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British store trials AI to spot customers not wearing face masks

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By Michael Daventry  with AP
Customers' faces are scanned for masks as they enter the store
Customers' faces are scanned for masks as they enter the store   -   Copyright  AP

Since COVID-19 became a part of our lives, businesses around Europe have been looking for ways to remind their customers to wear a face mask.

One garden centre in West Yorkshire may have found the answer: artificial intelligence.

It uses a system at its front entrance that watches people's faces and detects if they are wearing a mouth and nose covering.

If it spots anyone without a mask, it can relay a message to the customer or notify staff.

Jonathan Pratt, whose firm Videcon developed the system, says the idea is to "promote and increase mask-wearing so we can safeguard the safety of customers and staff."

The system gives visitors a green welcoming screen as they walk inside if they are wearing a face covering.

But for anyone not wearing a mask, the screen turns red and advises them to cover their mouth and nose.

Peter Williams, manager of the Whiteleys Garden Centre in Mirfield, said it had helped staff get on with other tasks in the store.

"It was quite costly to have a member of staff stood on the door the whole time, it's not like we've got the flexibility to lose a full-timer every single day," he said.

"So, that was a challenge financially. And also, it was quite a worrying process to have to confront people and ask them to 'please wear a mask'."

Pratt says the system worked by learning from thousands of different faces.

"We need to teach the system how to identify a person that's wearing a mask versus how to identify a person that's not wearing a mask," he said.

"To do that, we have to feed tens of thousands of images of people wearing masks, from all different backgrounds, all different lighting conditions, from different angles, with people not wearing a mask."

With face coverings now compulsory in many parts of Europe, more of us could be seeing this type of system in place soon.