Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Saurabh Gupta, Ultraleap

Saurabh Gupta, Ultraleap

November 24, 2021

If you have been in the industry for a while, you'll maybe remember all the excitement around using gesture technology to control screens. That was followed by the letdown of how crappy and feeble these gesture-driven touchless working examples turned out to be.

Like just about everything, the technology and the ideas have got a lot better, and there is a lot of renewed discussion about how camera sensors, AI and related technologies can change up how consumers both interact ... and transact.

Ultraleap is steadily developing a product that lets consumers interact with and experience digital displays using sensors and, when it makes sense, haptic feedback. The company was formed in 2019 when Ultrahaptics acquired Leap Motion, and the blended entity now operates out of both Silicon Valley and Bristol, England.

Leap Motion was known for a little USB device and a lot of code that could interpret hand gestures in front of a screen as commands, while Ultrahaptics used ultrasound to project tactile sensations directly onto a user's hands, so you could feel a response and control that isn't really there. Or something like that. It's complicated stuff.

I had an interesting chat with Saurabh Gupta, who is charged with developing and driving a product aimed at the digital OOH ad market, one of many Ultraleap is chasing. We got into a bunch of things - from how the tech works, to why brands and venues would opt for touchless, when touchscreens are so commonplace, as is hand sanitizer.


Hey, Saurabh, thank you for joining me. Let's get this out of the way. What is an Ultraleap and how did it come about? 

Saurabh Gupta: Hey, Dave, nice to be here. Thank you for having me. Ultraleap is a technology company and our mission is to deliver solutions that remove the boundaries between physical and digital worlds. We have two main technologies. We have a computer vision-based hand tracking and gesture recognition technology that we acquired and on the other side of the equation, we have made a haptic technology using ultrasound. The whole premise of how we came about was we started out as a haptics company and that's what our founder and CEO, Tom Carter, built when he was in college, and it was a breakthrough idea for us to be able to deliver the sense of touch in mid air using ultrasound was how we started, and to be able to project haptic sensations in mid-air, one of the key components of that was, you need to understand where the hands are in space and for that we were using computer vision technology by Leap Motion to track and locate user’s hands in space, and we had an opportunity to make an acquisition, and some of your listeners may already know about Leap Motion. Leap Motion has been a pioneer in gesture based hand tracking technology since 2010. They’ve got 10 plus years of pedigree in really refining gesture based hand tracking models. So we had an opportunity to purchase them and make an acquisition in 2019, we completed the acquisition and rebranded ourselves to Ultraleap.

So that's how we started. As stated in our mission, it's all about focusing on user experience for the use cases of how users are interacting with their environment, and that environment could be a sort of a 2D screen in certain applications, the application that we'll probably talk about today, but also other aspects of augmented reality and virtual reality, which are on the horizon and our emerging technologies that are gaining more ground. So that's the central approach. How can we enhance the interactivity that users have with a physical environment, through an input and an output technology offerings with gesture as input and haptics being the output? 

The whole gesture thing through the years has been kind of an interesting journey, so to speak. I can remember some of the early iterations of Microsoft Kinect gesture, sensors, and display companies and solutions providers doing demos showing, you can control a screen by waving your hand, lifting it up and down and this and that, and I thought this is not going to go anywhere. It's just too complicated. There's too much of a learning curve and everything else. 

Now, the idea as it's evolved and like all technology got a lot better is, it's more intuitive, but it's still something of a challenge, right? There's still a bit of a curve because we're now conditioned to touching screens.

Saurabh Gupta: Yeah, you're right. One of the key aspects here is that gesture has been around. There's been research that goes back to the early 90s, if not in the 80s, but computer vision technology in general has come a long way. The deep learning models that are powering our hand tracking technology today are a lot more sophisticated. They are more robust, they are more adaptable and they are able to train based on a lot of real world inputs. So what that really means is that since the computing power and the technology behind recognizing gestures has improved, a lot of that has manifested itself in a more approachable user experience, and I completely accept the fact that there is a gap and we've got 10 plus years of learned behavior of using a touchscreen. We use a touchscreen everyday, carry it in our pockets, but you also have to understand that when touch screens became prevelant, there was the type keyboard before that. 

So the point that I'm making here with this is that we are pushing the envelope on new technologies and a new paradigm of interactivity. Yes, there is a learning curve, but those are the things that we are actually actively solving for:

The gesture tracking technology should be so refined that it is inclusive and is able to perform in any environment, and I think we've made some really good steps towards that. You may have heard of our recent announcement of our latest hand tracking offering called Gemini. The fundamental thing with Gemini is that it's based on years and years of research and analysis on making the computer vision, deep learning models, that power that platform to be as robust, to be low latency, high yield in terms of productivity and really high initialization, which means as part of the user experience, when you walk up to an interface, you expect to use it right away. We know we can do that with touch screens, but if you put this technology complementary to an interface, what we are solving for at Ultraleap is: when somebody walks up to a screen and they put up their hand to start to interact, the computer vision technologies should instantly recognize that there's a person who is looking to interact. That's number one, and I think with Gemini, with the deep model work that we've done, we've made some good progress there. Number two, which is once the technology recognizes that a person wants to interact, now can we make it more intuitive for the person to be as or more productive than she would be with a touchscreen interface? And that's where I think we've made more progress. I will say that we need to make more progress there, but some of the things that we've done, Dave. We have a distance call to interact, which is a video tutorial attraction loop that serves as an education piece.

And I'll give you a stat. We ran a really large public pilot in the Pacific Northwest at an airport, and the use case there was immigration check-in, so people coming off the plane, before they go talk to a border security agent, some people to fill out their information on a kiosk. So we outfitted some kiosks with our gesture based technology and the rest were the controls, which were all touchscreen based and over multiple weeks we ran this study with active consumers who actually had very little to no prior experience using gestures and we did this AB test where we measured the gesture adoption rate on the kiosks without a call interact, before a call to interact and after a call to interact, and it increased the gesture adoption rate by 30%, which means that it certainly is helping people to understand how to use the interface.

The second stat that came from it, that at the end of the pilot, we were almost at 65% gesture adoption rate, which means almost more than 6 out of 10 people who use that interface used gesture as the dominant interface for input control, and the third piece of this was how long did it take for them to finish their session? We measured that using the gesture based interaction, the time was slightly higher than for the control group that was using a touchscreen, but it wasn't much, it was only 10% higher. Now one can look at that stat and say in a transactional setting where you know, it's going to take you 30 seconds to order a burger, adding an extra second can be a problem, but at the same time, those stats are encouraging for us to think about when we look at that as the baseline to improve from. 

So if I'm listening to this and I'm trying to wrap my head around what's going on here, this is not a gesture where you're standing 3 feet away from a screen and doing the Tom cruise Minority Report thing, where you're waving your arm and doing this and that is, can you describe it? Because you’re basically doing touch-like interactions and the ultrasonic jets or blasts of air or whatever are giving you the feedback to guide you, right? 

Saurabh Gupta: So we've got two avenues that we have going at this from. One is for the self service type offering, so you think of check-in kiosks or ordering kiosks at restaurants or even digital wayfinding, digital directories. We are solving for those primarily led at least in the first phase led by our gesture tracking technology. So gesture being the input modality, complimentary to touch.

So, what we do is we build a touch-free application, which is a ready to use application that is available today on Windows based media players or systems to convert existing touch screen-based user interfaces to gesture, but what we've done is we've made the transition a lot more intuitive and easier because what we've done is we've replicated and done a lot of research on this and replicated interaction methods or gestures you would call it. I hate to use gestures as a word, because it gets tagged with weird hand poses and things like that, people pinching and all of that. For us, it's all about how we can replicate the same usage that a typical average consumer will have when she interacts with a touch screen based interface.

So we came up with this an interaction method that we call Airpush which is basically, to explain it to your listeners, it's all about using your finger and moving towards an interactive element on screen. But what happens is the button gets pressed even before you approach them based on your forward motion or interaction. Now, the smart math behind all of this is that not only do we track motion, but we also track velocity, which means that for people who are aggressive in terms of their button pressing, which means they do short jabs, we can cater for those or people who are more careful in their approach as they move towards the screen, the system is adaptable to cater to all types of interaction types, and we track all the fingers so you can use multiple fingers too or different fingers as well. So these are some of the things that we've included in our application.

So that's one side. The second side is all about interactive advertising, immersion and that's where I think we use our haptic technology more, to engage and involve the user in the interactive experience that they're going to. So for self service and more transactional type use cases, we're using primarily our hand gesture technology. And for immersive experiential marketing, or even the digital out-of-home advertising type of use cases, we are leading without haptic based technology.  

And you're involved on the digita, out-of-home side, right? That's part of your charge? 

Saurabh Gupta: That's correct. So I lead Ultraleap’s out-of-home business. So in the out-of-home business, we have both self service retail, and digital out-of-home advertising businesses that we focus on.

David:. So how would that manifest itself in terms of, I am at a train station or I'm out somewhere and there's a digital out-of-home display and I go up and interact with it and you're saying it's a more robust and rich experience than just boinking away at a touchscreen. What's going on? What would be a good example of that?

Saurabh Gupta: So a good example of digital out of home activations is that we've partnered with CEN (Cinema Entertainment Network) where we've augmented some of their interactive in cinema displays that are being sold from a programmatic perspective. Now the interactive piece is still being worked into the programmatic side of things, but that's one example of an interactive experience in a place based setting.

The other example is experiential marketing activations that we've done with Skoda in retail malls and also an activation that we did with Lego for Westfield. So these are some of the experiences that we've launched and released with our haptics technology and on the self service side we've been working with a lot of providers in the space you may have heard of. 

Our recent pilot concluded with PepsiCo where we are bringing in or trialing gestures for their ordering kiosks for their food and beverage partners. So these are some of the things that are going on on both sides in the business.

David:. So for the Lego one or the Scoda one, what would a consumer experience? 

Saurabh Gupta: So these are all interactive experiences. So for Lego, it was about building a Lego together. So basically using our haptic technology which obviously contains gestures as the input, moving Lego blocks and making an object that was being displayed on a really large LED screen at one of the retail outlets and in London, so a user would walk up, they would use their hands in front of our haptic device to control the pieces on the screen and then join them together and make a Lego out of it and while they're doing that, they're getting the sensation of the tactile sensation of joining the pieces and that all adds up to a really immersive, engaging experience within a digital out of home setting. 

So you get the sensation that you're snapping Lego pieces together? 

Saurabh Gupta: Yeah, snapping pieces together, controlling so you get the agency of control, and it's one of those sensations that gives you a very high memorability factor.

I don't know whether you track the news. This was in 2019. We did actually a really extensive activation with Warner Brothers in LA, and what we did was at one of the cinemas down there for Warner Brothers’ three upcoming movies, Shazam, The Curse of La Llorona, and Detective Pikachu, we added interactive movie posters using haptics in the cinema lobby, and this would complement the digital poster network that was already existing at that location, and over the course of the activation, which was around six weeks long, we had almost 150,000 people that went through the cinema and we actually did in partnership with QBD, we did a lot of analytics around what the. performance was of an interactive movie poster experience within a digital out-of-home setting and got some really great stats. 

We measured a conversion rate between an interactive experience versus a static digital signage experience. The conversion rate was almost 2x, 33% increase in dwell time, like people were spending more time in front of an interactive sign versus a static sign. Attention span was significantly higher at 75%, 42% lift in brand favorability. So these are really interesting stats that gave us the confidence that haptic technology combined with gesture based interface has a lot of value in providing and delivering memorable experiences that people remember.

And that's the whole point with advertising, right? That's the whole point. You want to present experiences that provide a positive association of your branded message with your target consumer, and we feel that our technology allows that connection to be made 

One of the assumptions/expectations that happened when the pandemic broke out was that this was the end of touchscreens, nobody's ever going to want to touch the screen again, the interactivity was dead and I made a lot of those assumptions myself and turns out the opposite has happened. The touch screen manufacturers have had a couple of pretty good years and the idea is that with a touchscreen, you can wipe it down and clean your hands and do all that stuff. But you're at a far greater risk standing four feet away from somebody across a counter, ordering a burger or a ticket or whatever it may be. 

So when you're speaking with solutions providers, end user customers and so on are you getting the question of, “Why do I need to be touchless?”

Saurabh Gupta: Yeah, it's a fair point, Dave, and let me clarify that. Look, from our perspective, we are focusing on building the right technology and building the right solutions that elevate the user experience. Hygiene surely is part of that equation, but I accept your points that there are far greater risks for germ transmission than shared surfaces, I totally accept that, and yes, there is a TCO argument, the total cost of ownership argument that has to be made here also. 

The point that I will make here is that we fundamentally believe and being a scale-up organization that is focusing on new technology, we have to believe that we are pushing the technology envelope where what we are focusing on is elevating the user experience from what the current model provides. So yes, there will be some use cases where we are not a good fit, but contactless as a category or touchless as a category, maybe the pandemic catalyzed it, maybe it expedited things, but that category in itself is growing significantly. 

A couple of stats here, right? The contactless payment as a category itself, 88% of all retail transactions in 2020 were contactless, that's a pretty big number And assuming that retail is a $25 trillion dollar market. That's a huge chunk. 

But that’s about speed and convenience though, right?

Saurabh Gupta: Totally. But all I'm saying is contactless as a category is preferable from a user perspective. Now, gesture based interactivity as a part of that user flow, we fundamentally believe that gesture based interactivity plays a part in the overall user journey. So let me give you an example. 

Some of the retailers that we are talking to are thinking about new and interesting ways to remove levels of friction from a user's in-store experience. So there are multiple technologies that are being trialed at the moment. You may have heard of Amazon's just walk out stores as an example. You don't even have to take out your wallet and that is completely based on computer vision, as an example, but there are other retailers who are looking to use technology to better recognize who their loyal customers are. So think of how we used to all have loyalty cards for Costco or any other retailer. 

They're removing that friction to say, when you walk through the door, you've done your shopping and you’re at the payment powder, we can recognize who you are. And if we recognize who you are, we can give you an offer at the last mile, and in that scenario, they are integrating gestures as part of the completely contactless flow. This is where I think we are gaining some traction. There is a product that we are a part of that hasn't been announced yet. I can't go into details specifically on who it is and when it's going to be released. But we are part of a computer vision based fully automated checkout system that uses gesture as the last mile for confirmation and things of that nature. That's where we are gaining traction.

Overall point here is that we are focusing on really showcasing and delivering value on how you can do certain things in a more natural and intuitive way. So think of digital wayfinding at malls, right? You have these giant screens that are traditionally touchscreens, right? When you think of that experience, it has a lot of friction in it, because first of all, you can't use touch as effectively on a large screen because you can't swipe from left to right to turn a map as an example. We fundamentally believe that the product could be better with gesture. You can gesture to zoom in, zoom out, rotate a map, and find your direction to a store. Those kinds of things can be augmented. That experience can be augmented with adding just a capability as opposed to using a touchscreen based interface. So those are the high value use cases that we are focusing on. 

So it's not really a case where you're saying, you don't need to touch screen overlay anymore for whatever you're doing, Mr. Client, you just use this instead. It's tuned to a particular use case and an application scenario, as opposed to this is better than a touch overlay?

Saurabh Gupta: I think that is a mission that we are driving towards, which is, we know that there is potentially a usability gap between gesture in terms of its evolution than touchscreen. We are looking to bridge that gap and get to a point where we can show more productivity using gesture. 

And the point is that with our technology, and this is something that you referenced a second ago, you can turn any screen into a touchscreen. So you don't necessarily need a touchscreen and then you can convert it to gesture. You can convert any LCD screen to an interactive screen. So there is some deep argument there as well.

What's the kit, like what are you adding?

Saurabh Gupta: Just a camera and a USB cable, and some software.

And if you're using haptics feedback, how does that work?

Saurabh Gupta: So haptics is a commercially off the shelf product. So it's another accessory that gets added to the screen. However, that contains the camera in it so you don't need an additional camera. That also connects to external power and a USB back to the media player. 

So as long as you've got a USB on the media player, you're good, and right now your platform is Windows based. Do you have Android or Linux? 

Saurabh Gupta: Good question, Dave. So right now we are Windows based, but we know it's of strategic importance for us to enable support on additional platforms. So we are starting to do some work on that front. You'll hear some updates from us early next year on at least the hand tracking side of things being available on more platforms than just Windows. 

How does economics work? I suspect you get this question around, “All right. If I added a touch overlay to a display, it's going to cost me X. If I use this instead, it's going to cost me Y. 

Is it at that kind of parity or is one a lot more than the other? 

Saurabh Gupta: It depends on screen size, Dave, to be honest. So the higher in screen size you go, the wider the gap is. I would say that for a 21 or 23 inch screen and up, the economics are in our favor for a comparable system.

And are you constrained by size? I think of all the LED video walls that are now going into retail and public spaces and so on, and those aren't touch enabled. You really wouldn't want to do that, and in the great majority of cases with this, in theory, you could turn a potentially fragile, please don't touch surface like that into an interactive surface, but are you constrained to only doing things like a 55 inch canvas or something?

Saurabh Gupta: This will require a little bit of technical explanation. The Lego example that I talked about was targeted on, I would say a large outdoor LED screen. So the concept here is that if you want one-to-one interactivity. 

So what do I mean by one-to-one interactivity? One-to-one interactivity is that basically when in our interface, when the user approaches the screen, there is an onscreen cursor that shows up, and that on screen cursor is what is the control point for the user. Now one-to-one interactivity for us to achieve that where the cursor is at the same height or there's no parallax between where the finger is and where the cursor is, for that you have to be connected to or at the screen, and when you are connected to the screen, based on our current camera technology, we can control up to a 42 inch screen for one-to-one interactivity, but we've also been doing exams showing examples where if you connect the sensor to slightly in front of the display, then you can cover a wider area and we've been able to showcase examples of our technology being used on up to a 75 inch LCD screen in portrait mode. 

So then any larger than that, the scale gets a little wonky, right? Cause you've got a person standing in front of a very large display and it just starts to get a little weird.

Saurabh Gupta: Yeah. It's like putting a large TV in a small living room. So you need to be slightly further away because then it gets too overwhelming, and for that, we have worked with certain partners and they've done some really interesting work like this company called IDUM, they built a pedestal and so that pedestal encloses our tracking device, and that can be placed several feet from a large immersive canvas, like a LED wall, as an example, in a museum type activation, and people can walk by and then they can control the whole screen with that pedestal slightly further away from the screen.

So it's like a Crestron controller or something except for a big LED display! 

Saurabh Gupta: Exactly. It's like a trackpad in front of the screen, but slightly further away. 

Gotcha. All right. Time flew by, man. We're already deep into this. You were telling me before we hit record that your company will be at NRF and you may also have people wandering around IEC but if people want to know more about your company, they go to 

Saurabh Gupta: That's correct., we have all the information there and David, it was great to talk to you and thank you for the opportunity. 


Blake Sabatinelli, Atmosphere TV

Blake Sabatinelli, Atmosphere TV

November 17, 2021


Screens in bars, restaurants and all kinds of venues have been part of the mix for decades, and there have been all kinds of different takes on what to put on those screens that not only entertains and occupies guests, but also has  tangible business impacts.

Straight-up digital signage solutions give venue operators the ability to fully manage what appears on the screens, but then those operators have to do the work to keep the system running and content fresh.

Boxes and software that squeeze a broadcast signal can allow operators to run in-house ads below and on the side of the screen from cable TV feeds, but the legal side of that can be more than a bit shaky.

Widely available high-speed internet and over-the-top streaming technology advances have opened up a new way to keep screens fresh and interesting, and a well-funded Austin, Texas spinout company called Atmosphere TV is going hard at the opportunity.

Launched in 2019, Atmosphere has more than 50 streaming content  channels that are in 14,000 venues and reach some 25 million sets of eyeballs monthly. There are curated channels full of cute pets and funny misadventures, but there's also a newsroom that produces carefully selected news that manages to straddle the increasingly polarized political divides of the U.S.

The particularly interesting kicker is that the service is free to users, with Atmosphere even sending operators free, pre-staged Apple TV boxes that just need to be plugged in and connected to broadband.

I had a great chat with Blake Sabatinelli, the company's Chief Operating Officer, about how things work and where Atmosphere is going.


Blake. Thank you for joining me. What is Atmosphere TV all about? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Atmosphere at its core is a place-based television platform and we think at Atmosphere that we're here to help inform and inspire people who are watching our platform, and we do that through any one of our 54 channels that are on our platform, whether it's Atmosphere News, which we just launched or Chive TV, which is the the engine that built Atmosphere as a whole before we spun it out on its own. But we're everything from entertainment to information to digital signage and really just here to make sure that we're getting people to look up in the venues that they're sitting in, instead of staring down at their phone and engaging with the world around them. 

So the simpleton explanation would be that this is something you would use in place of putting TVs in a venue and putting CNN or Fox or whatever on and just letting that run? 

Blake Sabatinelli: A hundred percent. We look at our content in a whole different light that I think what you see in the traditional cable space, and if you go back to the genesis of our company, Leo and John, our founders were sitting in a bar, there was ESPN on mute, there was Judge Judy on mute and they were looking around and no one was really paying attention and they realized that no one was really programming television for out-of-home, and that audio is a huge consideration. 

In both places, if you go to a sports bar here in the states, you'll see a football game that's usually the primary audio or a baseball game or something, but there's also 15 other TVs in the venue, and all of them are running captions that are really small, that you can’t see from 30 feet away on content that's not engaging if you don't have the audio on, on content that honestly isn't engaging even if you have the audio on. And in some cases, especially if you're talking about the news, Fox News or CNN, MSNBC, that's angering half the audience there. So we're coming at television from a totally different perspective. 

We programmed it for eyes and not ears, which is not a native thing for anyone coming from television. You have to do both and ensure that it's something that everyone can lean into and enjoy and be engaged with.

You mentioned that you've launched a news product among the many channels you already have. When I look at Atmosphere TV, and I've been familiar with it for a while, it's primarily soft content, it's curated social media videos, and that sort of thing. News is a very different animal!

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, you're telling me. I spent 15 years in the news business before joining Atmosphere and ran a company called Newsy for seven years prior to this, and there's a whole different world from what traditionally is published on Atmosphere to what a news channel is. But if you really break it down, it's really not all that different.

On the entertainment side of our business, it's engaging short form videos, programmed in such a way that you want to lean in and really watch, and with news, we're really trying to take the same approach. Keep people informed about what's going on around them. Tell them the things that they need to know, do it all in an audio off capacity, which is a challenge out the gate and also sprinkle in some things that inspire and entertain them along the way, because it's a pretty dark world out there and news can be a dark platform.

So we feel like we can come at this a little bit differently. Get people to smile, get people to nod and understand what's happening and not feel bad after watching it at the same time. 

Is it a function in certain respects of the political polarization that's out there, particularly in the United States, where you have auto dealer showrooms, where they may have one TV and you get arguments breaking out about the fact that it's on CNN or it's on Fox, and as you said, 50% of the people are unhappy?

Blake Sabatinelli: I mean, look, I can tell you now that if you watch our network, there are no opinions. There's no commentary, there's only context and information, and that really does come to the point that you're making that the political environment here in the United States is challenging right now.

There's no way to make everyone happy. So our view on the way to make this work is to strip out all the things that make people angry and just report facts and just really hammer home the headlines and straight news. There's plenty that happens in Washington on a daily basis that's factual and incredibly important. There's plenty that happens in Washington DC, if you watch Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC on a daily basis, that's filler, that's conjecture and opinion that people for the most part really don't care about. 

So I would imagine with some of the other channels that you have, where it's cute pet videos or extreme sports or whatever it may be that, you've got content curators who are scanning YouTube and whatever for material. 

Is it different for the new side where you have a quasi news room? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, we do have a newsroom. So we actually hired Michael Grimes, the former head of social for NBC News to come in and join us and lead our newsroom, and we have a team of producers that sit just out in front of my office and are producing news on a 24/7 basis at this point. So yeah, while it's not our normal curation process, there's a news room out there and it's exciting to see and I like the buzz.

How do you gather this news? Do you get feeds from the Associated Press and so on, like everybody else? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, that's correct. So we actually partner with a number of down the middle, highly respectful of these organizations, like the Associated Press, AFP, Reuters, and others to ensure that we're aggregating and collecting the best news that's out there and packaging it in such a way that it can be enjoyed on our platform. 

So on the other hand with the softer content, how does that work? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah. So we have a team of producers that work on each of our channels. Not all that different than what you mentioned that are out actively seeking out content on the most popular social platforms, whether it's TikTok or YouTube or Facebook and working with these content creators to license their content and get it on our platform to then produce it with a very specific formula that we generate for each channel and get it up on our platform when it’s ready to go. 

If you use material from YouTube or Facebook or TikTok or whatever it may be, are you talking to those platforms for the rights to that material or do you go right to the content creators? 

Blake Sabatinelli: We work directly with the content creators and we work with them in such a capacity that it's a mutually beneficial relationship.

Most of these content creators are really looking to extend their reach and ensure they're going to get as many eyeballs on them as a creator as possible to build up their businesses, and we ensure that all of our content creators get a significant amount of showcasing in each of the videos that we air there, so when people see something amazing happening on screen, they're able to look up and say, I want to go to Instagram and follow that guy. So we've built these relationships in such a way that we have an active ongoing discussion with the content creators and when something new pops up in their feed and they're sending it out, they're reaching out to us as well.

I guess chasing down certain material from somebody who's in the business or wants to be in the business of creating content that generates income for them that way, they're probably pretty easy to chase down. But on the other hand, you have the serendipitous stuff where somebody took a video of some weird weather event or whatever, I suspect it is probably a lot harder to get them? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, that can be challenging, but we also work with the licenses agencies that those folks work with most predominantly. So whether it's your Stringers or Jukin or others, so wildly large, and when I say large, the vast majority of our content comes from the creators themselves.

We also have to work with the licensing agencies as well to ensure that we're gathering all those amazing pieces and putting them in one place. 

So technically if I am a restaurant operator, bar operator, and I want to use Atmosphere’s one or two or many channels on it, how do I do that? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Great question!

You generally just give us a call. We have a box delivered to you. It's a self-install. We have everything set up for you. So you call us, we will send you a fully provisioned device. We have onboarding steps delivered with the box so you can plug in and get set up on the internet, and once you turn your TV and the box on, it's up and running. 

Everything is managed by us from a cloud capacity. So our IT team and our engineering teams push updates and manage the devices remotely, and if you ever have any issues, you can call our customer service team. They're there 24/7 to make sure that any issue that crops up is able to be taken care of immediately. 

So it's pretty much set it and forget it?

Blake Sabatinelli: That's right, and that's why we love the platform so much, and that's why our operators that use the platform love it so much. It's robust, it's highly engaging and it's easy to use. 

And this is an Apple TV bow?

Blake Sabatinelli: It's a provisioned Apple TV box, that's correct. 

If you had a smart TV, like a Samsung or an LG Smart TV that has apps and everything else, could you use that instead? 

Blake Sabatinelli: So we actually do everything through our own device. We found that our device is far more robust, easier to keep up and running and just decided to go that direction. 

Yeah, and the Apple TV boxes, they've got pretty good third-party device management and things like that. So you can remedy things, and as you said, push up new firmware and everything else. 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, a hundred percent. The entire Apple ecosystem is robust, and we've found a great deal of success in working with both third-party management platforms and on the Apple TV platform broadly. 

I'm thinking five-six years ago, this would have been a lot harder to do. Over the top streaming capabilities have progressed massively in that time space, right?

Blake Sabatinelli: A hundred percent. The proliferation of high-speed internet has been a key catalyst in the growth of the business. You couldn't necessarily deliver gigabytes upon gigabytes of information across a slow 128 kilobytes a second DSL line, that was challenging.

And the additional infrastructure that's been built along the way to support services like Netflix and Amazon, HBO Max, and others has really benefited our business as well.

There's a digital signage component, I guess you could call the whole thing related to digital signage as well, but there's the ability for the owner-operator of a venue that's using this to go in and add advertising, right?

Blake Sabatinelli: That's right. 

So we give our venue partners the opportunity to add a couple 30s spots every every couple ad breaks into the channel feeds itself. Everything that we hear back from our partners at this point is that it is a great tool for them to be able to advertise specials, upcoming events, you name it for their venue and it's just really helps complete that fortuitous circle of keeping butts in seats longer, bringing them back more frequently, spending more money, etc.

How do they do that? Is there an app or a desktop application? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Great question. We actually have a portal with a digital signage manager that allows you to either upload your own assets, or we have a tool that allows them to create their own assets on the fly within the ecosystem itself. So if you have an agency and you've been working with them, or you have a creative team and you work with them to create assets, that's great. But if you don't, you're at a small bar or a restaurant, or a dental office and you need to get something done. We have a tool in there to help you build this. 

With templates and things like that?

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah, we have templates, both video and still, and a ton of options in there. 

Do you work at all with third party digital signage CMS software platforms or is it that either you're going down this path or you go down that path. You can't really merge the two? 

Blake Sabatinelli: So primarily we work within our own platform. So all of our tools are built custom for our device and custom for our platform as a whole. 

If there is an opportunity for us down the road to work with third-party software operators, whether that’s for queuing or for other signage options? A hundred percent, but right now we've been operating and developing all our own software. 

Do you get beyond the simple component of throwing ads every three minutes or whatever it may be and enable a venue operator to do things like, ”Hey, we're hiring!” or things like that that get into messaging as opposed to advertising?

Blake Sabatinelli: Whatever they want to run in those spots, it's up to them. We're not in the business of policing how businesses operate their own signage option. So if they're looking to post that they're hiring, which I know every restaurant in America is right now, then we would encourage them to use the tool to do that as well.

It’s a subscription, right? 

Blake Sabatinelli: So our platform as a whole is actually free. If you want to use the digital signage option, it's $50 a month. 

So you send them a free Apple TV box? 

Blake Sabatinelli: That's right. We send people a free Apple TV box and we ask very few questions of them. Our goal is to get people on board and running and streaming and getting people enjoying the content as fast as possible, and while it sounds too good to be true, it's not. 

We give you a free Apple TV box. We pay for that Apple TV box by providing advertising. So we're advertising a sport or business, it's a vast majority of our revenue stream, and we find it works for both us and for our partners. 

Okay. So there's a programming wheel and there’s interruptions in that programming wheel that are both for booked advertising, that your team or the Atmosphere team has sold or is through programmatic platforms of some kind, but if you want to do local on-premise venue specific advertising, that's an opportunity as well, and you pay $50 a month for that? 

Blake Sabatinelli: You hit the nail on the head there, and we end up offsetting some of those advertising slots that we normally would sell on a national or local capacity for the venue operators themselves.

What's your built-out footprint at this point? 

Blake Sabatinelli: We're over 15,000 venues right now, reaching I want to say 48 million unique visits on a monthly basis at this point.

Did some of that transfer over from Chive or is that starting from scratch a couple years ago?

Blake Sabatinelli: So some of that definitely transferred over from Chive. Chive was an incredible catalyst and test case for us to be able to understand product market fit and the dynamics of the marketplace. We have doubled our footprint over the last year and have seen tremendous growth post COVID.

Now if you look back at back in the Chive TV days, we were primarily focused on only bars and restaurants and bars and restaurants are still our bread and butter at this point, they make up 60% of our venue footprint but we've definitely diversified significantly and learned a lot post COVID too. 

Now there's any number of Software companies and solutions companies that sell into hospitality, sell into restaurants and bars and all those kinds of venues, as well as clinic waiting rooms and so on. They would sell a software solution that would enable the operators to go in and do all of their on-premise messaging and everything else but they would then have to subscribe to a third party content service, like a ScreenFeed, or one of those kinds of companies to provide the other content for the wheel. 

Is that something you sell against or are you finding people are saying, “You know what, I love the ScreenFeed material and everything else, but we just can't keep up with all this. We don't want to manage it. If we could just get something that just shows up, that would be better”? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah. So there's a couple of constituencies that we sell against. 

Primarily for us as is against the pay television ecosystem. There's not a lot of great options that exist for waiting rooms or public spaces that exist in the pay TV ecosystem. Some of the contents are wonderful with the audio on, but when the audio is off, it's not, and there's also no signage options in there, which clearly is a challenge. There's also the folks that are endemic to the space, to your point, the operators that work with the waiting rooms, especially around point of care and we do hear a lot that people just really want to make sure that the perceived wait times are going down and they can provide signage options, and for us, making sure that our venue operators have higher net promoter scores that proceed wait times are lower in bars or in restaurants, that you're staying for longer is really the key. Beyond that, the additional messaging is a bonus. 

I'm going to assume that you guys have done the work to try to develop and highlight some of those metrics, right?

Blake Sabatinelli: That's a hundred percent correct. So we've worked with in-market to understand dwell time and other metrics within our restaurant venues, we work closely with our metrics partner Epicenter on how people are engaging and activating with our content, and then a number of case studies along the way to really drive down the funnel, the efficacy of the platform and everything. 

So what does happen? Does it increase dwell times if I'm ordering a second round of drinks or another plate of nachos or whatever? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Our last study showed that we had 16% longer dwell time in bars and restaurants and 18% higher return frequency amongst customers and a lot of our venue partners who shared back some of their net promoter scores have gone up based on our content being in place. 

So really there's no argument against it. If they're going to have flat panel displays, whether they're TVs or commercial displays in their venues anyways, and if they get the Apple TV box free, then you know, I would imagine it's hard to say no?

