Facial recognition might be the latest in technological data collection, but another, less obvious method of tracking people entered the market a few years ago — floor sensors.

Just a few years ago, a Milwaukee-based startup called Scanalytics began helping businesses track people’s movements, according to a report in the Associated Press that brought attention to the new technology on Monday.

The sensors are also being used in office buildings; to reduce energy costs, and in nursing homes; to determine when someone falls. However, the majority of Scanalytics’ customers are retail operations. In their efforts to compete with e-commerce giant Amazon, they’ve had to pull out all the stops.

Scanalytics co-founder and CEO Joe Scanlin said his floor sensors are designed to read customers’ unique foot compressions to track that person’s path to a digital display. The sensors provide feedback that can give retailers more knowledge; for instance, when and where to place displays, or issue coupons.

“Something that in the moment will increase their propensity to purchase a product,” said Scanlin, 29, who started developing the paper-thin sensors while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He now employs about 20 people.

According to the report:

Physical stores have been at a disadvantage because they “don’t have that granular level of understanding as to where users are entering, what they’re doing, what shelves are not doing well, which aisles are not being visited,” said Brian Sathianathan, co-founder of Iterate Studio, a small Denver-based company that helps businesses find and test technologies from startups worldwide.

But it’s become easier for stores to track customers in recent years. With Wi-Fi — among the earliest available options — businesses can follow people when they connect to a store’s internet. One drawback is that not everyone logs on so the sample size is smaller. Another is that it’s not possible to tell whether someone is inches or feet away from a product.

Sunglass Hut and fragrance maker Jo Malone use laser and motion sensors to tell when a product is picked up but not bought, and make recommendations for similar items on an interactive display. Companies such as Toronto-based Vendlytics and San Francisco-based Prism use artificial intelligence with video cameras to analyze body motions. That can allow stores to deliver customized coupons to shoppers in real time on a digital shelf or on their cellphones, said Jon Nordmark, CEO of Iterate Studio.

With Scanalytics, Nordmark said, “to have (the sensors) be super useful for someone like a retailer, they may need to power other types of things,” like sending coupons to customers.

These technologies have not become ubiquitous in the U.S. yet, but according to experts, it’s only a matter of time.

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