Almost everyone’s either seen or heard about the 2002 film “Minority Report” with its scene of Tom Cruise walking past digital advertising signs that call out to him by name and deliver sales pitches for such things as Guinness beer, Lexus, and a trip to an island paradise. And almost everyone’s read or knows about “1984,” George Orwell’s novel of a dystopian future that spawned the iconic phrase, “Big Brother is Watching You.” Now, thanks to tiny chips embedded in millions of credit cards and cell phones, those sci-fi fantasies may soon become a reality.
Being developed by IBM engineers, digital billboards that use RFID, or radio frequency identification, will be able to read the information contained in the chips, such as a person’s name, age, gender, address, and purchasing history, and then deliver a personalized advertisement as that person walks past or stops to look at a billboard. The chips are currently used in “contact free” credit cards that can be waved instead of being slid through a scanner, and in cell phones that allow users to access bank accounts and make online purchases.
According to IBM, this technology will protect consumers from being subjected to irritating or irrelevant advertising by showing ads designed to appeal to individuals based on who they actually are and what they might want to buy. This, of course, has great appeal to advertisers and manufacturers of products and services, but has alarmed a number of privacy advocates. Appropriately, perhaps, the RFID technology derives from covert listening devices developed during the cold war era in the former U.S.S.R
Billboards employing this technology would be a major step forward from signs now being tested in the Tokyo subway that employ cameras to scan passersby who stop or turn their heads to look at the signs. These images are stored and analyzed to determine age and gender, information that will be used to tailor advertisements to specific demographic groups at different times of day and night.
The RFID chips can now be read through a wallet or purse at a limited distance that may make it difficult for most digital billboards on city streets to employ the technology. However, engineers are working to increase that distance, and if the “Minority Report” signs at pedestrian level become reality, billboards that can look into your pocket or purse as you wait in your car at a traffic light may not be that far behind.
Beyond that, the next step must surely be devices that can detect consumers’ thoughts. Are they hungry? Show the McDonald’s ad. Are they thinking about money? Show the Chase bank ad. Are they thirsty? Show the Absolut vodka ad. And so on, into the glorious future vividly depicted sixty-one years ago in “1984.” Just substitute the words Toyota or Coke or Apple or any other corporate product or service for “Big Brother” and Orwell’s vision will have finally arrived here in the 21st century.