6 days ago
Steve Bernard, Ocean Outdoor
6 days ago
6 days ago
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A lot of digital out of home media is marketed mainly on the basis of reach - essentially the scale of the aggregated network and the audience reach that's realized. It's more about math than science.
But the UK out of home media company Ocean Outdoor is very much interested in the science of advertising, and over the last decade, Ocean has commissioned a series of studies that measure brain activity and how people respond to the visuals of advertising and other mediums like social media.
While a lot of audience measurement is about counting people and characterizing behaviours, Ocean has commissioned five studies that take participants into a lab, put something like an electrode cap on their heads, and measure how they respond to campaign visuals.
The newest study, called Digital Out Of Home: The Vital Ingredient, looks at how digital out of home optimizes the use of social media. The research found that using socially amplified digital out of home, changes how brands are perceived, and the value of their role in the media landscape.
I got a rundown on the background and the findings of this research from Steve Bernard, the Head of Insight for Ocean.
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Steve, thank you for joining me. For those people who don't live in the UK and maybe aren't in the media business, can you explain what Ocean Outdoor does, its footprint, and that sort of thing?
Steve Bernard: Of course. So Ocean started its life about 15 years ago, and we exist in the UK out-of-home media industry. So what that means is that we are selling premium digital screens to a range of advertisers across the UK. As I said, the business started back in 2008 with just a handful of sites, but in the period between then and now, we've grown our portfolio sites significantly. We now have well over 600 locations in total, and that's largely digital out-of-home screens. So some of those are static digital screens that show static imagery on them. Some of them are moving images so we have the ability to display moving images to the public, and whilst many of those screens exist on what we call roadside locations, so typically to the side of roadways and also on pedestrian pavements, that kind of thing, sidewalks, we also have several screens within internal environments so shopping malls are one of our big sort of environments that we exist in and what marks Ocean out as different from its competitors is that it's very much focusing on selling to advertisers that premium network of digital out-of-home screens.
And indeed, the environments in which those Oceams screens are located, for example, those shopping malls I referred to a moment ago, are often the most premium environments that exist in the UK. So, for example, we have a contract with Westfield, which is one of the largest shopping mall brands globally, and they have a significant footprint in London. So we have the advertising space on the external side of Westfield's locations: two locations in London, one in Stratford and one in White City, and we also have screens in the Edwards and James Mall, which is a premium shopping mall in Edinburgh in St. James's quarter, and we also have a footprint at Canary Wharf Mall. So Canary Wharf, for those who don't know, is quite a key business environment within London which typically has financial businesses. So by having our advertising screens in a location like that, we know we're reaching a very high-end premium audience.
And very quickly we have just started putting screens in Battersea power station which is again, another new premium shopping environment in the heart of London. So what works us out differently is our premium in inventory, and it's very much about digital out-of-home screens.
We're talking primarily because your company has put out neuroscience research, and I'm guessing at least that one of the re reasons you're investing in that level of research is because you do have premium properties, and you're selling your advertising at a premium so there's probably a higher demand for proof of impact and proof of audience on all those things. Is that accurate?
Steve Bernard: Yes, very much so. We always need to identify different methods to measure the effectiveness of premium digital out-of-home. One of the things about the out-of-home universe, if I may call it that, is that it's fairly varied in terms of the formats, in terms of the size, in terms of whether they're digitized or whether they're static posters.
There's a variation in environments as well, and so we know that not all out-of-home sites are the same in terms of the kind of impact that they deliver, and because we specialize in the premium end of the out-of-home universe, yeah, we need a methodology, which not just marks us out as different from our competitors who use more conventional, if I can call it that, research methods, but also something that is going to truly measure the impact of that premium out-of-home space.
So with neuroscience research, what are you doing? I realize that you're not doing it and that you're commissioning a third-party company, Neuro-Insight to do that work, but what's involved?
Steve Bernard: So ultimately, what we're trying to elicit is how people are thinking and feeling about a stimulus that's presented in front of them and to move that into the out-of-home context, what we're fundamentally trying to show is that by running premium digital out-of-home prior to other media channels for any given brand or any given campaign, that primary effect, that first impact is going to have a profound outcome in terms of how the audience discerns those other media channels. And we call that the priming effect, and during the course of the neuroscience studies that Ocean has run over the last decade or so, it's always been about trying to elicit that priming effect of premium digital out-of-home on other oot-of-home formats, for example, which was the neuroscience one or on other media channels completely like television or mobile campaigns.
That's ultimately what we're trying to show is that by leading with premium digital foam, a brand is able to ensure that how people take away the message on the other channels that they've run is fundamentally different compared to if they weren't running that premium digital out-of-home beforehand.
So what happens? You're not taking people who are participating in the research out on the street or anything like that. This is in a lab or something, and you're putting a brain or a skull cap on of some kind?
Steve Bernard: Correct. These studies are largely done in laboratory settings and controlled settings. And yes, as you've described there, the participants are made to wear these kinds of headsets, which are able to measure the various cognitive functions that are coming to the fore, as I say, when that participant is exposed to a particular stimulus or stimuli, be that digital out-of-home advertising or a brand in digital out-of-home advertising or seeing a brand in another context entirely so a TV advert or other out-of-home campaigns or indeed social media campaigns, which will I'm sure I'll come on to in a moment.
So what did you learn? Did it validate assumptions, or has the research surprised you guys?
Steve Bernard: I think we've always had this view that the effect of premium digital out-of-home and not just, can I say pre premium digital out-of-home, but also iconic out-of-home. One of the sites we also have in the UK is Piccadilly Lights. So that's at London's Piccadilly Circus. It's like a mini version of. Times Square in New York, if you can imagine Times Square in New York, Piccadilly Circus is a sort of a version of that, and we've always had this sort of expectation and this view that those kinds of sites are clearly eliciting different emotional outcomes for brands advertising on those platforms versus other more conventional formats.
As I said earlier, it's a very varied sort of universe. But clearly, the way in which someone consumes a message displayed on Piccadilly Lights, for example, or any of these other premium digital out-of-home sites that I'm referring to is gonna be different from how they consume that message on a bus shelter poster, for example, or a more conventional roadside billboard. So we've always, as I said, had that expectation of difference.
So the research is validating. But I think in respect of the lace neuroscience study that we've just launched in the UK and in some of our other European territories, which Ocean is based, we're able to show actually quite an interesting relationship between digital out-of-home and social media and a relationship, which I think for advertisers has yet to be fully realized, and hopefully, with this study, we are drawing attention to the closer relationship that these two platforms have. Digital out-of-home on one hand, and social media on the other, and as a result, getting advertisers and their agencies to think more about how they plan these two media channels together.
Can you give me an example of how they, how the two mediums intertwine, and how digital out-of-home primes social media channels or social media interests?
Steve Bernard: Absolutely. So to set the context a bit on this, typically within the advertising industry, you can put different media channels. So traditional media channels like television or radio, newspapers, magazines, and out-of-home and newer media channels such as mobile advertising or social media, you can have those on a sort of access, and you can look at that access based on how strong those channels are delivering what's called performance. So highly measurable, highly targeted on one side, and the sort of more intangible effects, so branding effects, brand equity awareness, fame, consideration on the other end of that spectrum.
So you have performance on one side and branding on the other, and you would typically see social media at one end of that spectrum on the performance side, and digital out-of-home and out-of-home are widely on the branding side of that spectrum because the view has always been that they do very different jobs. One is highly measurable or highly targeted, and the other is about reaching huge numbers of people in a public space. So one to many versus one to one.
What we have noticed over the last two years, it's probably been going on for longer, but over the last couple of years, is more and more examples of famous people, if I could put it that way, celebrities, influencers on social media, et cetera, promoting out-of-home content on their social media channels. So you'll typically see examples of famous actors or pop stars or musicians generally Tweeting or Instagramming a picture of themselves on an out-of-home canvas. That could be a banner site, or it could be a digital out-of-home screen. but very much promoting themselves on that platform, and we would contend that they wouldn't necessarily do the same thing if they saw themselves on a magazine page, or even in a television advert because a television advert is overtly a marketing function. Whereas the interesting thing, the unique thing about the digital out-of-home and home more widely is that its public furniture, I guess you could say, it's a public message in a very public space, and so I think that's why there's this relationship between known public figures and communications in the public space and that's the out-of-home space.
So that was happening over the last couple of years, we really wanted to explore that more deeply. On the other end of that is that more and more advertisers themselves are promoting their content, their out-of-home content, I should say their brand from a digital screen, on their social channels and we've seen examples from Amazon and Meta and a range of other advertisers who are who are increasingly looking at these kind of really exciting executions that they can deliver on the digital out-of-home space, and rather than sharing on their social feed, on their Twitter or Instagram a conventional advertising message, they will utilize that out-of-home content within the social media space. So you'll get Amazon Prime Video, when they're advertising a certain program, they will have performed an execution on an iconic site or a premium digital out-of-home site, and then they will tweet or Instagram the out-of-home campaign on their social channel, and that's really interesting because that represents a significant step change for our industry.
It's not necessarily just about reaching all of these people who walk past our sites on the ground every week, every month, et cetera. But the opportunity for that advertising to be seen much more widely by people who have not encountered the advertising on the ground, and that leads to all kinds of interesting questions about what is the true reach of an out-of-home campaign and like I say, that's very unique to our industry, given its greater level of creativity that's at our disposal now, given the greater proliferation of high impact digital out-of-home sites, and given the proliferation of a greater level of technology, which enables us to bring these campaigns to life in new and exciting ways.
There's a lot going on there, and so wrapping all of that together, because of this idea, this concept of sharing the out-of-phone campaign on the social media channel, fundamentally, there is a strong relationship between the two. Again, this is something that we've wanted to explore for some time, and we felt that neuroscience, given that it elicits precisely how people think and feel about something that they're exposed to, versus another sort of research technique, like a survey or a focus group, we felt that neuroscience is the perfect way in which to measure the impact of this type of concept that I'm describing.
There's also this interesting phenomenon that's bubbled up in the past couple of years where you have brands commissioning motion graphic designers to create a digital out-of-home ad, usually some sort of anamorphic illusion of some kind on a building where there isn't actually a billboard, but they design it in such a way that it makes you think that there is a billboard there and those seem to get one hell of a lot of social media shares, even though they're not actually physically booking a digital out-of-home campaign.
Steve Bernard: Yeah, that's absolutely true, and again, it's this idea that as an industry in the out-of-home space, we have a unique opportunity to capture the imagination of the audiences that encounter the various creative executions that we deliver.
And it's no surprise when you look at how welcomed and trusted different media channels are, out-of-home quite often appears at the top of those kinds of lists when they're ranking different media channels, which as TV and radio and online, et cetera. Out-of-home does really well in terms of being more welcomed and more trusted versus other media channels.
And I think that's because we have, as I say, just a really strong opportunity to capture the imagination of people as they're going about their daily business in an unobtrusive way. It's also the idea that out-of-home generally is one of the most venerable media channels in existence. There were people putting up painted billboards and painted communication on buildings a long long time ago, and that venerability is everlasting. People will always want to see things in the public space, and seeing them in the public space gives an inherent notion of trust. In a way, we would argue that isn't necessarily the case with one-to-one communications and certainly not online communication, desktop ads, et cetera. We know that brands who are appearing in the public space are trusted because they're in the public space because it is seen as a public medium.
So yeah, we have a lot of opportunities to capture the imagination in welcome unobtrusive ways, and as I say, there's now an opportunity to take all of the benefits of using out-of-home in the physical space, moving those benefits into the online space.
Were the rationale and the budgetary argument for doing this kind of research different a decade ago than it would be now?
I assume that a decade ago, digital out-of-home media companies had to work a lot harder to sell the medium itself, there was still a degree of skepticism, and a lot of it was just being sold on gross audience impressions and not a hell of a lot else, versus today where there is all this level of sophistication.
Steve Bernard: I think that's an evolving story. Fundamentally, the medium is still traded very heavily on reach, how many people any given campaign reaches, the frequency of encounters, and ultimately the number of impacts or impressions that a campaign is delivered, and that's chiefly how it's valued really.
I think one of the great things about this study and any series of studies that Ocean has done with neuro insight over the last decade is that with each of these studies, we are communicating to the wider industry the value of neuroscience., which has a very unique value. Now the company we work with on these, Neuro-Insight, they're a global neuroscience business. Still, they started their life in Australia, and it's very interesting that in Australia because this is not the case in the UK, in Australia, they incorporate what they call a neuro impact factor into their audience currency. So how they value outflow medium in Australia factors in these types of techniques, so it's not just a case of looking at reach and frequency and impact over there, there is implicitly this role of neuroscience coming to the fore, and the data that you see for different out-of-home formats and environments over there, and this is something that here in the UK, we're yet to do with our own out-of-home audience currency, which is called root.
But the long-term ambition would be for this type of methodology, this kind of study to at some point be incorporated into the out currency because, as I say, the out-of-home currency is very robust in that there, there's an awful lot of heft that goes into its methodology and an awful lot of inputs, data inputs there. A variety of sources. As I said earlier, there is clearly a different role played by sites such as the Piccadilly Lights or premium digital formats generally versus more conventional out-of-home formats, which are traded really on reach. There's a fundamental difference in these different parts of the industry.
An advertiser would be able to buy a thousand bus shelter posters, for example, or 2000 billboards on the side of the roads, up and down in the UK, and the value of that is in the reach, in reaching literally millions of people in any given period of time. Where this kind of study differs and focuses on is the unique sort of relationship that a relatively small number but high-impact sites have with an audience, and these kind of sites, these unique sites enjoy strong reach. Still, really their difference with more conventional standard out-of-home performance is that there are relatively few of them. Therefore the impact, if I can use quotations of how it's making an audience think and feel is very unique compared to more conventional out-of-home formats, which are traded purely on reach.
They're not differentiated from each other at all. So a bus shelter is a bus shelter. The same in London as it is in Manchester or Birmingham or et cetera. This is very much about showing the value of these more unique sites, more premium unique sites.
Do you have to invest the time with media planners and with brands to explain this methodology and. what's coming out of it, or do they inherently understand it?
Steve Bernard: No. It's very much the former. We spend a lot of time explaining how we put these studies together. They're complex studies. There are lots of different elements within neuroscience here in the UK. It's growing. It's a developing research study. One we've pioneered at Ocean Outdoor within the out-of-home context, but we do have to spend a lot of time explaining the methodology, there is always a great deal of interest when we go out to present these agencies or out-of-home buying specialists, et cetera, or when we go to clients directly here in the UK because it's quite a unique method because it doesn't have, at this point, a more widespread adoption, I guess you'd say.
So that means its uniqueness means there is an awful lot of interest to hear what we have to say. But it is always an interesting experience, kind of communicating the different elements of the methodology of neuroscience. I mean with the social media study, the vital ingredient, as we've called it, is us looking at the priming role of digital out-of-home on social media channels. There are an awful lot of moving parts to this. All that always relies on that always requires a lot of expectation. Fundamentally what we're measuring, the outputs are cognitive functions, as I've mentioned earlier. These cognitive functions are a mixture of engagement and approach towards a brand, memory, emotion, attention, et cetera and it's these kinds of outputs that we show uplifts for when we're presenting results. But again, it requires constant explanation because these are not elements you could describe them as, which are talked about a lot in research. A lot of the time, when we're communicating, out-of-home research, it's very much in looking at the effect of a campaign on brand awareness, or brand consideration, that kind of thing, and those kinds of terms are much more widely understood on the part of the advertising industry. But these kinds of outputs, like I say, cognitive functions, attention approach, engagement, et cetera, require a lot more explanation.
Is it a differentiator? In other words, would you have a circumstance where a media company, not Ocean, but a competitor Decaux or whoever is seeing planners, and would they actually say, okay, where's your neuro research, or what does your neuro research say? And they would say, well, we don't have any.
Steve Bernard: So neuroscience study within the out-of-home context in the UK is still relatively rare. It's something, of course, as I've said, that Ocean has pioneered because it's particularly about measuring sites, which fundamentally it's harder for the out-of-home currency to measure. So the value of neuroscience to us at Ocean is that we need unique methods to measure the effectiveness of what we would call unique properties.
Our competitors would be less likely to involve themselves in this type of study purely because our competitors here in the UK have a much wider portfolio in terms of volume, right? So in some cases, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of different out-of-home formats because they're selling scale, reach.
Fundamentally, they're selling size, and they're selling the idea that reaching so many people in any given period of time has an inherent value, which, of course, it does. But as I say, neuroscience is a complex methodology. Still, one which is particularly useful when measuring unique properties and Ocean Outdoor of any outdoor media owner here in the UK has the unique properties, high impact, and famous premium locations, which makes this the perfect sort of methodology to use to measure their effectiveness.
You've done five of these studies over the pace of 10 years, is there a cadence to it? Are you doing one every two years, or are you done now?
Steve Bernard: That was a really interesting question. Each of the neuroscience studies has focused on the priming effects of digital out-of-home on another type of advertising format, from Neuroscience One, which looked at the priming role of premium digital out-of-home on wider outer home campaigns, and Neuroscience Two looked at the television, and we've over the years looked at things like mobile and the effects of priming digital at home on mobile.
I think it's hard to say, but there's been one every, as you say, every two or three years when the time is right. We felt that with this study which began its life last year, we felt that because social media channels were playing much a much more significant role within the advertising industry generally, and not just in the UK obviously but globally, we felt that there was a particular value in looking at the relationship between our own medium and these platforms. Where do we take this next? That's a really interesting question.
This study has already garnered a lot of interest here in the UK amongst agencies and clients. It's also something we have communicated to our other Ocean Outdoor locations. We have offices in Sweden and the Netherlands and across Scandinavia, and there's a lot of interest there. My colleagues and I have been presenting this study at events in Europe. So because of the level of interest that this is generating again, not just here but internationally, I think there will be a lot of ideas that come from this, focusing on areas that we want to explore further. Things that we weren't able to pick up necessarily in the study that we launched last year, but looking at more specific elements within them. So it's hard to say exactly where we'll take this next, but I think there will be a lot of ideas being discussed with us as we take this more widely
For people who have been listening to this and thinking this sounds interesting, I'd love to see the data or see the findings or whatever. Is that accessible, or is that something that you only share with your customers?
Steve Bernard: So it's something that we will always share with our customers first.
It allows us to have quite in-depth discussions with them about their media planning generally. So that's the first aim. We always ensure that the findings are displayed on the Ocean Outdoor website. So if you go on the Ocean Outdoor website now, you will see the findings from the previous four studies and they're readily accessible, and this study, of course, in due course, will be communicated on the website. It's something that we're sharing a lot on our social media channels, as you might imagine on LinkedIn, Twitter, et cetera.
We're always happy to talk to people face to face or on an online forum about the study in more detail. In terms of the data itself, we've found some really interesting things in this study, as I said, these are two platforms, digital out-of-home, and social media, which, in the perception of advertising planners, exist on different sides of the advertising spectrum. But we've proved with this study that there is a significant priming effect of digital from digital at home on what advertisers are already doing on social media. For example, we've seen significant effects on dwell time. So that's the time people spend with an advertiser's brand post. That increased by 32% when the campaigns were primed by digital out-of-home.
Where we've seen a really really interesting finding is what happens when the digital out-of-home content itself becomes a social media post. So rather than an advertiser doing a conventional brand post, they can display the out-of-home campaign on their social channels. We saw, again, a 54% increase in dwell time. So again, that's time spent with that social communication cause of the primary effects of that socially amplified content we've seen increases in emotional intensity, and we've seen increases in a specific cognitive function called approach, which is ultimately or essentially people becoming more positive towards a brand when they see the campaign begin on digital out-of-home, then on social media.
So what we're really saying is that digital out-of-home is making campaigns online more approachable, making the brands more approachable. They're pressing the emotional buttons, which emotion is key in turning attention into long-term memory. We're enabling more time to be spent on social media communication. That's a key role of the priming effect and, most fundamentally, at this point. Finally, it is the fact that if you see the campaign, so let's say you've got an advertiser who uses out-of-home and puts that on their social channel, there is a tangible benefit from doing that for that brand versus if that brand was to just do a conventional brand post on Instagram or TikTok without the participant having seen the campaign in the physical location.
A lot of what I've described here is about the priming effect. But if you take away that priming effect if you just look at an audience who hasn't encountered the digital focus screen and you just compare how they felt about seeing it, seeing that phone campaign, on their social feed in sit versus if they just saw that brand, that same brand doing a standup brand post. There is a tangible benefit for that brand in terms of approach, a 21% increase in approach and a 3% increase in memory. That's really exciting because that suggests a much wider audience out there for campaigns that go viral, and that's the raw power we have as a medium, we can make social content more appealing to that audience.
We can do that for a brand. We're not just giving a brand the great benefits of the physical location, but we are also making a social media campaign for that brand more positive. I'm a part of the audience. It's really exciting, and lots of different layers to this study. So like I say, the results will be fully available for people on our website, but we would also welcome the opportunity to discuss it further at any given time.
All right. Thank you very much for spending all this time with me. That was terrific.
Steve Bernard: Thank you very much.
Wednesday May 17, 2023
Mark Coxon, AVI-SPL’s Experience Technology Group
Wednesday May 17, 2023
Wednesday May 17, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
AVI-SPL is one of the largest pro AV integrators on the planet, but for the longest time, if I was asked if I knew anyone at that company specifically on the digital signage file, I'd say "Nope."
As far as I knew, and the same for a lot of people involved in digital signage, AVI-SPL was much more focused on traditional pro AV work like unified communications and control rooms. While AVI-SPL delivered some digital signage projects, it wasn't a real focus. But that started to change a few years ago when the Tampa-based company spun up a new business unit called the Experience Technology Group, or XTG. Now it has some 30 people working on projects driven by the impact of visuals, and directly involving other architects, designers and creative shops.
Now, that's 30 people in a company that has 3,700 other staff, but the group works with some 300 customer-facing sales people, and gets pulled in to opportunities and projects when clients start expressing interests or needs that are about more than just function, like whiteboards and conferencing systems.
I had a great, very thoughtful talk with Mark Coxon, an industry veteran who joined the company about a year ago and is one of XTG's business development directors. We get into both the science and emotional sides of experiential projects, and how these kinds of projects work when they're guided by ideas and desired outcomes, and not just the Wow Factor of big screens.
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Mark, what is your role at AVI-SPL?
Mark Coxon: I am a business development director in our XTG division, which is our Experience Technology Group, so what I do is work with our regional account managers as well as our partner ecosystem to identify opportunities to build amazing experiences.
So your regional people would come across an opportunity, let's say, it's a corporate workplace that says, “We want to put a big ass LED display in our lobby. We don't know what to do or what to put on or anything else. What do we do?” And your regional person might have a kind of deer-in-the-headlights sort of reaction and call you or somebody on your team and say, okay, I need help here.
Mark Coxon: Yeah. So a lot of our opportunities do arise within the regions themselves, right? Because AVI-SPL is a huge corporation. We have, I think, 300+ sellers out in the marketplace, across the world, talking to clients, managing accounts where they might do a lot more of the typical AV that you see out in the space: conference rooms and auditoriums, et cetera, and they'll come across customers saying, “Oh, I think we want to add a wow factor to this lobby” or “We're thinking about building an experience center to show off some of the new innovation that we came out with this year.” And so they'll engage our group, which is an overlay to the whole company, and bring us in, and we can really start to give, I guess, some form to that process and make sure they get what they want at the end of it.
So you have a BizDev role, but it sounds like there's a fair amount of sales, engineering, and front-end consulting involved in it.
Mark Coxon: Yeah, it’s funny. AVI-SPL isn't really known in the market for experiential work, but we've done a lot of it. We've done a lot of it in pockets over the years for these customers, but it was never really organized under a division, and so that's why XTG exists. We've organized this portfolio of work in this division and assigned it to a team of people. We have about 30 people on our team now that overlay the country, and that team consists of people like me, business development directors, and we come from different backgrounds, some come from fabrication, some come from the consulting world, some like me come from all over the place within the industry from an integration perspective, and then we also have technologists on the team whose job is really exactly what you said to be those people who are thinking about the art of the possible.
“All right, this customer's asked for this outcome. They have these people coming to their building. They want them to feel this. They want this actionable insight out of the space.” And they're the ones who actually come up with the ideas on what kind of technology could we use to execute this and if we were to pull this off, what would it take for us to do that? And then they start to come up with rough sketches of what the technology would be to execute on that outcome.
Yeah, it's interesting. Through the years, I've been asked who do you know over at AVI-SPL and I'll say nobody from the context of digital signage, and the company's been known as a very large company, and it’s very active. But doing more, if this is the right term, traditional AV work in the corporate workplace, that sort of thing, and as you said, pockets of activity in digital signage, but nothing organized.
So was it recognized within the company that we need to aggregate this and put ourselves forward as being directly in this as opposed to people discovering that, oh, you do that too?
Mark Coxon: Correct. XTG's definitely a targeted branding effort at consolidating this work and this expertise we have in things like executive briefing centers, museums, welcome centers, visitors centers, hall of fame experiences, et cetera, that we've done over the years for enterprise, higher-ed, and really creating some emphasis around that type of work that we do, for sure.
Is there some cross-pollination happening when you do that? What I mean is, if you do some sort of immersive, experiential environment for a corporate workplace. Do they then two years later say, oh, by the way, we need new video conferencing capabilities or new meeting room signs, that sort of thing. Do you do that?
Also, vice versa where you're already in there doing collaboration work, and they say, we want to do something in our lobby with Wow Factory. Can you do that?
Mark Coxon: Yeah, obviously, we see both of those happen. Places where we're brought in maybe to do some specialty work, and of course, the other work at that point seems like more low-hanging fruit because it's work that we excel at already and have a huge portfolio of as far as auditoriums, meeting spaces, et cetera, and then, yeah, like you said, vice versa. We're coming in, and we're doing a lot of work, and you walk through this amazing lobby where people are going to come in their first experience before they come there to meet.
So let's say somebody's bringing a customer into their building, and they're going to pitch a multimillion dollar sale with this customer that they have. How are they defining what that experience is gonna be within the building and just asking that question sometimes, who's doing this space? This looks like a customer-facing, marketing-driven space, and a lot of times they don't know that we do that work, and yeah, we stumble upon it that way as well.
Do you guys go into prospective customers or existing customers pitching the idea of experiential spaces, or are you really operating off of their interest and initiative when they're saying we're interested in this?
I suspect it would be hard to pitch somebody saying, “You should have a big-ass LED video wall in your lobby.”