Blake Sabatinelli: Like I said, we've grown really fast the past 18 months post COVID and the business has been booming. So I agree with you. It's hard to say no. 

The biggest challenge that we have, and it's really about getting people to understand that this thing that they didn't know existed in a segment that really doesn't have anyone else playing in it. It exists and it's going to be beneficial to their business. Once they understand how this fits into their restaurant experience or their waiting experience, it's an easy close. 

So you mentioned how the growth happened in the past 18 months, I keep saying 18 months, it's probably like 20 months now.

Blake Sabatinelli: It's been a long time. I've lost count at this point. I think everybody has, as I'm sitting in my home office saying that. 

COVID was an interesting thing for our business. Look, I don't think anyone in the media space would say that things didn't go a little haywire in April of 2020 but it did also give us the opportunity to evaluate our business model, our distribution strategy, and to really think about how we could expand and pivot a little bit. So while bars and restaurants were closed, aftermarket auto and doctor's offices, dentists offices, and others still had people coming into them, especially outside of California and New York, so expanding our distribution strategy has allowed us to not only keep up and running through COVID, but to dramatically increase the velocity of our distribution as we've gone out of the initial wave of COVID and into the present day. 

Is there a type of a vertical category type of venue that seems to adapt it more so than others?

Blake Sabatinelli: I'll be honest with you. We've seen strong growth in that across a number of categories. So everything from traditional bars and restaurants to QSR, we've seen explosive growth in gyms, in aftermarket auto, in point of care. Moving now pretty aggressively into airports and other spaces. We've just seen strong, measured growth across every category and every segment that's been incredibly encouraging. 

When you onboard new clients or new venue clients, do you do any work to audit the type of audience that they may have and make recommendations about the channels that suit them best? Because I'm really curious whether a venue puts in a channel that’s about cute puppies or whatever, and the audience would be saying, “Why are you showing that?” Or “Why are you showing news? I don't want to see the news.” 

Blake Sabatinelli: There's plenty of venues that Chive TV works really well in, but in veterinarian offices, Paws TV plays better and so we make that recommendation. The same goes for news in airports in the doctor's weightings rooms. So we're incredibly thoughtful about how we present our content and where we think it should play, and our customer service and account management teams work closely with our venue partners to ensure that they know new options are available and that options they may not know about that may suit their venue better are available as well.

Do you try new content channel formats and try them out with test partners and sometimes just throw them out, cause that doesn't work? 

Blake Sabatinelli: We wouldn't be a tech driven platform if we weren't doing a significant amount of AB testing. Our product team and content teams were constantly working within new partners to do tests and learn to better understand product market fit of a channel or a new format and to better understand how we can continue to improve the product. It's a constant process and it's just part of operating in the ecosystem that we do. 

Have you learned things about length of material, like duration of material? 

Blake Sabatinelli: We actually have and there's a reason that if you look at the content on our platform, it's formatted the way that it is. People want to quickly move from one thing to an X and I think that's partly a by-product of this new world that we live in where short form, highly addictive, highly engaging video is the norm. You're used to looking down and getting that dopamine rush. So fitting that format onto a big screen is important for us.

And then just people are really looking for variety too. That's why we have custom playlist features that allow you to compile a number of different options into one because not everyone wants to see the same thing for a long period of time. So we try to keep the format moving, we try to keep the content moving. We try to keep it varied and engaged as much as we possibly can again, to reduce perceived wait times on one end or in some cases to ensure people are sticking around the same. I'm hoping I can get another round of people doing amazing things. 

How do you deal with portrait material, stuff shot in portrait mode?

Blake Sabatinelli: At this point pretty much everything is shot in a vertical format. So you get pretty used to working with curtains. We've done a good job of being able to cycle back and forth between the vertical and horizontal formats as effectively as possible, and I think people have gotten used to seeing video shot both vertically and horizontally.

Ten years ago, I remember you would shoot a video on a cell phone while working in the news business, you would be screaming in the control room. Why didn't they turn their camera sideways? In this instance, everyone's used to this, this is the new normal and it's really not that big of a concern. 

And I guess the advancements of camera sensor technology and smartphones has been good news for you guys as well. Like you say, 10 years ago, I remember I had a Blackberry about 10 years ago and that camera was dreadful. 

Blake Sabatinelli: 320x240 resolution and if you watch that on my little MacBook that's sitting in front of me right now, I believe the kids would say it looks like it was shot on a potato. 

Look, the advancements in camera technology have just really been a boon to businesses like ours. I have one of the crappier iPhones in my pocket and I think it's probably a higher resolution camera than the SLR that's sitting in my closet that I've never used. So it's been fantastic for us. 

Yeah, that's exactly right. I've got a mirrorless camera, nice SLR, and I never use it because it's just so much easier to whip out my phone, take a shot, and it's got like a 16 megapixel sensor and it looks great! 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah. What a time to be alive that I don't have to carry a giant camera or a camera bag around with me anymore. So I'm not going to complain. 

You recently announced, I believe that you are expanding Atmosphere TV into Canada, right? 

Blake Sabatinelli: That's correct. We're actually moving aggressively there right now. 

When I look at your installation map, it throws me off a little bit. It looks like you already have a lot of points of presence in Canada, or is that just the way the map looks?

Blake Sabatinelli: So we do have some presence in Canada to start off with, but now we're making a concerted effort to actually come in and take as many shares as we possibly can in the marketplace. But early on we were testing, are we a hundred percent sure that the content is going to work just the same as it does in Canada? It does. Is our distribution and sales model gonna work exactly the same? It will. Is the ad sales model exactly the same? It is, and so at that point, we all sat down and made the decision to make a more concerted effort to move into Canada, to take more share and to really replicate the model that we have down here in the States.

Yeah, that would be the easy one. The harder one would be going South. 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah. Look, our primary target out the gate is English speaking countries. We have Canada, Australia, New Zealand, there's plenty of others that'll be coming down the pipeline. But moving into second languages is definitely going to be a focus for us, especially as we start to understand what the economics look like in each market, how we can program in those markets in such a way that we do here in the United States and in Canada, and then we'll continue spreading in that direction. 

How big is the company at this point? 

Blake Sabatinelli: The headcount changes every single day. I think we're at 220 people. We've about tripled our head count since I joined in March, I think I was employee number 84. 

So there's 110 plus people who you've not met yet because you're working out of your bunker? 

Blake Sabatinelli: I go into the office four days a week and I am incredibly thankful that I'm able to go in and actually see people face to face and so we have a large contingency here in Austin, satellite offices now that are popping up in New York and LA, and Chicago is on the roadmap. While we're almost all here, there's a decent chunk of us that are external, and I've had the pleasure of meeting everyone in person.

How much of that would be Editorial versus Sales versus IT or Ops, I guess you'd call it? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Editorial’, probably a quarter of our company. IT and Operations, probably another quarter, and then the rest is spread across Distribution and Ad Sales and GNA, and other.

Has it been hard to manage all this largely virtual?

Blake Sabatinelli: So we've been back in the office since March at this point. There has been a significant amount of growth with all of us virtual. I'm not going to tell you that there hasn't been a growing pain or two and that it's all easy, and this is a cakewalk, Dave, but our team's incredible, our HR team, our finance folks, recruiters, everyone that works on our team to find, identify and bring and onboard new employees, they're wonderful and so it hasn't been as bad as I’d think as other experiences I've heard across the industry. 

My twenties and thirties were spent in newspaper newsrooms and I struggle to wrap my head around the idea that you would have a dispersed newsroom where you're only talking to each other by video meetings and Slack.

Blake Sabatinelli: We did it in April of 2020. The entirety of our Newsy at home and we spun up live operations in people's living rooms and it was absolutely bananas, and that was as difficult as you would imagine, and was ripe with challenges, but that team got it done too and made it look easy.

I think one thing that I've learned in this new COVID world is to truly expect the unexpected, and so long as you're comfortable with that, and so long as you know that something's going to blow up at some point in time and you're ready for it, then it's not that bad.

So what can we expect from Atmosphere TV in the next year, are you going to be launching more products? 

Blake Sabatinelli: Yeah. So I think you're going to see a pretty significant expansion in our content offering. We've had the opportunity over the last year to really understand product market fit, to do a significant amount of tests and learn, to gather the data that we need and really prepare ourselves to start running. I feel like we've been at a full sprint, but now it's time to move like Usain Bolt for the next couple of quarters. So a significant expansion in our content offering in the size and scale of our company and our distribution footprint. We have big plans ahead and I expect you'll be able to watch Atmosphere pretty much everywhere you go here soon. 

Are you still hiring people? 

Blake Sabatinelli: We are hiring like crazy and have plans to continue at a pace like we are now through the next two years. 

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

Blake Sabatinelli: It's my pleasure. Thanks for the time Dave.

Florian Rotberg, Invidis

Florian Rotberg, Invidis

November 10, 2021


The Munich-based digital signage consultancy invidis has been doing an annual yearbook publication for the past decade that is something of an industry bible for the European and Middle Eastern markets, and with each annual edition it gets a little more detailed and broader in its scope.

The company does a German version and another one in English to service the rest of the region. There are many, many industry reports out there purporting to have a real understanding and data about the digital signage industry, but most of those reports are expensive and frankly not worth the money. 

The invidis yearbook, in contrast, is rich in detail, and full of insights from people who know the business at an expert level.

And the best part, it's a free download - with the report bankrolled by sponsor advertisers.

I caught up with Florian Rotberg, one of the principals at invidis, to talk about this year's insights, and why the focal point for 2021 was on what they call green signage.

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Florian. Thank you for joining me. You're just back from Dubai! 

Florian Rotberg: Thanks for having me. Yeah, it was very exciting in Dubai at Expo 2020, and we spent a few days there. It was still very hot, but it's fascinating to see how immersive signage can be in today's show.

Yeah. There's digital signage all through the Expo site, right?.

Florian Rotberg: It's fascinating. It’s LED with a lot of projections. During normal times, you don't see that much projection, but in this special country pavilion, there were 180 of them, it's fascinating to see. It's also great to see what works and what doesn't because some of the countries run out of money or never really had a good plan and you feel it immediately. So you enter the room and go, “oh, that's crap, I’m leaving,” and unfortunately, sometimes you have to wait two to three hours at some of the very popular pavilions. So then it's not a good experience, but in general, it's fascinating to see what's the coolest thing.

It's not only LED and projection, but it's also how that's really integrated in architecture and not only how it integrated into the room, but also a lot of mirrors. So one of my favorite things, and I've talked about it many times before, it's really how you combine signage, how you combine LED or projection with mirror. You can do fantastic things and you see some really cool pavilions. 

Yeah. There was a new observatory that just opened up in New York, overlooking Madison Avenue in Midtown and it's got a big LED wall, but it's also three levels of mirrored ceilings and floors and walls and everything else and reflects like crazy. I was trying to wrap my head around it, but it's that kind of thing where it becomes just an infinite space. 

Florian Rotberg: Exactly, and it feels immersive and it can create great experiences there, and we took 1400 photos and 70 hours of video, so we’ll put everything together in the next week we would publish it on Invidis Meets World on YouTube where you can watch it and we will show a lot of other stuff also obviously.

What is invidisXworld?

Florian Rotberg: So invidisXworld is something we started before the pandemic, and we decided because signage is so much about content, so much about the whole room, it's not only the digital canvas, but how people move in front of the screen and what a brand or the vendors really want to achieve. 

And so we decided, we have to travel. We have to go there. We have to talk with the people who designed it, and we have to just experience ourselves and then to tell the audience how it really feels. So we just hired the camera team, and we went off to Sweden and to Berlin which is still both in Europe, so it was easier to reach, and we spent a week there and talked with dozens of experts and visited museums. Some of the museums just opened for us because they were all closed because of a lockdown, and we went to Volvo, to H&M, to different places, to headquarters and talk with the guys who are responsible for that. It's a fascinating show and people like it and we get quite good feedback. 

So we're working in a visual medium, and you're actually using video? 

Florian Rotberg: Yes! 

How clever. 

Florian Rotberg: To be honest, I always thought photos are so cool, it's so easy, but unfortunately video is so much better, but it's very expensive. It's not just you spending a week somewhere, you have a whole camera team, and almost like a broadcast team, we have a video guy, sound guy, a producer, and you have to feed them and that is sometimes difficult. So you have to manage them almost like kids, but at the end of the day, you get some really good footage afterwards and it’s worth the trouble.

For people who haven't been to Dubai, as you say, it's fascinating. I find it extremely weird, but the degree of digital signage there, all these projects, and a lot of them are big budget projects, are they instructive or are they one-offs where you look at them and go, that's really cool, but, that's not something that's ever going to scale?

Florian Rotberg: It's changing. In the past, it was just about the “wow of the moment” and afterwards, they all forgot about it. Nobody cared about maintenance, and after a year it just looked horrible, because nobody invested in content and nobody cared about it, and to be honest, even till today, the majority of the digital touchpoints are still not really connected to any backend systems or so and there are various reasons for that.

One is when they open something and then they forget about it. People change jobs really fast. So even the person who is responsible for that leaves a job after a year or so, and so nobody has ownership anymore, and last but not least, these countries are relatively small, so reaching scale is very difficult, even for big chains, maybe maybe 40 stores or so getting scale is difficult. 

And they're interested in the “wow” and unfortunately not so much until four to five or seven year long contracts.

But you said it's changing? 

Florian Rotberg: Yep. It's changing, getting smarter, getting more connected. To be honest, the region is the most digitally advanced region with a very young population.

They have two-three mobile phones, and they're very open to all of this stuff. So it is changing, and we talked, while we were there, to one of the biggest telecommunication companies there, and we were at one of their flagship stores and they now have 170 stores and they have really good connections, and they really think in customer journeys. 

We also visited a smart hospital, which was really cool. You identify yourself when you enter the hospital with your ID card and then it takes a photo of you and then you walk through the hospital and it detects you and makes sure that you're in the right room, that the right person is there and everything. So very smart and they’re really starting to think about journeys and to improve processes. So at the smart hospital, the process before was three days with all the examinations until you got to stand for your visa renewal, and now it's down to 30 minutes, which is incredible, and this is only possible with digital.

So I wanted to chat for a number of reasons, but the principal one was the yearbook that Invidis puts out. Could you explain what that is and how it works? 

Florian Rotberg: Some people call it the Bible of the industry. I'm not sure if I would call it that, but yeah, it's an annual book we have been publishing for 11 year now and it's free to download on and it basically gives a yearly update about the latest trends. We have lots of rankings there, especially this year since it was quite interesting. You know, like the largest CMS providers worldwide, and which verticals are most important for digital signage, etc.

We just give an analysis of the market, what has happened and also an outlook on what trends are coming up and what to understand, and the main topic this year is Green Signage. I know many of your listeners are based in North America, but over here in Europe, it's a huge topic. During the pandemic, the interest in more sustainable solutions has improved dramatically, and so more and more brands are looking to also operate their signage networks more sustainably, and what's most interesting when we did all the research is that 80% of the carbon footprint of a digital signage project is during operations. So for five-six years, the whole thing is operating. It's not so much the production, it's not so much the shipping. Yes, it's still 10-20%, but 80%, that's the biggest lever, and so it's not only about buying a more sustainable, more conscious signage solution, but it's really about how to improve existing installations.

And there are so many things you can improve and you can reduce power consumption with the right content. Turning it off at night, it's so unfortunate that the majority of the signage runs 24/7 even if there are no people around. Kiosks systems, they all run 24.7. There's no reason if a kiosk system is somewhere on a factory floor and the floor is closed or in the evening, or at night, it's still running. In the beginning, especially with LEDs, obviously they consume a lot of power. So there are a lot of levers and ways to be more conscious and more sustainable. 

Do you think part of that is simply the early days of the legacy of digital signage software and hardware is that you were afraid to kind of power it down cause it would come back? 

Florian Rotberg: Exactly. Yeah, that's the main thing, at least that’s what the technical integrators always say. Some, especially on some more recent screens, turn off the sensors, the light sensors and everything because the marketing department wanted the red as close as possible to their official red and obviously that doesn't work if you change the brightness of the screen but things are changing really fast.

And what's most interesting now with the pandemic and about sustainability is that signage has become a CEO topic for the first time. In the past years, they never really cared about digital signage, but now they really have to report it to their shareholders: how they could improve operations, where they could reduce the carbon footprint and digital signage plays an important role.

Interesting. The yearbook is primarily focused on Europe and the Middle East, right?

Florian Rotberg: Yes. That's how we started. We started this in Germany and then we extended it and now it's more or less all over Europe and every year we add a few more countries. Last big thing was the Nordics, and currently we're working on France, Spain and UK, so next year, we will also have rankings for these countries, and yeah, especially in Europe most markets were quite national markets and now some bigger international players are really growing and Europe is seen as one market, and so it's important to have all of them and that includes the UK. 

Yeah, despite Brexit. Is what happens in Europe indicative of what is happening globally or is it its own thing? 

Florian Rotberg: The whole green stuff is probably the most advanced in Europe.

Yeah, you don’t hear about it in North America. Honestly, I've never heard anybody bring it up.

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, but over here, especially in the Nordics, it's very important, and just for example, electricity is 10 times more expensive in Germany compared to Korea, for example. Even the designers and the engineers who create new solutions, they're not aware of how important power consumption is and life is changing, and I think this whole climate debate we are currently having, I think it will become more important, not only in Europe, but also in the US. 

I know that Europe and the Middle East primarily, I've heard other people talk about the real action these days being in China and in India and I wonder how hard it must be, particularly with China, to try to wrap your arms around who the major players are, what activities are going on, any of those things?. 

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, China is a very difficult market. There's a lot of potential but it’s very difficult as an analyst, really, to look at the market and it's so different.

Interestingly enough, there are a few bigger digital signage integrators based in Europe and North America who also have offices in China and they’re pretty much doing this stuff for all the big luxury brands and so. So there's some European and then North American guys who really are trying to do stuff in Shanghai and the big cities, but the general market is just huge, and you probably talked to Chris Regal or so, because he's very successful in India and in China, but he's targeting more of the mid market and the European players, they're just looking at how to bring Italian and French brands to China.

And those European brands and other brands, would they rather bring familiar companies into the country to do that for them, as opposed to hiring local firms? 

Florian Rotberg: At the end of the day, that's the case, but that's also with North America, that's the success of the media to be honest. Media’s strength in Europe is that they represent America, the American customers here.

So what is happening in terms of the yearbook? Obviously we're hopefully coming out of a rather rough couple of years. I noticed in the report that the countries in Europe, at least that had a particularly rough time were France and the UK versus some of the other countries that were down, but not to the same level. Why did that happen?

Florian Rotberg: Because of the lockdown. We had different levels and different lengths of lockdown, and just looking at Australia, they had a three months lockdown. Now that obviously has a huge impact because the stores were closed, and even if it's a brand that’s willing to spend money and to upgrade the stores, they couldn't because technicians weren't allowed to enter the stores. 

I know, in past discussions around this, that Europe's an interesting market in that dominant players in many respects are dominant by country, as opposed to across the continent? 

Florian Rotberg: That has been the case, absolutely. But this is currently changing. So we have, we call them the Top 3, they are the three largest pure play digital signage integrators, and they've all been acquired more or less by private equity and now they're buying competitors in the big markets. All three of them really try to grow into a pan-European or international player. 

But in relative terms to the North American guys, AVI, SPL, Diversified and Stratacache, they're tiny, right?

Florian Rotberg: They are tiny. They hope to change that but they are very small. But to be honest if you look at AVI, SPL or even Diversified, they're not pure digital signage, they do a lot of Pro AV, IT stuff, so you should compare apples with apples, but still X times larger than the biggest in Europe.

AVI, SPL just announced, I think, it's called the Experience Technology Group. So they seem to be recognizing that they need to get more serious about signage and venue based displays.

Florian Rotberg: Oh, yeah, and I love what they do. They're really smart in creating this platform to manage different AV solutions and everything. So I think that it's a smart approach, and also now looking out to create more immersive experiences because if you have expertise there, you can really export it throughout the world. So that works quite well. 

But in Europe, we still have the problem of 25 different languages and really creating concepts, which you need to understand the culture and yes, there's a big difference between Sweden and Spain or Italy and Ireland also. So really to understand that, and that was a reason why there were large local players and still, if you look how these big three or at least three for European sizes and how they're growing, they all built up little local creative teams and sales teams in each countries because you need to have this local expertise, you need to speak the language of the client, and you need to understand what they really want to achieve. 

You've done a ranking of the Top 10 Global CMS software platforms, and I'm making some assumptions that there are some CMS platforms in China that you and I probably have never even heard of and that they are probably huge as well. But were you surprised by who showed up on this list? 

Florian Rotberg: Some surprises, yes. I mean there's a small asterisk next to it. So it's just the best of our knowledge, obviously. I'm sure there are many but one big problem is always Samsung. They never report anything, and it's really difficult. 

So the largest one is Stratacache. It's a little bit more than 3 million active licenses, and one of the surprises was that the top three players were Navori. I'm not sure if many of your listeners have heard about Navori. They're based in Switzerland.

They're pretty big in North America actually. 

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, not so much in Europe, funnily enough, even though they came out of Europe and yes, they have more than 1 million active subscribers. So that's quite cool, and then you see some more vertical ones who are growing through acquisitions a lot and socialists like BroadSign, it's great to see. We have followed BroadSign for more than 15 years now, and it's great to see how they have become the standard in the digital out-of-home industry. It’s quite impressive.

Yeah, they've risen to a level where they pretty much own that vertical and I always try to coach software companies that you really don't want to be a generalist. You want to have a focus on something and they probably more than anybody have done that in digital out-of-home. 

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, but the same with Four Winds etc., they all are specialists, or at least they are focusing more and more on certain verticals.

Yeah, Four Winds barely calls itself a digital signage company now. They're talking about the workplace and the same with Ops Space. 

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think there was just an announcement in that space today. 

So what are you seeing in terms of trends in the industry? As you mentioned, the shift to, or the interest in green signage is one thing. What else are you seeing happening out there? 

Florian Rotberg: The biggest challenge currently across the world is to manage the supply chain shortage. Unfortunately, that won't go away in 2022. If you read the Financial Times, if you talk to all the people, you just read it every day and most people expect that to last at least until the end of next year.

And that's pretty bad news because the order books are as full as they were before. There's a lot of demand for signage at the end of the pandemic, and unfortunately 2022 will still be a difficult year. Secondly, we have a shortage of talents and whoever you talk to, I'm sure you also get calls about companies saying, we're desperately looking for a new manager and I get them every day and that's a huge issue and then shortage in diversity, shortages of women, of everything. It's still a very male dominated thing, and today InfoComm opened and I'm sure the majority of them are men, as always, and so we see these three shortages: supply chain, talent and diversity.

When I get asked to organize panels particularly with an organization like the AVIXA, which has diversity initiatives and everything else, they really encourage me to make sure that I'm finding women and people of color and so on, and I'm completely supportive of that, but it's hard.

Florian Rotberg: It is hard, yeah. It's not easy. I fully understand, but alsowhen you look more in the new work, in the hybrid world, it's all about hybrid and that's very challenging for everyone. It's easy to have everyone at home. It's easy to have everyone on location, but managing these hybrid workspaces is very difficult. How can you create meetings where everything feels included and often you communicate with eyes and with every single one that's very difficult to do when alf of the people are somewhere at home or so. So you need lots of creativity and innovative solutions to manage that. So that's also something which will definitely remain. 

And we're seeing gimmicks coming up there, like this idea of the metaverse and using quasi holograms, so that it feels like you're sitting across from a real person when it's not obviously, do you see any potential for that stuff?

Florian Rotberg: To be honest, it's a one way road because it's nice for the guys who are in the office, but for the guys who are sitting at home in front of this small screen, it doesn't help them at all, and you need to have both sides and you need to empower both sides, and so I think at the end of the day, it's difficult to solve and we haven't seen any solution.

I think the cool part is teleportation stuff, and last week in Dubai, there was also an IT show. It was just the biggest and it was unbelievable how full it was like before the pandemic, and they had these cool mirrors and everything. So it looked like somebody was in the room, when obviously he wasn't. And so it's great to see, but it doesn't help people at home, and so that still remains a challenge. 

And I wanted to go to that show. I've seen some videos of some booths from some companies, and it looked insane. 

Florian Rotberg: It was, and a lot of booth people were waiting an hour more. Can you imagine that? Just to enter the booth because it was so full, it was unbelievable. We all had to wear a mask, no question about it, but we waited more than an hour just to get in. So yeah, it was amazing, and we produced lots of videos and we will publish that in the next couple of days.

It's really cool stuff, especially in regards to retail technology, all the cool stuff, all the fancy things were robots and solar, but also AI and how it really works, and then some simpler solutions in all of these checkout carts and everything, and also these devices which measure you so you don't have to find the right size without using camera technology, because obviously that's something which most people don't like. And it's interesting to see what kind of solutions there are. Much of the stuff, it's really something where you're thinking, oh, it'd be great. If they would roll that out in the future, the majority of them are still in the prototype phase, but hopefully we will see lots of this coming up.

Your report coined a term, “Deep Signage” which I had not seen before, but I understand it and this idea of integrating back office systems with other business systems within a company. It sounds like that, particularly in Dubai, is really coming into play. 

Florian Rotberg: Yeah, we try to form this term, deep signage, because for us, it's important that you connect as much as possible, as long as digital is just a layout on something existing. It won't really offer the experiences everyone needs and the benefits. So you have to connect it to the back office, and especially when we talk about moving away from just digital signage CMS, all the way to a digital experience platform, then you need to mix everything and then really connect. So deep signage is something we believe is one step towards digital experience. 

Yeah, and how do you define digital experience platforms? 

Florian Rotberg: Oh, that's difficult. Yeah, when you download our book, we have a little picture there, and it's four stages. We start with a digital poster, which is the most simple one. Then we have digital signage, then we have a digital signage experience platform, and then the ultimate is digital experience platform, because there's a totally different approach to it, and when we talk about DXP, it’s not digital signage or mobile or online, which is in focus, but it's really the data, it's the experience which is in focus regardless on which channel you play it out, and it's really orchestration of all of the different channels and different stories and media platforms, and that's what digital experience platform is about.

But then many customers ask us who does it and who's good at it, and it's very difficult. There are only very few companies and most of them are totally vertically organized players like Zara,, I'm sure you know them, because they do everything, they own the factory, they own the warehouse, they own the shops, and they own the data and for them, it doesn't matter if you go into a store, try something out and decide to buy it online, because they own the whole value chain and this is one of the few companies who really are able to deliver a DXP and make the most of it, but more will come definitely. 

If you're a smaller company, is it something you can even contemplate at a different kind of scale?

Florian Rotberg: No, it's not worth it. I think you need to be very large, to be honest, and to really put up a DXP project, you probably need a few million just for setting it up. 

You mentioned private equity companies and some of the integrators in Europe, or are you seeing a lot of private equity activity?

Florian Rotberg: Yes, it’s unbelievable. So much money in the market. That's the reason that conservation is speeding up so fast, it's unbelievable. 

Why do you think that is right now? Is it distressed companies? 

Florian Rotberg: No. We were surprised not at all, but maybe that's also a European thing because the governments took care of that and so most of them kept their employees, which is a good thing now, because they didn't have to retrain new people so it's not about that. 

It's more about that the crisis wasn't really an economic crisis. It was more of a human crisis, and so most companies still have a lot of money, except if you are a Chinese real estate company, then maybe you don’t. But in general, they have a lot of money. The private equity companies, they're looking for new ways of spending it, and they all buy into the digitization of stationary retail. They fully understand that times have changed and you can only survive if you're fully digital, and so that's probably why they like it.

And then there are also some of the trends like we have the first valuation of more than a hundred million in Europe for an integrator, and this is one of the thresholds where, you know, private equity likes to come into the market. Zeta Display, they were almost at a hundred million valuation and it's not much compared to the top three in the US but for Europe, that's quite big, and that that made it really interesting for many others. 

You also, in the report, talk about changing roles of the different companies in the ecosystem and how there are dinosaurs, disruptors and discovers. What do you mean by that? 

Florian Rotberg: Ah, that's quite interesting, especially when you look at software companies, some of them are reinventing themselves, and in the past,, there was the value chain and there were clearly defined roles. There was an integrator, the integrator usually owns the lead with the customer and he chose certain software and certain hardware and that was it basically, and then you did some stuff in the back and, but I think Chris Regal was the first one, when he quit Scala, he said “oh, I'm sick of just having 3-5% of the project, I want to have more”, and so he decided to build around software this whole end to end solution.

And then other companies, software companies from Sweden and other parts of Europe, they're really also trying to change the way the value chain works. So they really want to be ISV+. So they want to do everything except hardware . Obviously the investors love that because that's every single sale which would have recurring revenue and nobody wants to touch hardware, and Chris Regal always tells us that you need to also to understand how to learn, to manage it. Otherwise the service you mentioned will be really expensive. So it's interesting to see if this ISV+ model will work out for them. 

So that sounds like the dinosaurs are those who refused to adjust and adapt, and the disruptors are those that are doing things differently?

Florian Rotberg: Yup. We have some smaller, more aggressive players coming into the market and also players like Spector, many people hadn't heard about them and now they have become really relevant 

And there are also companies that, in some cases, are very large companies that can come into the market from outside, like consulting companies like Deloitte and so on and disrupt things as well, right?

Florian Rotberg: Absolutely. On a different level, but yes, Accenture, Deloitte, all of these guys and they are really close to the big enterprise. So usually they do at least double digits, sometimes triple digit contracts with blue chip companies every year and they're trusted names. So it's an easy one for BMW, Adidas, Nike, or whatever to hire one of them and to ask them to create a new digital concept. Unfortunately, most of them don't know how digital signage works.

Yeah. So they always invent this great stuff. It looks fantastic on PowerPoint and everything, but then at the end of the day, they need to subcontract it to the signage contractor to solve the whole thing and make it work, and we have also seen the big four have failed as a digital signage company, and so it's interesting, but eventually they will buy some digital signage companies I think.

Or hire smart people, you know? Over here in North America, I think about Gensler and Publicis Sapient, and they have some super smart people working for them now who really get this space and get the technology and everything else. So they're getting there, but it's a very small percentage of people within very large companies.

Florian Rotberg: You mentioned Gensler, it's fascinating, and I'm sure we talked to the same people there and it's really fascinating how with new projects now, they make more money with digital stuff rather than the traditional architectural stuff. So that's fascinating. Not revenue wise, but from the bottom line, and that's interesting to see because if you do digital consulting, obviously your margin is higher than with your standard architectural work. So it's fascinating to see how architectural companies like this are really getting into the digital space and if you don't see it as just a layer really integrated, you need to plan it from day one. 

Last question: Is there a piece of technology or an emerging technology that gets you particularly excited? 

Florian Rotberg: We are both not the youngest anymore. We have seen many technologies come and go, and I know one thing that never works is 3D.

So we were a little bit surprised to see how 3D in this false perspective on this LED wall worked, but I still think it's a hype, to be honest. 

Analytics, sensors, and IOT will make a difference, no question about it. But it’s not one technology, it's more, I think a mindset of connecting everything and measuring everything and adapting to the audience in the milliseconds. I think that's something we're changing. It's probably a whole range of different technologies. 

Yeah, I'm of the same mindset. I tell people that the stuff that excites me would probably bore the pants off of them, and just in terms of its the operational stuff is being able to affect messaging based on what the data is telling you, and it may be really boring saying, go this way instead of that way, because that's too busy over there or whatever, but that's fabulous stuff and it makes a difference or whatever venue it is works. 

Florian Rotberg: Exactly. It's more the stuff under the hood, which really gets me excited and that's also where you can really improve processes where you can really add value, and so that's what we are mostly working on, and obviously customers want to pay for the glittery stuff on top of the rest. But no, but that's where we see the biggest changes happening in the future. 

So if people want to read the 2021 year book, how do they get it? 

Florian Rotberg: It's free to download at and I think you also published an article, so you can also find it on your website a link to that, but it's free to download, it's 200 pages and not only this year's edition, but if you also want to read some auditions, please come to our website a and download it there.

And you're able to produce it for free because you get advertising sponsors to support it, right? 

Florian Rotberg: Yes, but it's still more work than we get from advertisements, I can tell you that

It was a pleasure catching up with you as always. 

Florian Rotberg: Thanks for having me. 

InfoComm 2021 Roundtable: Tortured Terminology, With Three Daves, A Kim And A Chris

InfoComm 2021 Roundtable: Tortured Terminology, With Three Daves, A Kim And A Chris

November 4, 2021

A virtual roundtable panel run last week during the InfoComm trade show pulled three Daves, a Kim and a Chris together to talk about the use and abuse of technology terms in digital signage and pro AV.

Run as a version of the Digital Signage Federation's periodic Coffee and Controversy series, the panel included Kim Sarubbi of IoTecha, STRATACACHE CEO Chris Riegel, David Title of New York-based Bravo Media, and Portl founder David Nussbaum, who has a very cool transparent LCD product he calls a hologram mainly because he needs something short and digestible for what is a complicated offer.

We had a great, very frank discussion - there's no other way with these folks - about a variety of topics, from all those things on Linkedin that aren't holograms or aren't even real, to the challenges of marketing complicated technology.

This was a Zoom call, and the full video is available via AVIXA as part of a post-InfoComm conference package, but here's the audio version.

I have not done all the polish at the front and back, just so I could get this out as a bonus podcast. 

