Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
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.

 

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

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.

 

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

 

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.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

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.

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.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

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.

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.

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.

 

Michael Schneider, Gensler (from InfoComm Connected 2020)

Michael Schneider, Gensler (from InfoComm Connected 2020)

July 8, 2020

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

I was kinda sorta off last week and did not record a new interview, but I have this audio track from a recent online event that's well worth sharing.

The pandemic shifted InfoComm 2020 from Las Vegas to online last month, and one of many educational sessions held at InfoComm Connected was about experiential design.

I was the host, and my guest was Michael Schneider of the giant global design firm Gensler. I've known Michael for a few years, first at ESI Design and now at the New York City offices of Gensler, where he runs the Media Architecture team.

The session was called Designing Contact-Free Building Experiences, and was a chat about how the global health care crisis is forcing a re-think of using and navigating public and commercial building spaces.

Where much of the experience in big buildings lately has been about Wow Factor, health safety and utility are now in the mix.

The session was a video call, with a chat recorded ahead of time and then live Q&A. About 20 minutes in, you will hear the tech jump in with a few questions.

I'll have a fresh podcast, with transcription, next week.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Frank Olea, Olea Kiosks

Frank Olea, Olea Kiosks

July 7, 2020

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

I love kiosks when they serve a real purpose - making it faster, better and easier to do something.

Olea Kiosks does just that - making high-utility but also good looking kiosks that exist to make something easier - like speeding you through an airport or checking in at a hotel or health care facility.

The company started decades ago as a moonlighting woodwork shop, through Frank Olea's grandfather. It grew into a thriving business doing a ton of work on trade show exhibits. Over time, those exhibits added more and more technology, and gave Olea a lot of direct experience with electronics and software.

Now the company is squarely in the kiosk business - with standard lines and a fair amount of custom work.

Olea grew up in the family business and eventually took over as CEO. We spoke recently about what his company is doing, the challenges presented by a pandemic, and how even when touching things can seem scary, a kiosk makes more sense than one to one contact with people you don't know are healthy or contagious.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

Paul Harris, Aurora Multimedia

Paul Harris, Aurora Multimedia

May 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a wave of new or re-marketed products intended to address one of the many new problems businesses face in re-opening and bring people through their doors each day.

My email inbox is filled each morning with pitches from Chinese manufacturers selling screens that also have sanitizer dispensers, and smartphone-sized gadgets, with cameras, that do quick body temperature scans that are intended to flag people who may be running fevers, and therefore may be carriers of the coronavirus.

A lot of these products look, and are, the same, and it would be impossible to keep up with all the options and sellers. But I was intrigued by a New Jersey AV tech company, Aurora Multimedia, that came out recently with a solution that seems a bit more substantial. It was designed from the start to integrate and work with other building systems, as well as offer alternative uses beyond this pandemic.

Aurora has versions of a temperature check screen that are as large as 21.5-inches, and they have the company's versatile control system in behind it.

I spoke with Paul Harris, Aurora's CEO, about the thinking behind the product, and how it is turning out to be something of a saviour for some AV reseller partners who were struggling to stay relevant with their pre-pandemic products and services.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Florian Rotberg, Stefan Schieger - Invidis Consulting

Florian Rotberg, Stefan Schieger - Invidis Consulting

April 29, 2020

Florian Rotberg and Stefan Schieker of Munich's Invidis Consulting have been active in the digital signage market since 2006, mainly focused on Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Their work spans everything from straight-up consulting for vendors and end-users to organizing and running industry conferences in Europe and globally.

That puts them in steady touch with a lot of people, and gives them a solid perspective on what's going on and what's changing.

One of the things Invidis has been doing in presentations is a regular look at the impacts and implications on vertical markets of COVID-19, and what that means for digital signage companies.

We talk about that in this new podcast, as well as dig into some suddenly red-hot marketplace requirements like sidewalk displays and access control technologies. 

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Chris Riegel, STRATACACHE (2020)

Chris Riegel, STRATACACHE (2020)

April 1, 2020

These are some of the oddest, craziest, scariest moments many of us have ever experienced.

If you're sick, you'll hopefully recover quickly.

But the global economy is now very much under the weather, so to speak, and it is not at all clear when it will get better. Businesses are shuttered and many won't open again, or if they do, they'll probably come back in a different way.

The digital signage and digital out of home sectors are hit just like everything else, and this virus is going to take out companies the way it is indiscriminately taking out 100s and 1,000s of people.