Mark Coxon: Yeah. I call that technology in search of an application, and that's definitely not what we do. There's a great quote by Cedric Price, who was a mid-century architect, that says, “Technology is the answer, but what's the question?” And that's really what my job is within the team, and the business development team's job is (we have a few business development managers), but our job is really what are you trying to accomplish in this space? What business outcomes are you trying to achieve when you're looking at building this space?
We're in this weird mode, right? Where a lot of companies are re-evaluating what it means to have an office in general, what it means to have physical space, whether that be retail, we just saw Bed, Bath & Beyond looking at closing up and citing online competition as one of the reasons, so what does it mean to have place-based retail today? And if we are going to build a space, what should it be? And really starting at that level. So I try to start with that level with people all the time, even in the enterprise.
The question isn't what do we do with the lease that we have or this space that we have? That's part, but that's the bridge. The real question is, if I had nothing, what would I build? And that's really the end goal of what you should be moving towards, and so many times we really start breaking down the problem of: what are the impacts that you hope to make by having a physical office or a physical retail location? And then how do we move backward from that into how does that now affect what we design into space, including the technology that will go into there?
It's really reversing that. If we go in and just start telling people how cool it is to have an LED wall in their lobby, we're selling from the wrong perspective. But if somebody says, you know what, when people come in here, they come in here, and they sit, and they go into their phone. So they're waiting for a meeting. They come and sit in our lobby. They start looking at their phone, and suddenly they're stuck in their email. They're thinking about the seven things they have to do when they get back to the office, and they're already moving past our meeting. We want to create something that actually creates some anticipation, some foreshadowing that tilts them into the anticipation of the meeting they're about to have and not pull them out of our space and back into their workday. How do we accomplish that?
And those types of conversations are much, much more fun to have and that could result at the end in having a 400-inch video while in the lobby, or it could result in maybe taking physical objects that the company's made if they're an aerospace company taking some of the innovations they have like rocket nozzles and things, and putting them on a shelf and letting people pick them up and play with them. And as they do, content launches, ambiently, around the room as they interface with these objects or whatever that happens to be. But really starting with who is here, why are they here? What are they interested in, and how do we engage them more? So that when they leave, they remember being here, and they actually take the actions we want them to take. So it's a much different approach than screens first, right?
Yeah. As you might expect, I get bombarded with emails and pitches and everything else every day talking about different projects and capabilities of companies, and I see the words experience and immersive overused and abused quite a bit, and I'm curious how you define immersive and how experience is defined because I get a sense that there's this idea that experiential and immersive means that, you have to have a video wall that's got gesture recognition and you're going to wave your arms in front of it, and all these things are going to happen, or they're synchronized lighting, or God knows what.
But from my point of view, there are times when an experience is just something that tells you if you're confused about which way to go, things like that, something that just makes the space better.
Mark Coxon: A hundred percent. So it's funny that you mentioned that because although I'm on an experience team, I'm a big fan of the calm movement. How are we decreasing the technology we use for mundane tasks or throughout the day to create these analog, tactile, calm moments. I agree that the best definition of experience I've heard, and one I tried to adhere to was by Brian Solis. He used to be at Salesforce, I think he's now at Service Now, but he's written a lot of books on the experience economy.
And he said, an experience is an emotional reaction to a moment in time, and as you said, that doesn't have to be an overwhelming jaw-dropping experience. It could be a relief like you said, that now I know where to go, or it could be a silent pause that allows you to reflect. I think there are a lot of ways that you can create an experience for a company.
For me, immersive just means that it's drawing the person in. It doesn't have to be all-encompassing. Are there ways to do that? Yeah. I've given, and I'm going to give a course this year at Infocom on creating the new connection center. I've given some talks before on utilizing biology to give a deeper connection to your message. So things like engaging peripheral vision work because more of your brain turns on when your fight or flight response is activated when your peripheral vision is being activated. And so are there ways that we can use, potentially waves of light to focus people inward on a screen or on a position in a room. Are there ways to draw people through space to a place where we want them to dwell? How do we create experiences where we don't, I guess, create congestion, right? Like putting a screen in the middle of a hallway, it could be a good idea as long as you're not encouraging people to stand there for 15 minutes, as long as the dwell time there is 15-20 seconds, et cetera.
So I think experience is also just how people interact with the space themselves, and immersion is a combination of all of those things. So engaging more senses always creates more memory, but that doesn't have to be an active participation either. I think the things that are often overlooked in experience are opportunities to create, if it's a movement of air, if it's gentle waves, if it's mechanical movement in a ceiling, if it's an ambient soundscape that fills the space instead of white noise, all of these things can lend to experience, but they're nothing that somebody stops and focuses on. They're things that happen in the background that enhance what's going on, without the person experiencing it really focusing on it, if that makes sense.
Yeah, I'm listening to that, and I'm wondering how the people on the other side of the table are responding to that. I suspect some of them are leaning forward and very interested, and other ones are going, that sounds expensive!
Mark Coxon: You do get that. You can definitely get that, and I think that's why the co-design process is so important and not coming in with an idea of what you want to sell. Like earlier, you talked about me coming in and telling somebody why this experience is going to be important for them. Again, that's me pushing something upstream that I've got an idea about.
I always say my best tool in a meeting is a blank piece of paper. Because if I sit down and really listen to what people do in this space, what they're trying to accomplish, all of those things, I'll pick up little notes. I had a customer the other day who, the architect, had put together a mood board of what this space wanted to feel and look like. They built a lot of these common spaces that they're talking about in architecture, We and Us spaces is what they're calling them where they're building these cafes with a lot of biophilia and wood and stone, and all of these things, and they're like we want to do sound masking in here, and you're like, okay, that's great. So obviously, you want to keep the sound from moving back and forth, but what you've really created here is almost an urban park or a community park type feel in this space so instead of just flooding this with white noise or paint noise, why not create a nature scape or something like that'll also keep the noise transfer down but really reinforce this idea that you're outside in this natural environment as opposed to the hush of a quiet office or the hush of a pink noise or white noise air chiller or something that a lot of times you put in a office space where maybe you're trying to focus on deep work and not on connection, right?
So it's just really listening to those things. When you start to identify those, when people start to, I guess self align with certain ideas as you're walking through what the different pieces are, they're more invested in that. Then when you come into that space where the cost comes, they really then weigh that against the impact as opposed to comparing it to what four speakers playing white noise would cost in the space.
Is it like that book about a village in terms of these kinds of projects where it's super important to have the architect involved, the engineers involved, all the different players who collaborate on a finished project as opposed to just the AV team coming in and executing this part of it?
Mark Coxon: A thousand percent. So many times, when we are brought in, what we end up doing and what I do with clients when they ask for an experience like this is one of the first things we want to do is almost a gap in overlaps kind of analysis with them. There is an ecosystem of partners that is necessary to create an experience. You're going to have somebody that's creating custom content. You may have two or three companies creating custom content. You may have to have a company specializing in video and live-action, live actors, et cetera, maybe somebody specializing in creating interactive user interfaces for touchscreens and all of those things. So you have these content creators. You do typically have somebody as an architect in this space that's obviously defining what the space looks like. Many times you have an experiential design firm doing the story, right? What's the strategy, what's the story? How are we walking people through this space? That's working with the marketing team in the company. Then you have custom fabricators building all this set work that the audiovisual goes into to create the look and feel that everybody has drawn down on the paper.
So it does take a village, and many times that's part of what we do, is we educate what it is that players are involved in a successful experience. Who are the stakeholders that you have involved with now? Do we need to get more stakeholders involved? Many times it might come through IT because they see it as a technology buying exercise and you really find out that marketing and the C-suite and human resources need to be involved because this is a system that's meant to reconnect the employees of the company to the mission of what they're doing every single day in space. And now all of a sudden that becomes a much higher strategy-level conversation on how it's executed, and so it does take a village and it takes a great ecosystem of partners. I know that word's overused too. I've used it twice.
But it takes this great array of partners, which is one of our core strengths is that we have a partnership manager that works specifically on making sure that we have a broad array of partners that we can introduce into these projects with our customers to make sure that none of these gaps are left untouched and that the experience we deliver at the end is not just a piece of technology installed on a wall because the technology itself, you don't get the value out of it when it's installed in the building, you extract the value out of the system. The ROI comes from the use of the system over time to drive the outcomes that you were looking for and thinking of this as a construction project where I delivered the 400-inch LED screen, so we're done, and the customer got what they paid for, they haven't actually extracted any value out of that piece of equipment yet. It's a depreciating asset until they play something on it that gets them the result that they want.
So we really try to focus on that instead of just our one part, and our, as I said earlier, we have our team. Our team, from a business development perspective, we walk through those things. Our technologists design the technology, but we also, when we take on a project, we have a program manager. And they're involved from the beginning, they listen to the intent, and just like in the programming phase of architecture, when you talk about what is the intent of the space and what are the ways that we're going to actually make some design decisions to facilitate that, the program manager really carries that spirit of the job and make sure that those partner handoffs, et cetera, are all going well and that everybody's involved in delivering the final result and so we built a process by which we deliver that, and we believe in it, so yeah, it does take a village for sure.
What is the breadth of services?
I'm thinking of one company much smaller than AVI-SPL, but they can do the full experience including metal fabrication and creative design, all that. So they can pretty much go from inception to delivery out of the same shop as opposed to using partners, but for a large company with a whole bunch of partners in play, how much do you want to own and how much do you want to cross-pollinate and work together on things?
Mark Coxon: We've doubled down on partnership when it comes to that. Our core strength is delivering technology. That's why our business was built, and that's what we do best, so we focus on the design and implementation of those technology systems, and for the other pieces, we partner. So you know, w don't build a lot of content. We do have a division called Video Link that does some content for video production for meetings, et cetera.
But are we going to create computer animations for how our power plant works? No. We're going to bring in a partner that knows how to do that every day to do that. Are we going to define for the company what their story should be based on their seven customer personas? No, we're going to work with their marketing department, and if they need some help really coming up with a storyline, we're going to bring in one of our branding and creative strategy partners to help with that because that's what their core skill set is.
So we try to focus on what our operational excellence is, and that is delivering technology systems. But from the standpoint of the way that we approach the sales group, we're not engaging in a process that's designed to sell a particular technology. So it's the difference between focusing on what we're really good at and letting the cart dry the horse. I love the Maslow quote, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We try not to approach this, well, we need to sell 600 extra square meters of LED this quarter so this customer will get a video wall. That's not the way that we approach this.
We don't approach this from a technology-centric lens, but we know where we play well and what we deliver value in the market with, and that's the technology portion.
I wrote recently about a company that was, maybe not pivoting, but evolving into doing AV as a service, with the argument being that a lot of end-user customers would rather just have the whole project done as an operating line item as opposed to all the upfront costs of capital, and they don't want to worry about recurring support and all that. They'd just rather pay a number and let somebody else do it. Is that something that comes up and that you offer?
Mark Coxon: Yeah, it comes up all the time. I think customers are always looking for ways to understand how much of this you want to own from a content update perspective, from how you manage refreshes, from even how you buy a system, as you said. Is it an operational cost, or is it a capital expenditure? Is it a construction project, or is it an ongoing cost month over month?
One place that we see this very specifically right now is we're doing some virtual production and XR opportunities for clients, especially in the corporate space where they're wanting to elevate their all-hands meetings or their product launches or any of those types of things. They're often already buying those services in an operational cost format where. They're going out and renting a studio, or they're hiring a production company to come in and do these meetings for them. So they don't want to take on a capital expenditure. They want that to continue to be an operational cost. So yeah, through things like creating a plan for leasing equipment by having a breadth of services onsite, like we have onsite managed services where we can embed an AVI-SPL employee in one of our businesses to run a center per se, or to run a virtual production studio for the customer so that they just come in, the stakeholders come in, they talk about the product they want to talk about, and somebody's running all the front house, back house doing the streaming out to the other participants, et cetera.
Yeah, we offer all of that, and that's one of the great things about working with somebody like us is because we do have such a large footprint, we do have such a presence, we have 4,000 employees across the world, and we have onsite managed services available. We have the ability to buy things on the customer's behalf and lease them, et cetera. That's one of the great advantages of someone with a big footprint like us is we have the ability to do those things.
What are the reference projects that you bring up? So you're sitting in a meeting, and they say, “What have you guys done? Impress me!”
What do you come back with?
Mark Coxon: Yeah. There are always a few that we show. The Museum of the Future in Dubai is an amazing project that we did, and people were like, you guys did that project? I'm like, yeah, we did that project and delivered it through our Dubai office, which is an amazing office. That team is, hands down, an awesome team. But we show projects like that because that's a space where people pretty much ride an elevator, like a space capsule, up into a space station and then come back to Earth in a future state, and the museum architecturally is beautiful, it's an oval with a hole in the middle of it. You even wonder how it suspends itself, as well as just all the different things that are in there. There's a touch interface where a half globe, a half spear actually swells up out of a flat table, and you can use it to articulate the earth. Who's ever seen an interface like that before?
So obviously, there were some great creative partners involved in the content and in that fabrication. But that's obviously a showcase project that we talk about a lot, and then we have visitor centers and executive briefing centers. A lot of our executive briefing centers are very impressive, Honeywell and Charlotte is a beautiful center with everything from transparent LED to kiosks to volumetric displays with physical artifacts to a full four-wall cave immersion room with a touch interface in the middle to navigate through 3D environments.
And so we show a lot of those pieces. We try to show projects that have, I guess, a variety of execution styles because not everything needs to be a touchscreen. It's to show someone that you could have 3D printed objects on a table, and as you pick up those objects, the video changes, and as you articulate that object, you can actually affect different parts of the video to launch. Those kinds of things are really cool and just show people that it doesn't just have to be a touch screen on a wall. We're not looking to put a big black rectangle on the finish you spent six months working on with the architect. We're going to make sure that's integrated into the space in the proper way.
Yeah, I'm a big fan of subtlety and just little things like present sensors that cost a few bucks to incorporate into a design. But you walk within a certain range, and it changes what's on a screen, and “Oh, how'd that happen?” It's great, but it's not fancy, you're not issuing a press release about it.
Mark Coxon: Yeah. We've been working on some projects where they're talking about using real-time location services as people walk through the building. So they get badged in, or they get a card, and that card has a profile that maybe they've entered in, and as they walk through the space, the experience is personalized slightly to them, based on their profile or using things like data generated art. Humans are great at pattern recognition, and so if you're putting audio/visual in a space that people work in every day, or people go into the office every day with these screens are in the background, you don't want them to be counting down 15 seconds to read and then 32 seconds until the screen goes blue with white text and then: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, cue the video of the kid running through the park.
That almost becomes like water torture at some point, right? It's just the constant dripping of this repetitive content that goes on in the background. So how do we use things like occupancy sensors, and time of day weather outside, all of which create effects on these screens that are more ambient in times that they're not being actively used for customer communication or employee communication?
A lot of those things are really cool. So what you said, that subtlety, and really thinking of just the different moments. These are canvases that we can use for multiple things. Sometimes they need to be quiet and soothing for people to do their work. Other times they need to be loud and inspiring to get somebody's attention and be able to design something that does that and know who to partner with on the backend from a hardware perspective for something like a content management system that can be on a schedule or can use sensor-based inputs to trigger different modes is really important.
Are you sensing or seeing any kind of a shift in the marketplace in terms of rising interest in a particular thing?
I know you mentioned experience centers, but those have been around for a while, that's an area where I get a sense because of the pandemic and everything, they're elevating in importance because you don't have as many people in the offices.
Mark Coxon: Yeah, I think experience centers are becoming more and more prominent. Companies are seeing if they can bring their customers in and create a memorable, relevant experience around their value story, that pays dividends for them.
I think we're seeing more and more interest, as I said, in virtual and extended reality, virtual production, and extended reality stages for elevating corporate communications. Suppose every single one of your communications goes out in 16 squares on a VTC call. How do you punctuate those meetings so that the important ones are elevated and look different, feel different, and actually engage people differently? We're seeing more and more of that.
I will say, honestly, the big push is this: The challenge of physical space in a world that becomes more and more online, we have to get away from the idea of just utility because utility is going to be provided more conveniently, virtually. I can easily join a meeting from my kitchen table. I can easily buy a pair of pants on Amazon. So if we're just looking for the utility of work or the utility of shopping or whatever that place is built to do, if we're focusing on utility, we're always going to lose to the online experience because it's more convenient and the utility is the same. So we really have to focus on the personal experience.
Gensler did an experience index on public space a few years back, pre-pandemic, but people are in multiple modes when they go shopping, right? People are in the task-based mode of finding something to buy, but they're also in a mode of exploration. They're in a mode of connection. They're in a mode of aspiration. Who do I want to be? What do I want to be? I want to be inspired. They're looking for cultural connection. There are all these other motivations at play, and it's the same when people come to interact in an office, when they join their team, when they go to a movie theater versus watching something on Netflix. There's a reason the movie theaters haven't died. It feels different to watch a movie in a movie theater, not just because of the scale of the screen or the audio, but because it feels different being in a room, having a shared experience with other people, hearing their reaction to something, hearing when they go silent, when they laugh and when they cheer.
Those are things that we can really build an experience around, and I always say technology has advanced to a space where technology is usually not the limiting factor, so technology's no longer a huge challenge, space isn't a huge challenge, to design a space or to be able to build a space that facilitates these things. So really, now we are in the challenge of getting somebody back to the office, getting somebody in a mall, it is a human-centric problem. That's a human-centric exercise, and if we don't start with experience design that addresses the human motivation of why they would go somewhere, and we just address the utility of how big a store need to be and how big a screen need to be for somebody to read the text? We're never going to solve a human-based problem on why space is relevant, and so I think companies and customers are starting to see this more and more if we can start talking about: what is the human experience, and then how do we use space and technology to facilitate that? It's just a different way to solve the problem.
We have to flip the model in its head. We can't start with a square building, add technology, and then hope people come and use it in the way that we designed it. That's not experience design.
All right, Mark, thank you very much—very interesting chat.
Mark Coxon: Hey, thank you, Dave. I appreciate it.
Wednesday May 10, 2023
Luca Gonnelli, Algo
Wednesday May 10, 2023
Wednesday May 10, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
Tools that fast-track or reduce the costs of video production have been around for many years - often based on templates that can be brought into design software or extended to cloud platforms. These kinds of tools make it possible to produce a professional-looking video spot quickly, or with a newer breed of them, produce dozens, hundreds or thousands of videos really quickly.
An Italian motion design studio saw both the demands and possibilities for video automation, and launched a sister company in Turin called Algo. It has some similarities to what's out there, but takes what you might call a hybrid approach. The design process is very much like a traditional agency, with briefs and storyboards. But once that phase is completed, Algo's customers use the platform as a service.
If you have an electric vehicle and have used a Volta charging station, you may have seen motion infographics on the screen that used real-time data from Bloomberg to visually show local air quality conditions on the charging totem screen. Johns Hopkins University used Algo to develop a daily COVID tracker during the pandemic.
Algo's main market is the business side of social media - so more Linkedin than TikTok. But it has already done and expects to see more work coming for digital signage and Digital Out Of Home screens. Automated spots can run on screens in much the same way as digital signage platforms tap into subscription news, weather and entertainment feeds.
I chatted with Luca Gonnelli, one of Algo's founders.
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Luca, thank you for joining me. We've not met in person and I've never been to Torino, but maybe one time, I'll get there. Can you tell me what Algo does?
Luca Gonnelli: Sure. Hi, Dave, it’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me. So Algo is a design studio, basically, it's a creative studio specialized in data visualization and in particular in what we call video automation, which is basically software or a dashboard to create videos.
Okay, and what does that mean in real terms? So if I'm a digital signage network operator, obviously we're talking about digital signage part of this, and you're doing all kinds of work for different end users, but what's that gonna mean for that person, for that end user?
Luca Gonnelli: Sure. We are working on different types of campaigns and it's super interesting to talk to you about digital advertising, out-of-home, et cetera. That's normal, not often, but sometimes that's part of the equation, while, of course, the other part of the equation is social media and digital overall. So yeah, we really like to work on campaigns where we help our clients showcase data in a very meaningful way, and possibly very easy to understand for the end user, and also it's a kind of way for companies to avoid sensationalism and try to communicate to their users in a respectful and positive matter about data. But of course, it’s a way for companies to profit from their data, and use data in their day-to-day communication, which is not often very common.
In terms of the types of campaigns we work on, it's gone from completely autonomous ones like the campaign we did for John Hopkins University tracking the COVID pandemic where we were creating a video every day that was automatically tracking COVID based on the data, and this was only for online, but in some other projects Where we lean more towards the manual input of data. So sometimes we work with teams with our clients to empower them to create videos effortlessly without having to have video knowledge within the whole organization.
And so yeah, in some cases, for example, in a project for Volta and Bloomberg Green, we did just that, and the output was of course on digital advertising.
Would it be fair to say this isn't necessarily what a listener might think of as a conventional video? It's not people or landscapes or that sort of thing moving around. It's more dynamic/motion infographics. Is that a more accurate way of saying it?
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, that's correct. Before being Algo, we also ran a motion design studio called illo. So Algo is a kind of a technological sister studio, and of course, our background is very much in motion design, but at the same time, Algo really can work with any type of medium, even footage, for example. So of course we tend to go towards a look, which is more graphic-oriented and more based on graphic design but at the same time, in some projects, we also have footage and photos and yeah, that's of course less live-action than maybe average. But, of course, that can be part of the equation.
So when you're using video assets they're like an element within a presentation as opposed to you're generating original video out of it. This isn't an early-stage AI, MidJourney thing, or whatever, right?
Luca Gonnelli: No, but at the same time, we use AI a lot for many different things. So we really tend to define ourselves as Video + AI, because we are not a kind of stable diffusion type of algorithm. But we use many different tools for doing different things from the simplest ones, like transcribing an audio to even generative things like generating a picture or generating audio. This is, for example, a really good use case that we are doing right now quite a lot.
You mentioned that you have or this is a sister company to a more conventional motion design studio. Did you create Algo because this was work that kept coming up, and you thought, okay, we need to set up its own initiative to do this?
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, absolutely. A few years back, we were seeing that communication, the social media world especially were asking for more and more video every day, and our clients could not anymore rely on one piece of advertising every six months, but they needed to be always on and always communicating so that's definitely something that's starting from our technological background, both me and my co-founder and some of them earlier team members have a technological background at the same time, it's coming of course, from the needs of the market.
We were seeing that this was something that was coming in more and more frequently, and of course, also with out-of-home advertising, it's great because you can have different content for different cities for different times and update everything across time and locations, which is great.
There have been video automation platforms around for a good 10 years, arguably longer than that, depending on how you look at it. But a lot of the early ones were template based and you would put inputs in and hit a button and it would render something and give you something back in five minutes or half an hour, or whatever it may be. What's distinct about this?
Luca Gonnelli: We are very different in a way given that we decided to approach this from a very studio point of view, rather than being a product or a platform, which we are not. When a client works with us at the end, they have access to a dashboard. So there's a kind of a product part of it, but really we don't believe in the one size fits all template solution, and so what happens is that we want to remove the humans, the animators, the interns that are doing these things from the equation. But at the same time, we think that the designers and the animators at the very beginning of the project when you're building something tailored made to the specific use case and to the specific location or to a specific client are really important aspects.
So yeah, we just tackle this as a service business and of course, it's a service and then turns into a product because then the client has access to a dashboard and can create videos really like it, just like they would do on a SaaS kinda platform, but yeah, it always starts with a service.
So if I'm a financial services company and I want to do something like what Bloomberg did, I would come to your company and there would be a brief and everything else, but you would basically design a template that would be the working wireframe or armature to produce videos as often as needed and quickly or even automated. Is that accurate?
Luca Gonnelli: That's super accurate, and yeah, most of the time, the starting point is really understanding what data can be used and what data the client has available and what's their objective in their communication. So what they want to obtain from communicating, and so yeah that's really it's a work that we do together with the client. It's rare that we get a brief and we start working. It's more like, I have an interest in automating something. I have the data about this and what, what can we do together?
And so it's really about helping them sketch out concepts and understand exactly how this could work. But yeah, then, of course, we get into the data analysis phase, the conception and storyboarding phase, then design, animation, and then all of the technical phase later to make this possible.
Do your clients have their heads around how all this works? Do they understand what's possible, or do you get into these discussions and say actually we could do a lot more than that?
Luca Gonnelli: Since it’s not yet a super common thing to work on automated videos, we definitely help our clients understand what's possible.
For example, could be the fact that maybe financial clients know that we can create a campaign with a weekly video that's doing a recap of the financial markets, but then what they don't know and what we try to tell them is that you can also trigger a video when something happens, so for example, if Bitcoin is up right now, plus 20% compared to yesterday, that's the moment where you want to communicate. So we can automatically trigger and generate a video at that moment. That's one example of how we try to make our clients understand the possibilities.
How much pre-planning and rules and everything else do you have to put into making that scenario happen? It's not a smart thing where it's just going to know “Bitcoin's up so I better generate a video” - there are parameters, and everything is set, right?
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah. We connect to different sources of data. I think over the course of the last few years, we connected to really hundreds of different APIs and data points. But yeah, of course, what you do with the data is the interesting part, and so each time is really about deciding what these rules are and what rules are meant for the specific client. So it's definitely a process and it's definitely an iterative process.
So we start with an idea but maybe 20% up is not the best because maybe it won't trigger very often. So we want to put that at plus 7%, and so yeah, that's definitely a lot of back and forth, but it's super interesting and it's super meaningful when you start to see that videos coming out are really talking about the important stuff for the client are on top of the news. It's super interesting.
Another example of this would be we are using an AI called Feedly to basically select articles that are relevant in a specific sector and create videos on top of those articles, basically transforming those articles into videos, and that's another similar but very interesting approach where you completely give the AI the ability to create videos on different topics. The only thing you do is basically say, okay, I want to follow these new sources, I want to follow Bloomberg and the New York Times and the Financial Times, and then I will track these topics: Crypto, NFTs, and so at that point the AI will come out with videos that are trending and that has just been published and are interesting. So you completely give the AI the ability to create videos, which I think is very fun and interesting.
Is there any kind of gatekeeping in there?
What I mean by that is let's say you’re using an AI tool and it decides it can generate a video about something and it's not correct, which can happen, I think they call AI hallucinations or something like that, and it's the wrong thing. So if I'm a financial services company, I obviously don't wanna be putting out inaccurate information. Can they review everything before it goes up?
