The sensorization of consumer tech

The big thing out of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas?  Biometrics.  Eye-tracking devices to see what ads you pay attention to.  Mood-sensing ear buds.  Pupil dilation sensors to see how much you are “aroused.”  And, what I’m trying to get my mind around, bras that analyze brain waves.

After the jump, read all about it.  But then I have some serious questions I want to raise.

From Cecilia Kang in the Washington Post:

Tablets that measure pupil ­dilation to determine whether you’re in the mood to watch a horror movie or a comedy.

Headbands, socks and bras that analyze brain waves, heart rates and sweat levels to help detect early signs of disease or gauge a wearer’s level of concentration.

 

Cars that recognize their owner’s voice to start engines and direct turns and stops, all hands-free.

This week in Las Vegas at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, personal technology will get much more personal, with the proliferation of biometric tools to create more-customized online experiences while also testing new boundaries on privacy.

Once just a niche for fitness buffs and law enforcement officials, the use of biometrics for activity tracking, voice and facial recognition, and fingerprint identification has made its way into mainstream consumer de­vices. The trend could represent the next wave of mobile computing after smartphones and weave technology into more aspects of everyday life.

The explosion of biometric tools has been sparked by an abundance of cheaper sensors and advances in computing technology. Devices embedded into clothing and on wristbands or ear buds allow the tracking of even mundane activities such as cooking, listening to music and reading.

“This is an inflection point that I call the sensorization of consumer tech,” said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES. “This allows the digitization of everyday objects. Anything that we want to digitize we now can, and health and fitness is just one component. Literally, this is where things get into ‘Minority Report’ territory, because we can embed sensors into so many aspects of our lives.”

As technology moves deeper into the habits — and the biology — of Internet users, the collection and analysis of everything from iris patterns to the unique qualities of a person’s walking style raise fresh questions about privacy, as companies share the information to build more-sophisticated portraits of consumers.

“Biometric data is personally identifiable information, and the question is how will it be stored and who has access to it,” said Jeramie D. Scott, national security counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Revelations of the National Security Agency’s broad and secret surveillance of Internet and phone data has heightened public concerns about privacy. The commercial use of biometrics comes as the FBI and other agencies ramp up collection of biometric information such as fingerprints and facial and voice data. And as more Web-based firms such as Instagram, Apple, Google and Yahoo collect similar data, privacy advocates say consumers may never realize how much sensitive information they are disclosing.

“There is much incentive to get this valuable information. You can identify an individual with a remarkable level of accuracy just by their gait. And that’s just one example,” Scott said.

At CES, much of the biometric technology is meant to pique consumers’ imaginations. Voice-guided driverless cars won’t be available for several years. And Microsoft’s stress-detection bras and mood-sensing ear buds are still being nurtured in labs. Many products at the world’s biggest annual electronics show never make it to retail shelves.

A brain-wave detector, for example, promises to use those signals to gain insights into a person’s level of engagement. Interaxon’s headband could presumably tell whether the wearer is bored with a conversation or having trouble focusing on a task. . . .

“Up until now, everyone thought the smartphone was the key to the cloud, but everyone was wrong. The smartphone is a lock and a very smart lock with lots of sensors,” Taveau said. “Your human body will be your own key, and you will get an extremely customized experience on your device and feel more comfortable doing more on your device than ever before.”

Beyond security, eye scanning provides valuable behavioral data. Eye-tracking software made by a company called Tobii is used by Google, Amazon and PayPal in focus groups to assess their users’ interests online. By studying someone’s gaze, the firms can tell whether the person ignores banner ads, likes certain colors or naturally tends to look at particular areas of a Web page. One tool reads pupil dilations to judge whether the user is aroused — valuable information that can be combined with other data to assess mood and interests. Netflix, for instance, could use mood-sensing technology to recommend movies with better accuracy, Tobii said.

Random thoughts about all of this:

(1)  We tend to get paranoid when the government invades our privacy.  Why is it any better when businesses invade our privacy?

(2)  I can see how the mood-sensing, mind-reading technology can benefit advertisers.  But how does it benefit consumers?

(3)  Why should people purchase devices that allow advertisers to manipulate them more effectively?

(4)  Does a woman need to wear a special bra to know if she is stressed?  Doesn’t she know that already? Wouldn’t wearing such technology make her feel even more stressed than usual?  Doesn’t a person know if he or she is in the mood for a horror movie or a comedy?  Do we need to wear a headband to determine whether we are bored?  Don’t we know if we are, ahem, “aroused”?  The technology, of course, is designed to tell other people–specifically, people who are trying to sell you something–how you are feeling.  But how is that any of their business?  And, again, why should you pay for features that allow for that?

(5)  I am aware that the Google Glasses and such will let you look around, conjuring up ads for the restaurants and shops that you are looking at.  But do you really need that much help in deciding where to spend your money?  Is there a lack of consumer information that this technology is remedying?

(6)  What is the consumer need that these products are meeting?  Security, I can see that.  But what else?

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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