Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

January 20, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

When I got into digital signage 20+ years ago, and for many years after that, PCs dominated the media player side of the business.

The big questions were around whether to use Windows or Linux, and products were differentiated on things like size and ruggedization.

That's changed in the last few years, with more and more digital signage networks going in that used low-cost embedded players in smart displays, or worked off special purpose media players or adapted set-top boxes.

That's shifted the ground for Seneca, an upstate New York specialty computer company that's been in the game for decades. Seneca is part of the Denver-based AV/IT distribution giant Arrow.

There's no doubt fewer digital signage networks now run on PCs, particularly when there's only simple messaging like menu boards. But demands have also changed, and a lot of networks that are based around messaging are driven by real-time data and analytics that need serious computing at the edge.

Kevin Cosbey has also been in the industry for a bunch of years, and the last several have been with Seneca, where he leads business development in the digital signage sector.

We had a great chat about where PCs fit right now in the industry, and we get into how and why Seneca has put resources into developing supporting software that makes commissioning PCs way easier, and gives partners new and better remote management tools.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Mr. Cosbey, we've known each other for a very long time, but for those people who don't know Seneca and to a larger extent, Arrow, can you say what that's all about and what you guys do? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Dave. Thanks for taking some time out of your day today. I really appreciate the opportunity.

So Seneca has been a 30 plus year organization that has its roots in traditional technology distribution, and over the course of those 30 years, six years ago, Arrow Electronics actually acquired us, and since then we've been part of the Arrow family as it worked. Ultimately, for those that are familiar with Arrow, a lot of people might just have the normal idea that Arrow's a big IT distribution company, but we fall under the services group. So our focus still is around services as it relates to digital signage services, as it's around technology to build a real solution and not just focus on speeds and feeds of hardware. So Arrow is a big massive company but the nice thing is: Seneca still runs through our veins.

And the company's based in Syracuse still, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep. The majority of our engineering group is in Syracuse, support’s in Syracuse, and we've got a light manufacturing facility still in Syracuse and a large manufacturing facility in Phoenix. 

Okay, and Arrow's based in Denver, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: You got it.

So when I look at the Seneca website, I see that you guys are into broadcast surveillance and digital signage being the key solution you talk about. What percentage roughly, I don't need the exact number of the work that Seneca does is around signage?

Kevin Cosbey: It's about 50%. 

Oh, okay, so that's a big part of your business. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep, absolutely. 

And how has that shifted through the years? 

Kevin Cosbey: When we first started getting into, what I like to consider niche computing, we were really that digital signage OEM focused company. And then through the years, through those 10 or so years we've really focused and dialed into niche computing, that created the new division of the security group. And they've been growing through the years as well. 

So we used to be like a hundred percent ish, on the niche computing focus in digital signage and over the years, security and surveillance has grown substantially. 

Okay. And with signage itself, I've been doing this for 20 plus years now, and when I got into it and for the first many years, it was all about what kind of PC to use and that's what people used and the debates were around do I use Windows or do I use Linux? And the PCs are being marketed and sold as much on form factor and processing power as really anything else, and a lot has changed since then. And I'm curious how it is with the business in that, you know you talked about a niche, how do you make the argument now of using a PC versus using a system on chip smart display versus using a set top box or an HDMI stick, whatever it may be. 

Who's still using PCs, and am I wrong in thinking it's a niche and It's used more than I think? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. Glad you asked it. So it's a lot to unpack with that question cause you know, similar to you, I've been in space for 15 years. I've seen a lot of interesting changes in the industry as a whole, way back when everything was PC, and it's not to say we were just thinking the industry is going to stay running Intel based platforms forever. We saw that higher performance chip sets are coming out from different chip set manufacturers and here we are today with a variety of capable chipsets that can produce and run 1080p or 4k content on a display.

There's a lot of differences in our industry however, where not everyone just needs to have a 1080p fullscreen content running 365 days a year. There's more to it, there's more stuff that's happening at the edge today than there was 10 years ago and that's what we're keeping up with.

Now, I do want to back up a little bit though and say the PC used to be pretty much the media player way back, and now we're seeing ourselves and I use this analogy a lot. I don't mean it that we were the best out there, but we were like the iPhone. We were the first to market as a media player. And then you started to see Android phones and you started to see all these other bits and pieces. Now, the nice thing is all of these other bits and pieces that are getting added to the marketplace, they validate our industry as a whole. So when we have SOC out there that is grabbing market share and when we have other purpose built devices that are grabbing market share, it's increasing our entire industry value. 

So yeah, we don't have a hundred percent of the pie anymore, but as that pie expands, we continue to have significant market share and that's really what we're after. We're not going after some folks that may consider SOC to be perfect for what they need and ironically, actually many instances where SOC is running, we're actually the primary media player and SOC is used as the redundancy, which I love that partnership. That's a really good useful way to have technology ensuring redundancy in high impact environments and really important environments.

Yeah, I've heard that in a few cases for kind of mission-critical displays like Airport displays and so on where the smart side of the display is the fail over but the big video wall or whatever is handled by a much beefier industrial grade box. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yup. And then just another aspect of your space, despite the entrance of other folks in the industry that are producing media player type solutions or media streaming devices, year over year we've had consistent growth.

There's a lot of massive enterprise networks out there that will usually only consider using a Wintel based platform and that's just based on the way their corporate structure works, the way their staff works, the way their entire organization functions on a global perspective. 

And in a lot of those cases, when you have an IT team with a bunch of Dr. Nos who only say no, we only use a PC or whatever, are they not also quite often saying, and we only use Lenovo, or we only use this brand name or that brand name, there are our kind of base contractor vendor for PCs? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. And historically, prior to Seneca being part of that Arrow family, we used to just have the Seneca stuff, and now that we're part of the Arrow family, we are an HP OEM, Lenovo OEM, Dell OEM. So we can still wrap all of the goodness of Seneca, which is, building systems specifically for an enterprise level opportunity and adding all of the functionality to that device. So when someone hits that power button, it runs the exact experience they want it to run. So reducing that setup time significantly at the end user destination. 

Yeah. Let's talk about that. I've been out to the Seneca facility in Syracuse a couple of times when I used to live much closer than I do now and that was one of the big things is when you're buying your PCs, your media players, whatever you want to call them servers. It's not like buying something off the shelf at a Best Buy or at a big box from a computer manufacturer. It's commercial or industrial grade. There's a lot more going on.

Can you lay out what you guys do that would differentiate it from a manufacturer that's not going out to thousands of units a day? 

Kevin Cosbey: Absolutely. So you've just hit on one major key point is that we're not producing thousands of devices and then figuring out how to sell it. We have two major channels, two major go to market strategies.

One is our OEM space and we are an OEM equipment manufacturer, or contract manufacturer for a lot of software companies out there that want absolutely nothing to do with hardware. So we bear that burden on their behalf. We grab their IP, their brand, their software, and we build it into our systems, our reference design systems, and we manage logistics. We manage just in time inventory so they can focus on software. We focus on hardware and that end user/end customer gets a device, a purpose-built device that is branded as that experience now. 

I was just going to say, I remember several years ago when Intel came up with its Nuc which was a nice little tiny box, but it looked very much like a consumer grade plastic box that would be perfectly fine on a credenza in a home or something like that. But then Seneca came out with its own version of the Nuc and it was the same reference design, but it was industrial grade. It was fabulous. It was made for business use, it was ruggedized to actually work out in the field for more than a week or something.

Is that kind of how you guys approach this, in that ”we do computing, but this is thought through in terms of what the use cases are”? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's exactly right. You sold it better than I could have Dave. But yeah, that's exactly right. We've become, over the few decades that we focused on niche computing, experts at taking off the shelf technology and designing it in a very purpose-built manner. So yes, Intel is a great partner of ours. We use a lot of their technology in a lot of our stuff, but we've recognized that Intel is for mass consumption on a lot of their platforms and digital signage isn't really looking for just a mass consumption solution. They're looking for something that's a little bit taken a step further and thermal design is important. Power supply embedded in the system is important. Output is important from an HDMI perspective or display port, whatever that case is. And that's the stuff we take from the Intel board itself and we'll grab USB hatters off of it to increase the IO on our chassis. We'll do all these creative things to take what exists from a global consumption perspective and take it to that next level to ensure it's perfect for what the industry needs, not just that customer/ 

The rise of things like audience measurement technologies, computer vision, that sort of thing and demand for more computing at the edge of a network, at the device that may be pushing content to the screen but that device is also being asked to do computer vision tasks of some kind and so on, has that helped the sales effort as well, in terms of you can maybe do that with a smart display or maybe possibly, probably not with a set top box kind of device, but you can buy a small form factor, industrial grade PC that you can tool up with on i5 or an i7 or whatever and it can do multiple things off of the same unit? 

Kevin Cosbey: Spot on again, Dave, you're crushing it out there on the hardware side. Exactly. To your point, we're starting to see and have really for the past few years that there's a shift from our perspective where not everything has to be computed in the cloud and a lot of stuff needs to happen at the edge, and as that edge becomes more in demand from a computing perspective, from a headroom perspective and future-proofing perspective, that's where we're starting to see folks that used to be on an i3 actually start looking at an i5 and i7, and of course you've got Moore's law, right? Where the computing capabilities at the edge just become more powerful as the years in technologies increase.

So even some folks that we were able to get away with, if they're doing 4k at the edge and running some other computer, maybe they used to be on an i5 and now five years later, we're actually seeing that to keep up with that same demand an i3 is going to be appropriate. So it's both ends of the spectrum.

And then as you get into the larger stuff where it's like a Time square video wall, that's our hardware throughout the partner, Diversified. And that was built specifically with really crazy computers in mind and crazy videos in mind. And that's very, purpose-built high compute power is required for that type of solution.

Yeah. You guys have servers that drive any number of very large seriously large pixel displays, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, like the Orlando airport that is like a mile or so of continuous displays that is using our hardware for hardware synchronization and hardware synchronization, again, getting that compute down to the edge instead of constantly relying on the cloud, you're not going to experience latency. You're not going to experience any major issues at the edge. It is as full-proof as it can possibly get. 

And at the edge, the demand, and really the rise of dynamic signage, this idea that what you're gonna see is based on what other business systems are telling you is that sort of decisioning that maybe you could do it in the cloud, but really it needs to be at the edge at the individual devices too, to work best? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, and just having that latency no longer a concern, so if you're doing drive through type menu boarding solution, and you want to do as much analytics as you possibly can to design content around certain environmental information, it's best to keep that computing at the edge, because there will be no latency going up to the cloud computing and then coming back down to the device.

So having those decisions made at the edge is far more powerful than having to send everything up to the cloud. The same reason that, a Tesla car, the amount of computing that is done inside of the car is substantially more than probably people think. 

So you guys have started marketing something called Maestro, can you tell me what that is and where that came from?

Kevin Cosbey:  Yeah, absolutely. So we recognized that out of our OEM group, a lot of the OEM folks have started to sell to a broader group of people, the channel. And over the years we started seeing that, all right, now we have these five-six media players, and we've got these 28 software partners, and I'm not going to do the competition here, but it comes up with a ridiculous amount of combinations of hardware to software. 

And now we've got to have all of our partners telling us, “Hey, Kevin, I really want to have an HDN with a BroadSign app”. Okay, now we've got to put in that information and then we build to order and send that out.

Instead of having all of these different SKUs and part numbers in a very complex and convoluted way, we grabbed all of our software partners. So that's Broadsign, Navori, SignageLive, Appspace, Ping HD, Acquire Digital, and then on the analytics side, we've got Ad Mobilize, Visibility and we've bundled them into a single platform called Maestro. And that comes on all of our media players as a simple, easy to use out of box software tool. So it just helps people automatically optimize the operating system for a digital signage environment. The next step is you just click on BroadSign, for example, if that's your CMS, it auto installs all of the BroadSign programs that are required to run on that system.

It changes anything that BroadSign needs to the operating system. So everything is taken care of. And then of course, if you want to add Ad Mobilize to that platform, you click on add, Ad Mobilize, it installs it, and now you have a very simple point and click setup process and a BroadSign and Ad Mobilize player right out of the box.

And what led to that? 

Kevin Cosbey: It really was just mostly confusion. We had a database of all of these part numbers, all of this stuff, and we realized we need to get everything together in an effort to be more aggressive in our channel space. So we've got a lot of really good channel customers, but we need to make their install process as easy as we could possibly make it, reducing their time at the install. So we've partnered up with the same folks that they're partnered up with to make their lives as easy as we could possibly make it. 

So one of the features and benefits, I'm just looking at the webpage here is you talk about saving hundreds of keystrokes. How is that? Just because of all the monkey business to get multiple systems working? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. So you've got Microsoft Windows, which is a wonderful operating system. I can't say anything negative about it. But ultimately it's built for mass consumption. So again, how do we take something that's built for the entire world to use from an operating system level and make it perfect for signage?

Usually when somebody gets a media player that's running on a Windows environment, they've got to go through and they've got to do certain things to the operating system. They've got to do this to the graphics card, through the drivers. They've got to do this and X, Y, and Z. Well, instead of having the installer do those things to suppress errors, so you're not going to have errors on that top layer of content, which I'm sure we've all seen out, out in the wild. 

This Maestro platform that the minute you boot it up, when it goes into the operating system, it auto goes through all of this stuff so that technician doesn't have to do anything. And then it goes through a reboot when it pops up that second time, then you're installing BroadSign. Broad sign has certain things that need to be done, certain hooks into the operating system that need to be done with a mouse and keyboard. We've just done it by just clicking BroadSign and installing it goes through that whole process. So we've scripted the whole process. So yeah, maybe a hundred clicks isn't the same for installing Ping HD or it's only 50 clicks for BroadSign, but it hovers around a hundred clicks that we've actually gone through the setup and jotted down how many clicks we're saving folks on average.

So in essence it's removing what can be a giant pain in the ass? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's it, yeah. We'll change that to the marketing slogan. (Laughter) 

There's something to be said sometimes for plain language. 

What's been the response from your ecosystem? 

Kevin Cosbey: Really happy. It's been this thing in my head for a while and there's risk involved when you're doing it. Paradigm shift within the organization and our engineering group got behind it, all of these folks got behind it into this. How do we make the channel so much easier? And we've gotten incredible feedback from our partners that we didn't think we were going to get. And it's just been like, I don’t know, heartwarming a bit that we're hearing such good feedback, like “You guys have thought of everything.” Wow. All right. That's pretty cool. That's good to hear. It's been really good. 

And was that all done in house or did you have to find a third party to do some of this stuff? Because you're mostly gear guys and not software guys.

Kevin Cosbey: We’re mostly speeds and feeds dudes, but ultimately we've got pretty good software engineering prowess when it comes to an operating system level stuff.

We've been building operating systems because we build hardware. We've been doing it for decades. Now,  if someone said, “Hey, Kevin, can you build me a CMS?” No, that's not our game. That's not our software expertise, but absolutely OS level stuff, that's our area of expertise.

Before I hit the start button here, we were also talking about something that was introduced earlier and you said it's going to spin up a lot more in 2021 called X-Connect?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that's right. We've had a platform called X-Connect in our security and surveillance group for about five years, so it's been developed as a very mature platform and it allows people to, from a simple dashboard, see all of their network, video recorders, right in the security and surveillance group. And it would allow them to see all their IP cameras. So from one dashboard, they can see everything and they can manage those devices.

Of course, that bright light went off in our group saying, “Hey, guys we see a pretty big need for this in the digital signage world.” That the difference is now that instead of it residing on a massive beefy high performance server, we needed to figure out how we take all of that incredible goodness in seeing what's going on in the server environment and bring it down to an itty bitty little media player that is sometimes running a little Intel Celeron chips up, and of course we can't impact content. Content is the number one thing that has to be running on these devices and if we have any impact on that, then we're just going against the grain. 

So it took the engineering group quite a while, but they were able to successfully deploy this X-Connect platform, which allows monitoring and management and the management is the big key function here. Anybody can send out a monitoring platform to see green lights and red lights. But if you want to actually reduce your truck rolls, you've gotta be able to remotely manage these devices. So what this system allows us to do is it sends out remote commands down to devices. Of course, simple reboot commands, that's all table stakes, but now we're at a level where I'll use an example, we've got a customer where they were complaining that out in the wild, it was in a retail environment for whatever reason, people were somehow bumping into the power button and it would somehow get that graceful reboot going well.

We went to the engineering group and with the customer working with us, they were like, “can't we just get rid of the power button?” Yeah, technically we could. So through the X-Connect platform, thousands of devices out in the field didn't require a truck roll and remotely, we disabled the power button on the system. So now technically the only way to reboot it is remotely through our system, which our partner and managed service provider is providing all those services. So a really cool application.

 Yeah. I get a sense, through the years, when it comes to truck rolls, there are times when something catastrophic has happened and you absolutely need a technician there, but there's one hell of a lot of truck rolls that are just about a cable that's come loose or power button turned off or something, right?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. I was just on a call before chatting with you, Dave, where one of the big topics of that discussion was it's the unknowns that are going to kill a network and truck rolls are the big unknown. So if we can mitigate that and bring it down to a manageable level where it can be understood almost as how many truck rolls do you think are going to happen for a network. And then on the back end, a managed service provider or an integrator or whoever it is on the X-Connect platform can resolve stuff remotely and allows organizations to scale their network a lot faster than they otherwise would.

So with your CMS partners, a lot of those guys, like the Novari's and so on, they have device management of some kind that's built into their software front end. Is what you bring with X-Connect supplementary or is there an API, does it replace what they have, how does all that work? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, it's intended to be the single pane of glass for an organization, and it does have an open API framework. The nice thing about the X-Connect platform is if organizations need to ingest other information, then we can ingest that information into X-Connect.

So for example, Novari, they've got a great platform that can see a lot of what's going on in the device. But because we're the hardware manufacturer, we can just see more of the technology layer of the technology stack. So in addition to what's going on with Novari, we can potentially ingest information from an IP camera, we can ingest information through HDMI CEC, we can ingest information through an SOC platform like magic info. So the idea here is that X-Connect has the capability of becoming that single pane of glass, to manage and monitor, not just the immediate player, but the entire stack. 

This is a little bit like what BrightSign is doing in terms of they've got boxes and then they've got a device management platform as well that kind of removes the need for the CMS provider or the solutions provider to develop their own thing. Is it a bit like that? 

Kevin Cosbey: I mean in the rudimentary sense of monitoring and managing, yes.

In the higher level, more in depth perspective, our design and I'm no expert on the BrightSign platform, but our design is not very proprietary in that it is an open API framework and we can add on a host of other devices, if you want to add on perhaps a Lenovo device, no problem. HP devices, no issue, Dell devices, all good. So it's a little bit more open and you can manage an entire network of stuff and not just to the Seneca media player. So we're looking to go after, how do we help manage the entire infrastructure? Not just one piece of the puzzle. 

And it doesn't have to be x86 based? 

Kevin Cosbey: Written out, x86 based for basically monitoring the device itself, but then the device itself becomes its own gateway and it allows to see other stuff on that same network. 

Which is why you could see a Samsung smart display for instance. 

I'm curious, are you seeing other kinds of companies that are digital signage pure play companies or really even AV integrators or like that, just different kinds of organizations. I'm thinking like access control companies and other ones that in the past year have seen the need to be able to push information to larger screens. Are you starting to see non-traditional players come at you?

Kevin Cosbey: Honestly on the PC side of the house, not really, no. We're seeing a little bit more where our traditional competition from 10 years ago is not consistently our competition as much as new entrants have become a competition. 

By new entrants, you mean like the smart display and set top boxes and so on? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, exactly. But from a traditional x86 based system Wintel based platforms and this is just a gut reaction based on the industry, Seneca has focused so heavily in the digital signage space that I believe we've become strong leaders in the PC based digital signage media play world.

Yeah, certainly there's three or four other companies that are selling into the same ecosystem, but in their case, it usually seems to be, “and we also do digital signage or this is among the things that we do” versus you guys, you're saying it's 50% of your business and you've got full-time people who that's all they do

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. We've got an engineering group that's what they've been doing for 10 plus years. 

All right. So what might we see from Seneca/Arrow in the context of signage in the next 12 months? 

Kevin Cosbey: I'd say you're going to see a lot of us, virtually of course, this year we're really excited about the Maestro platform and the X-Connect platform.

It puts us into a very serious solution offering for digital signage, just as we've been talking through this and you just mentioned a lot of folks have historically provided a small PC and we've done that for years. But now we're taking that next level. We always took that next level from a hardware side to making it a little bit more purpose-built and now we're starting to really dissect the whole process.

So we're dissecting what our channel folks are doing, what are integrators doing, what do managed service providers do, what is the digital out of home space doing and how do we solve some of those industry problems? With technology and then of course, we've got a big Arrow behind us that we're happy to be a part of.

So we offer Arrow Credit and financing to support really massive projects or projects that are just $10,000. We've gotten very creative in grabbing some of those Arrow pieces that historically we didn't have the capability of offering because of size. 

Yeah. I assume that if you had a very happy moment where you had an end user come to you and say “really interested in this, but here's the deal I need 40,000 units by the start of June” Old Seneca would probably say no versus now, you could actually say and I don't know if you could do that kind of number, but you could do a big number without people having a heart attack.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. I'll still fall out of my chair, but I'll get back in the chair pretty quickly, whereas before I'd be left on the ground.

But you'd be lying on the ground with a smile on your face.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah and the other cool thing with Arrow capital too, is we've partnered with our software partners. So we support the project with that end customer. So if it's, I don't know, Staples that wants to do a 2000 unit deployment, we will support the entire financial burden of that project and then let's say a software company, X is working it with us.

Arrow capital will pay that software company for those three years of contracted services on day one. So now we've got a solution that allows our partnerships to be a little bit more financially stable as well. 

All right. Kevin, thank you for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Cosbey: Thank you, Dave. Happy new year and really looking forward to seeing you and everybody in the industry one day, maybe this year. 

Yeah, one day. I think it might not be until the fall, but fingers crossed. 

Kevin Cosbey: Fingers crossed, yeah. 

All right. Stay safe. 

Kevin Cosbey: Thanks Dave. You do the same.

 

Sam Ward, Soofa

Sam Ward, Soofa

January 13, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

There are several media companies – from giants to start-ups – offering smart city display solutions, which are, effectively, outdoor totem displays that run local information, backed by advertising.

But there’s only one – Boston-based Soofa – that actively markets a product that runs entirely off solar power and uses e-paper as the display canvas.

The company grew out of MIT, and had its start with a bench unit that allowed people to sit and relax in parks and public squares, while they charged their phones at the Soofa unit.

Soofa evolved into public displays, with large-format e-paper screens on totems  (think very large Kindles) and management software that allows cities to inform and guide city residents and visitors.

Unlike many of the smart city projects out there that seem to be smart mainly as a way to win a digital out of home advertising concession, the local governments that tend to opt in with Soofa are more interested in distributing information and fostering community.

They’re also attracted to Soofa because the hardware and install costs of a Soofa display are a fraction of the cost of a typical full-color, daylight-readable outdoor LCD display, and all the related hardware and construction work needed to put one in.

I had a great chat with Sam Ward, who is in charge of building up the roster of cities and companies working with Soofa.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Sam, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what Soofa is all about and what your role there is? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. Soofa was founded out of the MIT Media Lab, here in Cambridge, back in 2014. We're a female founded team and our hub is in Cambridge, but the team is distributed across the country these days. We create the Soofa Sign, which is a solar powered digital sign that is found around the country. Right now we're in Boston, Atlanta and Western Massachusetts. 

My role at Soofa, I'm the director of growth. So I manage all things related to bringing on new partners through building our community of city users, as well as our advertisers, and then discovering new ways to introduce people to Soofa and the brand. 

So if you go to the city of, I don't know, Columbus, Ohio (I'm pulling locations out of my ass) but what is the pitch? 

Sam Ward: So for the city, the pitch for a Soofa sign is really a smart city kiosk or signage that helps build their communication with constituents.

It's a real-time platform, a CMS they can use to upload content and link real-time hyper-local content on the digital screens, which we can install with them throughout the city. They're all solar powered, super easy to install. It only actually takes 30 minutes to install a Soofa sign. And then after that we work with them to make sure there's great content on there for the community, whether that's real-time transit, health updates, which have been very relevant this year.

And then also we're able to share interesting pedestrian data insights with the city, so they can start measuring the usage of whatever is near the signs that they install, which has been really valuable. Again, especially this year. 

And how do you do the pedestrian insights? 

Sam Ward: So the pedestrian insights are generated from a sensor, which is placed in all of our signs. And a little bit of fun background about the company. We actually started back in 2014, where we developed a solar powered Charging Bench which also provided those pedestrian insights. So that was something that our founder, Sandra managed to get President Obama to sit on one with her on the White House lawn.

So that really kicked off that product. But the sensor we brought from the Bench to the signs because the city had great use for that and it also serves our advertisers as well as a measurement tool. But basically how it works is that it's able to track WiFi that smartphones admit and then every sign is calibrated, so that gives us a real time measurement of the wifi signals that it is picking up within a radius of the screen. 

So this is anonymized and it's not using a camera or anything? 

Sam Ward: Correct. No camera. It's totally anonymized. So we're very cognizant of the city's needs and the public's needs for privacy around that sort of thing.

So there's a few companies out there like display manufacturers, specialty display companies, and smart cities companies that have totem style displays, full color LCD outdoor rated and everything else that they sell into cities and into media companies to some degree, the distinction with what you guys do is that you're using e-paper, correct?

Sam Ward: That's right. 

And that effectively means you've got a very large Kindle that you're parking out on a sidewalk or a public walkway of some kind? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, that's right. So it's a 42 inch screen. We sometimes jokingly say it's the largest Kindle you'll ever see. Obviously it is able to withstand weather, the outdoors elements and the solar powered. I think like some of the main differences between Soofa and those other products are, yes, we use e-paper and we're solar powered and, we're solar because at the end of the day, our mission of the company is to be smart, social and sustainable. So there's no electricity needed, obviously no need to rip up a sidewalk to install the sign. Like I said, it only takes 30 minutes and four bolts to install. So cities really like that. It makes the unit economics very favorable. It's pretty inexpensive to produce compared to some of those flashy competitors with the bright LCD screens, and the signs can be moved really easily too. So cities love that because if there's construction, it's super easy to just place the Soofa sign somewhere else in the meantime. 

And with the electronic paper, that is what allows us to keep that power consumption much lower than a typical digital screen, but also at the same time, it's a higher resolution. It looks better. There's no glare. So it's really worked out for the product to have that electronic ink screen.

How do you deal with it at night? 

Sam Ward: We do have light bars that are part of the sign. So the screens are illuminated depending on the time of year, about 16 hours per day, and the light bar comes on at sunset. And then the signs go to sleep at night, so between again, depending on the year, but between around 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, the signs will go to sleep.

Could you do a 24/7 if you needed to with the solar charging that you have? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, I think we could, if we needed to. We'd probably have to do a few backup battery swaps but I don't think it's something we'd want to do, full time, all signs, 24 hours a day with the current solar power and capabilities that we have now. Also with our pedestrian measurement, there's not a lot of people walking by in the very early hours of the morning, so we made the call to let the signs go to sleep at night. 

Yeah. I was mostly curious because if you were doing things like showing transit times, and so on, obviously the buses are still running at midnight. 

Sam Ward: Yeah, that is very true. If there was, for example, a public emergency, we can make special calls for one-offs, if we need to leave the signs running for longer. 

I have this sort of mixed opinion of the whole smart cities display movement, because I've seen a number of media companies produce display totems that are clearly just digital ad posters with some sort of smart city veneer to them that says, “Hey this is smart and this is special and you should have this too”, but those things would not exist were it not for the fact that they're there to sell advertising. 

Is what you do different? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely and I think that's a really interesting question because we really believe that if you're creating some sort of smart kiosk that is touting itself as innovative for the city, for the constituents, it really should be. And if it is effective in that way, it's going to be a win for everyone, for the city, for the actual people walking by, and also for the advertisers that are on the screen. 

Because if you can create a habit of people, knowing that they can come to that kiosk or in our case, the Soofa signs to find relevant real-time information, transit, weather events, city communication, then they're going to pay more attention to that device as they go about their daily journey and for Soofa, we actually used to have a different screen layout, which maybe was more in that world of, “we have a platform” and most of it was advertising. And we had a lot of long discussions about the product and ultimately changed our screen to have what we call the newsfeed or engagement layout that we currently run, which features a prominent advertisement, but also has a lot of local relevant content on the screen at all times. So it's able to serve everyone's needs while being the best version of itself for the pedestrian. 

Yeah, from what I've seen in some of the images, it feels like a newspaper if you remember those things.

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. The electronic ink is certainly helping there, especially when you see one in person, it really is. Electronic ink is a little bit uncanny cause we're not used to seeing it on that scale. So it's really pretty eye-catching in person and yeah, it does look a lot like a newspaper when it refreshes.

It has a really interesting electronic paper, it has an interesting way that it refreshes the screen. It almost looks like an Etch-a-Sketch or like almost, I don't want to say glitch really, cause it's not a negative thing, but it refreshes in this really interesting way that still creates that movement that's eye-catching while still looking like paper. So it's really interesting in person. 

Yeah. It freaks out for a split second and then it comes back.

Sam Ward: Yup. Exactly. 

I've been intrigued by that. Does it matter to brand advertisers that you're primarily dealing in monochrome? Will they place ads when they know it's only in black and white?

Sam Ward: Yeah we've found that people have a normal amount of, I guess confusion or maybe hesitation that you would have with any sort of unique media placement. It's not a straightforward color bus shelter, or billboard. There's definitely a level of education involved when you're creating a product that's unfamiliar to an advertiser, but that's also a benefit because it's unfamiliar to the pedestrian as well, and in that way it's eye catching and harder to ignore. And then also with the monochrome, we're able to put signs in great locations because as we abide by different city laws that are created to stop distracted driving, right? 

Our signs for pedestrians are pedestrian centric. We don't measure car impressions. We're able to place the signs in better locations because of that. And then also again, with the higher quality screen display that you get with electronic ink a lot of advertisers love that, especially for really crisp, like vector images or photography looks really amazing on the signs. And then finally with the monochrome, the signs are informational. It's almost like native advertising to that neighborhood. If you're gonna advertise on, let's say like the Somerville, Massachusetts Soofa signs, that people are going to have a certain level of authenticity and trust already built in by advertising on the Soofa sign screen in the Soofa sign screen format, cause they're just used to seeing good, interesting local information already in that place. 

So through those, things were able to bring people around on the monochrome, but we also do sell a static platform branding of the sign themselves. So if we have an advertiser, who's like “My brand is green. I really need green.” We can do different products where they can wrap the signs with their brand and then also do digital ads that are maybe more informational at the same time. So you still get that branding punch but with the real time screen content. 

E-Ink, in particular, does have some versions of its product that supports color. Have you gone down that path? 

Sam Ward: Yeah. That's definitely something that we keep an eye on. We work really closely with E-ink, the company itself, which is also a company that was founded out of MIT.

And they've come by, we've seen the color screens. Right now, they are not quite stable enough for outdoor use, at least not in the exact way that we would use them with a Soofa sign. But I do believe that at some point, within the next few years, we'll definitely have a version of the Soofa sign, which has some color capabilities on the screen.

And for managers and for things like the local news feeds and so on, do you provide the software for that and the service to feed that stuff in, or just a CMS platform and then your clients use it from there? 

Sam Ward: We do, we've built our own CMS in-house here, so that's how we run the ads on the screens. That's how we are able to deliver the advertisements on a CPM basis first off for the advertisers. We're able to actually deliver based on how many people are walking by and pace towards a goal throughout the end of the month, which our advertisers love. And then in terms of our city clients, we build custom APIs depending on what they want on their screens. 

Obviously we can connect with the big companies, to show what's local, what's happening. We pull from, I think we use Google news as our API and we pull relevant news content that has the name of that neighborhood in the titles of the articles. So different things like that, depending on what we want to show in that particular neighborhood where we always try to make the content on the sign as relevant as possible for where it's showing up. 

Can you describe a good representative deployment that you have out there with a city?

Sam Ward: Yeah, I think one of my favorites, and I think one of the most impactful deployments is the one that we did recently was in the city of Revere this past summer and their main reason for wanting to bring Soofa signs to their community was for communications around COVID and also bilingual communications, which is really important.

So for them, when we launched the sign. We launched and then I think I saw content coming in from them this morning. They're really good about keeping it up to date. But they launched and had a pretty big pool of content regarding health updates testing in all different types of languages which was great, and then that was paired with real time transit data since we were putting the signs around some highly trafficked transit locations. 

Also we've been running polls which have been very great for engaging the community in a way that's really simple for pedestrians to engage with their signs, which is why you can ask a poll question. Sometimes we work with the city to choose something that they're curious about, like what would you like to see brought to Revere, for example and then people can actually text in their answers to that poll question. So that's when all the pieces of the screen are working in harmony like that's when you get a really great experience for everyone, for the city, for the pedestrian, and also for the advertiser who may want to reach that particular neighborhood.

They're not interactive screens, “directly interactive”, they're interactive because they can then do something else using their phone or whatever, right? 

Sam Ward: That's correct, yes. They are not touchscreen. Although people try to touch them a lot because they're used to the Kindle. 

Yeah. I guess virtually every screen you see out there, you now assume you can touch it and do something with it and it's not always the case. 

Sam Ward: Yeah. We've always had interactivity. It’s how you can be on your phone and interact with the polling questions. We have this texting interactivity, which has been really successful for getting more pedestrians engaged, but we also have a self service platform called Soofa Talk, which is mostly used for local businesses who want to post Soofa signs in their community and we have self-service plans. They can pay for a monthly plan and then post the signs, but community members and community groups can also sign up and post the Soofa signs in their neighborhood for free, so we've always had that functionality to involve the community more.

If they're open and want to create content. I think it's good to have both options, which is, if you just want to engage with the sign, you can quickly text and answer into the poll. You don't need to sign up for anything, but if you want to have a longer-term engagement, maybe you have a community group that throws free local events, you can sign up for Soofa Talk and actually post to the signs yourself as well. 

Do you find when you're talking to different municipal governments, that you have more success with those who are motivated to find new ways to disseminate community information versus those municipal governments who are motivated by finding incremental advertising revenue through media concessions?

Sam Ward: Yeah, that's a good question. We definitely have found the most success with governments that are looking for a communications device or that want to use the sign for wayfinding because they can brand the vinyl on the sign as well. So that has been a big value add for them, but I would say the rev share isn't totally off the table though. That's definitely something that people care about and is part of the process of selling signs into a city because we do rev shares with our city partners as well. 

But I think in order of importance, it really is the communications piece that comes before that with a Soofa instead of your traditional out of home platform.

And if it's a smart city kiosk kind of display, like the ones that are on the streets of New York. I'm blanking on the name of the company, but those things are expensive and then you've got all the infrastructure costs too, as you said earlier to trench and get power out to wherever the display is going to be and do all those other things.

 

How do costs compare between the two? 

 

Sam Ward: We are significantly less expensive for cities to install and start using their Soofa signs. That was a big part of developing the product itself. That was always a really big consideration in building something that is flexible and movable, solar power, and easy to install.

I don't have the exact number on hand, but compared to some of our competitors, we are 1/10th of the cost of that piece of technology. 

And do you have customers who go down your path primarily on a cost basis and they see what they're doing as making a reasonable compromise, or do they look at what they want to do and realize, “Hey, e-paper, monochrome doesn't really matter. It does the job that we want it to do.” 

Sam Ward: It's more of the latter. I think cost is always a consideration, but I think a lot of our city clients, they're using Soofa as a completely different tool. It's not really an out-of-home platform for them. That's a nice value add, like “Oh, local businesses can advertise here. Regional businesses will get a rev share.” But at the end of the day, they're trying to buy a communications platform, a way-finding tool, a pedestrian data tool. It hits all those marks for them, and then at the end of the day, you'll also get a rev share. So that's nice too. 

When you sign up with Soofa, are you getting the software and support and everything else in like a one-time buy or do you buy the hardware and then you pay a monthly fee to have it supported? 

 

Sam Ward: So for cities, we have different types of ways of working depending on what the needs of the city are. I'd say the most traditional is co-investing in a sign, paying some part of the upfront cost but then using the rev share to either pay off the rest of the sign, or maybe, we have different situations with different cities. 

In some cases, the signs we actually install without costs if it's in an area where we know there's going to be a lot of advertising interests, we can make the argument with the rev share, we'll pay for the sign itself. Or sometimes we enter into neighborhoods with a sponsor who is wrapping the signs in their brand, really cares about that neighborhood and is sponsoring the signs to bring them there so that the city doesn't have to pay any fees at all.

And then support and maintenance is ongoing for the city again, different plans, but most of the time that is at no cost to the city itself. 

Okay, so you're flexible and adapt according to the opportunity and the circumstances. 

Sam Ward: Yeah, it really depends on where the city is, what the advertising and revenue opportunity is, but we all figure out what works for every city. We always want to help people bring Soofa signs to their communities in any way that we can. So it's definitely case by case.

Do you find you're getting inbound or do you have to go out and evangelize to generate interest in the Soofa? 

Sam Ward: I think a little bit of both. For cities, our branding is really strong from those bench days. The team definitely did a lot of events early on and also got a lot of press back in 2014-2015, when we launched the bench product and I'm a big proponent of top of funnel and brand advertising, obviously, and that's worked really well for us, building that brand early on. So we see a lot of inbound interest from cities. We also have benches all over the world, so people see the benches and get curious about what Soofa is and discover the signs themselves.

But we also have a city growth team who are constantly reaching out to new cities who we think would be a great fit or could see a benefit from any of the different values that the signs bring. So that's on the city side. 

With new advertisers, I'd say it's definitely a lot more outbound as we try to grow the Soofa brand just in the out of home space. We definitely came into the market more as a smart city tool. We're very familiar with that side of things. But now we're really working hard to grow our brand in the out of home space and make more connections there too. 

 

I assume that there's a lot of value in expanding the time to develop really great creative that looks good in black and white, because you could imagine all kinds of creative that somebody just tries to save a file as black and white and it looks like crap versus I always think of this company in Slovenia called Visionect. It’s a great little company, but they're fabulous at designing for that medium, like th all their little displays look great in black and white. 

 

Sam Ward: Yeah, there's definitely a technique to it, and we provide design services to all of our clients as part of our campaigns, because that's great to have, and I think it makes the campaigns better. I think it makes the creative look better.

 

A lot of the time it's as simple as keeping the messaging straightforward. I always say to think about the context and keep it authentic for who you're trying to reach, which neighborhoods you're in. If you can like calling out the actual neighborhood that you're in or the city that you're in making the message relevant, but then also using high contrast, vector images, very simple language, keeping things big and bold. So your typical, out of home best practices just with that extra element of let's make sure this looks amazing in black and white as well. 