Luca Gonnelli: Exactly. So the first thing that happens in this particular kind of project is the fact that of course the video gets generated and the editorial team on the client's side can review the video and can both edit the video if something just needs a little bit of correction or can skip the video completely. So there's an option too, if it's not connected straight away to posting. We have a connection to posting, but it's normally after human review, which is always needed at this point.
So if you had really trusted lockdown data sources, like the financial numbers for a company or whatever that you know is secure. Those could be automated, but other things you'd want that just checks and balances on.
Luca Gonnelli: Exactly. When the AI comes in, it's accurate 97% of the time, but of course, you want to make sure that 3% don't get published so there's always a manual check, which is needed. But actually, the interesting thing for the client is that you can have a kind of newsroom producing video content for you in really high numbers per day, and the only job remaining on your side is to just watch the videos and approve them or edit them in case you want to add something.
You're in this interesting position where you're a creative agency, but you're working a lot with AI and you have all the discussion right now about what AI means for the creative process, does it remove the creator process to some degree, or is this good or bad, or you have a somewhat unique perspective?
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, it's been quite a lot, actually. Since we started Algo, we also have had animators and designers coming to us and saying, Algo is trying to replace my job, and we are always replying to them, the first project we did started because we wanted to work with a client in the sports sector for the Italian football league, which is a very huge topic, and basically, they wanted videos coming out every weekend for the whole season, and it was like a nightmare of a brief, and we decided to tackle it with automation. So we tried to save ourselves from doing this project manually, and so yeah, in the end, what I'm always say to people that are scared about Algo replacing them is basically the human needs to do the job of the human, which is the conception or the design, and thinking about the, how the design changes in the function of the data.
While, of course, updating the content, the template and super quickly and putting it out on social media, it's something that our machine can do better and so we can get rid of that part of the job, which I don't think people like, and on the AI side probably is something similar like of course, it's crazy because you see these super high-quality images coming out and it's getting to the video also quite quickly. I'm very positive towards technology as a person, and so I think that this will be a huge change but at the same time, it's somehow very interesting and manageable in terms of what you can build with it. The whole change that's happening is super fast and so it's scary, but at the same, I feel that we are in a good position.
I believe every market around design, around creativity, is going to be much more saturated because many more people can access it, but at the same time, we've seen that in other markets. For example, if you think about it, creating a website that's a super-saturated market compared to maybe video today. But of course, the most interesting and the most high-end shops producing amazing websites are still there even if all these Webflow or Squarespace or all these platforms came out to make it easy for anyone to get a website.
So I really hope that there will be, of course, a much more saturated market, but at the same time, if you are in the high-end space, that's probably going to be more a value add than something negative.
When making notes ahead of this, I was trying to get a sense of the big attraction would be and I wrote down speed, scale, recency, and relevancy. The fact that you can have something that just happened up on a screen 15 minutes later or whatever it may be. What are the main attractions to this that you're hearing from customers?
Luca Gonnelli: No, that's definitely correct. The ability to scale up your production, so for example, coming to our Volta project I was talking early, the project that was being distributed to digital screens across the US with EV charging stations. The objective of the campaign was to provide a way for people that are charging their cars to not only see ads but also see this additional content, which is basically an air quality forecast of their city, so it’s connecting the objective which is living in a city with cleaner air with what you're doing. So by being there and using the charging station, you're participating in improving your city's air.
It was a really interesting project. The videos were super short, and it was challenging to think about them in a way that they could work for people just passing by. From social media, for example, because of course on social media, people are scrolling all the time and it's really difficult to get their attention the same, in a similar way, but it's similar but different. So yeah, we try to work with that.
But definitely, in this case, we work creating content every day for the 12 different cities. So this is an example of the scale that we require maybe a few different people to work on this constantly just to produce this while Algo was working completely autonomously and yeah, the speed, that's definitely, sometimes especially when working with sports or finance data, speed is important, and so yeah, we can get to have a video out maybe 30 seconds later than something happened, and so it's really almost real-time in a way that that's crazy, and so it's also very interesting in some projects.
Is it reducing the costs of production?
I realize that you're able to knock out a lot more stuff than you would normally, and a company like Volta or whatever, probably, even if Shell owns them, probably can't afford just to have original videos produced for 200 locations every day or whatever it may be. But is cost a factor here?
Luca Gonnelli: It's definitely a factor. Of course, we are positioning ourselves as a high-end solution. It works when there's an opportunity to use a format and communicate through a reusable specific format. We work a lot to ensure the format is not perceived easily and yeah, when working on a video campaign, our objective is always to try to make it so that the end user doesn't understand that it's automated content. So yeah, becoming transparent. It's always our goal. But cost optimization compared to working manually, it's definitely an element of it.
And the more you produce, the bigger the output you have and the more that is fundamental, for example, sometimes we even work with campaigns where we produce content for a specific person. So imagine the kind of Spotify Wrapped type of campaigns, where you’re providing content specific for every single user of an application, and in that case, we're talking about millions of assets, and so it's definitely worth and basically the only way to produce these kinds of campaigns through Algo.
So you can do that kind of industrial-scale stuff then?
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, absolutely. We use different technologies and one of them, which is based on a library called Lottie which Airbnb creates to incorporate animations into mobile apps and the web. We use that and with that, scale up to potentially create millions of videos per month.
Yeah, I saw on your website the reference to Lottie, and went a little cross-eye, what is that? And how about you explain it?
Luca Gonnelli: It's super interesting. That's an open-source library that was created by Hernan Torrisi and co-developed by Airbnb and basically, it's a way for animators that are working inside of After Effects, which is the software that we are using daily together with others.
But yeah, it allows you to animate in After Effects, and you do that with all of the best tools that animators are used to working with, and then you output that as an SVG animation. So it's code-based, web animation that can run in the browser or inside of a mobile app, a native iOS or Android app. So it's a great way to come out with the tool that every motion designer loves and uses and gets to code and so that's a super amazing way to scale things up and to reach numbers that, for us, were impossible by using only After Effects.
What are the file formats that you're outputting?
Luca Gonnelli: All of the video file formats. So it can be mp4, it can sometimes be when working with TV can be MXF or anything, literally, so anything that can be exported from Adobe software. So static PDFs or GIFs, that's also another format that maybe sometimes it's not so useful maybe on digital advertising, but it can be exported. So yeah, we have many options.
So there's nothing proprietary about it? You don't need to write some sort of player software, or something like that to make it work?
So if I'm a digital out-of-home network operator or a digital signage solutions provider, software company, that sort of thing. How would I work with your company?
Luca Gonnelli: We could work on a project together either for a client or for themself, but basically, it's about understanding what kind of data they want to talk about and what kind of solution, so it can be very free and pretty open, and then, of course, we would work on design animation and then on the output side, for example, for the Volta project, we were delivering those automatically to the screens directly. So we integrated it into the platform that they were using to deliver the videos to their screens but I remember that we also evaluated other options like going as a video directly or of course the Lottie thing can be a good solution as well, because of course, it's outputting a very lightweight web animation.
We could of course start the project from maybe our dashboard that we built. Where the client can input the data and change and see how the design changes in the function of the data, and then yeah you just click a button for creating video, and the video gets generated in a few seconds and gets potentially delivered to the distribution servers so that, yeah, that things can proceeds mostly directly to the screen.
So it doesn't sound at all like you get into a situation or a conversation with somebody who says, yes, we'd love to work with you, but it has to be done this specific way. It sounds like it's pretty flexible.
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, we tailor the solution for every project. We build something custom, and so yeah, there's no particular way of doing things that it must be done in that way. We can really adapt, and we change technology, and we change the way we work, so that's also part of the complexity. We are trying to make people on our clients understand that there are a lot of potential solutions that could happen.
But at the same time, of course, we have some previous examples which we can share. So it's easy to see some real-life examples.
I have a feeling when you get the question of how much it costs that there has to be inevitably the qualifier of: well, it depends.
Luca Gonnelli: Yeah, it really depends a lot on the needs of the client. But yeah, the pricing works normally through a setup fee, which covers the whole project setup. Normally we start from a couple of months of work, and yeah, the pricing can also vary a lot in function of what kind of data we are using. There's licensing of this data, or how complex the output is, if it's more generative so we are actually designing our, creating an output, which is changing every time or if it's that more relying on some rules that we'd predefined.
But we normally start with this kind of two months of collaboration where with our design team and animation team and technical team to build a project, and that's a one-time fee covering all that, and then when the project after testing, a lot of testing after testing when things are going live you subscribe to a much smaller but recurring fee based on the function of how many videos you need to create or how many animations web animations, and so also that is very variable, but yeah, it's a closer to SaaS kind of approach.
So typically, you might have a significant, depending on the brief, upfront cost to put it together, but after that, it's just it just becomes an operating line item?
Luca Gonnelli: Exactly. The first year, you're investing in creating this format, and the more you use it later, the more it's going to be cost-effective. Of course, the one-time fee, it's only due the first time. Normally Algo projects are running for around maybe two or three years and of course, sometimes we also do updates and work on refreshing the project after a while since it's a video project, so we can always do that later. But yeah, normally it's an investment in the first year, but then it's paying off in the following ones.
With AI and all the generative stuff emerging at a dizzyingly fast pace, is it worrying or confusing or whatever to try to stay on top of this and stay relevant to when you've got all these little apps coming out saying, you can do all of this automatically. You don't even need to have a photo library anymore, you can just generate it.
Luca Gonnelli: I really find it super, super exciting because I'm trying to follow it as much as possible. Of course, it's moving very fast. But how the way we are approaching this is really to see which tool is the most effective in helping us obtain what we want to obtain for projects.
So just to give you an example we are using GPT4 right now on a project to basically summarize an article and turn an article into a video, and that's amazing how you can just simply use the summarization feature which is super well done and so yeah, we are actually making GPT4 write the script for the video based on just a long-form article which we're passing to it, and that's the only suggestion. So you copy-paste the URL of the article, you click a button and you will see structures adapting function of the content that's been analyzed by GPT4, and so that's super interesting to see how this can evolve and how to use, for example, the next step could be using another AI service which is called Play.HD, which would be love, which is voice synthesis. It's like creating human-sounding voices, really super realistic voices that are almost indistinguishable from voiceover actors to basically record voiceovers for the videos so they sound warm.
So just with those two things you've written a script based on a long, preexisting, long-form article and you have a voiceover for that, and so then we focus on the design side. But yeah, that's super exciting. Of course, we're not developing ourselves. We're a small team, and we're not developing our own machine-learning algorithms, but we're literally using all the interesting ones that are coming our way for all the projects.
Really interesting. Luca, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Just before we go, where do people find you online?
Luca Gonnelli: Sure. Our website is algo.tv and most of our socials are also @algo.tv.
Very simple. All right. Thanks again.
Luca Gonnelli: Thanks to you.
Wednesday May 03, 2023
Sean McCaffrey, GSTV
Wednesday May 03, 2023
Wednesday May 03, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
In the early years of digital signage networks - particularly those that were ad-based - operators would often describe how their medium was captive. The proposition was that people stuck doing something - usually waiting - would pass their time looking at a screen.
Then smartphones came along, and there went that notion. Except in places like gas stations, where people still needed to be somewhat focused on the task. A company called GSTV has been running a digital signage channel on the screens of fuel dispensers for almost two decades, and is deployed at more than 25,000 locations.
The company dominates its category, and the mix of programming on the pump screens has 100 million unique viewers.
The pitch to planners is far more sophisticated these days than the captive audience thing - something very obvious in this talk with CEO Sean McCaffrey, who gets into a lot of detail about the benefits for consumer brands and for the gas station and C-store operators who work with GSTV.
Subscribe from wherever you pick up new podcasts.
Sean, thank you for joining me. It's almost weird to think about, but your company and your medium is actually a pretty mature medium now.
Sean McCaffrey: It is. I still look at it as very new. I've been with the business for five and a half years, and when I describe it to people at a backyard barbecue, and they ask what I do, I say: I run a six-year-old startup that happened and have a one-year proof of concept. So to your point, we've been around for 15+ years as a sector, if you will.
For people who maybe don't live in the United States, describe what it is that goes on.
Sean McCaffrey: Yeah, no problem. So GSTV is a national digital video platform in 205 US markets. Out of 210, we reach about 50% percent of US adults every month, about 116m monthly unique viewers, and we connect with consumers three to five minutes at a time, three to five times a month when they're fueling up their vehicle. So think about it as a very habitual serialized engagement week in and week out when someone stops to fuel up as they're running errands on a road trip, on their way to the ballgame on a Saturday, that sort of thing, and we partner with the fuel and convenience retailers in the US to put in this amenity, provide information, entertainment, that sort of thing, and focus on building value for brands, agencies, retailers, and consumers, and we work with a variety of large chains, small chains middle market, kind of everything in between.
And the nut of it is you've got a screen embedded in the fuel dispenser.
Sean McCaffrey: Correct. Our screens come embedded in the fuel equipment, which is a long-term hardware purchase decision for fuel retailers. The retailers get it as an amenity, and they get a small amount of promotional time within our show. There are shared economics amongst the parties obviously as well, and then we build a consumer experience that provides value to the retailers, value to consumers, and then brands and agencies can integrate in any number of ways. The way we look at it is we program a show every day. Every station is like an addressable household. The household has more family members, so we could have tens of thousands of different versions of the show on any given day, depending on what content and what advertising is running.
Now, we don't go probably down to that level of customization just based on how brands use it. But think about urban, suburban, weekday, weekend, all those lake and beach communities, let's say all summer long, that is a very different population from Thursday to Sunday, let's say in July versus January. So lots of ways to customize the entertainment, content, commercials, advertising, and so on.
I have a bit of a past with this stuff going back to the early to mid 2000s when there was a Canadian company also looking at this, and at that time it was extraordinarily challenging to put a piece of electronics on a fuel dispenser that's sitting on top of a reservoir of thousands of gallons of flammable liquid. It was a little nerve-wracking.
Is it now a standard piece of kit, so to speak, for the fuel dispenser manufacturers like the Gilbarcos of the world?
Sean McCaffrey: It is, and you're right, that era in the early to mid two 2000s, not just in our space, but really in broader digital signage or digital outta home, if you will, in general.
There was a lot bigger hardware literally and figuratively, hardware and software challenges to solve. Now, they're not done today, but all of this has come a long way. So for our business today, yes, it's a very standard part of what our great partners at Dover and Gilbarco both produce. The retailer can make a choice on the equipment that they want to buy and everything comes kitted out for them. There's an upgrade opportunity if they have equipment already. There's a new equipment purchase opportunity, so there are obviously several different SKUs of hardware products they can buy, and then it's all IP addressable, and all enabled that our team runs. And we have a network operating center that it's all built on and enabled programmatically in terms of scheduling as well.
So it's really come a long way. Anyone that is involved in digital signage or the digital out-of-home space knows that mid two 2000s era, call it 15-20 years ago, there were lots and lots of networks trying to put signage out there in hopes of I think advertising would follow. A lot of it was probably a solution in search of a problem, as they say, and today, we're very focused on our place in the value proposition, so to speak. So our retail partners really care about that 20-foot consumer journey. Someone fueling up and then going in the store and buying anything. The hardware partners, they want a great product and to be able to offer this as an amenity, and then for consumers, our time is precious today While it's not a channel selection, you're not gonna binge watch hours and hours of our programming, let's say, in the way you might Netflix or Peacock. It is an opportunity to provide value to consumers, entertainment information, and that sort of thing. So come a long way in all regards, I think, and not just hardware.
And so you can retrofit an existing fuel dispenser, right?
Sean McCaffrey: They're some of the old SKUs of hardware, not necessarily, but yes, for the most part, it's generally an upgrade available.
And is that something you put on top of it, or you replace the screen that's in there?
Sean McCaffrey: It replaces the equipment that’s already in there. One of the reasons that the businesses came together in a joint venture in early 2017 was first of all to provide some scale in the space. But second, there was a push from the credit card companies for a payment processing upgrade. So the EMV technology Europay, MasterCard, Visa. There was a requirement from the credit card companies that all the fuel and convenience retailers in the US had to upgrade their credit card technology. So that was an obvious time then for every retailer to decide on a larger upgrade cycle what they wanted to do, and many of them chose to augment it with screens that they didn't have previously.
So this is not a build it and they will come thing at all where you're incurring the capital cost to put this in, it's the fuel retailer?
Sean McCaffrey: Correct. That was the earlier generation of the business where some of the predecessor companies you probably know, or the company that you mentioned where there were screens that sat on top of the fuel dispensers of various sizes, and you then incurred every challenge you have beyond CapEx, just the installation, the maintenance, that sort of thing. These are all dispenser-integrated units. So the CapEx is built into the economics amongst the various parties.
And is the primary motivation to get people into the convenience store, because most few retailers these days seem to have a retail store associated with it, or is it the revenue share that they might see out of it or they do see out of it?
Sean McCaffrey: It's primarily to drive people into the stores. A couple of percentage points of growth in soda and snack sales is I think a lot more interesting to most than the advertising revenue.
That's not to say the advertising revenue is not substantial or interesting, but there's lots and lots of data that the industry publishes every year here in the US about the volume of consumers that fuel up and just drive away, don't go in store, the volume that does go in store and what they purchase, and so any opportunity to drive sales in-store and raise basket size once somebody is in the store, for example, it gets you to buy a snack instead of just a soda, get you to buy a snack and a soda and a lottery ticket, you name it, is useful, and there's a great deal of sophistication in the space as well.
I think most consumers in the US are familiar with the largest brands, the 7-Elevens, the Circle Ks, and that sort of thing. But there are a number of what I'll call major and mid-major regional chains anywhere from 800 to 1000 stores down to maybe 50 to 100 stores where they've got a loyalty app, they've got a promotional program, so very sophisticated folks in the space that I think a lot would be surprised about to learn. I think the difference in fuel and convenience in the US to, let's say, grocery or big box or some of the other large physical retail channels, there isn't consolidated ownership that you see in those spaces. So at times, I don't think consumers really understand the size of the sector, but the fuel and convenience space is more than 3% of the US GDP. So it's a huge economic driver, and so back to the retailer, they care about that 20-foot consumer journey and getting more people to come in and then buy more once they go inside.
I'm assuming that in the early days, you were selling the dream that if you do this, people will go into the store, but now the, the, there's analytics, there's the level of sophistication that can give you some data that will prove out that, yeah, this they saw this and then this happened, or how does that work?
Sean McCaffrey: Absolutely. It's a great question. So obviously, the retailers have their own first-party data relative to sales. So they have an understanding most directly if something's being advertised out in the forecourt, and then sales go up in the store, they know. But we work with a number of third-party partners, IRI and Catalina, as two examples to measure sales lift both in the store and then nearby, in adjacent grocery stores, big box retailers, pharmacies, that sort of thing. Because there's an old cliche in advertising, right? That half of my advertising works, I just don’t know which half, and that's not been good enough for a long time. We had 135, I think the number is, research studies in the field last year with clients from upper funnel analytics, brand favorability, and brand recall, down to much lower funnel direct sales and sales lift metrics.
And so we've been at that for 5+ years now, and we start to see to some degree what you would expect, in other words, for CPG products in the fuel and convenience store. For very mature trademark brands and large-scale products, we might see a 1-3% sales lift which is huge for really established, CPG brands. For newer brands, li brand extensions, and things like that, we might see high single-digit, low double-digit sales lift, which is also great, and that's been validated by a number of the CPG brands that we work with as well. Obviously, the larger ones have very sophisticated in-house marketing sciences teams and do all sorts of market mix modeling. So even though we fund studies with IRI and Catalina, which are really well-established partners. The brands also do their own modeling and report good results.
It's a lot of what you would expect, I think, in that there's an opportunity to drive someone for an impulse convenience purchase when they're 20 feet away, if they're slightly hungry or slightly thirsty or many of the fuel and convenience retailers have pretty sophisticated food service programs these days and so if somebody's grabbing lunch or dinner, they've got a lot of choices. They can go to a grocery store and get a prepared meal. They can go to a drive-through at a QSR next door, or in some cases, they can go inside the field and convenience retailer and get pizzas and sandwiches and other things. We've got hungry consumers and a big opportunity to influence them but from a measurement standpoint, we've got lots of ways to draw a straighter line between the advertising impression and the business outcome.
If you're doing that volume of research that repeatedly suggests that there's still some skepticism among the brands that they go, prove to me that this works.
Sean McCaffrey: I wouldn't characterize it as skepticism as much as I think there's a spectrum depending on the category, and for example, an auto brand, the KPIs that they're looking for are dealer visits or site visits or someone going in and starting to build a vehicle. CPG brands obviously look at sales, and financial services brands look at card usage, card signups, and that sort of thing. So depending on the category, we've commercialized research capability with a couple of household names: Foursquare, Axiom, MasterCard, ISI, Catalina, and plenty of others. So our sales and marketing team can simply say “yes” when a client says, can we measure it?
Some categories are more mature for us, for sure. Auto, CPG, financial services, insurance, you name it. There are some that are earlier adopters to us. Entertainment's one, for example, where we can show the trailer and tell somebody to tune in tonight, binge-watch it this weekend, et cetera, and so we've got a good diversity amongst categories. So in some cases, it's a newer brand, and they want to test and learn and then measure and grow. In other cases, it's brands where measurement is just a part of every single thing they do.
To my earlier point when I came up in advertising, I worked in a legacy radio business, a legacy billboard business where those are classically regarded as more, upper funnel reach media where we weren't typically asked to measure business outcomes or direct results, and I think today, especially in the current economic environment, particularly over the last decade, advertisers are looking to measure every marketing dollar they spend realizing it doesn't all do the same thing, right? The Super Bowl ad is not the same as a buy-it-now ad on social media or something like that.
But the research that we do is on some well-established clients and some new clients, but I wouldn't say it relates to skepticism more so just that brands today expect everything to be measured,
And you also, I believe in the last two or three years have introduced capabilities to not only push people into 20 feet across the Forecourt, into the C Store there, but to the grocery store that might be five blocks away, that sort of thing is. Why did that happen, and what are you seeing out of that?
Sean McCaffrey: So the interesting thing I've learned more than I ever thought I would know about the fuel and convenience space, much less consumer behavior on the day people fuel, so we produced some research about five years ago with MasterCard, and then we did an updated version with a much deeper dive the last year with Affinity Solutions, which has credit card and loyalty card data to basically look at the way people spend money every hour of the day, every day of the week, online, offline, with then one filter, if you will, added: the day people fuel up and is anything different, and it turns out it's really different. Fuel Day is a surrogate for a lot more grocery shopping, a lot more QSR visitation, a lot more pharmacy stops, big box retail, do-it-yourself, that sort of thing.
So Fuel Day is a very differentiated day for consumer behavior and consumer spending. So with the rise of retail media as an investment channel over the last couple of years. In other words, with Walmart starting a media network and Kroger starting a media network, we started having more and more of our CPG partners come to us and say, “Hey, we want to apply this sort of thinking, this retail media, commerce media thinking in the fuel and convenient space. But there isn't anyone with consolidated scale and the way there is in grocery and big box.” So as big as the biggest retailers are in our industry, you put the top five together, they have less than 20% of the sector. So we are the largest consolidated network in US fuel and convenience in terms of ad-supported media.
We launched a product called GSTV Amplify, which is really a parallel path. Number one, it's about driving sales in the fuel and convenience stores, which is critically important, and then number two, it's recognizing that our consumers are 5-7 times more likely and spending that much more on the same day to go next door to a grocery store, QSR, you name it. So the agencies and brands that are spending money across retail media, in grocery, retail media in the big box, they can leverage that data, they can apply that thinking with us.
I had one Head of Investment at an agency say to me, this is basically the last TV ad someone can watch before they go into the grocery store. And I said if that framework helps you, sure, that's one way to look at it. We're in the solutions business. So from a scale standpoint, I mentioned our business. If you took the food and beverage sales at our stores compared to the largest grocery chains, what is the 10th largest grocer in America? If you added fuel to that like Kroger and Albertsons do when they when counting the numbers, we are the fifth largest behind Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Albertsons. I'm not selling produce, I'm obviously not building physical retail stores, but I say it just to give an example of consumer purchasing power, right? And that's what brands and agencies are trying to find, the proverbial right place, right time, the right moment to find real attention and impact consumer behavior.
Is there any kind of an audit trail? So if I'm on my big shop day and I stop at a fuel retailer and use my MasterCard to buy 12 gallons or whatever it is, and then I go to Costco, and then if it's me, I'll probably go to the wine store or something. But is that traceable? Is there a way of saying, okay, Dave got fuel at 11, and at 11:30, he bought stuff at Costco and so on?
Sean McCaffrey: So yes and no. Yes, in the sense that yes, we can do what you're describing. No, we're not tracking Dave specifically, right? We do not collect first-party data.
So often, a question I get is if people are swiping their credit card at the field dispenser, so you know it's me. We do not collect and track that credit card data or any other data. What we have is a naturally data-rich environment. There is that credit card swipe, there is a device ID typically in the vehicle or on the person, and device IDs and credit cards are well-worn ways to connect to household identity graphs, loyalty card data, and other ways. So yes, so what you described, we do with partners. So depending on the category, CPG brand, or auto brand, we can do that walk back to impact to show sales lift, brand lift, or any other KPIs. We do some direct surveys.
There are companies, obviously, that do mobile location surveys that push advertisers for different things. But we work with well-established privacy-compliant industry partners to track that. As well as work with many of our brand and agency partners directly. Because the big agencies all have their own data operations these days, most of the big brands have an in-house marketing sciences team tracking all this. So what we decided to do when we were launching our approach to data analytics and research is not to build another black box that nobody was asking for, or nobody needed.
What the big agencies and brands said to us is that we just need input. We need to be able to input the GSV exposure into our tools the same way we input a CTV impression or a YouTube impression or you name it, so they can understand the impact on the campaign because it's obviously never one thing. All of these ad impressions combined to provide impact to the brand and agency. But one of the things that were interesting to me when I consider joining the business is that it is much more of a mid to lower-funnel ad exposure opportunity. It's naturally frequency capped, right? We're going to see somebody three to five times a month, not three to five times a day when that banner ad follows you around the internet. So the fact that we do have these data signals that we can use, again, in a privacy-compliant way to track success metrics is important and a differentiator for us.
Is it easier to do all that stuff now because of all the API integrations and AI and everything that's come along as opposed to in the past where yes, we have that data, but we're not sharing it with you?
