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Beware the unblinking eyes of shop mannequins

If, like me, you were of an impressionable age when you first saw the film Mannequin – you know the one: shop-window dummy Kim Cattrall comes alive at night because, hey, she's actually an Ancient Egyptian princess or something – you'll be delighted to learn real life has finally caught up with Hollywood fantasy.

Well, sort of. The mannequins in question can't rollerskate or create fabulous window displays or marry Andrew McCarthy but they can watch, record and communicate. After a fashion, anyway.

An Italian company has developed a bionic mannequin – a bioniquin? – called EyeSee which has a camera embedded in one of its creepy plastic peepers and facial recognition software of the sort used by spooks and police forces, which can analyse shoppers' faces to tell their gender, age and ethnicity. It also has audio recording equipment and an internet connection so it can upload its data to the mothership within seconds of the kids asking why the naked male dummies being dressed in the window don't have willies.

The idea is that stores can use the information to better analyse people's shopping habits, though privacy issues mean EyeSee won't be recording images and in truth its audio equipment will be tailored to act only on keywords.

Maybe one day they'll even be able to shake their heads and grimace if you say things like "I fancy a new pair of deck shoes" or "Amazing, isn't it, that in 2018 we're still wearing rolled-up chinos in pastel shades?".

The notion of "spying" on customers for commercial gain rather than to stop them pinching stuff is raising a few eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the technology has already been installed in one store in the US – the Italians won't say which one – and is used in shops in at least three European countries.

So, does it work? According to reports, one shop in the US used information gleaned from an EyeSee mannequin to reconfigure its window displays after it found men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women.

There will be a further EyeSee sales push in New York early next month in an attempt to entice more big retailers to spend four figures on the high-end product. At more than $5000 each, you'll certainly never see these mannequins poking out of a skip wearing a traffic cone.

In fact you might not see them at all. A bigger question than whether the technology works is whether it will catch on, or whether it goes the way of other innovations intended to revolutionise the way we dress and shop.

As luck would have it, a few of these are detailed in a new book Never In A Million Years: A History Of Hopeless Predictions. My favourite comes from a 1966 edition of Life magazine which found a designer brave enough to say that in the future most clothes would be made from paper, "packaged in tear-off rolls, like sandwich bags, and sold for pennies". "It's right for our age," he added. "After all who's going to do laundry in space?"

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Fashion

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