 

We've talked a lot about cities, but do you sell into other verticals like campus and workplace?

Sam Ward:  We focused mainly on cities and we also work with private commercial real estate as well. So for example, for anyone who's familiar with the Boston area, we work very closely with WS Development who developed the Seaport area in Boston. So we have different relationships but mainly across cities and then private landowners.

I know we've had conversations with colleges in the past but that hasn't been a main focus of the product, at least not up to date. 

Okay. So for something like the Seaport development, you've got a property developer owner who wants to have signs that kind of guide people, provide wayfinding, provide information on what's going on in this development?

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. It's a huge tenant support for them. So, the wayfinding is more about, “Oh, here's a directory of all of these amazing stores that are in the area” and these real estate areas that are developing across cities, they're really trying to build their own brand, like building the brand of the Seaport in Boston, like they have their own events, they're always trying to get more people to the area to support their tenants. So Soofa signs work really well in that capacity. 

Do you have a handle on the content that really seems to hit with people? 

Sam Ward: I always say when I'm onboarding a new advertiser, I say to keep things contextual, authentic and relatable really for the people that are walking by. Our signs are pedestrian centric, they are part of the fabric of the neighborhood, we call them the neighborhood News feeds, so that's always the best practice for advertisers with Soofa signs. 

And we know this because obviously we have measurement capabilities with different campaigns, whether people have texts and calls to action, QR codes, or if we're doing something more advanced, like a study using mobile data and some other partners.

And then we also do a lot of field testing for our clients. We'll actually send someone from our team out into the neighborhood to interview passers-by about what they think about an ad and people love things that are contextual to that neighborhood, that makes sense for them, that have useful relevant information. So it's really all about that neighborhood authenticity, at least with Soofa sign content, but I think you'd get pretty similar feedback on any sort of out-of-home platform. People want to see stuff that's relevant to them. 

Yeah, and just shoveling News feeds that you can see in a thousand other places, it doesn't make a lot of sense but being hyper-local does. 

Sam Ward: Exactly. We had someone who was doing some brand work with us and he said something that stuck out to me and he was like with Soofa signs, they don't want to see The New York times, they want to see like the Summerville Daily or whatever the Gazette is of that particular small neighborhood, that's really what they're there for.

So what might we see out of the Soofa in 2021? 

Sam Ward: We have a lot of aggressive plans for expansion with our city growth team. We're always talking to a number of new cities across the country.

We have a pretty heavy focus on the east coast right now, but we also have a rep working in California and I believe as of this morning, we have a new rep who's going to be working out of Austin, Texas, which is really exciting. So really trying to expand the network across the country which will be amazing, both from a city perspective, really building up the community. It'll allow us to develop new products with all of these new cities who have Soofa signs in their neighborhoods, and then also for our advertisers we've traditionally worked with. A lot of regional brands or national brands that have a very hyper-local campaign or focus in one of our current networks. But once we're national, it will enable us to really work with more national brands who want to speak in a hyper-local way, but have a national media strategy.

So that'll be pretty exciting as well. 

All right, Sam, thank you so much for spending some time with me. 

Sam Ward: Yeah, thanks so much. This was a lot of fun.

 

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient

December 16, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

There is a long history of very large companies of all descriptions finding their way into the digital signage industry, but they have tended to come in with fanfare and then exit quietly out a side door.

Often, the digital signage effort is a bit of a skunkworks that doesn't have a lot of energy behind it within giant companies that do a 1,000 other things.

That does not appear to be the case with Publicis Sapient, a giant interactive agency that has offices all over the world, 20,000 staffers, and a product and service called Premise, that does digital signage among a bunch of things.

The company has been working on it for 10 years, and has some very big, but unnamed clients using a platform that is all about data and speaks directly to the concept of omnichannel and the goal of producing content once and publishing to many devices and platforms.

Jackie Walker has been working on Premise since it was just a notion, and is what they call the capability lead. We had a great chat about the roots of Premise, how the team works with clients, and the present and future of signage, which is all about APIs, data and the end of walled software gardens.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, Jackie, we haven't met in person, but it's great to meet you virtually. I have certainly known about Publicis for many years at Sapient and when you were dabbling or when the company was dabbling in signage through Sapient Nitro. So I was intrigued recently when I saw a press release about Sapient and a platform called Premise, and I wanted to find out all about it, and you're the product manager (product lead) on it? 

Jackie Walker: That's right. I have been working on it for the last 11 years, so I am very close to the solution. 

This is your baby. 

Jackie Walker: This is my firstborn, yep. 

Is it temperamental? 

Jackie Walker: Yes. I have had two human babies since, but this is the one. 

Okay, let's go to the very basics of it. What is it? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So let me tell you who we are first, for those of your listeners who don't really know who we are. The Publicis group is, of course, one of the largest media holding companies in the world, with about 80,000 employees. A few years ago, Sapient, which was an independent company, was acquired by Publicis.

So now we are Publicis Sapient. We're about 20,000 employees, in 53 offices worldwide and in terms of our capabilities, we’re basically the digital transformation hub of Publicis group. So we think about strategy, consulting, customer experience, and then agile engineering, and so about half of our people are really technologists and engineers. And we think about how we digitally enable our clients in terms of both, the way that they work and also the way that they serve their customers. So pretty broad scope. 

I've been with the company for over 10 years. This was my first project. It wasn't called a Premise when I joined, and really what we were trying to do was, back then, that was when everybody was just learning how to spell omnichannel and put it on a PowerPoint slide, and really my first project was, we called it the Super Secret Airport Project and back then the idea was to take the airport space (because it is a slightly underserved market) and really think about how we fleshed out an omnichannel solution. So we built this end to end platform that was all about content management, real-time data, airport flight data, and built the solution that would enable our clients to drive their websites, their mobile applications, and then later digital signage from one common platform.

So that was really the frame. 

Was this driven by a client ask or was this like a hole in the market that you guys thought you could fill? 

Jackie Walker: I think it was a “hole in the market”/”wouldn't it be cool if”, right? So there was a group of people in Boston, the spouse of one of our team members who worked for SH&E, an airport consultancy, and they were talking about the ways that airports really struggled to communicate consistently with their customers across channels, right? Back then it was not uncommon that an airport would be operating 3-5 content management systems for each of their individual platforms, and so the idea was that we should consolidate this, right? We have a unique point of view, we have a skillset to do all of this, website development, app development, content management, system development from an enterprise lens. Let's see where this goes. And then we started signing up airports to actually deliver some of those capabilities.

Now, is it in the DNA of the company to build your own platforms as opposed to partnering? Because 10 years ago, it's not like somebody was wandering around the streets saying, “Please, God, somebody come up with a digital signage CMS.” There were all too many of them. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, that's very true. So we partner a lot and typically, even from the beginning, when we started this program, we were using SDL Tridion, which was a pretty well-established, web, and mobile CMS at that time. That was really the content foundation of what we were building.

We didn't want to build a “CMS” to use that kind of terminology, because most of our clients if you think about it, are operating enterprise CMS solutions, and so part of the “what if?” was, this novel idea that a customer could change their content in one place and that content change would immediately publish on their website, their mobile app, their digital signage, which is a little bit of a different frame of the problem, I think. 

Yeah. Certainly, you know you're joking about omnichannel and learning how to spell it, the whole premise has been around for a very long time, but I've noticed in the last two or three years, it's really come to fruition and you seem to get a lot of pushback from larger companies, potential clients essentially say, “I don't want to have 4-5 different platforms to do my messaging, I want to do it off of one thing and it should go everywhere. I don't want to have this walled garden for digital signage and another walled garden for mobile, communications, and so on.”

Was that the thinking? 

Jackie Walker: A hundred percent, and again, back then, like omnichannel, was a word on a PowerPoint, right? We had these cute diagrams that contained phrases like “all your enterprise services and you're going to have this API layer”, and everybody had to learn how to spell, right? And then all of a sudden magically all these consumer channels are just consuming data consistently through these APIs and it's all gonna work. That was really, I think the North star of that vision, but it's taken a little while for clients to actually get to that level of sophistication and that's been one of the things we've been watching closely is that progression where this dream of having these fully API enabled enterprises is now getting to a point where that is the expectation, right? 

Clients have all their infrastructure in the cloud, they're using common systems. They're starting to do consolidation across content, and now they're starting to do consolidation of data. And to me, that's the other key piece of the puzzle, it’s not just thinking about the content and the customer experience and the POS or the product inventory systems or their content management system, but then also thinking about how their customers interact with all of that data, all of that experience, and making sure that data is able to be used consistently across channels. So no content silos, no data silos. 

And when you started down this path 10 years ago, shared data was not easy. You could have these conversations, but they would say, integrating with our data set and all that is a quarter-million-dollar job, or it's just not possible, or you can't see it where it's not secure or we're worried about it being secure and on, there were all these problems. Now, data's pretty easy to get out, right?

Jackie Walker: That's right, yeah. It's definitely gotten much easier and just the flexibility has improved greatly as well. I think clients are used to it as well. You know, you're going to have an interface that you're exposing and then all of your channels that you're deploying are pulling from that content.

So I think, yeah, there's been a huge transformation there, which has been a big enabler. 

Do you have to, when you're working with clients, explain that integrating data is more than just being able to pull a number from one directory or folder or whatever it may be and make it show up on a screen and make it show up on another device, that there's more to it than that? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think that's the thing that's really interesting about digital signage, and I had the benefit of building websites and building mobile apps before we started on digital signage, so I had that digital experience frame of reference, right? This is how it works, this is how you're going to build a web page that's going to be pulling content from 10 or 11 different data sources, stitching that together and you understand how that works. And then you look at digital signage and it's a little bit of a novel problem, right? Because there are some differences with digital signage. Like the analogy I use is, if you build a mobile app, you're going to build one piece of software, you're going to deploy it on a cloud infrastructure, back then it was a physical infrastructure. You deploy it on infrastructure, your problem as the enterprise, like the client-side is worrying that you're hopefully releasing defect-free software and your infrastructure, your cloud is stable, right? You don't have to worry about Tom, Dick and Harry's mobile phone. Do they have connectivity? Is their phone charged? Like all this stuff, right? That's not your problem and the customer understands that. 

With digital signage, every little digital sign you put out in the world is your baby and now you're responsible for making sure that it has power, it has the internet, it has content, no matter what happens, it has content, and so there was a little bit of reframing that we had to overcome to be able to make sure that we were solving that problem comprehensively. And those differences really ended up being what guided the product development for premise and the digital signage solution was this idea that we were thinking about bridging that gap between an API enabled customer ecosystem and deployed digital signage at scale. So we were trying to fill that hole between the two. 

Yeah, there's been any number of very large companies that have decided, we're going to write a digital signage module or we're going to branch into this. And they get a basic platform working where files are playing one after another, maybe not even with a black gap in between them or whatever, and they're rubbing their hands together and saying, “Hey, we've done it!” 

There are a lot of problems that can develop, as you've said, and I suspect you guys discovered over time that once you have all these deployed devices in all kinds of different environments, all kinds of hell can break loose. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely and I think that's an important differentiation too. I think there are so many signage solutions that were born out of looping media, right? And so the conversation is how do I build the best playlist? And there might be interruptions, there might be things that go into that but by and large, you're thinking about full-screen video, how many video segments of the screen can I have, maybe I'll have an RSS ticker, like you're thinking about slicing and dicing the screen, but your primary content is video content.

And I think for us, we've always been approaching this thinking about modularized data-driven content. So even if you think about what we are doing in the airports, we weren't just thinking about a video playlist, we were thinking about what's the list of restaurants that's going to show up. What's the list of restaurants that are going to show up that might be different if I know that there's a flight delay next to that gate, and so all of that is query-based data. 

Back in the day, our first clients were using Flex for the interface. Obviously now everything is HTML5, but it's all modularized content and so I think it's a different way of looking at the content problem as well. Are you thinking about big  full-screen content? Which again, then you're thinking about how you manage a playlist and make sure that your large video files get moved down to the device without getting corrupted, all that kind of stuff.

Whereas if you're thinking about this HTML5 content, it's just a little bit of a different frame of reference in terms of what you have to be able to do, the different pieces that come together to enable that, and then the analytics as well, right? Like how are you getting a level of analytics that is again, akin to what customers are used to from web and mobile channels. 

So tell me what Premise is, and if I'm a cranky CMO or CEO in a meeting with your team, and I say, “why do I need this versus brand X digital signage CMS that I'm already using?”  

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I've had many experiences where I've worked with customers who have already gone through a digital signage selection process, they've already picked their partner. And they say, “Okay, we are working with X platform and now we want to deliver an experience on top of that platform, what can we do?” And the problem is typically that they didn't ask the right questions about the software capabilities when they were doing the platform selection and then when it comes to the time to actually think about the experience, now they're designing backward from the platform capabilities, as opposed to designing forward from the customer experience, which is the position you always want to be in. So I think when I think about what Premise and how it's different, it's really thinking about in-venue experience enablement. 

We say in-venue because we might mean a QSR, we might mean a retail store, we might mean a hotel. So any physical place, we're really focusing on the real-time analytics and AB testing capabilities, and we're focusing on integrations and that is really at the forefront. So if I'm working with a QSR, the starting point is going to be the point of sale, it's going to be their product database, it's going to be their product photography. We're going to want to know as much as possible about their data models and so that we are thinking about it from what can we reuse, what do we tack onto, what are the places where we can create leverage points from what they already have, and then we're filling in the gaps, to be able to support the additional needs for digital signage that are maybe slightly different than what their needs are for web or mobile. 

I might not have big video assets for the web, or certainly for mobile. I might want to use different types of product photography, I might need some different ways of thinking about that. So that's really the approach for us and I think a lot of our clients understand it because they've dabbled and what they've seen with other solutions is that they're not able to get the level of integration that they're expecting.

So they'll go through the initial conversations, the technical design and think we're going to integrate with our CMS. And I think, when you say those words, they can mean different things to the vendor and the client, right? The vendor might mean I'm going to pull a data dump every seven days and the client thinks, if it's integrated to my CMS, I'm going to make a change in my CMS and it's going to publish, and so I think a lot of clients are now starting to get to that level of sophistication and understanding where they're realizing that there is a little bit of a gap between what the current capabilities are in the market and what they want to deliver.

I had a conversation with someone in the hospitality business that manages a bunch of properties. They do a lot of merchandising of their onsite restaurants, their shows, all that. You can think like a Vegas casino type, that frame of mind, so they have all kinds of stuff that they're trying to sell customers and all of it is manual. So if they need to change the priority of a piece of content, there's a huge manual effort to go in and update their playlist on all of their screens. So we talked with them about what would it look like to build an AI engine on top of that? 

It could look at occupancy in restaurants. It could look at ticket sales, yield projected versus what they've actually sold. So it could prioritize what are the things that I merchandise to my customers that are meaningful. I don't want to merchandise a restaurant that's sold out, that doesn't help me, it doesn't help the customer. 

And what we found is that the level of metadata to be able to fuel an AI engine to be able to start to do some of that, even on a rules basis, just didn't exist in the digital signage solution they were using. Even at that level, when you start to want to deploy AI and start to get more sophisticated about the ways that you're deciding what content goes on the screens, I think the current vendor set, the current solution set in digital signage is somewhat lacking and that's really why we're in the business and we're pursuing it so aggressively is that we keep hearing more and more of our clients talk about this unmet need.

And is that a function in a lot of cases of them being in there refresh cycle where they're there four years in with a particular vendor realizing they like the notion of this, they like the outcomes of screens and so on, but they need to do more, and they're now realizing their initial platform that they went with just doesn't cut the mustard, so to speak? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, it's a mix of both, some of our clients are in refresh cycles, some of our clients have just done pilots and they're realizing that maybe what they thought they were going to get out of it isn't really coming to fruition and then some of our clients are starting to look at this for the first time, right? They're recognizing, especially QSRs at the drive-thrus, that's a huge area of focus for us right now, because of COVID obviously you look at the market in the US, like 80% of QSR still have paper at the drive-thru. Now 90% of their business is going through the drive-thru. So there's this huge gap between the capabilities that they're able to deliver.

How are they going to meet customer expectations and the solutions that they have available? And we're really saying if you're going to do it for the first time, don't think about what you want to do tomorrow, because maybe you just want a JPEG of your menu tomorrow, but once you make that huge CapEx investment, especially outdoors, be smart about what you're going to do there because in the next five or seven years, you're going to be wanting to do a lot more, probably. You're co-investing in data initiatives, in loyalty programs, how do you connect the dots? That's always my big call to clients, is to think about what's the customer experience roadmap? And being a little bit aggressive so that you're not making a mistake on the hardware you're deploying, or even if you're buying an all-in-one solution that you're working with a partner that's not going to be able to grow with you.

This sounds much more like an engagement, a project, as opposed to “All right, I'll buy my software. I'll use Publicis Sapient’s Premise, and you know, Bob's your uncle, that's it. You may get some support.” 

It sounds like you guys want to be in the weeds with the client, from the ideation stage, all the way through to execution, right?

Jackie Walker: Yeah, you're hitting the nail on the head. So the play for us is not the digital signage licenses, so to speak. That's not the piece that we're interested in. It's not a set it and forget it solution. I think there's a well-established part of the market that does that really well, like grab it and go.

What we're really trying to do is work with customers who are looking for more involved customer experiences that are really trying to use this channel to make an impact on their business, that recognizes the value of analytics and AB testing, and that are thinking about how do they pave the path to driving differentiated customer experiences over time? And so there's a little bit of consulting, there are a few creative services, there's a ton of technology, all that kind of comes together when we're engaging with a client. 

I'm going to assume that your preferred client or the clients that you end up getting are those who have a history with agency services and work already, because they know how you guys roll and how things happen versus somebody who maybe started out with brand X digital signage CMS and has never really worked with an agency other than maybe producing some creative for them and all of a sudden there's a full-tilt engagement, which is, you still got a few zeros attached to it and there's a lot more involved.

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that's right, and it could be either, It could either be the marketing services side or it could be the systems integration side. So we definitely have had a lot of success in using the solution with existing clients where we already have a technology footprint with them and then it becomes about how do you leverage what you're doing in one part of the business on this additional channel? I think that's a huge part of the value proposition. 

Yeah, and certainly a macro trend within digital signage is this idea of one throat to choke or turnkey solutions, I don't want four vendors, all pointing fingers at each other when there's an issue. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that can be a little bit of a double-edged sword, right? Sometimes I think about what happens, and I've seen this with a number of clients where they treat digital signage as a siloed point solution.

“I'm going to buy digital signage,” and even the terminology, like a digital menu board is a great example, it sounds like you're buying a physical thing. 

“I'm Bill, I'm buying an object.” 

Honestly, that's a lot of how it's sold by a lot of companies, which I think is goofy, but nonetheless, they saw it as SKU, as a thing.

Jackie Walker: Yep, absolutely, and I think what is becoming accepted is this idea that digital signage is a digital channel. It is like your website. It is like your mobile app. It is a digital touchpoint for a customer, and I think we, as an industry, haven't done enough to push the capabilities and the thinking around the types of experiences that clients can deliver. It's been allowed to function as this kind of siloed thing on the side. So you have, even in an organization, the people who are buying digital signage are often not the same organization that's managing the rest of their digital customer channels, which is also a little bit mind-boggling sometimes.

So that's another piece that I always try to encourage customers to think about. This is not a, not just a marketing problem, it's not just an IT problem, and it's certainly not just a store-ops problem. It's actually an intersection of all three and you need to make sure that you're bringing all three of those organizations along for the ride, to make sure that you're going to end up with a solution that actually works and delivers value to the business.

Yeah, years ago I had a very large multinational brand consulting client that was putting signage solutions into their stores and the department I was working with was relationship marketing and they referred to themselves as the land of misfit toys. 

It was just like skunkworks, they caught all the stuff that nobody else wanted to do. It makes me curious because I've seen this with other very large companies where they have created digital signage business units or effort, and it's functioned largely as a skunkworks and you can tell it's a skunkworks, and sometimes the people who are running it are people who put them there to get them the hell out of important meetings or whatever.

(Laughter)

I’m not saying that in the slightest with what you're doing.

Jackie Walker: I’m glad I gave you that impression. 

Not in the slightest. You know your stuff, you've been doing this a long time, so in the larger context of Publicis Sapient, how much of an effort and how much visibility does this have in terms of the overall company? I know it's hard to give a percentage, but... 

Jackie Walker: That's a great question. I think there was a period where it was a little bit of a side business, so to speak. We were doing things like this airport managed services platform for wayfinding. We had a bunch of different clients. It ended up extending to like retail casinos, we had a sports stadium that was using our wayfinding platform, but it was a little bit of this thing that was allowed to continue to progress, and then, I think what has happened in the last couple of years, as we've shifted our focus to digital business transformation, and I actually remember really well a conversation I had with my boss, like when we started internal communications around that change and frame. 

I said, I'm really excited about what this will mean for the work that we're doing with the Premise because it's so tightly aligned to our strategy as a business, and he looked at me and I said, if you think about it, so many of our clients do so much of their business through their physical footprint when you think about retail, when you think about QSR, it's insane for us to not have an offering that directly addresses the opportunity, to drive business impact in their physical venues, right? And the reality is, if you look at the solutions that are available, it's not a place where we're going to be able to readily partner with existing companies, existing CMS, digital signage solutions, to be able to deliver those types of outcomes. So for us, we actually think about it as the market is moving in this direction.

We had a ten-year plus headstart, I think. A lot of people in the industry will say that the future of digital signage is probably going to be driven by software, and I think we're in a really great position to springboard that for ourselves and realize outcomes for our clients, in an accelerated manner because of this asset with Premise.

Yeah, there are not many good things to say about COVID, but it has forced an accelerated digital transformation plans of a whole bunch of companies, retail, QSR, and beyond, from something that we're going to do in three to five years to something they had to do in the next three to five months to survive, and I gather you've benefited from that. 

Jackie Walker: Definitely. I think it's just been this, at Publicis Sapient level, it's really validated our strategy. I am a little bit of a Kool-Aid drinker, like I really believe in the work that we do, that's why I've stuck around so long personally.

And that's also why I haven't made the choice to go to a more traditional digital signage company. I think that the unique perspective that we bring to the table because of the scope of work that we do for our customers every day, the focus on omnichannel, the focus on customer data, the focus on AI, the focus on marketing efficacy and performance marketing, we just have a completely different perspective and a completely different group of people and experts that we can bring into engagements to deliver outcomes that would be just absolutely impossible otherwise. 

Now the last time I went to the National Retail Federation Show, there must have been at least 20 booths, maybe a lot more companies, all showing retail analytics, shopper analytics, computer vision-based stuff, sensor-based stuff. 

You're talking to a lot of retailers, you're talking to a lot of large corporations. Do they see this as being as important as the vendors seem to think it is?

Jackie Walker: That's a great question. I personally get frustrated with all these point solutions because I think they do end up being just that. 

It's like queue management, so we're going to instrument the environment, we're going to understand the queues and then that's going to help us optimize customer service, or we're going to now measure everyone's temperature when they come in and that kind of theater around it is going to make people feel safer and better, and so there are all these little solutions that pop up that isn’t well integrated. It doesn't all come together particularly well, right? Beacons, one of my favorite examples, we talk so much about Beacons and it's like the mobile beacon and what are we going to do? And the push notifications, and now there's a ton of movement around geo-fencing and QSRs too, you know, to hook into kitchen operations, but they're really the same technologies that could be, if done right, enabling a ton of different types of capabilities of customer interactions, of different ways of driving value for the business on the customer, but instead, they're thought about as these little things, dot one kind of additions, that doesn't particularly connect. 

So I think that's a hard pill to swallow. They each has their own, it's a different SaaS model. You have a SaaS subscription for this, you have a SaaS subscription for that, so I think that's a big challenge. So that's something I try to think about when I'm working with customers, what are the existing initiatives they have? What are the existing capabilities they have and how do you stitch them together in meaningful ways so that you're maximizing their current investment, but also thinking about how you connect the dots moving forward. 

I think QSR has some great opportunities ahead of it, with regard to different service methods. So now they're pushing so many customers to mobile order and pay, which is fantastic, but they're going through the drive-through still, like how do you deal with these customers? Because if you're showing them the same menu board that you're showing somebody who's. trying to order, you just wasted an impression, so to speak, with that customer, right? You could have told them something new and different. You might have totally different messaging for them because you know them, or even if you don't know them, they already ordered, right? Or if it’s a delivery driver, you know that it's a delivery driver. You could know that. So how do you start to think about the intersections of these different service models and different technologies to create better customer experiences? 

You mentioned customers. Are there any customers you're actually allowed to reference and say, yeah, we work with these guys? 

Jackie Walker: Not today, Dave, you know how that goes. (Laughter)

Oh yeah, the big agencies and big clients, you don't mess with those accounts and upset them in any way, but we can think of Fortune 100, Fortune 500 kinds of companies? 

Jackie Walker: That's really the target group and the group that we work with the most. Yes, absolutely.

All right. this was terrific. We could have chatted for a lot longer. It was very nice to virtually meet you and hopefully, we meet each other in person someday. 

Jackie Walker: Absolutely, when there’s offices again, right? (Laughter) 

All right. I really appreciate you giving me some of your time. 

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Dave, take care.

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

December 9, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I have been working with both AVIXA and invidis for most of the year on a series of monthly roundtables, called Digital Signage Power Hours.

They’ve all been great, but the one we did recently on experiential media in real estate was particularly good … because of the people who kindly provided their time.

We had David Niles, who created and still works on the Comcast Experience, one of the earliest and still one of the best projects out there involving LED in real estate.  

We also had Amahl Hazelton, one of the big thinkers at the famed experiential creative agency Moment Factory. Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, was on, as was Jeremy Koleib, whose Consumer Experience Group works with property companies on big LED projects. And we had Emily Webster, the Senior VP of Creative at New York’s ESI Design, which is behind some of the best experiential real estate you’ll see in real estate.

We could have chatted for hours, but we had 50 minutes. Listen, learn and hopefully enjoy.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

Kym Frank, Geopath

Kym Frank, Geopath

December 2, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Measurement in the out of home advertising industry used to be as low tech as people with clickers, parked on roadsides and busily counting the cars going by.

That would give media companies a really basic sense of how many eyeballs MIGHT see a billboard in a given time period.

The out of home industry has long since matured, and a lot of it is now digital ... and much more varied than billboards and transit shelter posters. Measurement has also matured in a big way, and has grown super-sophisticated.

Out of home media is very much a for-profit business, but a key player on the tech measurement side is actually a non-profit ... supported by hundreds of companies in the ecosystem.

Geopath is populated by data scientists and site auditors who do audience location measurement based on a pile of different data sources - the biggest one being aggregated, anonymous data from smartphones.

Geopath's tools, which are used by media owners and brands, help build a current view on the mobility, behaviour and attributes of out of home audiences.

A lot of this stuff is way the hell over my head, but thankfully Geopath's President Kym Frank is very good, and patient, at explaining things to knuckleheads like me.

TRANSCRIPT

So, Kym, for those people who don't know much about Geopath, can you explain what it is and how does it work? 

Kym Frank: Sure. So Geopath is a really unique organization. We've been around since the 1930s, we were formed as a joint initiative between the OAAA, which is the Industry Association for out-of-home advertising, the ANA, which is the Association of National Advertisers and the 4A's, which is the Association for Agencies.

So we have existed since the 1930s with the sole objective of measuring out-of-home, digital out-of-home, and all its formats advertising. We're a nonprofit and we are still to this day, governed collectively by agencies, advertisers, and the media owners themselves. 

So being a nonprofit, I assume you're funded by your members.

Kym Frank: We are. So each of our members pays dues to our organization that supports the development of our measurement system and the maintenance of our measurement system itself. So it's a really great setup, because everybody just pays a fraction of the cost to develop these metrics and then they are able to be, universally used by the entire buying community, across all the different formats that we measure. 

So who would be typical members? 

Kym Frank: So we have a lot of out-of-home members from the big operators, like Clear Channel, Lamar and Outfront, all the way down the line to some small members who have three or four billboards, maybe.

We also have agency members, so big holding company agencies down to independent local specialists. And then we also have some advertiser members as well. In fact, our executive committee has representation from Coca-Cola and representation from Constellation brands, which is the brand that owns the Corona brand, and so we have grown quite a bit. In 2015, when I joined, we had 180 member companies and as of today, we're at approximately 390 members. 

Nice. You've doubled it and then some. I'm sure you tell the board about it, right? 

Kym Frank: I do all the time. 

Is there a for-profit competitor, like a company out there that has data that you would pay for and measurement that you would pay for?

Kym Frank: Sure, so we don't say we have competitors. We say we have “friend predators”. 

Geopath provides currency level measurement, and I would say we probably measure 95% of the industry, but there are other kinds of measurements that are out there. People might want to understand how their campaign performed in terms of conversions, so did our mall ads drive people to make a purchase? So there are a lot of other companies out there that are doing that kind of measurement for sure. 

So that’s more on the analytics side, right? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely, so more custom solutions, things along those lines. There's a lot of technology out there that measures things in different ways, like I know you and I have spoken about facial detection technology, and people who are connecting to the individual devices, so there's a lot of different methodologies out there. 

This will seem like a really obvious question, but I'm going to ask it anyways, cause I'm not very bright. Why do media companies need measurement? 

Kym Frank: That is a good question. So advertisers across channels, this is not an out-of-home problem. Advertisers across channels want to understand, what did my campaign deliver or, on the front end, what should I be buying with my advertising dollars? And how much of it should I be buying? So that they can understand the scale of a campaign that they're purchasing, are they reaching the right people? Are they reaching enough people? How many times are those people being reached by my ads? It's really important to advertisers. 

In the old days on, by old, I mean like 10-20 years ago, even that’s recent, a lot of out-of-home was just measured by gross audience counts, right? Like highway traffic or foot traffic meters, that sort of thing? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So when I joined the organization, the legacy metrics, a lot of that was coming from rubber hoses in the road, like the department of transportation, traffic counts. So nowadays we're able to use things like connected car data and mobile device data, but that was not available.

So yes, they were using manual counts. In fact, if you go way back in time, we used clickers, so people would stand under a billboard with a clicker in their hand and count the number of cars that went by in an hour. 

Yeah. And the same thing in shopping malls, there'd be somebody there with a clipboard just clicking away?

Kym Frank: Yep. 

Amazing. So is good audience measurement something that just validates making immediate investment, or is used to also optimize the investment that you're making, that you've already decided? Like, I'm going to be in this market, I'm going to do these things, but I want to know a hell of a lot more about the audience and then tune the media and tune the campaign so I get more out of it. 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. Optimization is key and it's a lot of what we've been working on since I joined the organization. When I joined, we had the ability to target pretty standard demographics. So I'm interested in reaching women 18 to 34, but since we've updated our measurement system, we now include information across 8,000 different audience types. So you're able to understand which units I should be advertising on. If I want to build a campaign to reach people who are likely to be buying a new car within the next 12 months, it's really changed the way out-of-home is bought more from more as an audience channel than as a patient vehicle.

Now, both are still very important because you want to reach people in the right location, but you also want to make sure you're reaching the right people. 

And where does the data come from? You mentioned geolocation data from mobile phones, but there's a whole mashup of things you use, right?

Kym Frank: We, so we have a data fusion engine is what we call it. We take a number of different kinds of data sets, there's just no silver bullet that does everything, so we combine a number of different data sets for what they are best at. So we are using mobile device data, that's typically data that's captured by apps that people have opted in to have their location tracked on their phones. That's all anonymized and aggregated, so we're not ever following around one unique device or anything along those lines. We get data from connected cars. We have data from Maps, we still do validate against some traffic information and real-time data that's available from other sources.

We're partnered with Claritas, that's survey data for some audience targeting. It's a huge data stack and a lot of modeling that goes on to develop the product that we provide to our members 

Are things like census data also important? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. In fact, I know that the census has been very troubled, due to COVID. 

And a guy at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Kym Frank: I didn't say that. But yeah, the census has been very challenging, but it's very important, not just for Geopath, but it is something that is utilized across pretty much everyone who does any kind of survey at that population level. So really very important. 

Yeah. I think you've said in the past that the best data that you get, if you had to look at all the different elements, is the mobile data, right?

Kym Frank: Correct. That is the biggest piece of what we built. 

If I have a media network, an out-of-home media network of some kind, and I don't know, let's say I'm in hospital waiting rooms or whatever, if I don't have some degree of measurement, if I've not part of Geopath, If I don't have that kind of data available, will a media planner even look at my network? 

Kym Frank: I think so. I mean, it certainly helps to have data attached to it and it has to be data that the buyer feels comfortable with, but there are certainly strategies that would involve using a network that maybe does not have a level of currency.

The fact that when you're talking about a network along those lines, while they may not have impression and data or reach and frequency data, usually everyone has some kind of first party data. You may know if you're a hospital network, how many patients you have, you may know if you're at a gas station, how many receipts are generated.

So there's always some kind of data available, but certainly currency data and impressions data or reach and frequency data, that's what a buyer's really looking for. 

Yeah. You've mentioned currency data a few times now. Could you explain what that is? Cause I'll be honest, I'm not totally certain what you mean by that.

Kym Frank: So when we say we measure currency, it's really because those are the impressions that are being bought and sold for the channel. Every channel has its own kind of currency. So a lot of it's measured by Nielsen, which you may be familiar with here in the United States measures television, and so then we provide that currency for out-of-home.

And is there a challenge with there being different currencies and having some sort of a common currency? 

Kym Frank: And that's exactly why Geopath was created, it was to provide a common currency across all of the different formats of out-of-home. So prior to the generation of this organization, every different operator had their own sets of numbers and it was impossible for a buyer to put them together. Because we have built such a large database of all of these different operators' inventory, it makes it really much easier for a buyer to go in and say, okay, I bought inventory across 30 different operators, but I know what it delivered collectively because the currency is very common and that's really come a long way, because as we've recently announced, we launched in-venue measurement. So prior to this past year, Geopath was not measuring things like airports and malls and bars and restaurants, but we were able to stand that up and we look forward to our buyers really being able to buy a package of roadside inventory and combine the data with in-malls or in-bars or in-airports and get a comprehensive number.

Yeah. Those are two very different dynamics when you're talking about highway billboards or spectaculars in big cities and then talking about screens and bars and all that, like that must've been quite an exercise to figure out how you equate all these different kinds of mediums in one platform.

Kym Frank: Right and every network is very different, yeah. We have partners who have jukeboxes in bars and then we have partners who have very large screens inside of transit hubs and measuring each one of those is very different. We measure every screen, every spot we audit them all. It's pretty complicated, it's the only thing we do, it's our priority So we want to make sure we're doing it right. 

So when you say it's the only thing you do, it’s like you have a bunch of data scientists working for you? 

Kym Frank: I sure do. 

Those are expensive.

Kym Frank: I have a team of auditors. We really do have two products, right? We audit the inventory, so we have to make sure it's where they say it is, that the signs are the size that's been reported. We measure the angle, the oncoming traffic, whether that's foot traffic or oncoming car traffic, we measure all of the different places where a sign can be seen from, so that's really step number one, so I have a team of auditors also who spend a lot of time looking at inventory and just making sure that it's in the right place.

So we have an audited inventory database that has millions of locations across the country in it and then we measure those units, and that's really the data scientists. 

So if you weren't doing an audit, what's your read on how accurate network representation would be? 

Kym Frank: It really depends on the network. So we just really did a whole re-audit of everything we measure on roadside and back in the day when people would report, which direction their units were facing. For instance, if you think about a billboard on the side of a highway and the highway is, let's say it's 80 East and the unit was on the westbound side, they might say it was a westbound facing unit. But now when we go in, we actually can go into satellite imagery and look at that unit and say, it's not actually perpendicular to the roadway. It's not actually facing that one direction and getting it to the exact degree. And the reason that's important is if you're approaching a unit on a highway, we want to know at what point in time, can you see that unit so that we can accurately measure how many impressions it's delivering. 

Yeah. I'm up in Canada in Nova Scotia, which is just all forests, it’s like Maine or New Hampshire or whatever. And, when we go down to see our daughter, she lives about 40 minutes south of us, and there's a Wendy's billboard that I've seen for the last two or three years and wondered if they're selling this to Wendy's because you can just see the top of it. Because all the trees have grown up at a level and I'm sure if they were looking at that and wondering, why am I paying for this? Because nobody can see this unless they just recognize the colors and go, okay, that's a Wendy's billboard back there somewhere.

Kym Frank: Yeah, we really do take into account exactly how long oncoming traffic and, it gets even more important, Dave is when there's a digital unit that is showing multiple ads. So how many of those ads can someone see as they're approaching the unit becomes a really important part of our measurement system.

So with the audits that you do in the height of a pandemic, how do you do that? Is it all of using satellites, and asking people in local areas to go onsite and take photos? 

Kym Frank: So we do use photo sheets from our members, almost always have photos of their inventory, cause they share them with advertisers after a campaign.

So we take those photos, but then we do use satellite imagery, and there's some really great information in Google maps. Now we can actually pretend we're in a car within Google maps and drive down the road and go, at this point in time, this is when you can start to see that unit, and once the car passes this location, you can no longer see it. So we've been really empowered by Bing and Google, developing these great map technologies. 

We've been on a number of round tables over the last few months for different things. And you've spoken a number of times about how things have been going through COVID-19 and how you measure movement of people and activity in general. And there was certainly a dip, but it seems to me the last time we were talking and from stuff I was looking at, it's come back to really pre-COVID levels of activity. 

Kym Frank: Correct. So when we're talking about the number of people who are leaving their houses on a daily basis, 75 to 76% of people are going out on any given day. Usually that would be closer to the low eighties, so there is a little bit of a depth, and then the miles that people are traveling nationally, we are at 92%, I believe this week versus the week prior to COVID impacting traffic in March. So there's a little bit of a way to go. 

What I think is really interesting about the data is it's a very significant market-by-market and it varies depending upon where a market you are looking at. New York was obviously very severely impacted, but there's places in the country where traffic is actually higher now than it would have been in March. 

And it has that kind of measurement being important for both the media owners and the brands to understand that, yes, you may have this sense that we're in lockdown and nobody's going out or anything else, but here's the data that says otherwise? 

Kym Frank: A hundred percent. So one of the reasons we put the data out and we really thought it was going to be a very temporary situation back in March. 

