A woman tries out the FaceMe technology, which can detect a customer's identity and likely demographic information and emotions. Credit: Courtesy / CyberLink

Facial recognition technology is coming to a retail store near you.

On Tuesday, representatives from Taiwanese software company CyberLink demonstrated the organization’s facial recognition platform, known as FaceMe, which can detect customers’ identity by using a combination of closed-circuit television systems and artificial intelligence. The product also guesses customer demographic information, such as age, gender, and ethnicity, as well as their emotions.

By using a store’s cameras and digital signage to scan incoming and outgoing clientele, the software provides stores with data, such as a heat map showing the highest and lowest traffic in the store, the number of unique visitors at the store, and VIP customers that have returned to the store and spent a lot of money.

Facial recognition technology has been used by law enforcement agencies for years and is entering a new phase of use by the private sector for such uses as security and to create a retail experience tailored to each customer. Think Amazon’s recommendations – using purchase history to curate a menu of items to promote – but in the real, physical world.

“The use of facial recognition by private companies [in] cases that go way beyond security, it’s emerging in the U.S.,” said Richard Carriere, general manager and senior vice president of global marketing at CyberLink. “But there’s huge interest. Almost every company of reasonable size is doing research; they’re looking at what can be done. We have several companies – obviously, we cannot name them – [for whom] we are developing a proof of concept that would result in broad deployment.”

(right) Richard Carriere, general manager and senior vice president of global marketing at Cyber Link with Craig Campbell, sales engineer and technologist at Cyberlink. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But the use of facial recognition raises the specter of mass surveillance. In China, where facial recognition is broadly used to identify suspected criminals, the country is working to build a database of every citizen. Facial recognition software is used by law enforcement on these shores as well. The New York Police Department creates facial profiles of individuals in relevant investigation video and compares them with a database of mugshots to identify suspects.

U.S. lawmakers have demonstrated their concern for the rising use of facial recognition technology for a while now. Then-U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) called a hearing on the privacy implications of the technology before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2012.

Franken warned of bad actors abusing the technology.

“Once someone has your faceprint, they can get your name, they can find your social networking account, and they can find and track you in the street, in the stores that you visit, the government buildings you enter, and the photos your friends post online,” Franken stated in written testimony. “Your face is a conduit to an incredible amount of information about you, and facial recognition technology can allow others to access all of that information from a distance, without your knowledge, and in about as much time as it takes to snap a photo.”

A screenshot of the FaceMe software at work. Credit: Courtesy / Cyberlink

In March, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) introduced a bill to prevent certain entities from using facial recognition technology to track or identify people without their consent.

If regulators do not construct roadblocks, Carriere said he expects the next three to five years to be an experimentation phase during which new facial recognition applications will be tested. He anticipates the technology becoming ubiquitous in the next 10 years.

CyberLink was in San Antonio on Tuesday to show off its software to would-be customers at RetailNOW 2019, an expo featuring vendors at the intersection of retail and technology.

Facial recognition technology is broadly used in the cosmetics industry, Carriere said. CyberLink subsidiary Perfect Corp. developed an app known as YouCam that allows users to apply digital makeup by using augmented reality and has been used in department stores, for instance.

With physical retail stores increasingly falling prey to the growing convenience and influence of e-commerce, AI platforms like FaceMe will aim to lure customers away from their screens and into brick-and-mortar stores.

“The only thing the web has had over the retail stores is more information on what the customer is shopping for, what do they click on, and what do they like,” said Craig Campbell, CyberLink’s sales engineer and technologist. “I think this gives them that edge that they’ve been missing, so it’s a possible [remedy to the decline of brick-and-mortar retail sales]. But only time will tell.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.