Sean McCaffrey: It has, I think for a lot of different reasons, whether it's the rise of retail media, whether it's the acceleration of machine learning, tools, and this sort of stuff, or the big agencies all purchasing their own or building their own data operations, whether it's Epsilon, Axion, Merkel, that sort of thing or others like Omnicom. Everybody understands they need a privacy complaint consumer to opt-in to track this stuff, but then it's also important to have interoperability between all of this to measure. It doesn’t do anyone much good to have a bunch increasing. walled gardens, right? So today, whether it's a cooperation-type environment or an industry-standard environment, it's a lot easier.
At least in the US market, combined with the changes in the advertising market over the last decade. In other words, the value of the living room wall. Is certainly challenging now compared to when I was a kid, and there were three TV channels, and it was, every night was must see tv. Today we spend our time as consumers quite differently. That change was only accelerated with Covid as far as people splintered viewing habits, and then the disruption in signal loss and digital now with device IDs and other things being sunsetted, the deprecation of cookies. It's moving most advertisers into more, I think, middle-of-the-funnel analysis. In other words, not everything is a buy it now button sort of conversion—the proverbial last-click attribution of a decade ago. So for us, GSTV, is what we hear often from our advertising partners anyway. If we have the scale of broadcast, which they like because of most categories, you just still need a lot of people. We've got some level of digital muscle memory for targeting attribution. Then it is this real-world consumer opportunity, which is what people generally get excited about around mobile and out-of-homes.
So it has the sort of DNA of several interesting things to advertisers, and we've built a team around the business on the sales and marketing side that comes from various big firms in the digital and video space. On our retail success team. I have a great team that literally helped build the network going back 10 years plus, and those two teams really parallel paths are commercial relationships and client service. So we have a retail success team that is just as focused on our commercial relationships with our retailers and our hardware partners. As is, our sales and marketing teams focus on the brands and agencies.
The retail success team that's nurturing the footprint that you already have, are you still building that footprint, or is it built out?
Sean McCaffrey: Yes, we continue to build it. So a natural upgrade cycle still happens every month, every quarter, and every year, where we have retailers deciding to upgrade their equipment and add new sites. And then we have a very high 95+ percent renewal rate from retailers that have us already, and so the network is about a third of the fuel and convenience sector in the US today. At some point, it'll probably get north of half, and then beyond that, there's a point where we've probably ended up getting every retailer who's wanted this as an amenity because it is a different retailer. It's a retailer that is generally a little more focused on the customer experience, a little more focused on Forecourt conversion, a little more focused on end-to-end sort of promotional comms, and so on.
So there's no mission here to get every fuel and convenience retailer in the US just due to the nature of the space. But yeah, we continue to grow every month, every quarter, every year.
It's a case where it sounds like you have most of the markets that you'd want to be in any way so once you get to all that number, I forget what you said, it was 240 or something like that, at that point, adding more screens maybe doesn't matter all that much, right?
Sean McCaffrey: Yes, you're right. It's one way to look at it. But I wouldn't say we'll be happy once we feel we've partnered with every fuel and convenience retail in the US who like us, I think their business continues to change. So as they think about forecourt-to-store conversion, integration with their loyalty apps, and promotions, we're talking to some commerce partners, some loyalty partners, and different people like that where can we potentially provide a service and another service and amenity to the retailers? Not everyone has the wherewithal or the financial structure to build that on their own. Can we go into parallel and adjacent spaces? We've typically not gone inside the store. We've not wanted to compete with our retailers in a way.
But several have come to us lately wondering about their own sort of digital consumer experience journey, and there is an opportunity to partner together. So we're talking about that, and then the actual incorporation of the company. We do business with GSTV, but the actual incorporation of the company is destination media. And there's some thought to that in the sense that. We are a national digital video platform consumer, the literal consumer journey. There might be other places and spaces, high dwell time environments where it's somewhat similar to what we do today, where there's a premium audience we can define an entertainment and information amenity, and so are there opportunities to continue diversifying our consumer touchpoints, Channels within a platform-type environment where we can provide some additional value to the people we think about today, which is a long way of saying we're not going to build more screens or buy more screens just to get more screens. But I think there's some natural one plus one equals three or four or five with other potentially parallel channels or spaces beyond the fuel and convenience store.
Yeah, you would think that. My experience is that end-user customers are not looking for more technology vendors. They'd like to slim out the number that they have. So if you have enabling technology that could do the video marketing inside the stores they'd probably be pretty motivated to go that way as opposed to sourcing some other vendor.
Sean McCaffrey: We agree. I think there's a moment in time right now that to me feels a bit like that era you referenced earlier. In other words, in the mid 2000s where I think there are a lot of people, at least at this moment in time, running around suggesting hang screens anywhere you can hang screens, create experiences, sell ads and there's almost a suggestion that it's just that simple or just that easy, and anybody that's done it knows it's not, and it's really hard.
And also, it needs to be there for a reason. In the mid two 2000s, there were a lot of networks that were well-funded and had great management. And, 2008’s, recession aside, never really got off the ground because they were building a solution that really no one was looking for, vs. today, I think whether you're building a commercial real estate project and you're considering digital signage or you're doing something like we are, you have to think about how are you providing value?
And for us, we're doing something that would otherwise be overhead for the retailers and difficult to do at scale, and it was challenging when five or six companies were doing what we're doing, and they all were pretty small. It was tough to get the attention of larger brands and agencies. So yeah, whether it's the hardware and software capability, or the sales and marketing engine, or the combination thereof, we're happy with what we've built so far. By no means do we think we're done, but we're looking to be a solutions provider to partners and if somebody has a network or is considering building a network and we think we can provide value, we're certainly going to talk to them.
Do you have competition?
Sean McCaffrey: There is one small provider in our space that I believe has a couple of hundred locations right now.
They work with a different hardware provider that we're contractually unable to work with. We're very focused on the fuel and convenience space from a retail partner standpoint, but from an advertising standpoint, I often get, who's your competition? Is it people in the movie theaters, or is it people in the airport or the malls? And no, we don't sell screens. We don't charge $100 a screen or $200 a location. We sell an audience, and you can slice and dice that audience in several different ways.
So when we talk to advertising partners, it might be a major national CPG this morning, and they're launching a new product in the southeast this summer, and we're talking about that. We might have lunch with a television team at a big agency that's trying to find people who buy reach curves and things like that. And then late afternoon, it might be a digital auto home team at an agency looking for proximity to a QSR, and they want everything within five miles of a particular QSR.
We're competing for ad dollars in the television space, the digital video space, the retail media space, and the digital out-of-home space. And we don't have the luxury to say we're only one of those things, but I think we've got the opportunity to compete and take share across that spectrum, and that's really how we've grown. So the business has more than doubled in size in the last couple of years, both in employees and revenue. And it's mostly because our sources of advertising revenue have come from just a wider and wider part of the advertising landscape.
Does the business runway have an end to it because of the rise of EVs and EV charging stations and so on? I would imagine it does, but I think it's probably like 15-20 years out.
Sean McCaffrey: We don't think of it as an end as much as an evolution, right? No one is debating the emergence of EV vehicles, no one is debating the eventual roadmap of electric vehicle charging. I think everyone, at least in the US anyway, is debating how long it's going to take, number one and number two. Number two, perhaps most importantly, is how's it gonna be paid for. There's never going to be enough tax subsidies to support all of it. So there we announced last year, we announced a partnership with our labs in ChargePoint to build an ad supporter network with ChargePoint, who's currently the largest large provider by a long stretch by probably a factor of five, the largest EV charging infrastructure provider where just like our business today, we think there's an opportunity for an ad-supported amenity to build out that infrastructure, and there's a bunch of advertising-supported models that have helped build out critical infrastructure going back to the early days of television and radio and everything since. Ad supported models help build us out. So we're excited about the relationship with ChargePoint and a number of their partners, and we think the journey for consumer behavior is going to be a long time, still a multi-decade transition, and as I alluded to earlier, the way we think about our business and the broader destination media sense is the platform and foundation we built in fuel and convenience is hugely important and hugely critical infrastructure today.
But whether it's the EV platform, that's really our second network or a third, fourth, and fifth one to follow. We think time spent outside the home is going to continue to grow and add supported opportunities to identify those consumers, and serve them something relevant, measuring the success on the campaign is going to continue to be critical.
So we remain pretty excited about the future, both the business we have today and the evolution it can drive for us.
That was super interesting, and time just flew by. I had many other questions to ask, but we'll have to do this again if you're willing.
Sean McCaffrey: Yeah, I'd be happy to. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for having me.
Tuesday Apr 25, 2023
Brett Crossley, FanConnect
Tuesday Apr 25, 2023
Tuesday Apr 25, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
There are a lot of screens at sports and entertainment venues, and when it's possible to buy a 4K TV the size of a bus for a few hundred bucks, team owners and venue operators are having to work harder than ever to compel people to get off their sofas and come to games.
Whether it is college football or pro basketball, there's a big emphasis on maximizing the game-day experience for ticket-buyers, while also optimizing the investment sponsors have made in being at the venue and part of everything going on.
A Charlotte, North Carolina company called FanConnect is very specifically in the business of providing and supporting a platform and services that drive the game-day show, and the information on most or all of the flat screens around a stadium or arena.
FanConnect does in-venue TV programming that enhances live game broadcast feeds with things like real-time stats and sponsor messaging, and it also does IPTV for the suites and loge areas, as well as digital signage around the concourses and at concessions.
That last component is something most or all venues want and need, but the digital signage capabilities also track back to the roots of the company. I had a chat with Brett Crossley, FanConnect's VP of Product.
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Brett, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what FanConnect does?
Brett Crossley: So what we do is we work with the corporate partnership teams in sports venues, so in college and professional sports and we work with the partnership marketing, the sponsorship team if you think about it that way to put something on the TV screens. I'm talking about our primary product, so our biggest product is FanConnect TV. We make other things, but that's probably the biggest thing we have. It's also our biggest footprint, and what that does is it makes a private TV network for use in the venue that plays on all of the TVs that are in the venue that would've been showing just the live game feed. This feed was being produced for probably the video board in most cases. We turn that into something that fans are gonna want to look at because it's good looking and that fully integrates what the sponsors and what the corporate partners need into that experience.
So that's the main product that we supply, and then I'd say that all the related products are similar, right? They're all designed to operate inside of a large sports venue, inside of a stadium or an arena, and they work with TVs or video technology of some kind inside of that venue.
Do you get any pushback at all from venues saying why wouldn't I just use the broadcast feed that's already coming in that I've already been using on the TVs?
Brett Crossley: No, I don't think we don't face that pushback, and the main reason is if you think about our primary customer is a corporate partnership team. On the college side, that would be somebody that's a Rights holder, like a Leader field, a Playfly, a JMI, typically that's who that is. On the professional side, it's a group that's titled something like Corporate Partnerships for the Chicago White Sox, and prior to us getting there, they either didn't have any way to include their corporate partners in the TVs or what they had just wasn't working for what they wanted to do.
And so yeah, I don't think we faced any pushback there from people saying why not just use the existing feed? I think the other part of it is too tough, in our opinion, when we are done, it looks a lot better and it provides a better fan experience than before we got there. And I know we're on a podcast so you can't see this, but if people go to our website or if they look us up on LinkedIn. we're FanConnect.TV so that's our domain name. But if they look at what we do, it's designed to mirror a lot of what you would see with a professionally produced broadcast. So imagine somebody's in a truck and they're using tools from Ross and Grass Valley, et cetera, and they're building something to make it look broadcast quality, we're doing something similar. We just do it in software and without having people do it in real-time.
I assume one of the drivers here for the corporate sponsor people is they're looking for as many ways as possible to give their corporate sponsors some love and avoid any minefields of a TV broadcast, if, let's say, I don't know, Chrysler is the sponsor at a stadium or a sponsor at the venue, they don't want a Ford ad on TV or a Toyota.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, absolutely. I think that what they're trying to do is they want to create something that works for a partner, and I will say, because we probably lead the world in this and I know that sounds like blowing our own horn here, but as far as companies that are really invested in understanding how corporate partnerships work and the needs of the teams that work with them, I think we probably do more of that than anybody.
I'm not talking about just the pure technology people doing an L bar, creating something that kinda adds to the video. But the other part of what we do is education about the best use of that technology to actually do what it's supposed to do, and so oftentimes prior to us getting there, if they did have something like, think just like an L bar, going back to Cisco Stadium Vision days. If they had something, there wasn't a lot of thought put into it, and in most cases, the experience wasn't great. It really looked like what it was, which is you just shrunk the amount of video space available to show the game and you put an ad wrap around it, and you're showing kinda nothing but a wall of ads, and if you see what our product looks like, if you saw it in the NFL, you're gonna see passing statistics and rushing statistics, and we're gonna interleave in photos from the team's official Twitter feed when those are appropriate, and just pulling in a lot of stats and engaging content and then embedding that with the sponsor assets in a way that looks really natural and not like we just put a wall of ads up there.
I've certainly heard through the years of very large technology companies like Cisco buying their way into these sorts of venues, and in order to do that, you have to use their technology. Are we past that where the venues realize, yeah, that was great, we got that for free, or very little money, but it didn't actually work for us?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, it's a good question. I'd say that is still something that is evolving. So if you look at the landscape today, certainly you've got teams that have invested in one IPTV system or another, right? So Cisco was one of the first of those. There are plenty of other technologies that do that, and that's something that we make as full IPTV as well. But if you look at the people that do it, I think that in most cases they certainly would show in their marketing something that looks like an L bar and they're all going to say words on their website like make more money from sponsors. But in terms of actually doing that, it's an exercise left to the reader, and so you see teams that have had some of those newer technologies and have had them for years, and we know because we talk to everybody that we work with and people that we don't, you'll see people that have had it for multiple years that have not gotten that to where it does something close to what we do, not even just a basic version of it.
So the content's hard. I think you probably know that as well as anybody, right? In the digital signage industry, content's also hard. But it's especially hard on the side where we play because you have a lot of things that you have to do well to make it look like what we're trying to make it look like. We want the scoreboard embedded in the same way it would be on the broadcast TV feed. We want the live clock that's coming, it's the same thing that's tied to the scoreboard controller that's in the stadium. We want to be able to show out-of-town scores. We want to highlight when something significant has happened in those out-of-town scores that lead to changes. We want to show sort of detailed stats, like in major league baseball, hit and pitch data, and so tying all of those things together and making it work well is not something that's easy, and so I would say that currently the positioning by. Most of the vendors that make something like IPTV is yeah, you can just use our stuff and go build something to your liking. In reality, we certainly work in a number of places where the vendor that is there would much rather that experience be them than be something created by us.
I'm curious about how deep you have to stitch your way into the operations of the venue and of the sports franchise, whether it's football, baseball, hockey, or whatever the case, you have to work with the scoreboard systems, like the statistical analysis systems, the people are doing things like reading how fast that fastball came in and all that sort of stuff. Is that a lot easier to do now than it was even five years ago?
Brett Crossley: I would say that parts of it are easier, but there are new technologies that come out and then essentially new APIs that you're having to deal with on the regular. It was much harder for us when we first started. So we started doing this way back in like, 2010, and I can share this now because it's just been so long, and it doesn't matter, but we really bluffed our way into it, and at the beginning, it was like, yeah we want to make something work here, can you work with our scoreboard controller? Yeah, sure. What is that? What brand?
And it was difficult, right? I think that when you think about the vendors that are in sports venues, a lot of them do not want to play well with others, right? Think about the people that made the scoreboard controller, and the people that made the stats, and I feel like there's another barrier to entry there, which is that the professional sports side, all have pretty tightly codified APIs that distribute all of their data. But if you haven't already got a team that's your customer, you won't get access to that data, and so it's not if you came up with a product idea, you can just build it, and they will come. You have to have something in the door to be invited to use the data. I think for us, it certainly got easier over time because as we saw one of every type of scoreboard controller, we would just chalk that up and write it down. We're like, oh, okay, they've got Dactronics, they have an OES, or whatever the thing was, and then we would figure out how to work with it. You can imagine some APIs represent abstraction for that so that t no matter which one of the controllers we're working with or which stats API, we can kind of create something more unified and easier to manage.
Sports entertainment venues are turning into experiential venues in many ways. Are you now having to also work with almost like show control systems?
Brett Crossley: So that's interesting. We do, in some cases, work with control systems, but interestingly enough, more of that is done during a live sports game for example, if you think about working with the production crew, they might have a Ross tool that is designed to trigger things on the video board, on the ribbon boards, et cetera and we can make it to work on the TVs that we operate on are one more thing that can be tied into those control systems and so imagine, somebody's just hit the third home run of the game, and so they want to put a special message up, they can send that message, and it'll activate all of the things at once. It's kind of a TV takeover, video board, and ribbon board. So that's where we see that.
On the sort of mixed-use venue side, I think that the requirements in general on the TVs are a little, and when I talk about the TVs, the bulk of the TVs, I'm not breaking it down to the very specific ones that are doing a job that looks much more like digital signage, right? Like concessions, menu boards, and sort of those things. But if you think about it, the bulk of the TVs that would've had the game on in that venue during a concert is probably still showing the concert feed. They might be doing a simple wrap, and the wrap is just giving some day-of-event information instead. So it's a little bit simpler just because nobody has a big vested interest in doing something special for a one-off like a concert.
You mentioned digital signage. You also have that as part of your kind of product suite, right?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, sure. We originally were a digital signage company, so if you went way back when we started doing what we did originally in college sports and then eventually in professional sports as well, FanConnect was a wholly owned subsidiary of 10 Foot Wave, which was a digital signage company and was split off in 2018 as part of the acquisition of 10 Foot Wave by Spectrio and so our roots were in that space, to begin with anyway. It's natural that as we split off and just focus on sports venues we wanted to be able to handle all of the small screens, you can think about them that way that are inside of a stadium, and so that includes the TVs that are showing the game, TVs that do the equivalent digital signage which is just informational, et cetera, as well as the concession, menu board, those types of things, and then the other kind of interesting one is like what we do at Ohio State, which is we make a tablet that's used in the lodge area. And so it's purpose-built, it does, IPTV, so it does videos so you can watch them out of town game or whatever that you're interested in. But it also has a bunch of functionality used by the kind of premium seat holders at Ohio State. So if they need to call an attendant, if they're trying to figure out the pricing of the mixed drinks or whatever, they can look that up what to do and all of that, look at rosters and team data, et cetera, on that purpose-built tablet.
So there's one at every seat?
Brett Crossley: There's one at every table, is the way that it works. So if you think about a lodge area, it’s a hybrid, right? So it's assigned seats in grouped sections as opposed to just you're in these five seats, so you've got a shared table for every three people or something like that.
So there'd be a lot of client entertainment happening?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, there's a lot of entertainment, and then those people paid a lot of money for those seats wherever they are. I mean sports venues are expensive, and so just trying to create a premium offering for those people is something that a lot of teams are working on.
Is there a lot of pressure to do more and more from one company in a sports and entertainment venue?
I talk a lot about the importance of a company being known as the guys who do this kind of work, and I wonder if you were just going into sports and entertainment venues, purely doing the concession digital signage, are you pressured also to be doing IPTV in the suites and elsewhere on the concourses and all that sort of thing? Or are the venues pretty much okay with you doing this piece of it, we'll have these other five companies do these other things?
Brett Crossley: I think that really like every industry that matures, the buyers in this case, the technology side of the stadium, they would rather have a smaller number of vendors to deal with than a larger number, and so as a practical concern, I think you're right, which is the way we think about it, we need to be able to do all of the things you would want to be able to do on anything that looks like a TV inside of a venue. That's part of what we have to be able to offer because, again, you are correct that people would rather have a single vendor, a single interface, et cetera, to deal with.
One place where I think that does break down a little differently is the content side because that’s just so complex on its own, and so we certainly have people that are leveraging us for the experience on the screens and all of that, who already have another vendor in as the IPTV solution who may have somebody different for menu boards, et cetera. And the one thing that they truly can't get anywhere else would be something similar to what we do with the content that's created on TV.
So you might have an IPTV service of some kind, and they're quite good at video networking, but they don't know much about the presentation side of it?
Brett Crossley: To be fair, I'm not going to say that they can't make something that's pretty, I think that you'll see, and I think it's been true of digital signage forever, which people will show you really pretty screens and, use that, whatever's on that screen as a substitute for, here's what you're going to have to do to get that to work. And the example I always give is, you look up at a concession stand or a digital menu board, and you can't really tell what you're looking at, is it just a static image? Is it an image over just an animation background? Or is it truly being rendered dynamically tied back to a point of sale? It's hard to tell.
So I think that at least on the content side, it becomes something where you would rather have something that works than be given a toolkit, especially when it comes time to actually build anything that's as close to as complex as what we do. You could build it, but you'd be spending a long time. It took us a long time to build what we have, right? And so if you just sat somebody down and you gave them a pile of tools, building that is going to take a lot of effort, and you're gonna have to hire people to do it and it's not like you get to build it once, you have to continue maintaining it and working on it, changing it out and adding to it over time. I think it's just difficult.
What's the business arrangement that you would have with a typical venue? Where do you start and stop?
Brett Crossley: Yeah, so our contractual arrangement most of the time is with, like I said, the corporate partnership side, right? If you think about whoever is in charge of making money from corporate partners or sponsors, that's usually who our contractual arrangement is with, and then a side part of that and really it happens in every deal that we're in and every stadium that we're in prior to the deal being signed, they bring in technology and those guys grill us and ask us, how are you gonna work with our system, and how do you do this? And we pull up diagrams because we've seen a lot of that before. And we're like, yeah, this is what we would do to work with you guys.
Once that's all done, we are working closely with the technical team to just make sure that everything is still operational. But then our business arrangements are with the corporate partnership side and we are paid kind of the way you think about it, just like anybody else, right? We get paid for things we build and put on the screen, and we don't have weird arrangements, I don’t know if you remember those guys like Arena Media Network, et cetera. There were multiple companies that would try to do that. We'll give it to you for free and we will keep some percentage of the inventory. In some cases, it was more like, we'll give it to you for free, we'll pay you to take it, and we'll keep part of the inventory.
We don't do anything weird like that. We're more of a direct business relationship with whoever is the equivalent of the rights holder and then they are the ones that are bringing the corporate partners.
Yeah. The whole build it, and they will come to things where we're putting screens in the washrooms and everywhere else, hoping that they could sell media time around it, there's been a legacy of failure there.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, and you still see it, and not to pick on people, right? But the classic one for me was the urinal TV, where you mount these TVs, individual screens up, I like to think that what we do is the opposite of that. What we want to do is to make something that we're a corporate partner, and when they see it on the screen, they are like, wow, that looks great.
We're active on LinkedIn, and my favorite thing is when somebody that works for the sponsor takes a picture of the TV screen, and they are on it, and it's the game-winner. You've just won the big game, and then their stuff's up, and they take that picture, and they throw that out on their LinkedIn. They like what they see there and the company they're keeping. As I said, if you just look at our product, it really does look good. In addition to kinda all the things that make fans want to be on it and the technology side, and I'm not saying that we wouldn't build something to work in urinals if a team wanted us to build that, but we certainly wouldn't go out of our way to do it without somebody really asking for it.
Yeah. If somebody's in trouble, they become the field maintenance guy for that. Do you do the deployment, hardware sourcing, or anything, or are you strictly on the software and automation?
Brett Crossley: We work on the hardware side as much as we need to, or as little as we have to.
We're not in the business of making players. We're not like a Brightsign. We try to remain pretty hardware neutral. We have preferences, of course, I think anybody who's been in this industry does. But if you think about the FanConnect TV product itself, it's a hybrid cloud solution, right? So there is a server installed on the premises. A lot of the heavy lifting is done in the cloud. The server is responsible for compositing, pulling everything together, and building out what is going to really be a show and that's how that's going to work.
The rest of the hardware for FanConnect TV would be the video distribution system, so we work with whatever is there. In many cases, we were replacing, let's say, you had your stadium, you had Channel 10.2 digital, or if you're using IPTV, it's an IP stream, and you've got kind of a symbol for it. We're often just replacing that. That's the first thing that we are doing at most places. Now there are places where we're doing more sophisticated things, where you can imagine, if you're in the suites at American Airline Center, every channel, no matter which channels you are tuned into, would still be wrapped in kind of an L bar wrap so that's an example of something that's different and does require a device behind every TV. But in most cases, pretty straightforward, we're tied into the existing distribution system, pushing that out, and as I said, we try to remain relatively hardware neutral. Our server is, of course, just one U rack-mounted server that's hardened and does what it's supposed to do. But we can work with various kinds of player technologies regarding digital signage, our IPTV solutions, the things we do in suites, et cetera.
Yeah, I would imagine you're seeing a lot of smart displays in suites now.
Brett Crossley: It's starting to happen. It's expensive to replace everything in a stadium, and you’d think replacing TVs would be something that would be something done more actively than it is. Still, right now, I think what are people wait until there's either a big renovation or they're just going to build another stadium, and so they're waiting on one of those two things to go in and do the big upgrade on the TVs. But yeah, smart TVs, things with a system-on-a-chip capability are certainly starting to move out there, and I’m starting to run into them. And venues would like you to use them if you can, right? They would rather just have a smaller number of things to break and manage. If you can avoid putting a box behind every TV, then that would be better.
Does it make any business difference to you guys in terms of whether you're working with Major League Baseball, which is gonna have 80+ home games a year, versus football that might have six or seven home games?
I just wonder about some of these massive venues that really don't get used very often. Are they more reticent to invest in technology?
Brett Crossley: I don't think that's the case. I think that what you'll find is, if you take an NFL stadium or a big college stadium, right? That would get you closer to your six or seven games. The fact that there are so few games means that the games that you have are extremely important and really in their minds, they want to make sure that nothing is going to go wrong. Whoever's in charge of the technology side, just wants to make sure that it's going to work. That's their number one concern.
The corporate partnership people, again they care the way that I put it, and this is true of really anything in sponsorship, not just us, but if you're a baseball team, if something goes wrong and you don't do the activation for that corporate partner that you were supposed to do, you have a lot of other games to make that up to them and comp them. If something goes wrong at a football game and you mess up what you've committed to a corporate partner, then you're in a different position because that game represented a significant percentage of what you were trying to do for them for the season.
I don't think we've ever faced any pushback because of the number of games. It's more on the technology side. They just want to make sure that it's rock solid, and we've been doing this long enough, we can point to that, and we can go, we've done so many games, we can't get an accurate count of them. We've tried, but it's thousands upon thousands of live games that we've produced at this point and so I think it's really a trust issue probably more than anything else.
