You are here: Home>Collections>Data

Chicago bars using facial detection software

SceneTap application raises questions over privacy

November 16, 2011|By Emily Van Zandt, RedEye

Need to know how crowded John Barleycorn is right now? Or whether there are more women than men at Vertigo Sky Lounge? How about the average age of patrons at Schoolyard Tavern? If you're in Chicago, there's an app for that.

SceneTap, a mobile and web application that launched in Chicago in July, uses cameras to gather information for its facial detection software, which provides real-time stats on the age, sex and number of patrons in more than 50 bars in Chicago.

While the app does not reveal any identifying information about patrons (no identifying photos or video is posted for the public), anyone can log onto scenetap.com to check out statistics on how full a bar is (given as a percentage), the ratio of men to women and the average age of the crowd at bars that have the SceneTap "data detectors" installed by the company.

SceneTap CEO Cole Harper, who now lives in Austin, says they prefer the term "data detector," although it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between the SceneTap devices and an actual security camera.

"That's just sort of the verbage we like to use so that it doesn't scare people," says Harper. "We're not videotaping and no one is viewing the footage. It's truly just eyes for the software."

The software scans images for features it recognizes as faces—eyes, nose, jawline—then draws a circle around that face. It then uses algorithms to determine a person's gender (based on factors like makeup, hair length and facial features) and an estimated age. Cameras are positioned near entrances.

A recent New York Times article compared the facial recognition technology used by apps such as SceneTap to something out of sci-fi films, but Harper says concerns over privacy have been minor.

"We haven't gotten a whole lot of negative feedback, but we've gotten some questions," says Harper.

For Sharone Mitchell, 28 of Wicker Park, it isn't the SceneTap technology itself that's questionable, but the people who use it.

"It's kind of weird, but it's not like I'm gonna call the ACLU about it," says Mitchell, who works part time as a bar trivia host for his company Chicago Trivia Guys. "But I'd feel like a creep going to a bar based on seeing that there are a lot more girls there."

Chicago is currently the only city that streams live data from participating bars online, but SceneTap is being used by bar owners in more than 25 cities both nationally and internationally.

The main draw for many bar owners using SceneTap is not the idea that data about crowds could draw more patrons, but how the data can help them better manage their business.

"They like being able to sit down and look and see that maybe they spent $300 on a DJ on Friday night, but it did nothing to boost their crowd," says Harper. In the future, Harper hopes SceneTap will be able to offer services such as text message alerts to bar owners letting them know, for example, when crowds drop so low that they should cut staff early or let a customer know when their favorite bar starts to reach capacity so they won't be turned away when they arrive.

"It's been great for…having those real numbers and information to forecast estimated revenues and crowd numbers," says Matt McCahill, food and beverage director at Vertigo Sky Lounge at the Dana Hotel, which has been using SceneTap since this summer.

"We've had groups of guys come in saying that they've seen (on SceneTap) that we have the most girls in our bar," says McCahill, who also noted that he hasn't had any staff or patrons bring up concerns about the system.

Of the more than 50 Chicago bars and clubs using the software, many are locations owned by major bar and restaurant groups such as Pioneer Tavern Group (Frontier, Lottie's Pub), Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (Hub 51 and Sub 51), and the Four Corners Tavern Group (Schoolyard Tavern, West End).

"I've gotta be real honest, we really haven't been using it all that much," said Mark Deomitrovich, owner of Pioneer Tavern group, who says that he's waiting to see how useful SceneTap is as the company develops more features.

RedEye Chicago Articles
|
|
|