Tech’s a strange thing. One day, an innovation is a military advancement, the next, it’s a feature on a luxury car. It’s a world where a secret government project later winds up in the hands of every 13-year-old with a mobile phone.

And so it goes in the business sector too. The latest reports from the retail industry reveal that luxury stores are increasingly integrating the same technology used to ID criminal suspects in airports to observe shoppers for marketing data.

Eyesee mannequin

The EyeSee is a mannequin with a camera and facial recognition software embedded in one eye. While security cameras could do the trick too, this system offers much better data, as it’s closer to the shoppers and resides at eye-level with them. EyeSee watches and culls data from patrons — logging things like age, gender and ethnicity — while giving store owners focused data that helps shape their marketing, merchandising, signage and other promotions.

For example, one store changed its window displays after noticing that the men who came to shop in the first couple of days of a sale actually purchased more than female patrons. An apparel retailer launched a children’s line after noticing that more than half of its mid-afternoon traffic was made up of kids. And another shop placed Chinese-speaking personnel at one of its doors when it learned that a third of the visitors who entered after 4 p.m. there were Asian.

The mannequin only launched last December, but has been deployed in three European markets as well as the U.S. Currently speech recognition technology is in a test phase, so these units could be the ears as well as the eyes on the ground. This would allow business owners to actually hear what consumers think of the mannequin merchandising and other comments. And plans are in the works to add display screens to the setup, to promote products relevant to a shopper’s profile.

For brick-and-mortar retailers, this could be a godsend that finally gives them an edge in an increasingly e-commerce-driven market. e-Retailers have long used customer profiling and data collection to target ads and promotions, and now physical retail stores have something that can help them do the same. For shoppers, however, this can be downright creepy. Sure, it’s one thing to be watched for security reasons, but it’s quite another to know that businesses can surveil us to collect data and compile profiles.

I’m suddenly reminded of that scene from Minority Report, the one where Tom Cruise’s new eyeballs trigger a virtual, customized service push. At the time, it seemed like a crazy bit of science fiction, but maybe we’re not all that far away from it after all.

[Via Bloomberg]