In the future, eyes are the window to the wallet

By Gary Gentile By Gary Gentile, The Associated Press
Friday June 28, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Which of the following are real and which are science fiction? 

n An ATM that gives you access to your accounts by scanning your retinas. 

n A supermarket checkout counter that lets you pay for groceries with the touch of your thumb. 

n Holographic billboards that call out to you by name as you walk by. 

n Electronic magazines that deliver news instantly over a wireless network. 

The first two exist today; the others are images from the year 2054 as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Minority Report.” 

Indeed, many of the film’s futuristic visions, including a holographic greeter at the Gap and animated cereal boxes, could become real using technology being developed today. 

Already, personal video recorders, such as those made by TiVo and SONICBlue, can collect information on individual households’ viewing habits, allowing advertisers to more precisely target their messages. 

And the next generation of cell phones will have position detection capability, allowing retailers, such as Starbucks, to ring customers as they approach a store and offer time-sensitive discounts. 

In 1999, Spielberg convened a three-day think tank to pick the brains of 23 futurists about likely changes technology would bring during the next 50 years. 

“The futurists that I assembled around that table didn’t agree with each other on every point, but one of the several things they did unanimously agree on was that the entire advertising industry is going to recognize us as individuals, and they’re going to spot-sell to us,” Spielberg said. “They will sell directly to you.” 

With inventions such as personal video recorders enabling consumers to tune out “dumb” ads, today’s pitchmen are anxiously searching for personalized approaches that depend on an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of customer habits and desires. 

From Amazon.com, which uses “cookies” planted on your hard drive to track purchases, to supermarket loyalty cards that deliver coupons based on past buys, people are already sacrificing some privacy in exchange for convenience. 

“It’s a question of how much do we want to sacrifice our ability to hide and how much do we want to be uniquely served — that’s one of the trade-offs we are making,” said Peter Schwartz, chairman of Global Business Network and the head of Spielberg’s “think tank.” 

In one key scene in “Minority Report,” detective John Anderton, played by Tom Cruise, is fleeing agents of the Pre-Crime police unit chasing him for a murder he is foretold to commit. As he runs down a street, electronic billboards scan his retinas and hurl personalized pitches his way. 

“John Anderton, you could use a Guinness about now!” one billboard shouts. 

In another scene, Cruise enters a Gap, where his eyes are again scanned, triggering a holographic version of the Gap’s greeter who asks if he was satisfied with his last purchase. 

In the future, it seems, the eyes are the window to the wallet. 

Much of the technology portrayed in the movie is already being developed and tested, including flexible computer screens thinner than a business card that can receive images over a wireless network. 

“The ability to have billboard-size displays, newspapers that are updating themselves, packaging able to animate, these are all quite possible within 10 to 15 years,” said Russ Wilcox, general manager of E Ink Corp., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company developing so-called digital paper.