One of the reasons we put it out was people were saying things like there's no one on the road and we knew that was completely not true. There were people on the road. In fact, there were quite a number of people that were out on the road. So we try to avoid that focus group of one phenomenon where people go, “I was driving yesterday and there seemed to be less cars.” So we put those data out and it's funny cause I was having a conversation with my counterpart at a radio company who said that he's using the Geopath data to combat the same kind of conversations that he was having with advertisers and brands who were saying, “There's nobody on the road, so no one's listening to the radio,” and he said, we go in with the Geopath data and we say, “No, look, there really are people on the road,” so it's been a huge benefit for our channel to have access to those data in near real time.

And I really do have to be thankful to so many people who helped us get that solution up off the ground super fast. We had an entire committee of some of the smartest people in the industry working alongside us. as things were getting really pretty ugly in the country, back in the springtime, who really helped collectively stand up something that was very reliable, very stable, and very fast.

The industry as a whole, you've got a lot of brands, particularly retail brands who have been really struggling and other ones that have done well through all of this, have you seen a shift in buying an investment in media at all? Or is it just sluggish like most things are sluggish these days?

Kym Frank: Yeah, I think every channel has been impacted. Advertisers are more cautious with their dollars right now, so we certainly felt impacted, as a channel, but things are starting to look up for us and I think the same as is true, whether you're looking at television or radio or print, we're all just coming out of this depth now, and then looking forward to next year, we've got some pretty good projections. It looks like out-of-home will bounce back. So I'm really excited about that. 

I still get emails and phone calls from startup companies all the time who want to do or are planning to do, or in an early throws of doing a place-based network in some sort of defined venue, whether it's groceries or I don't know, ski resorts, I'm making stuff up at this point, but, are there pieces of advice that you provide and also, do you have insights on what of those startup networks have a better shot than others?

Kym Frank: So we always suggest, and we're happy to give some advice to folks if they want to give us a ring before they put the screens up and before they put the signage up, to just understand what are the best places, locations, angles to optimize reaching people prior to making the investment. Like we have a lot of information on duration of ads and duration of content and how to optimize that kind of stuff from a mathematical perspective before you make an investment in putting up inventory. 

We can get access to that information because we're measuring so much already. So one of the things we're working on right now is curating norms so that we can understand if you're going to put inventory up in a bar or a restaurant, what kind of impressions can you expect to deliver? So that people can really figure out, okay, before I put the investment down, is this going to be worth it? Am I putting the screens in the right places? Am I running the right kind of ad durations and ad spots? 

I think also to reach out to people who own that kind of inventory and talk to them and ask, “how is your network performing?” before they go in, so I think the out-of-home industry really is a pretty unified industry where everybody recognizes that we can't compete with each other. We need to compete for ad dollars but when we compete with each other, we just don't do as well. So it's an industry where there's lot of people who are very generous with their time and very willing to help.

Yeah and I think that's important because I run into so many early stage business models where it's just all about the venue, and this idea that (let’s say Bars) there's so many liquor brands out there and there's all these craft ones and so on, so there's so much money available for advertising, and then they start this thing up and realize, “oh my God, advertising is actually pretty hard.”

Kym Frank: Right. At the end, making the choice between being a local network versus a national network or somewhere in between, is also something to really think about. 

Are you going to be selling every screen you own to the same advertiser, or are you going to be splitting that up and selling it regionally or locally? Because that has an impact on how you staff your sales team for instance, and how you structure your network.

Yeah. Going back to a mobile location data and the whole fuss about privacy. There was another instance up here in Canada, a couple of weeks ago. The Canada's privacy commissioner went after a big shopping mall operator saying, “You were invading consumer privacy by using anonymous video analytics,” and I went off on that because it said right in their own report that it was anonymous so what was the big deal? 

When it comes to mobile location data, have you had to tread carefully around using that and how you present it, or do people just take it as a matter of course? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So there's two things in that question, right? There's the “what are you doing and are you doing it responsibly?” And then there's the “are you speaking about it responsibly?” 

And I know I sound like a total broken record about that because I get concerned when people say they're doing things to sound super sophisticated and tech savvy, and then they get you in trouble because you're talking about what you're doing in a way that's just not responsible. So when we built our system, we built it in such a way that it was as responsible as humanly possible so much so that we probably went to the extreme because it's so important that our currency not step over line. 

We built it deliberately to not cross over any lines, but then when we speak about it, it's again like a broken record, you’ll almost always hear me say, it's aggregated and anonymized. In fact, I think the vast bulk of our members probably say it’s aggregated and anonymized multiple times per day, because it's now been so drilled into us that we are in the public space and we want to make sure that people know we're not doing anything that people should be concerned about.

Is it a case where you see less of a focus from consumers because they've already made that bargain, so to speak, if they're going to use Uber or something else that absolutely requires location for it to work effectively that, “Okay, we've signed off on that. We're okay with that,” versus camera's on and the out-of-home display and they're saying, we didn't sign off on that, so that's terrible but the anonymized data that comes off of a phone, we're okay with that. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. Online has been doing it for so long and people are so used to it. 

“I was shopping for shoes and then the pair of shoes I looked at has now been following me around my browser for a week.” 

I think people just accept that's the case. The camera thing, I know you and I've had this conversation a multitude of times. We do not really use any kind of camera technology. If we have a member who has cameras installed, we will take their data as a calibration point, but we don't actively use that ourselves, but it just makes me laugh that people get upset by facial detection technology, because everybody had VHS tapes with cameras running in every location across America and no one ever really got upset about it, but suddenly there's a technology that actually makes it more responsible because you're not recording people as they're shopping and for some reason that makes people upset. 

Do you not use the computer vision stuff more so because it's an analytical tool as opposed to an audience measurement tool?

Kym Frank: For us, it's just not scalable. We measure millions of locations across the country, and some of those locations don't even have electricity running to them, and some of those locations, that's not allowed and it's just not a scalable technology if you're measuring millions of locations. 

Are there mountains, so to speak that you're still trying to climb in terms of amassing more data and developing even deeper insights? 

Kym Frank: Certainly. The conversation about recency, so how recent do the data need to be, and at what cadence does it need to be reported? So those are conversations that are more business implications than data implications, that we're having with our membership, because out-of-home is typically still bought in four-week cycles, so do we need daily data?

And a lot of this has gotten escalated by the increasing footprint of programmatic buying that's happening in our channel. So it's pushing us forward, certainly COVID has pushed us forward from an evolutionary standpoint on data, because everybody wants to know what's going on with COVID last week, not three months ago. So that is certainly on the forefront for us. And then, I think as a channel, less of a Geopath issue, but more of a channel is demonstrating the true value that out-of-home can bring to an advertiser or a brand, how we can drive increases in purchase and how we can drive foot traffic?

And again, I say that's not a Geopath problem. We don't really do attribution or campaign effectiveness and to say it's an out-of-home problem is not true either. It's just a media problem because every channel needs to find ways to demonstrate its value and I think it's hard for everyone, how do you demonstrate that somebody listened to a radio ad and then made a purchase? So connecting those dots, it's a media challenge. 

Do you see a time when there'll be a demand to have real time data being used for out-of-home? 

Kym Frank: I think near real-time certainly. I don't know that we need to know what happened an hour ago, but certainly we would like to know as recently as possible. Right now, there's just data costs associated with processing that level of data so we have to make an assessment on the return on investment in investing in that level of data for everyone who's using the data. Is it worth it to invest in storing, processing and accessing that level of data? I don't think we're quite there yet. 

So last question, what should we be seeing out of Geopath in the next year? 

Kym Frank: So Geopath is in a pretty big R&D phase right now with our Insights committee, really trying to answer the questions that we were just discussing. So what levers do we need to pull for the next five years, to fuel the next five years of growth for out-of-home?

So we're having those conversations now, I think we're going to continue to grow our membership. We have a constant stream of new networks coming online. In-venue, we are doing doctor's offices now, we're doing grocery stores. So I think the other interesting thing that's happening right now is the question of what constitutes an out-of-home network?

So that line is very much blurring for us. We're seeing a lot of wrapped cars. We're seeing stuff that used to be shopper marketing type networks, now coming over to the out-of-home side. And then there's also what typically would have been considered television, but a television in a location like a bar or a restaurant and we're starting to measure those now too. 

So what constitutes out-of-home, is I think the big question. 

So is that media owners, for people who do things like shopper marketing and so on, following the money? 

Kym Frank: I think following the money, but also following the data. Because we have the ability to measure those networks, it's like the best of both worlds for them, right? Maybe they weren't being considered for an out-of-home buy in the past because they were shopper marketing, but now they can also put metrics behind what they're providing on the shopper marketing side. 

All right, Kym, thank you very much. That was great.

Kym Frank: Thank you so much. I'm really honored to be a part of this. 

Honored. Wow. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. 

You obviously lead a sheltered life. 

Kym Frank: Well, recently for sure. (Laughter)

Stephan Odörfer, 4tiitoo

Stephan Odörfer, 4tiitoo

November 25, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

While we all have learned, and mostly remembered, to wash or sanitize our hands after we touch surfaces, the ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly made a lot of people antsy about touching any surfaces unless they really, really need to.

Self-service screens are one of those surfaces that makes at least some people jumpy, and things like voice-based ordering or throwing screen controls to the customer's smartphone have come up as alternatives.

Now 4tiitoo, a German company that mainly does eye tracking for workplace environments, is touting a solution that would enable doing things like ordering a burger at a restaurant chain to be contactless.

A built-in sensor on the kiosk would track and respond to what a customer sees on the screen, all the way from a welcome message and through to order confirmation.

This is not stuff out of a sci-fi movie, but a riff on existing technology that takes endless mouse work out of repetitive office jobs and allows workers with greasy or occupied hands to navigate and update a screen just by looking at it.

Stephan Odörfer, one of the founders of 4tiitoo, walked me through the thinking, and how it all works.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: All right, Stephan, can you give me a rundown on what your company is all about and what your technology does broadly? 

Stephan Odorfer: Sure. So at 4tiitoo, what we're doing is all about natural interaction, using your gaze, first of all, but in some use cases also combining speech and gestures. So basically combined, I would say natural interactions that humans can do. So what we're mainly doing nowadays is we are controlling standard workplaces, from accounting to support centers to engineering, and largely replacing the 50 year mouse, so that means, while you're having your hands on the keyboard, you start typing and when you want to select a different input field, for example, in your SAP environment, you just look at this field, which you're doing anyway, and you continue typing because our software understands what you want to do and basically predicts the intention and proactively helps you in your daily tasks.

So this is what we are usually doing for several years. Now, what we have been doing lately is hands-free or completely touchless interaction in kiosk situations, or in dedicated restaurant situations where you use your gaze, as you do today, you browse through the menu, an automatic disc will roll a list while you're reading it and our system understands that you are currently in reading mode and obviously what do you want to do at the end of a page? You want to continue scrolling it? So the system automatically scrolls for your reading speed and what it also does is obviously if you want to select a salad or a burger, you just look at these items, and then we developed a special way to basically trigger these elements, because it's not about just looking at them and boom, it happens. That's not good. So it's rather a way to basically first select something and then trigger something just with your gaze.

So this is in a nutshell what we're doing. 

David: The restaurant applications for self-service ordering and so on, was that something that was already an ask from operators prior to COVID or is it because of the pandemic that this is now something that's being put together? 

Stephan Odorfer: It was clearly connected with the pandemic, the topic of people being afraid of touching surfaces or the need in restaurants to continuously make sure that these surfaces are clean. We have seen this in manufacturing environments. We have seen this for a long time already so we have productive solutions for people on the shop floor, having gloves, et.c.controlling their shop flow terminals just with their case, so that they can continue doing their actual job with their hands. 

Now going into the restaurant business, it's quite similar because it's a clear interface, you have a bunch of options that you can touch or click on and now basically look at, and it's not a complex interface. So what people are doing there usually is pretty similar and due to the COVID-19 situation, people were looking at solutions for not having to touch things, on the one hand, and what we could offer with this technology is not only replacing this need to touch something but it's also using our gaze technology, we also see what people are interested in and based on this information, we can predict what the user wants to have, in this case, what he's looking for and then in this case, can propose recommendations for based on his current view, his gaze history, not based on the history of other people, but on his very history. And, therefore we can not only make his experience more personal, more individual, but also create a potential for upselling and cross-selling, from the store.

David: So you're using machine learning or some kind of computer vision to do that? 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. So it’s a local based technology because privacy is an important topic for us. So it's not being transmitted in the cloud, everything that we do here in this personalization runs on the local system and what it basically does, it understands where you're looking at and what you're not looking at, which is very important.

So this is an area where we have already filed several patents because one of the most important things is obviously at work is what you look at and how you look at things, but what is also very interesting is what you're not looking at, because in your peripheral view, our autopilot works. So, the autopilot in our brain basically works if I say two plus two, in our brains, it just makes sense. But if I say 42 times 17, there are not that many brains where the solution comes up. So we need to focus on that and do the math, but the automatic part in our brain that is basically getting, selecting what should be put in or focus. So in this area, when I'm scrolling, for example, let's say scrolling through a menu in a restaurant that has different pizzas. For example, what I'm doing is, I'm basically quickly running through a page and I'm scanning things like we do if we do a Google search, for example, what is reading each word and if it makes sense, if our autopilot says, “Hey, this could be an interesting result,” only then we put our focus on it and then we read it and then we decide, and we basically understand what you already get rid of in your autopilot, because this is very important to create a better funnel and to create better results in less time. 

David: Okay. So when the original, maybe not the original, but the most familiar gesture sensors out there, the Kinect sensors that came out maybe 10 years ago, there were attempts at that time to use gestures as an interactive interface for screens and the objection I always had and observed, was that there was a big learning curve for people to figure out how to use this, and I would imagine in something like a restaurant environment, where a lot of the goal is to speed up transactions, speed up decision-making and everything else, how do you get past something where you're walking up to a screen for the first time and it's an unfamiliar interface?

Stephan Odorfer: That's a very important question. You're absolutely right. The older folks out there probably remember the Minority Report scene with Tom Cruise, where he's doing all these fancy moves and controls the computer with that. Well, think of this as if you would do this next too. The learning curve you were mentioning, it's also a topic of how long you want to do this until this is more a sports event than an operation off of a screen, right? Your eyes are constantly moving anyway. So before you touch something, before you gesture, or just pointing at something or click a mouse or whatever, your eyes are always already at this point that you want to address. And that's the magic of eye tracking. 

So the question is how do we make sure that, in our standard environment, there’s a steep learning curve that people get familiar very fast with this technology and on the other hand, in a kiosk mode, people get that it's a robust environment, it's a robust operation. It's completely a hundred percent sure operation in terms of that the user knows what's going to happen and what to expect, etc. because this is necessary that people would accept it. And what we came up with is a way to confirm things and rethink from basically his gaze information so that we can predict what he wants to do and why we have done this is because this is something that we are focusing on, so the company itself is seven years old, but, my partner and myself, the founding partners, we are focusing on this technology now for almost 10 years. And we came up with, if I remember the first days and the first month and years, it looked pretty different, in terms of how we control computers today.

So let me explain with an example. If you look at things, a button for example, what it usually does today, it has a so-called dwell time, which basically means time taken between you looking at a button and it triggering within a specific time of say two seconds or whatever. So as always, it's taken too long for a nice interaction and it's too short and therefore too many false positives, if you speed it up. So what we came up with is basically a way that you select within a split second, you select something, you can basically think of in a Windows environment, you can select on the desktop if you click an icon, if you click it once; you select it, if you click it twice to double click, then you trigger it. But you can also look at once, select it and then press return, that's basically the same. So you select it and then you trigger it. And that's the same, what we are doing. So you look at a burger and you select it, right? If you want to trigger this and put this in the cart, for example, then every time you select something, a button pops up that basically triggers the selection and to put it into the cart or whatever happens, forced by this button. So it's always a two step system and that's robust enough, but if you know how to deal with the system, you can do it super fast because our eyes are controlled by the fastest muscles in our body.

So no matter if you are looking from the lower left part to the upper right part, you can do this in a split-second while if you would need to move your hand, that would take much longer. 

David: And if you want to select something, are you blinking or doing something like that to confirm?

Stephan Odorfer: Yes, this would be a possibility to blink, but blinking is also controlled by the autopilot in our brain. So nobody is actively blinking except for these specific situations where you blink an eye to show somebody that you're winking, so that's a specific action, but if you would need to blink to every time that feels awkward, it is possible to control the interfaces with blinking and eye tracking is something that is here for many years for decades, in time. And where it came from is from psychological studies, from marketing studies. We all know these heat maps, search results, et cetera, where it also came from is that it's possible for impaired people to control a computer. So that's the great way and the only way for many people to take part in this world, that is the internet and communication, etc. And if they can only use their eye muscles, because everything else is not possible anymore. Then this is a great way,but there are other ways, better ways to trigger things which are not blinking.

Another opportunity would come up, maybe in your mind would be nodding, but anything like these blinking and nodding has too many false positives. So that's why we came up with this other solution. 

David: So walk me through this, if there's a hamburger chain and you have a self-service ordering kiosk and you're using your technology, I walk up to this thing, what is it telling me right away? 

Is there a message that says you can navigate this whole thing just using your gaze? 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. It would not be that it's only possible, right? So you should always have a fall back option in this case, this would be touch, right? Because you don't want to force people in a direction you want to offer them a better way or different way in the first place.

And after they experienced it in a better way. So it would be introduced to folks as, “Hey, you can touch me, but you can also just look at me and I will understand what you want to do.” And, based on this very first approach, the system basically understands, “Hey, there's a new customer approaching me”, so the system understands that somebody is looking at the system and it can welcome the customer. And based on this, if it's a new customer who is not familiar with this technology at all, then it's very simple, either he can take a short tour in the situation, which is , I would say something like 5-10 seconds long, basically just to understand what it is and I see great potential in terms of viral marketing here, because, just think about somebody controlling the device just with his gaze, and  his buddy is filming this and putting this on YouTube showing how innovative this solution is basically, right? So he understands, okay, this is how I can do it. And then for example, if he goes through the list of burgers in this case, he doesn't need to learn anything. That system understands that this guy is reading and it scrolls automatically as a biometric. So there's no need to understand something. The only thing you need to understand is basically that you look at a button and you see a little shine around this burger, for example. So that must integrate into the user interface and the corporate identity of the brand, obviously and it gives a little shine so that means it's selected. And then this button pops up and since this is the first time for a user this button popped up, obviously the user will have a look at this button, so that's the way we say, “next time, you're going to look at this pattern. You're going to select this burger to put in the cart, understood? And then you just look at the button.”

And then you've got to go because you don't need to learn anything else. You just know that it's a system that scrolls automatically for me, and you understood this because you experienced this and if I'm looking at a button, okay, this other button pops up and once I'm looking at this button, I trigger it. If I'm not looking at this button, it's vanishing right away after a split second. 

David: So if I decide, I want the cheeseburger with bacon, a prompt will come up and if I look at it, it will confirm that I want that and put it into my “shopping cart”? 

Stephan Odorfer: For example, we have different buttons in such an interface, for example, the amount, so I want to have two burgers or three burgers, what is the difference if you use gaze control instead of touch control or something. Nowadays our eyes are our sensors, they sense information and put it into our brain. What we are doing, it's not only sensing, we are also making our eyes the actors, so they are acting actively.

So for example, if you think about driving in the car and you have both your hands on the steering wheel and  you want to change the radio station. If you're familiar with the car, you know, without having your eyes looking at the center cockpit, where you need to put your hands to turn up the volume or to change the station, right? Because you just know where your hands need to go, but if you need to look at this element, for example, you see +++, you would need to create the information within your peripheral view. If you look at +, you need to create the number that you're currently at, right next to the interface because you need to understand that you are at 3+ and you can now stop looking at +++ because it goes up gradually. Similarly, if you say how many burgers do you want, then you just look at one of our five buttons, one, two, three, four, five, because that way the restaurants know what amount of burgers or salads or whatever people are usually having. So, you don't need to choose 28 salads or something. 

David: So you go through that whole ordering process and then you would use more conventional payment systems like credit cards, or maybe even a phone scanner, NFC tap or something like that. Is there a point because you're already using a camera and you're looking at the retina or the iris of the viewer, could you make payments off the biometrics of that person's unique eye characteristics?

Stephan Odorfer: It’s theoretically possible, yes. And, if you look at many Asian countries, it's already the standard, right? It's not something sophisticated, that's already something that they do on a daily basis. 

David: But they don’t have GDPR there. 

Stephan Odorfer: True. Absolutely true, and that's exactly why I said it's theoretically possible. Biometrical identification, for example, this eye tracker that we are using can also be used to log into your Windows system, using the Windows Hello technology and what it basically does is it's not sending the data anywhere, it’s basically the same if you use your iPhone or your Android phone, that you use the same infrared based camera technology to identify that it's you, but it's only asking, is it you or not? You don't need to have the connection to a database. That's the main difference here.

As I said, it's theoretically possible, but this is not that's neither a focus of ours, nor it is something that is necessary in this case, because what you can actually do is you use a QR code to pay, that's one thing, use a touchless credit card or debit card to pay, so there are many ways of contactless paying in a way. What it furthermore does and I pointed this out a little bit earlier, already. So while you are browsing this, and looking through the menu, basically, what we understand is what are you interested in? Because we know that such an eye tracker collects data at about 90 Hertz, so 90 times a second. We understand where you're looking at and this information can be used to basically understand using this autopilot information, what you're interested in and what not. So in this case, for example, we can say right before the checkout, “Hey, you were thinking about taking this ice cream dessert.”

So why not offer it again at the checkout, but as we know what kind of ice cream you looked at and thought about and based on this case pattern, we understand that you really thought about this, so it's not historical information, it's personal.

And therefore you have a much better conversion rate of having upselling and making the cart size larger. 

David: If I'm a kiosk manufacturer and this intrigues me, I have QSR or other retail clients who might be interested in this, what are the hardware implications for this? Do you need to add a separate PC that just does that processing? Is there a separate, specific camera that you need? Those sorts of things? 

Stephan Odorfer: So an eye tracker consists of three different parts. One thing is the infrared lighting, so that's LEDs like you also have in your iPhone and Android phones today, you have a camera, a solution that is basically the same here. There's a special infrared camera and you have an ASIC, so it's a dedicated chip on board on the eye-tracker itself that does all the math, because through the USB port that is connected, only X, Y coordinates and X, Y set coordinates of your eyes are transmitted. So there's no camera image transmitted or saved at all. Everything is calculated in memory and just not saved at all. Also in terms of privacy, this is a standard equipment that can be easily built into the hinge of a notebook. So it's really small sothe volume you need to put into your existing kiosk solutions is really tiny.

And they're the only thing that is necessary. It needs to be put below the screen so that you can easily track the whole screen range with this. 

David: Okay, so you don't need a separate PC running an Intel or that sort of thing to make all this happen. It can just happen off of a pretty simple hardware setup? 

Stephan Odorfer: While you can do that, it depends on the use case that you want to do. For example, if you want to do the prediction, intention prediction parts that I was referring to, and this is something that is not produced on the eye-tracker itself, that is something that runs in the software on local hardware and therefore you should have an up to date device. This could be an Intel processor because the Intel processes have a dedicated deep learning algorithm embedded that we can use, and therefore much lower CPU consumption needed because it's already built in. So the commands are built into the hardware itself. 

David: So if you had a touchscreen kiosk, you could have both functions like all those stuff that the touchscreen kiosk normally doe, could run on there and your technology could run in parallel. You don't need two separate devices to do all that as long as you've got enough hardware. 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. 

David: Okay. There was a big fuss recently up here in Canada, where I live, about a shopping mall using cameras. And even though it was anonymous video analytics, it was misinterpreted and there was all kinds of upset about it, even though there's really no reason to be. There's nothing, no privacy invasion happening there.

How do you get past that with customers who worry about it and with the general public? Because even though what you're saying is, it's only the eye coordinates, people are going to see cameras and go, “Oh my God, my invasion, or my privacy is being invaded here!” 

Stephan Odorfer: It is absolutely important. So first of all, it uses a camera, but it's a sensor. So it means that the camera images are not saved anywhere. So that's the first thing. Then in terms of our company, we are based in Munich in Germany and Germany has a very strict privacy law. So even in specific areas, there's this even going further than GDPR requests and for the company itself and for me and my partners, this is a very important topic, because we want to make our vision. 

And our mission is to make computers understand us humans and not us humans to understand how our computers operated. This has been for many years that we had to learn how things work. It's now time that computers understand and predict how they can serve us because that's their duty. So in this way, we need to have a better understanding of how we can serve and therefore we need data. If you don't have data, and say if you want to learn swimming in a pool without water, it's not possible. So you need the data. Therefore we have that.

We have certificates of Germany Privacy, that's nothing familiar outside of Germany, probably, but it's a DECRA, it's called a data audit which makes sure how we handle data, how we process data, how we delete data and how we, anonymize and pseudonymized data and aggregate data. So to really make sure that the data we use, has nothing that can be transferred to any individual. That's very important because I don't want a big company to understand what I'm interested in.

The model that we follow for data privacy is basically, something is on one side of the wall, so that's the local part and then there's a part on the other side of the wall. To make this more plausible, think that you're searching for a result and you need to access data online, because this is something that we also do. If you need to load more information, for example, they are doing an e-commerce search and you're loading more information, more t-shirts that you're looking for. So our way is that we ask for a hundred new results and locally, we only use 10 of them. So the guys can put a hundred results in the system, but they don't know which ten of these hundred are we using and needing. So that's basically how you can get around that somebody else is building a model about the person you are serving.

So that's one thing and thinking about these kiosk solutions where all the data i, on the device anyway, and as nothing is transmitted to a server, to do the local optimization or the local personalization, there's no problem in terms of privacy. Furthermore after the session is done and somebody else appears, then we start from scratch basically in terms of the data and personalization.. 

David: Last question. Is this all what we've been talking about conceptually, or are you in the field with self-service kiosks that are doing all of this? 

Stephan Odorfer: So for now, three- four years, what we are doing is we are equipping large enterprises for their standard places, right?

So that's efficiency in ergonomics and benefits. The same goes for the shop floor, so we have productive environments running in a hands-free touchless interaction, not collecting a burger, but just confirming a step in your assembly process, for example. So that's what we're doing through the pandemic.

We have seen this request from hardware, software and solution providers on the one hand, but also from the customer's side since they are looking for other ways to solve their problems. So this is something that I'm pretty sure we're gonna equip, in a few weeks, for example, a completely touchless QR system of a large company that offers their guests to understand more about the company and understand how to get around, sort of a compass, for example, completely touchless, and that's pretty much the same because you have somebody approaching a terminal, the system says, “Hello!”, when it comes to you and you use it for 1-3 minutes, and then you move on.So that's very similar And, so I'm looking forward to seeing this in kiosk environments. 

David: So the interest is absolutely there, but we're still in fairly early stages of seeing this out in the marketplace. Yes. 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes.

David: Okay. Very nice to speak with you. Thank you so much for spending some time with me.

Stephan Odorfer: Absolutely. Thank you for the invitation. 

Chris Feldman, Sharp NEC Display Solutions

Chris Feldman, Sharp NEC Display Solutions

November 18, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

A few weeks ago NEC Display, which is now Sharp NEC Display Solutions, started marketing a new product called NEC MediaPlayer.

I saw the note and I thought, "Oh, OK, I'll write about this." But then I didn't, because I couldn't make heads or tails of what it was about.

This podcast interview helped me clear the fog, and I suspect it will for others. MediaPlayer is software designed to work with the Raspberry Pi hardware that NEC uses as an alternative to the System on Chip offers from its display competitors.

MediaPlayer has two aspects:

There is a simple signage, LAN or sneakernet platform that allows companies to do things like put production KPIs or other content up on a screen, without investing in a full signage platform, because they don't need a full signage software platform.

And there's a foundational CMS set-up that is there for the 15 or so CMS software partners who do digital signage on Raspberry Pi. If an end-user or integration partner uses NEC displays that support the Pi, they can select and install that software image right out of MediaPlayer.

People who have been around digital signage for many years will likely wonder - Did they do Vukunet ... again?

No, this is not that the rebirth of the circa 2009 NEC CMS and ad platform.

I spoke with Chris Feldman, the product manager for NEC MediaPlayer.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

TRANSCRIPT

David: Chris, thank you for joining me. I wanted to talk to you about NEC, because I saw some PR about NEC media players and I read it and then I read it again and I thought I'm not quite getting what this is, so it would be lovely if we could walk through what NEC media players are all about. 

Chris Feldman: Cool. Yeah, thanks for the opportunity.

You're not the first. I think the confusion is that the media player exists in two parts and it's obviously tied to the system on a chip (or SOC) space in digital signage. A number of years ago, we released our displays that use the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3a as an open source platform for associates, allowing a lot of users to utilize that and the whole open architecture kind of digital signage.

But one of the things that we found, as we're getting feedback from the market, was that it's great that we have this open architecture, but people really need an out of the box experience with it. So they need something where as soon as you open it up and turn it on it's got to do something other than just give you a desktop operating assessment screen.. 

David: Cause not everybody's a nerd and wants to develop that way. 

Chris Feldman: Exactly. And, I think initially our thinking was, there's so many tools out there that people are just going to rush to it and be like, yeah, this is great, which is what they're still doing. But the fact of the matter is they needed an out of the box experience and so that brings us to the first part, which is the NEC media player. And so what we've done is we've looked at the media player experience overall And how it can fit within the NEC display, NEC display ecosystem, so to speak,and that's what we developed. 

We worked together and we developed this media player that we had delivered onto the display. it comes pretty loaded so it's the standard image now on all the Raspberry Pis that we sell and we've also upgraded from the Computer Module 3 to the Computer Module 3+, so you're getting a bit of a bump up in CPU performance, but also the hard drive or the EMT on the internal memory on the device itself, it's bumping up from 16 gigs to 32 gigs. So you're getting a little faster CPU speed, and you're getting twice the amount of memory in there and then the mini player itself is really giving users the ability to really get up and running with signage very quickly.

So we looked at things like playback, so it was important not to have gaps. People want to have, whatever images they have up there or videos or combination thereof, they want them to play slide-to-slide without any kind of black space or dead space in between.

The new player does that and addresses that issue that was on the Pi. And so what we're able to do is we have that going, you can connect to it locally, so you can walk up to it, there’s a USB drive., I'll plug it in. You can use the wireless remote that comes with the display to actually load content onto the internal drive of the Raspberry Pi. You can use a wired keyboard as well, but one of the cooler things is you actually have the ability to control it over a network. So if you have a closed network, like a LAN setup where you have all your screens running the media player, you can actually talk to all of them, control them, and so you can set up playlists, you can set up schedules, you can set up everything that you're doing, with regards to content, over a network. That's a really powerful tool that we have there. We've added some things like streaming services, so you can actually stream content to it. You can have URLs that are accessible because it does also support touch. So say you have a lobby space in your corporate office, and you want to have a way to tie into a content you already have without having to spend more money, just to have this new digital sign that you have, you can just utilize your webpage.

And then the cool part about it is it actually utilizes the display itself, that's one of the great things about using the internal Raspberry Pi, as opposed to an external Pi. One of the things we have is a real-time clock and a watchdog timer to maintain the high-res of the display.

But we can also tie into the human sensor that we have either externally, with our KTRC kit or the one that's built into our VNP series displays that we offer. So you could have essentially a slideshow running and then when it sees someone walking in front of it, it could switch over to that website or switch over to that HTML file that you're looking at, if you're doing it by finding that type of thing. And then if you touch the screen, you can actually interact with it, which is a really powerful tool to offer customers just through a standard media player that's included with the Raspberry Pi.

The second half, which is where a lot of people get confused is, again, looking at signage and what people wanted to do. These media players are great and what we designed was not designed to be an “end-all be-all” of media players. It's a great little device that offers a lot of functionality but the reality is once people really start to see the value of digital signage in their place, whether it's a retail establishment, quick stores, restaurant, corporate office, hospitals, wherever it is, and they start to see that potential, they'll want to do more things. And so to do that, you really need to have a true CMS running on the device.

So we looked at that and we looked at the negative feedback that we received on imaging the Raspberry Pis on our displays and what we did is, we created this CMS platform within the media player. So when you have the media player running, on the top is a series of tabs that essentially denote what you're doing. You simply just arrow over to the CMS tab and then on there currently we have about eight or nine partners, and this list is growing, you can then move down and select a partner and you get a description of what that partner does, and then the option to install that software. So you can actually go to a company, or certainly a partner like Screenly or Yodeck, select their software, and if you're already using it, let's say you have a Screenly account, you have that up and running on regular media players throughout your facility. Now you want to add these displays with SOC, to expand your digital signage. You can click install, it will install the Screenly software, and then it'll run as a Screenly player on your network and you can manage it just like every other device you have working.

And so that's where people are kinda getting lost because it's like a two-part construction to what we have. 

David: So it sounds like in your first part of the description, many to most of the components that you would need, or in commonly found in a digital signage, CMS software platform particularly on the management side, but it's not marketed or presented as a CMS, and if you have customers who will want to go down a little path of using a commercial CMS, you have options to do that. 

So am I right in thinking the first part of what you're describing is meant for companies that let's say already have a software development team of some kind, and they're looking for a signage platform that has foundational software and APi so that they can develop their thing on top of that without using a commercial CMS. Would that be accurate?

Chris Feldman: Mostly. So first of all, it's designed around a LAN, right? You're not going to have, say like a quick service restaurant where you're managing several hundreds or thousands of stores. It's designed to be a closed loop, so to speak. So if you have a building, you don't pick a large company out there like Motorola, right? So if you have several campuses together, you can have a  local one off here in Schaumburg, you would have these displays on the wall and the administrator can access them and load content to it.

But if you wanted to go to where they are, where they're downtown, you would need a separate set of media players running. So they're not really designed to be cloud-based, it's not really inter-connectable, so to speak and they all have to be on the same network and then they'll run existing content that you have. So it's for the user that needs more simple signage, not necessarily looking to invest in the expense of a CMS software, and then it still gets you into that realm, right? It still gets you into digital signage but you don't have the minutia control that you would over through a CMS.

Let’s take Rise Vision, for example, those guys have a lot of control over what they're doing and we're not really trying to do that. What we're trying to do is get you in the ground floor, so to speak, get you a media player with enough robust functionality that it's actually useful, but at the same time, we want to be able to encourage you to work with any one of our partners.

David: So let's say a manufacturer who wants to visualize some KPis from the production floor and just do it in that one facility over the LAN on a few displays. They could do this to find that you are all for that particular visualization that's coming out of, I don't know, Power BI or whatever it may be, throw that on there and you've got what you need. 

And then the second tier of this is when you have partners, like Screenly or Yodeck, who already develop to Raspberry Pi that could be part of a well-defined ecosystem and your customers can look at the different options and go, “okay, these guys are more oriented to what I want to do, and I'll use that.”

Chris Feldman: Yeah, if they can handle that. 

David: When I first read this PR, I was thinking they’re not doing Vukunet again, are they? 

Chris Feldman: (Laughter) You’re not the first one to mention that, but no, this is not Vukunet. 

David: For those who don't understand what they we are going on about, about 10-11 years ago, NEC came out with a free CMS platform and a kind of a companion advertising platform called, Vukunet and AdVuku and I think the most accurate thing to say would be that it was a little early in the development of the ecosystem for that to really catch on.

Chris Feldman: Yeah. And, ironically, I was actually involved with that as well. Maybe that's why I was chosen for this one, there's a lot that goes into it and you have to play to each other's strengths and one of the things about, the digital signage world is, it takes a village, right? These systems and these projects can get rather large and cumbersome, it's no longer just somebody going, “Oh, I want to throw a PowerPoint on the screen or a PDF slide from my menu board.” No, the amount of functionality that people need and some of the more complicated logistics really needs to take multiple partners to successfully launch one of these, even a moderate sized one to the market.

And what we're trying to do is we're trying to simplify that, we're going to bring in as many people as we can together, so that it's easier for people to basically bring that to market. 

David: So if I wanted to use Screenly as my CMS, working with NEC media player, with the software components that you were describing earlier, I assumed that there are similar components that Screenly has written and everything else, so how do you work around them, nto clash with each other? 

Does a lot of the NEC media player functionality just shut off? 

Chris Feldman: Yeah, literally that's what happens. So when you select that partner, it becomes that partner's player or that partner's end point or however you want to refer to it.

So there's going to be no confusion. There's gonna be no clash, ‘cause that was honestly one of the original concerns when we were supposed to find what you're trying to do here, we didn't want to create something that was gonna create problems for us later. The idea is we want to work with these partners as well as we can and deliver an experience that we can have that QC control, to the end-user.

David: Are there device management things like what you're describing with the wash-dock timer and things like that, that a developer like a Screenly or Yodeck or whoever can tap into if they don't have that themselves, or are there elective components that you can use? 

Chris Feldman: Yeah. We work with a company called signageOS and they're helping us with this whole partner onboarding, and one of the things they do is they tie into that. So if they require things like CEC control, so you can utilize the remote, control it, or it ties into the touch capability, they're handling that vetting portion. And, in addition to that, we also have, and I like to refer to, is one of the best kept secrets in the AV, which is our never said administrative tool.

I don't know if you're familiar with that. So again, it's one of our best kept secrets. Never said administrator is a tool that's been around with NEC for, I've been with NDC about 12 years now, and it's been around as long as I can remember, and it is networkable management for all your displays from desktop monitors up through projection, right?

And as long as they're all connected, via a network, you can do all kinds of really great things. You can monitor them, they can set it up where if somebody were to change an input, for example, it blows my mind every time, every time you have a large screen somewhere, everybody wants to look at it and say, “Hey, can I get the game on there?” And then try to press the buttons and if you didn't laugh them out, all of a sudden you turned off whatever your digital signage application is and the screen is blank and so if you have a large building, it would be nice if the screen could tell you that because the screen already knows, and that's what it can do. You can set up a series of tasks that it can do, you can set up a time task where, if you're a school system and you want to shut off all your projectors at night to save the bulb, do you have the ability to do that? You can say, “okay, five o'clock turn everything off” and it'll do that and everything connected to it will do it, whether it's a screen projector, desktop monitor, what have you, and that is, available for download on our website and the standard edition is actually free of charge, and it's one of the reasons why it's the best kept secret. So it's something to use and it's an incredibly powerful tool that you can utilize either within your own facility or if you are a reseller or an AV integrator.

This is something that you could also leverage as a service with your customers. So you can say, “Hey look, Mr. Customer, I can set this up. I can put all these screens on the network.” Obviously he will charge a fee for that and that's what it's there for. And that can be also tied into the available APis and so our Raspberry Pi, which talks to our display could then also connect to never said administrator.

David: What’s the adoption rate for Raspberry Pi? I mean smart displays have been around since the early 2012-2013. The early ones weren't very good, but they've gotten better and I would say the whole idea of SOC displays is fairly mainstream now, there's a lot of them out there. 