Sixteen:Nine podcasts have, forever, been gratefully sponsored by Screenfeed, the digital signage content store. Sixteen:Nine is an online publication and companion podcast produced up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is a product of Spectrio, a leading provider of customer engagement solutions ranging from digital signage, interactive kiosks, wifi marketing

John McCauley, Velocity

John McCauley, Velocity

November 3, 2021


More and more traditional integrators and IT services companies are finding their way into the digital signage industry, but I can't recall seeing one of them getting seriously into the media side of business ... until now.

A well-established IT managed services company based near Toledo, Ohio - called Velocity - is not only providing technical services to digital out of home media companies, it's directly selling media.

The company describes its media solutions business unit as being an an end-to-end digital signage provider - doing hardware, software, installation, tech support, media sales and everything in between.

Velocity runs and owns digital screen networks in groceries, cinema lobbies and hotels, and is looking to grow its footprint.

I had an interesting chat with the company's Senior VP of Digital Media, John McCauley.

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John, thank you for joining me. I was intrigued when I heard and started reading about Velocity that here is a managed services company, a managed services provider that does a lot of IT work, but they have a media wing and I thought, oh, that's different. 

John McCauley: Yes it is, and I think we have a very enthusiastic CEO, Greg Kiley who has really taken to the place-based digital out-of-home media’s core component and how it stitches together with our overall managed services business, and I think we're starting to really see the benefits of it with the investments that we've made in both resources and just alliances through COVID. So it's exciting times. 

Okay. So let's back up a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit about what Velocity is all about,  where it's based, how large a company it is, those sorts of things? 

John McCauley: We're based in Holland, Ohio. It's near Toledo and the company started 15+years ago. Greg Kiley, the CEO, created a rollup of local, regional voice and data services. And from that you create some scale and you create some efficiencies for customers, allowing sort of one-stop shop across like multiple locations across multiple areas of the country, and that proved to be a very fruitful business, saving money of course, and really creating some stickiness between customers.

The managed services, the network services, what else can you do on that connection? That was like a birth of where other aspects of the company could grow, and sectors that we’d like to be in including retail and hospitality and entertainment. All those things started to really converge and the company had a lot of success probably for a good 15+ years and two years ago, more or less, we got into sort of the digital out-of-home business and always had connection to our customers and really in response to the customers thinking, what else can we do on the connection? 

Starting with merchandising signs, thinking about hotels and maybe retail, those locations would use those to promote offerings and then over time, we start to explore with our customers, can we turn this into a media opportunity, which obviously would provide revenue back to them, creating another revenue opportunity for the company. And I think the timing of that is all very serendipitous for us because digital out-of-home, and technology enabled selling are all converging, and that's a big part of the growth in digital out-of-home is this sort of the technology and the digitization of signs, and we find ourselves in a very interesting and exciting place right now.

Did you have end-user customers who were pushing Velocity on some sort of a cost-recovery model, saying, could we put in signs and make money back on these things or was this more something that Velocity came up with? 

John McCauley: I think a little more on our side and then the clients obviously are the beneficiaries of it. I think a company like us is thinking about all sorts of growth opportunities and also thinking about ways for more customers to come into the fold. We want to be able to provide as much stickiness as we can. So whether you would come in through our network services side of things and we bring digital signage solutions to you or someone comes in through the digital signage solutions and we're able to extend them network services.

The company is very focused on being deep and across the board with as many solutions as we can for our customers. 

So right now, if I'm looking at your website, you do call centers services, repair depot, onsite techs, back office support, project management, all the kind of traditional things that you would have out of IT managed services and telecom managed services.

I remember having a client in the auto sector that had a digital signage department and they described themselves as the land of misfit toys. They didn't really fit in with the rest of the company. Culturally, how does the media wing fit within a whole bunch of guys or people who are IT services people? 

John McCauley: I think we fit very nicely together. There's a lot of similarities within that. First and foremost, we're very customer centric, right? So I think when you start as being customer centric, whether you're providing an immediate solution for a customer or a sort of technology managed services solution, you end up in the right place aligned around that. There's also a lot of cross-pollination, whether you work with CMS systems, or digital signage sort of capabilities, you're working very closely with your IT group, and then also as you're supporting your customers, right?

We have a grocery network and a hospitality network and others, and the responsiveness, we all work well together, right? If a sign goes down, you're tapping into your managed services group, the call center is contacting us and it's very symbiotic, and I think the way the company has put these pieces together has worked well. I can definitely see in other places where they may be assembled versus orchestrated, you'd probably see a bit of a difference. 

So the media solutions business unit, if you want to call it that, what all is in that? 

John McCauley: So we have networks and hospitality, grocery. We have a relationship with cinemas and Cinema lobbies also within Redbox in video toppers on top of Redbox kiosks, and then through another group, as part of a media solution, we have a direct sales group that represents inventory within bars, transit centers, and convenience stores. 

So that mixture of that portfolio of media opportunities allows us to leverage a direct sales group that is working on just a representation basis to help bring into the fold of particular deals of other media that we own and operate, and similarly, if we go owned and operate, we can look to extend those opportunities within networks that we represent. I think within the digital out-of-home space, it's important to have that sort of portfolio approach, allows us to nurture some networks, develop other networks, and I think overall a lot is happening in the space and allows us to be nimble too. 

Did you start with direct sales or was that a kind of a lesson learned, that we can't really use a rep shop, we need to bring this in-house?

John McCauley: We have an affiliate approach. So I would say our channel strategy where we do use Programmatic, of course, everybody needs to connect to Programmatic. We have third-party relationships with people that may have endemic relationships, maybe particularly within grocery. ScreenVision Media represents some of our inventory and they are leveraging the on-screen advertising and people who want to get close to that customer and extend them outside the cinema. So that sort of has its own strategy, and then our direct group is really a traditional digital out-of-home group. So you can't forget that part of the stack of revenue coming in, and I think as we think about revenue and I know a lot of people in the digital out-of-home space think about this is where the layers of the cake are coming from. 

It may be in the beginning of the year when the media is not as heavy, like 15% of media might be spent in the first quarter, you might be a little more Programmatic oriented, right? As you get open exchange, not PMP, as you get to later in the year where maybe 40% of the media spend could be in Q4, you're probably going to be more PMP and maybe a little less open exchange. And so that mix of portfolios could also change by the sector, vertical that you're in. 

We consciously did that and I think bringing in the digital out-of-home was on the roadmap. It just took us as we started to make our acquisitions and some of the other affiliates came in, but they all have to work together. We're working very closely as a centralized resource, coordinating the efforts, because that's how you maximize the revenue. 

The grocery network you acquired, has that been the model for all the media properties you're in? 

John McCauley: That was something that we were interested in grocery and retail. That opportunity came our way and we definitely saw our chance to leverage our relationship with our affiliates, as well as combine that with some strategic things that were coming down the road, but many things we just built from scratch. At the hotel and hospitality network, I think there was a recent release that went out with G6. That's something that there is no network that begins, right? So we're deploying the signs and we're starting it from scratch, and I think you'll, over time, see even more from us where we're combining opportunities where there may be existing networks in place, but we can be the catalyst for more digitization and more growth.

So the G6 one, that's an operator of a series of Motel 6s, right?

John McCauley: Correct. Yes, and hotels are an interesting sort of vertical in the digital out-of-home, not quite landed with media buyers yet, but there's a tremendous amount of purchasing power that resides within hotel guests. Obviously if you stay at a hotel for longer periods of time, you're going to be spending more money in the local economy. But even if you were to go in and have a short-term stay right, more than likely, you're going to be spending some money in the economy. 

We also know from just the dwell time, as people are considering things, landing a message that may be more regional in nature, or maybe it's a specific product, that's yet another impression that's made on a customer or potential customer, as they're within the lobbies. There's a little bit of work to do within hospitality, but we're super bullish on that, particularly when you see that the spending ultimately at the end of the day, media agencies and advertisers are looking for what's that incremental media that I can bring to my campaign and media mix that can be the extra, what's going to help me close the loop? And I think when you're sitting in front of people who are away from home, you know they're going to be spending money. That's definitely an opportunity to influence purchase. 

I'm guessing and it's purely a guess, but given the history of digital out-of-home, a lot of the networks that kind of bubbled up were often by entrepreneurs who were bootstrapped and were going into places like Motel 6 owner group or whatever, and saying, we can do this for you, we can put these screens in and so on, and maybe in the early days they accepted that. But I think the experience was such that so many of those kinds of bootstrap companies went out of business, that a large well-established IT services firm is probably more readily welcomed in the office to talk about it. 

John McCauley: I think the key thing about it is, even if you can bootstrap the signage deployment, ultimately at the end of the day, it's going to be the service, right? With signs, always there's cane activity issues, something goes down the monitoring, the maintenance, right? The ability to help program through CMS systems and that ultimately is how you get across the finish line, and it's super difficult to do, I think if you're bootstrapping and we have the benefit of the resources of Velocity, to create an infrastructure that allows us to support these networks and obviously as we scale, we continue to look at sort of our resources, but we're very much on the radar screen of how we continue to provide that level of resourcing. 

So I'm an owner of numerous motor inns in the US Southwest or something like that, and I approach you guys, what all would you be able to do? Do you take it right from start to finish and aftercare or are there things that you still leave for others? 

John McCauley: Yeah, this would be end to end. Our way of choice of moving forward is design, I think sometimes that's often missed, what's the best place to deploy? What is the best signage to use? Getting them deployed and then ongoing monitoring of the deployment, and ultimately, depending on whether the customer wants it or not is bringing advertising. But whether you bring the advertising or not, there's a CMS system component and we find if we have everything from the beginning to the end, we can provide the highest level of service for the customer, and look, I don't think it's really lost on our customers who are in the hotel business. Sometimes we use the term digital concierge for the signage that we provide in the lobby because that's allowing the hotel to communicate.

These are the services that are available within the hotel. Sometimes it could be a restaurant, right? They are in there and it helps them drive money, sometimes it's a rewards program. ESA has something called the perks program, which allows their guests to download an app and get deals in the community. So that level of communication, we want to be able to provide that CMS component and then advertising is something, and I think generally speaking, when it's handled end to end in a one-stop shop, you're going to get the most from your primary customer, and you can bring the most service, and therefore the most benefit whether it's going to be efficiencies, savings, and obviously, revenue. 

I remember with telecoms companies going back 15 years or so, they started looking at digital signage and described it very much as you did a little bit earlier on, where it's a layered service thing where we're already providing the connectivity and the the boots on the ground, so to speak, to come in and repair things. So why not layer this on top of it? Just in the same way that we could maybe layer this building security or whatever.

John McCauley: I think layered services is a nice way to describe it, and I think when you're working with companies like Velocity where you're very customer focused and looking to help drive value, for your customer, these things come up and I do think that this digitization of signage and communication, while some people may feel like that's a lot to undertake, once you have it, you're taking the communication and you're changing it up, like on a much more frequent basis. 

If you think about movie theaters, and think about menu boards, that used to be that you put them into sort of a plug board, “Popcorn costs $2.50”. Nowadays, a lot of movie theaters have digital menu boards and those digital menu boards allow things to be like by movie, you can change what the offering is. Here's the pack you're going to be focusing on around the time of day and that has really proven to be a driver of an anchor mentality, and that I think is ultimately the proof of the pudding, and I think more people are coming around to that. Posters, things like that, where people would do analog, you can take the same image, send it across digitally, and that now can be customized and tweaked regionally by the market, targeted by time of day, and I think those benefits are becoming much more real to people now, and I think with COVID, in particular, people took the time to think about how digital and technology play a role in my company and I think we'll start to continue to see even more disease of analog opportunities and more exploration of where some signage could be put into venues to drive the revenue and create some efficiencies. 

Does it matter at all about focus? So if you're doing Motel 6 lobbies and groceries in New York state and cinema lobbies, those are pretty different kinds of environments. Does it matter in terms of sales and support that you get a little more focused on one particular vertical or a couple of others? 

John McCauley: I think from the support side of things, there's a lot more commonality to the back end of how you support those signs because of this connectivity coming in, and I would say that would not have been the case years ago. It would have been more difficult to try to manage multiple like sectors, because maybe the differentiation of signage, maybe the CMS system you're using, a lot of that stuff I think has gone away, making it easier to potentially manage like a variety of verticals, but in particular for the sales side of things, we like to think about our areas of focus proximity to retail and purchase.

So lots of times we're nestled within retail, right? You're in a grocery store, we have Redbox, you're there and then the ability to be close to purchase. So whether you're at a bar, you're obviously purchasing in the bar, but oftentimes and with your in hand and the ability to influence purchase, I think is a big deal in digital out-of-home and our network is set up in that way to be around that. We would think about retail and proximity to purchase as a really key component of our business. 

You mentioned CMS, is it a case where you're using a partner firm’s CMS or have you developed your own?

John McCauley: We have our own CMS system and as we've taken on networks, we've had to work with other CMS systems, but ultimately I think in looking at the ad ecosystem, right? If you start at the far left with a DSP slide into the SSP, right? Then you have an ad server, then the CMS and the connectivity to the sign, I think for the most part people who are in the business that we're in, they want to have the CMS connected to the sign, right? Because that's really how you're controlling the sign. You're working with a third party on the signage and having that creates a larger scale and more efficiency. But at the end of the day, a lot of the CMS systems work the same. 

We would obviously think ours is better because we were working to work on our signs and making sure they're doing what we want to do, but I think he needed to have flexibility. So at the end of the day if you want to be in the business, you have to have a wide lens and work hard to get people to consider your CMS system. 

Do you find with the end user customers who you work with and Target in particular that there's any sort of demand that no, we need to work with this particular CMS partner, we need to use this particular smart display or operating system, or are they pretty open? 

John McCauley: I think if you're inheriting something, there's already a bias, that, hey, we've used this and we're looking for a new operator, and I think there are companies that would come in and maybe operate that and certainly we consider everything. I think when things are starting anew then you have the opportunity to bring to bear the capabilities that the company may have around sourcing and designing signage that works as well as the CMS system.

I think you need to be competitive, right? So if someone likes a particular CMS system, you understand what those needs are, and you obviously are going to be upgrading your CMS system to have those. So yeah, you need to be definitely paying attention to the marketplace. I think like in anything, whether it's this business or any business, if you have blinders on, and are rigid and say, this is the way we do it, then ultimately you're going to miss out on opportunities, right? Because the marketplace is going to dictate the services and the capabilities that you need to have. 

Okay, so if I'm a digital place-based startup and I'm putting screens in, I'll make something up in ski resort lounges or something like that, don't think I'd do that one but anyways. 

If I was being smart, I’d determine pretty quickly that I don't know what I'm doing with technology and it would be great if I had a partner who did all that stuff for me, and I just focused on sales or even had sales done by somebody else, and I just run around and get the real estate agreements, is that something you'll do where you just kind of take everything on?

John McCauley: Absolutely. That's the type of thing we would put ourselves in position to do, and I think as you were indicating that sometimes we're seeing the customer saying, yes, I'll get the real estate because I have real estate, I want to convert some real estate, I want to better leverage my real estate, but ultimately we find that customers are trying to drive more revenue, right? Like in their existing business, how do they drive more revenue? I know you were using the ski resort, right? Can they get people to the lodge and buy more? Can they get them to do lessons? Ultimately the businesses are very focused on that. 

Bringing advertising in, that's obviously very complimentary, and we find that when you're bringing advertisers into venues, particularly on the mix of them, local and regional play well because it's sorta like the company you keep. If there's some advertising in there, people go, oh, look at that. They're advertising at the ski resort. I think that is also things that the venues like, they like to be immersed within either the community or things that their customers are feeling that are current.

You've grown a little bit in the media space through acquisition, is this an ongoing thing? Is Velocity looking for other networks that they may potentially acquire as well to build out their footprint? 

John McCauley: I think we will always have our eyes on where we can be strategically accretive, particularly around these verticals and sectors and being close to retail and purchase and if there are things that pop up, we're also actively looking. I would say that that's very much in the forefront. 

There’s a lot of digital out-of-home networks out there. Generally speaking, do you get a sense of how they're doing? There's obviously some large ones that are doing very well, but it's been a rough couple of years for just about everybody.

John McCauley: Yeah, I think heading into that quarter before COVID shut everything down, they were really coming off a record year, having a record quarter digital out-of-home, and then basically the world's shut down, and what we're seeing is that traffic is certainly back, people are out and about, depending on where you are in the country, it could be a little bit less but certainly people are feeling more comfortable being vaccinated, and what we're seeing is that a little bit of an over-indexing to transit and billboards. That's the safe play, right? People are out there driving. I think people are over-indexing there. 

In that middle sort of ground, like street furniture is almost back to where they need to be from the pre COVID levels, and then the place-based, essential markets, whether it's grocery stores and others, they certainly have had the traffic, and they're shown a little quicker recovery and then things that would be considered more discretionary, whether they be movie theaters or people could argue bars, whether that's discretionary or not, but they serve an essential part of the communities. All of those types of things are definitely starting to show the rebounding and heading towards the trajectory of getting back to pre COVID levels. 

But I think that's just the cadence of the way people have responded to it. They have to see that the traffic is steady and consistent, that we can weather the storms of having variance that really impacted the traffic, and then ultimately I think Q4 is a good time for it, right? Because at the end of the day, Q4 is when many companies, whether you're selling stuff, whether it be media or selling products, you need to get your impressions, you need to reach, you need to get impressions. You need to influence people who are in position to purchase. I think this quarter in particular will really start to provide the wind behind the sails heading into 2022. There was a DPAA conference last week which was really encouraging. It was well attended by 600 plus people in person at Chelsea Piers in New York. The energy was high, lots of clients there. Lots of things happening within the digital out-of-home, and I think there's a lot of optimism around place-based. 

And I think you told me in our pre-call that Velocity is a member of the DPAA? 

John McCauley: Yeah, we're members of the DPaA, and in my prior life, I was at the ScreenVision Media and I was on the board. So I'm very friendly and familiar with the leadership there, and I think they've done a very nice job. 

Between the DPAA and the OAAA representing the industry, evangelizing the industry, making sure it's staying top of mind with agencies and brands and CMOs, I think that's an important component and I think there's the retail networks whether it be Walmart doing Walmart Connect or Walgreens or CVS or our efforts at retail, I think they have a very high value, and I think people are really paying attention to the ability to influence customers with wallets out. 

I assume, right now, Velocity is its revenue and its focus is heavily in its traditional business of IT services managed services and so on, and that the media side of it is a fairly small percentage of the revenue. 

Is there a longer-term vision where Velocity starts to become more and more a media company?

John McCauley: We'd have to ask Greg and the leadership team about that, but I see a real enthusiasm for the media business and how the media business supports and can support other opportunities within the company, and so I think as a result of that, it’s strategic importance will continue to grow and so will the revenue but we definitely want to be in the business, whether we're powering networks, whether we're monetizing networks, there's a lot of connectivity that we like being around the space and it plays very well into sort of the overall company of network services and then layering on the media services.

All right. That was terrific. I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

October 6, 2021


I am a huge believer in digital signage software and solutions companies that narrowly define their vertical market and then go after it, as opposed to the many companies out there that say, in effect, we do digital signage.

Those kind of general offers can be deadly, I think, when there is sooo much competition.

So I was intrigued by an email from TrilbyTV that talked about its focus on the education market in the UK, and even more intrigued by the marketing line that the platform and service was built by people who understand and work in education.

I had a chat with TrilbyTV co-founder Neil Emery about how the six-year-old company was founded based on years of working in UK schools doing Apple and Google training. They saw all the dead screens and bad programming in schools that they visited and concluded that they could deliver something better.


David: Neil, thank you for joining me from beautiful Devon. I was struck by the assertion on your website. That Trilby is the only digital signage platform built by people who understand and work in education. What do you mean by that? 

Neil Emery: So we were Apple trainers, Apple Education trainers for 12 years, we started back in the days when schools had lonely suites of iMacs that only the art teacher and the design teacher would allow sort of their students on. Everybody else looked in and thought, what are these computers? But for us, it wasn’t about Apple. It was about making sure everybody knew the power of things like the iLive Suite, things like iMovie and GarageBand. So that's where we started training with Apple and its resellers, sort of companies that sold Apple and then the iPad came out and it went completely bonkers for us as accredited trainers for Apple and we would work with lots of schools, especially those that were going one-to-one with iPad to make sure they had a vision and a plan. 

So we really understand what needs to be in place for technology to be successful, and that tends to be where schools and colleges fall down a little bit. They tend to rush in and buy technology, but they don't think about what needs to be in place to make it successful, and there's a lot that needs to be in place, and we were involved in some of the biggest one-to-one iPad projects in the UK, such as Harlow college, such as Portsmouth college. So we've got a real understanding, again, of what needs to be a place and that's very much how we present ourselves with digital signage as well. It's not just about sticking screens on walls. We work very hard with our customers, especially our groups of school customers, to make sure that they have a plan in place, to make sure that staff are signing up to that plan. So that there's some consistency across what they're uploading to their digital signage. So that's what we meant. We are very education focused and that tends to be very different from other companies that are out there. 

David: Yeah. There are any number of companies who have laid it down that education is one of their key verticals, but it's much more business driven and addressable market driven than, in most cases, any real experience with the education system.

Neil Emery: Yeah, the reason we started TrilbyTV is because when we were sitting in those school receptions waiting for a member of staff to come and grab us, we would look at a digital signage screen that was turned off, or if it wasn't turned off, it was showing content we felt that had little impact, and that's again, because they know they had no plan behind it. Someone had bolted some screens to a wall. Someone had bought into an over complicated solution that was meant for the commercial space and people had given up, and we were there to create really rich content on those iPods because that's what Apple is all about. Everyone can create, but there was no nice, simple mechanism for us to share those two screens around the school or college. And we felt signage was the perfect mechanism to share that content and evidence, the learning so that everybody could feel proud. 

But again, what was in place back then was not meant for education and the people behind didn't understand education to the degree that we felt we did, and that's how TrilbyTV was launched and developed.

David: So when did that happen? 

Neil Emery: Six years ago now. Yeah, we gave up everything we're doing with Apple and Google at the time. We'd just written Google's transformational planning workshop in the UK. That was mainly down to my co-director, Ben Stanley, who is extremely knowledgeable in the education space. His company, Trilby, that he used to run with his father, hence TrilbyTV. They'd been going 30 years of working in education. So again, huge amounts of experience, but TrilbyTV as a single product, six years we've been going now. 

David: So it was more of an evolution of what you were doing as opposed to, “Alright, we used to run a funeral parlor, and now we're doing this”?

Neil Emery: Yeah, kind of. We did lots of things. We did the training piece for Apple and that kept us very busy. We were presenting not just for Apple, but again for its resellers that sold Apple. We were doing direct training for apples all over the world, not just in education as well. We were doing video production. We were doing lots of stuff, and I think lots of people probably looked at us and thought it's great, but what do you do? 

So after sitting all those in all those perceptions for so long, we just knew that there was a product needed that was a bit more honest than what was out there in this space and that's really what made us jump into being brave and developing TrilbyTV into the platform that it is now. 

David: So it's one thing to have the subject matter expertise and the understanding and the business contacts within the education market. What do you do though on the software/platform side that makes it differentiated, that makes it finely tuned to the education system?

Neil Emery: The first one was ease of use. We spent lots of time training education staff, who were so nervous about technology, that even if you put a URL on the board and ask them to put it in their iPad, if they put it in wrong, they would present the iPad to you to put that in, because that's so far out of their comfort zones. And we'd see from those early apps, like ClassDojo, iMovie, Book Creator there was usually a plus icon you'd press that plus icon and pretty quickly something would happen so that a teacher or a member of staff would feel like they'd had a success, which means then they would move on to the next stage and that's absolutely how we've built TrilbyTV, to be so simple that there's no need for its departments to be micromanaging our platform or people. So that was the main one. 

Secondly, we've made it work across all platforms. So we didn't want to charge our customers for expensive boxes, which had happened in the past, I'm not saying wrongly, but that's where a lot of the solutions made their money, but we have player apps for iOS, TVOS, MacOS, Windows and Chrome. So some of our schools will use anything from a Fire Stick to an Apple TV, to a Microsoft Notebook. It doesn't matter, they can use whatever they've got to get going with us.

Unlimited screens. So we didn't want to charge them a per screen price. We wanted them to see the impact that signage can have and to be able to grow their estate without us charging them more. So we have an unlimited screen license which since then others have followed. We've certainly seen that in the market. Some of those who look at us and what we do have moved down that route as well. So it's definitely that same, that sets us out as a USP, and the last one probably is our content catalog, where we have a catalog of free of charge content that we make with exciting companies out there, like WWF or Botanica. So there would probably be the four main areas that we focus on. 

David: There's a lot of subscription content out there. There's companies like Screen Feed and See/Inspire, and so on. They focus on news, sports, weather, curated, user generated material, all that sort of thing. It sounds like you've gone down a completely different path. That's all about the sort of thing that you would expect to see in a school, and that both parents and educators would be receptive to? 

Neil Emery: Yeah we looked at the historical digital signage, and it was very much zones and ticker-tape and newsfeeds, and that doesn't do anything for education. Actually, news can be very biased. So that's the last thing children or visitors like to see in a school reception, and plus, that zonal content, it was confusing to the viewer. So, we wanted to make their content look fullscreen and beautiful, which it already is.

I still get people though, who still want a clock and ticker-tape even though there's a clock next door to the screen anyway.But yeah, we went down the route of thinking about what content, a couple of reasons really, what would inspire them to do more of their own good content, but what could we provide that has an education focus and keeps their screen up to date and interesting. So for example, the collaboration we did recently with Britannica, the encyclopedia that is sold, I’m sure people will be well aware of, if we did a “Country of the week” so if you download that to your TrilbyTV and add it to your screens, every week, it updates itself. You'll get a country of the week, capital city, population, and five revolving facts, and that's all done within a nice animation. 

It's a nice, useful area for you to have a look at. And if there's content in there that will help keep your screens up to date and inspire the viewers than perfect. It's all free of charge and you're more than welcome to use it. 

David: How does it work within schools, like what are they using the screens for and where are they putting them? 

Neil Emery: So a lot of signage, historically, I think went in with some of the new schools, the building schools for the future as brought in by the labor government. So a lot went into areas like receptions and the dinner halls and your staff rooms, and the student corridors. Again, the problem back then was that the platforms were very commercially driven. So again, it was your clock's logos, ticker tapes, and maybe you were allowed to mix in a few pictures as well, if you were lucky. 

What we do now with schools is so at the training session I had today, I had the head of HR, I had the reception lady and I had the repo graphics lady, and we started off by having some sticky notes and I got them to write where the screens were, then I got them to right underneath who the viewers were, where, and then from there we started to define what the content was. So we work really hard with our customers to make sure that they're putting in that simple plan so they understand screens, viewers and what content needs to be dried from that. But very much historically is the reception staff room, dinner hall, and student corridors, which is where the screens are. 

David: Do they do things like, “This for the lunch menu today or the lunch menu this week,” that sort of thing? It's an example that I've seen a number of times. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely, and the nice thing is nowadays with mechanisms like Google Slides, you can add Google Slides for a menu, and the staff and the dinner hall don't even know we exist because the Google Slides presentation is online. As soon as they change that, it automatically changes on the screens, which is great. 

But we also get them to think about don't just putting Google Slides or a menu up there, how about photos of the food? We all are engaged by food programs on TV now where we see the final product and we think, wow, I'd want to eat that. We say to our schools how about you get some of the students to take some nice photos of the food, or actually they're in food technology, let’s have a video of a lasagna being made and put some of that up on the screen. So we try to get them to think slightly differently than just putting a static menu on their screens. 

David: Do students get involved?

Neil Emery: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, and again, that's where we came from. We remember the early days of accessing those screens, putting in the students' work there and seeing how proud they were when it was playing in reception. So there's something we push quite highly and especially an Apple distinguished school. So again, we're historic with Apple, so we have schools that have Apple distinguished status. They would have a group of digital students who would create content on a regular basis before uploading that to us where it's then moderated by someone above them staff-wise before it goes live. It's a great thing to be doing. 

David: It sounds like your platform is largely cloud-based and that you've got a kind of a web player that will work across different types of devices as you were describing. Is that accurate? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, so we are cloud based. We use Microsoft Azure for all our hosting. So that's what we use, and you can have web players as well, but we have pure apps available too. So you go to the Windows app store or the Play store or the Mac App store, and you download our player app and it does that. 

David: So it's a native player for the Apple TV and so on?

Neil Emery: Yeah. So you open it up and you get your regular code that pretty much everybody else does nowadays. 

David: And one of the things that can be a challenge in schools, because IT resources are pretty limited, is how do you manage the devices remotely? 

Neil Emery: We have a player dashboard within Trilby TV, so you can see all your players that are online. We're just bringing out some new player updates as well so you'll be able to set restarts and clear cache and adjust volume and all that sort of stuff. So it can all be very much managed remotely. 

David: I assume one of the benefits and advantages you have over companies who are also in the digital signage space and have software, but don't know the school systems and so on, is you understand how administration works, where budgets come from and budget cycles and all that sort of stuff, does that give you a leg up? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think so. In education not that we are anyway, but you're not going to get rich overnight. They take a long time to trust you.But once they're with you, they're with you for a long time. We're really close to our customers and we want to be close with our customers because we want to make sure that they're using it properly, but of course, all of that experience and all of that knowledge that we now have from those, from Ben's point of view, 30 years, and from my point of view, 15 years, yeah, of course, when we're talking to a potential customer, they understand pretty quickly we know what we're talking about. 

David: I watch the web analytics off of 16:9 and what people are reading and there's always a big thirst out there for open source or free or freemium platforms and there are certainly some tools out there that are free-ish and I'm curious for schools who are on limited budgets, do they go down the path of trying to use open source stuff and, or very low cost stuff, and then realize that we need some hand holding here, it would be great to have some support and they rethink their budgeting and who they should work with? 

Neil Emery: Everyone's different, right? And I think, with IT, that's the buying mechanism for digital signage and education over here. You're always going to get some IT  people who really enjoy coming up with their own stuff and open source.

David: You mean IT people are know-it-alls? (Laughter)

Neil Emery: I didn't say that. Wel, we have to be careful because they buy our product. They are just like that. It's not important, maybe it is a little bit that they know everything about this solution and no one else can get in there and find out because they wouldn't be able to. But actually when they ask themselves about the time it takes to keep an eye on it and monitor it and update it, then it's wasting that time, which is then where we win the battle of, “Neil, this is so easy to use. I can give ownership to others. I can set it up, but actually I can give ownership to others and let them get on with it,” which is what they want in the end. They don't want to be managing what is in essence, a marketing tool, because that's what digital signage is. It's a marketing tool. 

So yeah, budget wise, you might have a USB stick. You might have a laptop. Although that always makes me laugh because the laptop is budget and it'd be better off in the classroom, but that's just my thoughts. We're £1000 for unlimited screens, it's not a huge amount of money for a whole solution that runs your digital signage. But you're dead right. I think some will start off trying to come up with something themselves, but they soon find out that it's causing them a lot more pain than they want it to.

David: So when you say £1000 for an unlimited license that's per school, or is it a school system or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: No, that's our single per school costs. Some of our schools have up to 40 screens, which is where it becomes very financially viable for them. We do have a multi-site license as well. We have some of the big multi academy trusts using TrilbyTV now in the UK, they pay a cost at trust level, which then significantly reduces the per school costs. So under a multi-site license, it's only £500 per school rather than the £1000. 

David: So it's like an enterprise license as opposed to software as a service. You buy at one time, it's perpetual, and then do you pay for support or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: Oh, no. So it’s a yearly subscription which, again, everybody pretty much does that. 

David: Does the demand, and the use differ between what over in Canada, they would call public schools or private schools, but I know I get confused as hell because public schools are private schools in the UK and so on, are there needs and the way they use the system different? 

Neil Emery: Private schools here, obviously that's the schools that parents pay for children to be at school and often boarding. They have so much more resources, obviously, you've got teams of twelve people, whereas in a state school, you might have a team of two people sometimes if we're lucky. So because of that, I think independent private schools are able to shine those screens a lot more. So because of the resource, they're sharing much more rich content. They have time to create that content and make it look good on the screens. They have a strategy in place to do that a lot of the time, whereas your public schools, often because of the lack of resources, are struggling for ideas, but also for people to create the ideas and create the content.

For us, we would see the content being pretty much the same across the school sector. It would change a little bit for colleges and universities. It definitely changes for primary schools, which is, your lower age schools, whereas that's more about sharing and showcasing student work at that lower age group. But I think for us, it's about educating our schools and our colleges right across the board that this is an extension of their website. This is a great marketing tool and they need to be thinking about what content is shown on those screens. 

David: Are you doing much in colleges and universities? 

Neil Emery: Lots in colleges. So we do well in that space, not so much in universities because we'll be very honest about our product and we're not wayfinding them and we're not touch screens. We are just easy-to-upload full screen content, so not so much for universities. We've got a few, but we definitely do well in colleges.

David: Yeah, I guess once you get into the larger footprint, universities with campuses and everything else you need to get into directory systems and everything else that does get more complicated? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, again, we don't want to pretend what we're not, and won't be. So although we have a few colleges, we tend to be in specific places. We're not for bus time tables or things like that. Again, we’re for fullscreen content, marketing specific events to the students. 

David: How big is your company at this point? 

Neil Emery: We're still pretty small, so there's seven of us and we're heading towards eight next year. 

David: And you can do that sort of thing, particularly these days, you can be virtual and you can scale up and scale down as you need, right? 

