Eyeball-Tracking Signs Bring Click-Counting Out Of Doors

Counting clicks on a Web page has become a routine and rich vein for advertisers, who are always eager to know how many people are looking at their commercials. But what about billboards, which still exist in old-fashioned physical space without any connection to the Internet? Advertisers are starting to use high-tech ways of getting instant feedback on sidewalks and street corners.

In London, CBS Outdoor is embarking on an overhaul of London Underground advertising, installing high-definition "media walls" along tube platforms and also digital escalator panels, which will begin rolling out in 24 stations by early 2008. These arrays of digital panels provide a versatile canvas upon which advertisers can flash rapidly changing messages and images.

Thanks to breakthroughs like this, outdoor advertising, once dismissed as yesterday's medium, is now the second fastest growing advertising sector after the Internet. In the United States, it rose 8 percent to $6.8 billion last year, and by 68 percent over the past 10 years, says the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Busy lifestyles and longer commuting times have created opportunities to reach a mobile audience. "Digital outdoor allows adverts to be relevant, and relevant works," says John Baker, head of interactive at OgilvyOne in London.

The next step, of course, is to find out how effective these ads really are. One of the best ways is to measure eye movement. To this end, scientists in Kingston, Ontario, are using infrared technology to monitor not only how many people pass a particular location but the exact number who turn to look—and for how long, from a distance of up to 10 meters. The principle behind the device, called eyebox2, is simple. Think of the "red-eye" effect from flash photography, says inventor Roel Vertegaal, a computer-science professor at Queen's University, whose research has focused on the interaction between humans and computers. The invisible infrared flash from the eyebox2 camera creates the same effect, identifying every eye that looks in its direction. A software package, eyeanalytics, offers immediate feedback in the form of easy-to-read graphs. Trials are being carried out by digital-sign company Novramedia, which is using the eyebox2 and eyeanalytics in Scotiabank's branches in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Innisfill, London and Brambton, Ontario. Two digital high-definition screens in each branch, one behind the tellers and one in the reception area, entertain people waiting to see a teller or speak to a bank officer, and also slip in a bit of advertising on the side.

Customer satisfaction is an ancillary goal: customers who are kept entertained don't think that they've waited as long as those who are forced to stare into empty space. "I think the potential of the technology could well be revolutionary," says Vertegaal, founder of xuuk, the start-up that is developing the device.

Applications could be numerous. For instance, Novramedia, has already experimented with matching information from the eyebox2 with point-of-sale data in the stores. "If you see a spike in sales it means a large number of people are watching the screens and the ad is effective," says company president Hermes Iordanous. "If you don't see any spikes it means you have to change the ad."

Eyebox2 is essentially a cheaper and longer-range version of eye-tracking boxes used by agencies that track ads, which cost about $25,000 and require the user to be sitting no more than 60 cm away. (Eyebox1, Vertegaal's prototype, could only pick-up eyeballs at close range.) Vertegaal expects the $1,500 cost of the eyebox2 to fall in the next few years. If prices dropped below $100, advertisers could install them in homes to monitor television viewing habits and collect data for ratings. The box would be able to tell if you are watching the screen and pause if you leave the room. A tad invasive? "People have to get used to technologies," says Vertegaal. "I think we'll look at this very differently in 10 years' time."

Smart monitoring devices like eyebox2 could further sharpen advertisers' interest in outdoor ads. In time, they could enable non-Web advertisers to charge not by an ad's size or location, but by the number of eyeballs it delivers. Smaller companies wouldn't necessarily have to pay huge rents for certain popular spots, but could instead pay for a certain amount of "screen" time. The feedback is rapid, unlike questionnaires—but very much like the Web.