NEC, to my knowledge, is the only company that's gone down a different path with these slot loaded Raspberry Pis. How has that gone? And where are you with it? Is it right across your product line or just on a subset? 

Chris Feldman: So we have a very wide breadth of screens that we actually utilize it on, screen sizes, everything from our 40 inch, whether it's a VRP series all the way up to our 98 inch screens. And that also includes our ultra narrow displays so the video wall displays as well. And so we have all these different screen lines that you can utilize within your network and tie into the software that you're using, like one very clear example, it's called Full Beamer. It's a great tool and they have this really awesome application that you can do video walls with Raspberry Pis by literally taking a photo with your phone. So you take the software, you load it onto a screen to take a picture of what the screens look like and each screen will have a QR code on there. You'd load that onto the website and it'll automatically scale the content, regardless of rotation onto the wall, which is an incredibly powerful tool that they can do with our screens.

David: Why Raspberry Pi versus just putting in an ARM processor and doing what most of the other guys are doing? 

Chris Feldman: Twofold. First, we've had a modular philosophy around everything that we do for computing for a long time. We've had OPS forever and then before that we had the SPC slot, and that's worked out really well for us. We've had a lot of really great successes.and we've got a lot of really great feedback on it. 

So when we moved into SOC, what we didn't want to do is we didn't want to move away from that. We wanted to give customers that option and in addition, we also didn't want to necessarily build in the cost of the SOC into a screen that they're buying if they are not using it. So if they want to use a PC, they're not using SOC, why pay for it, or if they're using something external, why pay for it? So that's the first part.

And the second part is really the, just the whole developer community around the Raspberry Pi, cause it's one thing to be having open architecture, because if you look at our competitors, everyone, they're all open, there's APis that are out there. Right now with the Raspberry Pi, you have kids sending these things to the moon, right?

You have all kinds of really amazing things that people are building with Pi. I saw one application, I think it was a year ago, maybe two years ago, where somebody took a Raspberry Pi and connected the accelerometer that you have for your cell phone to it and then when you rotated the display, the content would rotate with the display. It was a really amazing thing that they were doing, with that smaller SOC.

So that's what we're really trying to leverage with the Raspberry Pi inner displays, is that not just the level of creativity that affords the user, but just the global community built around it. People are really doing amazing things with it because you get stuck in something and you can on the web, post on a message board and somebody may have already run into that problem, and so that's what we wanted to do, what we wanted to leverage. 

David: The interest in Raspberry Pi when it first came out and it probably still is that it's a $35 to $45 micro PC, and therefore I can save some money there.

Often don't seem to understand that there are other things that you have to buy with it to get it all to work and it doesn't end up being 45 bucks. It costs more than that and it is a micro PC positioned, it’s something for makers and hobbyists and so on. Although there are millions out there and as you say, there's a huge development community, why would you go down that path instead of the Intel smart display modules or compute modules?

Chris Feldman: The smart display modules, we actually are implementing as well. So the next generation displays will have the SDMs, available as a flat, And then the computer module will actually install underneath it, so if you look at the way that the screen is actually built, you have two halves, right? 

You have SDMs and you have SDML, right? SDML takes the whole thing and the rest takes just a third of it. The unused portion is what the Raspberry Pi will connect to, so we're not going to connect to the SDM slot. And when we're specific about that, we're not connecting to that portion of the display. It's connected to its own proprietary connector on the other side, but you have that ability, so you could do things like run the Raspberry Pi and, potentially, another accessory that you have in that slot, that's running off of it.

David: So you could use the Pi for media play out, but you could use an Intel i5 for computer vision, like your NEC application or something like that?

Chris Feldman: Right and, again, the idea behind adopting the Pi was really built around the community that exists with the Raspberry Pi. It's one thing just to create a small SOC type PC, a little chip you drop in with some memory in the CPU, it's another thing to drop something in there that has some momentum behind it already, people already developing behind it. And as we were later to the market than everyone else, we wanted to leverage that, we wanted to have something that already had a development base behind it when we hit the market.

I think when we launched, I think there were probably a dozen companies that we had on our website that already had CMS software that was running on Raspberry Pi, and we linked them right at the bottom so people get up and running very quickly.

David: You've mentioned there's about eight or nine on there now with your dropdown?

Chris Feldman: So the eight or nine are actually the partners part of the overall CMS platform that's on the Raspberry Pi. So if you look in the Pi itself, those are the eight or nine I talked about, those are the ones that are actually on the Pi. But if you go to our website, we actually have a media plan link on our website, it's actually connected. 

Any one of our large format displays that have a Raspberry Pi slot, there's literally a link that you can click and say, “Hey, check out a new video player.” You click that link. It'll take you to our media player site. Go into all of the detail that I'm going on with you today and then, at the very bottom, there'll be a list of all the existing partners today that are on that Pi and then there's another button you can click, which will show you everybody that we know of that's working on the Pi. It's more than eight, right? So we probably have, and I have to draw a blank here, but probably about 15 partners total. 

David: Okay. Is there any particular market or attribute about the kind of end users who are gravitating towards this technology solution versus, I don’t know, I see a lot of smart displays being used for QSR because it streamlines the install and things like that, or is there a representative kind of user who would go down your path? 

Chris Feldman: That's really the great thing about the associate market as it is right now. A lot of CMS companies are rendering using HTML5, or through a standard browser or streaming something from a source. You can move away from like a standard type PC, to something like an associate and save a fair bit of money. The cost on screens will come down considerably, to buy even a small form factor PC, like an Intel that can oftentimes costs more than display, right? So now if you have this SOC that can then run that other content, that's an assumption being handled by a head-end, and it's acting as an endpoint.

You can do a lot of really amazing things with it. And I don't think it's, yes, I can appeal to a specific vertical. You're really going to appeal to those that are looking to get into the signage market. But I've always been a little shocked by it, because there's an economy of scale that we're dealing with because, there's a screen, there's software, there's PCs, there's tablets, there's all these parts that kind of go into it. And then you have to multiply it by the number of locations that you want to have it in there, it's not just one screen from the menu board. The average menu board size is three. So if you take three times the number of stores and very quickly that number gets very large. So we can do something like this and be able to deliver that competing solution to the customer that lowers the cost of ownership and those that may have been wavering or, not necessarily, very motivated to adopt this, now it becomes much more inviting for them to do it.

David: I have a feeling that you can't tell me who, but I'll ask anyways, and you can just say generically if necessary, do you have some good reference cases on large-scale deployments of viewer displays with the Pi inside?

Chris Feldman: So we just released the media player and the Compute Module 3+ on our displays, we are just starting to deliver those now. So there is one case that will be listed soon so we can build a reference on our website and then those will start to develop as that grows out. 

David: Is that retail?

Chris Feldman: It was in the QSR space. 

David: And like hundreds, thousands, millions?

Chris Feldman: When it's released, we'll be able to tell you. (Laughter)

David: All I know is that it's just a burden of anybody who is trying to market in this industry that the bigger the client, the harder it is to get permission to say anything about the job. 

What will we see going forward with the media player? I know you mentioned OPS for the displays, but, how do you see this evolving over the next year? 

Chris Feldman: Like I tried to mention earlier. So when I first started with NEC, if you looked at the kind of PCs that were being purchased, you're looking at a very low  type PC, moving up to a higher end type of tower PC with a video card, it was a standard bell curve, right? So the Core 2 Duo was the workhorse, the vast majority of screens that you saw out there were running something similar to an open Core 2 Duo, they were everywhere from airports to all other verticals, but as signage has continued to evolve, software design has gotten better, that standard bell curve is in verdict. So that middle of the road PC is not really seeing that much traction, the higher end PCs that are going to give you much more power and much more dynamic content because they're getting so much smaller, like the new, i5 STM that we have coming out, that performance significantly better than the previous generation i7. So you're getting all this power in this one device, that you can do. real-time 3d renders for wayfinding. So instead of just having a flat space looking map for your lobby, wayfinding, you could have an interactive 3d model that literally shows the walkthrough to go to where your location is at, those types of things. 

And then on the lower end of things, you can get your information out, your menu board information out, your HD, PLEX shows or video content with audio, all that running on an SOC and the market is changing in the way where like the low end and the high end are becoming the dominant competing solutions.

So that's what we're gonna see. I think we're going to see a lot more screens with built-in computing kind of leading the charge, but then I think also extension. So being able to get video at higher levels so are you talking 4k-8K, from a tower PC with a high-end video card, talking a lot of RAM, doing really dynamic stuff out to display as well so that's where signage seems to be going. 

David: All right. That was great. Thank you Chris, for spending some time with me. 

Chris Feldman: Thank you very much.

 

David Niles, Niles Creative Group

David Niles, Niles Creative Group

November 11, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

In a technology landscape where even last year's big thing tends to get old quickly, it's pretty amazing that the lobby-filled LED installation at the Comcast tower in Philadelphia remains one of the best visual experience projects out there ... more than 12 years after it was first lit up.

If the project is unfamiliar, imagine walking into a very large corporate office tower lobby, admiring the wood walls that line it, and then seeing those walls are active, and that there are little visual stories being told.

The project went live when few people even in this industry knew all that much about direct view LED, doing a 4mm wall years ahead of when AV people started thinking and marketing in terms of pixel pitch.

I spoke with David Niles, whose little company did the original job and continues to work on it, through a recent LED upgrade.

We get into his long background, starting in architecture and early computer graphics, and evolving into pioneering work with HDTV, again years ahead of when people were using terms like 1080P.

We also talk about some of the other work done by his team.

I spoke with Niles last week as he puffed a morning cigar in his central Florida backyard. I was staring out at my Nova Scotia backyard, wondering when predicted snow flurries were going to blow in.

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TRANSCRIPT

David, we'll get into the Comcast experience, but that's not the only work you've done through the years. Can you tell me about your company and what you do? 

David Niles: If I would start backward, what we do today is, I make large scale multimedia experiences. Mostly for, I guess you would call it public art spaces and buildings, sometimes residences, all over the world. And that's what I do today, where I started is, it's a long list and I'll try and go through it quickly. I really started out in architecture. As a kid, I was fascinated with building and really enamored with architecture. I thought it was extremely novel. I was 10-12 years old, reading all Franklin Wrights books and studying his plans. By the time I was 12 or 13, I taught myself how to be a draftsman and I could draft, and eventually went out in my early career, designing and building outdoor cafes, stores, interiors in New York City. But I was always frustrated with this idea that as novel as I thought architecture was, it was turning into this sort of commodity for run of the mill things and I believe that the future of dynamic art is really in that thing called television. So very early on, I was fascinated with the idea of television and the medium of video and in the early part of my career I was involved with video art, very early pioneers of video art and in New York City where we would run out in porter back and we would shoot all kinds of things that we thought were for art. 

Parallel to that was involved with music and music recording and engineering, sort of altogether and theater to some extent, live theater, and that eventually melded into me getting more and more involved with the medium of video and television, summarily rejecting the idea of broadcast television. It was terrible, those television shows had terrible graphics, horrible lighting, and all this other stuff. 

One day I was sitting in a loft with some friends of mine and we're looking at this video, art that we were making and other than the three or four people in this room, looking at some protracted very boring thing that we shot and realized that we really weren't doing anything and that maybe, being popular and television needed change, needed revolution.

So I decided at that moment that it was more important to get involved with the idea of changing television and bringing art to the popular medium, rather than narrowcasting in this, three or four guys in a room, looking at video feedback on a monitor and thinking it’s wonderful. So I started to get more involved with the idea of taking what was then non-broadcast equipment and seeing if I could adapt this into making a more popular video with it and I was about 18 or 19 years old, I met up with an investor, who lived in France, who felt my ideas for creating a revolutionary mobile unit, that would permit us to go out and shoot and create on the spot more organically, without all of the baggage of what broadcast television was, at least in those days, if you wanted to go out and shoot outside, you were talking about a 50-foot trailer with 25 guys with screwdrivers, cameras that weigh 400 pounds.

He put up the money to invest in making a video mobile unit that would permit us to do that and it was a long story, but eventually, that mobile unit ended up in France and he invited me over to shoot a jousting competition in Carcassonne and this mobile unit that I built, it's a one-man show. This is one guy that had one, two-inch machine and three IVC 300 cameras. These were semi-professional, well they were professional cameras, but they were not high-end RCA, Marconi cameras. This sort of almost looked like a bread truck, it was a small van that housed all of this stuff.

And I basically went to France to shoot this jousting competition and ended up staying in France and convincing this investor to let me take it apart and rebuild it and make it better and this is years before there was any sort of private television or private videotape production in France. It only stayed on television and we pioneered the idea of creating broadcast facilities in France, to supply the French channels and eventually American and basically world channels for sporting events. 

Years later, I was able to buy out the original investor, because business was very slow for the first five or six years and set up my first company in France, where we ended up building that first original mobile unit, but ended up building nine more and became the premier facility in Europe for HBO, ABC, CBS, French television, German television, English television, in high-end video production.

That was France. Of course, pioneering, I was always pushing the envelope of never being satisfied with the state of the art of the existing equipment. It was too heavy. It was too complicated. It wasn't innovative enough. So I have an engineering side where I would go back and look at this hardware that existed at the time and modify it, adapt it, and create these sort of revolutionary for their time outside broadcast vehicles and studios, and somewhere in the early 80s, I had a reputation for being a hardware pioneer and Sony & RCA were constantly throwing new ideas at me and new products that they were developing.

Sony came along and they said, “We have something we want to show you, David” and I said, “what would that be?” 

“Something called high definition television,” and they took me into a room and they showed me the very first prototype for high-def TV and a transfer of this high-def TV that was made to the 35-millimeter film and I looked at it and it blew me away. “Holy mackerel!”

Now, this was a frustration that we'd had in Europe for something that Americans wouldn't understand is that if you produced a 65-pallet television on videotape, the French channels would not accept it. They would not accept videotape. They would only accept 35-millimeter film. So everything that we produce, whether it be a TV commercial, or anything else, or even a commercial for the cinemas, because in France, they put commercials in cinema, we would have to convert our videotape to film, and the only way to do it in the 70s was to do an elaborate kinescope process that Technicolor had developed. 

So we would have to produce absolutely perfect 65-pallet television and then take it through this kinescope process to create, well, 35-millimeter film that looked pretty good, but of course, it's limited in resolution and contrast ratio, but it looked pretty good, so we were constantly trying to get the best we could possibly get. So when I saw HDTV for the first time, looking at a video picture with a better than thousand line resolution and a contrast ratio that was amazing, I was blown away and I said, I've got to do that. So I spent several years negotiating with the NHK in Japan and Sony to allow me to buy the equipment to launch HDTV, which is what we did eventually. In France, we opened up the first studios in the world that actually produced HDTV, not necessarily for broadcast, but for transferring to 35-millimeter film, because we looked at it as either a new medium or a medium that would compete with 35 millimeter, which is the beginning of the HDTV revolution.

Our studios in France were very successful and we produced the first commercials in HDTV, the first movies in HDTV behind and a lot of our customers were calling from America, New York. And I said, “Wow, I need to expand my company,” to open up a New York office, which is what we did in 1987. We opened up 1125 Productions in New York, which was a fully equipped HDTV studio and production facility in New York City. It was an enormous financial investment but parallel, if you look at the history of HDTV, HDTV in 1987 was a very disputed medium as the American broadcasters really didn't want to know about it. The cinema community, of course, said you're not going to replace anything, you're not going to replace this beautiful film with the electronic medium. So it was a very challenging, uphill battle. 

It's a very long protracted story so I'll try and make it shorter. 1125 Productions was mostly a a very sophisticated post-production studio that we had on Fifth Avenue with mobile units. Eventually, I needed to start to produce HDTV programming on my own to start to fill the void as we needed a studio, and we eventually took over the Ed Sullivan Theater, where we built HDTV studios in New York and that's my television career. 

There's a lot involved, though I'd say it's a long story after that, but you know my roots and storytelling, show-business, theater, music,etc. everything else lends itself to, again, going back to this idea of these enormous pictures and these enormous experiential things that we could do with HDTV, that we really couldn’t do with it any other video mediums. 

So in the Sullivan theater, we built a 60-foot screen, and did perhaps through the photorealistic projection and we opened up a Broadway show called, “Dream Time” that ran for 145 performances and the big feature of the dream time, aside from being successful, was that it had fully integrated photo-realistic HDTV imagery that was projected with live actors, and you couldn't tell the difference between the live actors and the projection. It was actually a really cool show. 

What year was that? 

David Niles: That's 1992. And still, if you Google, “Dream time”, you'll see that there's even a Wikipedia page that some people put on, I had nothing to do with it, that talks about it. 

We eventually then sold The Ed Sullivan theater to CBS to do the Letterman show. I opened up studios around the corner in the studio 54 building and continued doing HDTV and other stuff and then got involved with Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, again, in the form of HDTV, but, more so with Radio City Music and their desire to expand the holiday show, which is the most important product that they're doing there, into bringing a LED screen at that time, one largest in the world that covered the whole back of the stage to be able to embellish the Radio City Music Christmas show, which we did. 

We put the screen up and we created an entire animated and coordinated sync to the background for their holiday show with great success and that brings us to where Comcast came into all of this. 

Yeah. I was going to say there's a lot of connective tissue here that I wasn't really aware of. 

David Niles: Yeah, it was interesting. Comcast, the backstory for Comcast is Comcast, at that time, in 2000, was basically a lot of administrative offices spread, pretty much in separate office buildings all over Philadelphia and Comcast became the major tenant for a spec building that was being proposed by a company called Liberty Property Trust. Liberty Property Trust are real estate developers in the Philadelphia area and my original contact was with the real estate developer that came to me and, I guess it was 2000, 1999, and they had this idea to do this spec 53-story office building in Philadelphia, and they wanted to create a sales center to pitch either anchor tenants or many tenants for their revolutionary new thousand-foot tall building and they found me and they came in and they saw what we could do, and I came up with an idea for creating a sales floor with a lot of virtual things and a lot of features that were like this experience that as soon as you walked off the elevator and it was one long interesting almost theme park ride to sell you on the idea of moving into this building, and the main feature of this thing was a room you ended up in that I designed, it was in the shape of an oval and you would sit in this room and it looked like you were in this oval-shaped room and in front of you was a 16-foot wide by 10-foot tall granite wall and this Brent wall was actually one of the materials of the spec building that Stern had designed, that Liberty Property Trust wanted to build, and the lights would dim automatically and it would go into this 10 minutes show that we produced, that would start out making you believe this is going to be a sales pitch for a building - it's going to have 25 elevators and it's made of granite and it's got 4,000 off spaces, and all of a sudden, you're now going through this 10-minute thing about falling in love with Philadelphia with shots of Philadelphia and interviews with JL and other key people and the architect, about the wonderfulness of being in Philadelphia and why you needed to be in this building. It was a very compelling, absolutely beautiful film.

And at the end of the film, it goes back to this granite wall and this granite wall slides away physically. And it reveals real windows that are actually looking out onto the site for which this building is going to be built and long story short, the lead tenant for this building became Comcast. Comcast decided at that moment, they wanted to unify all of their 5,000 workers into this new building and that this was going to be their new headquarters, and eventually, as they started to build the building, Brian Roberts, who's the CEO of Comcast had made frequent trips to Japan, he’s a very innovative guy, absolutely really smart. 

He decided that this lobby, that Stern had designed, this huge lobby and all of these wood panels. He wanted something that was going to make his 5,000 employees inspired and feel good about moving into this new building. The developer that developed the building, wanted to at the same time, create an instant destination for this new tallest building in Philadelphia and basically, I had just finished doing Radio City and they'd heard about it and they. invited me to pitch them my ideas for what to do in there. And our pitch was that we wanted to do something that was unexpected and we created a whole bunch of animatics and things, and we said if you put screens up in the lobby, you can do time and temperature and because Comcast is basically a cable TV operation, we're going to put up thousand channels. Things that would be typical, but it looked fine and then I said, wait a minute, let's talk about the unexpected, what don't we expect to see? And we incorporate something that is ever-changing and inspiring without interfering with what I consider to be private time of the public. 

Private time of the public means that, when you come through the front door of Comcast and you're walking towards the elevator, you can't do things that are too intrusive, that are screaming at you, not audio-wise, but screaming at you for your attention.

For the Comcast side, it was doing something that would be more a gift to the city. Something that was more socially redeeming without being video art, video art in a negative sense and it had some meaning. For the Liberty Property Trust side, it was their subway station name, that's underneath the Comcast building and there were another 10,000 people that come through that lobby every day, so how can we create a meaningful destination for these people coming up the staircase that allows them to enjoy something and then not feel as though they're missing something if they walk away from? 

So we created this idea of one doing the unexpected and two, using theatrical things because people relate to people, where we take ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that are like fun things to watch and from that, we created this whole plethora of things that could happen up there. And then Comcast came back and they said, “David, these ideas are great. This is wonderful. We love it. But how do you create hundreds of hours, thousands of hours of original programming, because we don't want to be constantly producing for this thing cause it's very expensive, and keep it fresh?” 

So, I went back and designed what we called a content delivery system, which is the system for which we actually get this content up onto the screen that is ever-changing, that's able to create its own content, by connecting pieces of pre-recorded content together in a logical fashion, not random so that it stays fresh. And Brian Robert said, “Okay, David, you can do this, but you've got to guarantee me that I will have two years worth of content that's going to remain valid and appear to be new all the time, without creating hundreds of thousands of hours.” 

Remember that basically scenarios in the Comcast center last about a minute, there's a minute and then it'll go back to being this wood wall, disappearing and then coming back. We rotated about 1200 pieces of content every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That's a quantity of content that's impossible. I mean broadcast stations don't even do this. 

This was like in the mid to late 2000s and nobody was talking about direct-view LEDs other than people with jumbotrons.

David Niles: Oh, that was the first challenge. In the mid two thousand, you were looking at LED screens that were 6 millimeters, 8 millimeter, 10 millimeter, jumbotron, so it was first because I needed this to be photorealistic, you had to believe that what you were looking at was actually real, that was part of the magic of it. So I had a longstanding relationship with Barco broadcast from my television days because they make a lot of broadcast products and Barco was doing LED, but LED in 6 millimeter and 8 millimeter. And I went back to Barco and with Barco engineers, we developed the idea of doing a 4 millimeter pixel pitch wall, which for 2006 was revolutionary.

We did tests, we set up eight screens in studios in New York, did subjective tests, objective tests. Again, there were other competing companies that wanted to build this screen, Mitsubishi wanted to build this screen, Daktronics wanted to build this screen, and we eventually ended up developing this with Barco.

Comcast eventually was convinced that Barco was the way to go, and we ended up doing the first NX4, a huge screen. It's 80 feet and it's up to almost 6 million pixels, 6,000 pixels wide. This was revolutionary for its time and then, of course, a content delivery system to be able to deliver to this. There were no servers that would do anything, no pipeline that would do anything larger than HDTV 1920x1080, and we're trying to feed something that's 2000 pixels wide by 10,000 pixels across. That's not going to happen. 

So we ended up designing and building a content delivery system that was capable of doing that. But again, Brian Roberts and Comcast came back to me and they said, “Listen, this is the front face of our building. This is our image. This has to be mission-critical.” And of course, I go back to my days in television, where there's no such thing as something going wrong, you don't do a live downhill skiing event from Switzerland, it's feeding 20 million television sets. There's no such thing as “Oops, the camera doesn't work.” That doesn't happen. I mean it does, you just don't see it. So in designing the content delivery system, we designed several levels of redundancy, such that, in the event of any failure behind the scenes, it would automatically switch over and change so that the problem would remain invisible on the screen.

And in the first eight years of operation, the screen was never turned off. It never ever went down. After eight years of operation, a couple of years ago, it was the end of life for the NX4s so we actually changed all of that, but basically, the new installation, the new content delivery system, and the new screen is based on the same original design. So what levels of redundancy we had built-in, you can't see the problem if there's a problem and eventually, it's a lot of hardware, things do go wrong, but you just can't see them. 

How does Comcast know this is working? How do they measure that this is having the desired impact? 

David Niles: That's a really great question, because Brian Roberts was constantly analyzing and he's very analytic, and even when we were proposing the ideas, we had the meetings in Comcast where he invited 50 people that worked in the building to come up and I made a miniature model of a lobby where we projected story worlds, started animatics and things and scenarios that we were developing and we actually had focus groups come in and vote on paper and tell us what they liked and didn't like, what they thought and even before we actually started shooting, we were having results in 97% off the Richter scale. 

When it finally opened, one of the first things that began to show, other than people that loved the original Comcast experience, was the holiday show. Brian wanted desperately to have, aside from what the wall does every day, during the holiday seasons to run a special holiday show, and the first year that we did the holiday show, within several days of this thing opening, it went viral and the holiday show is a 15 minute or 18 minutes show that ran every hour, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock, eight or nine times a day in the lobby of this office building. And within several days after opening, every show was jam-packed. You could not get into the lobby of the building. The lobby would hold on a couple of thousand people. It was an enormous success and you have to imagine, this is a building lobby, there are no chairs in it, there's no place to sit down. All you can do is stand on this couch on this granite floor and people from all over would come running in on the hour to see this spectacle, and now the holiday show is in its 12th year and because they eventually put in counters and analytics to see how many people came in when they come in, we've had millions, that's plural, millions of visitors. The hardest thing in the world in show business is a free attraction. That's the hardest thing to actually promote, ‘cause I've done, Broadway shows, et cetera. Once people have bought a ticket, they're bought halfway into something, but when you do something for nothing, when it's free, when it’s open to the public, it's the most discerning audience. It's the hardest audience and the success has been phenomenal.

And even though it's part of the design of the wall, we don't do any advertising for Comcast on it. There's almost no branding whatsoever, but this idea of doing a gift to the city, the public relations response to this wall has been extraordinary. And people don't like cable companies, even if you go online and you look up Comcast, you'll see, blogs opened up a little bit of the, we hate Comcast, we don't like the bandwidth, it's screwed me out of this, but that thing that's in the lobby, it's genius. 

Now I don't want to paint you as a one-trick pony because I know you've done other work. What are some of the other projects that your team has worked on lately? 

David Niles: Another one also for Stern, who is the architect of Comcast, we, of course, did the George W. Bush library, which is an interesting 360-degree video experience. It's in the central part of the library complex called Freedom Hall, which is this very tall, huge square room where people gather, after they pass security to go into the library, they gather in this room before they're actually admitted into the library section and as they gather in this room, they're basically looking at what's a drawn level, which is doors and paneling and stuff. But, at about 12 feet high, it turns into what looks like a hand-painted mural that goes 360 degrees around them up to a skylight area. And as they're standing in there, this hand-painted mural, when enough people gather, all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Images of sand dunes and tumbleweeds and a desert landscape, Texas landscape looks hand-painted, and all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Tumbleweeds start to move around. Surround sound, original orchestra track begins to play and this goes into an eight-minute presentation about the office of the presidency, what the office of the presidency actually means. and it's about the fact that our presidents come from the people of the land, to become president and it's done in a way where we're looking at again, it's a very big challenge to shoot these time-lapse images of the American landscape, the textures of the American landscape in 360 degrees, photorealistic above your head and it's a very inspiring thing. People, all of a sudden start pointing, looking. The end of that experience is that the screen explodes into thousands of images, in what looks like, almost passport photos of all kinds of Americans, young, old Americans from a hundred years ago, colors, all races, all this and that. And it turns into this enormous mosaic of these pictures of Americans and some of these pictures are larger than others. And those pictures that are larger than others are actually what looked like passport photos of everybody that's standing in that audience and somebody will notice it and they start pointing and it's like popcorn going off in a popcorn pot. They all start and it's basically, they're incorporated basically thousands of pictures and the pictures begin to dissolve off leaving. Today it would be 40-44 pictures that are up there that are left up there that are 44 presidents, so it's a very inspiring thing. It's about the office of the presidency. It's not necessarily about a particular president. 

But that's a big one. In Washington, DC, we have the Media Arch at the City Center, which is an Archway. There are no two of my installations that are identical. There are similarities to Comcast in so much as it's got rotating entertainment, it's ever-changing, it draws quite a large crowd. 

Other installations we've done pretty much all over America and in Europe and in China, they're all different, but they're very large installations and also some very small ones. What we love to do is challenge ourselves. We constantly deal with clients that are saying, “This is what we want to accomplish. How do we accomplish it?” And what I mean by accomplish is, like in the Comcast experience, Brian Roberts wanted to have his employees feel connected to this building and inspired. At the same time, Liberty Property Trust wanted to create a destination. We love a challenge. The Bush library was another challenge. It was, not to make something specific that is, for Bush, the president, ‘cause that's where the library is here for, this was an overture to the idea of the office of the presidency. In California and in other places, it's people telling us specific goals that they have to see what we can come up with to create something that fills those particularly, sometimes commercial, sometimes not commercial and we love that idea of the challenge.

And again, we've done dozens of tiny lobbies. We have one that we're about to install in New York City, which is a ceiling in a very important office building, but it's very small. The lobby is only 18 feet wide and it's about 80 feet long and we're putting a ceiling in there. The lobby's beautifully been re-redesigned, and here we're creating a virtual ceiling that is an experience that works from the front door you walk into, down this 60-foot lobby that has a reward to it being there without interfering with the architectural design of the lobby, it's complementary. It blends in, it doesn't look like, “Oh, let's put a screen up there and we'll put a lava lamp on it or something. 

All right, David, this was terrific. We could talk for hours. I want to thank you for spending some time with me. It was really interesting. 

David Niles: Thank you so much for the questions, they are really good.

Tomer Mann, 22 Miles

Tomer Mann, 22 Miles

November 4, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

The Silicon Valley firm 22Miles tends to be thought of in digital signage circles as a company focused on wayfinding, but that's only part of the story.

It does indeed do a full set of features that help people navigate their way around malls, medical centers and corporate campuses, but 22Miles has evolved through the years into a rich, API-driven digital signage CMS platform that does a lot more than floor maps.

In this podcast, I caught up with Tomer Mann, a senior executive with 22Miles, and in most respects, the face of the company.

We get into what they're up to, the pivots made to deal with 2020, and how its COVID-19 counter-measure technology has been future-proofed to have a life AFTER this pandemic ends.

We also solve the mystery of the company name. Think horses.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Tomer, thank you for joining me. I know 22Miles, I'm sure lots of other people do too, but can you give me the rundown on the company for those who are not familiar with your firm? 

Tomer Mann: No problem, Dave. Thanks, so 22Miles was founded in 2007. Our head engineer is actually the founder, so we're very much a Silicon Valley, the cultural mindset of a full CMS platform. He founded the company, primarily as a multi-touch way-finding solution and we've evolved to an immersive digital signage, visual communication platform and we continued to just innovate and add daily features to the system because him being the Silicon Valley mentality, he's got 50% of the company being developers behind him and that's our differentiator that we love to brag about is that we're this full CMS solution that never stops innovating. 

Is it a public or private company?

Tomer Mann:  We're privately owned. 

Okay, and how big? Thirty people, hundred people, three thousand people? 

Tomer Mann: We are 50 to 60 people on average. 

Okay, cool. Silicon Valley is an expensive place to have software developers and engineers. Is the whole headcount there or do you have them dispersed? 

Tomer Mann: We have them dispersed, but we're actually, especially now with everything and there was that California lockdown for a while, we are slowly merging things to our Atlanta or Duluth office. And I think I'm going to be more in Duluth now than anything else. So we're dispersed. We have people in Indiana, Rochester, I'm remote, Sacramento. So we're a little bit everywhere. 

Yeah, these days in particular, but even normally for a software development company, there's not one hell of a lot of need to have everybody under the same roof.

Tomer Mann: No and I think we're learning that more and more that remote does work. As long as you've got good employees that can be accountable for themselves and want to have the company thrive and which means they thrive, I think that remote is going to work and I think remote will be something that a lot of people will shift for as a normal, going forward into this new world.

I don't want to say new normal because everyone says that so I'm going to say new world instead. So I think that it's worked for us for a bunch of years and we were able to not have to worry about remote because we were already doing it. So now it just emphasizes that it is something that makes sense to continue our path forward in. 

What's the story with the name? I don't tend to get fixated on names, but when I type in 22Miles, your company comes up and I think with it a Donnie Wahlberg action movie. 

Tomer Mann: Yeah, that Mark Walberg guy, that Miles 22 movie. It was a good movie. He actually might have helped us if anything else. But yeah, so the head founder being an engineer, wanted a name that made sense around the wayfinding platform that he created and so he dug in, and with 22 miles what he found was that in the olden horse and carriage days, no one would travel in any given direction. So radius directional, more than 22 miles, someone randomly told me that horses can't travel on any given day more than 22 miles so that kind of all makes sense. So for any service from your home, no more than 22 miles. 

Okay. Mystery solved. You started in wayfinding and, as you said, you've evolved. Was that an evolution that was driven by customer asks or, your founder and the head engineer just saw where this could go? 

Tomer Mann: Actually without sounding cocky, it was actually all me. When I joined the company, it was me that said, “This is an amazing platform, but it's not enough and we have to make this a full digital signage platform.” Because we're wayfinding, sure. It could be 2-5 units in a building, but with digital signage it can be hundreds or thousands of units within an organization, especially in hospitality, especially in healthcare, and especially in education and then obviously agile workplace corporations. 

So I put that seed and within a couple of weeks of ideas going back and forth, we were able to redesign a whole new version of the software and a whole new CMS, to really create this immersive platform. 

Now because you'd already had the foundation, the building blocks for this in many ways, you just had to change the UX to some degree. 

Tomer Mann: That's exactly it. 

So is most of the business still derived from wayfinding or do you have people coming to you who don't even do wayfinding? 

Tomer Mann: The majority of the business is actually digital signage now, funny enough, but we are still typecast in the industry for wayfinding.

I think our SEO also is still the strongest for wayfinding and it's great because it is a differentiator, I think, from our 3d wayfinding that we designed and released, we're probably the strongest globally for this 3d editing tool for math module map, design, smart pathway algorithm. So people come to us for that when they see our videos, when they see our marketing and then we open their eyes and we open their minds and sometimes their pocket/books to see, wow, we can do so much more with you as a one-stop-shop, and it's great to see how we can change people's perspective and make them excited that now they've got a cross-platform that they can scale with, and not have to look for other solutions anymore.

Is the 3d side of things important as a user experience or is it as much just like the visual “wow” of it? 

Tomer Mann: It's a little bit of both, honestly. It was a novelty in the beginning, it was just something cool that we can do. Funny enough, Joey, the founder, has an open forum for all of his developers and if they have a great idea, if they come up with something like, “We can develop this within the source code. Can we do it?” He's just yeah, do it rock and roll. And so one of the developers is like, “I know how we can use an SVG file to just create our 3d dimensions within our existing module” and that's how the 3d solution developed. 

So it was at first, really a design scenario, that we added, but through that we leveraged our smart pathway algorithm to create more of a positioning system based on your current kiosk or screen. So actually the screen's position is the 3d experience, leveraging our 3d engine, as a 360 so it spins you a certain way. So it actually creates a better orientation for where to go, whether you go North or you go South or you go East, or you go West versus the 2d maps or the flat maps that you're just like, “There's your arrow” and you’re like, “Wait, do I need to go forwards or backward? I'm not sure.” 

So we can orient that now so it’s more about the physical experience that this 3d wayfinding does. 

How do you counteract the arguments that I'm sure to come up here and they're saying, “why do we need a big screen wayfinding application when everybody's walking around with a smartphone and they can just scan a QR code or whatever, and do it off of their phone?”

Tomer Mann: I'm not gonna argue with that. We do mobile solutions on our platform. So if you want mobile, we're still your solution to go to, so I don't care if you want a kiosk or a mobile application. I bet some of my systems integration partners might hate me for that comment, but our platform supports full mobile native and HTML capabilities and design. We can also do an SDK plugin. I actually tell every one of my clients and partners that they should be leveraging mobile and they should consider adding that to the scope. 

Now, a lot of the time, yes, because we work with so many AV integrators, they obviously come to us for a kiosk solution but we always tell them and their clients or end-users to add our mobile application, what we call a carry-to-mobile and the reason it's carry to mobile is that it's actually starting from the kiosk. So there's no reason not to have a kiosk as your point A, whereas your reference points or app nowadays as access control or check-in solution that incorporates the hoteling. So you visually have this as you walk into the building. 

Now we've added voice control. So now you voice your name or we add an active directory, single sign-on. So it knows where you are at with an exchange integration and shows you visibly how to get there. And then you just scan from the kiosk or QR code and you carry that entire experience on your phone and you go off, on the path. 

So we definitely suggest both. We don't suggest one or other when we really think both work harmoniously together. 

And it makes sense because for the people who are arguing that a phone is good enough, that UX, that visual experience still has to be developed anyway. 

Tomer Mann: Exactly.

I don't want to get fixated on wayfinding because I heard what you said that a lot of the business is just core digital signage. 

Why are they coming your way? I mean there are a lot of digital signage options out there so what attracts them to 22Miles, your end-users?

Tomer Mann: Yeah, there is a lot and I think that's the problem, it's almost a saturated market with a lot of solutions that are niche that have certain feature sets and that's really it. They're stuck in this little bubble. People come to us because they want an all-in-one platform, not just the digital signage software component and so we are that platform better than any other solution in the world because we continuously evolve this product and add more and more features and enhance those features, enhance the workflow and customizations of those property settings and those visual filters, and those API integrations.

So people come to us because we've got so much to offer, the building blocks are there for scalability and whether you just want a digital menu board, or you're starting with the digital menu board, and now you want an interactive video wall, or you want a mobile component to talk to the video, they're not going to find that in a lot of other software solutions. We are that total package deal and that's why I think people get really excited when they realize that ‘cause a lot of times they do come for one solution and their eyes open up to everything they can do with our cross-platform application.

So I think that's a big thing is that we've got this total solution, an immersive application ecosystem for digital technology, digital media. Even design firms come to us because it's a drag and drop WYSIWYG and they don't have to develop stuff anymore from scratch, they really just still have their design methodology there, their UI/UX, and they'll still get the exact experience without having to do full development anymore because it's just a blank canvas and all of the properties, all of the settings, all of the widgets are right there for them to assemble their vision. 

So from a novice to a graphic designer, our platform meets the needs of almost everyone and I really don't know anyone else that has that story to tell. 

So what you're saying is you could have a large technology company that's full of coders and pushes content out to mobile, pushes it out to social channels, pushes it out to the web and they could using your APIs, also push it into a digital signage network without having to do the whole nine yards of your UX and everything, they can just plug into it? 

Tomer Mann: Yep and we've actually enhanced a lot, looking at some of the market, where it's leaning towards more of a web-based, designers and portals and we were historically more of a Windows desktop designer and management system.

