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Watching the signs of the times has led Markham's Cognovision to do a global business

Have you ever found yourself standing on a subway platform staring at a sign that flashes various ads for all kinds of things from deodorant to cars to microwave popcorn? You glance at the sign, maybe one or two ads catch your attention and you watch them beginning to end, or maybe every ad is compelling, and you stare at the sign for minutes on end. It's also possible the rotating roster of ads feature things you don't care about and products you would never buy so you don't bother looking at all.

Digital signage seems so random. Why would anyone use it for advertising when there is no way to know who's watching and for how long and,if they are, in fact, even watching?

Enter Markham-based CognoVision Solutions and an innovation they call the Anonymous Impression Metric system. Back in 2005, Haroon Mirza and his two friends Shahzad Malik and Faizal Javer, all from the GTA, were looking for a business opportunity where they could put to use Malik's Ph.D. in computer science. They had a list of questions about digital signs and it occurred to them that if there was a way to gather audience information for sign companies, those companies could quantify an advertiser's return on investment.

CognoVision's solution to the no-data problem is fairly straightforward: sensors embedded in the signs take in all kinds of information and feed it to a computer running Malik's analytics software. The sensors detect, among other things, how many people stand in front of the sign, for how long, and which way they're facing.  By analyzing the dimensions of the face the software determines if the sign watcher is a man or woman. All of this information is correlated with the ads running at that moment. Together this knowledge can give sign companies a strong picture of who's watching the ads and which ones have the most appeal to which gender.

The first question on my mind when I met with Haroon Mirza, now Director of Business Development, in the sleek boardroom at the company's office was not about the company -- which was named Canada's Innovation Leader last year and maintains a close relationship with MaRS Discovery District -- or its profile. My question was about privacy.

While people have fast become used to publicly sharing personal information -- Facebook and Twitter being just two of the most obvious examples -- the idea that something as innocuous as standing in front of a sign in a public place could result in tracking is distressing. Haroon Mirza smiled, saying that's a very common question but not at all an issue with the AIM system.

"The system does not store or record any of the information. It's incapable of doing that. We don't know who the individuals are. All the data would tell us is that at 3pm three individuals looked at the sign and two were female and one was male. Our system is incapable of collecting unique information," says Mirza.

He's clear that CognoVision is not a security and surveillance company, "privacy by design is built into everything we do," says Mirza. Indeed, the province's Privacy Commissioner says the company is exemplary in protecting individual privacy.

CognoVision cut its teeth in the digital signage market but its higher-profile foray has been the retail market. By tracking aspects of a customer's profile and his or her behavior inside the store, retailers can get a fairly sophisticated understanding of the customer experience.

With the help of a series of sensors placed around the store feeding data to computers running the analytics software, retailers can track, among other things, the gender of customers, where they stood and for how long, which departments they visited and for how long, which product displays they looked at the longest, which products they picked up, and how long they stood at the cash.

The system can also help with staffing. How many times have you gone into a store with a mission to purchase a specific product only to wander about, directionless, with no staff in sight to help? Or the opposite scenario in which you walk into a store and are immediately set upon by eager and chatty sales staff? Both situations can end with the customer leaving the store empty-handed and frustrated, vowing never to return.

"The second you start scheduling that's when this technology will help. You'll know who's coming, you can target departments, you can go as granular as you want because the technology's scalable. Some retailers find, after measuring traffic, they've been able to cut operating costs in the double digits by optimizing staff," says Mirza.

He estimates that only 5% of retailers are using some form of tracking to improve the in-store experience but that its adoption is growing by 20% per year. CognoVision itself has clients all over North America, Latin America, and the Middle East. The company's expanded to include a team of 10 in Canada and another team of 10 in India. The inevitable question arises: will CognoVision get too big for Markham?

Mirza shakes his head. "We have had billion dollar companies approach us. We have had clients who heard about us, heard our presentation, and then have a client wire us money for the software without ever having used it because they've heard the comments. We're partnered with a group of successful companies that act as our sounding board. At MaRS we're able to speak to big advisors and they help us with so many resources," he says.

Leave the GTA? Never. "A lot of entrepreneurs are not aware of what's in their own backyard in Toronto."

Naheed Mustafa is a freelance journalist living in Markham.

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