NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In Minority Report, advertisers use lasers to scan the irises of Tom Cruise's character and then flash personalized ads at him as he moves around -- a startling reminder that advertisers dream of the day when they can get inside consumers' heads.
Well, Big Brother is about to move one step closer to making Hollywood fantasy a reality.
Meet the Human Locator. It's a new technology developed by Canadian ad agency Freeset Interactive that purports to detect when humans are near, track their movement, and then broadcast messages directed at them on a nearby screen.
To hear Human Locator mastermind and Freeset President Bastien Beauchamp tell it, the system can even speak to passersby, beckoning them to come closer to a message screen or begging them not to leave.
The Human Locator is essentially a camera and computer that collects data on the number of people walking within a certain target area, the direction they're headed, and their speed.
Imagine, for instance, walking down the street and passing by a blank wall. Suddenly the image of a car appears. As you pass by, the image shifts as you move. A voice greets you with "hello!" As you start to move away, it says "don't go," as it launches into the latest marketing pitch.
Conspiracy theorists can relax, however. The Human Locator can't yet identify, say, obese pedestrians and then bombard them with images of a cheeseburger and fries.
"Maybe in five or 10 years," said Beauchamp, noting that engineers are now working on the ability to detect moods from facial expressions.
1984 or a Brave, New World?
"This opens up a whole new era of what [advertisers] can do," said Beauchamp, an advertising industry veteran who estimated that he spent two years and about half a million dollars of his own money working with a team of 10 who finished building the Human Locator this summer.
Beauchamp said about 10 American and Canadian companies have agreed to buy the system, which can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 for the equipment, software license, and customized features. He declined to identify the early adopters, but he said one charter customer is the Canadian government, which expects next month to start using the Human Locator's interactive technology as part of a promotional campaign.
To many people, the thought of walls whispering about Absolut Vodka or of the government using a human-tracking system may sound horrifying. But analysts estimate that consumers already process thousands of product messages, both overt and subliminal, a day.
Sam Ewen, the chief executive officer of Interference, a New York marketing firm, noted companies are becoming increasingly adept at tracking consumer habits. Often they're doing it with their customers' implicit support.
For example, he noted that in Japan, a consumer scouting for, say, a new boyfriend can program her interests and preferences into a cell phone that uses Bluetooth short-range wireless technology. If there is another Bluetooth user looking for someone with a similar profile, their cell phones will alert them both that they're in each other's range.
"The possibilities can be frightening," said Ewen, who is researching the history of surveillance for un upcoming segment on the Discovery Channel. "You start to find that, between credit cards with magnetic strips and phones wired for (global tracking), you start to create a situation where there's less and less of an ability to remain anonymous."
Human Locator is just taking interactive marketing to a new level as advertisers do everything they can to crack the subconscious. "What soft drink manufacturer wouldn't want to know that a person hasn't had a sip of liquid in three hours, then find a way to give them that message, and then [give them] the incentive and direction" to go buy their product? asked Ewen.
Added Jon Zast, the media architect with ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in New York: "The potential is huge."
Zast said the underlying technology already exists and is being used mostly for security purposes, such as face recognition.
The obvious next step, said Zast, is for advertisers and marketers to embrace it, too.
"The more and more people get inundated with images and messages, the more and more they shut them off," said Zast. "One way, then, to communicate with people is to make messages very personal or localized. If you can make images feel like they're constantly fresh, it's current and it's exciting."