Is it a challenge for something like an arena that may have an NHL team, an NBA team, a WNBA team, and they all have different sponsors, and they may change from night to night?
Brett Crossley: So we do support those. If you think about a complex example of that, it would be Capital One Arena in DC, where we were working with the Washington Wizards, The capitals and also Georgetown is in that same venue, and so you've got, NBA, NHL, NCAA, and then concerts, things like that, and the way that we operate the way we operate FanConnect TV is a little different from the rest of the digital signage. So today, we operate that as a managed service for them, and so they tell us what they are trying to do, what they want to do, and then we just help fulfill it and actually make it all work on the screens.
The needs for the different sponsors are really a byproduct of who is running corporate partnership at the venue and for the teams as far as if they need something different. So we do something similar at Acrisure Stadium, right? We work with the Pit Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers, and there are two totally different corporate partnership teams. In some cases, it is the same team, whatever way they want us to work, we will work with that.
Tell me about the company. You're privately held?
Brett Crossley: We are privately held. We're not VC-backed. We have investors, and then many of us that are there are also investors, and we were as close to profitable as we want to be, right? And so if we're not profitable at any particular time, it's because we are intentionally spending more money. It's not because we have not yet achieved some measure of success.
Has all the weirdness of the last three years affected your industry or your business at all? I mean obviously, when nobody was going to games, that was a bit of a challenge, but it’s back.
Brett Crossley: Absolutely. Looking back on it, it was very difficult. I think when Covid hit, a bunch of people we worked with just shrugged to put their hands up and it was not good. One thing that was nice about that was we'd been working on kind of a full ground-up replacement of our core technology, and we went ahead and did that, and now we've seen that through to where we finalized that, right? So it's the third generation of this technology.
And we had the luxury of being able just to take our time, building it from scratch, knowing everything that we'd learned over this time, and so in some ways, I'd say that maybe was a little bit of a blessing, although it didn't seem like it at the time, watching the P&L statements for that time. But yeah, I'd say it was crazy for everybody.
Yeah, I've heard that story a few times. It's interesting when they say we didn't plan on this, but suddenly we have time to tear up the platform and start over, or do v3.
Brett Crossley: That work had already been started, right? And technology moves forward, right? And then we'd been looking at a number of things that we wanted to be able to do better in a kind of fully integrated way, and so the timing was good. We'd already started working on that effort. It's a lot of work, right? Replatforming is a significant amount of work.
What it allowed us to do, though, was to take our time and get everything right. There was no rush to try to get something in because the season was getting ready to start. So I'd say we've found some benefit. The one side note, though is things are bigger than they were pre-Covid in terms of what we do in live sports, in terms of attendance, in terms of the interest that we're getting, in terms of the way people view what they want to do inside of a stadium. I'd say that things are better now than they were pre-Covid.
I live in Canada, and I don't live anywhere near Toronto, but the Blue Jays just had their opener, and they did a huge refresh of a lot of the technology in that building, and one of the drivers said they have to up the game day experience. That's what people expect if they're going to be spending $14 on a beer and $80 on a ticket, that sort of thing.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, that's right, and it's not wrong when people say that sports venues are not competing with other sports venues. They're competing with the big-screen TV that's in your house, right? So putting something in front of the fans that is very impressive is really important, and we fit in well with that. During the off-season, when I say off-season, I'm really thinking of kinda the fall sports off-season, because we are running some games throughout the entire year, but when we had a chance, we went back and did a redesign of sort of the core of FanConnect TV, and we worked with graphic designers that have done work with Fox Sports, FX1, et cetera, to come up with something that was really polished and professional and look broadcast quality, because, that's what people wanna see, right? Especially when we come in, and we're like, we've got something that's better for your TVs, and they're like, okay, prove that, and that's what we ended up with.
I think one thing that's neat about our design is unlike an ESPN or somebody like that who has to essentially be neutral, right? Our broadcast is definitely themed for the home team, right? If you saw this at the University of Georgia, it is nice, and it's red and black, and it is bulldog television, and if you saw the same thing at the Chicago White Sox, it definitely looks like the White Sox, right? It's not trying to be neutral.
All right, Brett, thank you very much for spending the time with me.
Brett Crossley: Yeah, absolutely. I really appreciate it.
Wednesday Apr 19, 2023
Marius van Bergen, COBstr
Wednesday Apr 19, 2023
Wednesday Apr 19, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
Technology tends to improve as it matures. That's certainly the case with LED displays marketed as being transparent. The first generations looked okay from the front, but the back sides were big metal grid arrays that often looked like hell.
That's improved a lot with newer generations, but the technology now has competition in the form of displays that are embedded in foil or film.
I was intrigued by some online posts recently from a Dutch company called COBstr, which is the sales and marketing front end of a Chinese manufacturer focused on displays that use Chip On Board technology. That's the COB part of the name.
COBstr markets super-skinny displays that use the transparent material as the surface, either adhering to window glass, or laminated the material inside the glass. The product has a foil layer the peels off and allows the display to be stuck to glass and then if needed, pulled off, rolled up and reused.
I had a good chat with Marius van Bergen, the company's founder about the roots of the product, his Chinese manufacturing partner and the distinctions and benefits of COB versus other LED technologies.
Marius, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what COBstr is all about?
Marius van Bergen: Hello, Dave. Thank you for having me. COBstr, COB stands for chip-on-board. Now, chip-on-board technology has been around for a long time in the lighting industry. But my business partner is in China and was the first one who has been doing this for LED displays. So she's the one who's filed patents, and she made some mistakes, but she’s a woman that I have a lot of respect for because it's tough in China to make it as a company without help from the state and when you have to fight the big dogs. But she's very impressive regarding technology, which is not my core business.
I'm just a person who studied Chinese and who knows China a little bit. But we hooked up about 10 years ago, and we've been going to the ISE and trying to get a little bit more renowned, and the thing with COBstr is not very easy to do. The big dogs are Absen, Leyard, and LEDman, they're all trying, and we do a lot of R&D for some of the big boys because they don't really master the technology. But it is the only way, that's the way I interpret it anyway, it's the only way forward for the LED industry.
It doesn't matter if you look at it from a sustainability point of view or if you look at it from an economic point of view, there's just no way around it because you skip an entire step in the production process because you don't have packages, which makes it a cheaper technology theoretically, I have to add theoretically, because if you are a big company and you can buy LED packages in bulk, then, of course, you have some price advantages.
So what's basically happening is with a chip on board, you're able to apply a lot more LED light emitters to a surface without having to do the packaging, and you're skipping an entire step and also speeding up the process. Is that an accurate way of describing it?
Marius van Bergen: Yes, it is, and the package manufacturers, which are also usually very big operations, don't like us very much because if we don't need a package, we don't need their product. The big advantage and that's basically what our R&D has all been about, is that you reduce the number of components and the vulnerabilities within a display.
So is your company kind of the sales front end for a Chinese LED manufacturer, or is it a partnership where you're co-developing something, and it's coming out of the Netherlands?
Marius van Bergen: Manufacturing is in China, so it's a business partnership where they concentrate on the Chinese markets where I'm a little bit involved as well because that's a different story, maybe I shouldn't get into that, but I basically start with marketing and business development in Europe. That's my main responsibility.
I got interested in this because I saw something on LinkedIn talking about LED and COB-LED on foil, and I thought, okay, this is interesting. There's a company in Germany, probably a couple of hours from you that has a foil-based product that is lower resolution, super lightweight, and so I saw this and thought, oh, are you reselling that or is this something different?
Marius van Bergen: We're not reselling that. This is our own product. It's a new product.
We had our first sample back in 2019. I guess that's when COVID broke out, at ISE, we showed it. It was a prototype that we lit, but we didn't display any images on it. But we took advantage of COVID to really bear down on the R&D, and we have now a finished product that's finished and ready for mass production, and so it's hot off the press really because we introduced it at the Signs and LED Display exhibition in Shenzhen last week and we saw a couple of other players who were also getting into this area. I guess there were about five companies also doing LED foil, but from our point of view, a very different level. Because their foil was SMD based, and also no flip chip because they don't have the equipment, and without going into the technical details they have about 2000 nits brightness, and we had 7000 at the exhibition, and we could do much more. But at the exhibition, actually, we are very proud of the product, there were people with a luminescence meter who were measuring the brightness, and they said, oh, 7000 knits. That's pretty nice.
When you say foil, I've looked on the website, and when I think of foil, I think of shiny metallic material, but is it that or is it more of a film?
Marius van Bergen: Film would be maybe a more accurate word because it's transparent. We can make it non-transparent also. But yeah, it is transparent, and that's one of the markets that we are looking at, obviously, because you can use it as a window display for the retail industry.
How would you apply it to a window, would it be adhered or is it just hanging?
Marius van Bergen: We are looking at hanging also, but the original idea was adherence. It has a protective foil, and when you take off the foil, it adheres so it sticks to the glass, and we have great viewing angles. It looks pretty damn nice, if I may say so.
But the problem that we've encountered it now because we sold some to a store in New York, but as it turns out, there are regulations that you're not allowed to stick a foil like that to the window. So I think they have a regulation that it needs to be eight inches from the window. They don't have this regulation in China, and I'm sure it's not like that everywhere, those are some of the challenges you run against when you're working the market.
Why do they have that regulation?
Marius van Bergen: I have no idea, but I'm sure we'll find out.
So if it is adhered to window glass or partition glass or something like that. I understand is that the transparency is gonna depend on the pixel pitch and the amount of LED in there, but what kind of transparency can you realise?
Marius van Bergen: I have to admit, I don't know how they measure it, but we actually have two products. We have one with LED strips that are still visible and there's the more transparent product and the product without the strips, we claim, again, I don't know how we measure it, but 89% transparency, which is not bad.
Can this work out outdoors, or is it a pure indoor product?
Marius van Bergen: We sell it as a semi-outdoor or indoor product, but we can make it outdoors as well. It just takes more protective measures. So it's a little bit more expensive if we make it for outdoor applications.
So by semi, you mean it would be in like a sidewalk window or something like that, it’s protected, but it's intended for outdoor viewing.
Marius van Bergen: Yes, exactly, or public spaces.
What are the other benefits to it? Are there weight benefits or when you're pitching this, what are you saying are the key reasons you wanna take a look at this?
Marius van Bergen: As you said yourself, it's very light so instead of carrying these LED cabinets, which weigh a lot, you can just walk around and just hang them in front of a window or have them on a roll and let them hang down. They're very thin. We're between one and one and a half millimeters, so it's extremely thin. It has no frame, which is another big advantage.
When you have a LED mesh, you have this frame that you have to install in front of a window. So all of that we do not have to do, and another advantage, again, that's what I mentioned before, is the sustainability component because sooner or later, everybody will have to switch to COB at least, that's the way I look at it because it's just too polluting to have this packaging industry go on, and it's a race to the bottom really because it's all about mini LED and micro LED and getting as small as you can, but it's still based on packages, and the package is just not necessary. It's less complicated, but it's not necessary.
So would you see a day when you would use micro LED as the light emitters, or COB is the way forward?
Marius van Bergen: We believe very strongly that COB is the way forward, but you can theoretically again because we don't have the purchasing power, but theoretically, you can do micro with a COB technology without a package. It's something called perpendicular stacking, which maybe doesn't mean a lot to people who are not into the technology, but it boils down to you the fact that you are able to go to a very fine pitch with COB, so without a package. So it's definitely possible to get into that area.
But I don't see micro LED getting very mature within, I don't know, five years or anything. It's just too expensive right now.
What would you be paying roughly at, whether it's in EU or USD, for a square foot of this material to put in something like a window?
Marius van Bergen: I don't feel comfortable talking about pricing right now. We're talking to prospects, and we're having the discussions, but we will be selling it by a square meter, and it's not a cheap technology, let me put it that way. And the reason is that each LED chip also has its own IC driver so there is a cost attached to reaching that kind of brightness that we have.
But by having each IC driver like that, each light is addressable so you can control it, fine-tune it, and do whatever you need.
Marius van Bergen: Yes, exactly.
Are there physical limitations or dimensions to how you do this? Are they rolls? Are they are two meters wide or something like that? So if you want something that's fitting a six-meter area, you'd need three rolls side by side?
Marius van Bergen: Yes. We could make them in length that is pretty undefined.
We can make rolls for 20 meters, and we can connect them and go even longer, but the width for now, and that has to do with the equipment we have, is 32 centimeters, if I'm not mistaken. So you put the roll next to each other, and then you can build up a bigger one, and you can just cut it like, like you have LED strips at the at your local DIY store. You can cut the foil actually and make it fit for purpose, which is another really nice property of this LED foil or film if you want because you can make all kinds of shapes with it, and that makes it a very suitable product for creative projects.
Are you restricted to rectangles as the shapes or squares, or could you do something round?
Marius van Bergen: You can do anything. You think of it, and you can basically do it because it's so flexible.
So you could conceivably cut a big round disc and put it on window glass, except in New York, and connect it through some sort of like super thin filament wiring or whatever?
Marius van Bergen: Yes. It's not as if there are no limits, obviously, because you shouldn't cut the circuits that are crucial to the system. But basically, yes, you can do a lot of things in all kinds of shapes and forms.
What are the challenges you face in selling this?
I would imagine a key challenge is that people don’t understand that you can even do this, and also that perhaps what they've seen in terms of transparent film at trade shows, if they're pro AV people, is what companies like LG have, which are LED on film, but pretty coarse, so to speak, pixel pitch that you'd look at and go that's cool, but I'm not sure what I could actually do with that.
Marius van Bergen: Yeah, and LG is one of these companies that, as far as I can understand it, they haven't managed to really market this thing maybe because of price, I don't know. They have a brightness of only 2000 nits, I think, and it's pretty coarse, as you said. We have a P10, a P8, and a P 6.67 now that we are selling in China. We're selling the first samples, I should say. But we can go down to 2.5, and we could probably go down even further but then, where's your transparency? Because that's what we are looking at, and when you're asking me about applications or potential clients, I'll give you an example.
We're talking to a very nice Dutch company, it's called HoloConnect, and they make these holograms, and there are only three companies doing that. There's one in the United States, and there's one in Canada, if I'm not mistaken, and there's one in the Netherlands, and it's a very nice product, and they're thinking, if we use that film maybe we can do more than just show the hologram. You can actually show an NFT with a metaverse world or something like this. It's wherever your imagination takes you. But you can add this digital layer to the hologram to the box, which would be a very nice application.
I've been paying attention to “transparent displays” for years, and when I see the mesh-based LEDs, I've thought those are getting better, they look really good from the front now, but when I go in behind them, they've improved, but they still look like a mesh or a grill and when I've seen most of the transparent LED on film products, they look really nice from the front, and when I look at them from the rear, the non-business end, it's reminiscent of the old printer ribbon cables, that sort of thing, where you see this plastic kind of long, horizontal or vertical stripes.
What does your product look like from the nonilluminated side?
Marius van Bergen: The very honest answer, I have no idea. I'll explain why, because we've been focusing on introducing this product last week at the fair, that's the reason why I haven't got a sample yet. So we've been producing for the fair and our first distributors. We're building a distributor network is in China because, like I said, the factory's in China, and that's where our focus is for now.
T=hey promised me that I'd get my first sample this week so they'll send it my way this week and then I'll tell you what it looks like from the back, or I'll put it on the website so that you can see it. But I've seen videos, obviously, and it's not intrusive. It's not disturbing or painful for the eyes. It's very soothing because it's transparent, and the natural sunlight still comes into space.
Does all the light that is generated go out, or does some of it lead back into the rear view?
Marius van Bergen: From what I can tell from videos and pictures, it doesn't lead back into the room or the space.
What do you see as the market for this?
Marius van Bergen: It's pretty broad. We said retail industry, public spaces, the entertainment exhibition industry. The Christmas market is actually an interesting one because we have Christmas trees now with LED strips for the festivals, but you can do more than that if you have a transparent ribbon, that way you can show your Christmas bars or snowflakes or stuff like this, and the creative projects
Is this sort of thing that can be used on a temporary basis or if you adhere this to window glass, it's on that window glass and if you're getting it off, you're pulling it off and you're done with the thing, you can't apply it to another sheet of glass?
Marius van Bergen: You can apply again. It's like a sticker but it's not like you take off the sticker and you're done with it. It's reusable. But again, one of the big advantages is it's light and it's very thin, so you can transport it back and forth. You can actually also make fixed installations, of course, and use it like a curtain maybe, or something that you pull up when you don't need it and you let down when you do need it.
So could this be a rental unit?
Marius van Bergen: Absolutely.
When you say you could transport it, could it actually be rolled up or do you put it on some sort of flat pieces of cardboard or whatever on both sides to protect it?
Marius van Bergen: It has a protective foil that you remove when you use the film but it's rolled up. You can't fold it because when you go, you are 90 degrees, then you have a circuit problem.
So the transport costs of this versus traditional LED cabinets would, in theory, be substantially lower.
Marius van Bergen: Substantially lower, and there's almost no installation once you have your content, and you have your setup, but you don't have all these cabinets to build up, which are heavy, clumsy, and not very practical. And now you just have a roll, you roll it up.
So the entertainment industry is also something that we think has potential for this product, especially with the brightness that we can achieve.
When you're talking to potential customers and partners in Europe, what are they interested in? Is it the transparency, the lightness, or the ability to put in windows?
Marius van Bergen: All of the above. The challenge, I think, is going to be to determine the right price for this product because, as I said, not the cheapest technology. It's COB, it has its own IC driver per LED chip, but y I think, for something like this, which people like to use the word disruptive, but, if you look at it and you have a bit of a vision, you can see this thing going into the consumer market even.
I'm biased, obviously, and price-wise, it wouldn't be something that you can consider at this point, but we have our mass transfer system, so we can go down with prices pretty quickly once it gets traction in the market.
Are your plans to sell primarily in the EU or are you looking at North America and other markets as well?
Marius van Bergen: Yes, global. We're looking everywhere.
The main focus right now is China. But Europe, the United States, Canada, you name it. We have a lot of countries that we look at. So we'll see where the market takes us.
And are you selling direct, or are you developing country-by-country partnerships or reseller partners?
Marius van Bergen: We haven't ruled anything out, and in China, we'll be using distributors—just channel partners.
You mentioned that there are some other companies that have products as well that don't have the same level of brightness and so on. Do you consider those competitors, or are they going after a different part of the market?
Marius van Bergen: Personally, I don't see them as competitors, but again, I'm biased because I have a very strong belief in the woman who's the brains behind this technology, and that's because I've been with her to ISE for a couple of years, and I know that all big players that everybody knows, they know this very small company, they know there's so much knowledge there but they're a bit afraid of letting us get on the radar. But I think it's going to happen, it's just a way forward.
As I explained, there's no way around COB. With everything going on in the world, whether you are a climate activist or climate denier sustainability, it's just from an economic point of view. You don't buy a package. You have a cheaper product and a better product at that. So I really believe that we have technology that has a bright future.
When you talk about the “green signage” aspect of this, are the benefits around energy savings, or is it as much about the manufacturing footprint that you don't have the same amount of material that you're required to produce a display?
Marius van Bergen: It's both as well. It's not only the material, as I said, but we also have a strong R&D background, so it's all about reducing the number of components to get better heat dissipation and use less power.
The company, the Chinese side of this, are they in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen or somewhere else?
Marius van Bergen: Dongwang, next to Shenzhen. But the woman who started this at beginning of. 2000, she's from Sichuan. I don't know if you know where that is. But she started with this very small company, almost a sweatshop doing traditional modular displays, the top matrixes, and from there, she evolved and got this idea. She was working for a PCB company in Taiwan, and then she got this idea, what's this SMD all about? And then she started thinking about COB, and it's very interesting how she developed, and then she moved to Beijing, then she moved back to Shenzhen, and now we have a factory in Dongwang. It's not a very big factory. It's very clean. It's very nice, and yeah, we're very confident.
I assume part of her thinking, along with her interest in COB, is just simply that there are so many LED manufacturers in China, particularly addressing the domestic market, that if you're going to be successful, you somehow or others have to come up with some kind of differentiation, right?
Marius van Bergen: Yes, very true, and again, I think maybe it's not the wise thing to say on the podcast, but I think maybe it's changing a little bit, but very much mission-driven. Like we want to educate the LED industry. Why are people making all these packages when it's not necessary?
And so there is a drive on educating the industry and making it clear that COB is the way forward, and actually, COB is only a name but what we have now, we actually call it COB-IP because it's a chip-on-board integrated package. So it's actually a sealed assembly of a LED ship and an IC driver within one pixel.
All right. If people want to know more about this, where can they find you online?
Marius van Bergen: Online, you can find us at COBstr.com, but you can ask me, and I'll be glad to share all the information.
All right. Marius, thank you very much for your time.
Marius van Bergen: Dave, thank you very much for having me, it was a pleasure.
Wednesday Apr 12, 2023
Wes Nicol, Videri
Wednesday Apr 12, 2023
Wednesday Apr 12, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
If you've spent any time in bars and pubs - not me, but I've been told - there have always been signs of walls promoting beverage brands. They were neon, or backlit plastic, and they were there to perhaps be the last thing someone sees before a server asks, "What'll you have?"
Imagine if you could do that instead with digital displays that were changeable and had the kinds of motion graphics or video that drew eyeballs and influenced decisions.
That's what a New York-based company called Videri offers up. Very quietly, guided by a whale client it can't talk about publicly, Videri has almost 100,000 networked displays operating around the globe - driving brand awareness and delivering a consistent 30% sales lift, month to month, on promoted products. That means an ROI on the investment for the brands who put them in that's measured in months, not years.
The big reasons why it works? It's a turnkey solution based on super-thin, super-light custom-manufactured all-in-one flat panels that a beverage brand's field staffers can install and activate in a matter of minutes. If they can hang a picture on a wall, they can put these in.
I had a great chat with Wes Nicol, who came on as CEO about a year ago and is busily bringing Videri out of a somewhat stealthy period, and making some broader marketplace noise.
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Wes, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what Videri is all about?
Wes Nicol: Hey, Dave, thanks for having me. I am excited to be on the podcast. I've been a longtime listener, first-time interviewee. But yeah, the history of Videri, it's been around for about ten years, in 2013, we started with digital out-of-home, ruggedized products working with Outfront, which was CBS Outdoor at the time, and then subsequent to that, maybe a few years later, developed a series of thinner indoor displays, Videri Canvas that we built hand in hand actually with one of our large customers And then continue to expand that globally.
We're typically more of a white-label shop. You don't really hear much about vi I think when we talked before you mentioned, “I have never heard of you guys.” That was probably on purpose. We can talk about that later but we have a complete end-to-end solution: we build hardware, CMS & device management software, and I’m happy to get into the details.
I had heard vaguely of you in the past, I think one of the jobs that Videri was doing, you mentioned Outfront was on the MTA in New York?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, exactly. So anything that you see on the MTA is our product.
Oh, okay. Now, do you still do that sort of work, or was the move to these thin canvas displays something of a pivot for the company?
Wes Nicol: We're still doing that. We are still actively deploying right now at the MTA, and there's gonna be a refresh cycle that we're hoping to participate in. But I think strategically we want to become more of a software company and there's a lot of green space in the indoor product. As you know obviously in the industry, there's a lot of opportunity there. So that's kinda where we're focusing most of our efforts right now.
You have been very quiet. I would say almost stealthy, but in the past year, you started to make some noise in the market, right?
Wes Nicol: Yeah I'm new to the company, so I joined about a year ago…
So you're the noisy guy?
Wes Nicol: Exactly, and I'm Canadian. So typically we're pretty humble folks, but it's funny. We were at the ISE show. I think we saw you there at your event, at the actual show itself, people are saying, “Hey, we've been trying to find you guys like. We've seen this product somewhere, we just didn't know who made it”, and there's nothing written on the actual display that actually says, Videri on it. You have to kinda pull it off the wall, look at some serial numbers and do some Googling to figure it out.
And that's been great because some of our partners love that. They love the fact they got something really special and unique, and we're going to continue to do that kinda white-label approach. But when you see your list of the top display manufacturers in digital signage, we're nowhere near where I think we should be based on deployments, and that's cause we're not really being captured.
We're in a lot of cinema projects. We're in many of the top beverage brands obviously we're in QSRs, and there are tons of retailers that you probably wouldn't even realize that it has Videri.
I have this interesting story that I relate of my experience at DSE, going back to November, and being just like dead tired on my feet and some guy from a company called Videri asked if I could come to their hospitality suite at The Aria, and I didn't wanna go. I was just so tired, but it was right next to the hotel where I was staying, so I figured, okay, I'll go and I met him and we went up the elevator and then walked down a hallway that was, I swear, three miles long to the end unit in this hospitality suite and said hello to some people and they brought me over to the product and it was three skinny monitors on a buffet or whatever you wanna call the thing, and I was thinking to myself, really, I did all this to see some skinny desktop monitors and I thought, please god, get me out of here. But then your guy started to explain to me what was going on and I thought, oh, wait a minute. This is actually interesting and how I've since described it to others is it does a bunch of things, you can explain all that.
But what I said was, if you think about bars and restaurants that you've been in that had a display on a wall for a beer brand or some other beverage brand and that used to be neon and then it became backlit plastic, printed out plastic. Now it's digital, it's skinny, it's changeable, and it can go up in a matter of minutes and be fully managed on a network and affordable and there's an ROI out of it.
Is that kind of a fair description of what you're up to?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, absolutely. So that was the kind of the need of this large customer, which shall remain nameless, that worked with us, and the idea was like, you've gotta build something that's gonna fit nicely into a bar, a restaurant that's gonna fit in the environment. There are weird wall situations. It's gotta be something that can fit in. Just like you're hanging a picture effectively, and it's gotta be easy to deploy, being like the sales rep that is working with that bar, the restaurant has to be able to be one that actually installs it. You don't need a third-party installer to come in, roll a truck out and do it.
Cause that's $150 an hour or something, right?
Wes Nicol: Exactly. Plus there are all the costs, so these people are already going there. They're dropping off the beverages, they're dropping off merchandise, they're talking to their clients. They have to be able to deploy this in 15 minutes, that was the requirement, and so that spurred a whole bunch of things and thinking about how that is being used in that environment. It's not a tv, right? So part of the importance of this is that we're able to build this cause of what it doesn't have, right? So there's no need for a tuner, no need for speakers, no need for HDMI cables. We have media players embedded inside, a SOC running Android, and they're really thin power cables because we're not actually consuming a ton of power, and we need to be able to store a certain amount of content locally that is connected though it can be modified and centrally managed.
