It appears Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is getting further into biometrics.
At the same time news outlets are reporting the company is developing a smartwatch that can detect wearers' emotions, Amazon is also making a move to build better body-modeling technology.
In a post spotted by Mashable, the company is offering a $25 Amazon gift card for any adult to visit one of two New York offices and spend 30 minutes participating in a body-scanning study.
According to the ad, Amazon is seeking "to learn about diversity in body shapes." It also said that "participants' comments and data will be used exclusively for internal product research and not for marketing purposes." Amazon is requiring participants to sign a nondisclosure agreement, keeping what they experienced in the study private.
Amazon does not make clear for what business or research purpose(s) the data is being used, but the study's sign-up page says that photos will be taken in both everyday clothes and form-fitting clothing that the company provides, including bikinis for women. That detail seems to indicate that the study is geared toward Amazon's apparel initiatives, as the company has made a big push to launch its own clothing brands. Sizing is a difficult part of selling clothes, so such information would be valuable to Amazon as it seeks to limit returns from inaccurate sizing and to design better clothes.
The study is being led by Amazon Body Labs, a division that arose after Amazon acquired Body Labs in 2017 for between $50 million and $70 million. Body Labs specializes in 3D body scans.
Though Body Labs mostly does work for the fashion industry, its roots are in law enforcement. The technology it uses was originally developed to help solve a murder.
A giant company like Amazon collecting information on individual bodies may run against the current zeitgeist on data use. Companies like Facebook have recently landed in hot water over privacy issues, and Americans are increasingly looking to reclaim their personal information from Big Data.
Though Amazon doesn't appear to have any law-enforcement intentions with the scans, the company has run into trouble for selling its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, to law-enforcement agencies. The issue helped whip up a backlash against the company's plans to open a new headquarters in New York (which it later abandoned), and the tech giant has come under criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations for selling Rekognition to police.
Given this development, and recently discovered documents that indicate it's working on an emotion-detecting smartwatch, Amazon could wind up alienating some of its customer base or being labeled as "creepy." Now one of the most valuable enterprises in the world, Amazon needs to manage its image and reputation. In the past it's been a target for criticism on subjects such as employee wages, taxes paid, and environmental sustainability.
Muted reaction -- so far
As for the body scan itself, this is the second year Amazon has solicited participation; it seems like a just modest step in the company's efforts to collect biometric data. In and of itself, it hasn't sparked any major concern on Twitter so far. Most commenters directed their ire at Amazon over not paying enough for the scans, rather than over privacy concerns. But there were some comments from those who seemed to dislike the general idea.
It's not surprising that Amazon would take such an approach as part of its foray into the apparel industry. Amazon sees data gathering as a key to developing a competitive advantage in nearly every industry in which it operates. As the company builds a range of smart technologies like Alexa, facial recognition, and even emotion sensors, body scans have a potential role to play in its technological ambitions.