Neil Emery: Absolutely. We're very lucky we're self-funded. We work extremely hard to make sure that we don't need to go down the route of investment and having a board of people telling us what to do. We want to keep that kind of closeness and that honesty of the company and grow organically. Of course we'd like to grow quicker. But we want to make sure our organic growth is honest towards our customers. So yeah, we're still small, but we've got aspirations to grow in the next five years that's for sure.

David: And what would be your install base, like how would you describe that? Are you in hundreds of schools, thousands of schools? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, we're in hundreds of schools. Currently we've got about 1300 screens live in UK education at the moment. 

David: As you said, you'd love to be able to grow that more.

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely. You know, me and Ben, when we were in Wales six years ago, thinking about where we should take the direction of the company. Because of what we'd seen in education we knew we could become the number one signage company for education because that's what we focus on.

You won't see a dropdown on our website and it says retail and restaurant and this and that and this and that cause that's not honest and that doesn't work for education. So for us, we want to become the number one digital signage platform made, and I always stick to my made, because that's important, made for education.

David: Yeah, it's something that I have coached endless numbers of people around is if you have a digital signage platform, do not go out into the marketplace as a generalist offer, because there are already too many of them. You need to find your niche. You need to find your tribe and say, we're the guys for this and it's what you are doing. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think that's very hard as well, because if you're a new company or again, you've had investment, you're going to have to go after every market. In the US it is probably different, you see people like Rise Vision, there is a huge market in the US than probably more so Canada. So education, you've probably got more options to grow quicker. Here in the UK, although we've still got 35,000 education establishments, it's a long sell. We've customers that can take anywhere up to three months, six months to purchase your product. So there's a lot of time investment in there. 

So, I think it's different potentially in places like the US as I said, where you're trying to mop up as much traffic as possible to grow your businesses as quickly as possible. 

David: I think I know the answer, but I'll ask, have you thought about coming to North America or you've got more than enough to grow in the UK for some time?

Neil Emery: Well, we do have US customers and we do business and education actually, but they tend to again come to us because they liked that easy solution and ease of use. We do have links in the US with distributors, like Exertis, who were distributed in the UK. We have relationships with people like Promethian and Smart knocked on the door a few times and asked us what we're up to, but it's a different setup in the US when it comes to education, and we're aware of that, and the language differ slightly so we're aware of that as well. 

So it's not our focus, but if someone comes along and says, you've got an easy to use platform, can we sign up and use you? We’re like, absolutely, you can! 

David: One thing that's been around for a long time with digital signage and education, particularly on the digital out of home advertising side, is the idea that these screens can pay for themselves if you would just allow advertising on them or at least have the screen sponsored by, I don't know, British Telecom or O2, or something like that, it has not been explored at all? Or is it, would that just be hard “No” from the education people? 

Neil Emery: There's definitely people who are doing it in the commercial space, and now platforms that allow you to, via an app, say I would like my pizza business advertised on there three times a week just directly billed. It's definitely a conversation we've had at directors meetings but it doesn't feel right to us. 

Education is education and if I speak to some of my close head teachers for them, it's about the children and nothing else. So they wouldn't want to have these discussions in the first place. Because it's more about putting up the work of the children that day, make sure they feel proud. It's conversations that have been had, but we would stay away from those conversations fairly quickly. 

David: Yeah, it would be interesting, I think, for things like sponsorships or almost like donations in the same way that maybe a company donates a new playground for a school yard, that sort of thing that you would imagine in areas of the country, maybe up in the north, that don't have the same wealth and resources and everything else that maybe that would be a way to get these systems going? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, potentially. It just gets messy, I think, that's the problem. The focus is making sure that the customer understands what scientists can do first and foremost, and making sure they have a platform that's easy to use so that when we talk to them about what they love about the platform. Going to them to talk about how they might make money from companies advertising on the screens, yeah, it's almost as confusing as just simply trying to get signage running on an interactive screen, which sounds easy, but actually even that is completely a different conversation with schools sometimes 

David: I have to ask about the name. I did look up Trilby and saw that in America, it would be called a Pork Pie hat. Trilby is a hat, right? 

Neil Emery: If we were doing video, Dave, I would have worn my Trilby today. 

There is meaning behind this, and Ben would certainly be able to give you that more. There's an article on the website that explains it as well. But from a simple point of view, Ben's dad, Tony,  bless him, he’s no longer with us, was a Trilby hat wearer, and at our old offices in Birmingham, we had two lines of hats on the walls and he used to pick those between different ones regularly and where those, and it's nice because it's tactile. 

Again, I go to lots of school training and they'll be like, oh, where's your hat because they expect you to wear the hat, and I think senior leadership at schools and colleges like that tactile approach as well. They don't so much like those cleaner techie type names. They like something that feels a bit familiar to them. 

David: All right. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. If people want to look you up, where would they find you online? 

Neil Emery: 

David: Perfect. All right. Thank you very much. 

Neil Emery: Dave. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you!

David Labuskes, AVIXA

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 22, 2021


There is a whole pile of back seat driving happening lately in the pro AV and digital signage communities about how to run a trade show in the COVID-19 era, and much of the focus has squarely been on Dave Labuskes, the CEO of AVIXA, which runs InfoComm and co-owns the even larger trade show ISE.

The show is happening in about a month in Orlando, and with other big trade shows saying never mind for 2021, there are endless questions and suggestions about the prospects of the show even happening.

It will, says Labuskes, unless there are measures like government-mandated closures. Given that the show is in Florida, that's probably not going to happen.

Labuskes has done some frank interviews lately that went into deep detail about InfoComm and COVID, and the business. I spoke with Labuskes late last week and did not see the value in rehashing and revisiting a lot of what he said, so in our chat we talk a little about how things will come off and why. But we spend a lot more time on bigger picture stuff about how trade shows fit, and whether a niche industry like digital signage can find a well-defined home and community at big, omni AV shows like Infocomm and ISE.

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Mr Labuskes, thank you for joining me. I wanted to get into a number of things, but I also didn't want to just rehash some recent conversations you had in an hour long interview last week with Tim Albright from AVnation that went into a lot of frank discussion about where InfoComm is at and everything associated with that, but I can’t cCompletely ignore that, and I just wanted to ask, where are things now , has anything changed in the last week since I watched that interview? 

Dave Labuskes: Mr. Haynes, it's good to be here. There have been a couple of other events that have announced cancellations, but there's been nothing that's changed in AVIXA's policy with regards to InfoComm. We still see a runway to a fantastic event with fantastic people conducting fantastic business.

It's been described as being the last trade show standing this fall, but that's not really true. There's all kinds of events going on here, there, and everywhere. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. There's a lot that's described that isn't necessarily really true, David. But yeah there's events and trade shows happening every day, all around the world, and I'm actually a little confused. For an industry that is really based on overcoming challenges and doing the impossible and making things happen that nobody believed could actually happen, there is that sort of a sentiment that trade shows can't take place right now and that just simply is not true. They're taking place every day. 

So I have mixed opinions personally. I was supposed to be doing a mixer down at InfoComm and decided not to do that, and that wasn't really so much about I don't think InfoComm should even happen or anything else, it was just as simply a fact of, I didn't quite see how a cocktail party, where everybody was wearing a mask and being asked to stand six feet apart would work terribly well and the optics were weird. 

It's one of those things where I could see a trade show happening, but I didn't see that happening well, and we don't need to get into all of that. I'm curious more about whether or not you're enjoying all the armchair opinions from people who say what you should be doing, but have never actually run a tradeshow? 

Dave Labuskes: Before I had this job, I was a partner at a large architectural engineering firm, and one of the gentlemen that was on the search committee that was interviewing me for this job, James Ford, owner of Ford AV and I'll never forget where he was sitting in the boardroom, he leaned forward and said, “Dave, you've got a really good gig, like why would you want this job?” And I'm like that's a great question, and I try to answer it, and he's like, “But Dave, here's the thing: You're running one of the largest consulting practices in the world and if you have a management meeting and you decide to go liveleft, then everybody's going to leave that meeting and they're going to go left, and the jobs that you're interviewing for you and your team are going to decide to go left, and then 50,000 people are going to tell you, you should go right!”

I actually celebrate varied opinions. I do think a lot of people express an expertise that is perhaps inflated in their own perception. Trade shows, they're a complicated industry. I've been doing this now for eight years and I have people on my team that have forgotten twice what I'll ever know. The interplay between the various different constraints, the challenges that people throw out there as though they're simple challenges. Yeah, they're a little frustrating, but I signed up for it. Nobody made me do this job. I was forewarned, so maybe I'm the one that has an exaggerated impression of my expertise.

Is part of the problem just simply that it's Florida and Florida is this eternally weird place at the best of times, but it's got a particular problem and people all the way up to the governor of the state who don't seem to recognize that, “Hey, maybe there's a bit of a problem happening here.”?

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. I think I'll be a little more politically correct than that, and it was nice for you to try it, but it isn't my first rodeo here. 

(Laughter) I wasn't trying to bait you. I just think that's a big part of it and the people, the armchair opinion makers who say why don't you just move it or why didn't you just do it in another city? There's a little bit of baggage associated with doing that but just simply speaking, it's a part of the country that has a particular exacerbated problem, but doesn't seem to want to recognize that it has an exacerbated problem.

Dave Labuskes: It all comes from the jurisdictions and it all comes down to point of reference, right? You can also just say, is it the problem that the event is in the United States, right? Because if you look at the United States and compare the United States to other countries, we're not necessarily getting a straight-A report card.

What I have said, and I know we don't want to have the same conversation I've had already with others, is that I don't think the brush that should be used in making that decision is Florida. I think the brush that we should use in painting that picture is Orange County. There's parts of California that may or may not be behaving in the same fashion you or I would do.

So I think you have to look at where are you going to fly into, where you're going to be, where are you going to have dinner, where are you going to sleep? Those types of things, and when you get to that stage orange county this morning had 79.4% of their population over the age 18 having had one shot of the vaccine. They've got a mask order that was issued by the mayor strongly recommending that masks be worn inside any public space. They've got plummeting hospitalization rates, death rates, positivity rates at 12.4%, I believe. 

So, I think, unfortunately the world and this country and all of the states have this polarization thing going on, and yeah, would it be more comfortable for people to attend an event somewhere else that are looking from afar and don't take time to do all that research? Probably. The headline, the abbreviated picture, is challenging, but I do think that there are people that are going to make a decision that attending a trade show weighed against other factors just isn't for them this year, and I think they'd make that decision regardless of where it is. 

Yeah. I guess that's the other thing that you didn't know you were signing up for was having an extensive ability to talk in genealogical terms.

Dave Labuskes: This is a true story, David. Last year, I came home from the office, and at dinner I said to my wife and son I spent an hour today reading a scientific study about the efficacy of washing your hands with cold water versus hot water, and that is not something I ever anticipated taking place in my career, I will admit that. (Laughter)

By the way, it is just as good. You just don't tend to wash them as long because it's less comfortable, but... 

I'm just impressed I was able to say epidemiology. 

Dave Labuskes: Happy with that. These are words that were not part of our vocabulary two years ago, right? 

Just drafting off of some of that: CEDIA which AVIXA has a relationship with because you co-own ISC had their event last week or the week before in Indianapolis and I won't go into how that went business-wise or anything else, but I'm curious if you had AVIXA folks there and did they see how things were done? I know they had signage and kind of cues on whether you are comfortable with people coming close and all that sort of stuff. Did those things work? 

Were there things that you learned from that you can take away and apply to InfoComm? 

Dave Labuskes: First part of the question: No, we didn't have anybody from AVIXA at that event that I'm aware of. Not that I know of, but I'm sure there were people there that were AVIXA members. We do have a close relationship with CEDIA. Obviously we have a partnership over a very large joint venture that owns and operates ISC and ISR and DSS. The show itself is owned by Emerald Expositions, and we have our conversational talking relationship with Emerald as well. In fact I have a call next week with Emerald to talk through lessons learned. 

I was in Louisville, Kentucky a couple of weeks ago at a SISO conference, which is the Society of Independent Show Operators. So it's Emerald, Informa, and mostly the for-profit trade show organizers and AVIXA was invited to attend. The industry of trade show organizers and meeting planners and event planners, we've joined arms and we recognize that this is a problem for all of us that we have to share best practices with, we have to share learnings with, we have to talk about what works and doesn't work.

It's kinda like the AV industry and as I'm learning more about it, the digital signage industry where people compete, but they also have a comradery where a rising tide lifts all ships kind of a thing, and so I think all trade show operators are working through this, associations as well are famously collaborating with regards to sharing information and learning and helping each other. So that's a good part of the pandemic. 

I would imagine one of the things that all these organizations collectively learned, if they didn't already know it, is that the whole virtual trade show thing just really doesn't work. Does it?

Dave Labuskes: It certainly didn't work in v1.0 of 2020. I think v1.5, and we're starting to get closer to 2.0, I think there's hope for it. The best visual I saw over the last 18 months is talking about books versus movies, and you don't convert a book to a movie by putting it on a podium and filming somebody turning the pages. And I think that probably is a closely apt description of what we all did with our first version of the virtual events. But I think you can tell a story, very effectively in print or in film, leveraging and celebrating the differences of the media. 

Where I am at now and where AVIXA is driving towards, and you'll see more developments about this in the next couple months is more about how AVIXA delivers on its mission, leveraging physical  events and digital platforms, and how do they interface and interact with each other? How do they mutually benefit each other? What's good in one, that's not good in the other?

Not a lot of good, special effects when you're reading a book, but a lot of great imagination when you're reading a book. Not a lot of ability to be character development through introspection in a movie, but it's really easy to do that when you're reading.

I think if you look at education, you look at delivery of information from provider to consumer, that can be done pretty effectively digitally. I think about human interaction and the break time during class is almost impossible to create digitally. That doesn't mean it is impossible. So I see a lot of assumptions that we made in order to achieve X, we needed to convene people face-to-face being challenged. But I also think that all of the pundits that got online in March and April of last year and said, this is the end of face-to-face, and we're going to be digital for the rest of our lives, have seen that they were probably not right with that either. 

I think the one thing that I took away, or what I have enjoyed about these virtual events is the ability to attend round tables panels presentations on demand. So I don't need to be somewhere or sit at a certain place, set aside things then at 10:00 AM, I'm going to watch this.

Just the simple fact that I got stuff going on. I can't do this today or right now, that I could click on it and see. Yeah, somebody from Brand X explaining this to me on my terms, and if I'm bored, I just click out, I don't have to stand up and walk out of the room and embarrass the presenter or anything like that. That part I like.

Dave Labuskes: I do too, and that's the irony of it is. If one of the things that all of us like is the absence of time and geography constraints, right? So it doesn't matter if that panel discussions take place in London or Nova Scotia or Orlando, you can still receive the outcome of that panel. 

Why are we saying that they should be organized and delivered between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM Eastern time on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week? That's where I get to this. I think it's more about a digital presence and digital community, a place where people interact when it's appropriate for them to interact, where they can organize their interaction times.

I'm old enough to have been in chat rooms on Prodigy and AOL and you remember you would organize with people like I'm going to be on at eight o'clock tonight for an hour, because you can only afford an hour. Because we were charged by the minute, and then I think that's what we have to recognize. So in that regard, I'm really excited about the fact that I'm not a trade show organizer, instead I’m an association that is committed to an industry and an industry community, and what I can do is build that community both digitally and physically. 

What do you think of the suggestion that the days of the big macro show are cloudy and that regionalized events make more sense, so an InfoComm Southwest, an ISE UK, that sort of thing? And granted that was tried a little bit in the past year, but that was out of necessity as opposed to design. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, I'm intrigued by it. But I think the loudest proponents of it are the attendees, not the exhibitors and the attendees don't pay. Doing ten small shows only costs a little less than doing one big show or less than doing then ten times doing one big show. The cost of doing a show has a fixed amount. Even in the smallest show, you're going to pay an X and then get to the big show, you may only be paying 2X where if you're doing a regional show, like 10 times, you are close to 10X, and your ROI on each of those events is smaller because your audience is small. 

Now that's using all the old rules. So if we go back to the last question, if I can segment an audience for an exhibitor and say, I'm going to bring people that have spending authority over half a million dollars that have a project next three months, it's going to require a high-end audio system. That's going to change that algebra, and so I don't think you throw it out the window, but economics has a factor in these things and it's easy to say I would rather go to a small event in Nashville, but the problem is I have to find somebody to pay for it, and even if you say I'm happier to go to a small event in Nashville, I bet you don't want to spend $195 for a ticket to go to that event? 

I get the hunger for it. I get the desire for it, but I don't see a business model around it right now. We've never been successful at small events being profitable. There have been good strategies like, before ISE launched. We did small roadshow events from country to country, it was before my time, but I hear stories from the old timers about the amazing sort of experience of going from hotel room or hotel conference to hotel conference across from Warsaw to Budapest to Rome type thing. And we've done them in advance of launching our Bangkok show. We did it in advance of launching our Mumbai show, but those become feeders to a larger event that has a more sustainable business model. We did a lot of what we used to call round tables, for example, we did the AVIXA round table in Baltimore where you'd have 15, 20, maybe 30 people come to them, and so you were spending a lot of money on an event that served 15, 20 or 30 people, and we just felt like there were better ways of spending the industry's money than that. 

The demise of Digital Signage Expo certainly raised the eyebrows at AVIXA and got you guys thinking, although you've always had digital signage as a component, you've had pavilions for many years, but there was an opportunity and a sense that something needed to fill that void. Granted, it's been refilled to some degree since then, but the show hasn't happened yet so we'll see how that comes off. 

How do you build up the digital signage affinity for InfoComm? Cause I've gone for many years, but I go to have a look at the gear. I'm not a gear head, but I write about it and everything else, but I don't really see it as an end-user show where a big retailer, those kinds of people are going to come to that they maybe they send their gearheads, but more likely it's the integrators that sell into big retail and so on are there are there, so how do you make all that kind of come together over the next couple of years?

Dave Labuskes: Boy, there's so much in that question, David. We should talk more often, I enjoy this.

Yes, it is an unfortunate demise and it didn't get folks in the AVIXA thinking. Yes, we've been looking at the digital signage industry for a long time. I do think it's a community within the larger industry that needs to be celebrated, and that's that other point with regards to small regional shows versus big shows. I think we see lots more shows within shows taking place, and I think that's probably the right solution, and I'm biased. I think AVIXA has the right place to build a home within a home for the digital signage community. 

First of all: there was this interesting dynamic between the association and the show operator, right? From an association perspective AVIXA has been having conversations with DSF, with DS-LATAM, with digital signage of Asia, and the various different entities in Europe. When you move from our association to association, one of the ways I think I actually described it to Rich Ventura, he and I were talking probably years ago and it's like you and I, David, are best friends, but our dads owns the competing gas stations on the corner, and so we can go to school and everything and be friends there but when we came home there's limits. 

That was kinda how I felt like it was and I felt like there's a window there to not have that dynamic. Now, some of that's changed and I respect Questex. I respect Paul and don't know him well, but I know him and I've had conversations with him and he's a smart guy and I believe he's committed to delivering a successful event. I think it's being honest, looking at what does an organization want, what is the community best one? And making honest agreements and commitments to each other, and then keeping them. There are advantages to working together, and I think the end goal is that “home within a home” and “a community within a community.” 

I think the challenge and opportunity for digital signage and InfoComm is the scale of the InfoComm show and the specificity and the heart and relationship with the digital signage community, and I think if we work together, we can build that home within a home. I think it can be more than a guest room. It can be an in-law apartment. It can be a place where it's identified and that's, yeah, I'm disappointed that you're not going to be there, and I know the mixture is just one manifestation of that home within a home, and we look forward to being able to do it in the future. 

Absolutely. One of the logistical problems or mechanical problems, so to speak, with a big show like an InfoComm is: yes, you've created these pavilions through the years of digital signage pavilion and some of the vendors have been in that, designated zone, so to speak, but the biggest players are the display manufacturers, and they've always had their spots, their Primo spots, and they're serving a whole bunch of audiences at InfoComm, not just the digital signage people. So how do you figure out a way to create a show within a show when you've got Sony in the front row, Samsung's got a giant booth in the middle of the hall and so on. You're never going to be able to herd them all into one hall, so to speak? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, so what do you do then? I think what you have to do and we're down to the details of tactics, right? But I think you start to curate attendees' journeys. You use content as the honey to attract and people will come where content is and content can be delivered where people are, and that's the challenge of starting a trade show, but we've done that. We know how to form a trade show and it takes time and it takes continual feeding until it becomes a self-feeding cycle, and then you have to create a journey that is guided a bit so the attendees that are coming from retail or the attendees that are coming from the advertising agencies can get to where they will be able to extract value and some of that will require tour guides, not maps and serendipity, because it's too big to just let somebody lose, but we have that problem now with end users in general at the show, you described as gearheads, but about 40% of the attendees at a typical InfoComm are end user buyers. It's part of what makes that show so valuable to exhibitors. 

A lot of them are brought there by channel members. The consultants are bringing their customers, the integrators are bringing their customers. But a lot of them are brought there by us too, with promoting them and developing conference content that would be of interest to them, creating a nucleus of community. It's all very explicit, but it doesn't happen by chance. There are hosted buyers that are brought in to shows around the world. There are groups that are sponsored. There are other associations that are partnered with. Richard runs our Asian subsidiary. He's a genius at identifying influential associations within the geographies and partnering with them to offer programs. Organizations like the Indian Architects Association are partnered with our InfoComm Mumbai event, and they are holding content conferences for architects in conjunction with our event. All of our channels want architects at it. Those types of strategies are part of the town and the team that works on these.

Last question, looking ahead a few months to ISE and it's hard to do the crystal ball thing, but I gather things are calmer in Spain. I don't hear very many people at all saying, hell no, we're not going to Barcelona or anything else, maybe that'll bubble up, who knows? But is ISC in Barcelona going to be normal-ish?

Dave Labuskes: Yes, I think so. Again, like you said, the crystal balls are not crystal clear and now, after the last series of conversations, I think I'm going to put the crystal ball into the same place where I put “pivot” and “agile” and “unprecedented” but yeah, the biggest indicator that you would have about and event like ISC at this stage five months out is sold show floor space, right? 

I don't think we've even opened registration for attendees yet, and show floor sales are, I think they're probably about 8% off of 2020. I guess there's no such thing as quoting me because we're recording this, but it's within that ballpark of the size of the last event at the Rye, which is, really the last event to compare it to. So if it's 90% of that size, 80% of that size, I think that's, that absolutely fits into your technical definition of normal. 

And there were lots of people who said, because you're going to Barcelona, as awesome a place as it is, it may mean you see a slight drop because people who might go to ISC in Amsterdam, because they can drive there, maybe would not go all the way to Barcelona? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, but there's other people that are going to drive to Barcelona that wouldn't have driven to Amsterdam. And yeah not a hundred percent a repeat audience, but…

Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)

That's those armchair spectators that you talked about earlier, right? We did the homework to make a determination about that, and we love the Rye. We would love to have stayed at the Rye, but the Rye isn’t big enough to hold the show as it was moving forward in the future and it was starting to have a negative impact on attendee experience and you start to have those different factors impact a show and reach the value of the show. 

I'll just be happy if I can find my way around. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, it's a beautiful city. I'll tell you what it's like. It's the opposite of the Rye. It was one of the things I joked with Mike about. Finally I figured out how to get through the Eye without getting lost, and now we've decided to move the show. 

Yeah, me too. 

All right. I appreciate you taking some time with me. I suspect you're a busy fellow these days.

Dave Labuskes: Never too busy for you, sir. Congratulations on your recent deal. I'm really happy for you. 

Thank you!

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

September 15, 2021


I've yet to meet Jackie Walker in person, but in our chats over the phone and video, she's quickly impressed me with her knowledge, insights and enthusiasm for digital signage.

Many of the people I've dealt with at big media companies speak an unfamiliar, very buzz-phrasey language that I barely grasp, but Jackie works for one of the biggest - Publicis Sapient - and speaks like normal people. Based in Houston, she's the head of strategy for that giant agency's work in what's called dining and delivery. That puts her front and center in planning out and then executing things like digital menu displays and the overall ordering experience at major QSRs.

Drive-thrus and their digital displays were a big part of how many QSRs got through COVID lockdown periods - when in-store ordering was restricted - and now we're seeing a lot of operators who didn't have drive-thru adding that capability.

Jackie and I had a great chat about the value proposition and ROI model for drive-thru display technology - including mashing up a lot of things like loyalty apps, readers and other technologies to customize or optimize what consumers see when they get in front of screens.

If you sell into or service the QSR space, this is a valuable listen.

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Jackie, welcome. We've spoken in the past and know each other a bit. I don't think we've actually met in person, and who does that any more? 

You work for Publicis Sapient, and you've been leading strategy for digital menu boards for a couple of big QSR brands. What does all that entail? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely. Publicis Sapient, for those of your listeners who aren't super familiar with us, we are a digital business transformation firm. So we work with many brands, many QSRs in particular, around how they can use digital to really optimize the way that they are connecting with their customers. It's on a lot of fronts, there's some mobile work, of course, loyalty work, customer relationship marketing, all of these suspects.

But I specifically have really been working very closely on digital menu boards which have been really interesting. The brands that I've been working with and I've now worked with five of the top twenty-five and different categories, right? A couple of the burger brands, a coffee brand, a chicken brand. What's really interesting, I think, for these larger brands is that they're really trying to push the envelope on what they're trying to achieve with their digital menu boards. But nobody has really figured out how to do that yet. So when we go in on the strategy engagements, we're really focused on the customer experience as a lens.

So the team is generally, me, a couple of strategists, a product manager sometimes, and a couple of UX people, so visual designers and user experience folks who can really think about the way you organize an experience for our customer to make it super easy, and we really look at three lenses, right? We look at where the brand is from a brand identity customer experience perspective. So as they think about how to transition from just translating a print menu, which is generally the way that this starts, right? How do you move from translating a print menu to actually thinking about broader digital capabilities? So we try to understand where they are with that. What's their mobile experience? How do they think about this on their digital channels today? 

We think about where they are from a technology standpoint. So that's really interesting work, right? Talking to their restaurant technology groups, sometimes their customer technology groups, trying to understand what they're doing from a loyalty standpoint, where they are with the point of sale capability where they are with their digital menu board vendor. If they're already down a path, so what are the capabilities they have and what do they don't have, and really thinking about those lenses so that we can get to a view on where they go from a user experience standpoint and then also, how do they continue to push the envelope as they build in more and more digital capabilities? 

So you've talked about pushing the envelopes. When digital many boards first started being applied in larger QSR chains, it was all around the operational issues that changes could be made a lot more efficiently and you can do dayparting. I gather what you're saying is the larger brands, at least in their heads, are way beyond that now? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. It's a funny thing, right? I think we're still talking about some of those basics. Everybody thinks of Mcdonald’s as the gold standard, which makes sense. They're the largest, they were the first to scale outdoors. But that's recent, right? So they just finished their rollout in the US at the beginning of 2020. So it's not actually that long ago that some of this hardware was being installed. So I think dayparting is still something that brands are very much thinking about. They're thinking about how to leverage dayparting. So if you look at the McDonald's menu, there are some obvious changes with the dayparts. You look at the background color, for example, breakfast is blue, lunch is yellow, dinner and late-night is black, right? That's the most obvious, but if you squint, you can't really tell the difference between the products that are laid out for lunch, dinner, and late at night. They're doing very subtle things with reorganizing products, but they're not really leaning into that capability yet.

So as brands are starting to think about dayparting, thinking more about. What can you do from a business perspective with that? Can you do promotions that are specific to a time of day, right? Can you have a special late-night menu that has different pricing on some of your most snackable items, as an example, do you play with brand voice? 

So some of these QSR brands really have quite playful brand identities. You think that some of these brands could have a really fun and differentiated late-night experience versus what they're trying to accomplish during lunchtime, that would be consistent with their brand. So still thinking about that, I think now the big thing is loyalty, and so with loyalty and I keep beating the drum on this one, that is really going to fundamentally change the drive-thru experience. Again, McDonald's pushing the envelope here. 

They completed their national loyalty rollout in July, in the US, which is their largest market, and what's sneaky, and I don't know if everyone's recognized it is now in McDonald's app, you can actually set it up so that when you go through the drive-thru, you can pay with your stored credit card via your app. So you go to the window, just you go up to the menu board, just like you normally would, you talk to the crew member, you place your order. You give them this code, and now it's applying loyalty points. It's using any coupons or offers or points redemptions that you've applied but it also does the payment through that mobile interface, which is really interesting. It's subtle but if you think about the experience of a customer, they don't have to go to the pay window anymore at all. You've just really streamline that. You don't have to hand your credit card out through the window. You avoid all of that kind of silliness. So I think that's a really interesting change, and I think other brands are really going to be forced to emulate that, and that's going to be a huge shift. 

Yeah, and that's part of it, right? If you have a lot of active use of your loyalty app, also blends payment in there when they get into the drive-thru lane long before they even get to the presale window, a system like what McDonald's bought with that Israeli company Dynamic Yield is that they pick that stuff up, they know that Jackie's back in and she's got her kids with her maybe or whatever, and when you get to the presale and when you get to the order window, they can dynamically recast that menu to suit your preferences or what they think might be your preferences and how they can upsell you on stuff?

Jackie Walker: That's where it's headed, yeah. So no one is really doing that particularly effectively yet, but that is absolutely where it's headed. The challenge that a lot of these brands are still working on is customer identification, and we've been talking about that for so long, we used to talk about license plate recognition, still talk about Bluetooth. How do you figure out who's in the car? Are you creepy and use cameras? What are you doing? So brands are really still experimenting and figuring out what is the best tech for that. McDonald's right now is just doing a shortcode so the customer still has to do some work, they have to open their app, they have to see that code, they read it to the crew, right? Code is different every time. So you have to actually look to see it, in that transaction, what your code is. 

But certainly even testing Bluetooth, DNKN is interesting. DNKN’s been partnering with a company called Blue Dot not so secretly, which does pretty advanced geolocation. So they're actually using really tight geofencing to trigger customer identification and doing some customer greeting based on that. 

So it would actually say, “Hi Dave, or Hey Jackie”?

Jackie Walker: Exactly, which is, I think still a questionable use case, right? 

Yeah. People will start looking in the rearview mirror and go, “okay, who's following me?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, exactly. My favorite actually is not the “Hi Dave!” at the beginning, but the “Thanks, Dave!” at the end of the transaction like that's been a topic is how do you personalize that screen at the very end of the order confirmation, which is funny because if you actually sit in a drive-thru for a while and watch, which I do, because that's part of my job as the digital menu board super-nerd.  

“Who’s that strange woman standing in the parking lot?” (Laughter) 

Jackie Walker: Oh God, Dave, I have so many funny stories. My husband always makes fun of me. It's like, “Excuse me, there’s a suspicious woman in leggings and a Volvo in the drive-thru!”

It's yeah, it's funny. But you realize that most customers have already driven away by the time that thank you sign presents anything, so they're not seeing that. So if you're investing a bunch of time and energy figuring out how you're personalizing that screen, all you're really doing is creeping everybody out because you're showing the next customer in line, the previous customer's information.

That's an interesting thing, and then Tim Horton's is playing with scanners. So actually installing QR scanning hardware in the drive-thru lane, the customer opens their app, has the QR code open, and scans on the scanner, which I'm intrigued to see how that's going to go. I think there are definitely some pretty strong cons with that in terms of that hardware investment is not going to be small, and then, we've all done grocery checkout, self-checkout, and you try to scan something even in good lighting, that can be quite challenging. So now you have a mobile phone trying to scan in direct sun. I'm predicting, there'll be some challenges with that. 

In Canada with snow and -30 and everything else. 

Jackie Walker: Yep. Sticking your hand out the phone with a big mitten on.

Edmonton in February doing that. I'm not sure it was going to be a big take-up, but you never know. 

Jackie Walker: So I think, brands are, to go back to the original question, what are they doing? There are still a few basics, right? Let's figure out how we're going to identify the customer. Let's build that foundation. It's really about how we're going to use dayparting more effectively really, gets the promise of that, suggestive selling is another area. That's quite interesting. So we've been using those examples in the industry for 10 years. Show ice cream when it's hot out, show hot coffee when it's cold out, but now the technology is definitely there to do much more sophisticated things.

So that's where things like McDonald's dynamic yield do come into play in a big way, is making some suggestions for customers that go well beyond what you could do with rules-based kind of recommendations, and then now it's like let's start using our imagination and getting creative. 

What does personalization look like if you know a customer, do you make it really easy to reorder recent items? That's a great benefit for both the operator and the customer, right? So if you show somebody buys their Whopper Jr., mine is no pickle, no Mayo, with cheese, if you know that I order that every single time you show that on the board and you just say, I want my Whopper Jr. my way, and there's a POS integration for the crew member to hit one button. You just saved a bunch of time, and really provided some additional value for the customer. So I think those types of executions are going to be really interesting.

Certainly in places like Canada, where you have a pretty substantial number of commuters who would go into a Tim Horton's every morning and they're going to order their Double Double or whatever it is, and they're not going to move off of that because that's what gets them on the road. To be able to just know that, okay, Dave's here and he's gotten his Double Double, and there's nothing involved other than payment, or maybe even not that if if you flash your phone right away.

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Yeah, it's really powerful, and it's those moments, I think that are going to be the most interesting or where there's clear value to the customer and there's clear value to the operator, right? Everyone benefits from that kind of investment. 

