The tech was in use at Taylor Swift’s Rose Bowl shows. (Getty Images)
When Taylor Swift played in May at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., she appeared before more than 60,000 screaming fans, mostly made up of groups of young girls, preteens, teenagers and their parents. And if the Rose Bowl security team was successful, none of those people were on the list of more than 1,000 stalkers, harassers and assorted kooks that law enforcement had put together, people that Swift and her management team do not want anywhere near the pop sensation.
No incidents were reported and the technology that made that happen was facial recognition, a fast-growing security tool that’s due to expand exponentially as the technology gets faster, better and cheaper.
“What they did was put digital displays inside and outside the Rose Bowl and when people were queuing up in line, they were mesmerized by all this digital content. What they didn’t know is that within the digital content there were hundreds of tiny cameras that tapped into that 1,000-plus stalker database list. It was all monitored by the security team, and if they got a hit, they knew a stalker was on the premises,” said Mike Downing, executive vice president of security for Oak View Group/Prevent Advisors. (OVG is the parent company of VenuesNow.)
“There’s some really exciting things happening in the facial recognition space,” he said. “They used it in the World Series. At the National Soccer Hall of Fame they are using it as a fan experience opt-in. Delta Air Lines is using it both on the security side and the customer service side. When you get the airlines to start using it, that will pave the way.”
“We’re building two new venues (KeyArena in Seattle and Belmont Park Arena on Long Island, N.Y.), and facial recognition is something we are always talking about,” Downing said. “In our consulting work, we recommend it in certain cases. There’s a security aspect to it, but there’s also a fan experience/VIP/customer service side to it.”
“Right now, we’re looking at it as a customer experience tool primarily. For it to work effectively as a security measure, we have to have a database for it to ping off. Having facial recognition without a database really doesn’t do anything.”
“They used it in the NBA Finals for the staff,” he said. “All the staff had to do is pose for photos. If someone took a credential and tried to come in as that staffer, the facial recognition machine would recognize that as being a false ID and alert security.”
NEC facial recognition systems are part of the security at Madison Square Garden in New York City and Staples Center in Los Angeles, he said, citing examples of venues using the technology. “They use it at Staples Center for specific events and staff entry, and at MSG they are using it to keep out people who have been barred from the venue.”
Blink Identity is the leader in the facial recognition field, Downing said.
The firm, less than a year old, was created by two ex-Department of Defense employees. Live Nation, Ticketmaster, Tech Stars and Avex Group are investors.
“This will allow venues to know who is coming into the venue,” said Mary Haskett, Blink Identity’s co-founder and CEO. The other co-founder is Alex Kilpatrick.
“Right now, the music business is afflicted by anonymity,” she said. “No one knows who is entering or leaving a venue. Our technology will solve this problem.”
Blink Identity’s Mary Haskett and Alex Kilpatrick. (Courtesy Blink Identity)
“Basically, what we create is a map of a person’s face,” Haskett said. “The technology can map a person’s face from age 18 to 58. After the person is 58, we would need a new map.”
The product works “at full walking speed” — 60 people a minute.
“The challenge is speed and lighting conditions,” she said. “This is a security system that identifies people. It can also be used in any number of ways for VIP identification.”
“The facial reader is the size of a lunchbox, and we paint it bright yellow so people are aware it’s there. The first hardware model was the size of an army tank,” Haskett said, laughing. “By the second we got it down to a very tall black box on two legs that looked imposing and robotic. After many models we got to the current yellow-box version that is friendly and small enough to sit on a small table.”
“Our philosophy is ‘customer’s rights first,’ and we don’t want this technology to be used in any way that will undermine a guest’s interest in visiting a venue,” she said. “Creepy things can be done with it; we want to avoid that.”
Haskett said the product will be in use in the first quarter of 2019 at test venues.
“It’s business to business to consumer,” she said. “The venues will lease the boxes and create their own databases.”
Right now, any governmental databases are strictly limited for use by law enforcement.
“The best use of the technology will be to make it user-centric, meaning customers or staff members voluntarily join the system and allow the venues to capture their facial pattern as identity,” she said.
The boxes can be fine-tuned to either allow for more people to get in who aren’t a match, or to keep more people out who may be a false match.
“It’s up to the venue how they want to set the box,” she said. “Do they want to keep people out who should be let in, or would they rather let people in who shouldn’t get in. If it’s a case of VIPs, for example, you’d rather let in someone who isn’t a VIP. If it’s strictly for security, you’d rather exclude 1,000 people than allow even one person in who shouldn’t be there.”
“We’re very interested in biometric tickets,” said Justin Burleigh, chief product officer for Ticketmaster. “We’re beginning to tease this out, and facial recognition is a big step in that process.”
“We think the facial recognition experience will be most meaningful in the VIP and club levels and backstage,” he said. “We’re looking at it like TSA Precheck. Fans join the program and it gets them in faster and easier.”
“We’re not pursuing facial recognition to create a giant database of faces,” Burleigh said. “We don’t want to be in the terrorist watch list business. We see this as a way to create a way to make your face your entry ticket.”
Burleigh thinks we are not far away from putting the facial recognition machines into venues. “We’ve already done tests,” he said. “We see this coming to market early next year.”
“We’ll know who’s visiting in the seats, but that doesn’t mean we’re throwing your face into a national database,” he added. “We want to make sure we nail the experience, so it feels organic and natural.”
“This will improve the fan experience from entry to the VIP experience,” Downing said.
“On the security side, it will give us better situational awareness of the environment going on, and if people know you have it, it’s a deterrent.”
“I think the new frontier is when the terrorist-watch databases are made available to venues to use,” he added. “That will be a game changer. But we’re not there yet.”
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