And so the way that works for the restaurant or bar owner is they can have customized cocktail lists, they can do menu boards that will benefit them, but the beverage brand in this case can showcase their products and maybe include that in a cocktail or do some branding exercises and that can all be centralized and managed.
This particular brand which shall remain nameless manages, I think over 40,000 locations globally in 80-something countries now with one person managing content with two interns, and they're managing content globally, and part of that is as part of the installation, obviously, the sales rep is able to just screw it into the wall, there are two screws that you pop it on, plug it in and then they use this app to connect to the WiFi and then connect the network, and effectively they walk away, but they can, with the bar owner in this particular example, customize that content, do some stuff, and so the way we've had to create our CMS platform and device management platform, Is to enable hierarchy of permissions and it maps into this particular customer's CRM system. I think you're using SAP so if that rep is no longer part of the company, they lose their permissions to access those displays. But they can only access these 10 locations and they can work and the bar owner says, Hey, I wanna change this content. I wanna manage this or do something different. That rep can manage that. But the global programs, the programmatic marketing, it's all done centrally from the headquarters, and so by building this product, we were able to then see other benefits, right?
“Oh wow. It's really thin, it looks beautiful, that's an advantage for events”, and so there's been countless sort of offshoots from building this core product.
And was it a case of the European beverage brand, I know we're dancing around this because you wanna make sure you're not doing something that's going to upset an apple cart, were they already doing screens in these kinds of environments and thinking this is too challenging, we need something different. Can you help?
Or were you already working with them and they said, this is a start, but we need to work with you to fine-tune something that really suits our needs?
Wes Nicol: This particular brand has always been very innovative. They've always been pushing the envelope in terms of on-premise marketing. When you're consuming products on the premise, you've got, as you mentioned, like kinda the neon signs, those types of things. That's been kinda standard. They are always the first ones, and so they were testing different digital signage options and they were never really getting what they're looking for, and then they said, we kinda gotta build it ourselves, and luckily through the initial relationship the connection was made and we started building this and testing it and they said, ok, we'll run a pilot, and we'll see what it does. They ran it in a number of locations. Over a period of time, they said, this has to be a one-year ROI or less. That was like the requirements of the pilot.
They significantly busted through that. It was a lot quicker, and they've seen a 30% increase consistently over four years and tens of thousands of displays consistently driving that because when you're in that location, when you're in that bar, you don't go to a bar thinking, Hey, I want a gin and tonic. Yeah. You're going in there I wanna go for a drink with some friends, right? And oh, what are we gonna have? What do you have here? What's on the menu? Oh, that, okay, great. I'll order that, and so it's kinda that power of influencing people subtly in the background. We're not like a big TV that's showing a sports game, right? We're something that's in there as part of the environment that's. So it was built for that purpose, for that kinda subtle influence of that decision at the point of sale and the deployment, in terms of the requirements of the hardware, they weren't happy with buying TVs.
Like when I came to the company a year ago, I said, hey, TVs are a lot cheaper. We should just make TVs, and they're like, absolutely not. We've built this for a reason, and so that really kinda made me understand the product a lot better.
So when you say 30%, that's a 30% lift on sales of that item in that venue?
Wes Nicol: Yes. Consistently,
Wow, month over month. So that would pay for itself in I don't know, six weeks or something, right?
Wes Nicol: It depends on the product and we've seen in other environments, like in a retail store, get a return on investment in two weeks, it's crazy.
And that's the thing I think about this whole industry. I'm coming from a different industry before, but coming into it, realizing like everyone I talk to about my job here at Videri goes wow, never thought of that. We could totally use that in my industry. And people from all different spaces, and I feel that in this market, there's such a green field opportunity. There's been the traditional stuff, QSR that's been done, but there are so many different areas that I see this potentially going into and when you see these kinds of impacts, like if you're at the point of sale and the customer doesn't really know what to get, think cannabis and others, there's a whole bunch of new industries that you just need a bit of guidance, right? I don't know what I'm coming here to buy, but I want something, and just being able to explain to that customer in a digital way. We have the tools now. We didn't have them before, and yeah, it's really exciting.
I suspect that the kind of turnkey element of it is also very attractive in that if you want to do something in, let's say a bar, you're gonna have to buy a display, buy a media playout device, or maybe there's SOC on it, but you're gonna have to buy them out. There's a whole bunch of parts involved, and then you've gotta identify software that you're gonna work with. Is it compliant? On and on. So it can become complicated and expensive quickly, and the end users just say, you know what? Maybe later, but not right now.
And they're just selling the dream, so to speak, as opposed to you, because you've got this client and some other clients who can actually say 30% consistent lift month on month, it's like holy shit, where do I sign?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, exactly. Even as you were mentioning, I'm thinking about my TV in my apartment here in New York. I hung it up and I screwed it up a million times, right? And it's heavy, and you're trying to hold it up against the wall. These things are super lightweight. We stripped out everything, right? It's just really down to the bare bones, but it does what you're looking for it to do, and so you're absolutely right. The idea is a very simple consumer-like experience in terms of out of the box, installation. We're talking about a simple iOS app and you've gotta connect to the cloud and then you can manage that through the console, and we're just about to launch a whole new refresh of the platform that is like super user-friendly that will make that possible, and I'm not able to announce a big partner that we're launching other than this beverage brand that's gonna make this a lot more accessible to the average SMB taking advantage of those key features.
Because you worked pretty closely and continued to work pretty closely with us particular beverage brand, did that restrict who else you could work with?
Wes Nicol: They frowned upon us going with their competitors directly. But not necessarily, no. There's no kinda exclusivity there. But they are pushing to build a product specifically for them and they have got some unique features that they put in that we can’t use with others, but those are software features, so no, we're open, we can work with others.
Does it become a challenge in the venues themselves where they say we've already got these Videri screens for this beverage brand, we're tapped out, we don't have more wall space, or we don't want competing ones here, this is good enough?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, that's the genius of this idea. It probably wasn't even Videri’s idea to go and do this, but it was this beverage brand’s idea like, hey, this is a bit of a land grab, right? There's only so much real estate in these locations, and if we can own that space it's a win-win for the bar, restaurant, and brand but if we can go and get out there, and they have an aggressive plan to expand then they own that space kind of indefinitely since these things last for a while.
So that's one of the models we're looking at where the brand is being showcased in a third-party location and the brand owns the display and that's unique and I think it's gonna continue to play out in a few different areas. The other one we're looking at, and we're starting to see some real interest in that, is that the actual retailer owns the display and they have a closed network where they are already getting the brands to spend money on merchandising in the stores. Think about a Telco that's launching a new Samsung Galaxy phone that is 23 or 25 or 57, whatever version it's now, and they wanna buy space in that retail location, they can actually use these displays to, number one, pay for themselves immediately, but also be revenue generating for merchandising in that closed network. I'm not talking about connecting to an exchange or anything, I’m talking about a private closed network and we've seen a lot of it.
It's just endemic advertising.
Wes Nicol: Yeah, exactly.
Yeah, I think wireless retailers are like the poster child for that. It is perfect because there are always new products and there are always new plans and features and everything else and the compliance issues of having the right posters up at the right time and all that are massive in that kind of environment, and if you could just all do it digitally, that would be great, but historically retailers tend to be very cheap, would be the impolite term for it, they don't want to spend the money on that infrastructure, they'd rather have the brand come in and do that.
Are you seeing that shifting?
Wes Nicol: No. Retailers are under a ton of pressure, you know, 80% of the sales that happen in the US are actually in brick-and-mortar. I didn't realize it was that high, so they're under pressure. But I think the idea is that we have to find a way to displace ourselves. So you've gotta figure out an OPEX model, or maybe it's a three-year term or something like that, and then you charge them monthly, but ok, it's gonna cost you X, but you're gonna make 3X back in a month, let's do a trial for free for three months, see what happens, and they say, wow, like this is actually gonna be generating money from your marketing as opposed to, it's not gonna be a cost set, it's actually gonna be positive. It can show the results immediately.
So part of the issue for us is like we really need to be able to report that and tell that and really ideally getting access to the point of sale information and say, Hey, like when we've displayed this, we put this out there. We've been running these particular promotions, we've been focusing on X sneaker brand, and that sneaker brand increased dramatically and increased margins at this location by X and Y and really making it affordable and that's the whole thing. I think in terms of the adoption of digital signage. You just have to make it easy to deploy, whether it's a partner that does it or it's in-house, if you're able to make that happen, like this beverage brand, and I think others are able to do it, you still can have a partner come in and it's inexpensive for them as well to kinda just deploy and manage. And so it has to be I think on a monthly basis and it has to drive that business return on investment, very quickly.
If you pay upfront for the hardware, these displays are expensive cause you're buying the hardware, that's when you're in the year ROI but if you're saying, I'm gonna advertise this over three years and it's monthly, and we know that we're seeing the return quickly, usually in month two or three you’ll find that it's actually paying for itself.
Yeah. I wrote recently just the other day actually about a company that was starting down the path of AV as a service, the very high-end IT services and everything else related to that, and you're starting to hear about deals that kind of roll in all the costs of a digital sign network into just like a subscription, a monthly fee, to do everything, not just the software, the hardware, the whole nine yards.
Is that something that you are doing now or looking at?
Wes Nicol: Absolutely, and we have partners that have been doing this for a long time. Here in the US, Velocity Managed Services they're one of our partners.
Oh yeah. Out of Dayton or Toledo, or something like that?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, and they provide a monthly all-in package. They've been doing a lot of stuff with cinemas and other brands. I don’t know if I can mention the brands. I'm just going to be really careful. But yeah, so that's already provided by them and they can also do a la carte: Do you want to have content management? Do you wanna have content development? We've got all the different services. They even do the installation as part of the monthly, so instead of paying upfront for installation, you can do it over a period of time. I think that's a good model. I think that you can see more and more of that.
Yeah, because not every end-user client is going to have field reps bringing flats of drinks or whatever into a venue every three days or whatever it may be. With other ones, you're going to have to have some sort of an install crew, even if the labor costs are relatively low because it's quick.
Wes Nicol: Absolutely, and many companies don't want to deal with that, right? They just say just give me a turnkey solution. I want a partner to manage this for me, I'll pay for it, and that's completely reasonable because the business case justifies it.
You guys provided the screens at my mixer in Barcelona and we had multiple screens with content cascading over multiple screens, shifting back and forth. So there were many matrixes of rectangles and squares and so on. You could do interesting stuff like that. But what we've been talking about mostly till now has been with what sounds like single displays that would go up and replace a backlit display or backlit printed signs that might have been there in the past. Are you doing much in the way of these multiple displays?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, that's a whole other space, right? And this product is fantastic because of it, the name Videri means ‘to be seen’ and it's an interesting play on words in terms of, like, how do you want to be seen? How do you want your brand to be seen if you're at an event, if you're launching a new product, how do you want that to be seen?
You want an elegant, beautiful display, but you also would love to see an array of displays that's unique and different, right? You can do a wall, an LED wall, that's one thing but if you want a unique layout that's like Eye Catching, we built this orchestration software that really enables you to do that automatically. So you can pinch and zoom the entire video, and if you're able to see the screen behind me right now, and I know we're just on audio, but I have videos running across a number of displays in the back wall of my office that just automatically happens.
So when you're looking at events, activations, and others, unfortunately, a lot of our stuff we can't really share. We have some hidden places that I can share with certain customers, but yeah, so it could be like, you're launching a new car, or you're doing a new whiskey brand or trade shows. That's a huge opportunity for us. People didn't realize this existed, and since we've come out in the last few months here, we're getting tons of inbound requests, and we're going to an event in Kentucky that's a booth-building event. So Booth builders are looking at this product, saying, this is super light, I can hang this anywhere. I don't need special reinforcement. It's very thin, and then I can do these mosaics, and we have a lot of examples of doing an entire huge stand of 50-60 displays, all orchestrated content and it's kind of a unique way, and we've done some studies on that, and it really draws your attention because firstly it's unique, but we purposely put gaps in between the displays by the way, that's what we've learned as a best practice, at least an inch or two in between. So then your mind is drawn to it like you're trying to fill in the gaps and it just draws your attention more. So that's been kind of like one of the key best practices in terms of how we arrange these displays.
It's interesting because the mantra in digital signage for 25 years has been to try to get to seamless and not have gaps or bezzles or anything else, but you're saying that visually it works the other way.
Wes Nicol: Yeah, just to be unique, and to catch the eye. Like we're an LED wall, and the LED walls are fantastic, right? They're really cool for certain things, but we have a unique product that lets you stand out, do something different and draw people's attention because you can do things that you couldn't otherwise do.
Are you constrained by the creativity of that? If a creative person is listening to this, are they starting to think, okay, what does this file look like? What am I doing that's different? Do I have to design something very custom? Or is it just a file, and it'll run on here?
Wes Nicol: It all comes down to actually how you mount the displays. You've got three ways to do it. It has to be a square, portrait, or landscape, right? And you can't have some weird triangle thing going on with displays because it looks kind of weird.
But yeah, in our creative studio platform, it shows like certain content will render well in that aspect ratio, and so if we work with you on an event and you're saying, okay, we've got this wall that we're going to be working with, we can say, okay, we can do a couple of portraits, we can do landscape, we can do whatever, and then the content has to match up to that. But generally, all the major formats of video, and then you can go back to still images, to video. We can schedule all and manage all the different slots.
So if it's an interesting-looking matrix,, if you step back and look at it, you're thinking in terms of it being a 16:9 rectangle as the overall canvas, even though it might not fill all of it or a square, or whatever.
Wes Nicol: Exactly.
Okay. So you've mentioned partners a few times. Are you mostly selling through partners, or do you sell direct, or a little bit of both?
Wes Nicol: This is kind of a miss, I think, over the company over the years is we haven't really set this up properly, and we're fixing that. But we have a lot of direct customers, and then we have a very small handful of resellers, a couple in the US and one in Israel. Having gone to this ISE show in Barcelona, realizing people want the product in Poland, they want the product in Spain, they want the product in the Middle East. So we set up a partner program that we just launched two or three weeks ago. We're getting resellers and distributors that will give us the products in the country throughout EMEA. That's like a big push right now. So the product can be sourced there.
In the past, you'd have to get a shipment from New York and it would take forever to reach Saudi Arabia. Now we're gonna have a local presence with local distributors. So we're definitely actively signing up a ton of resellers and partners. There's been a ton of demand at the show, I think I mentioned that people were just like, wow. where have you guys been? I've seen this. I'm from South Africa, I've been trying to find this product for years and no one would tell me where they got it. So that's all that's changing now, and we're really actively recruiting partners.
You guys did the reference design, I assume working with your big client or clients, is the manufacturing done in China or somewhere in Asia?
Wes Nicol: That's correct, done in China. We do all the design work. Our New York office is the sales and marketing, and finance. But we have all of our engineering is done in Canada, based in Montreal. So we have hardware and software engineering up there. So we design, we got mechanical engineering, we deal with radio stuff, and like a whole bunch of designing everything from the display. We're actually building some other unique things I'll talk about maybe a future podcast that is taking advantage of some of the skill sets up in Canada. But yeah, all that stuff gets designed, and we work for the entire process. We're launching a whole series of products right now, and it's QAd in Canada and then it goes back to the manufacturers in China.
Would that just be an evolution of what you already have or distinct?
Wes Nicol: It's an evolution with some interesting new twists to it.
Wes Nicol: We can talk about it when you invite me back to get back on this show.
Now, what about a large retailer that's already working with Brand X CMS software company. Can you integrate with them, or do they have to be like parallel activities that don't cross one another?
Wes Nicol: We're completely open. We just had a big meeting about that. We're working with some other partners around integrating their CMS platforms. We've got killer device management. So I think our role, when we're working with other partners, we want to be able to manage the provisioning and, making sure the device has the right software, we're able to get a lot of really good insights in terms of CPU performance, memory, WiFi signal, temperature, all that stuff. We would continue to play that role, but we definitely integrate with any other CMS platform.
When you were at the show, we were sitting across from Appspace, and we went, hey, can we run your Android APK on this? And within 15 minutes, we had Appspace running on our displays at the booth in Barcelona. There are some gotchas to this. We have to do a little bit of modification, but it's actually quite easy for us to start running some other CMS platforms.
Does that cannibalize your revenue?
Wes Nicol: I don't know if you have my history, but I was at Blackberry, and we were talking about the fact that do we just stay focused on the hardware or do we open up our platform? And you remember Blackberry Messenger, and then they kept that unique to Blackberry because they thought that would help sell hardware, and you saw where that went.
So I understand that we need to work with other partners. We have to be an open platform. We were talking about a potential partner of ours that's got I think a million displays that they're managing, we're not going to rip out existing deployments, right? We want to play nicely. Maybe they want our display. I see our device management platform being something that could be really valuable, and we'll take a small piece for that, and I think that's reasonable.
You mentioned that you're in 40,000 locations with this particular client. What's the overall footprint if you can tell me?
Wes Nicol: With all our install base? We're around the six-figure number, but I can't say exactly.
Okay. So north of a hundred thousand?
Wes Nicol: In that kind of range, yeah.
Wow. That's a pretty big footprint for a company that very few people have heard of.
Wes Nicol: Yeah, I know. I have to get that fixed.
Wes Nicol: Yeah, it is. But I think there's just so much more potential and we need to make people aware of this.
The structure of the company. Are you privately held or public?
Wes Nicol: We're privately owned, primarily by a family office here in New York.
Oh, wow, and you're able to just grow organically?
Wes Nicol: Yeah, for now, yeah. I mean there could be some potential acquisitions later on. But yeah, without going into too much detail, we completely revamped our whole software platform and refreshed our hardware platform, and invested in marketing. So there's a lot of stuff going on right now that we're just focused on kind of coming back out into the market. Once that plays out, then there could be some other things we can focus on. For now, we've got our hands very full.
I appreciate you taking half an hour for me.
Wes Nicol: Thank you. It's great chatting with you and nice meeting you there in Barcelona, and excited to hopefully get back on here sometime. I need some more excuses to talk to you again.
Absolutely. Thanks again, Wes.
Tuesday Mar 28, 2023
Brad Koerner, Koerner Design
Tuesday Mar 28, 2023
Tuesday Mar 28, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
Brad Koerner is a Harvard-trained architect who has spent decades looking at how technology affects and defines built environments. He has a specific interest in technologies like lighting and digital displays.
An American based now in beautiful Amsterdam, Koerner works with both end-users and technology companies. By his own admission, he's obsessed by the question of how digital and interactive technologies are starting to disrupt centuries-old thinking about architectural design.
We met recently at Integrated Systems Europe, where he did a well-received talk on his ideas and observations. He later sent me the presentation deck, and it was pretty clear I needed to get him on this podcast.
In our chat, we get into a whole bunch of things - but focus quite a bit on the terms immersive and experiential ... what they mean and how they get applied.
Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS
Brad, thank you for joining me from Amsterdam. Can you give me a background on what you do and what Koerner Design is all about?
Brad Koerner: Yeah, thanks, Dave, for having me. It's really an honor. So Koerner Design is my own design firm, and I focus on the future of the built environment, iSPAN, architectural lighting, digital signage, and circular economy product design.
What would be a typical engagement? If there is such a thing as typical.
Brad Koerner: A typical engagement for me is working with lighting design companies to create sustainable products. I've been engaged with a few digital signage and marketing firms looking at trends in digital media. I'm also working with DC Power folks, thinking about sort of infrastructure-level improvements that help lighting and digital signage.
So a company would come to you saying, we are thinking about doing this, but we don't have our heads wrapped around how it would all come together?
Brad Koerner: Yeah I speak a lot. I talk about the future of the built environment through a variety of different channels, and a lot of people find inspiration in the pieces that I do. For example, I just spoke at Integrated Systems Europe on immersive digital environments, and an earlier presentation I gave was called “Every surface is a screen, now what?”
The year before that I presented at Integrated Systems Europe, also on DC Power Systems. These videos go out there and they get people really inspired. They start to see these industries in new ways. They look at their problems with a fresh mind, and they really want to engage them in an innovation process, right? A proper design-driven innovation process. So I help them do a future envisioning session: what are the trends, what are the options, what do they have? Then we turn that into a sort of proper wishlist of product concepts or new business concepts, and then we drive it into the roadmap where it's scoped and prioritized, and they focus on that.
I also then take it all the way out and help 'em with product marketing and marketing communications for those new launches.
So they would come to you because you're not selling them anything other than your insight and expertise as opposed to trying to angle them toward how they're gonna use a fine-pitch LED wall?
Brad Koerner: Correct. I'm agnostic when it comes to all the technologies and equipment.
You talk in your presentations a lot about immersive digital experiences and I'm very curious about how you define immersive because I just wrote the other day about a company that described a billboard along a roadway as immersive, and I thought, boy, that's really stretching to call that immersive, but maybe I'm wrong.
Brad Koerner: I think it's helpful for your audience to understand by background. I'm an architect. I have two degrees in architecture, and when I was young, I always wanted to be a Disney Imagineer as a kid, and that's what drove me into architecture, and then as a side interest, I took up theater lighting and stage set design.
So I really think of immersive digital experiences from that sort of the architectural point of view where you are in physical places, you are surrounded by six surfaces and in today's world, all of those can become digital, they can become luminous, they can become a portal to the internet or to the digital world in some form or another. I've said this because I cross over between architectural lighting and digital signage a lot in my work.
Every pixel is a light source and every light source is a pixel in these modern building projects. And a lot of people still don't quite understand that concept yet. An immersive digital experience is becoming how you design an architectural space, and I think particularly a lot of architects and interior designers are really trailing behind the technology. They look at signage as a thing that's applied after the fact almost like a typical signage project, non-digital signage. They don't yet understand how to take everything they've been taught about architecture placemaking, creating thresholds, creating progression, creating a sense of space or wonder, efficiency or economy for working environments, or branded retail experience. They don't know how to take what they're so good at and apply digital to it and mix digital into that and use digital to create something really engaging placemaking. That's what I mean by immersive digital experiences.
You say they don't know how, but is it the case that they do want to?
Brad Koerner: Some for sure, some absolutely not. I saw Michael Schneider from Gensler speak at the Integrated Systems Europe show a few years ago, and Gensler has a whole group now that's called the Digital Experience Design Group, and this is exactly what they're focused on.
Gensler hired the Head of Imagineering at Disney.
Brad Koerner: Bob Weiss, right? So they get it. For every Gensler, that's out there, There are a lot of architects that think of digital experience design as well, “Don't put a TV on my wall that's gonna show a Coke ad”, right? And they don't get it right. They still think of architecture as concrete and steel and glass and like Le Corbusier's famous quote, “It's the magnificent play of forms bathed in light”, and I've inverted that many times and I've spoken and I said you know what happens when the forms themselves emit light and they become digital, how are you gonna design that? How do you design the element of time?
And with the element of time, you get this sort of very active storytelling capacity within architectural placemaking. So it's no longer enough for you to design a wall and it just sits there forever. You have to think about how that wall will change over time, right? These sorts of cycles of time, whether it's days, weeks, seasons, hours, minutes, or whatever that is, that wall can change dynamically. So why will you change it? How will you use that for placemaking and creating engaging experiences? I don't think most traditionally educated architects and interior designers can really get their heads around that yet. Even lighting designers have this sort of classic preset scene notion when it comes to controls. They're struggling with getting their heads around digital media and that live data stream, live media, and sort of interactivity.
But you seem to be suggesting that this is a matter of time as opposed to maybe it'll happen because I keep writing and talking about how that time is coming fairly quickly when architects and people who design physical spaces are thinking about LED and projection and other technologies as design materials, as design considerations.
Brad Koerner: Yeah. I think it's inevitable. The best science fiction has shown this for decades now. It's shown this amazing potential world we can live in, both the positive and the dystopian use of it like Children of Men. I just spoke in Integrated Systems Europe and I started my presentation by saying, “The future is now!” You look at Blade Runner, you look at Minority Report, you look at Star Trek, and all of those things that everybody still thinks of as like out there decades away in the future, now in fact, is decades behind us, right? And people haven't admitted to where we are, right?
The future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed and digital signage is definitely a world where that is super true, right? You go to the trade shows and a few years ago Sony had an 8k native-resolution digital wall that was eight meters wide and four meters tall, and it was hyperrealistic. That technology exists, but then you go to clients out there and you know they can't afford at any budget, anything, or they simply won't choose to do that, and I think it's inevitable. These architects that are afraid of it, I think what happens is somebody will put a digital sign in their space whether they like it or not for other reasons, and the worst-case scenario is it does become an ad, right? And that's not what they want in their space. So they better get their head around it and integrate it actively into their design concepts and really look at the poetics of it. How can they use simple things like beautiful motion graphics and beautiful textures?
Just like an interior designer would make a material sample board, a swatch board, they need to think of the digital media like that. What is the sort of swatches of digital media that they're presenting to their clients when they're designing these grand lobbies or offices or retailers or whatever?
I wonder though, with Gensler, they are an extremely well-established company with huge clients and everything else, and they work with Fortune 100s, fortune 500s, giant airports, and everything else. But there's a whole bunch of designers that are working with like a regional insurance company or something like that, and they're just saying, we get what you're saying, but our customers aren't gonna spend that money. They want a defined ROI. They don't want something that's just artistic and ethereal and vague in terms of what this does.
Brad Koerner: I think you're talking about a couple of things, right? So first off, there's just cheap, right? You'll always have customers that can never be cheap enough, right? But you have to segment the market, right? There are always customers at the high end of the range that wants the newest, the coolest, the hottest things at the beginning of the cycle. I joke that it's the sort of corporate lobby art budget crowd that always seems to have the money to do those sorts of fanciful things.
But the technology keeps plummeting in price, right? A lot of this technology was indeed available even 20 years ago, but it was at such a price point no one could afford it unless you're like U2 going on a concert tour with a LED screen with the width of a football field. They could afford it but no one else.
Or Comcast and their lobby because they were a cable company before streaming!
Brad Koerner: Yeah, the Comcast lobby, right? What is that already 15 years ago, right? It's like I said, the future is here. It's just unevenly distributed. So the price points just keep coming down until they become more and more common.
Could you have imagined even a decade ago that every little restaurant and coffee shop, and donut shop would have digital menu boards? It's amazing how fast that swept through the market, and right now we have these sorts of virtual production spaces, right? I think it was, what, just three years ago, the Mandalorian showed sort of the first instance of that, and there was that movie First Man Before, I think was the first that used an LED screen in camera on film. Now it's everywhere, right? Every studio around the world is installing these virtual production facilities within a year.
