SceneTap’s Facial Detection Software Gives a Glimpse Into Venues

A recent VentureBeat article about startup SceneTap raised some eyebrows and more than a little ire. It detailed SceneTap’s plans to expand to San Francisco and open in 25 new bars there this Friday, May 18, but it re-awoke a debate about how far businesses can go without offending or frightening the general public in terms of gathering and using data about them. SceneTap founder and CEO Cole Harper wasn’t surprised that the conversation around his company went there, but he did think that most of those who reacted negatively were missing key pieces of the overall picture.

SceneTap works by using cameras to survey venues and collect information about its patrons, including approximate age and gender. That data is then used by the companies, often bars and clubs, to help them coordinate marketing efforts, and it’s also posted to SceneTap’s website and apps to allow patrons to get a sense of what kind of crowd any given bar has before they invest the time and money needed to get there.

SceneTap’s business model has been called “creepy,” and that’s some of the milder criticism it has received from commenters and journalists alike. But Harper told BetaKit that those accusations are often levied against his company unfairly.

“We’re aware that there are some pretty scary companies out there, like BarSpace [which puts live streaming webcams in bars] and others that are streaming video, and I’m shocked that there are even bars out there that are accepting of that because of all the liability risks, let alone the privacy,” he said in an interview. “The only thing that you can get your hands on [with our app] is anonymous data, including what percentage full, ratio of male to female patrons, and average age of patrons.”

Harper notes that SceneTap stores no information, nor does it even really take photos or videos. Instead, he said that its cameras act as “sensors,” in effect just determining anonymous demographic information and at no time is there even a human involved in that data-gathering process. Instead, algorithms and code takes care of determining age ranges and gender, which is in part why SceneTap is rolling out its software gradually; its big data demands require intensive processing power, and Harper said the company wants that to scale smoothly.

Even if people accept that SceneTap’s data-gathering tools are no more or less intrusive than the sensors used to measure the volume of road traffic during certain times of day in order to determine traffic shaping plans, there’s still the criticism that the very data SceneTap collects is potentially dangerous, especially when used in the way that SceneTap employs it. Might not people with predatory proclivities use it, for example, to find out where and when potential victims tend to congregate? Harper said that while he acknowledges that the type of data SceneTap gathers could be used for ill intent, the company has rules for its business partners in place to minimize the chance of that happening.

“We would never let it [SceneTap site and app gender breakdowns] go above 65 percent female on a venue even if it was. And we also let the operators control how this data is displayed outwardly, so a venue could have 90 percent females at a given moment, and on the app it’ll say greater than 58 percent, for example,” he explained. “And as things progress, if we need to make a change we can do that. But so far we’ve had no complaints from users, venues or operators in that regard.”

SceneTap is already working with businesses beyond the realm of bars and nightclubs, and Harper notes that in display advertising, this kind of gender-detecting camera-based tech has been in development for years (here’s a recent example of it in practice from TechCrunch). Ultimately, he believes that reaction to SceneTap’s model is largely overblown, and anticipates that it’ll become more or less commonplace in the next few years.

But as services that always-on devices loaded with sensors make possible, like ambient location services, grow, privacy concerns will continue to be a sticky point for SceneTap and other offerings like it. Companies like SceneTap, and those they partner with, need to lead with full transparency about how they do business, and the ways that their businesses can benefit average consumers, in order to defray negative perception and knee-jerk reactions, if they hope to encourage long-term traction.

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