Is that seamlessness a big part of it where there are different systems and it all just works and it makes your drive-thru experience better?

Jackie Walker: That is I think the kind of gold standard and that's where it's headed. I think it's really interesting, for a long time, brands were buying digital menu boards and it was really, they're buying a piece of hardware, especially outdoor because everybody's really terrified about making this big hardware investment. You really focus on the hardware and then you get some software along for the ride and you hope that the software has the out-of-box capabilities that you need to do what you want to do with it. 

I think now more and more brands are recognizing that that's not really how it's going to work for them. It's really about creating this customized experience that can integrate with their systems. It can integrate with their point of sale. It can integrate with their loyalty program. It can integrate with their master product data. These are really powerful benefits to an integrated system, that is software first and experience first and the hardware is just supporting it. 

I'm curious about drive-thru right now because of COVID. Prior to COVID, the idea of selling drive-thru was that it could do all these things, here's the value proposition, and so on, and it was being marketed that way. 

With COVID and the inability, at least in some jurisdictions, to even go inside to dine and order stuff, if you didn't have to the drive-thru, you were in a world of pain in terms of operating your business. Has that deferred the whole idea, that you could do all these things with it and just made it operational for the moment, or at least in the past year, we needed to put in drive-thru just so we could do transactions and sell food?

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that was a huge benefit for QSR. You think about the drive-thru that was pre-built for COVID, it's the ultimate kind of contactless almost service method. So I think quick-serve has a huge advantage over other types of restaurants, even if you think about fast-casual where some of them may have had drive-thru or curbside pick up, but that was a very small part of their business, whereas quick service has been trying to optimize drive-thru for years and years, and spend a lot of time and energy and money investing in ways to make that channel more seamless.

I wonder what's different now, and exciting is that the emphasis for a long time has been on the operational aspects of drivers. So how do you improve the speed of service and how do you improve order accuracy? Those are the two big things, and how do you drive throughput? Now there's this question and I think loyalty is a big part of the impetus for that. How do you create meaningful customer interaction? So not only how are you getting the customer the food they want, at the speed you want to get it to them and they want it to go. But how do you actually provide some additional value in that interaction and provide a differentiated experience? Which is exciting! 

How would that work and look? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think one of the things that's different about quick-service restaurants is that they still have a very large portion of their customers that are cash customers. You think about Starbucks, they've been extraordinarily successful at getting a ton of customers to just use mobile order pay and it's easy peasy. And then the challenge from an operation standpoint is just how do you get those mobile orders customers served quickly. 

QSRs are going to have a steeper hill to climb with that. They're trying to drive digital adoption. They're trying to drive known customer rates, like what percentage of their customers do they actually know that are registered customers or credit cards that they can attribute to a customer. But that behavior of people is gonna start on mobile ordering everything. So far, there's not really any evidence that there's going to be consistent. Customers like deals and offers that provide a lot of value. But if there's a way that you can hook into deals and offers without the customer actually having to complete the transaction in the mobile app, that's really powerful. Drive-thru is all about impulse. I can just pull in and grab my thing and go, and I don't have to think about it. I don't have to sit here go through the fifteen steps and in a mobile app to order. So I think it's really going to be that balance between bringing forward that enhanced digital capability with loyalty, which includes reordering, personalized offers. It includes all of those things and bringing that to bear in the drive-thru lane itself, and the menu board becomes a very powerful tool in reinforcing those value adds. 

If your customer is asking questions in the drive-thru you're in big trouble, right? So if you have a loyal customer, they don't know that you've registered with them, but you know it's them that's there, or they can't tell that you applied their points the way that they thought the points were going to get applied, to get a free ice cream cone you really create some significant operational challenges. So menu boards, I think, are becoming more and more of a tool to be able to reinforce to customers that you've got their back and things are going to be accurate in the way that they expect them to be. That's super powerful.

Is there an easily defined, easily sold, and easily acknowledged ROI model now for these drive-thru displays? Because by and large, they are being put in by the local franchise owner, not the head office, so that there's a significant $10-30k infrastructure investment to do this, and local operators are looking at this one and going, “I didn't save for that,” or, “Why would I do this?” or “What am I going to see?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I will say that there does seem to be a pretty big sea change with regard to the franchisee's state of mind when it comes to this investment. I think there's real acceptance and I've worked with a couple of brands now where the initiative is spearheaded at the brand level, right? There's much more power when it comes from the brand and that capability is built centrally. The franchisees are just footing the bill for installation in their individual restaurant or set of restaurants but the franchisees are basically saying, let's go faster. How fast can I get this thing installed? And, they can't go as fast as the franchisees want them to go. 

I think what's interesting with the ROI model, in the early days, the math worked better for indoor because the capital investment indoors is a lot cheaper. There's a little bit of the cost savings of printing and having people up on ladders and the liability that goes along with that, the inflexibility of print. You could make a pretty good case for the return on investment with those indoor boards on cost alone. With drive-thru, your capital investment is quite a bit higher because the hardware has to be much more rugged to be able to withstand that outdoor environment.

I think what is shifting is now the value prop is not just about the cost savings and the increased flexibility. But it's also about the direct upside. So now that you have these additional digital capabilities, how do you actually build a customer's check by adding capabilities that are unique to digital? So getting really strong with the way you're using day partying or really thinking about suggestive selling and how do you do that in a consistent way, which is really driving. How do you encourage customers toward your more premium menu items? And you can get quite sophisticated in the way that you use that channel to build checks.

Is there an acknowledged metric around that? So pulling this out of my head, if you make this investment, it should pay for itself in the first 18 months or the first 26 months or whatever it is? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, the economics depend a little bit on the restaurant, but generally the kind of rule of thumb has been, you're going to get like a 3% to 5% lift just by moving from analog boards to digital because the customer experience is just much better. I think the challenge is that wears off eventually is your customers get used to digital. You don't have that Disney effect on the third visit and fourth visit. But over time, it's all about driving that incrementality and the numbers are hard there, Dave, because a lot of people don't want to share. The brands don't want to share how successful or not successful their suggestive sales capabilities are. But generally speaking, it's all about driving that ticket over time, and then you can do the work back on the break-even time. 

But I think in general, what you said 18 to 24 months is in most cases probably about right. 

And I'm sure as in many things, the other QSR operators, regardless of category or size, pay very close attention to what the giants do, like a McDonald's and if they're doing a full rollout across their whole estate, across the United States, they're not doing that for giggles and they’ve thought this through?

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. With the ROI model, part of it is, what is the direct benefit, from an economic standpoint, but then the other part of it is very much keeping up with the Joneses kind of mentality or keeping up with the McDonalds in this case. How do you actually ensure that you're meeting customer expectations because once customers get used to that slick experience, you pull into a random Taco Bell with a ten-year-old backlit WITH half of them are blown out and they're all scratched up and dingy, customers do notice that stuff? So I think there is a little bit of just leveling up that guest experience and it is going to be contagious. 

All the big brands are really starting to think about how they do this, and I think now with the price of hardware coming down and the big players converting, so McDonald's is already there, RBI is rolling out across Burger King, Popeye's, and Tim Horton's, they're going to be the next big player to reach scale. It's really just a matter of when, and not if everyone's going to go digital on these drivers. 

So let's talk about inside the store. We talked mostly about drive-thru displays, but inside the store, digital menu boards have been around a lot longer, but they're changing too because you're going to see a lot more service ordering and a lot more pickup and you need digital menu boards that have to also function as queue management or notification, right? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think what's happening is there's actually a proliferation of use cases if you want to think about it that way. So the digital menu board at the front counter is really just about providing a menu to customers that are in the restaurant and you're right, it's pretty well understood. I think that's interesting when I talk to customers about drive-thru, they get really excited about its personalization, and the word I always pushed to use is optimization even more than personalization because you get the benefit for unknown guests as well.

But once you get that working like a well-oiled machine, you start to understand customer behavior at the store level, you can actually apply those same principles at the front counter, right? So you're not targeting your messaging to an individual customer because that front counter board is meant to be a one-to-many experience, but you can 100% tailor that experience to the restaurant. So you can curate the menu for the types of purchase behavior that exists in that store or that type of store. So I think the front counter is going to continue to evolve, with regards to that, to become a little bit more curated benefiting from the investment at the drive-thru. 

The kiosk is another huge piece. I laugh and I think we've talked about this before, when COVID started everyone thought, oh my God, it's like the death of kiosks, nobody's ever going to touch it, touch screen ever again. But actually, it's done quite the opposite as we've understood better, that face-to-face is much worse than touching a screen and using some hand sanitizer. But what's interesting is that from a rollout perspective. Brands still think of kiosks as very different from menu boards, which I find fascinating. The way that it ends up shaking out is, brands think about their mobile experience and most brands are furthest along on mobile ordering. Then when they think about kiosks, it's the app, but on a big screen and a lot of brands actually manage it that way. So it's not the in-store tech groups that are managing that kiosk, it's actually the digital groups, the customer experience, technology groups that are delivering them.

And then you have the menu boards and they are very much firmly still in the restaurant technology side of the house. So there are different problems to solve altogether. I think more and more, there's going to be a little bit of consolidation across that. I always encourage customers to think about as you're doing drive-thru, you're building these mechanisms from a backend standpoint to actually deliver curated content and be smart in how you're merchandising product dynamically. There’s absolutely a play for that on front counter boards and a play for that on kiosks, and the kiosk is after all another piece of in-store hardware, and then to your point, Dave, there are these other use cases, right? 

So are brands going to start to put more queue management screens up like McDonald's has, where they have now served these customer numbers and they have the list for in-store and list for mobile. Do they start to do some things with digital displays near pickup areas as more and more customers are starting to use take-out options? I've even heard some thought around, are there going to be digital screens at mobile pickup? I'm still not sold on that one. Like a sign made out of metal does just great for, telling you a customer where they need to park. We'll see who's able to first define a use case that has a clear ROI for putting screens at those parking spots. 

The last thing I wanted to ask about was some fundamentals around digital menu boards. One of the things that I've found through the years and seems to be getting better as people learn is you have these eye charts that they try to cram so much stuff into a single display that you really can't read anything and it's mentally overwhelming, you look at it and go, oh my God, I'll just order the thing that I've got in my head and get the hell out of here. 

Is that sort of thing important? Color choices, font choices, certainly the volume of text, the size or point size, all those things?

Jackie Walker: 100%. Yes, and I think I'm glad you asked this question because this is my favorite question, right? If you look at how most of the brands: McDonald's is a good example, Burger King is a good example. It looks like the problem they've been trying to solve is how do you jam all the shit that you had on six panels print now on to two or three digital screens. Like if you just look at it, you can see that's what they thought they were trying to do. Really the opportunity with digital menu boards is to get more precise about what the content is because you can have advanced analytics, you can link what you display to a customer to a transaction. You can start to have a much better data-driven merchandising strategy. So you can really think about the use case for the drive-thru, which to your point is you have a customer that's freaked out, they're going to be in front of that board for probably 10-15 seconds looking at it at a peak time before they start talking or the crew member starts talking to them. So if you're trying to show them 85 SKUs, there is no way that any human is understanding 85 SKUs in 10-15 seconds. So the opportunity is really about curation, and I think when we approach menu board design, we don't think about it from an old-school menu sings print menu point of view. We think about it from a digital frame of reference. 

How do you guide wayfinding for a customer? How do you establish a kind of system design and a foundation that's going to allow the operator of the brand to substitute products in and out and see how they perform when they're in these different slots? Think about designing a poster, you think about designing a digital framework. I think curation is key. That's that to me really all of these personalization tactics that you talk about, it really comes back to how do I show less stuff that's more meaningful and the tactics are all different ways of getting at that problem. So I think that's what's most exciting about the move to digital menu boards is we can start playing there and as an industry get much smarter about how you actually serve the customer at that moment? How do you show them the least amount of information to get them through success? Either help them get what they wanted to get, they knew they wanted, or inspire them to try something new. Build tickets, improve their level of confidence. These are all the things that become front and center in this new digital menu board experience.

All right. Super interesting. I appreciate you taking the time. 

Jackie Walker: Lots of fun. Dave, always looking forward to talking to you soon and maybe meeting you in person. 

Yes. If we ever travel once again and do things like Trade Shows. 

Jackie Walker: Amen. Thanks so much, Dave.


Tony Anscombe, ESET

Tony Anscombe, ESET

September 14, 2021


There's been a lot of talk about vaccine passports as the numbers of fully vaccinated people have risen in many to most first world countries, and venues from restaurants to giant sports stadiums have started talking about requiring proof of being jabbed as a requirement of admission.

But how is that done efficiently and securely? And how are fraudulent papers identified and rejected?

One of the ways to process people quickly and accurately is using readers and scanners, handheld or as  self-service kiosks. The idea is that you'd have a government-issued vaccine passport that has validated vaccine records, plus some sort of image database that confirms you are who you say you are. You walk up to a scanner, it does its thing, and you're in ... or you're rejected.

The hardware side of this, for kiosk and touchscreen manufacturers, is probably not all that complicated. But the back-end software and database side is hugely complicated.

I had a great discussion with Tony Anscombe, the Chief Security Evangelist for the tech firm ESET. We get into the opportunities and challenges facing any AV/IT company looking at these passport kiosks as an emerging business.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS


Tony, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what ESET is all about and what also your role as Chief Security Evangelist means? 

Tony Anscombe: So ESET is a longstanding cyber security company. We've been in the industry for 30+ years and we're headquartered in Europe. Many people will know us from years ago as an antivirus company, but today we're very much more than that. 

We have anti-malware products that you and I might use on mobiles or laptops or such, but we also provide threat intelligence and endpoint detection and response systems all the way up through to big enterprises. So tens of thousands of seats, where they're looking at anomalies in traffic patterns and such, and that intelligence is super important in today's environment, especially when you've got so much ransomware attacking companies.

And as an Evangelist, you're preaching to the choir, whether it's people who are CIOs of companies or people who don't know very much about network security, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, a big part of staying safe online, whether you're an enterprise, or whether you're a consumer, is human behavior. Because we all have on occasion, a tendency to look at a link and think it's safe and you click on that link and you're on a phishing page or you're downloading something that you don't want. 

And understanding what causes cybercrime and actually talking to people about how to avoid it and good behavior and the things to look out for is super important. So education is a large piece of cyber security and it's important that people like me and most security companies have somebody like me are out there educating both enterprises and consumers. 

I assume that those other C-level executives, like the CFO, may not know that much about it? It's important to have somebody that can listen to this, not purely talking in acronyms and information that they can't possibly understand, but get enough of it to realize, “I can sign off on this.” 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. It's important that we put it into real speaks, so when you're talking to a CFO about what's going to be the impact on their business if they get a cyber attack. Because that's what they understand, you know, loss of revenue, loss of business, loss of reputation, etc. So actually bring it back to what it might cause to the business and those are important points. No company wants to be attacked and have to make some data breach notification or anything like that.

I was looking forward to chatting because recently I came across information and actually republished a post from another publication about Vaccine Passport kiosk, which is something I hadn't really thought much about. I have not traveled yet, and I work at home so I don't circulate a lot in buildings or anything else where this would be an issue. 

But if we should shift to a world where vaccine passports are used a lot, I assume technology is going to have to be a big part of this because of the pure nature of throughput, that if you're going to process a lot of people and verify whether what they have is real or not, you're going to need machine help because getting humans to do that is just gonna create massive lineups and lots of mistakes.

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and there will be a place for kiosks, but they'll also be a place for handheld scanners and it is probably best to step back one and I’ll explain because some of the people listening may not have a digital vaccine recognition. 

It depends where you are, and what your government is handing out as in way of, “Yes, you've been vaccinated” and how that might actually be read. So in the US, I'm sure everybody has seen in some media stories, the little paper CDC card, and of course how would a kiosk actually validate that's real. It's just a piece of paper. Whereas some governments that have centralized health databases have gone to the other extreme of having QR codes and confirmation of the vaccination digitally, and if you haven't got a smartphone, you can print it out and carry it with you. But I think there's a wide range of different solutions and it's not just the problem of you and me, Dave, going to maybe a concert or a theater or an office, where there's huge throughput through the door. It's also international travel and does a kiosk recognize every different variant of confirmation of vaccination? 

Yeah, and because every jurisdiction seems to be doing it a little bit differently. There are no standards and there's no harmony around what it looks like, what you presented, nothing, right?

Tony Anscombe: Correct, and I'm actually gonna use New York as an example because I think New York has gone through the pain of what I define as three solutions. 

They've gone through having the CDC card, then they've created an app where you can, in effect, upload the card, and it's not much more useful than the card other than it's a digital copy of the card. And then they've recently in the last few weeks adopted the Excelsior app, which is produced by IBM and works on the blockchain. So the actual app itself provides some security about the data that it's holding, but it creates the QR code and it tells you the date of vaccination, the person's date of birth, and who they are. But of course, one thing that's missing from it is actually confirming who they are. 

So it's all very well having a vaccination record, but you also need to confirm the identity of the person that's holding the vaccination record, because if you and I were together and one of us was vaccinated on one of us was not, I could easily install my vaccination confirmation on your phone, because I know you're going to a concert or such and if there's no validation of identification at the point where somebody checks the vaccination, then you'd be traveling unvaccinated on my vaccination record.

So what needs to happen? What would be the baseline of what's required to make this truly work and secure and validate it? 

Tony Anscombe: So for you to be certain that the person coming in, you need to have pre-validated their identity. So either an app needs to have, for example, take your picture and you upload your driver's license or other recognized government-issued identity document, and then it does a facial comparison between the person uploading and, the government approved identity document, and then it goes off to the vaccine database and collects the vaccine record for the person with that identity, either the same date of birth, same name and maybe you've had to provide an email address or a mobile number that you did when you had your vaccination so that it picks up the correct record and then it marries the two together and holds them in some way in the app. 

Now the app should only hold the information it absolutely requires and that is your name, your date of birth, and that your vaccine is valid, and I say that because of course, we will come to a point where like the flu jab, you’d need to have another vaccine because vaccines don't last forever. So at that point, it needs to know that you're within whatever period of time it is that health organizations decide that they're valid for, and then it will create a QR code that's readable by a kiosk or a scanner. So that actually your data is not being shared, but somebody, as you look at a kiosk that it's reading the QR code it knows you have a valid vaccine, and if it's, for example, the company CLEAR that runs airport security, and they do facial recognition. So they take your picture, look at the record that they have on file and match the record to the farm. 

So imagine if you're now turning up to a concert, you go up to the kiosk, you show your QR code, it knows you've got a vaccine and it's checking you are the person that was on the identity document that was uploaded at the time you registered with the kiosk manufacturer.

This sounds very complicated. 

Tony Anscombe: And that is maybe an understatement actually, and from the point of explanation, it is. But now think about this from the consumer side.

I'm at home. I've got my vaccination records, whatever that may look like, whether it's an email, whether it's a piece of paper, a card, or whatever, but my government has decided that they do have a method of having digital vaccine records. So I use my mobile device and I log on to download the app. I validate that I'm the person I am, so here in California for me to get my digital vaccine, where I'm based, I tell it my phone number. I told it the email address I used at the time I had my vaccination. It downloads the QR code, puts it in the app, and then if it's going that extra step, which it doesn't by the way in California, which is a flaw in the entire process here. But if it went the extra step and then ask me to verify my identity, all I'd be doing is taking a picture of my driver's license, looking into the camera on the phone, and it takes that comparison, links my identity to the vaccine record. 

Now, when you go to the concert, you walk up to the kiosk. You look in the camera, you show the QR code, the kiosk gives a green light and off you go. So actually once you've registered, it should be a simplified process. 

If all those records are in place, and they're exportable, you could do something with them? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and that's a good point because now imagine, and this is where I think there needs to be a big piece of standardization. So you've got CLEAR in the US who do airport-style kiosks, creating a system. You've got Excelsior in New York, creating a system. So now all these different companies will require access to the government or state-backed databases. Now, whether that's in Canada, whether that's in Europe, whether that's in the US, or wherever it is, you're going to have the same issue. 

So there needs to be some standardization on the mechanism that the terminal uses to go and gather the vaccine, but also, to a certain degree. I think I would feel more comfortable if, like in Europe, they put their stake in the ground and turn and say we've partnered with this kiosk manufacturer and we're going to make sure this is ultra-secure and work with one vendor. Because that would give me a lot more of a warm feeling that when I walk up to this terminal, there are not 15 different commercial companies that all have different privacy policies, that all have different security systems, all accessing vaccination records just sound a bit of a mess.

Yeah, and what is the risk to a private citizen to all this? 

Tony Anscombe: That's a very interesting point because there's another argument of there's an anti-vaccine passport discussion as well. Yeah, goes along the side of every other anti there is, as there's always a cohort, isn't there? People in everything that decide that they're against things. 

Now, the anti-vaccine passport argument is that it's breaching your privacy because you're disclosing the fact you are vaccinated. Now I'm just going to throw in consideration here that to go to school in Ontario, you have to have a number of vaccines, 3-5, whatever it is, number of vaccines. So therefore if you stand on the street and watch kids that go to school, they're already disclosing that they've had five vaccines or however many it is. So if that's an infringement of somebody's privacy, then surely these kids are having their privacy infringed by going to school. So let's dismiss this infringement of privacy rights because I think that's a red herring. I think that's just somebody who doesn't want to have a digital vaccine record. I think the privacy infringement is somewhat negated, once you look at it with schoolchildren in mind, and in fact, I'm a green card holder in the US and the same goes for green cardholders, by the way, you have to have had five vaccinations. 

I was issued a green card and my arm was very sore the afternoon I had all five, the health authorities in Europe couldn't confirm that I'd had them historically because it was pre-digitalization. It was a very sore afternoon. 

But so now we've got that piece out of the way. Your date of birth is pretty much everywhere, it public record, and your name is a public record. So if the vaccine passport is holding the fact you've had a vaccine, your date of birth, and your name. It doesn't appear to me that it's holding too much data. However, if you then get into when the vaccination was and what type of vaccine was used and you start including other pieces of information, then that's a good question. Now, the only reason I can understand is if you and I were going to a concert in Toronto, I understand the venue wants to know my identity and it wants to know that I've been vaccinated. Do they care what I was vaccinated with? No. Do they care when it was applied? No. All they want to know is that it hasn't expired, which in theory, the vaccine passport is going to do because I've had to register. So therefore my QR code or barcode or whatever it decides to display Would be invalid if I'm past the expiration date. 

Now that's a minimum amount of data. So in theory, that to me is an acceptable risk because my date of birth and name are already in the public domain. And yes, there is a link to that vaccine record, as long as the kiosk render or the app provider is not monitoring my location, and it's not holding any information on me without good reason. So I can understand you might have some phone contact tracing reasons for a period of time. As long as that data is held only for those purposes and deleted when the contact tracing period expires, Then it may collect like a hash to identify me, but it doesn't actually have to identify me, it only has to identify my device in the same way contract tracing systems works. I actually think this could be built very securely. 

I'm up in Canada. So we've got universal health care and everybody who lives in Canada, who's a citizen or proven resident has a health card with a health number. So that's how you are up here, at least where I live, you registered for your vaccination and so on, but in the US, which is, 10x the size, you've got 50 states and you've got HMO's and everything else, and they all, I'm guessing do a little or a lot differently. 

How much of a job would it be to figure out something that would work across state lines?

Tony Anscombe: Firstly, let's congratulate Canada for having a centralized system because although people may look at it and go... 

”It's socialism!” 

Tony Anscombe: Well, it is and it's not. I actually believe it's a human right to have healthcare. That's a very non-American viewpoint. But yeah, I come from Europe where that's pretty much normal as well, but in the US, you have one card that was issued by all states that the CDC vaccination record is the same in every state. The unfortunate part about it is it really is a piece of card. And I'm going to use myself as the example because I have no reason not to share, but when I went for my vaccination, there was a big, long line of people and the healthcare provider in the small rural town where I live, was desperately trying to vaccinate lots of agricultural workers. So it was a lot of pressure on them to get people through the door quickly. 

She handed me my card. It had my vaccination on it and nothing else. She said you can fill in the rest of the details yourself, so my name and my date of birth and the other pieces of information. So already there's flaw number one. 

So there's no traceability of the fact that you even had the vaccine, other than you're saying I've got this piece of paper? 

Tony Anscombe: I'd already registered to have the vaccine. They already had a driver's license number. So there is a state record. But the card I’m holding, I could've put anybody's name on it, but because it's just a piece of paper, unfortunately, you found outside sporting events that have been held by people selling fake cards, because they're very easy to replicate. 

I actually reckon I could probably create one in five minutes with a bit of photoshopping and a bit of paper card in the printer and I'd be away while you were there. Of course, I think, people shouldn't do this. 

It might not be good for the Chief Security Evangelists to do that as a hobby. 

Tony Anscombe: I’m just making that point. I wouldn't do that, but it's wrong for anybody else to do that because actually, you may be risking somebody else's health in doing so. But you've also seen examples of some doctors selling the cards without giving the vaccine. 

Whereas in Canada, you've got this record, and let's call it a Canadian health number, whatever it might be called. The Canadian health number gives you that centralized database. So you're in a much better spot for actually knowing whether somebody had a vaccine or not. Now sure, are there going to be some mistakes in systems and your media might find two or three people in the entire country whose vaccine wasn't recorded correctly or it states they didn't have one and they did have one, they've got proof they had one and, yeah, they'll always be the odd mistake. 

Recognizing that a lot of this verification process as it evolves will be on handheld readers. If it is a kiosk, which is part of my world in digital signage, is there a business opportunity? Is this a high growth potential area or is this something that's being talked about a lot, but probably won't happen because all we just talked about is too complicated?

Tony Anscombe: No, I think this is something that is happening. One thing that grates on me slightly is that the industry seems to be reacting, not being proactive in some of it. So the pandemic hit, and then countries realized they didn't have centralized medical data, and then they realized they need contact tracing type technology. So I understand the pressure on the early parts of the pandemic, were to create technologies that nobody had ever considered. So that is understood. 

But at the same time, I think you're always going to need technology to come out of the other end of this pan day. Of knowing who's vaccinated and where they were vaccinated and whether it's valid for the country you're in. And I say that because there are different approvals on different vaccines in different countries, and they don't recognize some. I'm amazed that actually, we're at the hopefully latter end of this pandemic with this wave of Delta variant, that's going around, hopefully, this puts a stake in the ground and we're going to come out of this particular variant in a much better shape. But you're going to at least a year to 18 months with different variants knocking around, most of the world are still not vaccinated, and people traveling, then you're going to need some sort of kiosk or scanner to verify people's vaccinations in that way. 

So this is an industry, why wasn't this being built this time last year? We knew we were going to need it. So why don't we why a company is only building it now? But that's my gripe as a technologist. 

So if I am a kiosk hardware manufacturer, will the ask be for just a QR code reader or are you going to need a camera that's going to do facial recognition or will the QR code be enough because that was part of what got you to a QR code?

Tony Anscombe: It depends on the scenario where I think you're scanning the person. So if you're at a stadium, I think you're going to need a kiosk that has the camera, because you've got maybe 10,000 people coming through a gate, maybe you've got 10 gates, a thousand people coming through each one and you want to process them quickly. So maybe 15-20 seconds, they're going to look at the camera. They're going to scan the QR code. It's going to be a quick match on their identity. Yes, that's the person who allows them in green, off they go. So in that scenario, I think you need a camera. 

However, when you and I go to our favorite restaurant and the restaurant turns around and says only vaccinated people can come into this restaurant and eat, he's probably going to have a mobile app or with the person on the door, and that mobile app is going to scan your QR code and know it’s valid. Now, for them to actually know that the QR code belongs to you, they're also going to need to ask to see your driver's license and look at the name and date of birth on the driver's license and make sure it matches the QR code.

So I think there's actually a place for different systems in different environments because of the throughput in a restaurant where you've maybe got a hundred people coming through a night. It's fairly easy to do that identity check as well. 

Yeah, but different for a football stadium that has 90,000 seats if they go back to full capacity. 

Tony Anscombe: You mean, they're not at full capacity in Canada? 

No, not where I live at least. I don't think so. 

Tony Anscombe: So you didn't get my British sarcasm in there ‘cause I actually think they shouldn't be at full capacity here in the US. 

I've been to a couple of soccer matches up here, but they were at two-thirds capacity, but I live in a part of the world where I'm blessed that we barely got Covid.

Tony Anscombe: And, I think there are two things that aren't there. There's one of you as the spectator needs to feel comfortable, and I think the extra piece of space makes you feel comfortable. It's not always about the opening up fully, but yes. 

So if I'm looking at doing this. A hardware manufacturer is one thing, you can build it and as long as you've got the ability to drop a different kind of PC on there, whatever horsepower it needs to happen, you can do this. If you're a digital signage software company or a kiosk software company, is this something you should even look at, or is it's just too complicated right now and there are companies much larger and broader that are already light years ahead, like a CLEAR? 

Tony Anscombe: I think there are companies that are light years ahead because they already had, what I define as the security element of creating such a kiosk, because bear in mind, it is taking somebody's picture, it is validating against the vaccination database. You need to make sure all these things are done in a very secure fashion. 

If you were a kiosk manufacturer that I can't think of, maybe you create tourist attraction kiosks that provide information on tourist attractions. If you're in that game and you're now looking at this, I think to do this securely would be a massive challenge and I think you'd be six to nine months behind people that already have this technology, and it will be very difficult for you to do it, or you'd end up putting something on the market that might have vulnerabilities that somebody will exploit, and believe me, they will exploit them if they're there, and then you'll just get a bad rap. So I actually think, unless you're already in the identity verification space or in that medical environment, I think it will be a big challenge. 

Yeah. So almost the last time I was traveling and going out of Amsterdam's airport, they had passport verification with a camera on and the camera would slide down to be level with your face and you would scan your passport thereon, the whole nine yards. So they had a whole orchestrated high throughput kind of system together. So that's the kind of company that would have a leg up on the others, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, and when I come back into the US if I can remember what that was like. Because I haven't traveled like you probably for 18 months, When I come back in, I use a terminal to put my US identity documents, my green card details, it scans them, it takes a picture. It compares the picture and the company that's created those terminals for TSA, they're in a good spot to be able to do something similar for a vaccine record. 

I suppose the other worry that I would have if I was a vendor looking at this, is going to be held up in court, no matter what you develop, there's going to be the anti-vax crowd and privacy crowds, the people who worry about things like computer vision and so on, that they're all going to file lawsuits and drag this whole thing down into the courts for, I don't know, months or years even.

 Is that realistic or you don't think that'll happen? 

Tony Anscombe: I think that's more of a governmental issue, isn't it? The anti-vax is unlikely to turn and say that governments or states shouldn't be doing this type of activity. As a provider of the technology, you're not the one deploying the technology, You're only the one providing it. It's the person who deploys it, then I think could be dragged into the court for actually requiring it.

Right, but you're manufacturing these things somewhat on spec or at least getting ready to spin this up, and then you are sitting on inventory and they can't do anything with it, because it's all held up in courts? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. I agree, and how long ago will these terminals actually be required for, maybe one, two years. I'd like to think we return to full normality at some stage, and maybe that's a long game, maybe it's even three years, but by the time you've created this technology, you've got it to market. I think you're going to be on the backend of that marketplace. I think, all those stadiums and things like that needed it, will already have it.

I'm sure somebody is thinking about this as well. Two years out, they can divert these things into payment terminals for concessions, and so on. 

Tony Anscombe: There's a thought, isn't it? Yeah, I'm sure they could be reused. Maybe they could be turned into voting kiosks?

That's an entirely different discussion, isn't it? 

Tony Anscombe: It is, and we shouldn’t get into it. 

All right, Tony, I appreciate you taking the time with me, this was very interesting. 

Tony Anscombe: Oh my pleasure, Dave, anytime.


Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

August 25, 2021


The AT&T Discovery District in downtown Dallas is one of the more ambitious experiential digital projects out there - in the U.S. or globally - with a big reason being the focus from the inception on coming up with something that was more than just the technology circus coming to town.

Telecoms giant AT&T engaged the huge global design firm Gensler to come up with a cohesive, visually exciting design concept for not only its headquarters building in Dallas, but for the area surrounding it - delivering a destination and talking point.

There is a massive LED media wall on the corner of one building, what Gensler calls digital trellises on the urban office campus plaza, and more LED on the walls, support columns and even the ceiling of the head office lobby. That's coupled with synchronized lighting and something that sounds a bit like a show control system.

It's super-impressive, and it cost more than a couple of bucks to build, and to sustain. The first wave of creative includes digital art from some of the top people in the field, from Refik Anadol to Moment Factory.

I had a chance to speak with two of the key people behind the project - Justin Rankin, director of Gensler's Digital Experience Design Studio, and Dana Hamdan, who served as design manager for the project.




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Hi, thanks for joining me. The first thing I'd like to do is get a description from you of what the AT&T Discovery District is all about and how Gensler was involved? 

Dana Hamdan: Sure, AT&T Discovery District is actually AT&T HQ in Dallas, which happens to be in an urban setting. Not a lot of corporations are headquartered in business districts, and obviously, because it is in a business district, it makes it accessible to the public, and so to say it in a high level and in some depth way, it is a headquarter that's open to the public and that's been very successful based on the experiences that we've seen in the past a couple of months. 

This district, so to speak, has been open for a year and a half?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, we had substantial completion on the project really in September of last year, and due to various circumstances, obviously it's been a fairly organic process in terms of really opening the district and starting to really activate the space. So really what we've seen is over the last two or three months, it's really come to life in full swing and AT&T has started to really use the space, activate it, promote events, host events, and pop-ups and things like that. So it's been really exciting to see it finally start to take its stride over the past couple of months. 