The accelerating rate of technological innovation is a term that’s thrown around, and I don't think people understand what accelerating rate means. AI image generation six months ago exploded onto the scene, and now everyone is using it every designer is thinking about how it's gonna disrupt them, and every content producer is thinking about how they can suddenly reduce the cost of their content generation using this sort of AI image generation, or increase their margin.
That was just six months ago, so I think with the technology becoming so cheap, it's low cost to visualize the concepts. It's such a low cost to design, commission, and program them. The hardware is continually plummeting in costs, so you to open up new opportunities, right? The menu boards in little mom-and-pop restaurants. There will always be the high end of the market going down into the middle end of the market, and they will use these, right? And they will have very smart design teams that come up with real ROI stories for why these things work, and it becomes fanciful and sci-fi today or yesterday, tomorrow just becomes normal and accepted. People don't even think about it anymore. The bottom end of the market will always be cheap. There'll always be people who can never save enough money or be stingy enough. That's in every market, right? Lighting, construction, you name it. It's always like that.
You're suggesting in your presentation that the digital and physical worlds are fusing in that with physical spaces being portals to a virtual world. I'm curious about what you mean by that, and maybe you can give me a couple of examples of how that's actually playing out.
Brad Koerner: Let me go back to when I was in school. I have a Master's in Architecture from Harvard, and when I was there, I did a thesis titled ‘Active Object Surfaces and Zones’ I looked at using physical interactive controls for retail displays and lighting, and this was in 1999. So I was a bit ahead of the scene on that one.
But in the early 200s, I believed that physical spaces would become the best interface to the internet which is, I know, a wild concept for many now. But you have to remember back then we were still using 20-inch Sony Trinitron screens were like the hot technology, and people were still using three-and-a-half-inch floppy discs and dial-up modems but the internet showed so much promise and there were a lot of designers doing really amazing websites and that was very spatial, right? And even just the notion of hypertext itself is very spatial.
So I kept imagining that physical spaces and using your body as the control and creating progression and threshold and a lot of the sort of architectural principles that you see in the internet experience could be combined. But then, in 2007, Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, and little black mirrors hijacked our internet experience, right?
Now though, I think people are over that, and we're saturated with personal devices and little black mirrors everywhere, the retailers are finally waking up to say, Hey, we need that digital in our physical experience, and so are the hospitality providers and healthcare providers. And they're starting to think, wait for a second, now we can tie all this digital data o tour spaces, right? And we can take all these great media that we have on our little black mirrors, and we can put it into our physical spaces. We can create these great experiences, and we can complete this cycle of gathering data from the real world, using it to drive great media content creation, live and interactivity and use it to drive behavior back in the real world, right? And it completes that virtuous cycle, and that's what I mean when I say architecture becomes a portal to the virtual world. A portal you can go back and forth between, right? The digital might come from into the space, and the spatial actions might drive digital data, right?
Can you give me some examples of where you've seen this applied and you think it really works because I've walked into some spaces that retail spaces and other spaces that are called immersive and experiential and thought to myself, being an old fart, cranky and everything that that's nice, but I don't see the point of this and I sometimes struggle with how they're gonna see a return out of this?
Brad Koerner: Yeah, I haven't seen many. Long story short: I think you just have this great divide where you have, for example, a lot of startups doing smart buildings, right? And they're deploying all these sensors, and they're gathering up all this data, but then they don't return that data back to the spaces. The data does very little to act on the physical space. Then you have all this great media content that's out there and you'll throw up media content on these screens, and it's not tied to anything that's happening in the space, right?
So it has no recognition of if somebody's even looking at it or not, much more if that person is gazing at it or wanting to engage it. There's been a lot of crazy stuff. There's indoor GPS positioning using lighting systems and apps. That was a flop. People have tried to tie app experiences into the real world. Not a lot of that has any real success story. You see a lot of these sorts of art-driven installations where I call it the be in Me and My Shadow problem. You can put a stereo vision camera system in space and track people exactly, but then, all they do is show the person's presence on some huge digital wall, and it's like me in my shadow, and there's no other point to it, so you have to think about why you need interaction in a space, right? I say for lighting and digital media, you can deliver the right light or the right content at the right place at the right time. You can use it to create really memorable human experiences, or you can use it to drive action, right? And those are areas that are not well explored yet, right? You don't have a lot of good designers out there connecting all of those systems together to create genuinely good experiences.
I actually worked with a startup called Digi Valet that makes a hotel room control system for luxury hotel rooms. So they make an app that sits on an iPad, but the other half of their system is this black box that interfaces with every physical control system in a modern hotel room like the thermostat, the blinds, the lighting, the media, everything that's Bluetooth, the Bluetooth controlled faucet on the bathtub, the Bluetooth coffee maker, the Bluetooth perfume/scent sprayer, and all that stuff.
And it was great because they asked me to help them. This had a lot of customers, these hotel chains wanted to develop a brand of digital media and lighting experiences as part of this iPad app, right? And it was a fascinating way to think about it. So you're in this hotel room, and you click, I want to watch a movie. It immediately says on your iPad, okay, can we set the cinema lighting? Yes. Can we lower the blinds? Yes. Would you like us to order you champagne and popcorn? Yes.
It totally changes the way you think of the room, right? You don't have lighting control pads and blinds, and you don't have to find the remote control for the TV. It's all about having this really smart butler that just knows what to do when you want to watch a movie.
So if you're a frequent flier or whatever, you travel between different Marriotts, and you use your loyalty card, and it just sets it up in your room. So you don't even do anything; that's your configuration.
Brad Koerner: That's the next level, right? That's future beyond that when you can add in the CRM systems on top of that so it remembers your preferences. Then the next level beyond that is there's almost this genie-like ability where they begin to understand your desires so well that they can start to add magic to your experience that you are not even expecting or the hotel can't do it at scale, right? I just think that's fascinating, like how could you take those principles of experience design and apply them into high-end retail or high-end healthcare, or even just a commercial office environment, right? It's a beautiful UX/UI experience in a space. We desperately need to see more intelligence and creativity around using digital in physical spaces.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about the discipline that needs to be enforced at the start of these things. When I've done consulting in my dark past, I would try to ensure the first question out of my mouth that I would throw at the customer or a client was: why are you doing this? What do you want to see out of it? And so on.
Is that the sort of thing that needs to be addressed super early so that it's not just, “We've seen these big video walls and other lobbies, we want one too.”
Brad Koerner: Usually, the first question I ask is, what's your budget? But that doesn't work too well.
Can you afford me?
Brad Koerner: It's both of those, right? It's what's your budget and why? I think that, first off, many of these companies have a lot more budgets if they want. They just don't want to at first, they don't understand what is possible, they don't understand what it would cost, and they don't understand the ROI on that investment. So it's a real uphill battle, and that tail is as old as time, that's an architect preaching an upgraded finish on the oak panels, or that's a lighting designer preaching adding dimming into the system. It's always like that in these construction projects, and you are right, about the why, you can have all this technology in the world, right? Anything you can dream, you can do, right? So technology is not the limiting factor. It's imagination, right? Imagination is the limiting factor and thinking is almost like a movie director or the early stages of any media content where you have to think in storyboards, right? You have to think in moments of time. You have to think about their journey, what's the user journey, and what's the user experience, right?
If you've seen any of these big design firms, they map user journeys, right? Throughout the omnichannel retail experience, they create these huge flow charts that take up a whole wall. You have to think about that in physical places now. So if you're walking into the shopping mall, do you put signage at the door's threshold? Classically, in retail design, you don't put anything really important at the threshold of the door because you need a sort of decompression zone where people charge into a space. Then they slow down, and then they look around, right?
There's just a lot of classic common sense design stuff that is not being employed in digital signage, particularly in any interactivity, right? You need these new combinations of skill sets that just don't exist yet. You almost need to take a game designer with a world-class architect and make them work together and see what happens, right? You need to take a Hollywood storyboard artist and combine them with a technologist and make them work together and see what happens., and that's what's missing right now from all of this, and I think you have companies like Moment Factory and Gensler and some out there are on that bleeding edge that they are trying to do that. Here in Amsterdam, there's Purple Storytelling, and there are lots of little groups that see the future that they struggle with, right?
I think they struggle to see, and get the clients to understand the potential. I think things like Unreal Engine and live rendering and that sort of starting with a game engine, which is so powerful with live rendering, is going to make visualizing these scenarios so much faster, so much more profound, instead of starting with a classic architectural sketch, and then you went to an architectural photorealistic rendering, but it didn't move. Now architects are using things like Unreal Engine to make these animations, particularly in the luxury real estate marketing firm. Have you ever seen what some of these high-end luxury real estate developments are doing for their marketing? It's unreal. It's Hollywood-grade special effects from just 10 years ago, and they're using it just to sell condos.
You start to take the power of that, and you add it into very specific segments. So, retailers, have their very specific sort of customer flows, customer journeys, and ROI expectations, and hospitality operators have their very specific desires, healthcare facilities, have very different customer journeys. With Unreal Engine, you can now tie together these professions. It's the first time in my career that I've seen this flow complete, that you can use architectural models in BIM in Unreal Engine, and you can show these scenarios. You can animate them, you can set up the interactivity, right? Cuz it's a game engine at heart, and then you can use that for commissioning these systems. I think that will be the next step in all of this.
But are people like architects and those who design physical spaces, are they conditioned and trained and understanding about the ROI needs of their clients? Is that something they've always had to address, or is this new because of this more mysterious ROI that you would see out of an immersive space?
Brad Koerner: It's a great question. I don't think they are. I have two degrees in architecture. I was never trained to think of a business scenario. Again, it's combining different skill sets, right? It's almost like you need to combine an architect with an MBA and think about why, what's the point? It's a real challenge, right? Obviously, if you're a high-end real estate developer and you're doing luxury condos, you know that if you add marble to the lobby, you're going to get a certain ROI. You might not have it calculated, but you understand your customers, and you understand it's going to help with sales. You understand that it's worth it, right? You can't just put chipboard and cheap carpet in, you have gotta do the upgraded finishes, but you also know where not to spend the money, and you know where it’s not going to get return value to you.
And there's an intuitive aspect to that you can never just set up in a spreadsheet, and $5,223.32 will be your ROI in 32 days. You'll never get that precise, and that's why you need a creative mind and a business mind, and they need to come together to figure these things out, but it will happen, right? If you create a great experience for a hospitality provider, right? They'll know it. They'll know it from the customer feedback, reviews, and qualitative comments on that, right? And eventually, that drives revenue for them. But those sort of attribution problems for ROI is vexing in every industry.
Marketing goes through this all the time, but it will happen more and more in physical placemaking with these systems, and I think it's a skill. Again, people have to get good at this. It doesn't exist now, and it's tricky because it combines several skill sets that have never worked together in the past and you have to fuse them to sort these things.
Yeah, I listened to a panel at Digital Signage Experience, and I believe it was somebody from Moment Factory who was saying that in terms of a return, they're now starting to hear from the HR departments of companies who are saying that having an experiential aspect to their lobby and their overall space is incredibly important in terms of recruitment and retainment of employees these days that particularly in technology jobs where you may have several choices as to who you're going to work for, what that space looks like and how you feel in it matters.
Brad Koerner: Yeah. It's like in the commercial office section, right? I forget the exact numbers, but it's $3 a square foot, $30 a square foot, and $300 a square foot, right? Three bucks are your cost of energy, and 300 is your cost of salary, right? So should you focus on saving a few pennies of energy, or should you focus on saving hundreds of dollars of efficiency for your employees and salaries? That's just the concept that has to be employed everywhere. There's this sort of scale of effect that is critical to ROI. Understanding that is often siloed, right? You get a salesperson running in with some smart building system. They're talking about saving energy because we'll turn all the lights off more. And they don't understand that will create a lousy experience for the workers, right? And it will really damage the effectiveness of the workers and retention and all that, right? Same thing with digital signage, anything, right? If you put a big LED wall into a commercial office, will you just put a waterfall on it? Is that going to help make your employees happy? Maybe, maybe it's as dumb as that. But could you do something more sophisticated with it? Could you recognize employee accomplishments live? Could you show employee performance live depending on what your business or industry is, do you give people a pat on the back instantaneously? There are so many scenarios that could be developed around these technologies when, again, when the surfaces you're surrounded by become digital. You need to think about what they do, how they react to you, and how people react to those surfaces.? What is that cycle of action-reaction?
It sounds like you're saying there's more to this stuff than eye candy.
Brad Koerner: Eye candy's great. I'm not going to argue against eye candy. There's a lot in this world that is just for eye candy's sake, and that makes a big difference, right? This is a classic design. This is architecture, this is interior design, this is a brand design, and retail design. Some of it is just eye candy, and people know how to justify that, right? That’s a tale as old as time, right? It's making a statement. It's making a brand, culture, making, and experience. Why does Starbucks charge $8 for a coffee when they spend 50 cents on it?
Because they've invested heavily in how their stores look, they feel and smell and sound, and there's just a lot of eye candy there, right? They consciously built all that so that they could charge that price premium. So yeah, it will just be eye candy for some of the digital stuff. I joke about the waterfalls, but can you beat the waterfall? In terms of your media content, it's mesmerizing, right? It's biomimetic, it makes you feel comfortable. I think humans have these deep-seated connections to natural effects. Maybe you just put a glorious force scene on your huge LED wall, and somehow the best thing you can show, right? I don't know. It could be as dumb as that. You have to test it.
I think the other thing people have to get savvy on is that you don't just build it and walk away. You have to build and operate it, and these teams that are developing these concepts will have to work with the operators, whoever it is to tweak it, right? To look at, we're going to make a whole bunch of assumptions, right? There are cycles of time, there's media content, there's interactivity, there are all these new things that people have to figure out. They can simulate it upfront. Nowadays, they can go into the virtual world during the construction project and get it mostly right or pretty close. But then, who will fine-tune that in the field over time or refresh it over time? Most people don't even think of the media budget. How many people forget about, oh wait, you mean we need a media budget for all these screens we've built? They can't even do that, and it's a long way before you're going to have clients actively spending the money to tweak this stuff and make sure it's optimal over time.
All right. Great conversation. I think we could have gone on for three hours, but gotta cut it off at some point. If people want to find out more about your company or perhaps bring you out to speak to their company or a conference, where do they find you online?
Brad Koerner: They can find me on LinkedIn just Brad Koerner or KoernerDesign.com.
All right. Thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Brad Koerner: Great. Thanks, Dave.
Wednesday Mar 22, 2023
Ney Corsino, Nanolumens
Wednesday Mar 22, 2023
Wednesday Mar 22, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
Nanolumens was an early player in the LED display space - known mainly in its first few years for innovative display products that were super-light, thin and flexible ... at a time when just about everything else on the market was heavy, thick and solid.
The Atlanta-based company was still pretty much known for that kind of product when Ney Corsino was hired on as CEO, at the start of 2020. Experienced as a business transformation and turnaround guy, Corsino has evolved Nanolumens from a company with an interesting niche product to one that has a full range of display options - from conventional video wall set-ups and all-in-ones to transparent mesh displays and the thin, flexible units that first gained attention.
Nanolumens has also got more focused on some key vertical markets - arguably the biggest ones being airports and public spaces. Several new air terminals that have been built or renovated in the last couple of years have featured Nanolumens product in its signature public art, messaging and experiential installations.
Corsino and I chatted about how he has also put in the hours with his team to clarify how it goes to market, and how it specifically works with integrators and solutions providers.
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Ney, thank you for joining me. You joined the company from Barco, so you would've already been well-versed in LED displays. What attracted you to Nanolumens?
Ney Corsino: Thanks for having me. Yes, I came from Barco before Barco, and before that, I was at Phillips, Philips Electronics, a European company, and Barco, also a European company, and now at Nanolumens, a US-based company. But to be honest with you, at Barco we paid little attention to LEDs. We have a deep engineering base in projection there and we venture with click share.
LEDs have been up and down at Barco and at Nanolumens, all we do is LED, so we are pretty much focused here.
Because you knew the business, was there something in particular that attracted you to Nanolumens? Because they're relatively small and US-focused as opposed to a big global entity like Barco. What was your perspective on all that? Why join them?
Ney Corsino: I think for good or bad, I developed my career in improving businesses, transforming and improving turnaround, and I felt that the impact I could continue to do would be more valuable in companies like Nanolumens. So I think it was a good encounter between a company that needed this kind of action and someone that had experience in doing this at a corporate level in many different business units. So now I could come, and exercise all I have learned all by myself and I'm very glad I did that.
When I first got to know Nanolumens, let's say 10 years ago, their calling card, so to speak, was these flexible, almost rug-like displays with removable modules, they called them nixels at the time, and I think they still do.
It was very unique on the market at that point, and those were the early days anyways for LED displays. I wouldn't say they're not still unique, but I don't get the sense that's the kind of the main growth driver for Nanolumens these days.
Ney Corsino: The company has run for about 17 years. It has been one of the pioneers in the LED display market, has been involved in many innovations, and has almost a hundred IPs, but most notably, like you just said, it is the invention of the flex module, which is still called nixel where you can basically do smooth curve wall. So we hold IPs on that. But since then, it has evolved quite a bit especially in the last three years, we continue to do of course very well on the curve. But we have re-engineered and extended the portfolio for cabinet-based modular units, also mesh, all in one. So we now have a very extensive portfolio.
Now if you ask about the sales, it's almost half of it. It is still customized, which includes the curved modules, and the other half is more on the standard flat solution.
Why do you think it's played out that way?
Ney Corsino: I believe that the brand commands that customization aspect, the DNA of creativity, wow effect, doing things that are let's say complex and difficult, but we engineer to make it possible. So I think that's the inheritance of the brand and continues to be. What we have tried to do, part of my arrival here is to continue that, but create us not a next segment that gives the possibility of of scaling up the business, and that's why, as I mentioned before, re-engineer the flat segment all in one mesh outdoor if it is more on the architecture. It's the one step in the direction of extending the portfolio to scale the business and find a consistent regular growth path for the business.
So if you stayed primarily with these lightweight flex products as your main product line, that would restrict you to being a niche manufacturer as opposed to broadening it and becoming a general manufacturer that would give you scale?
Ney Corsino: Exactly. It is very architectural, customized, and therefore you could call it niche. It's a good portion of the market. We do very well there, but if we have bigger ambitions and big plans, then we need to play in other fields as well.
In paying attention to projects that come on stream, and knowing that in many cases the customer doesn't allow the manufacturer to say who it is that's providing some of the technology, I still get a sense that Nanolumens is doing a lot of airports in particular, and I'm curious why that's played out like that.
Why are you guys winning so much of the business in airports? Apart from that, I'm sure you're gonna say because we have great products, but, there have to be other reasons.
Ney Corsino: Yeah, that's a very good question and probably not easy to answer. The product definitely makes an important play there. But I would say, Dave, that the airport is one of the most complex and demanding environments. You have the airport itself, you have the airlines, and you have the advertising agencies or companies. There are a lot of things going on in an airport. You have very tight schedules where you can work and when you can’t. We have security aspects to it.
I think over the years the company just got to understand how all these cards are played, and then more importantly, we learn and we learn to adapt and not fight the system, but work with the system, right? Whatever the constraints are, wherever the demands are, we translate that into a workable plan that involves product, involves people, involves a process, and there we go.
How much of it does Nanolumens take on versus channel partners and integration partners?
Ney Corsino: I think about the past of the company and then I have seen not only Nanolumens, but also in my past, there is confusion within the company as far as the go-to-market is concerned, and that's not a good thing. It was no different here. Nanolumens from its past behavior has confused the market in terms of whether it is going directly, is it going through the channel partner. So one of the things that I've done since my arrival is basically to clarify that and commit to a go-to-market plan, and it is my strong belief and that's where the company is settled now. We go to market through channel partners. So that's our approach. So there is no more to it.
So you don't do direct sales?
Ney Corsino: No, we do have some house accounts, legacy ones but less than a handful, and whenever we have a company that wants to do direct business, we sit with them and we explain all the risks associated with taking a technology company that is focused on creating things and trying to make it a turnkey company that will be distracted with many other things. And through that dialogue, we always introduce channel partners that work with us very well, and I think, I think 99% of the time we end up in a good alignment that we will play through the channel to the end user, and everybody will be satisfied.
One of the things that have come up in LED manufacturers for marketing is because a lot of the “channels” didn't really have a lot of background and experience in deploying LED displays, they didn't know how to specify it, they didn't really know how to sell it or anything else. So a lot of the manufacturers came up with these all-in-one finished displays with fixed sizes and they would come in a kit and everything's there and you just open it up and deploy, and it's a 186-inch big ass TV that sort of thing.
I'm suspecting that the channel partners you're working with are beyond that because they're doing mega walls and airports and so on.
Ney Corsino: We do also have these big-ass TVs as you call them. It's part of the working out distribution model for the company. Our channel partners work with them from a very early stage where we train their designers, we train their salespeople of course if they are open and welcoming to it, and most of the time they are. So we actually work together to make them more comfortable with the technology and entertain the prospect of their business, but ultimately that will come back to us and we will engineer the solution as a final project anyways for them.
So it sounds like this is more about getting the right channel partners as opposed to getting lots of channel partners.
Ney Corsino: Oh, definitely I mean there are thousands of them out there. We work very well with many, but I think there is a right balance and we try to be very cautious of it.
The marketplace seems to be inexorably moving towards increasingly fine-pitch displays. Are you seeing that or are you still experiencing some customers who understand that the dynamics of the environment we're in 4 millimeters is fine or even 6 millimeters?
Ney Corsino: I would say that the answer is: Yes. For the most part, every two-three years, the volume goes into the next narrow pitch size, right? It used to be the 2.5, and then it went to the, let's say 1.5, and to the 1.2. So it feels like it moves, 3-3+ years, and that is not changing.
However, I think that's very interesting for the LED marketing industry. LED is going in places where nobody would have a screen before. That's number one. So it is growing into something new areas, new applications. The Second is also replacing some of the projection technology, and the third is also replacing some of the old LCD solutions. So it's a market that keeps growing, and I say that because, with that kind of penetration in so many applications, you end up with a need of almost any pitch size, any fine pitch, meaning, the 4mm might be very good for certain applications and the 6mm from some others if it is outdoor or indoor.
I will give you an example. In airports, there are a lot of 2.5 millimeters going, and they say, why is that? Why don't they go finer? It's because terminals and lobbies are usually very big in airports, so the screens are far from the person and therefore you don't need a super fine pitch, a 2.5 does an excellent job.
Is there a kind of a sweet spot, like I was hearing in the last couple of years that seems like the market has settled a lot on, as you were just saying, 2mm to 2.5mm works for most applications if you're getting away from really close end things in retail or museums.
Ney Corsino: Yeah. That is right, and I think there is a second trend toward volume on the 1.2mm, especially in applications where people don't want to have a tile LCD solution. They want to have a more smooth, seamless, and large screen. So therefore you also see in that particular part of the segment where people are closer to the screen, the market’s moving very fast for the 1.2mm.
I was walking around Integrated Systems Europe about a month ago, and looking at displays that were R&D products at that point, or R&D efforts but I saw 0.4 millimeters and I didn't see it personally, but I saw the PR after a Chinese manufacturer saying they had 0.39. So just a hair thinner even and I wonder, are they just marketing, trade shows, eye candy kinds of things? Is there really a demand for the LED to be that tight in pitch?
Ney Corsino: Technology-wise, there is a pursuit for that, that's correct. I think one of the reasons is that you need that kind of super-duper fine pitch to reproduce what LCDs or OLEDs are doing nowadays in the market. Now for the consumer-based screens, you will need to go that low. So technology tips, pushing the boundaries, pursuing that route, no. When you look at the business side of it, the business is run in 0.9mm to above pitch size. Even when you say 0.7mm, many companies are now displaying 0.7mm, is it doable? Yes. Is it expensive? Yes. Are there volumes? No. There will be very, very selected products or screens being made on a 0.7mm at this point.
So I just try to give you a relative situation between a technology that pursues eventually to be in a consumer kind of demand but still is in a professional kind of market.
We've seen in the last few years the emergence of mini LED and then micro LED. Is most of what Nanolumens is doing still for, to simplify the description, conventional SMD or four-in-one LED?
Ney Corsino: Yeah, so we do conventional. Nowadays also moving to COB and therefore going to mini LED. That's where we play. I think the term micro LED is a little bit overused in applications that are not micro LED. I'm trying to be polite, but there is a big marketing push on the use of micro LED at this point.
Do you see your company going to that? If some of the mass transfer challenges and production challenges get overcome, because I keep hearing that when those get figured out, that's really gonna greatly reduce the cost of micro LED and make it something that you could use for something other than just super premium applications.
Ney Corsino: Yeah. At that point, it is almost like a process industry. If you don't control the yield it cannot be cost-effective. So they will have to operate at a very high yield. I think the company will go with the market. As part of the transformation from the early days of Nanolumens, we are now very market-centric and we will respond to the market demands in the short, mid, and long-term.
So when you say you're market centric, you mean you're focused on certain verticals like airports?
Ney Corsino: Exactly, yeah. We try to translate unique aspects of those segments into the portfolio, and into the design that we will provide.
Does that kind of apply to going after larger public spaces, that sort of thing?
Ney Corsino: Yes. So let me also give you a little bit of insight into the business. The largest portion of the revenue mix was on the airport and also in theme parks, so large projects that come every other year. But since then we are now having a very evenly distributed mix where we operate in airports for sure, theme entertainment for sure. But now we also do lots of business with corporate, large venues, but also, especially their lobby and briefing centers. Higher-ed has been investing nicely, Sportsbook, and last but not least, the golf segment. I think those segments are all growing for us, and that gives us a more evenly spread mix in the top line.
Why are all these different segments now investing in LED versus 2-3 years ago? Is this just a function of price and awareness?
Ney Corsino: I think so. I think the product became more affordable. The product became better, therefore it can be applied in different ways, on different surfaces, and I think the previous solutions they had has already depreciated, and LED becomes the next technology that’s future-proof that provides a more immersive experience.
And I think not to overplay the word immersively, but there's an enormous trend in an immersive experience, and when can you achieve that? And I think LED from a screen technology is very capable of doing that.
Yeah I've certainly seen this emergence, particularly of these experiential venues where they're using projection, and I love what some of them do. I've got a good friend who has one in Montreal, but I just wonder if that's a technology that's gonna be taken over by LED with time, because you've got more flexibility, it doesn't have to be a darkened room and you're not confronted by some of the environmental issues.
