A funny thing happened as I was waiting to go into the studio at the Newark, N.J. head office of Audible. I was there to record the audiobook version of Technocreep. As I sat in their comfy reception area, I was sure I could hear a book being read. I moved and heard something different. Sure enough, small directional speakers were housed in the ceiling. Fair enough, they’re in the business of making and selling audio books.
Then, I stumbled on this photo, with an interesting commentary attached, from a Flickr user who calls himself Bark:
Shopper Bark Listens to the Cries of the Cookies
Via Flickr, under Creative Commons Share License, source: http://bit.ly/1w54yI3
“So yah, i’m in the crackers aisle getting some healthy snack foods..and voila, they put the cookies right across from them. I love cookies. Like love them. I kept my back to them but I could hear their cries.”
Hear their cries?
In Technocreep, I wrote about smart store shelves that would sense and interpret the physical attributes of passers-by. Is that a man or a woman? Young or old? Approximate body mass index? I even speculated that retail stores might automatically adjust prices based on what they could deduce about you.
That’s not so farfetched. Online travel site Orbitz was caught in 2012 displaying more expensive hotels to people using Apple computers. The company’s chief technology officer, Roger Liew, confirmed the practice, telling the Wall Street Journal “We had the intuition, and we were able to confirm it based on the data.”
In a similar fashion, Amazon has experimented with dynamic pricing. One fellow bought a certain DVD for $24.49, then came back a week later and found the price was $26.24. When he removed the tracking cookie that Amazon used to identify him, the price dropped to $22.74.
As long as we’re aware of these manipulations, we can defend ourselves. But what if the store shelves start whispering to us, in the very manner suggested by photo-poster Bark?
That’s precisely the goal of Audio Spotlight®, a directional speaker technology from Watertown, MA based Holosonics Research Labs, Inc. With the slogan “Beam Sound, Boost Sales,” the company boasts that it has been used successfully by clients such as Daimler Chrysler and Remy Martin to “grab passersby by the ears”.
In an uber-creepy Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjsT_s5eWhI#t=31) advertising firm Ogilvy New Zealand asks “How do you Tell Someone to Buy Fair Trade Bananas?” They then answer the question with “You don’t. You let their conscience tell them.”
With a recorded script that is bound to send some shoppers running for the exit, a soft female voice proclaims, and I’m not making this up: “Hi, you can hear me, can’t you? You’re the only one. Look around, no-one else can. Know who I am? I’m your inner voice.”
This bizarre campaign won a “Best Ad” award, and so it should — it increased sales of All Good Fairtrade bananas by 130%. It’s only a matter of time until your own inner voice starts speaking to you in a certain haunted spot in the grocery store. Or the liquor store. Or the adult toys store. The mind boggles.
It gets worse. The inventor of this technology, Joseph Pompei, did his work at MIT’s Media Lab, where he figured out that the only ways to make sound travel like a laser beam was either to have extremely large speakers, or to use high frequency sounds. He chose the latter. So the system uses high frequency audio, the kind that has been used to keep teenagers (who have better hearing than older folks) away from malls. It’s also the technology behind dog whistles. As the high frequency waves pass through the air, they become audible.
Audio Spotlight® certainly has some good applications, and it’s even used at the New York Public Library to allow social gaming and movie watching to co-exist with the “Shhh!” world of libraries. So there’s nothing intrinsically evil about this invention, and it has been around since 2000.
What is a worry, though, is how it is being used to influence people who simply walk into the “cone of sound”. At the very least (and the bananas example does provide this) there should be ample signage warning about this new marketing technique. Then, there will be a simple countermeasure — simply walk around the sound zone and continue your shopping, listening to your own inner monologue instead of the prattle of some advertiser.
What do you think — is Audio Spotlight® creepy or cool (or both)?