So if I'm in Fort Worth, I get in my car and I drive into downtown Dallas, find parking somehow and wander over there. What am I going to see? 

Dana Hamdan: Hey, you mentioned parking, one of the things that actually make it successful is, and that builds kind of a duality of the program being an employee headquarter, and open to the public. There is actually a parking lot for the discovery district so hopefully, you'll not have any issues finding parking in that spot.

But basically, the approach to the district is very interesting, and that's gonna take from its name Discovery District. There are some macro-scale indicators for the space, so driving from probably five city blocks away, you will see a mega screen that is on a natural Terminus to one main street, it's called an Akard St. in downtown, and then as you approach the district, the screen will fade away, and from your human-scale perspective, a grove of trees will appear, and then in that grove of trees is camouflaged a nice interactive sculpture that we call The Globe, and but you'll basically see a lot of immersive lighting that will draw you towards the Plaza. So that's just from an approach standpoint of the district. 

So this is a lot of LED displays, but it's also interactive sculptures, it's audio, it's synchronized lighting, all kinds of things. So it's not just like a big display, and “look at the cool stuff we have on this big display”?

Dana Hamdan: Absolutely. So what we did, basically to give the space a headquarter presence, because before it was just disparate buildings and a number of buildings around a Plaza that was not really used. It was very underused. And, after hours it just gets dark and nobody's there because it probably doesn't feel safe.

And so what we did is we knit together a block in the city. We introduced two mega trellises that have media integrated to them to just give a very clear recognizable realm for the Plaza and you get a sense that, “Oh, I'm in one place.” So even though the buildings are not all the same architecture, we tied them with a similar visual, like a consistent cohesive design with these two mega trellises.

And then yes everything is integrated in that kind of is the spirit of the project, and we'll talk a little bit more about it as we go through this. 

Justin Rankin: And with this being AT&T global headquarters, the anchor of the district is the Whitaker tower, which is a 36 story tall building that kind of sits on the Plaza.

So you've got that really like a big landmark. The lobby of that, which we can talk more about, is a really impressive, fully immersive experience. So there's this really nice place, and then, off of Whitaker tower onto commerce street, there's an entry portal there that we call the VIP entry. So you have this really nice flow of, entering off of commerce street coming through that VIP portal into the lobby to a fully immersive experience, and then from the lobby through these really impressive glass windows, you're able to look out onto the Plaza. 

So from the lobby, you can see The Globe and you can see the big lawn area that's in the Plaza. You can see the trellis has lit up. You can see all the food and beverage outlets and all of the people and the energy, and so you naturally find your way exploring out into the Plaza, and then once you're out there, you've got The Globe and the media wall, the lawn, and the restaurants and bars and it really becomes a total experience at the end of the day.

What was the brief from AT&T? What did they say they wanted? 

Dana Hamdan: So it is interesting because I think the nice part about this project is collaborating with AT&T on really formulating what the vision for this project is, and so this kind of morphed over the years, but at the beginning, the most important thing was to give the employees a campus that they're proud of, try to reposition the brand of AT&T would, especially with all the focus on media, and then a third, but probably the most important is to give back to the city because they are in an urban business district setting as well. 

These were the main tasks from the client, which we're very happy to sit in visioning sessions and come up with a concept, and we're very happy with the end result.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, and I would layer may be on top of that, that at a certain point in time, several years ago, there were discussions within AT&T on whether or not to keep their HQ in Dallas or potentially move and relocate their HQ to San Antonio or another city. 

The decision was made to stay in Dallas and then on top of that, coincidentally during that same time period is when AT&T and Time Warner merged and so really overnight AT&T with that merger became officially became the largest media company in the world, taking on Warner Media, HBO, all of their sub-brands, and so really that became a big part of the brief was, “We're the largest media company in the world. We want to give back to our employees. We want to give back to the city of Dallas, so how do we create a destination for all of the above that really is able to solve for all of those different goals?”

That was really a thread throughout the entire strategy, and the design of the immersive experiences, the content, the way that everything is orchestrated was really to put AT&T in that light and help them reposition their brand quite honestly.

Dana Hamdan: It's not easy when you're downtown, it's not easy to have a prominent presence like it's not like you have a campus. “Oh, it's known this is the so and so campus. This is the Apple Park or Menlo Park.” 

It's hard, and it gets lost in the urban fabric, and so this was very important for AT&T to be able to give their campus a presence and for their employees to feel proud about where they work, and so it was just a nice vision and nice commitment from the client and again, I think we were very happy with the end product and we'll talk a little bit more about how we came to make that happen.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, one of the things that makes this so unique is that the campus is completely open and public. So when you look at other Fortune 5, Fortune 10 companies, and you look at their global HQ's, they're locked down, they’re Fort Knox, right? So you don't have a public that can just walk up and come hang out here. It's the total opposite here.

AT&T has really welcomed the city and the community into their space and into these immersive experiences, which is really unique and has been really exciting from Gensler's perspective to partner with AT&T on that and bring that vision to life. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, and it was not easy. When we do projects like that, we usually want to look at precedents, and for this one, there's really not a lot of precedents that you can look at. In fact, in North America, we couldn’t find a prominent campus setting that is open to the public in an urban setting. 

I mean we've been to the major campus. Amazon and Salesforce have some similarities, but not quite fully open like Justin was saying, and the rest are remote and they have their own campuses that have limited accessibility.

Yeah, I think about districts that are in the central parts of the city and they tend to be entertainment districts that are built around sports arenas, or ballparks or things like that, and it's a lot of restaurants and bars and things, but as you say, there aren’t many instances where there's a campus built around or a district built around an office. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, but from our standpoint, we think this is going to be a trendsetter campus for corporations to anchor downtowns and anchor such settings and it really plays the duality of the program. You've got your employees during the day, not just your employees, but employees of the central district with the amenities that are offered, and then gradually towards the end of the day, you see a very seamless transition, and employees are on their way out. They may grab a drink or a good to a happy hour, but you see that transition of user type from your employee to people who actually live downtown and now are utilizing the space as a normal extension, like a third place, what we call a third place, which is, people that who live downtown don't have a lot of space in their units.

So it's good to have the presence of a public space that has all the technology offering of Wi-Fi and is quite enjoyable actually. So it's a really nice 24/7 activation of the space. 

Did the pandemic and the experience of offices locking down and everything else, and that whole idea that, office towers are going to be hollowed out, people are just going to be remote working and there's no need for these big edifices anymore. 

Did any of that reshape the thinking? 

Dana Hamdan: Actually, if I may say, it actually reinforced the thinking because eventually, this conversation is not necessarily about the hybrid mode of work or office, but what we found out is that it actually provided what the pandemic is telling people you need, it provided quite a few different modes of collaboration outdoor that you can sit and collaborate in.

And we've seen that, like Justin was saying, the space organically opened. There was not a big ribbon-cutting event that happened, but people needed a space where they could be outdoors safely, and whether they're working or just enjoying other people's company and we've seen articles in major publications, like Fast Company and others, really dwell on and emphasize the need for outdoor collaboration spaces, and we feel that this came just right in time for the AT&T employees actually. 

So let's talk about what was done and why it was done. When you had the brief when you worked out the big idea, how did the components come together? 

Why did you decide on a big corner-wrapped LED on the side of one of the buildings and displays that lined the interior of the Whitacre building and so on?

Justin Rankin: So early on, I would say as we approached really all of our projects, there was a lot of strategy put into planning and thinking and our teams working together and working with AT&T and other stakeholders to think through different use cases, modes, activation scenarios, the flow of traffic, viewports, viewing angles, et cetera. 

We did a lot of research. We interviewed and spoke with employees. We interviewed and spoke with C-level executives and VIPs and collected all of that thinking to really inform where to invest the energy and concept. And, through that concept, things to help think about what types of platforms make the most sense, so we can get into it in more detail, but when you start to break apart the different digital platforms, whether it's the media wall or The Globe or the trellises or the lobby, what you'll find interesting is that there's a lot of intent put behind the design of those platforms so that those platforms can be leveraged for multiple different scenarios. 

A prime example of that is that The Globe sculpture actually sits on a hydraulic turntable that can rotate 180 degrees. So we have these moments in which we can activate this small intimate grove setting, so maybe it's a singer-songwriter, or it's a DJ, or it's someone reading. You can have a small kind of intimate moment and at the same time, you can rotate the globe, pivoted towards commerce street, which is the main thoroughfare through downtown Dallas, and now you've got a beautiful and interactive backdrop for a marathon or for a holiday parade or for something else.

So for every platform, we've thought through those different scenarios, those were all part of that original strategy and helped us to shape where they should be located, how they should be faced. The media walls specifically, we thought about, as Dana mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, there's this kind of viewport that you have from five or more blocks away and it perfectly frames the shape and the aspect ratio of the media wall. So that was very intentional, but we decided to wrap the corner because now we have this ability to draw people in from the other side of the block or the other side of the Plaza. We can also provide some really cool content and experiences to people that are sitting at Jackson, which is a kind of a casual beer garden. 

Diana, feel free to add to that. But yeah, those were all factors and considerations that led to the final design. 

Dana Hamdan: For sure. But I would say if you're asking us as to why we did what we did, why did we decide that we needed orchestrated platforms?

And really, when we were thinking that, AT&T was really also obviously wanted to make employees proud, but second, they really wanted a shift in their brand and how do they represent their brand? And AT&T is not in the business of selling physical products, they sell an intangible service, and I say that all the time, it doesn't matter if you have an iPhone or Samsung or an LG or Whatever it is, It's actually the service that comes through that makes you enjoy your experience, and so we came with this concept that we have this intangible layer, connecting slick and new and futuristic looking platforms that make them come to life and make them feel connected.

And that's why we have very purposely positioned screens, and then what we wanted to do is tie all that to an invisible thing that you cannot see, right? A content management system that makes these communicate together. It was very important for us that when you step in the district, you feel that you are in a realm, you feel that you feel the power of connection. You can see consistent media messages. You can see something on the media screen and then all of a sudden it loops and it's in ground lights under your feet, and then it loops and it's now above your head, in the ground and the lights that are in the trellises, or when it moves in and activates The Globe. So you see that communication, you see that power of connection between these platforms and it's all powered by AT&T. So that was a play on the brand representation for the client, and it only made sense why they're in that district. 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. It manifests the whole notion of connection, which is that deep kind of core element of AT&T is brand manifest in two ways. 

It manifests quite literally in a physical way as we connect the platforms and connect the spaces, but it also manifests through people, the Globe sculpture prime example. It's an opportunity where we can bring people together into a space, and I will say a safe space where they can be distanced but have a really unique experience and discover an experience that's maybe not inherent or visible as you're walking by. So you see the sculpture, that there's something going on. You may hear something you walk over and you've got people and as you're in the space, you're now controlling the experience together that you're having. So there's definitely multiple elements of that as you navigate through the district, whether it's the globe or whether it's in the lobby or other areas in the. 

Is the project driven by the art or is there also a nod or thinking around the commercial side of this? Because what I've seen are great pieces of content from companies like Moment Factory and so on. I haven't seen on the big media wall or elsewhere, pitches for an AT&T wireless plan or anything like that. 

Dana Hamdan: Yes, this was definitely since day one, this was not meant to be an advertisement platform and it's so funny to hear it, but I like to walk over there incognito and people don't know what role I had and planning and leading this place through success, but I like to hear people say, “oh, this is Times Square, but I actually can sit in and enjoy it.” 

It's not full of advertisements and I'll let Justin speak a little bit more about the strategy behind content but definitely was not meant to monetize the Plaza like that. On the contrary, it was meant to elevate the art and elevate the ambiance setting. 

I don’t want to go behind the scenes but I just wanted to ask, and you may not be able to tell me, but I'm curious because I've seen other projects that have started as art projects and then advertising finds its way into it somehow, was that a debate or AT&T said right from the brief that no this has to be the experience?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, they've taken a pretty hard line from the get-go of maintaining an advertising free space. Now the caveat there obviously is, we're talking about the largest media company in the world, we do have to acknowledge the fact that AT&T is showing content that is running on the media wall that is promoting AT&T’s properties, movies shows, et cetera.

What I would say though, is the way that has come together, and the intent with that is purely from an entertainment standpoint, right? So these are big motion pictures and shows that people are super interested in and excited about. There are certainly moments of that but to your earlier point, there is no advertising so to speak, sales advertising around products and services. 

There's a really healthy mix, quite honestly, of just beautiful artistic content. You mentioned Moment Factory, they have been an incredible part of the team in many ways, but we've got fifteen or more artists and studios and agencies that have contributed on the content front. And we've worked really closely all along with the creative director on the discovery district on the AT&T side. His name is Roger Ferris and he's always had a really strong vision as having really the whole AT&T executive team on what their vision around content was, and we've helped to thread together a strategy that's really guided that, who we've worked with. It's guided by the type of content. 

The Gensler team has defined the cadence of that content, the programming, and the run of the show. It is 24/7. So there's been a lot of thought put into what's the vibe and what's the energy level at 9:00 AM on a Monday compared to 8:00 PM on a Friday compared to maybe 3:00 PM on a Sunday, and what you notice when you spend a lot of time in the district is that the energy really changes and morphs over time and even, thinking through the night hours and in wanting to be respectful of the fact that this is a district in the middle of a city, there are hotels and there are condos and stuff. We've got this beautiful content that runs through the evening where we take the brightness and the output of that media wall and really tone it down, and put the district in sleep mode, so to speak.

And so we've just been really thoughtful about that, and AT&T has been amazing in really investing in the content and putting an emphasis on creativity and art and finding that balance between the entertainment-type content and then just beautiful works of art. 

We've worked with lots of big artists and have all come together to create this. I think we've got right now over 36 hours of original content that are running at any given point through the district. 

A lot of these things come out of the gate with fantastic content, and then six months later, people started looking around, “I guess we should change this.”

Do you have a five-year plan or something?

Justin Rankin: We do, and the Gensler team continues to engage with AT&T. They also continue to engage, with their own set of artists and contributors, but very much we're on a continual content production kind of cadence and schedules. So there's constantly new content that's being developed and rolled out, tested, revised, et cetera. 

There's also a lot of feedback that's being going from content that's already rolled out. So it's been important at AT&T to really keep an eye on, and what do people think about it? Do people love this? Do they hate it? Is it annoying? Is it too bright? Is it too fast? So I think they're doing a great job of collecting that feedback, using that data to then inform what new content gets produced. 

The question begs, what are you hearing? 

Justin Rankin: So far it's been great, honestly. 

Dana Hamdan: If you use social media and just look up the discovery district, you’ll see. I think this is one where we're really enjoying people's reactions to the district.

But I will say when we've designed these digital platforms, we've designed them with the concept of what Roger Ferris, the creative director of AT&T would call maximum canvas flexibility, and the idea is you can dial in or dial up the media content as much as you want. For example, the lobby has a ceiling that we call the veil because we veiled in the ceiling and it's a layering of polyethylene, a white membrane that is backed by a very tight tightly knit RGB grid that has probably a diffusion layer.

It's a very nice system and it could be just a regular white backlit ceiling that all of a sudden can transform into, I don't know, whales that are swimming in an ocean or whatever it is. So this really, the idea of integrating very seamlessly, integrating the media as architecture and not being an application on a surface really helps with that longevity and being able to activate or not whenever you want. 

Yeah, I think that's the difference between some of the things that I've seen, where a company puts in a huge LED video wall and maybe a couple of other things, but they're just things that are there. There's no continuity and no real thought around the whole experience. It’s just, “Look at this giant thing we put!” 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. The veil is a great example of media architecture at its core. Even the media wall, it's interesting, one of the things that we wanted to do was get creative. The media wall is so large. It's so prominent in the Plaza. It's easy for that to really become an anchor and command all of your attention and there are certainly certain times during the day or the week in which we do that very intentionally, but what we've also done is work hard to create and essentially model and render the exact facade of the building that the media wall is applied to. 

So there are certain times in which that media wall goes into facade mode and it's shockingly accurate and people can walk through the Plaza and really not have any idea that there's an eight-story tall media wall staring right at them. So there's been some thought put into that as well, and just finding ways to tone down the digital when we want other platforms or other spaces to command more of the attention. 

Dana Hamdan: I would say, when we were just drawing concepts for the Plaza, we drove around and studied the side from a contextual standpoint. Every time we drove down that Akard St., we saw that facade and it's natural Terminus, and we are very lucky that it is an equipment building because otherwise, I wouldn't even have suggested blocking all that much facade. We were lucky that this is an equipment building. 

Justin Rankin: People ask that like this media wall is great, but it really sucks for everyone that's working in that building because they've lost any kind of view. So luckily, as Dana said, there's no one, where those windows are that we've covered up, it's all equipment, technical equipment, and things like that.

So we haven't prevented anyone's view into the Plaza or natural light into their workspace, et cetera. Yeah, got really lucky with that being the capability that we had.  

What's involved in the day-to-day management of all this, all the lighting, the synchronized displays, everything else. Is there an AT&T team, or is Gensler doing that? How does all that work?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, really through the project and through the completion of the project, Gensler was really heavily involved in working with AT&T. All the things I mentioned before, the content strategy, cadence programming, et cetera, a lot of the operations and so as we transitioned, everything was installed, it was done, commissioned, ready to roll, we started to work closely with AT&T to help them to build their own operations team, and so they actually now have a dedicated team who is at the helm of this ship and operating the content management system, operating all the platforms, doing things like maintenance and support, all of that.

So yeah, dedicated staff now. They're fully running on their own and our involvement at this point and as we move forward is, as I was mentioning before, continuing to help them to ideate concepts and produce new content and keep the big idea going. 

How many people do they have working on this full-time?

Justin Rankin: There's a team of 5-10 that fluctuates. Everyone kind of has some different roles, some dedicated purely to tech, some dedicated purely to CMS, some dedicated more to the creative side. So yeah, nice healthy team. 

Dana Hamdan: I don't know that we know the extent of property management either, because obviously, it's a big district to take care of. 

Justin Rankin: For sure. You've got loss prevention, security, events. There's all kinds of teams that are really tapped into what's going on in the district on any given day. But from a technology and kind of creative standpoint, there’s definitely a dedicated team focused on it.

What's been the response from the mayor and the people who run Dallas? 

Dana Hamdan: In downtown Dallas, we have an organization called downtown Dallas, Inc that really started a few years ago and came in with initiatives to bring life back and entice people to live downtown and enjoy downtown and open businesses downtown, and I guess the reaction of this organization is pretty much consistent with businesses around the downtown. 

I don't know that I have heard directly from the mayor, but we've heard very positive reactions from neighboring businesses in downtown Dallas, and neighboring hotels. As a matter of fact, we've seen businesses starting to open around the district and benefiting from the presence of the district and driving more business down there. So all but positive so far.

Justin Rankin: Oh, you think about it. There are two major hotels right across the street and half of their rooms look into this beautiful Plaza, and so without going into detail on that, you can just imagine, the more kind of premium view and amenity that has now been offered to those guests of the hotel. 

I've actually stayed in both hotels and have talked to some of the staff there and they go on and on about it and what their guests are saying and how positive it is. 

Dana Hamdan: And throughout the process of design and envisioning this, it was a very rigorous approval process from neighboring communities and from the city. We had to go through many hearings to just get community consent on what's being planned. So this was a very inclusive process. 

All right. That was super interesting. One of these days, I'll be able to travel again and come down and have a look at it.

Dana Hamdan: We can't wait to have you there. 

Thanks very much for your time. 

Justin Rankin: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Chris Riegel, Scala

Chris Riegel, Scala

August 18, 2021


It's now been five years since Stratacache acquired the CMS software company Scala, which had kind of devolved from the digital signage industry's dominant player to just one of many options.

When Stratacache CEO Chris Riegel did the deal, there were lots of people wondering what might happen. Was he buying the company for its customer base and vast reseller channel, or did he have other plans. In short order, he jokingly made up Trump-style red ball caps that said: "Make Scala Great Again."

Five years later, Scala is a wildly different company and product - with a much smaller reseller channel and an integrated, retail-centric platform that has largely been re-written and re-structured.

Riegel has been a frequent guest of this podcast, and that's because he's wickedly smart, and frank about what's going on in the industry.

We talk about the five-year journey he's had with a renewed Scala, but also got deep into what's happening in the marketplace globally. And we nerd out on the microLED factory he's spinning up in Oregon, and when it will start producing both small and large format display material.

As always, a valuable, insight-filled 30 minutes or so.

Side note - Chris was coughing up a storm during the chat, but he says he's fully vaxxed and it's not THAT. Just a bug and allergies.

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Mr. Riegel, thank you for joining me. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you for the opportunity. 

So about five years ago now, you bought Scala and at the time there were lots of industry people who were looking at that going, okay, what's going to happen now? Is it going to be absorbed by Stratacache? Is it going to accelerate or what's going to happen?

And you sent me a note the other day, saying, “Hey, we're coming up on five years. It's an interesting story to tell.” So what's the story? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's been a hell of a ride. Probably the best way to say it. So five years ago we decided, there's something here in Scala and something absolutely worth growing and saving. When we stepped into the acquisition, Scala was arguably one of the I think top brands from visibility and great legacy, great history, but had atrophied, to be honest, so we saw what was truly a global footprint and its Scala was really one of the first in the market that had grown out of a global entity and it was a good acquisition for us to be able to buy that asset, bolt the power that we have in the North American markets and in the Indian markets to that Scala infrastructure in Europe, in the Nordics, in the Middle East, in Japan and Australia, and really convert that Scala was the entity that allowed Stratacache to convert from being a pocketed global, to a fully global entity, and now really hitting every country around the world, but principally, 28 offices around the world being able to service those global customers and Scala gave us that global reach. 

Now that was not without some interesting challenges and some interesting discoveries during the path. So it's been quite a ride. 

Yeah. I can remember going to InfoComm back in the late 2000s, I think it was 2007 or something like that, and yeah, Scala was the company in digital signage in terms of visibility and everything on the floor, like they were the monster, and I just slowly over a matter of the next five, six years saw it, as you say, diminished. 

Chris Riegel: And what you have in Scala, and what is amazing about Scala is that there is such tribal knowledge and such capability towards digital visual communication and optimizing that experience for the customer. It's really this amazing retail practice with a skillset I've never seen matched throughout. 

What we did in coming in was really update that, bring that more modern, more current. In some examples, Scala was always principally a Windows platform. Windows is not the same thing it was 20 years ago, so we brought Scala into Linux. We brought Scala from x86 processors into the ARM processor world. We've updated big chunks of the code to modernize and refresh, and then updated a lot of the technical teams within to say, “what do you do for the next 20 years?” And coming in as a change agent, what I saw was the equivalent of the old house with great bones, but needed to be updated and refreshed. Some of that was tech, some of that was people, but to say, what do you do to stabilize and turn around this business and make it valid for the next 20 or 30 years looking forward?

There was too much looking back and too much resting on the laurels. And we're very much about challenging and growing people in technical teams, and how do you make that better and really tackle that problem every day. The beauty and the horror of technology is that yesterday means nothing for tomorrow. You have to go out and hit every single day, focus on where is that market going, how are you evolving that experience? Because the market doesn't stand still. 

One of the things about Scala at the time was, as we were saying, it was a platform that was getting some hair on it, so to speak, and what you had though, was this huge reseller channel, or just like resellers all around the world and you re-positioned things, where you went away somewhat from channels to much more direct sales? 

Chris Riegel: I'd counter that a bit. What Scala had when we did the acquisition, Scala had about 300 resellers around the world. Of those 300, 200 of them or companies that did $5,000 or $10,000 a year, negligible revenue.

What we've done, we continue to have within Scala, a full reseller channel that has grown significantly. What we've done is really focused that to say, “I want fewer and better resellers in that environment.” The crown jewel of Scala is, you have 16,000 customers around the globe as an existing life customer base and some of those customers, you take Citibank as an example, Citibank should not be buying products from Dave's AV Barn in Baltimore, because they have requirements that are much more stringent and much more tiered towards needing direct manufacturer support. 

So in that environment, we've continued to grow that channel. You've seen partnerships like Hakuhodo with Scala and others on the global side. You'll see later this year, two other big announcements of reseller partnerships. So what we've really done is said, it doesn't make sense to have 300+ resellers that you're just a line item on the card. The other part to that is with 300 resellers, you'd see a deal that pops up in Italy and you’d have 10 guys racing each other to the bottom. For us and resellers, the key point is that we want them to be profitable. We want them to have success in having that success, and I'll use Latin America as an example. In Latin America, when we acquired Scala, there was a channel, but it was just a doggy dog environment. The guys were trying to win deals based on pennies. We cleaned that channel up, went from 50 to really 5-6, and deployed a Scala operation center in Mexico city to be able to support the entire region, then work with the partners to bring profitable deals to them and recurring profitable deals so that they have a vested interest.

There are hundreds of guys in the CMS space with very little differentiation, and I'll use an example. One of the partners that we work with in Brazil said, “Hey, I can get a 35% margin on your competitor's product”, and I said, “That's great. What are you selling that product at?” “Oh, $1 a month.” “So 35% of that?” You can't run a business on that. How do you do profitable deals and make sure that channels are profitable and clean that up quickly? 

Is it a challenge when you go around the world with all these different options out there and all these companies going out with, as you say, a buck a month SaaS licensing deals, they'll look at Scala and, I don't know what the number is, but it's going to be higher and they'll say you're too expensive?

Chris Riegel: Quite candidly in those environments, the customers are willing to pay a dollar a month for SaaS and nothing more. There's no revenue there, and I would applaud my valued competitors. We call the gangsters of Gangnam and try to just liquidate the value of software industry-wide, but there is a difference in when you get into the mid-tier and the large-tier enterprise space that we hunt. If you want to pay a buck, go buy somebody else's product. There's no value there. You can't afford to support it, can't afford to provide services on it, and you're going to get exactly what you deserve.

It's funny to watch in these dollar SaaS guys, customers that literally change every year. They'll just go from vendor A to vendor B to vendor C to vendor D, there's no consistency of experience. There's no feature set there and okay, knock yourselves out, but there's no margin and if there's no margin, why take the headache? 

So your lead company, Stratacache tends to focus on banking and QSR more than anything else. Do you get into retail or when that opportunity comes along, you're going to tend to angle the prospect towards Scala? 

Chris Riegel: It depends on the environment. What we have done within Scala is really built a group of people globally that have what I'd call agency-level chops within that retail space. 

So we've got designers, graphic artists. We've got retail practice experts that can go in and really engage a retailer from the Scala's side and help them with the mission of what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish? Not how do I put the screen on the wall at the lowest possible price? That's really further evolved into analytics, into artificial intelligence, where we're able to say, when I take Scala as an example and bolt that to our walk base mobile sensor business when I bolt that to our Artificial intelligence retail tracking business. 

The ability to say, “Hey, you saw this image on a sign. I'm tracking your cart or your basket. I know you're in that area. I know that you saw it. You converted it.” Here's the efficacy based on demographic or time or visit to unique shopper eating customers. You've got to go to that retail practice down to more closing the loop, providing the evidence, the detail around it, because it's such a results-driven business 

Is retail evolving, in terms of what the ask is for a Scala and other companies? 

Chris Riegel: Tremendously.

So I would contrast now with having a little bit of a different view, retail in the west is atrophying at the moment principally, because you have Bezos, that's just out cracking heads left and right. Amazon continues to grow and strengthen amazingly and online grows globally. But what you're starting to see now, and especially if you look at Asia, you're starting to see is the emergence of what we call organized retail.

You take a market like India that has literally 2 million small retail shops, and those are starting to organize into actual retail chains, organized chain-based branded consistency of experience, the way that you see it in the West, the opportunities and where we're seeing ridiculous growth is in India, in China, in Indonesia, Malaysia, in these emerging markets where retail is organizing now and becoming much more structured. And I think, and I say this knock on wood, hopefully, COVID goes away but within 2022, that's probably the first year within the company that we see selling 1 million plus screens players software licenses that's up from 300,000 to 400,000 a year on average. So we're just seeing this aggregation now of critical mass, but that's really being led by the Asian markets 

You would think between India and China and these emerging economies, that those would be the guys more than anyone else who would migrate towards the “a buck a month” kind of SaaS thing? 

Chris Riegel: Yes and no. There's always a cost pressure there, don't get me wrong, but there's also a value in experience, there's a value in being able to deliver that solution. 

The retail systems in many of these countries are just not quite as mature on the IT side and at the infrastructure side. So when you're talking to a retailer in the US, we do a lot of work with Walmart, combined close to 5,000 stores, but then you step into Reliance in India and Reliance is deploying 200,000 plus locations in India in the next 18 months. It's just a different scale and coming into that understanding of scale, yes, numbers are different pricing models to do that, but if I'm up a factor of 40 on the number of stores, you'll still come out on the other end of that. 

Is the feature set in terms of what they want different in these emerging markets like if you're talking to Walmart, that's a very sophisticated retailer. They're probably interested in analytics, probably interested in front-end advisory consulting, creative, all those sorts of things. 

When you're talking about the scale in India, is it just more that they need the core functionality of digital signage software? 

Chris Riegel: What you're seeing is more of a hybrid in India of the on-prem and online kind of merging within those stores.

But you're also seeing, for lack of a better phrase, an absolute hunger, and desire. If you look at some of the large retailers in India and China who have said, “Hey, we're going to be the biggest company in the world.” They have the drive, they spend money. The existing US and western big retailers are still dealing with, “Hey, things are good enough that we don't really have to press and change quite as much”, but you've got a drive in India and China that I think you'll see within the course of the next three years this flip whereas these Eastern markets start to really organize the retail systems, they'll be orders of magnitude bigger than what you see here in the West.

When I look in the West at digital signage in retail, it seems to have gone away from stores that were putting a whole pile of LCDs all over the place to now it seems like they put in one direct view LED feature wall maybe a couple of other signs that checkout, that sort of thing, but that's it. What's happening in these emerging markets, same thing? 

Chris Riegel: In emerging markets, you're usually dealing in a much smaller format. So instead of having the 200,000 square foot supercenter approach, you might have the 2,000 square foot cell phone store or the 2,000 square foot health and beauty store. As those are organizing up, you're seeing that becoming a more multifunction point to say, what is this new hybrid of having a retail store that could be a small corner market bodega, but I could also order a cell phone there, I could order products remotely, I can have it delivered in and you're dealing with a population there that's not nearly as wealthy as you have in the western world, but the ability to say, how can we lower costs? How can we improve capabilities where that retail store might be the real lifeline out to the bigger e-commerce environment? 

I'll use an example with one of the customers that I work with within India. They partnered with Google on a new cell phone. So you have a new Google cell phone that's being introduced to that market, or the cost of the phone is $4. Not $4 a month, not $4 a quarter, but $4. So how do you unleash the power between China and India of two and a half billion people from a retail perspective to streamline that, to bring more and more opportunities to those two and a half billion people of which two billion of them are not particularly wealthy, but still have needs and still can take advantage of these services. 

Is it fair to say they're doing digital posters more than anything else in these kinds of small footprint places? 

Chris Riegel: You're typically seeing a hybrid digital sign interactive kiosk use case from 20-inch to 32-inch. We did the acquisition in China a few years back of what we call now, our Link Tablet series, but those hybrid devices that are multifunction could be a digital sign, could be interactive, can have payment, can have mobile device scan. It's that multi-function Swiss army knife that's extremely popular. 

Through the pandemic, I've been curious ‘cause I get carpet-bombed with PR all the time with companies saying we're going away from interactive touch and so on, it's gotta be contactless that we're gonna use voice, we're gonna use QR code scans, throw the controls of the screen to the phone and so on, and I've always been extremely skeptical of the adoption of that. What have you seen? 

Chris Riegel: You're a hundred percent right. When the pandemic really hit, I've continued to travel pretty much non-stop but I was in Portland, Oregon checking into American airlines and they had 20 check-in kiosks there and they didn't say, we're going to have voice check-in, or we're going to have haptics, so you don't have to touch it or, and have gestural. They just had 98 cents container of Lysol wipes. So once you touch the screen, you sanitize your hands, you move on. 

The haptics, the voice, the mobile there's capabilities with each of them, but the retrofit costs are not trivial, and think of what you've had with gesture-based interaction systems that've been around forever. It's still never really used. It's the magic mirror syndrome. Bad ideas don't go away, they just come back every three years within these things like haptics and others. Can they have a benefit? Sure. Is it going to be broadly used? No, it's still it. 

Before we turned the recording on, we were talking a little bit about where the industry more broadly is at, and I was saying stupid busy and I get a sense from a number of people that they're also stupid busy and you said the same. 

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The markets are quite choppy simply because of shutdowns and customers trying to figure out what the future looks like, but it's incredibly busy.

And as we've seen consolidation, COVID is going to shake a lot of companies out of the space, especially coming from the older, what I call AV sector, that market's compressed dramatically especially in Europe and the Asia Pacific, 

Especially if they add live events as a big part of it. 

Chris Riegel: Even that, or, if you have something that requires your services when people are in the office. If they're not in the office, forget about it.

We've talked with literally dozens and dozens of companies trying to sell or trying to find a new sponsor to be able to survive. So that's going to be rough, but the market as a whole, especially as we're looking at 2022 as is white-hot with projects and opportunities and COVID is putting some chlorine into the digital signage gene pool for sure.