So since then, we've evolved to have both options. And our web portal has become night and day, especially our new version 6 release, where we have certain features on there.that what we call “quick edit settings” that can be done by someone with zero training to what we call “pro edit”, where someone can now design from scratch and it piggybacks from the web to the desktop version so seamlessly to any kind of player, a BrightSign player, the Samsung Tiezen, the LG Web OS, Android and Windows. I think the only thing we don't support is Linux, but people definitely see the advantage in simplicity to just make quick edits, quick changes on the fly, and anywhere they're at.

And so I think the more we're adding into the web, and taking a lot of the desktop features into the web, the more, again, we're going to stand apart from everyone else that's the HTML solution in the world. 

Yeah, I'd been making the argument lately. I just did a presentation the other day, talking about how a lot of the entry-level generalist digital signage CMS platforms are at severe risk of being completely disintermediated because there are platforms out there that are just API rich and don't require you to even use their front-end or anything. You just work with it the way you work with other things and that's where I see things going. Is that your sense?

Tomer Mann: Yeah. I think people want things to be autonomous. They want things to auto-sync, they don't want to have to make changes on a daily basis. So the more a solution can integrate with their existing feeds, their APIs, their management software, their Tableaus vs. their Office 365 vs. their Salesforce vs. Facebook, Instagram. If all of those things can marry very easily together with just  a data source and a token or whatever, and they can be completely hands-off, they're very happy about that and that's something that we've always had, this API's strengths really works with anything and people can just be hands-off. The system is going to dynamically update because we've added this automation and people love that and so most of the time people are just letting those data sources do a lot of the work for them and then at certain contributor level, cause we got a whole approval workflow scenario, you can you just do like a media zone where they're changing an image or a slideshow or an MP4 and that's it, and they're done in 30 seconds. 

And if a solution doesn't have those integrations, if they don't have that simple drag and drop then they're going to be left behind really quickly.

Yeah, it's okay for the muffler shops and nail salons and everything, but you're not going to get very many large clients unless you can do all that. 

Tomer Mann: And we work with Fortune 100 companies, and Fortune 500. We have multi-tenant solutions that have 200 sites worldwide, or 225 offices worldwide with thousands of mixed solutions from video walls, touchscreen video walls, room bookings, mobile wayfinding, the wayfinding, digital communication, or infotainment displays and it's just a mosh-posh of all these digital components in there.

 They've got some central control and then each office has its own localized control as well so yeah, I don't think a mom and pop shop can deal with that kind of level. 

No, we'll get into the COVID countermeasure stuff that you guys have developed, but, pre-COVID and now, do you have a sense of what verticals were quite active in 2019 and how things have changed in 2020?

Tomer Mann: Sure. Hospitality very active, 2018-2019 for obvious reasons, no go in 2020. We're getting here and there. Actually, some of them are coming back in the last couple months, but not a fraction of where they were. Healthcare for obvious reasons has had other focuses in 2020. Education has wanted to do things, but they have no idea when they're coming back online. Some are trying to reopen, some are like “Nope, we are spiking again, we got to close”. So they haven't done that well. Those three were really good for us in 2019.

Corporate sas really picked up in the last couple of months, especially since we wrote out that white paper recently about the technology IN the new workplace design from the lobby, you'd leveraging our temperature sensors or temp defense system to now adding the wayfinding and hoteling, so you know where your room is and following a one-way pathway using our modeling rules to hot desking so finding which cubicle you should or can sit at while maintenance and sanitizing and other ones. 

We're doing voice control or virtual receptionist so you're able to talk to someone, and then get further information or the delivery service man leaves a package, having the mobile application and now also the desktop notification. So even working from home, we have a solution for them, for an organization or a department to send to their team, either a screensaver or widget information. And I call it the virtual water cooler experience or gossip experience at home. So we've literally touched a little of everything in this white paper, did a good job to talk about that and a lot of our partners share that with their corporations and we've been really fortunate to have a good uptick in corporate, continuing that Transportation's down, Shopping malls are obviously down. So I think really Corporate has been like the major bread and butter of 2020, but there are still some amazing projects there. 

Yeah and you would think, with offices clearing out because of COVID restrictions and everything that Corporate would be problematic, but as you note, it will come back and is coming back to some degree and while.

Offices may never quite look the same way as they did, even those people who work from home may be coming in two days a week or whatever and maybe as you say, work at a hot desk instead of a full-time desk and that sort of thing. 

Tomer Mann: Yeah, I think a lot of the property management, the CBREs, the JLLs, the Cushman's, they created a whole new design around hoteling and hot desking and that experience, and a lot of that is to sanitize certain desks over other ones, to social distance people from each other, so all of that needs a visual experience, not only for the users but also for maintenance, for the admins, and also for security so they're all aware of what's happening and it helps with trace tracking and all of that stuff. And then they're adding sensors into the experience as well. They're adding occupancy and density control solutions. So all of that's going to be the technology of the future, I think and it makes sense and it keeps people safe, and is kind of still agile at the same time. 

Right, so tell me about temp defense and protection as a service, in the context of thermal sensing and all that, what distinguishes what you have from the way too many thermal sensor gadgets that drop into my inbox every morning?

Tomer Mann: Did you happen to read the IPVM article by the way recently? They had all of the tests they just did on all of those temperature sensor solutions. They had huge callouts on the Glory Stars, the BMSs, and the Good View and all of those, I'm not going to name some of the names that they made a big list, but let's just say our name wasn't on that list. 

The reason for that is all of the solutions out in the marketplace are just basically putting a facelift on a Chinese software application with some sensors. 

Yeah. And it's just hygiene theaters they say, right? 

Tomer Mann: Yup. There's no proof in the accuracy. There's no support, because who are you calling? And a lot of them are just kiosk solutions that literally, they didn't test the application and just decided to roll this out quickly and some of my system integrators, even partners did the same and I still make fun of them about that.

We saw that experience already in March, cause we were getting hit by Chinese vendors trying to say, why don't you use our sensors? And I'm like, this is ridiculous. So I immediately said we need to develop our own. So we wanted to have a made in America experience, especially with GDPR and privacy and all of that. We knew that this would happen and we had the foresight to that and we basically pivoted in March by April, we had a working system leveraging FLIR sensors. So a US-based solution. We knew that this company had the best and most accurate sensors for us to work with. We didn't need a black body for it as well and we just created an algorithm for better accuracies and literally every deployment, we had to go on the fly sometimes and we just continued to enhance the software to make accuracy better, to make the experience better, to add face mask detections that we needed, badge integrations, we needed printing capabilities.

Then we created our own video call server. So we have our own virtual receptionist capability. We wanted voice command into it. So we have the voice commands. You're not touching the screen with the CDC questionnaires. And then we did a mobile CDC questionnaire that you scan on the sensors. So we continue adding more and more of these features, that I don't think anyone can say they have that, because they're relying on a different provider where we are the one-stop-shop.

And so we continue to add more of these features, continue to improve the AI and machine learning and algorithm for our accuracy and I think that's what's going to put us apart from everyone else and then ELO has teamed up with us. We're working with some others, Peerless and Kiosk.com and a lot of display manufacturers, we're working with Microsoft Surface, to Lenovo, to ELO, to Aida, to MIMO, there’s AOPEN, they've all teamed up with us knowing who we are and what we can provide. And so we've created a really powerful solution to benefit from safety and agility for business continuity without having to worry about who am I calling or is this real or is it just a fake?

And I think that's the story and the value add that we want everyone to know. And we're happy about that and the extra benefits and this is how you and I started in the first place. I'm like, “I need to talk to Dave” because you made a comment about a lot of these solutions are probably just gonna be put in the closet cause they're not going to be needed anymore. And I was like, no, not 22Miles, because again, you're buying 22Miles software when you're buying temp defense and so you can repurpose this application for another solution if you feel like you don't need sensor temperature-sensing anymore. So if now you want to do interactive wayfinding or an interactive check-in or a voice-based questionnaire, or virtual receptionist, now you've got the ELO or whatever display that you can repurpose with our software and you have this CMS to edit your layout, your UI/UX and I think that's another really powerful value add with us versus anyone else in the marketplace. 

Yeah, I think future-proofing is really important right now because there's not a whole bunch of drunk sailors spending out there. You really have to think through what you're going to cut a PO for.

Tomer Mann: Yeah, I think the drunk sailor buying was already done, worked with a few different distributors and stuff like that, and they had a huge influx, like millions of units right away sold, and all of those people are annoyed, some are pissed and now the savvier, more future thinkers are coming to us because they need those extras. Those controls, those badge integrations, the virtual receptionist component is really huge for us. So we're getting more of that tech-savvy, big picture people coming to us now for those differentiators. 

What's protection as a service?

Tomer Mann: So TempDefend was where we started and then we realized there was more to the story, there's more to what we can do and like the virtual receptionist, the voice command, so we decided let's separate that from TempDefend and make those their own features and their own components.

And so virtual receptionists, where we had team and teams integration, WebEx integration, now we have our own system. The voice command, I think just makes sense for every interactive video wall, so we have that as an extra feature and a plugin or a widget now in our software, that anyone can leverage and then we decided we wanted to do something more so we created what's called secure mobile control, which is a way to operate a touchscreen or a video wall without having to touch anymore. So we created this remote app for your phone. So you've got a touchpad on an on-screen keyboard, and it basically operates as a mouse cursor on any screen, and it's called secure mobile control and we decided to just give that away for free so this is a feature we developed to just benefit everyone, and it's just a free software application. So again, all of these things are protective feature sets to avoid or COVID proof or virus-proof your digital signage experience. 

From there we decided our wayfinding with hoteling and one way or scheduled or controlled pathways made perfect sense for social distancing, where you can have data analytics for maintenance or sanitation to know what to sanitize. So now you're protecting people from cubicles or an office perspective. So with all of this digital technology, we figured out a way to leverage what we had, pivoted with some new features and create this suite of applications moving forward and that's where protection as a service came from. 

And the “as a service” suggest that it's something that you basically subscribe to, right? 

Tomer Mann: Yes, a lot of them are going into our SAS model option, or you can add as a service some of these extra features other than secure mobile control, which is free.

Okay. All right. thank you, Tomer. That was great and very interesting. 

Tomer Mann: No, thank you, David. Really appreciate it and always great to connect.

 

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

October 28, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

The QSR industry has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, and some operators have fared much better than others for the simple reason that they had drive-thru lanes.

If the business relied on walk-in and dine-in traffic, they were in trouble. But if they had drive-thru lanes with pre-sell and menu displays, they tended to make out OK. What might have been 70% of their business went up past 90%.

Last week I moderated a roundtable panel on digital signage and the QSR business, chatting for  almost an hour with top people from companies active in the space - both vendors and end-users.

The Digital Signage Power Hour was hosted by AVIXA and sponsored by STRATACACHE. I led a discussion with Dan Williams from Stratacache, who worked with McDonald's on its massive digital deployment, Sara Grofscik of Samsung, who runs the QSR business there, Dave Petricig of PingHD, and Todd Hoffman, the digital lead for Krispy Kreme, and the subject of a recent 16:9 podcast.

The session starts with me rattling through some observations, and then we dive in.

AVIXA's Marcella Walsh can be heard at the back-end, answering some listener questions.

You can also watch the webinar online here ...

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No transcript on this one. Too many competing voices!

Joe King, Philips

Joe King, Philips

October 21, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Philips has really come on in recent years in the digital signage ecosystem, taking on more and more presence at trade shows and releasing smart display products that my industry contacts have consistently said great things about.

You probably have a consumer product like a shaver or electric toothbrush made by Philips, and assume that the commercial display products come out of that Dutch company. They do … and don’t, and I get into that in a chat with Joe King, a Senior Director with the company, who drives North American sales.

Joe and I talk about where its smart display lineup is at, and its use of Android. We also talk about its own CMS software, which he stresses is NOT intended to compete with commercial software products. It’s meant to service the very basic needs of small businesses.

We talk about market conditions, and how the professional display company has kind of skated through all of this COVID mess … because the desktop monitor side of the business has exploded with Work From Home demands.

We explore the company’s camera-driven access control offer for retail, and who’s buying direct view LED these days.

And finally, we get into what to look for from Philips in the next 12-18 months.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Joe King, thanks for joining me. We've met in the past. I know Phillips well, and I think generally a lot of people know Phillips. One of the things that sometimes when I'm introduced to Phillips people, they kind of explained to me the background of the display side of the company. They may have Phillips toothbrushes on all kinds of things at home, but Phillips’s professional display is, as I understand it, the trading name for some other large companies. 

Joe: Yeah. Dave, thank you. Good to be with you by the way, and thank you for having me. Yeah, so we operate as Phillips. We operate under a license from Phillips. We're actually a global company called TPV. It's based out of Taiwan and we operate with a commercial license globally for digital signage, as well as a professional TV. So signage TV, hotel TV, we operate that pretty much around the world.

There are a couple of little pockets that are exceptions, but for the most part, we operate that around the world. So we have the power of TPV behind it and the manufacturing power of TPV behind it, which we're quite happy about. I think most of the industry probably doesn't know the name, but we're the world's largest manufacturer of desktop monitors. We're the world's third-largest manufacturer of televisions. And we like having THEM behind us because it gives us a lot of product development power, and also a lot of manufacturing power when we need it. So, happy you bring that up and thank you for the question. really 

There are some big companies in Taiwan. I've been there two or three times. I was there about a year ago. And, man, I was off to see AUO, but we went right by the TSMC, they're the biggest semiconductor maker in the world and this place was the size of a Ford plant. 

Joe: Yeah. It's nice having that manufacturing power behind us.

Where do you guys sit in terms of market share in North America and in Europe as well? I think in terms of Samsung and LG being top of the pile in North America, but you guys have really come on in the last two or three years. 

Joe: We have and even with COVID, Dave, we've been able to increase our share a little bit. So I think it depends on the day of the week, we are #4-#5. We tend to swap back and forth with another brand there at that level. But certainly, we don't have the market power of a Samsung or even an LG, but, as you say, we're growing certainly in North America and North America is a focus for us now.

We're the number three digital signage player in Europe. Again, behind the two large brands that you mentioned, but there's a real focus with us on North America because we feel like we're now getting our act together, so to speak. We've improved the product line. We've put world-class service in place, something that I think we can differentiate ourselves with, but yeah, we see North America as a real focal point for us. 

You joined or the company joined, what many of the display manufacturers have done in terms of adding systems-on-chip displays to their lineup? And one of the things that I've I've known about Philips is that a lot of the software companies that kind of try the different smart display platforms out there have tended to say that the Phillips’ one is really good, it's very modern Android, powerful, runs like a top and everything else. 

How much of your product line is built around a system-on-chip now? Like the commercial display product line. 

Joe: A lot. In terms of just sheer models, if we were just looking at a percentage of the models, we're probably getting close to 75%. We'll try to offer a model that doesn't have it if we're just trying to hit a price point. But for the most part, especially as you get into the higher ends of the line, almost everything has an Android operating system in it, and we see the business going that way.

I'm a firm believer and I've been in the hardware business, a long long time. I'll age myself if I say how long, but I really do think that software is going to be the driver of this business going forward, and I think that our Android platform, as you say, it performs very well. We see it in large deployments, where it's accessible. It is an open platform, which we like, and we certainly see our business heading that way. 

Something that you hear from the software companies, as well as integrators and end-users that they like that it's open. And, you know, some of the other guys have their own proprietary operating system working with it, whereas I've heard others say we really like that we can work on just Android and do what we need to do without learning or tweaking something. 

Joe: Right. Well, there's a level of consistency, I guess, would probably be the best way to say that. But yes, we get that feedback a lot and I think one of the things that we've done that might be a little different is we tend to try to stabilize On an Android version. So if we see something that we like, that's very stable, you know, we had Android 4.4.4 in the market for quite a long time. And even though there were a lot of updated versions, we kept saying to the marketplace, “This is stable, why do you want to even think about upgrading firmware and trying to mess things up?”

So we tend to draw a line in the sand, if you will, that a particular Android version and we've been very consistent in that. And I think our software partners like that approach actually. 

And where are you now? I think you're at 7. 

Joe: We actually have some displays with 8. We have two different, I think it's 7.1 in the marketplace as well as an 8 today.

Are there any objections still from end users saying, well, you know, it's a system-on-chip? What if something happens with the panel? I gotta replace the whole panel or it's not as powerful enough or anything like that. 

Joe: Certainly I think we tend to get those questions. I think we've proven with some of the demonstrations and stuff that we've done that certainly, the platform is powerful enough.

I think honestly, Dave, the way to answer that is that we've put a service organization in place that we think is second to none in the industry. So if somebody does need a fast replacement, we have the ability to do that. We offer people a 24-hour turnaround. We certainly understand that if it's a menu board in a quick-serve restaurant and it goes out, it can't be their black for a very long time at all.

So we certainly offer the marketplace, those opportunities for quick replacement and that's one of the reasons we do it. We have a very reliable product. I would put it up against anybody else in the industry, which is why we talk about that quick turnaround service, because we know we're not going to need it very much. 

Have you ever run into a smart display where the smarts have died and the panel had to be pulled down? Cause I ask this question a lot and I've never heard anybody say that's actually happened. 

Joe: No, I haven't. And it's a good question. I think again, we try to separate those two. So, the Android operating system is separate, literally a separate board, if you will, from the display itself so those aren't tied together. Now certainly, if a display goes black, it's going to go black regardless, but I haven't seen them tied together that way and it may be just because of the design of our product. 

Right, but I mean that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that gets someone out there around system-on-chip displays is if there is a problem with the CPU, which you know, is a separate component from the display components and so on, you can't just open a trap door and snap on out and pop a new one. You got to take the whole thing down. But I've never actually heard anybody say this has happened. 

Joe: I haven't either. I haven't seen it. You could always make the argument, you know, indifference to my friends at BrightSign that you could see the same thing with a player and I think we just like this approach. We think the improved service or the improved performance of the Android operating system is worth the investment. And we don't see a risk. We really don't, and as I said, I think some of the installations we have would certainly support that.

What happens on the install side itself? I have heard some solutions providers say that field servicing drops like a boulder because we don't have all these connectors. 

Joe: Yeah. I think you're right. I think, you know, even from our standpoint, we offer our software partners the opportunity for us to preload the software, you know, we have a high touch warehouse facility where we can do that and make the installation process even easier.

So I think that's one of the things that we offer that may be unique to a system-on-chip product. I will oversimplify, it's not as easy as just hanging it and going, but it certainly can make the installation much easier to do with some of the pre-loading capability that we have.

And from what I've heard is because there aren't any HDMI cables and other cables associated with them, there's nothing to wiggle loose and, cause a truck roll. 

Joe: Yeah, well, I'll share it with you. We review service metrics every month and we know that on average, about 65% of the calls we get into our call center are exactly that, it's what I would call operator error. So, things like the cable has come loose, a power cord has come loose and typically we see, it'll be a little higher, some months, a little lower some months, but typically about 65% of the calls we get, we resolve over the phone and it is cable related. And so I think that's just another argument for having a totally contained system.

Yeah. Remove the points of failure. 

Joe: You got it. Exactly. 

So what is CMND, I assume it’s an acronym for Command? 

Joe: Exactly. So it is our “create and maintain” product, so it is a product that we let people create their own content. And I will say to everybody, we do it at a very elementary level. We don't pretend to be able to do some of the things that some of the other software companies out there can do. This is a way for, if you're an individual restaurant owner, and you own a deli and you want to put something up on a screen, this is a way to make PowerPoint and get it onto a screen fairly easily. It's a way for a school, as an example, if they need to broadcast an emergency message, this is an easy way to have that happen, and then it also gives you controls. 

So it can, again, I'll use those schools as an example if there's an emergency message that needed to be broadcast, it can be done from a central location and get to every product. We also utilize it, just like some of the other manufacturers, in very large installations. You can turn them all on with a button click, you can turn them all off with a button click. So just creating software and being able to control the systems as well. And, that's why we call it Command. 

So you're not trying to sell against your software partners or anything?

Joe: No way, as I said, we don't pretend to be that good. We're not in the software business. We're a hardware company, but as I said earlier, I think the software is the key going forward. So we want to make our product as seamless as it possibly can be for our software partners.

We're not trying to take their place. 

What I've seen with some of the display guys is a move to create a kind of foundational software that's a device management and control as you describe it that you could then port a web application onto, and maybe if you've got a special purpose thing where you really don't need all of the bells and whistles and capabilities of the CMS, you can just use command or CMND as the kind of the baseline platform.

Is that accurate? 

Joe: Yeah, I think that's a fair portrayal. As I said, it’s meant to be kind of elementary. And, look, there are people out there that do the software side really really well. And even the control functionality they do, better than we do. So, this is meant to be a very basic product.

You know, the great thing about it is, it's free. We don't charge for it. That's a little bit different than some of our competitors. But again, we're not charging for it because it is a very basic system. 

And these are end-users, buyers who are otherwise just not gonna get a CMS anyways unless they get something free or one of the freemium ones out there? 

Joe: Exactly. 

So, I think two or three years ago, I went to a lot of trade shows. That's more accurately say I used to go to a lot of trade shows and I can recall, let's say about three years ago, going to ISE and seeing a direct-view LED in the Phillips booth for the first time. 

So you guys have gotten into that. How do you differentiate your product in a very crowded field? 

Joe: Yeah, great question. The last time you and I actually spoke to each other and recorded anything was Infocom a year ago about LED and so, of course, COVID has impacted it. We have sold some units, I'm happy to say, and some of them are going on now, but I think that the big differentiator for us, as I talked a year ago, is kits. So we tend to put LED together and a pre-configured kit, you know, we've been very successful with video walls doing the same thing, so it comes together with the display, it comes together with a mouse and it comes together with all the processing equipment you need, the cables. And so we tend to believe in these kits and that's where our success has been in North America. A similar thing in Europe, we've seen, people are going to want custom screens and we'll certainly give them the opportunity to do that. But for us, the success really is those kits. I think the first three installations where you've done or in the process of doing in the US have all been kits versus custom.

I've heard that a lot and the prevailing opinion seems to be that you have specialty LED companies who understand everything about very large installations, big canvases, weird shapes, and everything else, but you've got this whole big second tier of integrators and solutions writers who don't work with LED very often and they don't necessarily understand it or get it, and don't have the cycles to just become experts on this, so a kit is something they can wrap their heads around. 

Joe: Yeah, I think so. And I think that where we're looking at selling this and where we've been successful is mostly in the corporate market. and also some of the consumer markets. We have a couple of partners that are really quite strong in the consumer market and some of these LED kits that we have worked really well are home theaters and that's where we've had some of our success. 

And on the corporate side, is it primarily conference rooms and control rooms, that kind of thing? 

Joe: Not conference rooms, more lobbies. In fact, the first installation we did was a corporate lobby, even in COVID, it's still something that proceeded and was installed. So, yeah, we are seeing more lobbies than conference rooms. 

Yeah. More broadly with digital signage in general, what are those vertical markets that seem to be working right now, even amidst all of this nuttiness? 

Joe: I think we've all been really surprised. I think we all expected that retail would get impacted and retail has been impacted, but I think we've all certainly been surprised at how well, certainly quick-serve restaurants, pizza, you know, the brick and mortar, home improvement, you know, large chain stores have done.

We're seeing a lot of activity in drug stores as an example. So it's really surprised me how well that retail itself has maintained. Certainly, we've seen a huge increase in education. I think a lot of those early dollars went to Chromebooks and laptops and everything else for students, but we're really seeing now an increase in some of the displays that are used for education, as kids do end up back in the classroom. 

Well, you know, all those places have a lot of change going on and, it's not, “This is what we're doing for the next three months, It can change in an hour.” 

Joe: Yeah, exactly, and I think we've seen some of that and certainly if you look at corporate as an example, I think in the US there's really a tendency to step back, about going back to work if you will, where I think in some other parts of the world, we've seen people go back to work a little more quickly.

Certainly, we've seen that in Europe. We've seen people go back into offices a little more quickly, you know, just a personal observation, I think we need to do that here. I think people need to get back into some kind of a normal routine and I think the office can be part of that. And I certainly hope that we're doing that as we get into 2021.

Yeah, I do wonder about this whole shift to work from home, how that will play out. I think it works very well for some people. I've been doing it forever, so I'm used to it, but I think there's a whole bunch of people who do their best work when they're in a collaborative environment and they can share.

Joe: Yeah. I'll share just a quick side note, I mean, I'm like you. I've worked from home for forever, I have a great setup. I can do it, but there are people in my group who, once we made the announcement that we would open the office back up, they couldn't wait to get back there, you know, social distancing and everything else that we planned for.

They still just felt that they were more productive in the office. And we have some that aren't and that's perfectly fine. We've given them that opportunity, but to your point, some of those people, whether they be supply chain-related or product development related, who just feel like they're a whole lot more productive in the office where they have the tools they need and I think a lot of companies are going to see that same thing. 

I certainly think that technology is going to have to help there and hopefully, digital signage can be part of that, whether it's collaborative displays, being able to Zoom effectively if you will but I think technology can help there. And I think that's part of why we're seeing corporate, maybe not as respond as quickly, is because they're still trying to figure that out. 

Going back to retail, Philips introduced something called “People Count” like two-three months ago or maybe more. Can you explain what that is? 

Joe: Sure. So it's a product that we in collaboration with a camera manufacturer, and then there's some software that we actually developed that works with our Android product. But it's basically a way to count people as they come into a retail establishment and then it's up to that retail establishment to tell the system how many people it can allow. So it counts them going in and it counts them going out so that if you can only have a hundred people in your store at one time, it will literally put the red light up, and tell people to wait and that it's not safe to enter yet. And then when somebody does exit, it'll give them a green light, and depending on how large that display is, it gives them a chance to tell people, a mask is required. You can't come in without a mask. It gives them a chance to tell them some of the things they're doing to keep their area clean.

And so it was very well received. I think it's been more well-received in Europe. I think in the US it's been almost on a state by state basis, as to how locked down those States still are. Certainly in California, it's been a very effective product. You know, in some other parts of the country, it's been really effective.

And then frankly, and honestly we've seen some areas of the country that just say, well, we're not going to worry about monitoring people coming. To be honest, it's been kind of hit and miss depending on where you are in the country. 

Yeah, I think I have heard it more broadly that in Europe, the idea of retail access controls as more demand and more take-up because there are pretty stiff fines associated with having too many people in the store. And I guess city bylaw enforcement officers in different jurisdictions who are pretty happy to write tickets on that. Cause they're incentive based on what they do, whereas as you say, it's state by state in the US. 

I live in a part of Canada where we've seen very few cases, but I've seen none of this stuff and it's still, teenagers acting as bouncers, you know, to get into a home Depot or something like that. So I think it kind of depends on where you are. 

Joe: Exactly. Where I live locally and I live in Tennessee, when it first started, there were people standing in front of the grocery store chain.

I go to counting people as they went in and counting people as they went out and they're all using walkie talkies, and now there's none of that going on, you know? And so I think they've just made a corporate decision that we don't need to spend that money, to try to monitor who's coming in and out whether they have a mask on or not.

And where again, I think there are some areas of the country where they're really still trying to do that and that's where we've seen success with that product. 

Have you had to work with some of these resellers and buyers who say, “guys, this isn't a product just for the moment. You can sweat this asset post-COVID”, presumably there is a post-COVID, have you had to do that? 

Joe: It's been one of the selling points we've had to make to everybody that's purchased it. I think that's been the capital outlay. We had one large retailer that bought it for right at a hundred locations and one of their biggest questions was what do I do with it when I no longer have to count people? And so I think that was where we came back and said to them, well, here's what you can do with it. We put them in touch with another software partner. Thankfully, this particular client is a digital signage user anyway, but I think that we've had that question from almost everybody: what do I do after, and is this investment that I'm making now going to be something I can recoup even down the line? And so, yeah, we've linked them up with software companies to try to maximize that.

I think there's a little bit of gateway drug stuff going on there where this is something that can get a retailer or another kind of a business that takes a lot of public foot traffic in, and get them understanding what you can do with digital signage and kind of migrate out from there.

You could imagine once you start using cameras and sensors and things like that, you can start to understand how the store works and where people go and how that changes by time of day, all that stuff. 

Joe: Right. Exactly. 

So there's a lot of talk in the cheap seats where I spent a lot of my time, that LCD is a product that's going to go away and we're all going to shift to direct-view LED and to micro-LED. Is that something that Phillips largely sees is happening or is there always a role for LCD because I kind of think there is when I really think about it. 

Joe: I think we've been talking about the demise of LCD for years, right? And I just don't see it. I think there are two totally different products, and I think that there's always going to be an application for LCDs. 

Do I think that eventually some of the video wall applications that we do today with LCD will end up being direct-view LED? I think, yeah, that's a possibility, but I still think even as fast as the cost is coming down, I still think there's going to be an opportunity. There are just things that we can do with LCD that you struggle to do with direct-view LED and a lot of that is just based on the economics and how much money people have to spend. 

You know, Dave, I don't see a school system putting in direct-view LEDs, at least before I end up retiring. I think that's a number of years away before that becomes a cost-effective solution for them and that's where some of the large screen stuff that we have and our competitors have, you know, really works in some of those verticals. You know, will you see it in transportation more quickly? Probably. When you're looking at what belt is my luggage on, does that turn into direct-view? Yeah, I think that probably is some of the first things that will happen to replace a traditional video wall. But yeah, I don't see it being that quick. 

Yeah. I mean, the minute you get into utilizing what's possible with a 4K display, uou just can't do that even on a micro-LED display, you know, to have fine characters and fine detail and all that. It's just not the same thing.

Joe: Well, and you also just look at the content. I think a lot of it is content dependable, you know?

So if you look at moving video, I think it lends itself to either format. But if you're looking at static content, think about a menu board in a quick-serve restaurant, I don't think that that is really going to be a direct-view LED Canada for the foreseeable future, just because I think it works just fine on LCD and it's much more affordable. 

So the last question: in this weird world that we live in, I wonder how this has had an impact on things like roadmaps and product releases and all that. What should we be expecting to see from Phillips over the next 12 to 18 months? 

Joe: Yeah. I guess we're fortunate because Dave, we are part of a large global company that is kind of diversified if you will. Our desktop monitor business has been off the charts as you can imagine. And I think in a lot of ways that's enabled it to support some of the development and some of the things we're doing in digital signage where some of the other companies may have had to look at scaling back a little bit.

So we're proceeding. We're going to produce in the fourth quarter of this year. Sometimes people look at us and say, what the heck are you doing? But we're going to introduce collaborative displays for corporate offices. We're going to introduce touch displays for education that are upgraded with some great systems behind them. We're going to introduce professional signage TV. We see that as an expanding market for us and others. It's basically a very cost-effective digital signage product that also has a TV tuner in it. So it's really made for use in a corporate environment. You know, we talked about conference rooms earlier. This is a really perfect product for that conference room, because it is a TV which also has Chromecast built into it. It gives you that seamless connectivity. And then it also gives you that CMND software, and the ability to control. If you've got multiple screens in a facility, it gives you a chance to control that as well, but it really is a cost-effective product. And we liked the fact, I think the big differentiator there is Chromecast and the ability to connect things, similarly, our education product will give you the ability to connect up 64 devices to it. So if you're a teacher and you have students with Chromebooks, Think about the ability to have, one of your students throw something up on the display instead of the teacher always having to control that and being the one doing that. So we like the flexibility that it gives us. 

That would terrify me if I taught a bunch of 17-year-old boys. (Laughter)

Joe: Yeah, it probably would, but, to get back to the premise of your question to your question. I was on a call this morning and we were talking about 2022 and we're in full planning mode. We were firm believers going in and my Marketing Manager would back me up on this, that we haven't really slowed down because we feel like if you start cutting and slashing, it's going to be a little more difficult to respond and maintain. Thank goodness, we haven't had to furlough anybody.

We haven't laid anybody off. We've maintained everybody, even in a market that we all know is down. And I think part of that will give us success, whether it's Q1 or Q2, whenever we see ourselves coming out of this. I think that puts us in a position and our company's a firm believer in this, that it puts us in a position where we can have more success coming out of this.

All right. That was terrific. I enjoyed our chat. 

Joe: Yeah, David's good to talk to you again. 

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

October 14, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

In the before times, when we did nutty things like fly on planes and walk around in crowds, I went to ISE in Amsterdam, and made a point of stopping by the small stand of a company called Wallboard.

An industry friend had suggested I check them out, so I popped by and had what turned into a lengthy demo. I walked away impressed and amused, thinking, "These guys are mad scientists."

Wallboard is a digital signage content management system like countless other systems on the market. What distinguishes them is a focus on IOT devices and data integration. The demo I had, thinking way back, involved a weigh scale and booze, as part of an access control system for factories.

Booze on your breath, you get pulled off to the side. If you weigh more than you did leaving than when you entered, the system and a screen flags that ... and then security people look in your pockets for stuff they think you might be taking home without permission.

It all speaks to where this whole idea of dynamic digital signage is going.

I spoke with Rod Roberson, the co-CEO of the company, which has a sales and marketing office in Dallas. Most of Wallboard's 40 or so people - the developers and mad scientists - work in an office outside of Budapest, Hungary.

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TRANSCRIPT

Rod, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a background on Wallboard? 

I know you guys, I've seen you at at least one trade show, but I wonder how many people in the general ecosystem know much about you. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. Sure, thanks for having me, Dave. So Wallboard is a Digital Signage CMS software platform. I would say that the platform does most things you would expect from a traditional CMS, managed screens, managed content, but what we really focus on is building a platform that allows our users to really build some advanced content through the use of our content editing tools, our integrations with live data and IOT sensors, and our ability to easily integrate with third party systems so that we can interact with some of the business process workflows that are inherent within those systems.

Company is in Dallas, but there's a big component of it in Hungary, right? 

Rod Roberson: That's correct. So the company was actually started in 2012 by my partner, Robert Simon. He's based near Budapest, Hungary. He started the company back then, spent about three or four years building up the platform, building the development team, and took it to market, in Europe, basically in 2016.

And then we met in 2017. I, at the time, was running the AV division of a family owned company and we were looking to build out a digital signage as a service product offering. And we were really struggling to find the right software partner for that. So met Robert, a lot of the boxes checked and we actually just started as a reseller. Then one thing led to another, he was looking for an investment partner and he hooked up with a few venture capital firms in Europe but I was able to convince them that we would be a better investment partner for him because we were strategic, we were talking to end users on a day to day basis.

And so we formalized that partnership, in 2018 and then that led to him saying, “Hey, I really need a day to day business partner to help me with sales and marketing”, so I joined him full time in 2019, and so sales and marketing really run out of the Dallas office. And then, he's running the tech team outside of Budapest. 

So how much of the company is in Budapest versus Dallas? 

Rod Roberson: I would say we've got probably close to 40 full-time employees. We've got 7 here in the States, so the majority of our company is really full-time developers. We've got 25-27, somewhere in that range of full time developers, that sit there in Hungary. 

What is that, about an eight hours difference? 

Rod Roberson: It's seven hours. 

Okay. So you've got to juggle your days quite a bit. 

Rod Roberson: I do, and it's been an interesting experience in terms of what my days look like now. I'm typically up pretty early and at least part of the internal work day is almost over at about 10 o'clock. But, yeah, it's a different work-life balance than I was used to before. 

Now, what was it that attracted you to this platform versus the 5,000 other ones that are out there?

Rod Roberson: One of the things we were looking for was just the flexibility to own our own backend, and one of the interesting things about Wallboard is that it's a distributed server infrastructure. We've got 40-45 global partners out there. And I would say the majority of them run their own servers so they really control that back end, which was an important piece to us. 

In addition to that, I just really love the flexibility of the system and the ability to do some more advanced things. I do think that, you're right, it's a crowded space when it comes to just traditional digital media playback applications but I think when you start to talk about more advanced things like data integrations, IOT sensor integrations, and the ability to start to create more dynamic content, content that reacts to the environment or reacts to something else that's happening versus just “here's a playlist I'm playing”, that's when I think, the space gets a little less crowded, and you know that originally, what excited me about the Wallboard. 

So when you say a distributed server setup, does that mean if there’s a reseller up here in Canada, you’ll  basically enable them to white label your platform?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. They can white label it and we have got a mix, we've got partners or resellers that completely white label the system, and that's very important to them, so they can do that. We also have ones that say, “Hey, I want to leverage your marketing. I want to leverage the Wallboard knowledge base.” And so they still want to be Wallboard, but they still want control of that server environment. We allow them to do that. And then that allows them to do a lot of administrative things on their end, in terms of customizing the settings, they can customize the security aspects of the system and they can create some custom programming that is very unique to their specific server. 

So if you're doing it that way, are you then selling a site license to these partners, or can you still get Wallboard as a service directly from you or your partners and pay a monthly license per node?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, so to the end-user, it looks about the same. And then most of our partners are selling the same way, which is an end-user license per node like you said. 

From a reseller's perspective, we have partners that say, we don't want to do that, we don't want to manage our own infrastructure. So we have servers in the US and in Europe, where partners, certainly new partners, can come on, test our system, but a few licenses on the system. but I would say our more serious partners end up gravitating toward their server environment.

Would these be your customer base? Would they be a little bit different from the standard customer base of a lot of CMS platforms that go after a small to medium business or they chase a particular vertical but it's a general offer? You're talking a lot about IoT and it sounds like increasingly specific and “complicated applications”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that it's an interesting question. I think that we've got a little bit of a mix of both, we've got the resellers that are very much more traditional AV integrators, they're interested in selling to those small and medium enterprises, they're selling meeting rooms and conference room technology and all that other AV stuff. And they're just bolting on digital signage as an additional offering, but as we get more advanced, we've got different kinds of partners that are into retail technology, and so they are very interested in IoT sensors. Some of our partners are just selling into the corporate environment, not so much. 

The same thing goes for data integration. The partners that we have that are really into the contact center space, they are very focused on that particular part of our platform, so it really runs the gamut in terms of, what is the partner, what's their customer base look like? And that kind of drives, what they're interested in from a platform perspective. 

So let's say five years ago, you pretty much had to go to a somewhat specialized CMS platform that had data modules built-in and had already written connectors. It was its own thing, but data has got fairly accessible now, and being able to take different data feeds from different systems isn't that technically hard in certain respects, but I assume it gets a lot harder when you get into specialized IoT sensors that maybe don't have a whole platform and API behind them.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. So you know, what we've done is, we partnered with a company called Five Stack, and they've got a microcontroller that's a nice little piece of equipment that you can connect to a bunch of different types of sensors into that little microcontroller computer. So digital analog, sensors with various different other communication protocols. So we've written firmware on that microcontroller that can talk to our CMS. 

