The surrender of privacy and the capitalization of intimacy

Voices In Your Head? They Might Be Real

Grocery shelves can demand you to buy their products.

A funny thing happened as I was waiting to go into the studio at the Newark, N.J. head office of Audible 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 a different book. Sure enough, small directional speakers were housed in the ceiling.

Fair enough, I thought: They're in the business of making and selling audio books. They can play them in their lobby.

But then I stumbled on this photo, with an interesting commentary, from a Flickr user who calls himself "Bark":

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?


Shopper in the Grocery Aisle
Shopper Bark Listens to the Cries of the Cookies
Via Flickr, under Creative Commons Share License, source:

In Technocreep, I wrote about smart store shelves that could sense and interpret the physical attributes of passers-by—man or woman; young or old; even body mass index. I speculated that retail stores could start automatically adjusting prices based on what their sensors could deduce about you.

It's not so farfetched. Online travel site Orbitz was caught in 2012 displaying more expensive hotels to people visiting the site from 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 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. But when he removed the tracking cookie that Amazon had used to identify him, the price dropped to $22.74.

As long as we're aware of such manipulations, we can defend ourselves. But what if the store shelves start whispering to us, in the very manner suggested by photo-joker Bark?

Products That Get in Your Head, Literally

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 already been used successfully by clients such as Daimler Chrysler and Remy Martin to "grab passersby by the ears."

In an uber-creepy YouTube video, advertising firm Ogilvy New Zealand asks, "How Do You Tell Someone to Buy Fair Trade Bananas?" and answers, "You don't. You let their conscience tell them.

With a recorded script 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, as it should have, based on the results: 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 reasoned out that the only ways to make sound travel like a laser beam were to use either extremely large speakers, or 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.

There's nothing intrinsically evil about this invention, which has been around since 2000. Audio Spotlight® certainly has some good applications. It's been used at the New York Public Library to allow social gaming and movie watching to co-exist with quiet reading.

What is a worry, though, is how it is being used to influence people who simply walk into its "cone of sound." At the very least, there should always be ample signage warning consumers about this new marketing technique. (The free-trade bananas campaign actually does provide this.) 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.



Thomas P. Keenan is a science and technology writer, public speaker, and professor of Environmental Design and Computer Science at the University of Calgary.


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