And why is it so hot now? Like one of the things that I've written about and observed is the thing about all the lockdowns and all the changes that were enforced on how people did their everyday tasks and activities were that things changed, and the only way to communicate that was using dry erase marker boards in the lobby of a store, and stuff taped to the doors and the whole bit, and those companies that had digital signage already had a lead. They had something they could use. Is that part of it? 

Chris Riegel: I'll give you a pretty good example. So we do all of the software and systems for McDonald's in the US, several hundred thousand digital mini boards, both indoor and outdoor, and have had the privilege of doing that for the last 13 years. 

In that environment where you deal with product shortages like there's a distribution problem for pork at this distribution plant, there's an opportunity for a delay of this product at another plant. The digital menu boards at drive-through and an indoor can adjust at a moment's notice based on supply chain disruptions. They can change prices based on commodity change. 

The other part that's really coming into our business very heavily in those same use cases is now the labor shortages, “do I go from a complex menu when I have a crew of 14 people to only seven people showed up this morning and I need to simplify that menu because I don't have the ability to deal with the same velocity because I'm crew light at that point.” So you're seeing digital use cases in areas for us, whether it be the mini-board practices in QSR or retail than the ability of digital to adjust on a moment's notice, and where I can take as an example, sensors, and know how many people showed up as crew, how many customers are in that drive-through line? What are my products, supplies looking like? Because I have access to point of sale or product logistics information and change that on a dime. You can really help keep those businesses moving, and within the pandemic, when indoor dining was shut down, the amount of work, and I'd say conservatively today, we have a greater than 50% market share in QSR in the US and about a 40% market share globally. 

The ability to help our customers continue to operate as close to flawlessly as possible through the pandemic has been a really big success across multiple brands, as we've continued to expand the business dramatically.

That's not a trivial thing to do to stitch all those systems together. Do you have to fight against companies to say we're API driven, we can integrate all these systems, we can do that for you versus actually doing it and having the experience? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's kinda funny. We always run into that challenge that we call the “Competitor's Magic Wand” So you go into the presentation and you're competing with little guy XYZ and he says, you know what? I've got 6,000 signs out there, and this is super simple and it's easy and it's not going to cost anything, and it's magic.

And I say, I have three and a half million signs and fleet. I have 1100 people. We run 24/7 operations and it's not easy, it's not simple, and there is no such thing as magic. If you want to buy the magic beans from my competitor, more power to you, but having the experience to say large scale, big customer complex projects. We've earned our place at the table in those discussions to be able to say, “Hey, choose or not choose us, that's your call, but we'll give you a full view of what the reality of this thing is like.” 

In a use case of McDonald's with 400,000+ screens that are under our management, there's something that breaks every day. That's the nature of the beast, but how do you stay ahead of that power curve in the large customers that we work with globally? I had a really fun customer interaction about two months ago. One of our larger retail apparel customers who decided to speak out against the Uyghurs situation in China called and said, “Hey, I have PLA troops in my store telling me to turn off our digital signs. What should we do?” “Do they have guns?” “Yes.” “Then you should turn off your digital signs, and by the way, we told you this would happen, not a political statement, but you were hosting outside of China against our advice. We warned you, now you see what happens.” 

Unfortunately, it's just a diverse and complex world. There are no magic wands, and a lot of customers, we call them “rebound customers”. In our environment, the customer that says, “Hey, I'm going to buy from the competitor that's going to do a dollar a month in SaaS and is making me all of these promises.” We say, okay, cool. Here's our information. Call us back in six months when you see that’s hollow because the amount of work that it takes in any scale retail network to keep this stuff going is not trivial regardless of the technology.

Yeah. I would imagine you see that over and over again, a company X that tried the cheap route and then discovered that wasn't a great idea. Now we're going to actually pay some rules. 

Chris Riegel: My favorite current theme is the customers that say, “It's not that complex. We're going to build it ourselves.” We've done this for 22 years. We have 600 million plus invested in capital and tens of thousands of man-years in development. But if you can put it together in six weeks with your internal teams, good luck.

With Scala and retail, are there retail vertical markets that are more active than others? 

Like I'm thinking that you're talking about the bodegas or equivalent of bodegas in India, and so on. Those are essential services. People need food, they need cigarettes, or just whatever. They don't necessarily need fast fashion.

Chris Riegel: Scala has been really successful both previously and within our stewardship in automotive, in retail apparel, in high-value goods, luxury environments but also in, chain grocery C-store that the depth of that practice, and especially as we brought order to some of the chaos we saw day one the ability to engage those customers that are understanding that digital signage is not just having to put a pretty picture on that screen and it's going to do something. 

“What is it going to do?” “I don't know.” No, this has to have business metrics. Why are you making the investment? What's the return? Define success, and this is a tool you're going in any of those environments and competing for an investment to say, why am I going to spend money on digital signage versus a new retail store, or X or Y or Z? Earn your place at that table. Keep that place at the table by delivering value to a customer. 

I can go into a lottery environment or QSR environment or retail environment, and say, I'm going to give you X lift with Y percent greater margin. I'm going to prove that point and I'm going to give you full access to all the statistics so you can double check my math. If you can find somebody else that can do that, knock yourselves out. But if I can deliver you in a retail or QSR or gaming environment, 1 to 3% lift and a margin lift of 3 to 5%, that's a big number. 

Yeah. So tell me what's going on with the microLED plant that you're retrofitting out in Oregon?

Chris Riegel: It's a pretty wild ride. MicroLED, as a tech, we've been researching it for 5+ years, made the dive into buying the fab two years ago, and have been spending a tremendous amount of time on research and development. MicroLED is an unbelievable dislocator, and when I say dislocator, today if you look at the Asian display cartels, they have been able to control a market, not unlike OPEC, by having a very high cost of entry, having a bunch of barriers around that. The typical government sponsorship to go into that marketplace. 

MicroLED is a different beast. In the intersection that it's coming, between what would be called the epitaxy of world, growing LEDs, and the Silicon world. All of a sudden the cost to pin up a plant is 1/10th to 1/20th of what it was before. So you can have companies that can compete and can build out next-generation displays without having to have government sponsorship. If you look at it, I'm not trying to wave the nationalist economic flag. But if you look at the last two, three generations of the display, whether TFT, LCD, or AMOLED or OLED or other, a lot of that tech is developed in the US and North America, none of it's manufactured here. 

Why? Because we don't have a great industrial policy at the government level to compete. When you look at Korea and China, how the government sponsored the building of those fabs, that's the way that they do it, that's the game. That being said, you're never going to have that happen here.

I thought that was happening in Wisconsin? (Laughter)

Chris Riegel: Yeah. Don't hold your breath on that one. But the central planning model has changed and with microLED, you can bring up a fab at a fraction of the cost, but also then have a product that is less expensive because of the simplicity of a direct view product. So there's some really exciting stuff going on here. 

You're not focused on large formats for microLED. The volume is all in wearables and things like that, right? 

Chris Riegel: There's a big space in large formats. The initial microLED use cases have been small format: wearables, optics, precision optics, things like that, simply because there are some challenges in the technology like mass transfer that had not yet been figured out or distilled that made it really, you can only be cost-competitive in those small environments.

But if I take the equation of a square meter glass, microLED can deliver a square meter of glass at an equivalent resolution to TFT, LCD or O LED for between 50 and 60% of the fab cost of that product. So it can be super competitive, and in our use case, we'll absolutely go for a large format and I want to make sure that our friends at solar are aware of it. 

So at some point, I think you told me before in the past that you thought by the end of the year, you'd be at least doing rapid prototyping. 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, so we're now in the joy of receiving all equipment late, just because of the pandemic and the slower nature of manufacturing and getting anything in. That being said by Q1, we'll be in the prototype stage. What we're doing is putting a lot of focus on, without nerding out on it too deeply, a 300mm epitaxy on Silicon. So today, most LEDs are built on 150mm Sapphire, which has worked for 20 years and is very precise. We're taking the step to go 300mm GAM on Silicon, which is a more complex process, but once you're in the Silicon world, the ability to then scale-out silicon-based emitters directly to bond to see 300mm Silicon wafers, you can start doing some really interesting stuff that breaks the mold. 

I understood most of that, but at that point, the idea is that the way conventional LED is made, it's machines that are picking LEDs or batches of LEDs and placing them on substrate and it just takes a long time and a lot of cost and energy to do that, right? 

Chris Riegel: It does and within the LED industry today, that LED can be grown. that the large format, large emitter, one millimeter plus LED. Those are grown in epitaxy processes that are not particularly clean.

When you get into microLED, we're talking emitters that are 3 microns by 3 microns, 5x5, so you're dealing with super small stuff by an order of magnitude. The LEDs that we're making are smaller than the Coronavirus. So when you deal with making extremely small emitters, the ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I'm able to build-some would call a smart pixel, some would just call it a digital Lego-I'm able to build an emitter directly bonded to a micro IC and build a smart pixel concept.” 

There is some really cool stuff that you can do there. You'll probably see the first mass commercialization of that coming out from Apple with wearables, but the applications around it are myriad and it is hundred percent a game-changer.

Do you see the end product for the digital signage market being the equivalent to a flat panel display, like you'd be selling 85-inch microLED panels, or do you see it as like big ass LED video walls? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, great question. I think our core mission is that I'm not going to fight Xi Jinping to win aisle seven at Costco for the 85-inch $399 television. Chinese can have that market, no question. 

In microLED, if you're getting into large-format sizes, you'll most likely be within the container of tiled panels. So maybe you're at 200mm to 300mm tiles to be able to get to large formats. But within that, I think that the differentiation there between microLED and call it miniLED, 50 mics or up is minimal.

What you're going to find in the greatest benefit of microLED are those environments where using the fact that your emitter is so small, it's not visible to the naked eye. So you can do transparency through window glass. You can bend and curve it. So the curved surfaces, the bend surfaces, the flex surfaces, because the emitters are so small, they're within the bend radiuses of the substrates. There's a lot of really cool stuff you can do where you're not just fighting the low price commoditized markets. I've been to Shenzhen thirty times and there are a hundred thousand companies in Shenzhen. 

Unless you can differentiate yourself from that mass market, you're dead day one. So you have to pick your battles correctly 

So the set of Corning videos that have come out in the past 10 years or so, about a day in glass, where you have all these dynamic visuals are just showing up on countertops and windows and everything else that's what's going to happen with this technology, right?

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The ability to make the display a more natural interface to the consumer, where it doesn't have to be a standalone display device, where it's integrated into third-party devices or features, Corning had great vision. Around that obviously with the goal to sell more glass, but the idea was right.

And now that this is continuing to transition, think of your smart home, think of your smart car, think of your smart whatever, all of that is microprocessor driven in one form or another. So how do you associate displays that are much more natural to the user's experience as opposed to something that's a bulky bolt-on whether that's in a car, on a refrigerator. in a window making that just part of that infrastructure.

All right. Always a pleasure. Thank you for spending some time. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you.

Doug Lusted, AdStash

Doug Lusted, AdStash

August 11, 2021


Much has changed through the years in digital signage and digital out of home, but one thing that's been pretty constant is how small businesses like the technology when they find out about it ... but don't want to pay for it.

Doug Lusted has seen and heard that for many years, having founded a Canadian startup that was doing proximity marketing and venue analytics almost a decade ago.

He gradually, with his team, started pulling together the idea and eventually the platform for AdStash - a service that enables small business operators and service providers who target that sector to get digital signage in place, and make money from the screens, instead of paying monthly bills for them.

The core premise of AdStash is small to medium-sized businesses - from one-offs to groups of venues - can tap into advertising dollars from a dozen supply-side ad exchanges and generate incremental revenue. They don't pay any recurring subscription fees, and the only upfront cost is an $80 Raspberry Pi media player.

Based in suburban Toronto, but virtual in most respects, the company is investor-backed and already has a footprint of some 70,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada.

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Doug, thank you for joining me. We've known each other a little bit for quite some time now, and I would say your company has been on a bit of a journey because when I first ran into it, I believe you were doing proximity marketing, right? 

Doug Lusted: That's right, and we're still doing that. That was our first product and we're heading out to our second one now.

And that was called, Linkett, wasn't it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so to clear it up because branding is often a question. The company name is Weston Expressions. Our first product was Linkett, which is an audience measurement platform that still operates today, and then our second product is AdStash, which we'll get into.

With the first product, what was that all about? That was NFC-based, right? 

Doug Lusted: It started out to be NFC. We were trying to track engagement and impressions, but ultimately that morphed into WiFi. So it's predominantly a WiFi tracking platform today. 

Because every smartphone has WiFi probably turned on or at least available, and not everybody was equipped with NFC and not everybody had it activated, right?

Doug Lusted:  You got it. 

So this was just a better way to go, and now you've launched AdStash. Can you tell me and the listeners what that's all about? 

Doug Lusted: So what AdStash does is provide digital signage networks the technology they need to go programmatic with no monthly fees, and so on a deeper level what that really means is that the core technology we've built is an API that connects your digital signs to multiple programmatic ad exchanges at once. So it saves you all that integration time and money. 

And if you become an AdStash customer, what are you getting and what are you using? 

Doug Lusted: It depends on your network. We're pretty flexible. We've got a bunch of different pieces to the puzzle. 

But basically, an API connection that lists you on all the major SSPs or most of them. Now, if you need a media player, we can provide you that. If you need a content management system, we have a free one. Those are typically used by our smaller networks. And the enterprise users generally stick to the API because they've got all of that in place already. 

Okay, so if I'm already on Brand X CMS, there are hundreds of them. You don't need to back out of that and use your CMS platform or anything like that. The CMS is meant more as something that enables it for smaller businesses?

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes what happens is we'll have a customer who's growing their network, and they realize, I can use this CMS that doesn't have any monthly fees. I'm going to switch to that now while I'm deploying. But yeah we can integrate with any CMS. It's a fairly straightforward open API.

I guess it becomes a delicate dance of working with other CMS companies, because if they're hearing that, you don't need to use a commercial or fee-based one, you can just use ours for free they may be thinking, “I don't want to work with you.” 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. It's a good point, and to add a little more color to that, it's a very light, basic CMS, right? We can show videos on full screen, maybe a traditional L-bracket, but that's it. 

It's very light, more kind of aimed towards small and medium-sized businesses. If you're a large enterprise digital signage network that needs some bells and whistles, sticking to your current partner is probably the best bet and we're pretty open about it. 

Is that intentional or is that more a function of, “if I want it to have something that was a lot more robust, that there's a whole bunch more time and dollars that I need to put into it to get to that point”? 

Doug Lusted: So we found that most of our early adopters were small and medium-sized businesses that weren't too picky on what's going on the screen? So it would be hard to give out a content management system that's free that has all the bells and whistles as I said, so I think it was intentional. It's just like a backup plan. 

One thing we noticed in this industry is that there's a massive amount of supply in the market that is just a mom-and-pop shop with the TV turned off. So we're just trying to make it as simple as possible, like “Hey, here's this box. There are no monthly fees, plug it in and you're ready to go.” 

And if they opted for this, let's say I have a nail salon in a strip mall because every strip mall has a nail salon and they want to do this. How does it work? What do they get out of it? How do they use it? 

And in terms of what they get out of it, what kind of revenues would they see? Is it something that just is going to just pay for the TV in a lot of respects? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, sometimes. So basically if you use our full tech stack, you get the media player, plug it in just to HDMI and power, and then WiFi or Ethernet and then a free content management system that's cloud-based, the nail salon often puts up their own content on the screen, hours of operation, promotions, that good stuff, totally self-serve, and then we, just like almost any programmatic platform, we aim for a 30% fill rate with third-party ads that we're getting from our programmatic partners. 

Given the infancy and where we are with programmatic, some months we hit 30%, some months, we don't, depending on a whole bunch of variables. But the idea is that I think for a small mom and pop nail salon if you look at our data over the past 24 months, minus the closures, due to the pandemic, the average locations making about $50 to $70 a month in revenue that they wouldn't have gotten elsewhere.

And for a lot of businesses, that would be like, you know, who cares? But is that a meaningful number to these people? 

Doug Lusted: It is, and especially with COVID impacting a lot of the revenues of these businesses, they're hungry to figure out any way they can earn a couple extra bucks, and most of our clients aren't necessarily one-offs, they own 10 stores, they own 50 stores, and so when you start scaling it, it becomes a nice little incremental piece of business that doesn't require much work. 

One of the big challenges that I've seen through the years with these kinds of initiatives is, working with small to medium businesses is not terribly efficient. You've got to sell them one by one. You don't just go in and get an enterprise deal for a thousand locations or anything else. 

How do you deal with that side of it and how do you sell it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it's a great point. So in the very early days, our Guinea pigs, we were going door to door on these businesses directly. But now I would say 99% of our business is through the digital signage channels so digital signage distributors, smaller and medium place-based digital networks looking to go programmatic, and if you look at the adoption curve, it's similar to any company, start with the little guys and you start climbing up the chain. So we've taken that route and we're working on the channel right now. 

So using the example of the nail salon again, how would they find you then? Would it be through like a Synnex or Ingram Micro or something like that? I can’t imagine a nail salon knowing what Synnex is. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. So we do inbound marketing, right? So they'll probably find us online. But like I said, it's a small portion of our business, but they'd be able to find it through any of our paid campaigns, whether it be through Google ads, Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, etc. Word of mouth is probably our biggest channel, right? 

Somebody starts making money they didn't before and they want to tell their friends, they want to move it to the other properties they own. So organic's been a big one for the smaller customers. 

Yeah, and if they need it, you provide an $80 media player. So I guess if they make $50 to $70 a month, they pay for that thing pretty quickly. What is that? Is that a little Raspberry Pi or...? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is a Raspberry Pi with our firmware on it. It's got a couple of extra little components to it, like just some USB antennas and things of that nature, but under the hood, it's a Raspberry Pi. 

The analytical side of the business that you started with, is that bundled with this, and would a small business need it/use it? 

Doug Lusted: It is bundled with it, but it's generally hidden from the small businesses.

The reason why we need it is that we need to know what traffic is in front of the screen when ads play so that we know how much to bill these programmatic partners, everything's impression. 

Would a nail salon really need a big data platform to understand its user’s behaviors? Probably not. So we hide it, but it is built in there so that we can gauge traffic levels for our advertisers. 

So if I am the nail salon and I opt in, what am I using to update content and manage the thing? 

Doug Lusted: In terms of our content management system, they're logging in and uploading their own creative. We don't provide a designer tool or any type of creative tool ourselves. They just upload whatever they have. 

Okay, and they do it off the desktop or can they do it off mobile? 

Doug Lusted: They can do it on desktop or mobile. 

Specific app or is it just the web version of the website?

Doug Lusted: We have a specific app as well. So on mobile, we have an AdStash app. You can download and manage your digital signage network just through your phone if you'd like. 

I've always been curious about the mindset particularly of the small to the medium business world. By far, the most active blog post on 16:9 is one that lists all of the free software options out there.

Do you find that generally for small to medium businesses, digital signage is not a major core initiative of what they're doing, it's just something that maybe they can use, that there's a real resistance there to spending any monthly fees? 

Doug Lusted: I think so. We often A/B test this ourselves to test what is the bigger value prop, the ability to make money on programmatic ads or save money on subscriptions? It's really a mix of both, but the smaller players for sure are interested in anything that isn't going to be recurring, and we also have a lot of requests from the digital signage groups that they outsource this to. 

Like I said, our average user has got about a hundred screens. So this is generally something they've outsourced, they've told their digital signage partner, “Hey, you've heard of this free AdStash thing, check it out!”

Okay, and what's your installed base right now? 

Doug Lusted: So across North America, we have 70,000 screens. The US is a lot more dominant than Canada. We've seen some pretty exponential growth there. But in Canada, we've got about 6,000 screens and then the rest of the US.

Okay, and what do you figure you have to be at in terms of footprint to get something akin to critical mass? Or does it not really matter as much when it's programmatic? 

Doug Lusted: It doesn't matter as much when it's programmatic, and I think that's one of the huge attractions to it, especially for the medium size players.

If I've got a hundred screens, maybe 50 in Toronto, 50 in Montreal, that's not really big enough to attract a national campaign, but programmatically, by nature is grouping everybody together to try and attract a national campaign. So I think that's a really big thing. 

Most typically for these small business screen networks, it's hyper-local advertising. It's like the local injury accident lawyers and mortgage brokers and that sort of thing. What kind of advertising are you seeing on the screen? 

Doug Lusted: So given that we only do programmatic advertising, most I would say is national. Now we do have some local, right? The Calgary Stampede brought in a lot of local ads, even though like DoorDash will do a national campaign, they'll have custom creative or calls to action based on each local community. But for the most part, at least for now, we're seeing a majority of it nationally. 

And with the analytics that you're able to generate, what do you see or what are you learning about sites? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so traffic data is the most important for sure. Impressions or visits, right? Unique visits, dwell time and frequency are the big three per location. 

It's really interesting to see the dwell times. That's what I'm interested in because, during the pandemic, medical was really one of the only things that were open, and you can see our dwell time doubled so the average person sees twice as many ads. What does that mean? How is that going to affect things? 

So the most important thing right now is traffic. A lot of these exchanges, like HiveStack or BroadSign, have geofencing technology, so they can gather demographics on their own. We have that capability, but most of the time the exchanges say, “Hey, we got that covered.” 

With the rise through the years of computer vision for doing on-premise venue analytics, once in a while, something bubbles up and people get all freaked out about the idea that there's a camera looking at me. 

We've seen that a few times in Canada and it comes up elsewhere. What's the situation with your users when it comes to WiFi. Do they care? Are they alarmed in any way? Like they seem to be well on the camera side? 

Doug Lusted: Some of our bigger customers are, but we've been pretty proactive in being GDPR compliant. So from a consumer perspective, they don't see anything. They don't see a camera being pointed at them. There's a little box behind the TV that no one sees. So we don't really get any questions on the consumer side. 

From the actual kind of business side, yeah, just, are we GDPR compliant? Are we collecting any personally identifiable information, which we're not. 

Where are your servers? We get asked those questions a lot, but after they read through what we're doing with the data and they realize it's very anonymous, high-level traffic counting. We've never had any problems with it, and in fact, It's helped us in a lot of deals. Like we're an airport, and as I said before, we're in medical clinics where you can't put a camera. So we carved out a nice little segment of the market, where we seem to be dominating that market share, at least in Canada, just because of those regulations around those venues. 

Is it easier to compete with some of the other kinds of focused networks out there? Through the years, I've seen bar networks and hair salon networks and nail salon networks, and everything else. Because you're broadly based, you're not saying, “We're the guys for this.” Is it easier to sell into a broader diversity of businesses? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is. But it's also a little confusing because any other place-based digital network, in some sense, if they're on programmatic and not going through us, they're competitors. But on the other side, they're also prospects. So if it gets very confusing, okay, who's a competitor and who's a prospect who should we target? And there's a lot of his “frenemies” in space, and it's getting even more complicated as more and more programmatic platforms come into play.

When your resellers and channel are meeting with a company that has a hundred screens across a network, do they even get into what programmatic is and how it works or do they just say, put this in, we will sell the ads for you and it’ll start showing up within three, four weeks and you should see a check of $50 to $70. 

But I'm guessing they don't really want to understand, is this a demand side platform or supply side or any of that stuff? You're just basically saying it's like Google Adsense, it will just show up. 

Doug Lusted: Exactly. They don't get into all the nitty gritties.

You go into a nail salon and try to explain what a supply side platform and demand side platform are, it's probably not going to work out. 

It's getting more and more confusing as more and more are popping up. But yeah, it's basically, “Hey, we're going to install this new box to your TV, ads are going to show up hopefully and make some revenue”, and another thing is like a lot of our channel partners, they're selling ads directly themselves, not programmatic, just traditional direct sales. So a lot of the time, it's not just us who's responsible for revenue. We're just adding the icing on the cake. 

Okay. So that would be like the guy in your part of the world around Toronto, who's got some medical clinics and he's using your platform, but he would have direct sales as well that he could go to a medical equipment supplier or whatever, and say, “do you want to advertise on these?”

Doug Lusted: Exactly. So our agreement, with our customers, is that we have the exclusive rights over programmatic sales. 

We're going to connect you to all of the SSPs that we're partnered with and we're going to handle that relationship for you. That's the value we bring, but we're not shutting down your existing line of revenue when it comes to traditional sales.

And that's why you're talking about like a 30% fill rate that there should be this broad understanding that, “Hey guys, this isn't your sole answer if you're an ad network, this is part of your answer.” 

Doug Lusted: Exactly, and I think that's where we're at in the programmatic industry is this strange hybrid model, where we're putting a bed on and focusing on that or predicting that more of it will shift the programmatic as adoption increases across the industry. But right now, yeah, this isn't your only source of ad revenue. 

So I'm HiveStack and I'm working with you guys. What visibility do I have? Like what do I see when I'm trying to place an ad of some kind or drive a campaign across your screens? 

Doug Lusted: We try to be as transparent as possible. What you'll see is an address obviously, of where the screen is located, their analytics will tell you the type of audience that's in there. We'll provide you with the traffic counts that are in there. We even require our users, when they install a device to take a picture of the screen, so that you can actually see what the screen looks like and that it exists, and then you'll just obviously see the playback reporting o how many times did your ad play there and whatnot.

And I'm assuming the analytics side of that is increasingly important, even if it isn't to the venue, it is to the programmatic side? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think, anybody who's been in this industry for a while understands that that's one of the biggest bottlenecks of programmatic right now. There's not a clear winner of measurement. There are a whole bunch of different vendors, and we ourselves, as the digital signage industry are confused about it, which then makes it almost impossible for these programmatic exchanges to wrap their heads around it, or come up with any standards.

And I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, and one of the reasons why is, I think that we need to understand that there's going to need to be different methodologies and technologies to measure outdoor screens versus indoor screens. These are two very different things, I don't think one solution is going to be able to cover both. So we need to really think, how are we going to frame this, how are we going to put standards around it and take the time to educate these ad exchanges on how it's gonna work? 

Do you get pushback at all from, let's say some of the larger, more established to programmatic platforms saying, I don't know who you are, you're not big enough for me or anything else, or do they all look at this as more inventory and it's properly described and the analytics are available and so on. So, it doesn't bother me that it's a nail salon and it's not a major international airport?

Doug Lusted: So in the early days, we got pushback from programmatic exchanges because we didn't have that many screens, and it's that chicken and egg problem. So we went out and started building our supply base, and I would say now, we're one of the bigger players with 70,000 screens.

So they look at it and say, not necessarily, this is more screens, cause that's not always how they think, but they say, Hey, this more audience profiles. This is more traffic for us. 

And I assume all of your venues are data tagged every which way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So not only just what type of venue it's in and where it's located, but what size is the screen, what things are around it, there's a lot of data that's associated with it, and thankfully we are not tasked with having to have a UI for that, that the advertiser has to see, that's basically our programmatic partners job and that's not an easy one. 

Going back to the nail salon thing, I signed up for it and I'm running a set of nail salons, which is about as bizarre a thought as I can come up with. Who would do the data tagging for that? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we do all of that. So once you install the device, you do take a picture of your screen once it's done. We have a list of venues that you can select from a dropdown that is in accordance with the IAB standards. They just find and select a nail salon, which is one of them, and that's basically it. We do everything from there, everything is pretty much automated, 

So it's a free service. The obvious next question coming out of that is how do you make money? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So we take a commission only on the programmatic revenue that we bring to the table, that flows through our pipes. The commission depends on volume and how many screens you have, but that's how we make our money.

I think I saw the baseline was like 30%, and it scales down from there with the larger jobs? 

Doug Lusted: It does scale down, yeah. Sometimes it'll actually scale up depending if you're missing core components of technology.

So someone may say, “Hey I don't have this feature in the CMS, can you build it or can I have it?” And they'll say, yeah, but if you don't want to pay for the custom dev time, then the way we'll make our money back on that is maybe 35%. 

Even in that case, it wouldn't be fee-based, it would be built around the commission?

Doug Lusted: We're pretty flexible. Most of our customers have come to us because they don't want to pay fees. So it ultimately ends up being a commission, whether we like it or not. 

Is that just a concession to the realities of working with a small to the medium business world is that they would like to have this, they just don't want to pay for it. So let's work with them as opposed to just saying, “We won't work with you, goodbye!”

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think that's the whole notion of AdStash, and one of our big hypotheses is building this business as there are so many screens that are not being added to programmatic exchanges because they can't afford the technology that's required to do so. 

So whoever activates, all of those screens are going to own a huge portion of the supply in the market, and nobody's pulled up their sleeves and gone after that segment of the market because nobody wants to pay for anything. 

So was AdStash something, going back to 2013-2014, that you were thinking about, or is it just through the years you came to this realization, having worked with a lot of end-users that there's a hole in the market for this, we can build it and get there before somebody else does?

Doug Lusted: It was a bit of both. So when we were really focused on analytics back in 2014, we weren't thinking about it, but we heard rumblings of programmatic and we always thought to ourselves, audience measurement is great, but it's hard to tie return on investment to, especially if you're talking to a digital signage network, like, “why should I invest in in analytics, if I can't guarantee I'm going to get more ads?”

So we always thought, in the online world, advertisers demand it, and then so when we heard of programmatic coming down and we're like, wow, our data is actually going to be very valuable here and mandatory. So this is a good space for us to get into, and then we were just really early adopters of it, we started working with Campsite right when they started in Toronto and Montreal and it just escalated and we rode the wave. 

And how many programmatic platforms are you integrated with now? 

Doug Lusted: So right now we're live on 12. We've got a few contracts signed we're just finishing up integrations with, but as of today, we're on the 12th.

I'm not as close to programmatic as a lot of people seem to think I am. Twelve is what, like half of them out there, or my impression is 12 is like 1% of them. 

Doug Lusted: So it's a little complicated. There are SSPs and DSPs. The DSPs, yeah, there are 80 of them out there, but not all of them are doing digital out-of-home advertising, only a small fraction of them are.

What we're doing is aggregating all of the SSPs into one link, the supply side, the supply-side ones that actually do digital out of home. There are tons of supply-side platforms out there that you can join your website, but for digital out-of-home, there aren't that many out there yet. So I would say, of the active ones right now, we have a large majority of them. 

Tell me about the business. You founded it. Is it completely bootstrapped, self-funded or have you been involved with private equity or VC companies? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we're VC-backed. So in 20014 ish, when we were just doing the analytics, we raised a small seed round, and we went through an accelerator in Silicon valley called 500 Startups, and then when we launched AdStash, we raised a second round of funding, a bigger round of funding to help push this product. 

Where are you at in terms of the size of the company? 

Doug Lusted: So right now, we're at 13 and growing. It's been unique for us during the pandemic, we’ve done fully virtual and we were hiring during the pandemic too. So it's been interesting to have a team with some members you've never met before. We were surprised to figure out that some of our employees are like 6’4”. We had no idea they were like these big people, so it's been a unique experience, but a majority of our team is software developers. 

We're not a heavily focused sales and marketing organization because that's what our programmatic partners do for us. They're doing all the sales. So of that 13, the majority of them are software developers.

And we were talking before we turned on the recorder that you moved from downtown Toronto to the burbs. Based on the last year and a half, are you concluding that, hey, we don't really need a physical office or any of those things? Maybe we have a kind of virtual rented office and a mailbox kind of thing and it'll do because so many tech companies have gone that way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. Speaking on behalf of our company, I don't think we need an office. We like to do monthly hangouts where we'll all meet somewhere. Just rent an office for a day and talk strategy and whatnot. But when it comes to the day-to-day operations, we don't need an office. Again, software developers, most of the time, are locked away coding, they don't really need an office. 

They don’t want to talk to other humans anyways. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, as long as they have a kitchen nearby, things are good. So for us, we'll keep doing the virtual way.

That being said, it has presented interesting scenarios in terms of culture. It's very hard to build a company culture virtually, there's only so many things you do. So that's why we really like to implement at least monthly hangouts where the whole team comes together in person and does something to try and build that culture.

That is what's probably important to keeping virtual employees nowadays, because if they can get a new job without having to move and just simply saying yes, you gotta build that company culture to want to entice them to come work for you every day. 

Yeah. It would be pretty easy to leave if you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the people you're working with. You don’t know how tall they are. (Laughter)

This has been great. Just a quick question. If people want to know more, where do they find AdStash? I'm guessing, it's 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. Best way to get us. 

All right. Thanks a bunch. 

Doug Lusted: Thanks, I really appreciate you having us on.


Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

August 4, 2021


There have been numerous traditional sign companies that have, through the years, developed a sense of their ground shifting, and responded by adding a digital component to their business. A lot of the time, it hasn't worked out so hot, because it's just too far outside what a company knows and does. But sometimes it works, as is the case with Dimensional Innovations.

The Kansas City company nicely straddles physical and digital components to jobs, bolstering the idea that having both skillsets, and mindsets, under the same roof is going to work better than sub-contracting.

DI, for short, does projects all over the U.S., in particular, and while it has some especially active vertical markets, its work serves all kinds of different use-cases. DI does a lot of pro and college sports venue work, but it also does experiences for museums, hospitals and retail.

I had an interesting chat with Chris Riebschlager, who runs the company's software efforts.

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Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining me. Can you tell me what your company does? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely. So Dimensional Innovations started in the late 90s as a signage company, making just traditional signs, and in the time between the late 90s and now, the company has grown to include custom fabrication of all kinds and in the last six and seven years, we've added a really big technology practice to that. 

So in addition to building and fabricating and designing spaces, also activating those spaces with interesting technology, that's hopefully beautiful and useful and makes spaces better. 

