Liz Gannes

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SceneTap Interview: San Francisco’s Least Welcome Start-Up Explains Itself (Video)

Late yesterday afternoon, I was supposed to meet SceneTap CEO Cole Harper at a bar in San Francisco, so I could get an in-person view of his company’s nightlife monitoring system that was set to debut today at various local venues.

More than an hour after we were scheduled to meet, Harper finally emerged from the bar. We were no longer welcome to do a press interview inside, he said.

The manager had been tearing Harper a new one, after getting hostile phone calls all week about the SceneTap launch, which local paper SF Weekly wrote up under the headline “San Francisco Bars to Install Creepy Facial Detection Cameras Inside Venues.”

Of the 25 San Francisco bars supposed to launch with SceneTap today, about 10 dropped out after the outcry, Harper said. That hasn’t happened in any of the other six cities where SceneTap is live.

As we finally sat down at a nearby Starbucks, Harper insisted that his company was misrepresented. SceneTap doesn’t record video about patrons or, as the article said, “keep tabs on them via facial recognition technology.” Rather, it quickly scans new entrants at each venue to determine aggregate numbers of people, their genders and ages.

The point is to help people decide where to go by getting a sense of who is already there.

The SceneTap system includes a sensor on the ceiling at each venue’s entrance as well as a nearby camera-like sensor for facial detection — a fuzzier version of facial recognition — that describes and time-stamps each person. No photo or video recording takes place, Harper said.

Bars can pay Austin-based SceneTap a subscription fee to get analytics about their own patrons. Users — currently just under 100,000 of them — can check SceneTap’s iOS, Android and Web apps to see what’s going on locally or elsewhere.

Harper just posted a long open letter addressed (rather broadly!) to the city of San Francisco, assuring them he is not a bad guy with bad intent:

“I realize there are aspects of our technology that could appear to be controversial and raise serious red flags for people, and I assure you I’m not taking it lightly. … Unfortunately, I think I underestimated the controversial aspects of this technology and what the public’s reaction would be,” he wrote.

Harper elaborated in our interview, “Every single bar that we’re working with already had surveillance systems and cameras recording and other things that were extremely intrusive, in the general opinion,” Harper said. “What we’re adding on is really just a layer that helps from a marketing and social element.”

On the one hand, I see his point; the SceneTap set-up is definitely not as bad as it could be. It’s not posting women’s social media profiles on a map like “Girls Around Me.”

On the other hand, it’s not really that hard to decide what bar to go to! And it’s still offputting to think about the system guessing my age and gender and posting it, even in anonymous aggregated form, on the Internet.

Here’s Harper explaining himself and his company, in a video from our interview:

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus