As advances in facial recognition software bode exciting possibilities for the world of events, tech guru Gerard Lennox, founder of Xitagy, explores the plus points and pitfalls organisers face.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – so what is a picture of your face worth? For Panos Moutafis, CEO of Houston based Zenus it means cutting on-site registration costs a hundred-fold. He reckons that he can reduce event registration time from one minute per delegate to around half a second which means less people manning desks and no queues at the start of a conference. According to a survey by etouches, 42% of 239 event planners said that managing on-site registration and the check-in process is the major pain and expenditure when running an event.

All delegates have to do is upload a decent photograph or link to a social media site like LinkedIn and the system does the rest. Costs are reduced because there is no need for expensive airport scanners – just a decent mobile phone or tablet and people can pass through the system. If you need badges it takes a little longer for printing but innovations like self-adhesive butterfly badges can speed this up by eliminating the need for PVC wallets. Just grab a lanyard as you pass through and you’re good to go. It paves the way for self-service registration at its finest – and it doesn’t even matter if the delegate forgot their ticket or can’t speak the language.

Claims of 99% accuracy mean less than 10 in 1,000 false positives need to be checked by a human being. The latest systems are aiming for one in a thousand. Facial recognition saves money, people and time as well as making the registration process painless. But what are the downsides? To put it bluntly, security and the privacy. You have my name and email, now you have my picture – what are the implications?

To address this companies are not storing your picture, just the data points as a long number to identify a face and then linking it to a database of registered people. After the event they are making a major point of telling you they are deleting the data points.

In these days of GDPR, do people believe the tech companies and will all delegates go along with this new technology? In 2015, Beijing achieved 100% video surveillance coverage of the city, leading to facial recognition being used to fine jaywalkers via text. Many are worried this surveillance will be used to punish political critics and protesters.

At the International Corporate Events awards in London backin 2017, less than half the delegates were prepared to use this approach. Today’s more internet savvy delegates are more receptive – just look at how many people are using facial recognition to unlock their mobile phones! Promoted clearly, openly and well in advance, I think delegates will accept facial recognition – especially if there are more benefits than just expediating the check-in process.

Ideas like the wonderMakr conference swag vending machine which used facial recognition software to reward delegates who smiled, not only captured attention but recorded who was in what part of the event. By using facial recognition you can create heat maps of your event and see how people are moving and where they are spending their time – all without RFID tags or complex networks.

How about instant networking complete with instant biographies? Combine facial recognition with Google Glass and feed information about who you are meeting direct to your eyeballs – no need to remember names or spend time in advance reading up about people. Imagine you were manning an exhibition stand and as a person walked on the stand you knew their name, job title, company and if they were a client. What an impact that would have on return on investment!

Using facial recognition software and biometrics, you can track emotions on both individuals and groups of people. Are they happy or hot and bothered? Turn the heat up or down. Are they listening to the speaker or distracted? Software companies like crowdemotion and Rank One Computing are helping to understand audience engagement in real time so you can change the agenda on the fly.

There are many aspects of facial recognition and debates to be had on how it will work in our society. Recent news from the US shows a growing wariness of its use in law enforcement yet there are many ways we are happy to share our presence with others. The key is balance and openness. If I know what you are doing with information about me – I am not so concerned.

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