Lord Sugar's OptimEyes system will track your face and eyeballs

Now when we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will gaze back, and come to know us.

As the amount of consumer data in the world proliferates like bacterial mass in a petri dish, companies expect to see more and more of it before committing to advertising spend.

Rather than just plastering brand names on any physical space and hoping for the best, marketers need hard, numerical reassurance from media platforms to prove their campaigns will deliver the right return on investment.

Measured talk of “bang for yer buck” has been de rigueur for some time in the world of online advertising, where the nature of the medium has afforded advertisers increasingly precise information on who is clocking their brand, when they are doing it, and what their online habits are.

But until now, meatspace marketing has largely relied on best guesses to calibrate public exposure to ads.

Enter Lord Sugar and Amscreen, the digital signage business he chairs, which is rolling out the dystopic-sounding OptimEyes system to its 6,000 display screens worldwide. OptimEyes screens will watch you as you watch them; analysing your face and recording for advertisers your age, gender, location and hunger for emptying your wallet.

How wonderful.

The type of technology we all thought was desperately creepy when it started appearing in living room corners via the Xbox Kinect add-on is now actively evaluating our commercial potential, rather than just animating charming cartoon homunculi of us in pretend sports.

When we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will now gaze back into us. And it will come to know us.

While OptimEyes is a fantastic business idea, and has the potential to revolutionise display advertising if it works as claimed, I would hope we can all come to the further consensus that it feels downright bone-deep horrible. 

Particularly troubling is the system’s ability to tell the sex of the person glancing at an ad. Gender-focused advertising is one of the great enablers of sexism as a societal norm, and this sort of scrutiny will only give advertisers more reason to presume our wants and needs based on our groinal architecture.

But there is a way round this.

A friend of mine, frothing with irritation at the saccharine weight-loss marketing that Facebook thought someone of her chromosomal persuasion would be desperate to see, recently changed her status to Male.

Immediately, everything was paintball weekends, virile deodorant, and diagrams showing her how to make her lower body look like two yorkie bars wrapped in parma ham. It was no better, but at least less presumptive and personally condescending.

Her small but perfectly formed act of rebellion came to mind when reading about OptimEyes, and gave me a flash of inspiration regarding how to stop this new technology dictating The Way The World Works.

Every member of the British public should carry one of these in a pocket, ready to slap it on and stare directly into the camera as they pass an Amscreen monitor:

Then, like Medusa looking into her own petrifying reflection in Perseus’ shield, Sugar’s abyss can gaze right back at its own mug.

Lord Sugar's new company will track user's faces. Photograph: Getty Images.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad