vision or data crunching you may want to check them out.

But let's step away from Immersive Labs for a bit and consider what this technology truly tells us about the future of real-world advertising. After all, we've seen a similar style of demographic gathering digital signs in Tokyo last year, while another company received millions of dollars to pursue more personal/invasive versions that utilized facial recognition. Clearly there are many groups interested in bringing more of the advances of the internet into the physical arena. Google collects tons of data on your browsing to help it sell ads to you. So does practically every other online agency. Now digital signs are going to do much the same. As Sosa put it, Immersive Labs wants to create "online experiences in physical stores."

This means that we can expect similar developments in physical advertising as we've seen online. At their best, internet ads strive to be engaging - experimenting with gaming and interactive experiences. Here's an old clip from Immersive that shows similar possibilities with intelligent digital billboards:

At their worst, internet ads are invasive, annoying, and deceptive. Pop-banners, spyware, trackers - these approaches to online marketing have become so hated that we now have software specifically designed to block them. It's certainly possible that we could see the same thing in physical space. Ads that track you from screen to screen as you walk down a street. Ads that record what you're saying. Ads that use facial recognition to link you to your ID and bombard you with personalized messages, maybe even threaten you. Ads that spam your handheld devices, email accounts, etc as you walk by. If those gruesome possibilities arise, I'm sure we'll find physical technologies that will block them - specialized glasses, ID scramblers, and so forth.

But it's also possible that the marketing industry has learned its lesson and is willing to skip that battle to get to a better alternative. Sosa shared with me a part of his vision for a future of digital displays that consumers might actually enjoy. "No one really likes ads, what we really want is content." So why not use opt-in technology, like near field communication (NFC) on mobile phones, to let consumers choose what they find interesting. Not paying attention to that ad? You could always have your phone tell billboards the sort of things you do like. It'd be like traveling through a world where all the commercials are those you actually find funny, engaging, and relevant. Not so bad, maybe.

Those who really want personalized ads may join loyalty programs, letting their NFC phones alert stores as they enter as to who they are. As Sosa puts it, "think Amazon Recommendations, but at the GAP." There may even be a way to game the whole system, letting your attention earn you points or credits you can spend on digital or physical goods. Imagine being paid (albeit very little) for the time you spend watching commercials. It could happen.

Whether the future of advertising creates an empowering marketplace or a dystopian environment of hunter-killer ads, I think we can count on the further merger between the physical and digital worlds. From cars to mobile phones to billboards, we're going to be surrounded by physical objects that talk to each other online. This Internet of Things will bring many game-changing developments along with it and one of them will likely be an advertising system that is vastly more intelligent and complex than the one we have now. Expect ads that fit you so perfectly that they become as enjoyable as clips you watch on YouTube. Expect companies to collect massive amounts of data about you without telling you. Expect a future where money is just one of many different currencies used to pay for the content, goods, and services you consume.

Immersive Labs is poised to be one of the first companies to migrate us into this new world. I'm glad that Sosa is one of these 'intelligent ad' pioneers. If we get more people in the field to think the same way, there's at least a chance that we'll choose the fun, non-invasive path of advertising.

[image and video credits: Immersive Labs]
[source: Immersive Labs, Jason Sosa]