So at that point, I can take basically any sensor integrated into that microcontroller. And that is that it acts as almost the glue between the sensor itself and our CMS that's triggering content.

If I think back all the way to the before times when you go out and meet people and all that, I went to ISE and got a demo from Robert and walked away from that after 20-25 minutes, kinda amused thinking, “these guys are mad scientists” because they were showing me all these crazy sensor integrations.

Could you describe some of the business applications that you're doing? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think it's early, we're still looking into various different use cases, but I think that one of the demos that you probably saw there in Amsterdam, we've got a partner that doesn't really have a digital signage background at all, he's a security consultant. And he recognized a need in these large factories, in his case, Eastern Europe, but there are large factories where these workers that go in and out of these things and there's a lot of different things that need to occur for them to get through the entry Gates.

So they've got questions that need to be answered, they need to specifically ID themselves, they want to make sure that they're not stealing products and services. And so there needs to be something there in terms of a live security person to check what they want to check, alcohol content, and I don't think it was not in the demo back then, but certainly now we've added a temperature check. Previously there was a need for like seven or eight of these security guards, because you've got 25,000 workers coming in at three different shifts, and we were able to essentially build a complete business process with our software, utilizing all these sensors. You essentially walk up to a kiosk. You step on a scale, you insert your RFID badge into it, you answer a few questions, your blow on the alcohol breathalyzer, you get your temperature taken, and if you're good to go, you're off into the space.

If you're not, there is an alert that gets triggered and now we've got two security guards versus seven. So there's a serious ROI in terms of reducing the labor force needed to get through this process. And then on the back end of that, they weigh you again, such that if you're 10 pounds heavier, they know that something's up.

So I think that's an interesting application. We've got a couple of others, and we're doing some proof of concepts here on the East coast. We've got a major retailer where they've got a 6X1 display. and then, and they are displaying all sorts of various different types of content. The original idea was to have buttons underneath the displays and a physical display so that the visitors could go and say, “I want to look at the Michelin tires”, or “I want to look at the AT&T services that you're offering”, and they would have to touch these buttons. Well, COVID hits, and all of a sudden they're saying, “what can we do to make this more contactless?” So instead of having a physical button there, we placed an IR sensor and we basically tuned that IR sensor, so that it only gets triggered if your finger gets within, two-three centimeters from the sensor itself. So we're able to mimic that button experience with an IR sensor to actually trigger the content. 

So you know, things like that, I think the retail space is really interesting for this IoT sensor application. I think there were some other ones with meeting room signs in the corporate environment that we were tinkering with. So again it’s early, but we're really excited about the things we can do and it's opening up a lot of conversations, you know what I mean? 

There are conversations where people say, can you do this, or this is my business need, what can you do? And that's where the mad scientist comes in and Robert goes back into his work area and comes out with some crazy ideas.

I assume that some of what you described, like the access control and weighing and testing for whether they have alcohol in their breath. Those are systems that if you went to a big multinational company, can't name one, but I can think of a few, they would say, “Sure, we can do that for you”, and it would probably cost $75,000 a unit or more. As you were describing with that company, you can buy sensors for, like they don't cost much at all, do they? 

Rod Roberson: No. It's certainly like buttons, sensors, those things, you're talking dollars, so again, there's some costs in terms of some of that customization, but we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of customer customization we have to do because it's all built on our core platform and we're reducing a lot of the custom coding that has to happen because we built these interfaces so that we can, graphically say, “when this happens, trigger this content or when this happens, trigger that.”

So that's a lot of if/then type stuff isn't in our interface as opposed to actually having to hard code that in a program. 

Yeah, I'm a huge believer in data-driven signage as opposed to scheduling a predetermined long and advanced signage that’s just rolling through stuff. But I assume that it's still a challenge to get, not only partners but particular end-users over the line in terms of understanding that this is possible and it's not crazily complicated and that they could manage it and maintain it on a fairly easy basis? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think you're right. That is a challenge and that's part of our sales process to show these things and show specific use cases. One of the things that we've done post-COVID was, we built this desktop broadcast app so you can, essentially, have some digital signage on your desktop itself, and everyone starts to really get excited about KPI's and all this other stuff. Now we have to get to the data because there's some way for us to get to whatever it is they want to display, but showing how easy it is to manage that data either, I mean, we could do it in a simple Google sheet, it doesn't have to be some massive complex database or Salesforce connector. We can do that too but even starting with baby steps starts to get people to understand what is possible and then that really gets the ball rolling in terms of, “Hey, this would be really cool and would be valuable to communicating this specific type of information, especially to a remote workforce”.

So with the pandemic, one of the things that have come along is using technologies and processes like queue management and trying to enable access control to limit the number of people coming into a facility or an establishment, a bar, whatever it may be. And it seems like all of this kind of really elevates the idea of using sensor-driven, IoT-driven signage. Are you guys seeing an opportunity there? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, absolutely, especially in Europe, there is a very big demand for people counting type solutions where they've got limited capacities and pretty strict rules with respect to how many people can be in a specific physical space, in retail and in restaurants and bars. So, definitely seeing that. 

We've got a couple of different conversations going with that respect, we've got some retail analytics companies that are already in some of these retail spaces with their retail analytics, and they've got the ability to do that “people counting” and so from that perspective, it's just data integration. So they send us the data and we can post how many people are in and count the people coming in and out. We're working on some other different types of technology, not camera related, but utilizing IR sensors to do that person counting function because it's a significantly cheaper option. So yeah, we're working on various different things, definitely seeing a demand for that. 

The other thing we're seeing is a demand for some ability to track and trace, especially in the UK right now, there's some sort of mandate to do that. I think there's a lot of these pubs and restaurants that are doing this by hand where you're walking into a pub or a restaurant and the bouncer’s writing down who the people are coming in. We've developed a really quick and easy solution where they could hit a QR code that takes them into our system on their phone. They submit their information. That then submits it back to the restaurant we were at, and we're not housing any of that data. That's data for the restaurant, but it allows them to conform to the government regulations in an easy way and it's not paper-driven, which seems like a 20 year old technology to me. 

Yeah, I would think, there's going to be some privacy pushback with that, but that's not really our problem, that's up to the government and the venue operators to sort out. You're just enabling it, right? 

Rod Roberson: Correct. 

So one of the interesting things that I saw about your company was an integration you did with HP. Can you describe what that's all about? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, our investment partner, ImageNet, that their core business is selling printers and copiers, and they've got a super-strong relationship with HP. So HP has developed this platform called HP Workpath, and it's essentially a platform that sits in their interface and it allows app developers to develop apps, primarily for printing, scanning, and copying, but we went to their developer conference last year in Barcelona and because that user interface is running on an Android tablet and we've got such deep integration with Android already, we were able to relatively easily port over our code, so that we can run on that HP Workpath and in that base and path environment. 

That tablet right now is a fairly weak piece of hardware, we've actually had to dumb down our platform a little bit, so there are no performance issues because there are all these things that these resellers are thinking to do with terms of data integration and the ability to send messages back to the service company that the printer has an issue with. 

A lot of that stuff is coming, but at this point, it's really more of a screensaver, so when the printer is not in use, it's scrolling through corporate communications type messaging and that sort of thing, and then it just almost acts like a kiosk. So when you touch the screen, our application goes into the background. They're using the printer for whatever they're going to use it for, and then after the 32nd or 62nd timeframe, it goes back to that screensaver mode. 

What are the kinds of things that you'd want to put there? I'm sure it goes beyond “Happy birthday, Becky” and “It's taco Tuesday”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think that some of it is kinda like a reminder to do some of the things that they want to be done, for example, “clean the screen” is a reminder type of a message that we're having, more generic COVID-type messages in terms of just office space, protocol, but then also more like how-tos, right? Certainly, I'm probably going to know how to scan a document that, but maybe there's something more unique in terms of what I want us to want to do, and if I'm able to put a lot of that information in almost like a kiosk type of environment on the screen itself.

Right now we can't do video, but ultimately we can push videos to that so that if I don't know how to do a particular thing or there's a trick, or if there’s an issue with the printer, I can quickly get to that from an informational perspective. 

So because it's an Android tablet device, in some cases, pretty small display, but on other ones, decent Samsung galaxy size displays, the challenge is that the processor doesn't have the horsepower or the version of Android is too old?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. I don't even know what version of Android they’re using, but I think they’re on version 4, and we're up to 11 now, and they've got a new generation that's supposed to be coming soon, I think it was supposed to be coming out this fall but I'm sure that got delayed, so we're thinking sometime in 2021, and it's still early for us on the sales side. With HP, I have weekly meetings with them and it's been surprising to me how excited they are about this because I think it's something unique for them, I think it's something that they can go tell, and if they're in a competitive deal with another manufacturer and with these copiers, it's hard to sometimes differentiate what one can do versus the other you need, if I can do this, it's an icing on the top type of a thing that I can go as a value add to win a deal.

You also see it for your company as a bit of a door opener in that meeting room signs lead to more kinds of digital signage around an office space. This might lead to, “could you also do meeting room science because you also do that directory or other stuff”. 

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And the benefit there is that it's all in one ecosystem, right?

So it's in one system where they can have their signage, their meeting room signs, communication on their printers, directories. It's not five or six different software vendors and systems that they're managing. You can all do that, in a single instance of Wallboard. 

With manufacturing and production facilities, do you see an opportunity with no end of different kinds of equipment that makes stuff for packaged stuff, or whatever that there's an opportunity to apply sensors to those things to show the state of equipment? 

I've been in auto manufacturing plants where there are big bulletin boards filled with printouts of spreadsheets that show the state of different systems and thought, “this is goofy, this is like 1985”, but that's the way they were. And you would think that being able to jack into a piece of equipment that spits out some basic readings on how it's doing, that being able to translate that kind of a sign or apply a sensor to, it would make a world of difference?

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And then making the content more dynamic so it doesn't just go into a Power BI massive dashboard where you've got 8 million pieces of data on one screen, and it's just hard to read. You're pushing the most relevant content to the screen based on whatever it is. So if System ABC is down, that's what's coming onto the screen and it's not one tiny data point, to try to find amongst a million. 

Is it challenging in current environments, because you can't travel really very much at all, except locally, to get the word out about what you guys are all about?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think certainly it's been somewhat challenging. Obviously, we were excited about exhibiting at DSE and all that sort of stuff. We made some real headway at ISE and DSE last year. So certainly from that perspective and just being able to get out and about, it is more challenging, but, with what we do in demoing software, that part, we can do virtually and, a certain part of our day in day out is more partner acquisition, and not always just in use, selling to the end-user. And that certainly has been staying fairly active over the last six months because, there's a cycle to that, people get to get in the system and learn it and test it and that's not always their first priority. And we've been able to make a lot of headway with respect to a lot of different types of partnerships. And not necessarily having to slow down so much, due to COVID, but no question, on the end-user side, and we still need screens to be deployed and turned on for licenses to be ordered and that certainly has been slower. 

Although, we see the activity picking up. We see a lot of people saying, “we want to start these projects early 2021”. So you know, that's good in terms of that activity. It's always going to be, what happens here with COVID is, obviously I can't predict that, but I'm hopeful that, we're in a stronger position or the world is, going into 2021, which will make all these conversations that we're having now come to fruition.

Are there partners who are better suited to what you do? I mean local and regional digital signage solutions providers who've been around digital signage forever, but I'm thinking because of your technical strength in the IoT side of things, that there are maybe integration partners who don't wake up in the morning, thinking purely about digital signage, they’re thinking about other elements, all the way to access control systems and things like that. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right and that's been a struggle for us, finding who is our ideal partner. We can talk to a lot of more traditional AV integration firms, and if digital signage is the fourth or fifth thing that they sell and they're really more focused on, all those other things, Crestron/Extron blah, blah, blah, that's going to be tougher.

I mean, they always love the software, but it's hard for them to focus on, even building a digital signage recurring revenue business, that's just not what they do. They're more transactional in nature and so they're not waking up thinking about that, but there are other partners that are more boutique digital signage, this is what they do. And those are the partners that really understand our systems, understand the value of the time savings related to being able to do some things without having to custom code, and another system and bandaid all that stuff together. Those are the partners, I think they're naturally faster at getting it and starting to scale in terms of ordering licenses. 

Do you see much of an opportunity for just playing plain vanilla digital signage wherein you create some content, find a playlist, you schedule it, send it out and you're done? It strikes me as that's the sort of thing that's so easy these days to do that. I don't know that it's still going to have much relevance. 

Rod Roberson: I agree. I mean that's just going to be a price war at that point. I can argue that our system is elegant and it's an easy way to do that, and we still have customers, that's all they want to do. But it's very difficult to differentiate yourself in that sort of world. 

You mentioned Android, is that the primary platform you're working on for the hardware that you're using? 

Rod Roberson: No. I think that's really driven by our partners. I think we've got a really strong relationship with BrightSign. We're seeing a lot of new partners that are BrightSign-only partners and like our software and like to be able to do that in the BrightSign ecosystem. We've got some use cases that need Windows, but there are also the partners that say, “Hey, I want a cheaper box and, and I'm comfortable with Android and I'm selling to small businesses that don't have the security agitation that sometimes comes with Android.” So it fits for their business model. 

Now BrightSign is a special purpose box, PCs, or they seem to be turning into specialty applications in signage, just because of their costs and everything and the market seems to be moving into dedicated boxes and to systems on chips, where do you see things going?

Rod Roberson: That's a good question. When we built out our system on chip integrations with Samsung and LG, I thought that that's just where the market would go and take off, and we're seeing some of that, but we're still seeing a lot of people still stick to these dedicated boxes. 

I'm not as focused on the hardware. What we want to do is allow our partners and our end users to say, it doesn't matter, choose your hardware, whatever fits your budget and your use case, but run our software on it, and so we're focused on being able to perform on all those various different operating systems and hardware components. 

Rod, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Rod Roberson: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable on LED & MicroLED

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable on LED & MicroLED

October 7, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

The trade association AVIXA has been running a series of Digital Signage Power Hours for the last few months, bringing together industry experts in a roundtable format to talk about a specific topic each time.

The most recent one was about LED, and I was once again the moderator and referee.

The panel had Chris Riegel of STRATACACHE, who among a bazillion things is spinning up a microLED manufacturing facility in Oregon. We also had on the panel Reece Kurtenbach, the CEO of Daktronics, one of the oldest and largest direct view LED firms out there. We had Johanna Ocampo from D3, Rich Ventura from Sony, which introduced the world to large format microLED. Sam Phenix, who runs her own display consulting firm and is deeply involved with AVIXA and SID. And Florian Rotberg, of Munich-based consultancy Invidis.

The session has two parts:

First, there's a brief presentation by Riegel that focuses on microLED and how disruptive it will be in this market.

Then we go into the roundtable, followed by some questions.

If you are involved in or looking at LED, this is well worth the listen.

There is another DS Power Hour coming up on Oct. 20 about QSR. Details here ...

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

September 30, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

The iconic doughnut chain Krispy Kreme has something of a cult status, with people flocking to their stores to get a fresh, warm, melt-in-your-mouth yeast doughnut.

There are Krispy Kreme stands and small shops, but a real Krispy Kreme store - the kind that gets people lining up - has the whole production line in view of customers, and shows the glazed doughnuts coming out of the fryer. It is experiential in its own way.

But the chain, based in North Carolina, wanted to really amplify the brand and experience for its new flagship store in New York, in Times Square. It opened recently, and it may be the most ambitious, experience-driven QSR operation on the planet.

There are giant LED visuals outside, 'cuz its Time Square. But inside, there are stacked video walls for branding and promotion, digital menu displays, interactive tables, and a scheduled projection-mapping show called Doughnut Theater.

I spoke with Todd Hoffman, the digital lead on the 4,500 square foot flagship store.

TRANSCRIPT

Todd. Thanks for joining me. Your company, Krispy Kreme recently launched something in New York City in Times Square. Can you tell me what that experience is all about and why it happened? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. It's an opportunity for an iconic brand to make a big statement out there, Times Square is kind of a crossroads of the world, with a great place to plant a flag, I guess we're in 32 countries with about 1400 shops and and it was time to put a big stick in the ground and say something major for the brand.

We do plan a big rollout starting in 2021, and also we're coming to New York in a big way. So times square just made sense. 

New York is the home of the, not the home, but there's a lot of Dunkin donuts there and a few Tim Hortons. Krispy Kreme wasn't really present in the market? 

Todd Hoffman: We had a shop in Penn station and years ago we had more shops, but we decided strategically that this was where we wanted to expand. And, this year we rolled out four shops, even before Time Square. We've got a couple more coming at the end of the year and then entering into Dwayne Reed, the world to expand our reach even further.

This one in Times Square, it's the whole nine yards where you're doing all the production right there and people can walk in and see what's going on in the whole theater piece of it? 

Todd Hoffman: Absolutely. It’s 4,500 square feet. So it's a big shop for us. We make donuts 24/7. So that's why you have a hot light that's always on top of the roof. 

And these are not regular donuts. These are the “melt in your mouth” ones? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we call them OGs (Original Glazed) but they're yeast doughnuts that take an hour to make from beginning to end, and we have a machine that can do 270 dozens an hour.

So this location is filled with technology, inside and out. You see this big LED screen as you're approaching it. Of course, it's one of the gazillion LED screens in Times Square, but it walked through everything that was done and the thinking behind it? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. Sight lines were huge. We're at 48th & Broadway, and the goal is to be seen from 40th street all the way up to 55th. That's where we have the world's largest hotline on the roof, 15 feet, about 8,000 pounds that will be lit and truly you can see it from an even longer distance. We're using lights that are typically used on airport runways so that's one of the big pieces. We have a wraparound billboard, that's 110x35 feet. And then under that we have a ribbon of LED screens where basically you can see donuts just like they're on their conveyor, scrolling, and we could also put any kind of other messaging.

Trying to hit it hard from a distance. Everything we did, we wanted to stand out of the crowd, everybody wants to stand up the crowd, But, I think, I think we did, especially with something as simple as our big red hotline, just rotating slowly. With the pandemic that became somewhat of a beacon of hope and optimism. I mean, who doesn't like donuts? 

And even the opening of shops throughout the year, while other people might've been closing shops, and contracting, we've gone full speed ahead. 

And I believe this store was originally going to open earlier in the year, but then, New York kind of went into lockdown and that delayed it a little bit?

Todd Hoffman: It did, but, mid-July, you know, we're right in Times Square with 10% of its normal traffic, the decision was made that it was important for us internally, and we felt in New York externally to stay on track and so we opened in September. And, by the time we opened, let's say Times Square was back 30 to 40% of its average traffic, but we still hit our records anyway. Word got out. 

So when you say records, do you mean that in terms of record sales, foot traffic? 

Todd Hoffman: Both. For the opening day, we hit records and then for the opening week, also records. We opened on Tuesday always and then by Saturday, the word had gotten out to the suburbs into New Jersey and we had a big day on Tuesday, but even bigger days on Saturday and then Sunday.

And you kinda need sales records there because the cost of rent in a Times Square area is a couple of bucks? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. 

Not like being out in the suburbs. 

Todd Hoffman: No, and you know, profit is always an incentive, but making a big statement in Times Square that becomes our marker, that we've returned to New York.

We are in Harlem, where in the Bronx. We're down in the Financial district and we're going to open up shops in Brooklyn and the upper West side. 

If you're in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, you’ll have to be artisanal. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Well, we stick to our roots. We did introduce our first, let's say $10 donut, but a big Apple donut, which is our nod to New York, comes in a beautiful box with candy Apple coating. And, it's a donut that we were taking a big risk on, but we've sold hundreds and hundreds on days. You know big risk, beautiful products but it seems to have resonated with locals. We thought tourists would buy it, but there are no tourists.

So locals seem to gravitate. 

Yeah, they take it with them. And while, I guess they're not traveling either and nobody is? 

At some point that'll all change I'm sure. So outside, the big LED displays it's as much a branding statement as it is something that's going to generate foot traffic.

Obviously people are being attracted and when they walk inside, what do they see? 

Todd Hoffman: That's where all of our, I want to say razzle dazzle is, but that's where we've really turned up the heat with digital experiences and in the pandemic where you're not so able to have a full house, or give out samples, or really have the energy that a room full of people have, digital served an even greater purpose.

When you walk in, we've got two video columns facing opposite directions. So you start to see one that's a 53-55 inch screen stacked on each other. So you can see from the door, the pathway leads right to our donut theater, where we make the donuts march down the line. So the pathway was right to the donuts and that's where we took the concept of donut theater and Bravo media, the team, to them, it was obvious that we were on Broadway, we should put out a Broadway show. Initially we were just gonna do some corporate information on the back wall and simple projection, but David really challenged us and we've got four projectors plus a camera that helps us track individual donuts as they march down the line, and that's all, spectacular visuals for people to get their appetite. But, every 12 minutes, we have a show that's about 35 seconds long from the five shows that Bravo created.

And this is on the white tile, subway tile wall beyond the Conveyor that the donuts are moving along, right? And the workers are on the other side of that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we didn't want it to take people's mind away from the donuts, which is why we only show it every 12 minutes and have these very short, spectacular shows, no words. It's really just spectacular entertainment and it has brought lots of energy to the room, to the point where there's a button in the back where you can advance these shows and when we feel a low energy in the room, boom, they kinda fire up one of the “Takeover” and it's projection on the back wall. They mapped to each individual tile, things that I didn't think somebody could do and then based on mapping to the tiles, all the different shows, you feel like, the tiles are coming off, the wall or sprinkles are coming down out of this ceiling, and then, there's another projector that projects onto our Donut glazed waterfall. And normally in our shops, it's about three inches tall here, it's three feet and, just to bring the focus on the original glaze, and then there's one that happens serendipitously where we've got sprinkles on the back wall and it looks beautiful and then one day the team members just started to poke at the sprinkles as they were exploding on the back wall and it looks like they're playing a video game with their hands, and when that takeover comes on, the donut maker stop what they're doing, they turn around and they start popping up a wall.

That has become a really spectacular show that says a lot about, I think the brand, cause we were loose enough to let it go, crazy enough to put all this stuff into our donut theater and then, let our team members, start to really interact with it. 

Is that part of the team member job description that you're required to do this when this particular show comes on or did that just organically happen? 

Todd Hoffman: It organically happened, but now we do require you do it. If you fear the first tone, then, somebody might come off the floor and one of the donut makers in uniform, and they love it and it's as if they're competing, how many sprinkles you're gonna explode in the course of 35 seconds? 

It’s a break in what they're normally doing. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. So that's our lead in, and when we first designed the shop, and being Times Square and being Krispy Kreme, we expected hour long lines, but the pandemic has changed that where we're only at our 25% capacity.

So we have this donut theater that people can see what their appetite, and then at the end of it, they're facing that digital column that kinda shows images of donuts, dozens of donuts, coffee, lattes, trying to help them think about what they're about to order before they hit any one of our five display cases and that's what they're there for. That's where the fun starts, figuring out how to fill the box with your favorite donuts. 

You run all the digital for Krispy Kreme, right? 

Todd Hoffman: I'm the digital lead. My day job is menu boards. That's what I signed up for. And then, what made it the best job in America was being able to do Times Square in the past nine months. Yep. 

When the ideation process was happening for this Times Square store and started floating concepts like the donut theater, I assume you had to sell that up to your managers and the executive team.

Did they go, “Hell yeah!” or did they look at your cross eyed, “You want to do what?” 

Todd Hoffman: I thought when we decided not to put messaging on the back wall, executive leadership would see it as a missed opportunity. But our COO, who really is the one who let Bravo do their stuff, which was a pretty amazing match. When he showed it to the executive team, our Head of operations, our president, they just loved it. 

Krispy Kreme as a whole, it's a very low key brand. We let our product say everything that it needs to say. We don't have an ad budget, we change up the donuts a lot, but it's really word of mouth. So we don't brag and this was a way for us to be on brand, and just entertain and make it a happy place. Where I thought it was crazy, cause I'm new to the brand, I grew up in the Northeast and really was only introduced to it when I started with Krispy Kreme. 

They were true to form, and it went over, I'd say very well across the executive team and they let go and we got to execute it.

Are digital menu boards standard to a Krispy Kreme store? 

Todd Hoffman: They are being introduced in every new store and we're testing in remodels. So eventually all the remodels will have them. The delicate balance is, we don't want people to see technology. The name of the game is, they see what they need to see, they get the information they want. We've met their appetite with some animation, but we really don't want them to feel like they're looking at TV screens, so we've stepped delicately. 

I'd say we have 15 shops that now have digital menu boards and next year we'll do a big expansion, but Times Square was a deviation. It was a project and an aspiration, all its own. 

You talked about rollout. Is this a concept that's going to go elsewhere, like the Times Square donut theatre thing? 

Todd Hoffman: It may, but there may be one other location in the US where we go all in the way we did in New York. You might guess where that is. There are other places where we have a strong presence, England, Australia, Mexico, that may merit this kind of flagship shop. 

Yeah, you could do Lester square if you ever went to Dubai, Tokyo, places like that. I would imagine, you're not saying it, but referencing Las Vegas would be the one that would make the most sense.

Todd Hoffman: Further South, maybe it's Disney territory or such. We’ll see. (Laughter)

The only one I've seen in Las Vegas was in, the one which looks like a castle and all that. 

Todd Hoffman: I think we have a presence out there, but now it's where tourists from around the world congregate, and I was there to have fun family oriented. 

So with your standard, digital menu boards, have you had any sense of what they do? Do they make a difference operationally or in terms of sales or is it just a more efficient way of doing things? 

Todd Hoffman: I'd say the pandemic screwed this up because we can't really comp stores.

We've been opening new shops so that we can comp from the year before. And then the few remodels we did, we only had a couple of months to look at, but we are definitely thinking that it's driving drinks, grabbing beverage attachment, and the goal is maybe a higher average check or more dozens.

But we believe in the concept that it is having impact, and the drive through as well. So definitely, our belief that it's worth the investment is growing, but maybe we need more months and we need more comping to confirm that.

You sent me a list of all the various components involved and there's a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved. How did all this get pulled together? Cause I'm looking at it like a dozen vendors or something like that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. You know, it started with our design team working with an architect, who are the best of the best. They set the stage and put a lot of this activity in there, not knowing how to do it. I don't think they have much experience doing it, but they could envision what could be done with the digital columns or projecting and the donut theater.

They helped us take our icons and then the icons within an iconic brand, the hotline, the donut box, the waterfall, the donut line and build on them to the point where the whole place seemed to be a theater. So they set the stage. Then we had a major creative shop come in, partnered with a technology lead, which was Electro Sonic and they took the first stab at how we fill it in, with kind of interactive tables and projection during the theater and where the menu boards might go and digital columns, but then we took it and we just dished it out to specialists in each area. 

We used Stata Cash for menu boards. I don't think any other company could have done what we did with these menu boards or any other platform. We've got three layers of imagery that's on there. We've got an animation scrolling animation in the middle board. There's three boards together. We've got your basic, DOS connected menu board items. And then every 30 seconds we have these takeovers that wash across the three screens and it took hours and days for us to, I think we pushed their platform, we pushed the media players that we were using. We pushed their creativity, but, in time we were able to kinda get what we wanted because visually it seems simple, but executionally, it was a really big challenge.

So, kudos to those guys for sticking in there and giving us the vision that we wanted with the menu boards. 

And Strata Cash at least would drive through with some of their clients, they're doing things like AI driven, suggestive selling and menu optimization. Are you guys looking at that or doing it? 

Todd Hoffman: We will be. They are our shop of record, so that's the platform we're going forward with. You know, a lot based on how they presented, we looked at nine different options for menu boards this year, Strata Cash came out on top, partly due to our aspirations with drive-thru. We think we can make more money through drive-thru or have a greater impact digitally through drive-thru.

Then we can go inside the shop. So their expertise in that area and ability to personalize. Everybody had some angle on personalized when they're pitching us, reading license plates, geo-fencing, what have you, but, I'd say Strata Cash their work from McDonald's and others, gives the comfort level that they were the ones to go with for the long haul.

So we've probably done a few shops with them, including Times Square. 

I suspect there's a few vendors who come in and say, “yeah, we can do all that”, but when you push them on it, that has to do with whether they've actually ever done it, it's a different story. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there are some great outfits out there. The surprise to me, I don't know if you stay on a screen on a radio call, it's one of the few times where I thought the best of class was going to be out of our budget. And then when we looked at it, they were right there. So they were affordable and impressive, and continue to impress, but this isn't an ad for Strata Cash.

Yeah, they've done well. The idea of this store, obviously I haven't been there in six or seven months. I wonder about the sensory overload element of it. You've got audio, you've got the theater, you've got the LED displays. You've got all this stuff going on. Is there a balance you have to achieve so that it doesn't become overpowering to people when they walk in there?

Or do you just see and know, “That’s okay, I'm going into an attraction.” 

Todd Hoffman: It sounds like you were listening in on our meetings because of some of our great concerns leading up to opening. We had to get the sound levelled for background music and then, with the donut theater, the light, there's a light show and sound had to rise, but it couldn't rise so far that people couldn't talk so there's a lot of nuances, a lot of, I'd say over the next month, we're going to be doing some fine tuning, but I'm happy to say when we opened, we were pretty close to, in our mind perfect on the balance, bu, getting team member input, getting guests input is critical.

So when we're fine tuned in 30 days, we'll be able to do our best to make it work, but I don't think there's a feeling that we're over the top, yeah. 

Well, you are in Times Square, where everything else is. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there's a lot of leeway and so the only place we shouted was outside, that's where it's fair game.

And if you do shout, you know, you don't get heard. So we've tried to whisper with things like the hotline, going back in time, it looks like it's been there since the 1950s, even though we just fired it up last Tuesday, 

What's been the response of people coming in? 

Todd Hoffman: I have been there for the last 10 days and I would stop people in Times Square when I saw them sitting at a table, enjoying the donuts and they say they've been waiting for Krispy Kreme to arrive. We got a thousand pieces of media before we even opened, billions of impressions, so there was a lot of buildup, and a lot of anticipation and everybody I talked to, which are several dozens, seemed to be happy with what they saw.

Well, if they've ever had a Krispy Kreme donut, of course they're happy.

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. And it all comes down to this silly little, original glazed donut that's still warm in your hands. Once you've had one, you can't forget it. 

So before we returned to New York, you could get them in Penn station, but they weren't as fresh as they are when we're making them in a shop. 

They'd been shipped in from somewhere else. It's just different when it comes off that line. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, and they're always made fresh daily, but when it's in the fryer and then through the glaze only seconds ago, it's quite a treat.  

Technology is being applied in some retail environments to manage access control and capacity control.

I'm guessing you didn't have to really do that because you were already in a situation where you needed to have bouncers or some mechanism to limit how many people are in the store at a given time? 

Todd Hoffman: There are adjustments we did make for the pandemic. We have virtual queuing so you can make reservations in advance, and again, we didn't know how chaotic the lines would be going up Broadway and down 40th street. And that has helped a lot with the flow.

Mobile order pickup, that's been huge. We have a window on the street, a take-out window or and that's where you pick up your mobile order, and more than double of what we do in an average shop in terms of percentages are done through mobile order. And I'd say that's how we were able to hit our records. We can only have a certain amount of traffic inside the shop. Then when we have this walk up window, we're selling OGs and coffee, but also, picking those delivering mobile loaders, so that was a great add to what we've done. And line queuing inside, there's a lot of subtle technologies that we have used to do line management and we'll continue to optimize. 

Is there dispatch and recognition on that? Like Order #1-5 or Customer #1-5, you can come in now. 

Is that just done by text messaging or are you doing anything on screens?

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, it is. There's push messaging that'll tell you where you are in line and then tell you're third in line and then tell you how long until you need to be at the front door. 

The virtual queuing is definitely a work in progress. The company we went with hadn't done anything quite so complex or customized. I'd say the team that worked on that, which wasn't me, has done a great job of making it work to our needs. That has helped people in line who have been waiting for minutes, if not hours, there doesn't seem to be this issue of somebody walking up right to the door who had a reservation.

And we opened on a Tuesday but our reservations were booked till Saturday. That gives a hint that we were in for a pretty busy week. 

Wow. So last question. Engagement and experience are terms that get tossed around a lot and kind of lose their value in certain respects. How do you define “experience” when it comes to this place?

Todd Hoffman: So much of what our marketing team does - they almost police us - to make sure we're on brand. So we had to be on brand, color wise and with messaging, and yet we wanted to really push the envelope and make a huge statement and have people feel like they were coming to a flagship shop, especially anticipating international travelers who are our lifelong fans when they know there's a Krispy Kreme in Times Square, just like there's an M&M store or what have you, they're going to want to go and our experience, not just buying donuts, like getting to the donut cake and being in the room has to feel like you've arrived somewhere. 

And, I think we have. Our general contractor had a great line in that he doesn't think there'll be another shop like this for a few years, that has put so much into it, that has tried so hard to please its fans, its customers as we have and we've got pretty three racks worth of technology. Technologically wise, he had not handled anything that was this complex, but also, in the front of house with customers, he just felt like there was so much to see and do while you're in the shop, and he's done a lot of stores in Times Square, but he said we had hit it out of the park. So anecdotally, with just from word of mouth or reactions, we think we've done it. 

All right, Todd, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I appreciate it. 

 

ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

September 23, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Advocates for Connected Experiences is an umbrella organization created several months ago, that pulls together the people and shared interests of a variety of organizations that deliver experiences to guests.

That can be in places like retail, in museums, commercial properties or theme parks.

The short form for the group is ACE, and it was pulled together and somewhat driven by the Digital Signage Federation - notably past and present board members like Kim Sarubbi, Beth Warren and Laura Davis-Taylor.

One of the early efforts from ACE has been a monthly series of online discussions about important topics, that pull together top people from member organizations. The most recent one was about connected experiences now and post-COVID, as we all all hope there is soon a post-COVID.

I was the moderator for the discussion, and this is the audio track, which is roughly one hour.

The panelists included folks from Shop!, SEGD, Geopath, the DSF, the Location-Based Marketing Association, Blue Telescope, The Experiential Designers and Producers Association, Retail Touchpoints and AVIXA.

There's a lot of voices and you won't always know who is saying what, but the content is worth any confusion you might experience.

TRANSCRIPT - skipping this episode ... too many voices to sort out who said what. Anything particularly brilliant was not me.

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

September 16, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

If you have been around digital signage for a while, you have almost certainly heard a discussion at some point about accurate color reproduction on screens, and the problems big brands can have with that.

The example used most often is Coca-Cola Red, which is a VERY specific red.

It can be a problem at the display level, but it also has to do with the source. A small research team of academics and students at Clemson University in South Carolina are well down the path of sorting it out.

In their case, the problem was Clemson orange - a very specific shade of orange seen on 10s of 1,000s of shirts, hats and giant foam fingers during Clemson football game broadcasts. The orange shown on TV sets and replay boards is not, in some cases, the right orange.

A research project called ColorNet is using AI and neural networks to make real-time color adjustments on the fly to the broadcast signal - using an algorithm light enough that it can run on an off-the-shelf PC.

I spoke with Dr. Erica Walker and graduating student Emma Mayes about the project, and how the technology might be applied as a low-cost box in the back of digital signage screens - so that networks run by brands can really show their true colors.

The chat is a bit technical, but even I got most of it.

One other note - I THINK at some point I reference Clemson as being an SEC team. Wrong. It's in the ACC. I'm in Canada. Ask me about curling.

This is how you'd reach Walker - eblack4@clemson.edu

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TRANSCRIPT

Emma, Erica, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what ColorNet is all about? I know it's a university project that you guys presented at Display Week, going back about a month or so. 

Erica: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having us today. ColorNet is an artificial intelligence solution for brand colors to be displayed correctly on screens.

So not a color solution that would display all colors correctly, that solution already exists. This is specific to a brand color, and in this case, Clemson University’s orange and purple. 

That’s because you guys are working or studying out of Clemson, correct? 

Erica: That’s correct. And actually the solution could work for any color. We just happened to use the colors that we see the most on our own campus and in our athletics. 

Which is orange? 

Erica: That's correct. 

So this is a project coming out of the graphics communication department, or is it multiple departments? 

Erica: It actually includes a lot of different departments. Each of us on the project is from a different department. In fact, I'm from graphic communications. The students are from engineering and computer science, a variety of engineering degrees. And then my co-creator, or co-inventor, works in a multidisciplinary department with a focus on data science.

 Okay, so what's the problem you're trying to solve here?

Erica: Yeah, thanks for asking that. It is something that is very commonly talked about at Clemson Athletic games and probably at other universities as well. But, the orange is incredibly recognizable, our brand orange for Clemson fans. And when you watch a broadcast of the football game or basketball game or baseball game, the orange is always skewed. It's always normally skewed towards red. Now, obviously the settings can be impacted by the settings on your screen itself, but what if we could address this at the feed level, at the camera level, at the production level? 

And that would ensure that if Clemson orange is a Pantone color that is going to be color accurate, at least coming out of the feed?

Erica: Exactly. That's really that's the tipper right there is that we don't have control over other people's screens. Like the screen inside your home, we aren't trying to make any adjustments to that. That would be the homeowner or the screen enter the bar that would have to make those adjustments, but we can make adjustments to the screens inside of our facilities. So the big screen inside of the football stadium, we could adjust that cause we have control over it, but the main thing is just having a clean feed, having a feed where Pantone 165 is a recognizable color and it displays correctly.

And why is that a problem either, you know, if I'm a Clemson fan, I know my orange, but, if I'm a Syracuse fan, maybe it's a different orange who's going to know other than the Clemson fans? 

Erica: Right. So, that's a fair question. On any given Saturday, there are over 70,000 people in the stadium watching the game, and so that's a big audience, but in general, we just use Clemson orange as kind of a testbed, for this example. So it could be done for soccer teams, you know, in Europe, the big leagues. It could be done for major league baseball, it could be done for NBA finals. It could be done for really anything where brand color is recognizable to a fan of any team of any sport.

And again, you can't really control the final output, like on my TV, if the calibration is off, it's gonna show it to be orangey-red instead, or wherever. Will this help that at all? 

Erica: In my head, if the feed is better than more than likely, it will show better on your TV. Now that's not true if you've amped up your colors or if maybe, I know there are settings that are specific to gamers that they like, and so if you've changed the color settings on your TV, then that could be a problem, but one of the conversations we've been having with these screen manufacturers is what if we could address this at the screen level as well? But obviously, the goal of artificial intelligence is not to weasel our way into people's homes and make adjustments on their TV.

So that's not the goal, but we do think that we could address it in, think of like large format displays. So if you go to the Coca Cola headquarters, they want their Coca-Cola red to display correctly on the screens that are scattered throughout their entire building or their manufacturing facility, or anywhere where they have the control over their screens.

