Why Do Mannequins That Spy On Us Creep Us Out? – Forbes

This came up in a colleague’s class.  Very disturbing.

There are cameras everywhere. They’re like cockroaches; for every one you actually notice, there are hundreds more that you don’t. (Though they’re not scurrying around in the walls, yet.) Given their ubiquity it’s rare these days to hear a complaint about cameras in public places such as stores, unless they’re hidden in a fitting room or bathroom. But last week, much of the media was in an uproar over store cameras. Why? Because they were placed inside mannequins.

In the lead-up to the holiday shopping season, BusinessWeek reported that “bionic mannequins are spying on shoppers to boost luxury sales” at five unnamed companies. The $5,130 EyeSee mannequins from Almax have cameras embedded in their eyes that use IBM Cognos software to record the number of shoppers checking out window displays and clothes, how long they lingered, and their age, gender and race. They don’t keep any images of the customers, just the aggregate data about who’s been considering blowing money on cashmere sweaters and $300 jeans. But it may not stop there.

via Why Do Mannequins That Spy On Us Creep Us Out? – Forbes.


17 thoughts on “Why Do Mannequins That Spy On Us Creep Us Out? – Forbes

  1. I don’t think the problem with cameras in mannequins stems from a discomfort with being video recorded in general; as the article suggests, most shoppers expect it when they enter a store. Instead, I can imagine two problems that deal with unease rather than privacy. For one, placing cameras on eye level with shoppers and in a humanoid display simply has a different sensation than an overhead camera. The overhead camera seems to survey the entire store, the shoppers as a group, while the eye level human camera appears a more one-on-one experience, where the shopper may easily feel recorded and surveyed as an individual. Furthermore, I think the uncanny valley plays a role here (normally describing the unease one feels when observing a humanoid robot, when one knows it’s a robot but something feels “off” about its movements or appearance). In this case, though, the only “human” aspects of the mannequins are in their form and the fact that they are in a sense “watching” people. It’s uncanny. I therefore don’t think camera-mannequins present so much a new issue of surveillance but rather an issue of unease, one that I’m fairly certain I would identify with if I were to encounter a camera-eyed mannequin.

  2. This is creepy! The problem I see in this case is that we are loosing control of the public space. This should not be legal/ethical as the companies are sneaking on people who are outside of their shops and most of whom probably do not have the intention to rob their stores or damage the public. At the same time, even if it’s ok for them to sneakily plant cameras in the eyes of the mannequins, those companies do not have the right to study those people’s behavior for their profits. This could be seen as experiment/study which normally should be conducted on the basis of informed consent.
    I also agree with the comment above about the uncanniness. I tend to think that people feel uneasy when watched by cameras (with people behind) or by other people on the spot. However, it seems that more people are getting used to the gaze of cameras (sometimes people even play in front of the cameras when they are clearly aware of being watched). With the mannequins “watching,” it’s not just a camera, it is more like a human-like form staring at you which is strange to most people. I don’t know how much time would it take for people to become comfortable with the gaze of human-like non-human, but it might also never come true as when humans are horrified, we tend to just cut things off.

  3. I honestly don’t find this to be very creepy. This can and is probably used in a variety of different ways for the store. Like it’s described, they can look at what catches people eye when they walk by the window of the store. This could be used to help boost sales of the store or also can be used in the store to catch theft. I don’t think this is a big difference then having the obvious cameras in the ceiling where people can see the domes while shopping. The only difference is that it is a covert camera that can’t be easily seen by the customer. I don’t see any kind of ethical issue here with these cameras. As long as these cameras aren’t used in a way that isn’t ethical then there should be no problems. There are certain guidelines that camera placement has to follow and as long as they aren’t near bathrooms or fitting rooms in certain stores then ethically there should be no issue with cameras placed in mannequins.

  4. I personally do not find this to be creepy. For the most part I do not think people will even notice the cameras. It is no different then any other public security camera to me. You do not hear people complain about the hundreds of cameras that watch your every move in a casino for example. I think that as long as these cameras are in fact secured and do not save images then there should be no problem. It is just a way to gather data so that the company can better target specific audiences to boost their own sales.

