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How Google and Microsoft See the Ad-Targeted Future

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Personalized, dynamic ads will likely catch on industry-wide.

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It's a long-lamented travesty. A crime against humanity.

Despite all the technological innovations depicted in a cinematic future like 2002's Minority Report -- the auto-piloted cars, the holographic home movies, the digital newspapers, the jet packs -- there seems to be only one fanciful concept at the forefront of development: personally targeted ads.

Holographic displays may be hitting obstacles, driver-less vehicles still seem like a pipe dream, but a Gap (GPS) poster that knows your sales history and suggests next season's line of turtlenecks is basically right around the corner.

Cruelly ignoring society's true wants and needs, Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) are teaming up to develop a high-tech sign that can recognize the person standing before it and tailor the screen to the appropriate demographic. Measuring over seven and a half feet tall, the Intelligent Digital Signage Concept will come equipped with a camera and special software to determine age, gender, and height -- and possibly cross-reference that to time of day and location in order to deliver a highly specified marketing approach:

"Hello, Miss! Taking a walk on the waterfront this fine April evening? Perhaps you'd be interested in this fine scarf, perfect for a breezy night, available now around the corner on 7th Street at your local American Eagle!"

Taking the concept further, the screen features a multi-touch interface where users are able to view information on items in a particular store -- thereby sending advertisers even more information on which ads are most effective, what items are most popular, and have that information coupled with an exact demographic.

Yes, from a marketing standpoint, it's pretty ingenious. Though no retailers have announced an interest in using the service, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and NCR Corp. (NCR) are rumored to be potential partners.

While targeted ads might be the wave of the future, they're certainly nothing new. Last year, Comcast (CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (TWC), Cablevision (CVC), and other cable providers formed Canoe Ventures -- an ad-targeting service for customer's cable packages. (See Targeted TV Ads: This Time... It's Personal.) While the potential to alter commercials to specific customers had advertisers frothing at the mouth, the service has yet to launch and has been delayed for over a year.

Not to be outdone on advances in marketing, Google (GOOG) filed a patent last week that will open up its Google Maps and Street View to dynamic, updated ads. According to the document, the billboards, signs, and posters captured in a Street View photo could be identified and altered to fit a current ad campaign or information. In one section of the patent, Google presents an auction screen where clients could bid on the rights to display an ad on a specific location.

Not only could this make a captured shot of, say, Times Square even more flashy and hyper-marketable, a theater marquee -- which Google uses as an example -- could be updated with current show times, regardless of how old the Street View photo might be. And if the company utilizes the same automated crawler that scans users' emails for an appropriate word or phrase and displays a related ad in the banner, this could prove to make a very personal set of directions to your great aunt's house.

There was never any doubt that the future will hold a greater abundance of highly targeted ads -- Fox's (NWS) Futurama humorously envisioned them invading your dreams. But when will it cease to be satire? Advertisements have become so omnipresent, anything with a blank surface now has the potential to become a commercial.

It's a bit far-fetched to say society will completely devolve into the mouth-breathing automatons in Mike Judge's Idiocracy when presented with a corporate-infused lifestyle, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility that an overabundance of ads may result in the exact opposite of a marketing teams objective: saturation, habituation, and ultimately, total indifference.
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