So kind of thinking of it from the brand level, as much as from the consumer level. 

Yeah, it’s not really the business application here, I mean, you mentioned that there's a patent around it and the idea around that is for really super brand sensitive, color-sensitive companies like Coca Cola, and any number of other ones, that they have more of an assurance that the broadcast advertising is going to look in the color that is really important to them?

Erica: Right now, that's what we're looking at as brand applications. So, as I said, there are solutions out there to solve, like overall, you know, a correct profile so that your TV shows colors accurately. So we aren't trying to necessarily do it across all colors, we're trying to really focus on the brand colors. 

Right. So how does it work and how did you get started on this? This doesn't strike me as one of those things that you wake up in the middle of the night and go, “I must solve this.” 

Emma: Right, so the basic approach that our team took is that we were trying to make it where when you're color-correcting, instead of correcting the entire frame, instead, we're working more with image segmentation. So the current process with athletics is that, oftentimes, they have to pick something in the frame and color-correct to that, and just hope everything falls out. So with basketball games, they look at the court and they say, “okay, the Clemson paw print in the middle of the court has to be brand color. Everything else will just be what it has to be.” 

But we're trying to just get that right. The idea is that, well, what if we can make it so they don't have to compromise? So that way, it can be segmented, So we're color correcting the correct areas and frames as opposed to everything else. The idea was also to decrease the kind of manual burden on the technician when it comes to the color correcting, so we looked at doing image segmentation through machine learning by creating a convolutional neural network. 

I know what those are. 

Emma: (Laughter) Without getting into the nitty-gritty. We usually just look at the acronym CNN, so you don't even really have to know how to spell it, but what I’m saying is, just the gist of it that we basically looked at this game footage, we pulled it and we used Adobe Premiere Pro and the Lumetri color panel and we basically picked the range of colors we wanted to correct. So that way we can adjust it to kind of perceptually that natural approximation of what we're looking at for that color brand, and then we pass in the color incorrect and correct footage into the model and it creates a mask and it's basically just showing pixel by pixel what's the difference in color.

And so the whole idea is that our model is able to generate these masks and automatically generate exactly what those corrections are gonna look like. So once we created this data, we trained it, and then that way it learned how to color-correct to these brand specifications in these image segmentation.

So that way our grass is in a weird color, our court is in a weird color. We're just adjusting the jerseys and the Clemson football fan gear and the audience, so it's fixing the colors that need to be fixed and leaving alone what needs to be left alone. 

And is that because you're segmenting it and isolating certain elements of it, that's how you can do it in real-time or near real-time as opposed to doing it in post-processing?

Erica: What makes it able to do it in real-time is partially the hardware. You need hardware that can run on that. And it really just looks like a desktop computer, like a regular box that you're used to, but we do want it to run it in real-time. And so in order to do that, we try to make everything as slender as possible.

Some neural networks have just millions of parameters that they're checking on and we kept making things smaller and smaller so that it could run more efficiently. Now there is a point where it gets too small, and it runs too quickly and it's not as effective. So that's part of the research piece of this is that the students are learning at what point do we make adjustments to make this efficient versus to make it effective? 

I have this idea in my head, and again, as anybody who listens to me knows I'm not an AI scientist or anything close, is that there is some pretty serious computing hardware, a big server room full of computers doing the work of the neural network, but it's sounding like you're saying this is just like a box? 

Erica: Yeah, it can actually run on something as small as a raspberry pie, believe it or not. It doesn't run in the same frame rate that you'd want to run for an event, but we can run about 8-10 frames per second on a Raspberry PI. You don't need an entire room full of servers in order to process this in real-time, it's very doable.

I don't pick it up and carry it around, but, but you certainly could if you needed to. 

So this is not a million-dollar addition to a TV studio or something? It sounds pretty elemental in some respects. 

Erica: Absolutely, you know, really when it comes down to it and Emma can probably speak on this better than I can, but really all an algorithm is a text file that you have to train, like the real meat of it on our end is training it and making it effective and making adjustments because it is in a new area that you can't just go and Google, “Hey, I'd like this algorithm that can do this.” We're actually doing it and modifying it as we go. 

So for a Clemson football game, if you have, I don't know, 20-25 cameras, whatever it may be. Do you need a processing unit for each of those feeds or is a master feed funnel through one box?

Erica: We only need one. Actually, the way it works is, you're right, they do have like 20 cameras and range from little tiny GoPro cameras up to, you know, high-end broadcast cameras with 4K, and so those are all processing that color so differently.

 But it all comes into live, it's coming into a production studio. So if you watch a lot of athletics, like NFL or, even NCAA, sometimes they'll show you the trucks and inside of the truck, all of those feeds are coming in, and they are making those adjustments on the fly as the feed comes in. They choose which camera feed they want to show, and then it gets projected out and all of that's happening in real-time. 

And so we actually talked about different places that ColorNet can live within the system and the place where we landed it is that if we have it right inside of that production suite, you only need one device or you can have it on the other end of that production suite, and you still only need one device, but then you're only color correcting the feed that's actually going to get put out there, versus correcting all the different feeds on all the different cameras.

Is this a problem that's common to any live event broadcaster or is it defined by the quality of the equipment you're using, like would a local community cable operator have a much bigger problem than let's say Fox Sports?

Erica: The problem is pervasive anytime you have brand colors. I'm gonna show my age on this, but I don't know if you remember when Reese's Pieces was the product that was advertised in E.T. when E.T. came out. And so, you know, even in a Hollywood film, you have a brand and that brand cares about their colors.

And so it is pervasive everywhere, but the piece of equipment actually can run anywhere, it doesn't need a fancy studio, it doesn't need ESPN type quality. It could run at any small studio just as well as it runs here, because once you've trained it's really running on its own. It's capable of doing the work without a lot of manual input. 

So in theory, is this a box, like I could order it, in theory, on Amazon, pull it out of the box, plug it in, plug the feed-in and plug the output in and give it power and off you go, or is this a whole bunch of tweaking and software and behind the scenes to make it all happen?

Erica: To answer that really the box that we ordered, the box that this runs in, it was ordered off of Amazon. It is just like a plain old normal computer box, you know, like a desktop, but the magic happens inside of the training and inside of the algorithm and inside of the adjustment to the code, so it's not really the “special sauce,” so to speak really what happens, prior to receiving the box. 

Right. But do you train it? Let's say heavens forbid that another SEC school uses this, would that box have to be trained for the Crimson tide colors or whatever?

Erica: Yeah, I think you understand a lot more about this than you're letting on, but that is a 100% the case. We would have to train it each time, as needed per color, is our current structure, but I'm actually gonna let Emma jump in on what we're thinking about moving forward.

Emma: When we trained for Clemson orange and Clemson purple, the way our data was set up, it was that you're going to look for these ranges of colors around the brand color so that way, you know what kinds of areas you're going to be shifting to be correct. Our goal is to try and kind of generalize it.

So the idea is, we can give some kind of hardware to deliver to the shader and painter with these corresponding teams. So that way they can change what color it is. So we're going to come up with the new approach to it, where instead of looking for this range of colors, to then shift, we're going to look for these areas. So we're hoping to train so it can pick out the jerseys where the fan colors are and it's very adjustable considering what those colors are. So that way you could pick up this technology and plug it in for a different team and it could work that way instead of just being limited to a specific brand's color palette.

Right. Okay, so I'm a digital signage guy. This is a digital signage podcast. I wonder, of course, what the applications potentially are for the digital signage business. 

You mentioned, early on Coca Cola and how across its a corporate campus and its many corporate campuses really, if it has a signage network with the Coca Cola brand on there, if the output PC or PCs or media players are outputting nominally incorrect colors, this could be put in the middle of it?

Erica: Absolutely. So, that's one approach that we've considered. So let's say that let's use our Coca-Cola campus example. 

They want to ensure that no matter what footage is going on what type of screens, they may have multiple brands, I don't even know, that the Coca Cola red is always correct.

And so in that case, you actually would put ColorNet at the screen level, so we would want to pull it down to a much smaller device, more like that Raspberry PI size, so that you could actually just slap it right onto the back of each screen or each set of screens and have that screen Coca-Cola ready, you know? And so you can sell it that way to a brand owner versus having it at the live video remixed phase. 

Do you sense the addressable market for this has a whole bunch of brands in particular, who are that color-conscious or is it a subset that really cares and others who, you know, “our brand color’s blue” and that's all they say.

Erica: Actually, coming from my background, I was steeped in brand from a print perspective. And so from a print perspective, the tolerance of brand colors on your box or bottle or flexible packaging, is very small. It's measured in Delta Es and they say it's a 2 Delta Es.

Most companies don't want you to be any further off the brand color specs than Delta E. And that's basically just a measurement saying, this is as close as we are willing to purchase the product. Like if it goes over 2 Delta E, we don't want your printed product. And so coming from that background, all of the big brands care, all of them want their color to be correct. 

I know there's an argument going on right now, that might've stemmed out of that recent in AB and SID type conversation, from Display Week. But this idea that screens are actually changing our tolerance for brand colors and at some point, are we not going to care so much about brand colors? Because we are willing to accept them further apart, from the brand spec, because of the screen differences that we see. 

I still think that brands are willing to put money, time, and effort behind their branding in general and that they are going to care if their product looks correct because it is as much a part of their identification as any other part of their business. 

Yeah. That would make sense. I'm sure there'd be some reticence around spending thousands upon thousands of dollars per site to do that, but if it's, as you say, a Raspberry PI device that could just plugin via the HDMI feed or whatever into the display, then yeah, maybe they'd be happiest clients to do that. 

Erica: Yeah, especially for those big brands, I bet you and I've never sat in the branding room for Coca Cola, but both Coca Cola and Pepsi use a color of red, right? I bet you that their branding teams would just go to battle over making sure that all of their products are the correct color of red so that there is no confusion on the customer level of which product you're actually looking at.

Yeah, well, I've certainly heard those stories in the past when it comes to digital signage and Coca-Cola red and a few other colors that the Coca Cola people flip out if it's not right, and they had some big problems with early-stage video walls and things like that and there was a particular product that they really liked because of the saturation levels and everything that gave them as close to the print grant as they wanted to see, I don't know if it was that 2 Ease measurement or whatever you were talking about, but it was good. 

Erica: Yeah, and you know, some companies will have different Pantone colors for their print products compared to their screens. So for instance, Clemson has two different oranges, and when it comes down to it, the Pantone that they've chosen for screen and the Pantone that they've chosen for print products, so the difference between CMYK and RGB, those two oranges look the same. 

So it comes down to this perceptual thing. So it's not always about hitting the same Pantone and it's about the perceptual brand recognition of that orange, whether it's on a car, whether it's on a screen, whether it's on a Jersey, and so on.

Okay. So this is a combination product or initiative of a couple of professors, and I think four students, is that accurate? 

Erica: Yeah, that's correct. We had four students, and then we actually just added a new student this semester. So obviously the great part about students is that they have wonderful, fresh ideas coming into a project. The sad part is that they do graduate and go away, like Emma graduates in December. 

And so, there is kind of this rotation of students who have worked on the project over time. 

So where does it go from here at some point Does this become a company or does it get licensed or was that just so far off that it's hard to really kind of rationalize? 

Erica: Certainly from our perspective, our goals align a lot more with the research end and sharing what we find, but from a university level, we are involved with the university research foundation and their job is to help connect us with potential manufacturers or companies or lines of products that would benefit from us.

And so from the university level, they have a lot of interest in that. I'm not opposed to a company or partnering with an existing company. But certainly, you know, the students getting experience out of this and our personal research goals, our primary. 

In the conversations with the companies provide a lot of opportunities to, have funding and to expand, and to come up with new ideas of how this technology could perhaps be implemented. 

Is there an application as well for things like medical imaging and seismic imaging where life and death decisions or very expensive decisions are made based on the color of some high-resolution image?

Erica: Absolutely. We've been looking at expanding this out into some different applications and you really hit the nail on the head as one of the ideas that our team had bounced around is, what if this could be used to emphasize a lifeboat or something like that is lost at sea, you know, how could we make it really fast and really easy, despite all the reflections that waves make? And we've looked at it as an agricultural thing again, where it's emphasizing, if there are healthy plants or if there are weeds, so it really could be modified and used in a lot of different contexts, just like you're saying.

So what came out of SID in that presentation that you did? Did you have companies or other really smart people coming up or contacting you?

Erica: Yeah, exactly, but not so many from virtual conferences we've found, but when we've done some presentations in person and unfortunately, SID was not one of them this year, which I was super excited about that audience.

But when we have presented in person, it has led to lots of conversations with different companies and ideas of how it could benefit them and their customers. 

Okay, so if there are people listening to this who actually understand it fully, how would they track you down and how do they sort of get involved in this in some way, or get some questions answered?

Erica: We would love to hear from people. Again, it's so exploratory still at this phase, and so hearing what real companies with real customers, what they need, what is their pain point and how could we consider ColorNet as a potential solver of that pain point, just reach out to us. My email is at eblackor@clemson.edu. 

Okay, and you guys have a football team, right? 

Erica: (Laughter) We hope we have a good one again, fingers crossed. 

Is it a challenge because people think so much about Clemson as, you know, a big sports school, football school, when this is a totally gearhead kind of science project with AI coming out of Clemson, do they go, “Oh really, you guys do that too?” 

Erica: Well, we're hoping that we actually solve a problem for our athletic department. So fingers crossed, we've proved it out that it can be done. And right now we're just kind of taking a back seat to whatever Coronavirus brings for this coming season.

But our original intent was to be up and operational for our athletic department this fall, which we're capable of doing, but again, we're just kind of taking a back seat to all the decisions that they're having to make to keep their student-athletes safe and the fans and all of that. 

Which is a moving target right now. That's broadcast may be more important than ever for the next few months. 

Erica: I agree. There's no telling where all this is going to go, but we have our first football game on Saturday, and so fingers crossed, everybody stays healthy and well, and we can get that type of normalcy back for Saturdays. 

All right, Erica and Emma, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate 

Erica: This was a lot of fun. Thanks for inviting us.

Amahl Hazelton, Moment Factory

Amahl Hazelton, Moment Factory

September 9, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Montreal's Moment Factory has done many of the most visually interesting digital experiences you'll see these days - from airports and big shopping malls to ancient churches, old forts and forests.

As with just about every company out there, COVID-19 has impacted what Moment Factory does - but in this chat with Amahl Hazelton, you'll hear how the company has been successfully working its way through the pandemic, keeping a crew that's now north of 400 people busy on new and running projects.

Hazelton does strategy and development at the company, and has been a point person on many of Moment's projects in public and urban spaces. We get into the big demand that's coming in from outdoor attractions to create memorable digital experiences in outside spaces that can be made workable and safe, even when social distancing is required.

We talk about how and why big visual projects come together, their goals and how success is measured.

We also talk about how the pandemic has reinforced some lifestyle and operating changes that were already coming together for Moment - like a big deployment that would normally have as many 30 staffers on the ground, for weeks, in another city - instead having three. Web cams and effective ongoing collaboration filled the gap, and it seems to work.

There's a really short list of companies, globally, that do end-to-end iconic experiential media and events, and Moment is by far the largest of them - and by most measures the best.

Have a listen.

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TRANSCRIPT

Amahl, thank you for joining me. It's been a while since we've seen each other in person. It's been a while since I've seen most people in person. I know a ton about Moment Factory. I've been to your studios and everything up in beautiful Montreal. I miss Montreal, but I'm not traveling anytime soon, but for those who don't know much about the company, can you explain what Moment Factory is all about and what your role is there?

Amahl: Sure. So we're a pretty unique multimedia studio, doing entertainment and placemaking, and we've grown over the past decade from about 25 to 425+ staff with really almost equally divided between technical design system architecture and motion design, content creation, art direction, of what we see on signature multimedia features be they for live rock shows and things like that, which is probably around 10% of our business and has been impacted by COVID, but is still in the pipeline for when things come back to live venues. And then the rest of about 90% of our work is in these permanent placemaking projects, what we've called over the years, “destinations”. 

Your company has done a number of really iconic projects. Are there ones you can rattle off that people can go, “Oh yeah. I saw that.” 

Amahl: Sure. I think a lot of people have been through some of the world's major airports and they've seen what we've done in LAX back in 2013. I know they've seen it on your blog Sixteen:Nine. More recently numerous collaborations with Changi airport, which has consistently ranked number one in the world, and it's always trying to set a new standard with their various terminals as they bring them online, as well as the various spaces that surround the airport. So they've been quite innovative in building entire attractions and almost theme parks around the airport so that people have things to do, from the local community and also travelers who are coming in and out and using the airport as a hub.

So there's a lot of interesting stuff that's been there and not just entertainment. There have been some interesting pain points solved by those destinations, dealing with long waiting lines, creating entertainment, and diversion around the checking lines, for example, through security in the case of Changi. And I think they're pretty proud about that now, as they've got folks coming in and out on a limited basis, but they have a lot more gates and checks and people can be entertained and informed as they move through those zones compared to other places where, really, there's no digital option to communicate or to keep people distracted while they're waiting.

So that's been an interesting model that a lot of airports and other transportation hubs have been reaching out to us about. We're currently working on some projects people love seeing, and a lot of people will see them once things pick up again in travel, working with the busiest train station in North America, as well as the busiest in the world. I won't name them, but it's not hard to find. And those are all working on similar principles, wanting to do something special, communicate the destination and keep people engaged, especially since as many of the listeners will know, our airports, and there's a lot of planes coming in and out, but over 50% of the revenues of better-run airports is from their retail, food and beverage layer, which means that they're almost more shopping centers than they are airports.

And then people will have seen, as recently as last year, work that we did in live events with Ed Sheeran's world tour, with Red Hot Chili Peppers with that pretty incredible kinetic chandelier, that would have been developed by Tate towers. And then, importantly, a lot of innovation around interactive experiences, what we call augmented games, augmented sports, where we're dealing with mixed reality. And we're starting to create interactive installations that play with actual, real audiovisual installed platforms as well as various ways. Yeah. That people can participate in and contribute to an onsite experience via connected devices, like their phones and things like that.

Crazy stuff where we're mapping skateboard parks, while people do skateboard championships and they can send emojis out onto the field, around the skateboarders and things like that. 

When you're doing big public spaces, like the unnamed rail hubs, I've been involved with clients who have just flat out said, we want eye candy, we want the wow factor. We want something that makes people go, “Oh, wow”. But I would imagine given the amount of capital investment and the amount of investment in good creative and everything else that these clients want to do more than just have something that looks pretty, do they clearly define their purpose, what they want out of it?

And how do you work with them when it comes to the temptation to try to monetize what’s up on these with these big visuals because sometimes if you monetize them, it turns into advertising and it just loses the whole impact. 

Amahl: Monetizing is much more complex than that actually for a lot of these destinations. Some, which have been used to having digital signage, do negotiate some kind of concession for advertising and getting on their platforms, but most of them actually have higher priorities, that are worth a lot more money to them.

And, and I would summarize that in one word, the visitor, the thing that all of these destinations want is a footfall and eyeballs. So they want to be reputationally the most competitive destination in their space. So they don't want to be the 5th most popular shopping mall in their city, they don't want to be the 8th top airport in the world. or the 10th theme park. They want to be number one. And that means being top of mind. And today being top of mind means that you've got a lot of buzz and you've got a lot of photogenic content circulating on the internet and you are right eye candy plays into that.

But the strategy and the objectives are much higher than that. We want, we need, and we depend on visitors and, and there's a big role that Iconic Media features with meaningful content strategies, especially interactive ones can draw visitorship and when we're talking with these destinations, I can summarize it usually in five main objectives.

They want to be top of mind, but they don’t want to just be famous with nobody coming on the site, so there has to be some kind of call to action. And after being number one reputationally, number two is that they want more visitors. They want them, number three, to stay longer on the site, to longer dwell times. They want people to engage more, traditionally a lot of these destinations had no clue who was coming in and out and had no direct relationship with them, but with today's ecosystem of digital devices and content and sharing, now we can know who those people are. Destinations can know who they are, and have a relationship before, during, and after they arrive on the site.

And, what's key to all of that is what is the onsite experience so that they come, they've got something to look forward to and something to engage with and that's been our only focus for the entire 20 years that Moment Factory has been around, we're going to celebrate 20 years in January, and as you know, none of our productions with the hundreds and hundreds of productions that we've done, not a single one, is actually delivered on a traditional 16:9 screen of a mobile phone or a TV in your basement cinema, or in a theater. It's all out there in the real world, which is why our slogan, our credo is, “We do it in public” because we use all these same skill sets from cinema and video game, TV stage production, all the traditional AV formats, but we only do it in public.

How many of your clients, I don't need a number, but I'm curious how often do you have clients who come to you with a very clear idea of what they want and how it will play out versus those who have an aspiration and you guys tease it out and create something? 

Amahl: I would say it's usually aspirational. It really depends on where the project comes from. If a project is coming through an end-user, it's often aspirational. They know what they want to achieve, but they're not sure how to get there. They have a sense of confidence in the fact that we come with so much experience and expertise, and we do a lot of R&D and innovation so we're ahead of the curve. Often a lot of this stuff that we do has never been seen before, and then we move on and keep innovating and do something new for the next client. 

And that those three things bring people in there's already a well-established design process then people may be coming in and saying, we are architects, we’ve designed a building, but we know that we've got a lobby and an amphitheater and things like that, and we would like to work with you, Moment Factory to see what we can conceive of that. 

For those spaces right now, I would say the trends of what we're seeing, and the outreach that we're receiving, which is tremendous, really has to do with, all the disruption attached to code. So, spaces destinations of all kinds, regional, rural, urban, interior, exterior, have been reaching out and saying, either in the case of rural zones, we've got more visitors than ever, “What can we offer them? We would like to do something like the Lumina Night Walk that you've created.”

Could you describe that? Just so people understand it. 

Amahl: Sure. I think you might have a couple on your blog, but essentially... 

Yeah, I don't have any readers. 

Amahl: (Laughter) I don't think that's true. You certainly have me and a lot of my colleagues, but, the Lumina is essentially like a walk in a natural or heritage environment.

So say, a nature park or a heritage fort, for example, and it essentially consists of 7-10 exterior stations, where people can get tickets. They're always in a nighttime environment because they're outside and it takes about 40 minutes to walk through this series of experiences, which usually have a narrative around them based on the local identity, that place, its stories, its people, its myths, and legends.

And, those have been already inherently COVID compliant as I call it. So you had specific departure times when you bought a ticket, so you're leaving at 9:20, you arrive in your group and you move straight into the experience as a group, and the experiences are permeable, so you can come in and out of them, at your rhythm.

And people have a lot of space on these walks to move around each other without coming into contact and have a tremendous family experience which, you know, there's a dearth of that. And, if there are connected objects, which in some cases, there are things that they can touch, those are easily sterilizable.

So interestingly, we've seen not only that, we've actually opened a brand new production that was procured entirely during COVID. We opened Alt Lumina, which is our first European Lumina Night Walk, we actually opened it just four weeks ago in Lije, which is in the French Alps. We're working on a number of other ones and we've opened almost all of the Lumina Night Walks, which are now 12 around the world.

So we started with a couple of them in Quebec and then have them also in Japan, in Singapore, in Western and Eastern Canada, in Toronto zoo, and now Europe and some on the working table in the United States and elsewhere. So not only have some of those opened and been created during COVID, we're receiving a lot of demand for those and have actually accelerated the opening of some which were only winter ones. So we had some winter Lumina Night Walks that asked us to come in and get them going for the summer season so that they could take advantage of the appetite of people to have something safe to enjoy with their families during this time where they're mostly locked down. 

Are these Moment Factory owned entities or joint ventures, or do you execute these for clients? 

Amahl: These are partnerships, each one with each destination. There's a lot of different profiles. If we look at the types of places that Luminas are going into, they're going into, like I mentioned, nature parks, heritage parks, but they're also becoming part of an added value ecosystem for adventure tourism operators. So you might have a zip line and you're bound to close down as things get dark, but you've got this entire territory, that you're all set up in and you've got operations set up, but you want to do something at night and maybe it's a partnership between them and their local municipality, or County to actually drive tourism in those areas, but yeah, we always do it in partnership. 

There's a certain cost investment between the Moment Factory and the destination, and then, because it is a partnership, Moment Factory, and the destination has a share in the tickets and sales on a long term basis.

And we provide all the support to make sure that the environment isn't neglected, but is maintained in tiptop shape, and it’s fully operational every day, every night that it's open. 

So that's outside, but how do you manage things for inside jobs? (Laughter) That sounds like the wrong term. 

Amahl: Well, actually it's very similar. It's interesting, there are some projects like you covered the Continuum project that we did for Canada 150. That was very interesting because that was, essentially, a takeover of a half-finished subway train station downtown. 

And, we often get questions about how finished space needs to be to host a multimedia experience, and it really doesn't have to be. This was essentially a dusty construction site, and it's the same as a lot of these spaces that are being abandoned by retailers as they start to lose tenants inside shopping malls and stuff like that, they're basically rough shells and there's a lot you can do with a black box like that. You've got controlled light, you can create a really incredible experience. And if you look at the outcomes from that, I mentioned, we've been receiving a lot of calls to act essentially as an “emergency doctor” during this COVID time, and they're saying, “We're a shopping mall, and our tenants are closing and people are coming in on a mission. They'd come in the front door, they go to one store, they pick one thing up and they get out. And, our footfall has just dropped off the charts. And we've got an increasing number of square footage that we don't know what to do with, how can we bring visitors back so that all of our existing retailers benefit, and do that in a safe way?”

And Continuum was actually almost an indoor model of a Lumina type experience, multiple stations, and things like that. And we now have this toolkit essentially of tried and true different installations that we've done, and if you look at some of the metrics of those backends, it’s very interesting to these destinations that are trying to attract visitors and repeat visitorship is Continuum, for example, had 320,000 people download tickets over nine weeks. So that's barely two months. And if you put that in perspective, that's pretty comparable to the annual visitorship in Ottawa of the national museums. So if you're looking at, Museum of Science and Technology or Aviation or any of those, in nine weeks, this one humble multimedia installation attracted pretty equivalent tourism and footfall and ticket sales.

So in the current environment, the real critical issue for all these destinations is that we need people and there are things that can be set up and installed in three, four weeks. A typical Lumina is taking nine months to a year, three to four quarters to get it designed and implemented, but downtown, if you look at what's happening right now, everybody's in the regions. So the regions are doing really well, compared even to previous pre-COVID times, but they would like to capture and benefit on a sustained basis from that visitorship. 

So they want those people to come back, even when things settle down and they're looking to expand their offer, so “Hey, we're out here in the countryside. There's not a lot to see and do, so what can we do?” And Lumina offers a very interesting solution for that. But in the cities, that's where you're seeing community suffering. Tourism is destroyed, visitorship to traditional culture and retail destinations are destroyed and they're very much looking for options, and these, sort of, pop-up experiences that multimedia can offer, and you don't need to rebuild your entire architecture to do something special. You can take it over, you can transform it with projectors and audio and special effects and things like that and get a tremendous number of people, and it goes viral and it looks photogenic. These are very interesting solutions to developers, to cities, to business districts, and things like that right now. 

Drafting off of the whole business of COVID and the nervousness about being around other people and the nervousness, right or wrong, around touching things, I think we're all now conditioned to sanitizing. And when we touch anything, has that been forced to change in terms of how you do some of your interactive things? 

Amahl: Not so much for us. Interestingly, we never jumped on the wave of joystick-controlled or VR goggle oriented experiences, both of which are pretty individual, and we are creating collective experiences and the R&D that I mentioned, and we spend a couple million a year at least on R&D really allows us to stay ahead of the curve in terms of using technologies that don't require touch. So it's something that we can look back 10 years and see some of the things that we were doing with interactive facades that were using the connect Kinect.

In fact, it was interesting when they discontinued Kinect. With, when Microsoft discontinued the original just last year, the big news around that is what are the Moment Factories of the world going to do? Moment Factory used that to create the nine-inch nails lights in the sky tour that was so famous.

What are we going to do without connecting now? There are new generations of that coming online from Microsoft and other technologies that we hacked, like the LIDAR, in autonomous cars, right? So very high response rate, very accurate, and we can use that to create massive experiences that are large scale, tracking a lot of people quite accurately and, and all of that is enabling more and more experiences. 

The other trend of course, that I don't need to mention is the personal device. We're carrying around incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology that are essentially not only objects of our attention, they're actually extensions of our body in some way. And so we can use them by how we blow into them, how we look at them, how we move them, and that can become our personal controller or means of contributing to the environment that surrounds us.

Does traditional digital signage, and by traditional I mean, 69 screens or LED displays that are feature walls or whatever, do they have a role in what you do or are they kind of complimentary? Are they integral?  

Amahl: Well, it's interesting. I've been doing a lot of calls with various stakeholders in the real estate development industry and almost categorically, they've been coming back this summer and saying it's not just a nice to have, we consider it a must-have to have digital media and especially some kind of interactive digital media in our destination. It's not optional anymore.

Now how to do it and what it does, is a deeper question. There's a real desire to have it easy to use, so the 16:9 is people's first reflex, but things don't need to be, you know, a boring rectangle, no offense intended with your brand, but the...

I'm a boring guy. I'm fine.  (Laughter) 

Amahl: No, It's the opposite. 

But yeah, we're breaking out of that box and everybody is, you're seeing it all over the world that the traditional pixel space has been exploded.

And so if you're coming into a more celebrated commercial office towers and things like that, they can't afford not to distinguish themselves, they can't afford to have a space that doesn't allow, perhaps the nature of their "tech tenants" to be expressed or their upstart, their startups, or their innovative companies that they want to attract as tenants, which are the growth ones, right? And if you're an office builder, then you're going to be after the best growth tenants that you can find, and that is invariably in some kind of technology and innovation. 

Yeah, I wondered if those commercial property developers were going to pivot away from those kinds of "highly visible visual experiences" in their lobbies and all that because of COVID and the whole work-from-home phenomenon, and would they now be competing just on cost-per-square-foot for leasing, but it sounds like if they want to stand out and stay competitive, they still have to do this? 

Amahl: Well, it's a lot about what we call place branding and competitive identity. If you're going to have your destination compete against these other ones, what are you going to do to stand out? Because the dollar figure per square foot is really a race to the bottom. The location has always been a part of it, but experience too, and I think you've seen some of my presentations or keynotes, and I talked about ROI, but there's also ROE, the return on emotion.

And that ROE is a much bigger conversation now than when I first said it 8-10 years ago. It's return on the emotion, return on experience, return on entertainment, return on education, where people want to actually have a meaningful takeaway and not just an entertainment experience with their space and these developers.

You gotta think that as they start scratching their head about what is the stimulus to have people continue to choose to come to work in an office? Well, if you've got a boring concrete block box, a lot of the developers are saying, what if we got that's going to entice people out of their basements, where they're perfectly safe and happy doing their Zoom calls if our office building has nothing interesting and no way of communicating or expressing itself back and forth with the public that we're trying to attract into it? 

Before I hit the start recording button, we were talking a little bit about a project, at least part of the team was working on, without going into what that project was, what I found was interesting is the technical challenges of doing a live installation in the midst of a pandemic and how so much of the team that would normally be on site was working remotely and you were using things like webcams to put content on the big displays or whatever. Can you relay a little bit of that?

Amahl: Yeah, obviously we've all been grappling with the limitations to travel internally within countries, but, externally as well, trying to cross borders and we've got a massive project, it's no secret, with the AT&T's headquarters in downtown Dallas and a huge ecosystem of exterior and interior LEDs and content coming from the many incredible studios that AT&T purchased when they purchased Time Warner.

And, we've been refining this remote integration ability, where we would usually have 30 people on site for a month, so a lot of people, a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of per diem, we can now do an integration like that with 3 people for six weeks and that's possible because we've always been particularly good at collaborating with local partners. So wherever we go around the world, we're looking for local partners in the cities, in the regions that we're conceiving these installations, who can actually support the clients and support us in implementing, delivering those. And there are fantastic partners on that Dallas team, the great in-house team with AT&T, against the architect who oversaw it. And that's a continuing trend. So we're just deepening those networks of collaborators in the integrator, in the manufacturing sector, and refining our processes to be able to do things wherever it is in the world using remote access points and high bandwidth connections.

So you see this as, or the company sees this as, something that you can do a lot going forward, or is this kind of a “hack” that's getting you through? 

Amahl: No, it's something that we could do a tremendous amount of, and it's actually kept us being extremely productive, even as all of those 425 staff that we have have been working from home.

We were up and running in about three days to work from home. And then one of the first things that we started undertaking was okay, how can we actually do real jobs, not collaborate on design, but actually produce them and integrate them and operate and maintain them moving forward. And we've got that riddle pretty much solved. 

If we're doing site visits, even for projects that are under development already, existing environments, we can actually do a lot of that with a good webcam or an iPad from the client-side and they can give us the tour of the space, and we look at it and start talking about the possibilities without needing to fly all the way to China or to Australia to do that.

Yeah, and I would imagine that this is good news in terms of staff morale and everything else, because going to, let's say Dallas for a week is okay. You can hang out and go to a few restaurants and things like that, but if you're there for five or six weeks, that gets old really quick. And if you could just do most of this work and be home with your family and your friends, you're going to be a lot happier. 

Amahl: It's interesting because it was a pre-COVID initiative that we'd already started working on. How can we reduce the time in airplanes and hotels for our staff, which was an exciting thing when we were in our teenage years as a company, the phone rang, we loved jumping on a plane to go to Dubai and Europe, and Asia. 

And we still do a lot of our work if you look at the breakdown, we do about 30% of our work in Asia, 30% in the States, 30% in Europe, and under 5% per year, traditionally in Canada, but that's changing as well because as we've matured, we've started not just answering the phone, but building our relationships in these territories so closer within the United States, within Canada, starting to settle down and allow our staff to have lifestyles where they can start families of their own and spend more time with them and not be on a plane here and there. So, in Canada, we've had a lot of fun and have some very exciting projects in development coming online in Canada and the United States.

Good. This just flew by, so the last question, I'm curious because your job is public spaces, right? That’s your charge? 

Amahl: Yeah. Although it's more transversal now since over the past three to four months, but traditionally, yes, growing that whole permanent project space, which we described originally as public spaces, now more recently as cities. And that's divided into a number of segments that have their own critical mass theme parks, the Luminas and Night Walk experiences that I described, and then these big urban development projects are pretty equally distributed. 

So you get an inbound, you do a phone call or a Zoom call or whatever it may be, to talk to the potential customer for the first time. What's that first question, other than how much of a budget you have? 

Amahl: What do we ask them? 

Yeah. 

Amahl: It's interesting. The first question I ask usually is, alright, this phone call was very exciting. We're now three years later and looking back and your project, whatever it is, we don't have any idea yet what it's going to be, but you're looking back and it was a huge success, and you're tapping yourself on the back and saying, man, was it a good idea that I called those guys? What is your success criteria? What happened that you're thinking, man, did I ever do it right? 

And starting with that question of putting people in the future, looking back, and saying, boy, this is what I achieved, that puts everything in perspective, and allows us to have a conversation about what objectives they're trying to attain long before we get to what are the real creative directions that can be applied to it, to reaching your challenges. So you want more visitorship now in four weeks and six weeks, eight weeks in your space? There's a tremendous amount that we could do by Christmas.

You've got a Christmas holiday where things start reopening for COVID, for example, and now it's February of next year and you're looking back and you say, wow, I saved the holidays from the COVID Grinch. And there's just so much that can be done to bring people together safely, with joy and not just as spectators, but as participants in experiences, which is what they're hungry for. 

People don't just want to watch more Netflix, which they can do in their basement, but they actually want to contribute. They want to be a part of something and interactive multimedia installations can really unlock that for people and it can be done right now. But, it takes picking up the phone and saying, “what can we do?”

That's great insight. Thank you. 

Amahl: Yeah, well, real pleasure talking with you, Dave.

 

David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

September 2, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Four Winds Interactive is one of the largest and most well-known pure play digital signage companies in the industry.

But the Denver-based company went a little quiet about 18 months ago, when a venture capital company based in Austin, Texas took on a majority stake.

That perceived quiet spell changed recently when word circulated that Four Winds had itself completed an acquisition - a UK company focused on workplace communications and operations.

News of that deal presented a good reason to get back together on a podcast with David Levin, who started the company and has long been its CEO.

We chatted about several things, including where the company is at, how fully half of its business is now with screens that are employee-facing, and why he and his clients call the work visual communications.

We also get into how the company is weathering the pandemic, with maybe 15% of staff going into the company's two Denver offices, while the rest work from home. Levin goes in, by the way.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

So David, good to catch up. It's been a long time since we've seen each other. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. It's been way too long. 

It's been my impression and you can correct me, that about a year and a half ago, you weren't acquired, but you got a major investment from a private equity firm. And, since then, you’ve been kind of quiet. I don't see Four Winds Interactive around as much as I used to, but tell me I'm wrong and that you guys are noisy as hell and I'm just missing it.

David Levin: We might've been quiet, from a press standpoint, but we've been very busy. We did do a majority investment from Vista Equity Partners about 18 months ago. And we've been hard at work. I think when we talked maybe three years ago, we were at the early part of our FWI Cloud Initiative, that we are now into end to end on cloud and have had, I don't know how many releases, but a lot. We're extraordinarily proud of where that's turned out and with Vista, we've made a lot of changes operationally that are great. We've changed a lot of things in our go-to-market operation. And, building the foundation for the company for the next phase. 

Now, what drove those changes? Was it because the PE guys or VC guys said you need to make these changes or the cash infusion and support enabled you to make changes that you already had in the works or wanted to do?

David Levin: So one of the things we liked about Vista and the reason we partnered with them is that they invest exclusively in software companies and they are known for studying best practices and figuring out what works best. And that's an evolving process because, as companies try new things that go back into the best practice creation, companies evolve together, but you get the benefit of being able to be a member company of 60 plus software companies and figure out what works best. And for the 14 years prior to that, we had essentially figured everything out on our own. And, I was excited to have those resources available to us. 

So, long story short, we jumped full-on and implemented a lot of the best practices.

What does it mean culturally? As you said, you had 14 years of, pretty much bootstrapping with some angel level private investors, building the company up to where it was at, to then go to having majority owners outside of the company. And now, you're still in charge, but you have masters.

David Levin: Yeah, well, it doesn't feel like that. You know, they are a majority owner, but we still retained a significant stake and we have a meaningful ownership piece in this business. I started and have been the CEO since the start, it will always feel like our organization, regardless of the equity structure and they're very collaborative. So it has felt like a partnership. 

