Skip to main content

NEC unveils facial-recognition system for identifying shoppers

The famous scene from Minority Report depicting a consumer walking into a Gap store and being instantly recognised, prompting the system to suggest new purchases based on that customer's purchase history, may have once seemed like an interesting movie fantasy, but it has now become reality. NEC has unveiled a new system in Japan that will allow stores to identify new and returning customers through facial recognition.

NEC's service, called NeoFace, was previewed recently at the C&C User Forum & iEXPO 2012 in Japan. NeoFace allows a retailer to use the system to analyse a shopper's face to determine his or her approximate age, gender, and whether or not that shopper has been to the store before. Using a technique called Adaptive Region Mixed Matching, NeoFace can even operate despite the presence of random factors, such as changing facial expressions, facial hair or glasses.

The system is so accurate that it passed a test conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), earning it the highest marks for high-volume identification matching. Although NeoFace is not yet a common tool for major retailers, the company says the system has already been deployed at Universal Studios Japan, assisting the company in its efforts to manage the arrivals and departures of the thousands of customers that visit the site on a daily basis.

"This service is mainly intended for retailers that have several stores," an NEC spokesperson explained in an interview with DigInfo. "It provides retailers with customer attributes based on facial images. That information is helpful for sales strategies... Retailers can find out how many customers visit their stores at each time of day, and what customer's attributes are. This enables them to fine-tune their sales strategies. For example, the data could be used to run campaigns targeting men and women in their 20s."

For those concerned about the security of a store holding biometric data, NEC said that although the faces are captured by the system, the biometric data is encrypted, thus preventing it from being inadvertently disclosed to third parties. Despite the sophistication of NeoFace's technology, it is likely to become a staple in many stores, particularly because it is being offered at what some retailers will consider an affordable price: $880 (£555) per month.