I wanted to spend some of  the next few episodes talking to smart industry people about what they're hearing and seeing, as well as what they're doing.

First up is Chris Riegel, who runs what is now the STRATACACHE Group of Companies. We've spoken in the past, but I wanted to speak with Chris because he's very smart, well-travelled and connected, and always has an ear to the ground.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

March 25, 2020

ScreenCloud has been around for five years now - a pure software startup that aimed to bring web technology fully into digital signage.

Now the London-based company has roughly 100 staffers in the UK, US and Thailand, and is evolving from having an SMB focus into servicing enterprise business.

I've spoken to co-founder Mark McDermott in the past for this podcast, but I wanted to catch up for a couple of reasons.

First, I wanted to know why such a relatively young platform was completely re-architected recently.

But I also wanted to dig into some thoughts from Mark I saw online about workplace communications and digital signage more generally, in a time when a pandemic has left on-premises screens unseen, and many to most workers doing their jobs at home.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

George Clopp, RMG Networks

George Clopp, RMG Networks

February 19, 2020

RMG Networks has been doing workplace communications and employee engagement since the days the Dallas company was known as Symon Communications.

There have been some interesting twists and turns in the story of RMG - like a curious spell as a digital out of home media company that ALSO did the legacy Symon stuff. But the management team is now squarely focused on the high opportunity workplace vertical.

I had a great chat with George Clopp, the Chief Technology Officer for RMG, about where the company is at, the evolution of its Korbyt CMS, and how what it does differs in the marketplace.

Among the particularly interesting things - content decisions that are determined and automated, using machine learning, or AI. Have a listen.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Daniel Griffin, Userful

Daniel Griffin, Userful

October 2, 2019

 Like a lot of people in the digital signage industry, I tend to think about video walls in terms of the display hardware, and what's running on those big beautiful screens. I know precious little about what's happening behind the wall to ensure it all looks good. 

Userful has been making waves for a few years now by offering a software-driven product that drives visuals accurately to screens, and allows for the sort of flexibility and instant switches that are needed in scenarios like control rooms.

While traditional video wall systems can tend to have a lot of often expensive hardware and software to control the screen and send pixels where they need to be, Userful has been marketing products that are now cloud-based and require minimal hardware.

I spoke with Daniel Griffin, the company's VP of Marketing and a company long-timer. We talked about how Userful came about and about a business that's still known for video walls, but is finding its way into other aspects of visual communications around workplaces because of its AV over networks capabilities.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

Marshall Thompson, Signet

Marshall Thompson, Signet

September 11, 2019

Workplace communications have developed into a very active, very big vertical for a lot of companies across the digital signage ecosystem - but most of their activity has involved screens positioned around the white collar and, increasingly, blue collar workspaces.

For most companies, workplaces is A vertical. For Signet, it is THE vertical, and the Silicon valley-based company has built up a tidy business being laser-focused on workplaces and particularly on the briefing and experience centers of Fortune 5000 companies.

These are the high-touch, big visual impact designated areas that companies build to entertain, inform and hopefully close major customers - using everything from big video walls to interactive displays.

I spoke with Marshal Thompson, who runs client solutions for the company. We get into what Signet does and how it found its way into corporate communications, the thinking and impact of these briefing centers, and how workplace communications is so important to attracting and keeping talent in hyper-competitive places like Silicon Valley.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

Mike Kilian, Mvix, On Workplace Communications

Mike Kilian, Mvix, On Workplace Communications

July 24, 2019

Just about anyone involved on the sales or management side of digital signage these days knows that workplace communications has pretty quickly grown into one of the most active and interesting verticals.

With QSRs, the other hot vertical, you're doing menus and digital promo posters. In the workplace, all kinds of interesting things are possible, and can make a difference.

In this podcast, I spend some time with Mike Kilian of the DC-based CMS and solutions company Mvix. I've done a podcast in the past with Mike, but based on chatting with him at Infocomm, we decided to do a new one talking about the opportunities and challenges of digital signage in everything from offices to factory floors.

It would seem like the rise of big data and IoT sensors would open up a lot of possibilities to visualize data and automate content. But in this conversation, you'll learn it's not that easy to do when IT people are worried about security, and the machines and sensors that could spit out useful data have few standards or common formats.

If you are a business communicator, this is a useful listen.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

Play this podcast on Podbean App