Where's the company based? 

Chris Riebschlager: The company is based in Kansas City. 

But you have offices elsewhere, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we have folks that live and work in LA, Atlanta, Minneapolis, a few in Colorado. So yeah, we got a presence all over the United States.

All right, and are those offices or are those like home offices and that the big epicenter is Kansas City? 

Chris Riebschlager: The epicenter is certainly in Kansas City. The other offices are focused a lot on project management and sales for the projects that we are working on and supporting in those locations, but yeah, the heart of it's here in KC.

It’s interesting. There's been a number of traditional print companies that have taken a look at the digital signage space and tried to get in it and for the most part, have not been very successful because it's just too different from what they normally do. What's been the difference with you? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think the way we approach spaces, I think lends well to activating those spaces with both digital signage and more immersive tech installations.

I think when we approach a new project, it's really about getting inside the head of the person that is in that space. Why they're there, what they're doing there, what's important to them, what's in the front of their mind when they're in a space like that? So we had been satisfying those needs with built environmental stuff and I think it's a natural pivot to then say, what technology could help this person accomplish what they need to accomplish or make this space better or make a bad experience much better. 

So you're already fabricating physical materials to make a space interesting, and digital allows you to introduce a different kind of material and make it active and so on, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely, and I think part of what makes us special is that we are doing this from both sides, right? Both the fabricated and design side, but also the tech side. So I think if you can have that happening on one team, I think the end product always ends up better because, when I have to sit down at the table with a person who's going to build the thing, they understand what I needed to do, I understand what they needed to do, and I think that hand in hand tight integration just makes for better stuff. 

And you run the software team. Am I getting that right? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is correct. 

Okay, and how big is that team? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have six developers right now. We also have a 3D team that kind of has branched off from my software dev team. They focus on 3D modeling and animating, and also some of the game engine development stuff that we've been getting into with Unreal. 

Oh, cool, and if you had to guess, I realize you're not the COO or anything, but you have some sense of what the split is of your business, between analog stuff and digital stuff, is it like 60:40 and has it evolved? 

Chris Riebschlager: I’d probably flip that split, so maybe a 40% and then 60% goes to the physical build-out. 

The blend there is kind of fuzzy. It's not all one or the other, usually in client engagement, there's a big fabricated, a big build-out that we're injecting technology into so that the borders between those two are pretty fuzzy.

And that's how it should happen, right? 

Cause God knows I've been involved in projects or being exposed to projects where it's all about the digital side of it, and they get fixated on that without thinking about the whole experience and the whole look and feel of it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely.

Ideally, I don't want a person walking into a space that we made and seeing a hard delineation between what is a physical built-out piece, and what's a digital add-on to that space. They should all feel very cohesive and family together in a way that makes sense holistically, and we're not picking apart digital activation and physical activation.

And I guess it's helpful that because your company comes out of the physical background that you're not having to rely on third-party fabrication companies to build that side of it. You can control the whole bill of materials, so to speak. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely, and that's huge, especially when we're trying to make something that no one's ever seen before. You really need that tight integration between the physical engineering team and the software engineering team, because silly things like mounting a camera, having access to that camera, and knowing where cables need to run, etc. The tighter integration you can get between the person building the thing and the person who knows where those wires need to run, that's only going to end in better projects. 

Yeah. You start embedding display technology into a physical enclosure. If you have no experience around that, you don't know about things like ventilation and then you have big problems. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, and at this point, we've run into all of those things. We've had all the problems. So at this point, we've hit our stride and now we have solved all those ones and do not worry about them anymore. 

Yeah, which is very helpful, I'm sure. One of the things that were intriguing to me is with a lot of companies I talked to, they sorta have a defined vertical or maybe one or two verticals and that, like they're active in hotels or they're active in retail, whatever it may be, and I look at your kind of portfolio of projects and it's like all over the place. 

You're doing sports stadiums, you're doing work for college athletic teams, but you are also doing work for children's hospitals and museums. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. We do have some verticals that we do specialize in. Stadiums being a big one, college athletics, being a big one, children's hospitals and zoos being another. 

Also, there are corporate environments like corporate headquarters. We do a lot of client experience centers, just the big immersive environments that usually are attached to a corporate headquarters where they can tour clients through and show their product offerings in a compelling and interesting way.

We're hopefully coming out of a pretty rough year and a half in terms of what's been going on and things like particularly the sports industry kind of being “on hold” as well as some college athletics, but the workplace has bubbled up. 

Has business shifted in that time?

Chris Riebschlager: I wouldn't say shifted. The last year forced us to reevaluate some of the things we were doing and the things we were adding to spaces and being a little bit more mindful of, as things opened back up, how are people going to want to interact with things in a space? Are they going to want to touch things? Are we going to need to figure out ways for people to interact without physically engaging with this stuff? 

I don't think our core business changed at all, but the last year was a really interesting opportunity to reevaluate how these interactions work in these spaces. 

Yeah. You have a product or service or something called DIVE, which is Dimensional Innovations Virtual Experiences. What is that all about and how has it resonated with the people you're talking to? 

Chris Riebschlager: So the genesis of that was, early in 2020, we were starting - before COVID hit - we had planned a lot of client experience on our work with a few clients where we were going to install a bunch of new spaces that would serve in that client experience center capacity, where we're touring clients through and showing off-in an immersive environment type of way-product offerings, and since that was now off the table for 2020, we had to pivot into, okay, how do we provide that same experience and have that same docent or client-led multi-person experience, but in a way that isn't going to require someone to fly to a place and go into a building that is going to be closed for an indefinite amount of time.

So we started messing around with some video conferencing technology and experimenting with ways to take that same content that we had running in a theater or large screen experience in the space and how to use that same content, those same ideas, that same spirit, and put it into an experience where a docent kit can invite a dozen or more people to a website where we're all seeing each other in video and they're able to tour people through these immersive environments, show content and throw up polls and questions, and different points of engagement there. So the same things that would be happening in that space, just distributed to everyone's devices, wherever they are. 

Have you seen much take-up on that?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. I think as people got burned out on Zoom, mid-2020, people were looking at and going, okay, this is fine. The utility of it is there, it's great. But there's gotta be something more we can do with this technology. 

Like, if we can get everyone live audio and video between a bunch of people, there's gotta be more engaging things we can do with that. So I think as people started to push those edges, that was really appealing to people to be able to have what we had in DIVE, which is a way to craft a more immersive environment for those people to be in and have a little bit more interesting points of engagement than just sharing your screen and have a routine when looking at a PowerPoint or whatever.

It seems a little bit like the virtual trade shows that of course came up like crazy in the past year and a half. How does it differ from that? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think the main focus of DIVE is really just that custom content. The framework is Zoom-like. We have a video and audio connection. That's the solved problem.

The more interesting thing in new client engagement with DIVE is, what are we going to do now that we have basically the entire web stack and everything you can do on a website, everything you can do with live audio and video, what are we going to do content-wise, in a compelling way to show, offer, to communicate the message that we want to communicate?

And now that we're seeing physical trade shows and people are getting on airplanes and flying to go see clients and go to experience centers and do that sort of thing. Does your company see DIVE as something that was an interim measure and you put it back in the closet or has it got long-term legs?

Chris Riebschlager: I think it has long-term legs. I think there are ways that it could be a supplement to what we're already doing in the built-out space, we’ve thought of incorporating it, even in a client experience center, where we have a bunch of people we've invited into the space, they're still maybe subject matter experts or people that we'd want to bring into this experience that couldn't fly in, or we want them there every day. We could use the same technology to put that person up on his screen. So we can say, “Now we're going to talk to Todd about X YZ, and now Todd's in that space. He's thousands of miles away, but now he's in this environment with us.” 

So I think there are ways we could incorporate that same tech to enhance and supplement the stuff that we're doing in the building.

I obviously follow a lot of what goes on in digital signage and innovations and new ideas and so on, and what I saw in the past year and a half, is some great stuff, but also a number of times where it really seemed like companies were just trying to find something that they could get attention for and that they could sell at a time when their traditional products were not really moving. And I would see efforts to do gesture-based interaction, like touchless displays and QR codes, and I was looking at something on LinkedIn yesterday that was like a live person on camera with her being replicated as an avatar, and I looked at it and thought why are they doing that? I don't want to see something that looks like something out of a Japanese anime cartoon. If this person looks presentable, put her on the screen. 

So what has worked and what do you see as being effective and what is just eye candy that gets a client excited for 10 minutes?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. So early in 2020, we'd decided to pivot on some of our touch activations. We obviously wanted to find a non-touch way to do those. So we did dive into the whole process of moving the interface to the user’s phone methods, like just hitting a website via QR code on the display, and that I think is going to be something that now that we have that kind of locked and loaded, something that we can add as a value-add to existing projects.

So in the future, if people aren't going to be a little bit more cautious about what they touch in public space, that's always going to be an option. I don't think touch is going away certainly. I think that's going to be. always in the mix, but now that we were forced to solve that problem at the moment, I think that's going to be a really great way to value-add the work that we do moving forward.

I think your creative designers probably found that there are certain applications and in situations where that works well and others where it doesn't because I've seen pitches for stuff where just for us to snap a QR code and launch the controls on your phone and stand right in front of the display and do all that and I'm just thinking, just touch the damn display and use hand sanitizer after it's going to be a lot easier. So where does it best work? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think it's really contextual to the project. So with something that's really content-heavy, where we need a lot of information from the user to present back to them, something that they want.

For example, we do a lot of work with athletic departments where they want a way for everyone to see every athlete that had attended that school, and that usually involves some texts century and text century is usually best done with a keyboard or onscreen keyboard, and with that level of interaction, yes, you can offload that to a phone, but there's a point where you get diminishing returns with that. Getting someone to take out their phone, scan a code, and then go to the site, that's asking a lot of a person in a space like that where they really aren't in that mode of paying that much attention. So for that, I think for the foreseeable future, I think we're gonna keep moving the UI to the user's device as an option but I think a lot of that is just going to still happen on screen, but there's a lot of interactions that we do that are a lot lighter touch. So motion-driven interactives where we're using a connector or a camera to find human bodies in the space and the interaction is just driven by their emotion. I think for that level of thing, that's largely unchanged. 

And there's no learning curve? It's just triggering something because it's picking up that there's something there. 

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly.

Is the learning curve important? Cause I think I've said this a number of times on different podcasts. I call a lot of these gesture-based systems that you see in public spaces like malls and transit stations and so on, I call them stupid people tricks because you're asking people to do things that are except for the extroverts, it's embarrassing and it takes awhile and may not work, and there's a subset of people-mostly kids-who would find that exciting, but most adults would go, “No, I'm not doing that.”

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. As you said, kids get it immediately. There's no learning curve with kids with these motion-based interactions. They mess around with it until they just get it, and then they're off to the races. 

So there are well-established UI patterns with everything else that we interact with in a given day, like the phone, the computer, we all get how that stuff works. When we're presenting something entirely new to people, I think to get them over that learning curve and to get them over that curve quickly, I think it's just a matter of making it as simple as possible. 

Like with Kinect-based installations, I hate introducing the idea of menus there, because we're thinking in terms of a mouse and a cursor. I think we need to take that off the table when we're talking about gestures. You're not there to point and select things. Let's think about different ways that you can use your body as this user interface that isn't just trying to copy-paste a mouse interaction or a keyboard interaction. 

Yeah and stop thinking about Minority Report.

Chris Riebschlager: Oh my gosh, Minority Report ruined my life when that came, out because that was the expectation. Just make it look like it was in the movie, right? 

No, and you don't want that by the way. 

Chris Riebschlager: It looks cool but in practice, it just leads to tears. 

On the company website, you’ve got a pretty robust resource section and blog posts and so on, and you've written a couple of pieces around generative art. What does that mean to you and how is it applied? 

Chris Riebschlager: So art is something that's really important to me, and it's one of the things that I'm just not very good at. Like I cannot draw to save my life, but I can program. I can write really decent software and I've found a way to create art that's interesting to me by using the tools, the software, and the frameworks that people smarter than me have created. 

So generative art, I think is a really interesting way to explore ways of art-making that are a collaborative practice between you and a computer. It's like, I'm setting up some rules about what I want to happen. I set the computer to go follow those rules and make something interesting and present it back to me, and maybe I like it, maybe I don't, but that back and forth between the computer and me, is just a really interesting art making practice to me. 

In the context of installations in corporate buildings, public buildings, airports, and so on, how is it applied and what do you need to think about? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think there's a lot of things to consider. In past projects, I think a lot of the creative direction comes from existing artwork in this space. So we did some work with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and they had already been working with an artist in the Netherlands, I believe and his work was just in the primary colors, blue, yellow, and red. So we knew we had a palette to work with. There is a lot of previous work already installed in the space so what we added to that space was just an interactive version of what was already happening there. So it was a familiar as well which was already existing there. But I think that's the primary consideration. What makes sense in that space? What other artwork does this need to live with? 

But also I think an interesting way to approach this is what other inputs do we have available? If it's a lobby, do we have the motion of people? Do we have traffic data or weather data, or any interesting data from the country that we're working with that could be incorporated into this piece, that could present some meaningful message through the work? I think there are so many fun opportunities there to incorporate live data in and present that back to people in a beautiful and compelling way. 

When I have conversations about data visualizations or generative art, I ask the question and I'll ask it again, does it matter, when you talk about data inputs, does it matter that the viewers understand that this is why this is changing because the weather has changed or the winds stronger or whatever it may be, or does it just need to be visually pleasing?

Chris Riebschlager: It really depends on the client's expectation there. To me, you take work like a Refik Anadol, right? His work is ostensibly data-driven. If I look at one of his pieces, I have no idea what data is being presented to me and what it actually means. It looks amazing, but I have no idea. I mean he could just tell me that it’s data-driven and I just have to take his word on it. 

Yeah. I know the Charlotte airport, for instance, he uses things like baggage handling data and things like that on this giant display. But I think like a fraction, 1% of the people walking by would know that's why it's doing what it's doing.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, and that could be a pre-rendered video and no one would ever know. But I think there are ways of incorporating those ideas into meaningful representations of that data. So the ways we've done that in the past are we did a lobby screen in Atlanta that was right next to a transit stop for a train and the idea was we have the actual transit information for that stop, like the next train arriving in five minutes on the screen. So that's one layer of this piece, but the bigger portion of the screen is given up to this flock of birds, and they're very calm and very chill when there's not a train arriving. And then as the train is approaching, they get more active. There's more happening on screen. 

So we have the literal data that you need and also some supplemental, beautiful, interesting thing to show that is connected to that day. To me personally, drawing a clear connection between what's happening on screen and the data we're trying to represent is very important to me.

Yeah. It reminds me of an ad on just like a digital poster in a subway platform, I think in Stockholm or something like that, and they did this very clever thing where you would have a model in the poster and as a subway train approached, her hair started to fall back and then, when the subway was coming into the station, she was in a wind tunnel and then she calmed down. I thought that's very clever. That's driven by data and triggers and everything else, and it's not quite generative art, but it's the same kind of thing. There's a relationship between what's happening and what you see.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, yeah. 

For the company, what are some projects that people who are listening to this would be familiar with?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, my gosh, locally here in Kansas City, we have a project that when people ask me where I work, I always say do you know the big books in the library garage downtown? We made those. So it's a parking structure next to the library downtown in Kansas City that we did and it's basically to make it look like a huge bookshelf and it's a really cool landmark here in Kansas City. 

Is that an analog thing or is there a digital thing? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is just an analog. 

Okay, and in terms of digital ones, I think he did something with a big torch or something in a stadium? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we did. We just installed what is the largest 3D printed structure in North America, certainly, and I think the world for the Las Vegas Raiders. So we created the Al Davis Memorial torch, which they had in Oakland at a small, maybe 15-foot tall torch, and we wanted to create just a huge monument in the new stadium to that. So through our L Sam large-scale additive manufacturing machine, which is essentially just a carwash size 3D printer, we created a huge torch sculpture. I think it's 90 feet tall and has eliminated LED structure in the center to represent the flame, and it's just a remarkable, amazing piece that made the news. 

I think it's transparent LED or LED mesh? 

Chris Riebschlager: I don't think it's a LED mesh. It's LED in that metal structure that they basically made a flame form that goes in the torch and then eliminated that from within. 

Have you done any big corporate lobbies and things like that with giant video walls where you're developing content for them?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, absolutely. A couple that comes to mind and we just did one last year for State Farm in their headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. Overall, I think it's a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot space that is like a monument, a museum to  State Farm history, which has a century-long history, a lot of artifacts, a lot of video and audio content. It's a really amazing space. We recreated the office of the original founders, and then created an interactive where you can explore around the space and find out like, this is the pen that was actually used to sign the initial corporate contract or whatever, and as part of that, there's also an immersive theater in the center that lets you play different videos that kind of unpack the history of State Farm.

Yeah, and that's a company like Geico, that's trying quite hard with its marketing and everything to not be just boring insurance company? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. Insurance can be a pretty dry topic, but we tried to make it as interesting as possible. 

My son is in insurance. (Laughter) We can talk a lot about it but I don't want to get him in trouble. 

Chris Riebschlager: It’s a very fascinating and very important industry.

It's an amazing industry. 

With the company right now, what are some projects that over the next 6 to 12 months we should be looking for that you’re allowed to talk about? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have a lot of activities going on at the new SoFi stadium in Los Angeles, which is going to be the new home of the Rams and Chargers. So if you haven't seen images of that stadium, it is absolutely bananas. It's got what is the biggest Oculus LED screen? 

Yeah, the giant Halo, the Samsung screen. 

Chris Riebschlager: This is absolutely massive, and it's an amazing space to have the opportunity to install some work in. So we have some work for different brand activations in that space. So one of the big ones is the YouTube theater, which is a performance venue, as far as the stadium that we did a large LED wall on the outside of that theater and also a YouTube icon, a structural YouTube icon in the Plaza in front of the theater that we have the LED screen in that is going to function as a magic mirror. It’s just fun, interesting, “look at me, I'm up there” and look at all kinds of crazy things, but also show off a YouTube content creator stuff and highlighting the content creators. 

I'm sure the people in LA are excited about the concept of actually going to a football game that has the full capacity as we get healthy. 

Chris Riebschlager: For sure. 

All right, Chris, thank you so much for taking some time with me today. I really appreciate it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely. Thank you.



Amanda Benzecry, Take Down The Ads

Amanda Benzecry, Take Down The Ads

July 28, 2021


As much as people in the digital signage industry are understandably excited and enthused by the appearance of more and more digital displays in public spaces, it's important to remember that not everyone is in love with screens.

There's always some people who don't like ad posters and billboards just because. But there are others who have tangible, well-researched and argued positions about why they're not big fans.

I recently came across a small, grassroots campaign in the UK that has a running slogan of Take Down The Ads! It grew out of the appearance of LED ad spectaculars that went up a few years ago in a lovely, leafy part of southwest London.

Their appearance offended Amanda Benzecry, who has been leading an effort online and through the local government process to fight their existence, primarily on environmental grounds.

It could seem, from a distance, like just an effort to rid the neighborhood of something the locals don't like or understand. But Benzecry actually comes out of the advertising industry and understands how things work.

We had a great chat about why she and other similar efforts around the UK are fighting the steady influx of digital out of home displays, and the reasons behind their opposition.

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Amanda, thank you for joining me. First of all, can you tell me what the Take Down the Ads movement is all about? 

Amanda Benzecry: It goes back about six years and it all started with a very local issue, completely relevant to the immediate area in which I live and the appearance of three very large LED screens, I'm talking huge, now marketed as the Barnes Landmark and the Barnes Tower, which appeared without really much, or if any local consultation, and this is in Southwest London. It's on a road that is called the South Circular, but at the point in which these screens appeared, it's only a two-lane thing. So we're not talking about a big motorway and it is a gateway between a number of sort of conurbation, Barnes, Roehampton, Putney. It gets a reasonable amount of traffic going through it, but it is not a motorway. 

It was previously characterized by being very dark and very leafy and sits opposite a designated nature reserve, which sounds weird for London, but we get these little pockets. The complication was that in this case, the screens went up on the land that belongs to a rugby club, so it's not like other LED screens around the borough, which sit on council land. This was actually an application by a rugby club. To have permission, to have screens erected, to generate funds, to ensure the future of the rugby club. And that was the justification for allowing the screens to be erected in a location that if you look at all the planning guidelines, it should not have been allowed, but they found a way around it. 

Now, I don't believe that anybody should, and I'm not against the sport and not against rugby, but I don't think that given the location of those screens and the implications because it impacted on a wildlife corridor and bat movements and things like that. I have always campaigned on an environmental platform. So Take Down the Ads began with a specific campaign against those screens, and unfortunately, it became a sort of Twitter storm and I was accused of wanting to put a rugby club out of business, and it was never that. It has always been an environmental thing. And really the change to the landscape is absolutely unacceptable. 

Also, this rugby club happened to be located in metropolitan open land. Metropolitan open land is afforded certain protections. So, the whole thing was really quite suspicious as well, and I think the key thing is, and this is what started the whole issue, is that the location was quite vulnerable in that there weren't many neighbors around because it was opposite a nature reserve because there is meant to be a degree of local consultation when certain screens go up, but then in this instance, they didn't need to be because nobody was effectively living immediately opposite. But my point was actually the result implicates the entire environment and all of us, even if we live a quarter of a mile away, I have to drive past them and I would really have liked the choice to comment as to whether I wanted to have these things up or not. 

That's a very long explanation but Take Down the Ads started six years ago, but it started with a particular campaign. Then it grew, although it's much more challenging for me in this part of London, into looking at the incursion of these screens across the borough. I would say probably that we don't have too many, but I don't think we should have any because they are now on a scale that is completely unacceptable. They are marketed, the main contractor here is JC Decaux. They are marketed as towers. They are the size of buildings and we now have a number on high streets which are just huge and completely unnecessary and environmentally damaging and adding more clutter to what are extremely busy streetscapes, because remember, we don't have wide avenues in London. It's all very narrow, everybody's on top of everything. We have old buildings, we have new buildings and these things sit on the street and they are mind-blowing and you don't have a choice. You don't have a choice to switch them off or not to look at them. They just glare down at you. 

This is what the digital out-of-home companies like about it. The fact that you can't miss them, but I think it's important to stress, as people are listening to this, you actually come out of advertising. You're not somebody who just hates ads. You understand the business. 

Amanda Benzecry: Absolutely. It is not about advertising. It is about the medium and what that medium does to a local environment, the pollution, and also mental pollution because when you're driving in London, bloody hell, there's so much stuff going on and then suddenly there are these big screens. So there's environmental pollution, mental pollution burning away, I know they're LED and, but I think there is a place for these screens, like in airports, on airport concourses or train stations where you've got a captive audience and you might want to be entertained. Where they start to come in and add clutter and they're huge and spoil the environment and just add to the mental pollution, I think that is unacceptable, and particularly when, there are many ways to advertise to people now and all those ways that you can reach people, then people still have the choice to not view them or whatever. They can false forward, or they can delete or whatever. 

With these, you just don't have the choice, except for, I try not to look at them when I'm going past, and I think that is an arrogant selfish thing to do, especially nowadays when we are so worried about our environment and mental health and things like that. 

This caught my attention based on Twitter, and I think you included my Twitter handle in a tweet or something like that, and I'd look at it and went what's that? You have a petition that you're looking to get circulated and t's pretty modest compared to a lot of petitions.

Amanda Benzecry: It is quite interesting, and I am quite frankly slightly disappointed that it doesn't seem to have caught the attention. 

Well, now with Sixteen:Nine covering it… (Laughter) 

Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah, exactly.

But I think, to be honest, we're getting a bit of petition fatigue. Interestingly, for the CARPA campaign, when I initiated the campaign against the rugby club. That one has currently got 650 responses, but it's a very old petition now.

Again, it needs to be in the thousands for anybody to really take any notice. But I think disappointingly, I'm not seeing anybody in a position like a green party actually taking it up as a cause and promoting it, and I'm not sure why, other than that, maybe there are just big bucks involved. These screens do make money for councils and there would be a loss of revenue if they weren't allowed to rent the land to the JC Decaux and Clear Channel and stuff like that. So clearly there is a commercial argument that is working in the favor of the LED screens. I think what is also quite interesting is there have been instances where the local council has refused planning and then it goes to the government level, to the planning inspectorate and then they override it. They override the local council. So my personal view is that it needs somebody, a politician, to take it out, but nobody seems to be willing to, and that is disappointing, particularly now when the environment is so important.

SoI can't explain that other than there's money somewhere involved, and that's that stopping it, I would just say interestingly we, Take Down the Ads that did get involved in an application for the screen over a major arterial road, and that was an application by Transport for London who is responsible obviously for the underground system, and their stance on these screens actually is that they believe that a driver can cope with lots of different messages. So the safety aspect is a very difficult platform to campaign on because you don't get their support, but in this case, the road runs along from outer London into central London, there are a number of roundabouts and overpasses, and then the road goes under the roundabout and there are bridges if you like, and they have steadily through the area, erected these LED screens claiming, excuse me, that they're great for disseminating traffic information. 

I have never seen traffic information on them, and it came to a point where we've got an intersection locally, which is really the intersection between Putney common, Wimbledon, common, and thank goodness, we were actually able to campaign on an environmental platform and the local council rejected it and they didn't appeal. So that was a small victory. But it was pretty obvious, but there are other areas where it's particularly a conversion from paper to LED. That seems to be just fine. If there's been a poster there already has a poster then you can change it to LED pretty easily actually. 

So in the context of what you do, if you get word of a plan out there, is it just yourself, or do you have a circle of people? 

Amanda Benzecry: So to be honest, for the most part, it's probably three of us, but don't tell JC Decaux that, but also we have joined a network of ad blocks across the country.

Yeah, people across the country are doing things locally. 

Amanda Benzecry: Yeah, but the reality is if somebody is applying for the installation of a LED screen in my area, the local authority isn’t going to take any notice of that because they're in Bristol. But certainly, there's also a number of societies in the area and we keep an eye on planning applications and make sure that we don't miss something. So if something comes up, we're able to challenge it, but the reality is you have to challenge it in a sensible way, grounded in those planning policies.

But I think one thing I have been doing or certainly Take Down the Ads has been doing, which has had some effect because I believe that it was acknowledged that it was having an effect from the feedback I got, again, in relation to the rugby club is that we've been writing to advertisers. And some of them ignore it. Some of them do withdraw their ads and that has an implication on revenue. On environmental grounds, and not saying come down and see this for yourself, but just giving the picture and saying the choice is yours, but we just wanted to advise you that the screens are controversial on an environmental platform, and that has some currency with some advertisers. 

Interesting, not the automotive guys. But some of them have said, thank you for your attention to that. We won't use them again, or a couple of them are taking them down immediately, which is nice, so that is an interesting strategy, and I've said to the other guys to just writing to the advertisers because I think the only way you can possibly affect change, if what you're saying is that the industry doesn't really understand how consumers are feeling, then if you write to advertisers and the advertisers keep coming back and saying, hold on, what's going on here? This is controversial, then that's another way round it really, I think. 

I gather much of what you're saying is, yes, there are ostensible controls in place at the council level and above that, but unless people such as yourself raise the issue, that the controls are just rubber stamp exercises and things go through.

Amanda Benzecry: I think that is the case because one of the primary directives is, you have to sensitively handle advertising and it should not add clutter into an already busy streetscape. Well, it does. Yeah, so I think to answer your question, yes, definitely. I think it will slip through unless there is a concern and an effort to remind the planning department of their obligations and of the planning policies, which is remarkable really.

You would have thought that they would automatically protect an environment, but I'm seeing countless decisions, not only with LED screens, but buildings and stuff, where they seem to put an interpretation on planning guidelines, which I just can't believe that they've done, and yeah so I think it is really important for locals to make an effort when there is the news and we keep an eye out and look at the planning applications when there is an application for a screen that as many people as possible know about it and can comment. 

You would think that because people from around the world come to London because they want to see the old buildings and heaths and everything else, the leafy areas that there would be a business concern from the tourist end that if you start to dot the landscape, particularly the areas that are supposed to be visually attractive, like there are lots of parts of London that, up by the airport and so on that it's not going to be this attractive anyways, but people won't come if it just looks like suburban Cincinnati or something.

Amanda Benzecry: I think to be fair, we haven't arrived at a situation yet like when you're traveling on the motorways in America and stuff like that, it's not as bad as that yet.

So I think one has to think ahead as to the more these things go through. That's the beginning of a slippery slope and we absolutely don't want that to happen. I suppose it's difficult, isn't it? When you don't know what it was like before they were there, you can't really judge how bad it is.

For example, the three screens that started off my campaign. I think people are used to them now and that's the danger as well that our tolerance becomes greater and all, and we just become complacent and then you turn around and suddenly there's another, do you see what I mean? But I don't believe it's bad enough, certainly in those tourist areas for the moment that it would have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry. I think there are many other things that have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry, but I can't honestly say that those screens would be one at the moment. 

Somebody did say, there was a petition comment that said, “We don't want to be like America” and some American people got very offended by that. And you do see them all along the motorways and, I think what is quite interesting is that some of the companies are being quite creative with the way they present these screens. So we're seeing some sort of architectural input that sometimes gives them validity. Again, with the rugby club, they decided to make the surroundings look like rugby player posts, which actually made it even worse because you've got these total posts, and just give it permission that somehow they're making some artistic contribution to the environment, which I don't think they are.

Do you get the flip side of the argument from the councils that this adds to our revenue base by doing this. If we don't do this, do we have to raise taxes?

Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah. We actually live in a borough where that's a whole other argument, we pay too little council tax as a borough, and I don't know, to be honest, I haven’t done the calculations to know how much our council tax would increase if they didn't have any LED screens in the borough. I couldn't begin to comment, and so who knows, it could be a lot, could be a little, but I do think that this particular borough, being a conservative borough, always tries to keep the costs low unnecessarily, and that's an awful thing to say because I'm sure, there are a lot of people on the breadline, but the whole structure of council tax is a whole other podcast.

But on the face of it, yes, I understand how there is an argument that says, we need the revenue and just as the rugby club, their argument was if we don't have the revenue from the screens, we'll go out of business and that's really hard, and so therefore you're putting an environmental argument against a commercial argument and which one should win? My view would always be to find other ways to generate revenue so it's not so damaging to the environment that it has to be the environmental platform. There are always other ways if you weren't able to do it, you'd find another way. 

Is light pollution an issue at all?

Amanda Benzecry: It's interesting because I've read somewhere that one of the companies is talking about taking measures to mitigate light pollution, maybe turning them off at night. The rugby club screens go off at night blessedly, which is great. A lot of others burned through and I think so that it would be very helpful if there was a time limit set on these things, it would definitely be because it would calm things down in the evening. 

I would argue that but again, you see there's no proven evidence, but I would argue that the wildlife corridor that was opposite the nature reserve, the bat route because in this part of London, we have these green spaces that interconnect and therefore there is evidence that wildlife moves between them and yes, in the winter, there is no winter because the lights are still burning till 11 o'clock. So whether that confuses wildlife, I'm sure it does well, and apparently, the insect population is declining, et cetera. But to be honest, there's nothing, there's no comprehensive and absolutely categorical study that has said yes, over the last 10 years, we've seen the insect population decline by 20% because of LED screens.

Do you see what I mean? So it's really difficult. 

So the overarching thrust of all of this in many ways is not purely take down the ads don't want any more advertising, anything else. It's an in-your-face statement, but it's really about to let slow down and really look at what's going on and enforce the controls that are supposedly in place?

Amanda Benzecry: I think so, but also I do think that because of the size of them and things, I think that there are places for them, and I don't believe that the place is in London anyway, because of the size of it, and the small roads. I just don't think they should be in our city.

I think they can be in our airports and in our railways, absolutely. But not in the street with all the traffic and the mayhem and the pedestrians and the cyclists, and I just think they are effectively unnecessary distractions. 

Have you ever spoken to a JC Decaux, Global Outdoor, or any of those?

Amanda Benzecry: JC Decaux blocked me actually because obviously, the “I damage the environment, take me down” graphic which was produced here. I absolutely blitzed them with that and I replied to everything and all their clients and this one and that one, and in the end, I'm afraid I was blocked, and I think it’s still not enough, and I think advertisers actually need to take some responsibility as well, but you can understand how everybody's all excited about them and they look fab and the brands up there and all that. I get it. 

But I think what you said earlier is that people need to just slow down and think about what it's doing to our streets and people and the distractions and just the business of it all, and I think just to be a little bit more judicious with their choice of locations, I think is what one would hope for in the way moving forward.

So if people listening to this are in Southwest London in particular or elsewhere, and want to be supportive of what you're doing and maybe lend a hand, how would they do that?

Amanda Benzecry: I think they can certainly tweet to me, @takedowntheads. The Facebook page is actually called CARPA. Unfortunately, I wanted to drop that and change it, Take Down the Ads, but Facebook won't let me do that. So that is still called CARPA and I think there's an email address on there. So yeah, I think locally the entity is pretty well known, but also look at the petitions as well, and support the generic petition, which would be great, which is to get the government to consider the proliferation of these ads and, and more public consultation. 

All right. It was a pleasure to have some time chatting with you.

Amanda Benzecry: Thank you. I think I chatted at you, didn't I? 

That's what interviews are for!

Amanda Benzecry: Oh, that's okay then. Anyway, thank you for inviting me on, and I really appreciate it. It's been very nice. Thank you very much.


Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

July 21, 2021