An EU-funded project has developed a computer system that can read people's body language and react accordingly.
"We would like to have a form of ambient intelligence where computers are completely hidden," says Chaabane Djeraba of CNRS in Lille, coordinator of the MAUCE project.
"This means a multimodal interface so people can interact with their environment. The computer sees their behaviour and then extracts information useful for the user."
The group has prototyped three systems based on the technology - and, guess what, one is to help stores sell more stuff.
"We would like to analyse how people walk around in a shop, and the behaviour of people in the shop, where they look, for example," Djeraba says.
One partner in the project is developing a 'people counter' to monitor pedestrian flows in the street outside a shop and is marketing it to fashion stores who wish to attract passers-by. It's also developed a 'heat map generator' so that a store manager can watch people's movements and see which displays are attracting the most attention.
There's also a prototype for interactive web television, whereby the viewer’s face is monitored by the PC's webcam to see which part of the screen they're looking at and feed further information based on what they've shown an interest in already. This is being commercialized by Latvian software company Tilde.
A third application extracts information from video cameras to detect acccidents on escalators.
Djeraba denies that there are ethical concerns. Cameras are placed only on private premises and always with a warning notice, but the fundamental principle was anonymity, he says.
"What we are doing here is analysing user behaviour without any identification - this is a fundamental requirement for such systems," he says. "Generally speaking, anonymity is the critical point. If we anonymise, it’s OK, if we don’t anonymise, it’s not OK."