You gonna tap that?

New face-recording smartphone app more trouble than it’s worth

Imagine walking into a bar knowing exactly how many people are inside. Before you even order a drink, you also know the exact ratio of men to women and the average age of everyone there. Maybe your odds just got better, but if they did, at what cost?

New face-recording smartphone app more trouble than it’s worth

Imagine walking into a bar knowing exactly how many people are inside. Before you even order a drink, you also know the exact ratio of men to women and the average age of everyone there. Maybe your odds just got better, but if they did, at what cost?

From a start-up based out of Austin, Texas, SceneTap is a free downloadable app for smartphones that can relay the real-time popularity of venues. Through facial detection cameras, it guesses patrons’ genders and ages upon entry and then informs you of whether the scene is a “Hot Spot” or not based on this information.

The initial goal of this service was to save users’ money for cab fare before showing up at a dead club when you wanted to dance or at a hopping bar when you wanted a quieter ambiance. This seems innocently useful enough to work, but it brings up more questions than it intended to.

SceneTap was launched in San Francisco on May 18 after operating in six other cities, including Chicago and Austin. The company has received a lot of flak for the service’s use of facial detection cameras, which are not to be confused with facial recognition cameras, the scary kind that can identify people, record their every move within an establishment and connect that information to their Facebook or Foursquare.

The technology SceneTap uses does not record any of the visual information it processes, and no one has access to that feed. The cameras recognize facial features such as nose, eyes, mouth and jaw line to guess age and gender, which their website says it predicts “with a high degree of accuracy.” However, no studies can be found on their website attesting to this technology’s effectiveness, and there are some sticky areas when it comes to trying to pinpoint gender.

In a recent letter addressed to San Francisco on their website, CEO of SceneTap Cole Harper tried to address the concern of gender identification in a city as diverse as the City by the Bay. He wrote: “While gender is an interesting novelty, most of our users report using the app to find the scene that is right for them.”

However, he also mentions that operators (the businesses that install these cameras) can cap the statistics that get sent to your phone when you check out their location. This is understandable from the establishment’s point of view, since those percentages are affecting their business. But the example Harper uses in his letter is assuming one type of customer―a heterosexual one.

“We let venues and users decide on business rules to cap out what statistics would show. Male percentage would never exceed 72 percent, because that would negatively impact the perception of the venue (based on feedback). Female percentage would never exceed 58 percent, because it may create a ‘correction’ from a swarm of males showing up.

“In almost a year, we’ve never had any complaints or concerns…(although operators do want to show a higher number of females and a lower number of males, for obvious reasons).”

Based on this explanation, SceneTap doesn’t take the implications of gender identity into consideration at all. Granted, it’s not forcing itself on whole cities or being imposed on every bar or smartphone user. It is an opt-in business enhancer, which means that while the gender detection capabilities don’t really apply for certain establishments (like, say, your favorite local gay bar), it’s kind of a moot point in that regard.

What’s more impacting about this business model, though, is that it’s almost universally understood to be a dating tool (despite its original mission statement) essentially a gauge for measuring the exact odds that you’ll get lucky on any given night. It reinforces the convention of heterosexuality by drawing attention to social identifiers like gender, age and ratio of men to women.

And by enabling businesses to cap statistics to limit the perceived “negative” impact of having too many guys in one place at one time, it’s allowing those businesses to impose a judgment about society and assert what kind of bar they want or don’t want to be.

Since Portland is the most liberal city in Oregon, I decided to see whether or not there’s a market for SceneTap here despite these issues or if people would react like San Franciscans did. So, I asked students about their potential excitements and concerns regarding this service.

My findings were inconclusive―split 50/50 between the gals and guys I polled (though that may be too official of a term for my very small, randomly conducted study in the South Park Blocks). The general reservation of most dissenters revolved around grandiose big brother conspiracy theories, and those in favor predominantly viewed the app as a dating tool.

“I guess it gives people an opportunity if they’re going to bars specifically to meet a guy or meet a girl to know the ratio and whether or not you should even waste your time there,” biology senior Kourtney Kuiper said. “But on the negative side, it almost feels like an invasion of privacy…It’s kind of creepy. I feel like I should be able to go somewhere and enjoy myself and not worry about being recorded.”

So there probably is a market here for SceneTap, but if it ever does come to Portland, I hope it’s on a small scale. There’s the off-putting cameras, the questionable accuracy of gender identification and the reinforcement of conventional heterosexuality already mentioned, plus a whole host of other possible complications. Not only does its obvious pick up motive sap the already remote possibility of romance out of the bar scene, but it has the potential to ruin businesses’ customer bases, too. If a bar has a slow night, less people will be inclined to show up, making it even slower―kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ultimately though, it’s the app’s blatant disregard for gender and sexual orientation that would keep me from using it (that, and not owning a smartphone). The company’s goal of saving cab fare just isn’t worth the societal judgments it’s upholding.