  5. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this situation. I mean, we are aware that malls and stores have security cameras and we are okay with this, but now that the mannequins have them we should be weirded out? The only explanation I can think of is that we feel like we are being fooled or something, because the mannequins having cameras is a sneaky move on the part of the store. I know that when I shop I barely pay attention to the cameras; the only attention I give them is a split second of my time when I notice them. But, if I was being watched and did not know it I don’t think I would like that. I realize that the mannequins are surveillance cameras, but they are also recording personal information. I feel like this could go badly, because if the store seemed to be attracting a certain crowd that it did not want, it might hire extra security, which could be considered racial profiling. This, of course, is a farfetched example. As for the surveillance aspect…I realize that malls do not tell us we are being recorded on camera, but I think it is a well known fact. If people found out about these mannequin cameras, I do not think they would want to window shop as much, because they would feel uncomfortable. I understand that the mannequins are watching just like the wall cameras, but I think the sneaky aspect of the situation is what makes me, and probably others, feel a little uneasy.

  6. This is the definition of creepy, but I can understand why businesses are doing it. This type of research is nothing new, provided the customers know they are being watched. The intention of the technology is to study their shoppers and better understand their shopping habits. Including that they do not store customer’s images shows that they do not intend to use this as an invasion of privacy. This is almost just being under security cameras when you enter a store, but with the intention to use the videos. However, if they roll out the mannequins that can listen in to the conversations, that is probably crossing the line. Especially after the housing market crash and The Great Recession, companies have to compete for customers and this information can provide them with insights that allow them to prepare for the future. Many companies already have designed their stores around customers’ shopping habits, if the companies include a notice that the customers “could be” under surveillance (and study) then by entering the store they indirectly agreed to being taped and thus agree to the study.

    1. I disagree. When I walk into a store, I am now expecting to be monitored around every corner. Initially, I was under the impression the cameras were to discourage/police shoplifting which is good for the store and good for me (less shoplifting = cheaper prices!). But I see nothing wrong with businesses making smart use of technology already in place by collecting data on customers in order to better market their products. It is an unspoken agreement that by walking into their store, I am consenting to being filmed. What difference does it make if the camera is on the ceiling, the wall, or in a mannequin? None. Anyone who is creeped out by the “humanoid” aspect will likely get over their unease pretty quickly. New technologies always make people uneasy until they become accustomed to the changes.

  7. The fact that store cameras now being placed in mannequins freaks people out is because of the up-close and personal aspect they represent. When store customers see cameras on the ceilings and at the entrances of stores, they expect this and are not alarmed. They are far enough away to keep the customers feeling comfortable with being watched because they are at a safe distance. However, cameras in mannequins put the “Big Brother” much closer to the customers, so close in fact that they can notice age, ethnicity, etc. This aspect of modern store security makes the customers uneasy because of the personal nature and how unexpected the location of the cameras are.

  8. This is a great example of how not to aggregate consumer data. While it may seem a creative and, perhaps, quirky fix to the necessity of better marketing, these cameras raise the issue of cameras. These stores could easily point a camera at the window display and capture the same information while in plain view. I don’t think technical limitations should be an excuse to cause such a debate.

  9. Half of me feels that this is awesomely ingenious – everyone always sees the movies that have the painting with eyes that move and this seems like a step beyond that! Like others have said, I don’t think that the issue stems from an ethical issue. People always expect cameras when going into places, they just don’t usually actively think about it. I think that if you replaced the mannequin with just a camera on a post positioned in the exact same way, individuals wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Sure, it’s a little weird having a camera that up close to you, but it’s the way the camera is placed that is creepy. Personifying a camera to a mannequin on a person’s eyes makes the situation completely different.

    I think an interesting idea to think about is that people are typically used to cameras being in the upper corners of stores, places where the vantage point is most advantageous for surveillance. Nobody would look twice at a camera positioned like this. But if a camera were a set of eyes in the same position, a face with eyes that moved, a rotating head, or anything personified, then it gets creepy.

