“What we bring is a way to use one of the software platforms that many of these retailers will already have in place, surveillance.”
Espionage, crime, security, CCTV, even 1984: these are all things you’d usually associate with surveillance. Retail, however, seems like a tenuous link.
But with an estimated one camera per every 11 people in the UK, and nearly every retail store from independent corner shops to leading department stores utilising surveillance cameras, it is a sector increasingly dependent on the technology.
Though it is undeniably an indispensable tool for preventing crime, acting as both a deterrent and a reference point, retailers are beginning to discover the myriad of other potential uses their video surveillance systems can provide.
“Whether we’re talking about huge malls, supermarkets, department stores or mom-and-pop shops, one thing that it interesting for all of them is can optimise the customer experience by looking at the flow of people through your store,” vice president of video management software giant Milestone, Malou Toft, told Charged.
“From a Milestone point of view, we’re in the store trying to figure out how the people are moving around, are there any pain points or discrepancies within that journey? Can we identify if there is a problem in the store?
“There’s a lot of things you can set rules for as soon as you can enable that type of analytics on your cameras.”
This is just one simple example of the sort of high-tech solutions that can be integrated into nearly any retailers video management system using Milestone’s software.
From identifying customers automatically using facial recognition software, allowing retailers to determine the age and gender of customers buying particular items, to simply counting footfall, to identifying VIP shoppers and sending shop assistants their personal buying profile, the possible use cases continue to grow at an eyewatering pace.
Though Milestone started life in 1998 with a focus on security, its chief technology officer Bjørn Skou Eilertsen explained to Charged how advances in computer power blew open the technology’s potential.
“The openness is about Milestone being applicable on any device, any camera you pick up or any smart device will work with Milestone”
“It follows a line from 2015 when the GPU really started to take off, that’s when the gaming computing power got into the business computing,” he said.
“What happened there was all the artificial intelligence that we knew how to make on paper, we could suddenly start doing for real on computers, this was a very big shift.
“What that has enabled is really autonomous systems, the systems will become much more intelligent and start doing things for us.”
Perhaps more importantly, in terms of the potential implementation of the software, is Milestone’s ethos of openness, which sees it strive to make its software available on any system.
A good analogy is Google’s Android operating system. Like Google, Milestone provides the foundation of the management system, allowing any app developed by third party companies or by itself to work with its system.
This allows for a rich, extensive and varied marketplace of potential use cases to be offered on its platform.
“Milestone from day one has been specialised in organising and connecting the cameras, allowing customers an open way to connect their system,” Eilertsen continued.
“The openness is about Milestone being applicable on any device, any camera you pick up or any smart device will work with Milestone, unlike any other VMS (video management system).”
In this vein, Milestone now has an online marketplace allowing content creators to share their content, and retailers to explore and download software to enhance their operations.
With software that can instantly recognise a customer, and begin pushing them personalised marketing, informing staff of their buying tastes and pinpoint exactly when and where they have shopped previously, there are obvious concerns about privacy.
While security systems were initially designed to help protect the public, the rapid evolution of the systems potential has changed legal and moral considerations surrounding it dramatically.
As with many rapidly evolving technologies, especially those which such potential power, legalisation often struggle to match its pace.
Thus it falls to the companies pioneering such technologies to consider and act upon the moral implications of them, something Milestone takes very seriously.
Toft explained that the technology is now so powerful that it is giving users more information than they need, the challenge lies in finding a way to “restrict data and make sure I don’t see what I don’t need to see.
“Of course, when we’re dealing with something as powerful as surveillance technology its very natural we also articulate an opinion about how we believe our technology should be used,” she added.
“We care deeply about that, and we are trying to start a discussion and a dialogue which is open and honest about the ambiguity. There is not always one single answer to all of these challenges, but you need to put words on it and have a discussion about it.
“When you talk about facial recognition or finding people, of course there’s entire legislation around when you can look for someone, but the general public is usually very happy, if there is a child missing or a terrorist loose you’ll be able to find that person for whatever reason fast.”
“Everybody writing the code will face choices along the way”
Social responsibility has become an increasingly important part of retail, and those who fail to show they take it seriously can see shoppers turn on them quickly.
But technologies like Milestone’s, which run behind the scenes of retail operations and a majority of customers are likely entirely unaware of, could all too easily slip under the radar of public scrutiny.
Finding the balance between providing its customers with the latest and most powerful systems, while driving forward a desperately needed conversation over privacy and social responsibility is no mean feat, but it’s a tightrope Milestone is walking, and doing so very successfully.
“I think (the conversation) has started already, but we are saying it more from the technology point of view that we are behind the code,” Toft continued.
“Everybody writing the code will face choices along the way, and when we have this awareness about the responsibility of technology we believe that that will bring more positive outcomes and at least ensure that we are aspiring towards this conversation.”