Yeah. One of the things when the announcement happened that you guys had done this deal, I looked at the company and I looked at the portfolio of companies that Vista already had under its wings and thought, this is interesting. There's a whole bunch of companies in there who I could see doing integrations with and getting you into lines of business or opening doors that would be very hard to otherwise open it. Has that played out or was I just imagining things? 

David Levin: The investment thesis wasn't about integration with other portfolio companies. We are what's considered a platform investment for them, which is, they're picking leaders in software industries to go win a category.

And the platform investment is the first company investment in a space. And then, in almost all of their investments, there add on acquisitions to that platform company to help when the market broadens the offering to customers, and the Spark Space acquisition was our first acquisition. That's part of that. So no, it was a platform investment versus something related to integration with the portfolio. 

But when you have kind of sister companies, so to speak, who are doing work, let's say, in the restaurant or hospitality industry, and they have a platform that does whatever it does, it struck me as so many technologies are starting to blend and blur together that there were complimentary technology opportunities here that you could add capabilities to another platform and vice versa and enable integrations. 

David Levin: It's super helpful from an integration standpoint.

So where customers want to, in a simple case, pull data from a US system and that system is part of the Vista portfolio, then it's obviously easy to make a call and get the product teams working together, but that wasn't core to the investment strategy. That's just a helpful benefit. 

Right, and what has it meant for the company in terms of how you operate? You said you made a lot of structural changes and things like that. How has that played out?

David Levin: Yeah, so we've changed our sales territories. We have increased investments, and in marketing, I think, we had launched just prior to the investment, but we've made a significant investment in our customer success organization and our support for customers overall and their renewals and their growth and countless others, but those are the first ones that come to mind. 

One thing that always struck me about Four Winds was that you had a lot of people and you opened a hell of a lot of new accounts, very strong in terms of email marketing and customer acquisition. But then, what comes with opening a lot of accounts is you've got to manage all of those people, and manage all of those accounts, and very small accounts can be needier than whale accounts. Has that changed or have you streamlined and focused more on corporate and enterprise? 

David Levin: Yeah, enterprise across multiple use cases, but definitely enterprise, after adding to the software platform for 14 years and having the luxury of being able to work on some of the more advanced use cases out there, the product was positioned for enterprise and as a larger organization, you need big customers generally to keep growing. So yeah, that's where we're focused. 

So if you have a small account, let's say a, a tribal casino in Missouri that needs 10 screens, would you push them off to a reseller or would you say it's not really what we do anymore? 

David Levin: So, the interesting thing in the casino market is that even smaller casinos are great digital signage customers because they've got far more than 10 screens. We do have some phenomenal partners, ConnectedSign is one of those and we'll work with partners to make sure that they're taken care of. The most important thing is that they're on our platform. so generally, yes. 

Historically you've put a lot of emphasis on vertical markets, and from my perspective at least, you’ve been very smart in terms of not putting all of your eggs in the generalized “trade show” basket, by going to vertical market-specific trade shows that nobody else, who you would consider a competitor was at, like Airport trade shows and Hotel trade shows, and the Hospital trade shows, and so on. 

Have you thinned out the number of verticals that you're after? Cause it seemed to me, when I was looking last week on your website, it seemed to be about corporate and guest experience.

David Levin: We've definitely put more focus there, with an overriding theme of enterprise visual communications. Some of our larger customers are retailers and have customer-facing applications. probably go to market perspective, yes, with the caveat that if you've got a lot of screens, you need enterprise-grade visual communication software, where you've got more advanced use cases, we target those.

You said visual communication software. Is digital signage, the term you even use with your customers, are they asking for digital signage or are they asking for visual communications or something else? 

David Levin: They ask for both.

I think cust customers that have been working with us for a long time,tend to use visual communications. And I think the industry is still digital signage and both are great. 

Don't really care, just by, please! (Laughter) 

David Levin: Yeah. 

I'm curious about workplace and enterprise-level workplace, and what's now happening and what's going to happen longed term with, big damn offices that maybe won't be as big as they used to, or at least not as heavily populated as they used to. Is that for some of your clients, as well as yourself to rethink and pivot around the new way that workplaces are gonna operate?

David Levin: Yeah. I think all organizations are going through this question of “what does life looked like post-COVID in the workplace?” It has fundamentally changed and customers are at different levels of bringing people back to work. And, technology is a key part of enabling that and I think there's just this fundamental shift where most organizations have proven you can be very effective at home, so then what's the role of the office? And how many people are coming into the office on any given day, what's a safe number of people to come into the office while we're still in COVID and then how do you use technology to manage that? 

Does it matter to the typical client whether there are 500 people in the office now, or trimmed down to 200 because you still have 200 people who you need to communicate with?

David Levin: Yeah, I think it makes a difference because you've got to communicate, across multiple platforms. So first of all, in workplaces, generally breaking down into three categories, employee communications, which we talk about a lot in the industry, digital workplace, which tends to be more meeting or a management desk management, visitor management, interactive directories, wayfinding, emergency messaging, and then, performance-related, you know KPI boards, manufacturing floors, call centers, Salesforce, etc. 

So in the employee communications realm, you've gotta be multichannel. So for people that aren't in the office, obviously digital signs are very important, but if you're at home, you've got to get communication with people on their personal device. So we've got viewer channels that enable people to do that and other tools to make sure that the communication objectives are met. 

So the viewer channels are effectively desktop screensaver kinds of things, and alerts that'll pop on a screen?

David Levin: Yeah, digital signage content that you can view on your personal device primarily using the browser. 

Now, how do you get workers to use that? Because I'm thinking if I worked at a company, and maybe I'm just a cranky old guy, but I don't think I would want that if I could avoid it.

I don't know that I would use it if there was a way not to use it. 

David Levin: It's funny. A lot of us, when we were working at home, had digital signs running in the background, but you don't have to have a dedicated device for that.

So for example, if you've got your laptop connected to multiple screens, then you can take one screen and make that your sign, or resize a window in the corner. And it's a way to get content throughout the day. And some of our customers who are using the product for sales KPIs, they're used to looking at those boards when they're on the office floor. You know, you want to be able to see how you're performing throughout the day, meet with your peers, and you're just running it in a different format. 

One of the things I've talked a lot about is the whole idea of KPIs on manufacturing floors and elsewhere. And I've wondered how many end-user companies are actually using it yet, and while I've seen no end of chatter about workplace comms and showing KPIs for showing Salesforce, opportunity pipeline, reports, and everything on a screen. They make sense in a white-collar environment, but are you seeing many companies adopting KPI dashboards for production blue-collar areas?

David Levin: We are at the evolution of visual management as part of lean manufacturing and the more screens people end up getting in a venue, then this question of “okay, how do you control the devices and Is there a better way to present the information?” The number of screens that are out there in manufacturing floors on rolling carts may be running an app, a dashboard that wasn't designed to be a digital sign, it's intended for desktop use, but you're running it on a public screen, and you're trying to view it from a long way away. that still exists quite a bit out there. 

So as customers evolve their needs, they find themselves looking for digital signage or edge of visual communications products and have really good visual applications and good device management and everything else that comes along with the solution.

So tell me about the Smart Space acquisition. Was that an acquisition led by Four Winds or by Vista and it's a paper announcement that this was an acquisition by Four Winds? Or is you guys? 

David Levin: No, it was led by Four Winds, but it's a close partnership. We work with the Vista team on the business. So when we started 18 months ago, we mapped out the market, you know, things like where are our largest segments, where the biggest population of our customer base, what are our natural product extensions, where can we bring the most value back to customers and, what does the universe look like?

And that helped create our Corp Dev strategy. And with Smart Space, we were talking to them for a while and I really wanted our first acquisition to be able to bring something more back to our base. Now our base really breaks down pretty evenly between 50% of our customers are using the product for customer-facing applications, and 50% of our customers are using the product for internal and employee communication

You know, it's hard to do one acquisition to cover everybody from the start, so we're looking across the board. You know, workplace is important to us, and then in the workplace, again, those three kinds of segments between employee comms, performance management, and digital workplace.

And then in the digital workplace, If you find yourself with a meeting room signage product, which we have, and customers have been adopting, you're really quickly into meeting room management and desk management. And if you're in meeting room management and desk management, then you really need analysts about the usage of those spaces, you need sensory integration, you need a mobile app for the employee experience, and so that’s why we just felt like it was a good product extension to buy. 

So it was one of those cases of, “Our customers looking for this, we know that we're going to have it. We can either build it or the faster track is to buy it and get a pretty significant number of customers with it?”

David Levin: Yeah, exactly. And you know, if you're involved in real estate or digital workplace for a large enterprise, then usually you're involved with both digital signage and desk and reading room management. So it's a great fit. 

And with the Smart Space deal, will they be rebranded as Four Winds or will it continue to be its own entity? 

David Levin: So Smart Space is becoming part of Four Winds. We're still figuring out the naming of the product. We really like what they've done with the product, but right now, Smart Space is an FWI company and will become part of our overall platform. 

You had European people before, EMEA people before, but this gives you an office, right?

David Levin: It gives us an office and 40 great people, most of who are based in the UK and a really nice center for our operation in Europe. 

Does it play out the way I've heard from other companies in terms of you start with very simple applications with a corporate enterprise, like a meeting room sign and it just cascades out from there because if they're happy that the client asks for more capability, directories analytics, KPI dashboards, and so on?

David Levin: For sure. In general, the more applications a customer can run on a single platform, the better. And that's where a lot of our growth has come from over the years, as a customer will start in an area that is the most important need at that particular time and then they'll expand and expansion is pretty easy because it's an endpoint on the platform and it's an application that's built on the platform and content that gets managed by the platform and feeds that application, so it's pretty easy to expand and we love the fact that there's so much you can do on the product.

We’d love all these different use cases to get rolled out. And even at a workplace customer, it's interesting, even in a workplace customer, there are these different parts of a workplace which ends up being customers facing, like your lobby experience, your executive briefing centers, your trade show. So, it even finds its way over there, even if it started internally. 

I know this answer, but I'm curious anyway, you've gone into a few verticals as a company and kind of backed off of them because it was just too hard. Is part of the drive around just being corporate and guest experience by and large a way of kind of simplifying things and realizing, “Hey, verticals like retail are really difficult and verticals like hotels”, what you were doing on your own to some degree, let's say five, six, seven years ago.

There's a whole bunch of companies who now say, we do hotels and we're after that market. 

David Levin: Yeah. we haven't limited to workplace and guest experience, and again, some of our larger customers are customer-facing applications in retail environments, and they're extraordinarily successful.

I think where you get into nuances is if you're going to sub-sectors of retail, let's say like a QSR, if you consider that retail and then you're looking at again, the solution overall, and then you're adding self-service kiosks and other parts of the application. If the customer wants all of that and you don't have that, or don't have the experience on that, then you're not going to be as competitive there. And so, it just depends on how much of the solution is more pure visual communications or digital signage in retail, and how much is broadening into other areas of retail, and I think sub-sectors of retail, QSR, grocery, or specialty retail, sometimes it broadens a bit.

Right. You're having real-world experience, well like everybody, with the pandemic in terms of having a pretty significant office. I think the last time I got a count, you guys were up around 350 people, and most of those going into an office in Denver, where are you at now in terms of the number of people coming into the office?

David Levin: Yeah. We've got about 350 people in Denver. There are about 20 people in the office. Well, we have two offices in Denver, so maybe 40 people on any given day in the office and it's purely voluntary. We've got plenty of space, so people that are coming in are well socially distant.

And, we were shut down completely for several months and you know, your work from home experience differs based on what you have going on at home. And so we wanted for people that wanted to get out of the house for whatever reason, to have the ability to come back to the office in a safe way, so we opened it up, but it's a small percentage. I think we all have about 3000 square feet year at the office. 

And coming out of this, do you anticipate that, based on the experience of so many people doing their work from home, when you have the opportunity with your lease, that you'll trim back and this homework will be permanent for some of your staff?

David Levin: I don't know if we'll trim back, but I don't see us acquiring a lot more space because we're going to implement our own desk and room booking system and make everything bookable across the office, so people will use the office, as they need, for activity-based working. They'll book what they need when they need it, and I think there'll be this hybrid model of people working from home and working from the office. And, we'll enable that through the software, and put more investment in collaboration. 

We're seeing our customers do this too. They're just putting more into teams’ rooms and Zoom’s rooms, so when part of your team's in the office and part of the teams out of the office, it's still really easy to get the resources you need to have effective collaboration. 

Are you challenged at all by the Zoom(s) of the world and the big consulting companies like Deloitte(s) and Accenture(s) and ones like that who seem to be getting into this space? 

You have Zoom that has a very elemental digital signage system, but you know, so much of what's being done these days is done over Zoom, that they could start to offer the capabilities that you guys are presenting. 

David Levin: Yeah, so Zoom is very simple, and as you described, it's good and bad. And, to me, the good part about it is that if people start digital signage and do visual communications and they put screens out, and even if they start on zoom, at least they're getting screens out and chances are the more screens that are out the more their sophistication evolves for applications and management, etc. and they will come back to the market most likely and look for an enterprise provider. The bad is, of course, it is free and they get a little bit of the market, but, I think there's probably more good than bad. And with the large consulting companies, I think they're more partners than competitors and we've done some really great projects with most of them. And it's generally part of a big digital transformation scope. And there are some digital signage applications that are part of that scope, and then they're often using a product like ours to execute on that part of the scope. 

Okay. So, they're happy to sell you guys into it as long as they're getting their consulting hours out of it? 

David Levin: Definitely. Nobody wants to build all these applications from scratch, you want to use a platform. 

Oh, I don't know about that. (Laughter)

I get those phone calls and emails almost daily from people saying, “Hey, I'm doing a digital signage startup. Can we get on the phone and talk?” And I'll get on the phone with them and they’ll talk with me, “You would be software platform #487, doing what you just described to me. Please stop now.” It makes them sad, but too bad, I’m saving them a lot of money in the long run. 

You are more a technical CEO than a number of CEOs who I speak with, who come more on the sales side or marketing side, where do you see things going in terms of the way all of this stuff is done? 

We've had some shifts through the years. There's a hell of a lot more adaptation of systems on chip displays, then maybe, some early observers sought there might be, are we getting to a point where devices are nothing more than little edge devices and visual communications, as you call it, is very much a software-driven initiative, and we don't get fixated on the hardware? 

David Levin: Yeah, I think so. From a software perspective, Cloud and IoT have been huge. If you look at a lot of what went into our R&D investment in the last four or five years, it was transforming our own software platforms to take advantage of native clouds and all the technologies around IoT that enable you to manage these remote devices. That just didn't exist when we started 15 years ago and it probably didn't exist five or seven years ago, but we get to take advantage of what the big cloud providers offer and how remote devices are managed in general, for consumers and businesses.

Related to edge devices, it's getting a heck of a lot better. To be able to use edge devices effectively and still have pretty sophisticated applications that run on those, when we went live with cloud, we supported BrightSign, Samsung, and LG, we support those three in addition to our Windows platform. And it's a matter of picking the right device or the right use case. 

Are enterprise customers, the IT teams, less antsy than they used to be about cloud and unfamiliar devices that aren't HP boxes or Dell boxes that they buy by the hundreds or thousands?

David Levin: Yeah, they're embracing with really high-security standards. That was another big part of the investment because it's hard to sell cloud if the security is not there and end-user customers have a really sophisticated way to assess security. So yes, cloud with the security and as far as devices go, there is a movement, of course, to move away from Windows devices and the management that comes along with Windows devices but it also depends on the organization overall. There are some people where they are still heavy Window shops and it's easier for them. And then, there are a lot where if it's more of a, if there's less going on at the endpoint device, it's easier for them to manage overall. 

Do you get a sense from end-users, when they're canvassing the potential vendors/service providers who can help them with their visual communications, that most of the people they have coming in really have their act together in terms of security, or is it a breath of fresh air for guys like you to come in and have sales engineers who can talk about serious security?

David Levin: Yeah, it's a breath of fresh air, but also for us, we got the security department now, led by Maurice, he’s our Chief Security Officer. So the sales team often at a certain part of the sales cycle, or if customers are upgrading their security standards, which happens quite often, then we'll bring in the team members from our security group and they'll take over from there, cause it really is a specialized discipline.

How long have you had that role in place? 

David Levin: Gosh, I think I want to say Maurice joined us four years ago to head up the org, and now there are probably five people in the org, and they work closely with our cloud operations and our legal and compliance team and sales engineering. And, it's been a big part of maturing the organization.

Yeah, I would imagine that there are end-user customers who are somewhat comforted by the fact that you have full-time people just in that case and not saying, “Oh yeah, we pay attention to security.” 

David Levin: Well, they have made it a requirement. When you see some of the security addendums that are attached to contracts, if you don't have a team handling those, there’s just basically no way to comply. 

So, looking ahead, I know this is a weird year. and it's hard to forecast anything, but work goes on, so what will we see out of Four Winds in the next 6 to 12 months? 

David Levin: Yeah. I think in general, what I'm most excited about is that this world is getting more digital and I think, COVID is pushing that even faster because everybody has had to rethink everything they do. 

If it's customer-facing, what's the new customer engagement model? In venues, how do we interact with customers in these venues in a safe way? And how does technology enable that? And digital signage fits in. And if you're in the workplace, it's the same thing related to that to return to work. 

I think that's good for our industry overall. I think we play a key role in that. And, for us, we've got a great roadmap where we've got a couple of big releases coming out before the end of the year on Cloud, we’re excited about the integration with Smart Space. Look for more integrations with that on our platform and also us to take key elements of that, like their mobile and wayfinding and some of the other sensory integration, some of the other attributes, and do other use cases for key markets and, just keep, building the company. We're still got a lot of energy. 

That's good. All right, David. Great to catch up with you. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. Appreciate you having me on. Thanks for all you're doing.

 

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

August 26, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Ask a digital signage provider about its target markets, and a hell of a lot of them will list banks among them. But only a small handful of companies are solely focused on the financial services sector, and the best known and most enduring of those is JohnRyan.

The Minneapolis-based company has been providing branch merchandising and messaging services to the banking sector, globally, for decades. It's also one of a few companies who can credibly says it was doing digital signage before the technology had a name that stuck.

I chatted recently with JohnRyan's President, Nancy Radermecher, who has been at the company for more than 20 years.

We spoke about JohnRyan's roots, but also about what's going on today. Bankers have long been in the midst of what they call digital transformation, but the pandemic has turned five-year plans into five month executions.

We talk about the evolution of retail banking, and how digital signage and interactive digital apply. We also speak about what kind of content really does work in banks, and why.

Nancy has a passion for data-driven content, and nerdy stuff like integrating systems. We dig into where she thinks platforms for business, like digital signage, are going.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

TRANSCRIPT

Hi, Nancy. I know JohnRyan pretty well. I'm thinking about a number of people maybe don't. So if they don't, can you give the elevator pitch about what JohnRyan is all about? And, we can also get into maybe how things have changed through the years. 

Nancy: Sure. We are historically a retail marketing agency, meaning that our clients are end-users, operating financial retail establishments, and we take a sort of strategic and all-encompassing approach to retail marketing. And within that portfolio, is digital signage. So over the years, digital has become a far more important and central product for us because people have moved a lot of their offline retail experiences into the digital world. And it's from that perspective that we entered the digital signage market. 

Yeah, it seems to me, I can remember that the first thing I knew about JohnRyan is that you had a legacy business where you were doing things like handling the compliance of all those brochures that would be in sleeves and bank branches and so on because somebody had to manage that otherwise the same stuff would be sitting in there for years. 

Nancy: Sometimes that even happens to digital signage, but yeah, you're absolutely right. And when we started in digital signage, it was because we were in the United Kingdom and passed a window of a building society and there they had a stand. On the bottom of that stand was a giant video desk, and then above it, there was a screen and they were making use of a firmware technology where you could actually superimpose changing text on top of a video background supplied by this video desk, which in its day was absolutely remarkable.

And so we thought, goodness, is there something to this multimedia approach to what we do today? And we began the exploration based on that. And in fact, one of the people involved in that project is still with the company today, the original building society project. So it was, oh my god, the early mid-nineties, I can tell you that the word digital signage didn't exist.

So we kept trying to find ways to explain what we thought this could be to one another before there was the terminology that you can apply to it.

I think we're all still struggling to explain what digital signage is to people. 

Nancy: Yeah. Fair enough. 

It's improved, but is the focus entirely on retail banking, or do you service any other sectors?

Nancy: Opportunistically we've stepped outside of retail banking. The company initially was focused on chain retail, conventional retail. We moved into retail banking quite early on and pretty much stayed there to this day. 

And is it just the big whale account banks in North America, or are you working globally and working with banks of all sizes?

Nancy: Yeah, we do tend to work with larger banks. The mega global ones are particularly attractive to us, of course, but we work with banks, say super regionals versus community banks. And we've worked in many different countries and still do today. 

Yeah. You used to have an office in, is it Spain?

Nancy: Yeah, we have a presence in Spain, but the, European offices are in London. 

And when you focus just on retail banking or primarily focused on retail banking, is that advantageous? I strongly believe that's the case that if you're going to be talking to very large companies, you sure as hell better know their business, but I see all kinds of companies who will go in and talk to anybody who is willing to take a meeting with them. And, I've been in some of these meetings and thought you guys don't know crap about this industry. 

Nancy: Yeah. I think there are probably two reasons why domain expertise is important in Banking. One is, I guess the obvious reason and the one you just referred to that, it's a good thing to understand something about the client's business situation, business challenges, business opportunities so that you can help them in relevant ways, but banking, I think imposes a second criterion, which is a very particular approach to security, as you can imagine in it and we would all hope to be the case. 

Why? (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. What on earth do they have that requires security? (Laughter)

So it has implications as to how the system is engineered and it has implications about how data moves and there's a high demand also for flexibility in engineering, which maybe you wouldn't expect, but banks may differ in how they approach their security regime. 

We've over the years had to be careful not to be too prescriptive, in how data is transferred, what kind of media player hardware is used because they have very specific ideas about that. So I think financial services is one where you actually really do need to understand the industry to thrive in it.

When you're in these kinds of meetings, is it more the case may be with a retailer, pure retailer, you're talking about what the system will do for you and with the banks you are talking about, what you can stop the system from doing or preventing it from happening? 

Nancy: Yeah, that's right. That's a very good point 

The other thing that's interesting, and what you just said is, I think, as an industry, I'm always surprised a little bit about how much of the literature that's published by digital signage companies, possibly even us, focus on the benefits of digital signage and the sort of basic understanding. And I feel like banking, probably like a lot of other verticals, really understands that, they know why somebody would do digital signage and the conversation is no longer at that level, “why would this benefit you?” No. 

Yeah, my eyes roll up into the back of my head when I go on a software company's site and see a little Chestnut of what is digital signage.

Oh God. 2020 guys. (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. And I think, the questions about business case ROI, I think those have all been answered for the industry. 

We were talking earlier about digital transformation and how COVID-19 has forced a very rapid acceleration of digital transformation plans. You were talking in terms of going from three to five-year digital transformation plans to things that had to happen in a matter of months or even weeks instead 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting, and I was just looking at some more industry literature yesterday, in the banking industry, they've all been pretty clear on the shape of things to come in terms of increasing levels of digital adoption on the part of bank consumers. And with that has come, a general understanding that as time goes on, the number of branches will decline, the nature of the activities that take place in those branches will move from the transaction on cash-based activity toward consulting activity.

And by and large, that was something the industry really wanted to see happen because it changes their cost dynamics quite dynamically for the good. So what's happened now is that there's been a really rapid acceleration of what everybody knew was gonna happen anyway. And in a certain way, that’s kind of welcome news for the industry in the sense of accelerating something that was desired. 

On the other hand at this level of speed, I think it's given people a lot of challenges in the very near term. 

So what's transforming in a retail bank? 

Nancy: Strategically, what's transforming is when and why customers are going to want a physical location. So, as I said a moment ago, it's really going to be far more of an advice and guidance proposition than a transactional proposition. But in the near term, what's transforming is the manner in which that advice and guidance proposition is delivered. So when your lobbies are not open and all the time, when people don't have free access, that's creating all sorts of logistical complexities about how do you let people in the branch, how do you manage appointment traffic? Nobody envisioned that they would have to answer all these questions all of a sudden in one big hurry, that has an impact on digital signage, of course, because it provides an opportunity to actually use digital signage to convey to customers new policies.

Obviously, there are opportunities to manage, customer check-in, and flow using digital tools. The screen's gonna be an important part of conveying where you stand in the queue and what's going out in the branch. In some senses, this is making digital signage a more integral part of a successful branch operation, which is good.

It's more than just a communications tool. And there were other examples of that. I think increasingly people are going to embed digital experiences in the onboarding process. We've all seen these bankers clickety clacking away on their computer terminals when we're opening an account.

Some banks now turn that screen toward the customer when they're clickety clacking. But I think hopefully it will be a full-on multimedia onboarding experience, so seminars and financial wellness or all sorts of things that are going to happen, as the branch becomes more of a center for health and guidance than a teller-counter.

Yeah, I go to a particular bank and it's just a suburban location, so there's not a lot of razzle-dazzle there, but it does have digital signage and it's the same bank I've been banking with for 30 plus years or whatever. So I don't see a lot of other ones, but there seems to be a standard feature set that I noticed there and in other banks in general, where there are displays behind the counter and there are displays in the seating area and maybe there's a display over the ATM bank, but it is generally just being branch marketing, “We're wonderful. We have this new thing. Here's the weather”, blah, blah, blah. And it's not terribly compelling and when I've seen banks of the future, in North America and, particularly in places like Dubai, I've seen things like virtual tellers and remote Financial service advisors, where they go into a little pod and you can discuss with somebody who's on the other side of the city or country.

And those things have been very “branch of the future” sort of things that I've never seen adopted, but I'm getting a sense from what you're saying, that the novelty of that will become much more an operational thing out of necessity. 

Nancy: Yeah, I think that's right. There are a lot of things in what you just said that interests me. To your first comment about the placement of screens inside a bank, you're absolutely right. Where you would typically see them as the areas you describe but what's happening now as banks are moving more toward almost a lounge conception of the branch where the bankers are now untethered from their desktops, and maybe can help you with that with an iPad and in a roving fashion, it really diffuses the problem of where to place your digital media, because now suddenly everybody is milling around in a kind of uncontrolled environment, and there are obvious focal points, dwell areas, sightlines, like there always were in the past, which is a challenge.

But then, on the level of the content and just compelling experiences, one of the things that we've learned over the years through mentors, many different experiments and trials and tests is that it's really important when you're thinking about innovative change to a bank branch that you don't lose sight of the fact that the consumer is seeking utility above all else.

So do you have a really cool idea of a touch screen? And I think we've all seen many of these in branches of the future. It might be cool from the perspective of the multimedia designer who gets to create it and win an award for it. But it's a real challenge to get banking consumers to decide what they want to prolong a visit to their local bank branch in order to interact with content that most people intuitively believe is available to them at home.

Anyway, it's tough to reign in the impulse to, I don't know, saddle a bank branch with all sorts of “cause you can” stuff without thinking long and hard about what customer utility is being imparted. So the example you gave of the video conferences is a perfect example of a high utility, high-value digital investment in a bank branch. And there are all sorts of reasons why doing something like that is valuable to both customers and to the bank versus some of the multimedia poster children that we've had. 

Yeah. Let's do something to connect and gesture and all that and embarrass the hell out of people. 

Nancy: Although you had on your podcast just this week, I think an article about one that made sense, but it kind of proves the point I guess.

Yeah, probably a $2 million popup event by IBM, and that's what everybody's going to do, but it was good. (Laughter)

What is the content based on all those years of experience that customers do want in a branch?

Nancy: This is interesting and actually this is my favorite topic, really. So one thing we've learned, and this will come as no surprise to you or to anybody, is that Financial services advertising on its own is not that commercial for people. And there's a very good reason to use sort of general interest communications in a bank branch as a way to get people used to view the screens at all.

So you mentioned the weather before. Our testing and results in time and time again, whether it comes up as the thing that people remember most and want the most. And it also happens to be very easy to deliver us as so if you can mix and match general interest information with bank information or place bank information in a more general interest context, and, an example that might be. If there's something happening in the mortgage market, tying your mortgage messaging to something that consumers are generally aware of and concerned about is a good thing. We've also seen some kind of interesting results that would suggest that if the ratio of bank messaging is a little bit lower than you might initially think you want, the recall of those messages goes up. And I think that's because there's more sustained viewership of the general interest information. People’s attention is more fixed and focused and for that reason, the bank messaging that crops up intermittent get more attention and more recall, which is really interesting. 

In my exposure to banks, I've certainly got a sense that they're very excited. The bank market is excited about being able to have some continuity between online and broadcast and other mediums and push that same campaign into the branches.

But you're saying that at that point, they're in the branch and they don't need to be sold and drawn into the branch cause you got them. 

Nancy: Yeah, and it can reinforce the value of your brand by providing helpful tips. There's a huge demand for financial wellness information right now, not just because of recent events, which has accelerated it, but also because a lot of younger consumers actually don't know much about money management and want to, so that kind of helpful guidance information is also something people like to see. Another thing that people really want, believe or not, is to see pictures or names of people who actually work in the branch. That is always a highly recalled type of messaging. 

Just casting back to something you just said about content creation for other mediums. I think where this is all headed in terms of digital signage, content production in banking is toward, more and more repurposing assets that were created for other digital channels and bringing those repurposed assets together and to constantly updating, constantly iterating news and information streams.

It’s less of a purposeful agency endeavor where somebody's building a 60s mp4 and more of rethinking it more as a large-format webstream, something like that. I don't know exactly the right metaphor. And I think banks will find that they don't have to spend a lot of money on content production to have a lot of really good locally relevant information on screens in their branches. 

That sounds to me back to the work I did with a very large bank. And, I sat at a meeting where we're talking about content with the agency and I became persona non grata, the devil, the antichrist by suggesting just that what was the point of a 60s spot in a window display that was going to cost a hell of a lot of money when you could be repurposing all kinds of other media assets and automating the content. And that did not go over well with the agency because that was their cash cow. 

Nancy: Exactly. It is interesting because, and I was thinking about this earlier this week that this is one of those rare instances, where to do it better, is also a way to do it cheaper. It's not like you're giving up anything, you're gaining something when you start thinking about digital signage content in a more disaggregated way, just snippets of bursts of information using static assets even that you have. And, our clients have huge repositories of assets and tips and all of these things are available aplenty inside of banks’ asset management databases. And mixing and matching these things creates a really low-cost way to build content, but also superior content, which is just such a great thing. 

Yeah. I assume that bank marketers are pretty savvy and understand this whole concept of Omnichannel and more so than let's say, “regular retailers” or all kinds of other potential clients in that, they have these digital asset management systems and everything else, and they understand automated and dynamic content based on data assets? 

Nancy: I think they do in all of their online applications, but it seems to me that they are generally puzzled by why they can't somehow better leverage their online assets to digital screens. And I suppose that's because maybe we in the industry have not rapidly embraced that model or educated the market to the model that actually, no, it is a logical thought to think that those other assets can be repurposed to digital signage. But you don't see a lot of it happening, right?

So maybe the digital signage industry too has been a little bit in the paradigm of the agency that wasn't so happy with you creating longer-form content, purpose-built for this media versus looking at an alternative way of doing it.

Yeah, you get the sense that even regionally sizes and certainly national and international banks, they are in the thrall of probably multiple agencies and it's in their express interest to control the thinking really, and certainly the budgets of these bank marketers. There's no incentive for them to say, “Hey, you don't need to do all this really expensive stuff. Just do it this way, and we'll surrender to that $5 million.” 

Nancy: Exactly. But I'll tell you what. I think with declining levels of traffic and branches and the general stressors that banks are facing now, in terms of justifying marketing investment at the point of sale, that's going to prompt a change. 

One of the things that gets batted around a lot these days is the whole idea of “interactive” in a bank setting and other retail settings. Is it safe to touch things and all that... 

You know, banks have ATMs, there's just no way around. You can't do voice control, or at least I don't think you can, or I wouldn't want to use that. So you go into a bank, you're already conditioned that, “Yeah. I'm going to use a touch screen and I'll whip up my notes advisor and everything will be fine”. Is there antsiness at all around introducing more interactivity to reduce the one-to-one contact with staffers? 

Nancy: For sure. I'm hearing a lot of focus on touchless experiences, and so trying to figure out how to clone interfaces to people's personal devices or bypass the need for them, that's a huge issue the industry is trying to address because, as you mentioned earlier, video tellers, video conferences, these things are really important to the branch of the future because they become the only kind of financially viable way to deliver certain services to certain branches in the network. So they're essential to the value proposition and will only become more essential. 

So yes, I think there's a lot of work being done and a lot of time being spent on how to make those interfaces appealing and acceptable to people in some of the ways I described. I think on the level of our business, digital signage, thinking back on the concept of utility touchscreens roles for marketing purposes has been very difficult to implement successfully. You've probably seen Microsoft, like those surface tables in bank branches, they came in and then they went away, interactive kiosks came in and then they went away. We've done a lot of things with touch through bank windows, we've done QR codes, we've done scannable brochures, that launch interactive experiences, printing brochures on demand, and all of them face the same challenge that they require a customer to prolong their visit in the bank branch and they're not delivering really clear apparent utilities. So it is just at the level of the basics. The tougher problem with all that, I think, is not just managing people's concerns about hygiene today but just the use of it at all. 

Yeah. It's not as private as going on a touchscreen to look up some health issues, but, if you're going to be doing loans, calculators, mortgage calculators, and things like that on a screen then other people can see.

I don't know if it bothered me all that much, but I'm sure a whole bunch of other people would be very concerned about anybody seeing that. 

Nancy: It's not just that, but you're also likely having in your hand a device that does exactly the same thing, So you can use your phone to do these things when and where you want to do that versus standing at a kiosk, so it's an interesting challenge. 

In terms of banks. you’re focused on retail banking, but there's a whole bunch of bank office space and giant office towers full of banking people and even with work from home, that's not going to totally change, those office towers are not going to clear out.

Have you guys done much work in terms of the back-of-house digital signage for banks? 

Nancy: Yeah, that is actually how we got our start. Our first network was a 900 branch training network within the UK, delivered by satellite because that's all there was, daily kind of huddle and corporate communications. So we've done a lot of that, more focused on the branch and then the corporate headquarters. But the technology as that you would know well drives one versus the other is exactly the same. 

Is it hard to crack the larger opportunity on the back of the house side? 

Nancy: I think it didn't use to be. We got our start prior to things like the internet and email and podcasts and websites. All of those become really viable corporate communications vehicles for the sort of information that we were imparting through our digital networks. So the case needs to be made that multimedia delivery of some of these messages is a superior form for those messages than plowing through an intranet.

And I think that the case can be made, but given all the other things that banks have to contend with in their overall digital transformation, I don't think that's going to make the top of the heap. 

I know that you've spent a lot of time thinking about where all of this goes and you have the benefit, so to speak of working in an already demanding vertical where the security demands are a lot higher. Where do you see things going or do things like PCs and media players and all that will start to go away? 

Nancy: Yeah, definitely there's a move afoot in the world around us toward, edge solutions, and there's no reason to think that digital signage wouldn't be an edge compute solution. What we hear from corporate customers a lot is that they're very frustrated by the proliferation of point solutions in their branches. They'll have a solution for digital signage, they’ll have a solution for POS, solution for managing appointments and on.

And each of these solutions is vertically integrated. It contains a monitoring component. There's a service plan that they have to have with somebody for it. And this kind of really adds up a lot of complexity. So this future of bringing these disparate point solutions together in a sort of commonly managed edge environment, I think is very real and the sort of streamlining that clients that we deal with would really like to see.

So I think those of us who provide digital signage solutions should be hunkering down and really focusing on our software and imagining that it might be deployed in a manner like that in the future. 

So this is a couple of steps beyond the recent and prevalent question of, “Do you have an API?”

Nancy: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah. 

A few months ago now, I think, you guys were acquired by AU Optronics out of Taiwan, a company that had already acquired ComQi, which does digital signage. How is that going? 

I know the AUO people and they're from Taiwan, so they're super nice and super smart and all that, I assume this was a good event for you guys. 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting because we remain a very entrepreneurial, agile company as JohnRyan. We're operated pretty much autonomously from the other units in the group. So from a day to day experience, it's actually just the same.

But on top of that is something very nice, which is a huge resource for engineering and the number of patents. I think they have 29,000 patents. There's a lot of people that can answer tough questions within that company. Access and understanding of the really detailed aspects of display technology both now and in the future.

I mean, it’s really a great thing to have that sort of resource available to us and obviously an incredibly strong financial group as well. So that opens up opportunities for subscription-based deals with clients and all manner of things. So it's been going well.

Yeah, there have been instances in the past of hardware companies, display companies, buying software companies, and you just go, “Oh boy, this is just going to meander into nothing.” And that's what happens. But, I've certainly got the sense from Stu Armstrong, who is now overworking with you guys, came from ComQi.

The ComQi experience was just that. They have certainly mentored them and had their back and everything else, but left them alone to do what they needed to do. 

Nancy: Yeah. And I think the interesting part of that might be that in some of these acquisitions by hardware companies buying digital signage companies, they might be viewing those digital signage companies as routes to market for their hardware.

In this case, I think it's almost the reverse where AUO was interested in closer to the customer, more solutions-oriented businesses in order to provide feedback to it about where it is going. And so that's a great role for us to play. We're obviously interacting with people every day on the level of their business challenges and we have good and meaningful insight, I think for them.

So it's a two-way traffic and AUO supplies some display panels, but they're also a supplier to the other manufacturers who produce digital signage displays and other displays. And so there is no agenda that our goal is to sell AUO products in particular only when they get the solution.

Right, but it does give the opportunity. If you're looking at a bank deal that's 1100 branches and 10,000 screens or whatever. You don't necessarily have to buy from a consumer or commercial brand, you can go directly to a manufacturer and cut some of that cost out, which is going to be attractive.

Nancy: Yeah, affordability is really going to be a very big factor for our business going forward. It's going to be interesting to see how people reformulate their offers and streamline them. We talked about content earlier. I think there's going to be a lot of interest in that sort of content approach. Now, when there really isn't the luxury to do it any other way, and that's going to affect every aspect of our business. We've been spending a lot of time over the summer looking and kind of reinventing digital signage. There's some stuff that we're going to be putting out in the weeks months to come, but not taking anything as a given, right? Let's look at the hardware. Let's look at the connectivity. Let's look at how content is created. Let's look at how maintenance is done and just across the board, trying to emerge from all that with a really streamlined, focused approach. 

All right. that was great. Thank you for spending some time with me.

Nancy: Well, it was nice to catch up. Thanks.

 

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