  10. I think I’m opposite of most people in that putting cameras in Mannequins doesn’t creep me out personally, or really make mannequins any creepier than they already are. I find the tenacity of marketing to be creepy in how far they are willing to go to find ways to attract customers. Ads are everywhere and personally I don’t know why it is such a big industry because most advertisements personally turn me off and I don’t buy the product because of the ad. Especially if it is an internet ad. I think the real issue is the marketing industry and how determined they are to creep more steadily into our lives. I think hiding the cameras in mannequins is creepy because it is like spying and they say they aren’t recording images of people, but how do you really know that? People lie all the time. I don’t think there is quite an ethical issue here but I don’t quite like the idea of being spied upon by a human looking inanimate object.

  11. I do not think the cameras need to be hidden as far as security goes. If they (the store owners) are more concerned with making sure no one steals from them then they would have the cameras out and in the open to tell people “hey you are being recorded, you should think twice before you stick that in your pants without paying” versus having a hidden one. I think a hidden one would be more or so used for a set up type thing to catch criminals, because there would be no visible cameras. The whole idea of the hidden cameras being used to conduct research is unnecessary. Of course people are more likely to act normal or themselves if they do not know they are being watched so that’s the type of results that they want, but they do not have the permission to use these people in their research. I am sure there are not words written on the doors of the store as customers walking in saying, “if you walk in you agree to be used….” so I do not think it is right to do such a thing.

  12. This actually reminds me of the recent explosion of a mobile application known as SceneTap. What this app does is use cameras within the participating bars to track and recognize facial features of the guests within these bars. The cameras can then see the current population of the bar, the average age of the guests and the girl to guy ratio. Obviously no one is sitting behind a computer watching everyone’s face and actually interrupting anyone’s privacy but I feel that systems like this are very strong marketing tools for the future. In my personal opinion it’s less invasive than security cameras in stores and other businesses. There’s no one really tracking you and it’s just a computer checking to see you as one of many people and not as a specific individual. People are always scared of some sort of change but this is where the world is heading and people will have to learn to accept and adapt. http://scenetap.com/

  13. I can get over my discomfort of a mannequin with cameras assessing shoppers that are looking at the store and their age, gender, ethnicity, and such. But immediately I was put off by the notion of installing microphones that pick up shopper conversation and eavesdrop for keywords. That almost seems just as bad as the infamous Patriot Act to be honest. With both, I can see the purpose they wish to serve but am grossly offended by the invasion of privacy. I feel as though it is one thing to record video of a person and assess their general information for the purpose of creating a record of who pays attention to your store. But I also feel that a line is crossed when that camera has a microphone that picks up conversation of shoppers and can record sensitive information perhaps.

  14. To be honest, I kind of find this idea to be somewhat intriguing. Sure, it may seem a little creepy at first sight but, in the end, it doesn’t really breach too much privacy. When we walk into a store today, we expect to be monitored by cameras all over the store. Adding a twist to it, such as this, really doesn’t seem to change much. If anything, these mannequin’s are only helping the store out with future sales and strategies for marketing — they are not trying to gather personal data about each customer that walks by them. I do see the flip-side of this argument, though, and how this could be a little too far to hide the cameras so discretely. In the end, I think this is only the beginning of more technologies like this to come about.

  15. I think that cameras located inside mannequins is not unethical in anyway unless the data they are collectiing is not being used how they say it will be. If they are not capturing actual images of the shoppers like they say they are not, then I feel that this is not a major issue. However, there are many other things that can come from these cameras that would be an invasion of property. Yes, it is a little creepy the mannequin modeling clothes that you are interested in buying is staring back at you, but there are security cameras everywhere. So, this is not really an invasion of privacy, and it should not be looked at in a negative way. In the future, I can see them using these cameras in other ways which will then be a problem.

  16. I agree with whoever above said that part of the creepiness can probably be attributed to the uncanny valley effect – mannequins are sort of weird to us because they look very close to people, just not quite. Our culture reinforces this perception by creating movies based on the idea of mannequins coming to life. So to think that they’ll be “watching” you seems sort of creepy. That being said, I don’t really care as long as they just aggregate data and don’t store any information. But the “hearing” part is a little bit over the line for me. It just seems like it has too much potential for abuse, especially combined with the eyes. This could possibly mean they could be programmed to look for an individual and then record what they say, which would be seriously troubling.

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