Ney Corsino: True. I think my belief is that no, the technologies will coexist. One technology opens up a new application like those new kinds of museums u or experiential centers that you mentioned. Eventually, some of them will move to LED when they find it is appropriate to have an application to do so. Projection will still stay there. So I think they will coexist, but they will find a new balance in terms of sharing the market.
One thing I believe your company has expanded into in terms of broadening the product line, is some of the mesh LED products that are both for indoor and outdoor use. Are you seeing a lot of activity there?
Ney Corsino: Yeah, we started that more than a year ago. We installed the big landscape here in Atlanta, the TKE building. I think that got a lot of media exposure. It's a large surface up high in the building.
It's an elevator test facility, right?
Ney Corsino: That's a test and showroom facility. So there's a lot of elevators going up and down. The building has a glass facade so people could go into the elevator and yet see the stadium down there and see the city, and they didn't want to block that view so we engineered a match solution where you go through the elevator and you still see through and enjoy the same view. However, if you are on the road, in the stadium and you look back at the building, you have this beautiful branding screen there, and that was designed about two to three years ago. It was delivered about a year plus ago, and since then we have seen the pipeline increase.
People became aware of it and the possibilities of it, especially the architects and consultants are very interested to see what the new possibilities are, and we've been engaging more and more in those conversations, and with that, the pipeline keeps growing.
I assume that one of the reasons there's a lot of interest in that is because it's pretty lightweight, and as you say, it doesn't block light coming in, in the way that a solid kind of cabinet-based system would do. Is that a big attraction?
Ney Corsino: Yeah
You mentioned earlier working with the channel and with integrators. Are you also trying to circulate and drive awareness amongst the design and architectural communities because I kind of see LEDs becoming a building material.
Ney Corsino: Yeah, we have a separate group within the company here that deals exclusively with the AUC group and we have lots of certified material for training. We do lots of hands-on learning, and we find out that, although we are a very known and improved and growing brand, there are still a lot of people that need to know us better. So that's definitely one aspect of importance for us and we enjoy it because it's not a sale conversation. It's more of a solution conversation in many cases.
You're based in Atlanta, you do your design, all the specifications, and everything in Atlanta and like everybody else, you get some of the manufacturing done overseas. You're competing with a hell of a lot of companies that have sales offices here and maybe some degree of support, but most of what they do is on the other side of the Pacific. Is that a kind of a key marketing plank that you are based in the US and somewhat designed and assembled in the US versus the others?
Ney Corsino: A hundred percent. We are very proud of it, and let me quote a customer the other day. The customer, it's a new engagement channel partner and he asked, “When we deal with your company, we actually don't need to use Google Translator. Is that right?” I replied, “No, we don't need Google translator. We are here. We have the full skills here. We are very easy to do business with. We respond very quickly, and we are very adaptive.” At the end of the day, if you put everything into Excel or into the papers it is more cost-effective to have it this way.
And are you finding just generally that the people you're working with, they are familiar or they've had enough experience in the marketplace to understand that you can have a Chinese manufacturer that has a sales office over here, but support everything else is overseas and that becomes problematic?
Ney Corsino: True, and Chinese manufacturers knock on my door every single, and they offer me, and of course, they offer many other people out there. So then the question is, what's the value proposition? What's the uniqueness?
So we are very tied with our supply chain. We have made improvements in the last two years. They are paying off nicely, and our channel partners working with us have appreciated all the value that we have been bringing to the table, and once we go through that experience, a hundred percent of the time, it's becoming repeatable and the repeatability of it gives me the comfort that we are adding value to their business, and we can do that in a profitable way for the industry, including ourselves.
Where are you at as a company in terms of headcount and are you public or private?
Ney Corsino: We're a privately owned company. Therefore we don't share business metrics.
But do you have 50 employees, 100 employees, or 5k employees?
Ney Corsino: Around a hundred.
Okay, and is most of that in Atlanta?
Ney Corsino: I would say 70 to 80% in Atlanta, and the remaining part spread.
For your manufacturing, do you have people over in China or wherever you get some of your product made or components made?
Ney Corsino: Yeah, so we work with a contract manufacturer but we have R&D and a supply base in China.
If people wanna know more about your company, where would they find you online?
Ney Corsino: Nnanolumens.com. We have refreshed the website and brought a lot of tools into it, making the experience a lot more user-friendly and that's where we'll find us.
Great. All right, thank you for spending some time with me.
Ney Corsino: It was my pleasure. Dave.
Wednesday Mar 15, 2023
Gavin Smith, Voxon
Wednesday Mar 15, 2023
Wednesday Mar 15, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
When I was at the big ISE pro AV trade show a few weeks ago, I yet again saw several products that were billed as holograms, even though they didn't even loosely fit the technical definition.
I am always paying attention to news and social media posts that use that terminology, and once in a while, I come across something that actually does start to align with the true definition of holograms and holography. Like Voxon, which operates out of Adelaide, Australia.
Started years ago as a beer drinking and tinkering maker project in a garage, Voxon now has a physical product for sale that generates a visual with depth that viewers can walk around and see from different angles.
That product is mainly being bought by universities and R&D teams at companies to play with and learn, but the long game for Voxon is to produce or be the engine for other products that really do live up to the mainstream, Hollywood-driven notion of holograms.
I had a great chat with co-founder and CEO Gavin Smith.
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Gavin, thank you very much for joining me. I know you're up in Scotland, but you are based in Adelaide, Australia, correct?
Gavin Smith: Yes, that's right. I'm originally from Scotland. I grew up here, spent the first part of my life in the north of Scotland in Elgin, and then I went to university in Paisley, Glasgow and then eventually, after working for 10 years in the banking sector, I immigrated to Australia and I've lived in Adelaide for the last 14 years.
That's quite a climate shift!
Gavin Smith: Yes, it is a climate shift. I was speaking to my wife the day before, and it was about 40 degrees there, just now they're having a heat wave, whereas up in Elgin here, it's about 1 degree at the moment.
Yeah. I'm thinking, why are you there in February? But on the other hand, why would you wanna be in Adelaide if it's 40 Celsius?
Gavin Smith: I quite like the cold. I prefer to be in this temperature right now than 40 degrees, that's for sure.
Oh, I just spent 45 minutes with my snow machine clearing 25 centimeters of snow off my driveway, so I wouldn't mind being in Adelaide today.
Gavin Smith: Thankfully I can have the best of both worlds. I'm heading back there in about a week and a half time.
I was intrigued by your company. I saw a couple of LinkedIn posts with embedded videos and thought that's interesting and I wanted to speak more. So can you tell me what Voxon does?
Gavin Smith: Yes, sure. So Voxon is a company that started in about 2012-2013, and it came out of two joint research projects. One was me and my friend Will, based in Adelaide, we had a Thursday Night Lab Session, as we called it, where we went to the shed and we drank a few beers and we tried to invent things. It was a bit weird, science-esque.
So this wasn't exactly a lab?
Gavin Smith: It was a shed. Let's face it, with a beer fridge and there was a lot of machinery, which was in various stages of repair. We used to get hard rubbish off the right side of the road in Adelaide and take it apart and see what we could make.
It was just amateur invention hour. But it was at the start of that project, we built fairly rudimentary machines, CNC machines and we took apart laser scanners and were just inquisitive about how they work from a mechanical point of view. But that then turned into more of a, let's see how far we can push ourselves and learn new stuff, and we've been inspired by sci-fi, Star Wars, all those sorts of things. So we said, let's try and make the sort of 3D display that we'd seen in the movies and those science fiction movies always had the same type of display, and that wasn't a screen, that wasn't a headset. It was always some sort of floating image that you could walk around and you could look out from any direction and the common name for that in popular media was a holographic display. That's what people called it. So that's what we set out to build, and we very quickly figured out that this type of display had to be something to do with projecting images or dots onto some sort of surface that moved and that's because in order to render these little dots that make up the image, inside a space that had physical dimensions, you couldn't make the lights just appear on air. We figured you, you might be able to do some sort of gas or some sort of lasers and things like that. But the way we approached it was starting off by just shaking business cards back and forwards and shining lasers on them, and then that made a line because of persistence of vision.
I always think that Neanderthal man invented the volumetric display because they probably waved burning embers around on the sticks at nighttime and drew those patterns in the air and those patterns really only existed because of the persistence of vision and the extrusion of light through a volume of space, and so that's what we decided to do, and we realized if you could draw a line, then if you could control the laser and turn it off and on again, you could draw a dot. And so we did that by cutting the laser beam with a rotating CD that was stuck on a high-speed drill with some sticky tape on it. We chopped the laser into little bits, and by controlling the speed of the laser, we ended up having a single dot, which we referred to as a voxel, that's what we Googled that a dot in space is referred to as a voxel and then we extrapolated from there and say if we're building these images out of little pixels of light or voxels, we need more and more of these dots, and when you do the math you quickly realize that you need millions of dots of light or volume to make an image, and that's difficult. And really that started us down the road of experimenting with video projectors, with lasers with all sorts of things and more and more advanced moving surfaces, and eventually, we made a small helical display using a vacuum-formed helix that we basically made in Will's wife's kitchen when she was out, in the oven, and yeah, we created a very small image of an elephant. You might call it a hologram at the time. That's what we called it at the time, but it was a volumetric swept surface image. The terminology I'll go into a bit more detail, but at the time it was just a hologram to us, and we thought this was amazing and we'd never seen it before. So we put a video of it on YouTube and some guys in America who were unbeknown to us doing the same project got in contact with us and push came to shove, we decided to join forces and form Voxon, and that was back in 2013.
So when you created this little elephant, was that like a big ‘aha’ moment? Like, “Oh my God, we figured this out”?
Gavin Smith: Yes, very much so. We believed at the time, we were the first people to do this. In fact, we weren't. But it was the first time we'd seen this type of image, and it was literally spine tingly amazing, to see a truly three-dimensional object that you could look down from, above, from the sides, from any angle, and it filled a space the same way as you or I fill a space in the physical world, you could measure its length that's spread, that's height and even its volume in gallons or liters. It had a tangible existence in the physical world and not on a screen as other 3D images tend to do.
At this point, was this a stationary object?
Gavin Smith: Yes, at this point the elephant was stationary and the way I'd created the elephant was we'd figured out, in order to make this elephant, we first needed to have the swept surface moving. So that was the helical screen, which was spinning at about 900 RPM on a very small electric motor and then we had a video projector that we'd managed to get going at about 1,200 frames per second, and in order to create the images, which were cross sections, helical cross sections of an elephant, that was all done offline. So the way I approached that was, we used software called 3D Studio Max, which is a design software, and in that, I modeled a helix and an elephant, and I then intersected the helix with the elephant in the software, rotated the helix digitally, and then I rendered out the resultant cross-section, the boolean operation of one on the other, and this is like taking a drill and drilling a hole into the ground and looking at just a helical core sample.
So really it was like a CT scan of this elephant, but just slice at a time, and then I rendered those images to a file. I wrote some software to convert it to a new video format that we had to invent to compress all that data into this high-speed image stream, and then projected that onto the helix. Now, of course, the timing of the images and the rotation of the helix were not in sync, and so much like an old CRT screen where the vertical shift is not dialed in, the elephant would drift out the top of the display and come back in the bottom, and at that point, we knew that this was all about a combination of mathematics, optics, precision, and timing. And to make it interactive, we'd have to write a real-time computer program capable of generating these images in real-time, and that was the next part of the puzzle.
This was a work working prototype basically.
Gavin Smith: This was a working prototype, yeah.
How big was it?
Gavin Smith: The helix was very small. It was about five centimeters in diameter, about an inch and a half in diameter, and about an inch tall. But because the projector that we used was a Pico projector at the time, and it was about half the size of a pack of cards. This tiny little thing that we got off the internet from Texas Instruments, and you could focus it at about one centimeter away. So all those little pixels were infinitesimally small, so it was a very high-resolution display and very small, and we realized to get these number of frames per second, we'd have to take advantage of one of the most incredible pieces of engineering ever conceived, in my opinion, and that is the DLP chip from Texas Instruments invented by Larry Hornbeck who passed away several years ago, sadly, and that is an array of mirrors that is grown on a chip using photolithography, the same process as you create microchips, and that array of mirrors contains upwards of a million mirrors arranged in a two-dimensional array, and they can tilt on and off physically about 30,000 times a second.
And that's called a MEMS, a microelectromechanical display or in optical terms, a spatial light modulator. So it's something that turns the light on and off at ultra-high speed, and those on-off cycles are what give us our Z-resolution on the display. So that's the slices that make up the display.
Wow. So where are you at now with the company now that you've formed it and you've grown it, what's happened since that very first prototype elephant?
Gavin Smith: Following that we realized that my programming skills were finite. I'd spent 10 years as a COBOL programmer in banking, and I wasn't up to the task of writing what was needed, which was a low-level graphics engine. This didn't need a mainframe, no, and we couldn't afford a mainframe, even if we wanted one.
So we looked up on the internet to see who we could find in terms of programming to join the company, and there were two programmers who stood out. They were referred to as the top two programmers in the world and were John Carmack of Oculus, and then there was Ken Silverman who wrote the graphics engine for Duke Nukem back in the late 90s, so we contacted Ken. John wasn't available so we contacted Ken and demoed to him at Brown University in Rhode Island where he was working subsequently as basically a computer programmer teacher with his dad, who was the Dean of Engineering there, and Ken really liked what we were doing and his understanding of mathematics and foxholes and 3D rendering really made him think this was something he wanted to be involved in. So he joined our company as a founder and chief computer scientist, and he has led the development of the core rendering engine, which we call the Voxon Photonic engine and that's really our core IP, it's the ability to tick any 3D graphics from a third party source, from Unity, from a C program or something else, and turn it into a high speed projected image, which can be processed in such a way as to de-wrap them when they're projected, so they're the right size. We use dithering in real time to make color possible, which is similar to newsprint, CMY newsprint in the newspaper, and this all basically allows us to project images onto any type of moving surface now and do it in real-time and make applications that are much bigger and extensible so we can plug it into other programs or have people write their own programs for our displays.
So you've emerged from being an R&D effort in the shed to a real company to having working prototypes and now you're an operating company with the product.
Gavin Smith: I like to say we've emerged, but I'd very much say we're still crossing the chasm, so to speak, in terms of the technology landscape.
After that initial prototype, we spent many years batting our heads together, trying to work as a team in America, and eventually, Will and I decided to raise some money in Australia and set up the company there. We raised about a million and a half Australian dollars. It was about a million US dollars back in 2017, and that was enough to employ some extra engineers and business development, and an experienced COO and start working on our first product, which was the VX1. Now, the VX1 was a different type of display. We decided not to do the helix back then, and we decided to make a different type of display, and that was a reciprocating display and so we invented a way of moving a screen up and down very efficiently using resonance. It’s the same I guess mechanical thing that all objects have, and that is at a certain frequency, they start vibrating if there's a driving vibration force. So the Tacoma Bridge falling down when the wind blew at the right speed was an example of when resonances destroyed something. But an opera singer, breaking a glass at the right pitch is another example of something that vibrates due to a striving force, and so we found out if we built a screen, which was mounted on springs that were of a very particular weight, and the springs were a very particular constant of Young's modulus, we could vibrate that subsystem and the screen would vibrate up and down very efficiently and very fast, fast enough that you couldn't see the screen. So that's what the VX1 became, and onto the back of that screen, we project images and those images from a swept volume, and the VX1 had a volume of about 18x18x8 cm, I think it's about 7 inches square by about 3 inches tall, and we have a single projector mounted inside of that and a computer and a ton of electronics keeps it all in sync, and we built a software API for it and a library of programs that come built into it. So it's off the shelf, you turn it on and it works.
And so we built that back in 2017 and over the last five years, it's evolved into something which is very reliable and now, you can't tell them apart when they're manufactured at the start, each one might look different with hot glue and duct tape and all the rest of it. But now we have a complete digital workflow. We outsource most of the manufacture of the parts and we do final assembly software, QC, and packaging up and then ship them out to companies we've sold probably about 120 VX1s globally since 2017, and those have gone out to companies all around the world, like Sony, MIT, Harvard, CMU, Unity, BA Systems, Verizon, Erickson, a lot of companies and they've bought them and they're generally going into explorative use cases.
Yeah, I was going to say, it sounds like they're going into labs as opposed to stores.
Gavin Smith: Yeah, they're not going into stores. The VX1 is really an evaluation system. It's not prime time ready for running all day long, and the reason for that is it has a vibration component to it, and also the refresh rate of the VX1 is actually variable within the volume. It's hard to explain, but the apparent volume refresh rate is 30 hertz in the middle and 15 hertz at the poles and so it has a little bit of flicker. But in a dark environment, it's really spellbinding and it's actually used in museums. There's some in Germany and a science museum there. It's been used in an art exhibition in Paris, where the art was created by David Levine and MIT Media Lab and it's frequently used in universities and it pops up in all sorts of trade shows, and it's always a talking point and it always gathers a crowd around it, and what we like to say with the volumetric display from a marketing point of view, or really a description of what it is, it's really about creating a digital campfire. That's the kind of user experience.
It's gathering people around something intimately in a way that they can still have eye contact and maintain a conversation, and each person has their own perspective and view of the 3D data.
The scale you're describing is still quite small and that seems to be What I've experienced with, when I've seen demonstrations at the SID trade show of light field displays. They're all like the size of a soda bottle at most.
Is that a function of just the technology, you can't just make these things big?
Gavin Smith: You can make them bigger, and we have since that point. The biggest display that we've made so far was one that we just delivered to BA Systems in Frimley near London, and fo that one, we've gone back to the helical display for that particular one, and it's. 46 centimeters in diameter and 8 centimeters deep. So that's about nine times the volume of the VX1. So that's a much bigger display.
Now you can, with a swept volume, you can go as big as you'd like within the realms of physics, and what I mean by that is with a rotating display, you can make the display as big as something that can rotate at a speed that's fast enough to make the medium kind of disappear. So if you think about propellers and fans, for example, I've seen pedestal fans that are a meter in diameter running faster than we run our display, and with rotating displays, it's easier to do because you have conservation of momentum and you have inertia which drives the display around, and yet you can rotate the volume as well, have it enclosed so that you're not generating airflow as a fan does.
So for example, if you have a propeller-shaped blade encased in a cylindrical enclosure, and that enclosure is spinning, then you don't get the air resistance you get with a fan and the display that we made for BA Systems is ultimately silent and flicker-free because we're running at exactly 30 hertz throughout the volume, which means you don't get flicker, but reciprocating displays, ones that go up and down, scaling them is more of a challenge because you're having to push the air out the way up and down, and as the size of the screen moving up and down gets bigger, if you're projecting from behind, for example, you also have to start considering things like the flexing of the substrate that you're projecting onto. For a front projection display where you project down from the top, we can go bigger because you can make a very lightweight, thicker screen out of exotic materials and those are materials that are very light but very stiff. Things like air gels and foamed metals, and very lightweight honeycomb structure so that way you can go bigger but we may need to move into the realms of using reduced atmospheric displays, partial vacuums, and things like that to reduce the resistance or using materials that are air permeable, such as meshes that move up and down very quickly. And we have done experiments with those and found that we can go a lot bigger.
However, with the current projection systems that we're using, you then have to increase the brightness because the brightness of the image is also stretched out through a volume. If you imagine a home cinema projector projecting 3k or 4k lumens, you have to consider that each of the images that it's projecting is pretty much evenly lit in terms of all the pixels that you're projecting. Whereas what we are doing is we are projecting these thousands of images, we're only illuminating the cross-section of every object. So we're maybe only using 1% of the available brightness of the projector at any one time, unless you project a solid slice all the way across, which is really you're building up this construct, which is how I explain it to people as it's very similar to 3D printing. If you look at how a 3D printer works, we are doing exactly the same thing, except we are printing using light instead of PLA and we're printing thousands and thousands of times faster.
In digital signage, the thing that always gets people nervous is moving parts, and that directly affects reliability and longevity. How do you address that?
Gavin Smith: So the VX1 is a good example of moving parts in a display that isn't yet ready for long-running and when I say long-running, we do have it in exhibitions, but we have recently engineered it in such a way that the parts that may break or will break are the four springs that drive the machine, and those have been engineered to resonate at particular frequency. Now after several hundred million extensions of those springs, they can fatigue and they will fatigue break and that's something that we're working on, and that might be a month or three weeks of running 24/7, and so we've made those springs user replaceable. You can change them in two or three minutes for a fresh set. So it's almost like the mechanical profile of something like an Inkjet printer where you have to change the cartridge every so often.
And we find with mechanical stuff, people accept mechanical things in their lives as long as the maintenance/utility ratio is at a level they can accept like bicycles, cars, and things like that. You maintain them as long as their utility outweighs the inconvenience of the repair. Now for projection equipment and things like that in digital signage, there are a lot of two-dimensional technologies that are ultra-reliable on those things, big LED panels, 2D video projectors and just lighting. You can turn them on and leave them and you should be okay.
So in our rotating displays and we have another rotating display that we're working on, which we can't discuss just now cuz it's still under NDA, is part of the reason we're going down that rabbit hole or going down that design sort of path because we can make rotating displays, which are very reliable, they're effectively like a record player. You turn it on and it spins around and you could leave it and come back in three weeks and it would still be spinning around, and also a rotating display if properly manufactured within tolerances won't cause the vibration, and the vibration is really the thing that can cause the issues because vibration can lead to fatigue and failure in electrical components, electronic components, small cracks in circuits, and things like that.
So from our point of view, we're going towards rotating mechanics because that ultimately allows us to make things which are reliable enough to be used in a wide range of industries including digital signage, advertising, medical imaging and gaming, and many more.
In my world, there are all kinds of companies who are saying that they have holographic products of some kind or another. As somebody who's doing something that sounds very much like a hologram or close to what we thought of when we all saw Star Wars, what do you think of those things?
Gavin Smith: I don't like to be a troll, first of all on LinkedIn, and so I try to shy away from saying, look, that's rubbish. But what I try to do is politely point out how things work when it's not clear from someone's post how something might work or where it's misleading. Now if you look at the term hologram, it comes from the Greek, hólos and grammḗ, which means the whole message, and in a way, I tend to think of an actual hologram, which is created using lasers, laser interference patterns, and light beams and things like that they don't represent the whole message. Because if you take your credit card out, which is one of the few places you will see a hologram you'll notice that you can't look down on the hologram from above, you can't turn the card over and look at it from the back. They are a limited view of something, and so the term hologram has become, as you say, in popular fiction, and popular media, it's really a catchall for anything that is sci-fi 3D related, right? And it’s misused, everyone calls it a hologram, and our staff sometimes call it a hologram. I like to say it's not a hologram because it has a lot more features than a hologram.
Holograms have some really interesting properties, one of which is that you can cut a hologram into 10 little pieces and it turns into 10 individual little holograms, and that's a really interesting thing. But holograms from a 3D point of view don't exist in signage anywhere. They simply don't. The terminology used to describe things that you see in signage and popular media is completely misused, and I like to go through them and categorize them into different things. And those are, first of all, volumetric displays of which we're the only company in the world that's making a commercial volumetric display. There's one other company Aerial Burton, who are based in Japan that makes a volumetric display, but it's a very high-tech scientific prototype that uses lasers to explode the air and has very low resolution. And then you've got autostereoscopic 3D displays, and they broadly fit into the categories of lenticular displays which are as you probably know LCD panels, which have got a plastic lens array on them that allows you to see a left and a right image, and those left and right images can give you a stereoscopic view. I would call them stereoscopic displays because they're not 3d. You can't look at them from any direction and they don't physically occupy three-dimensional euclidean space, which is what the real world is, and those types of displays come in different formats. So you get some with just horizontal parallax, which means you can move your head left and right and see a number of distinct views. You've got some that you can move up and down as well, and also get a little bit of vertical parallax as well, and there's probably five or six companies doing those sorts of displays. You've got Looking Glass, Lightfield Labs, Acer, and Sodium, so that area can grow. The physical size of those displays can get bigger, but the bigger they get, the harder it is to move further away because you're pupil distance means it's harder to get a 3D view, and also with any display like that, the 3D image that you see because it's the result of you seeing two independent images with your left and right eye, that 3D image can never leave the bounds or the window of the display, and that's something in advertising, which is very misused a lot, they show a 2D monitor with the image leaping out beyond the border of the monitor, and that just can't happen. That breaks the laws of physics, and so that's the kind of three auto stereoscopic 3D landscapes, and it's hard to say that autostereoscopic, 3D display because people zone out and they go, is it a hologram? And no it's not.
The other types of 3D that are popular just now are obviously, glasses-based display, AR, VR, mixed-reality, and we don't really, we don't really mind about that or care about that because it's something you have to put something on your head, and that's our different thing really. So those offer you an immersive experience where you go down a rabbit hole and you're in another world and that's not what we are about.
And then you've got the fake 3D displays, which are not 3D stereoscopically but appear that way, and that's where I get slightly annoyed by those displays, but I understand there are people making types of signage I guess you would say, that is perfectly suitable for a scenario and those are things like Pepper’s ghost which is when you reflect a 2D image off a big piece of glass or plexiglass, and that's the pepper, the famous one, the Tupac hologram at Coachella. I met the guy and spoke to him. He's a really lovely guy and I had a good chat about that, and he knows full well that it's an illusion, but it's the illusion that Disneyland has been using for many years, and it's a perfectly good illusion for a seated studio audience because they see someone on stage and they're doing it now with the, I think the ABBA Show in London is a similar type of setup.
They call them holograms, but it's a 2D picture that's far enough away that you can be made to believe that it's three-dimensional and it might exist at different levels like a diorama. You could have a stack of images, on fly screens or whatever, that appear to be layered, but ultimately they are 2D, and then the one that's come out recently, which causes probably the most amount of confusion for people are the anamorphic projections on large billboards, and everyone's seen these displays on LinkedIn and YouTube, and they tend to appear on large curved billboards in parts of China where the rental of the billboards is sufficiently cheap as you can put these big images up there, film them from one particular spot in 2d, and then put that on LinkedIn and have people comment on it and say, wow, that's an amazing hologram. Even though a) they haven't seen this in real life and b) it's not a hologram and it's not even three-dimensional. It's a perspective-based 2D trick, and so one of our challenges is expectation management, and that is people see large-scale fake 2D images, and fake 3D images and then they conclude that it must be possible and they want to buy one, and then when they see yours they go, oh, it's much smaller than I imagined, and you feel like saying, it's real. It's actually based on science, and you could walk around it.
And that's the challenge we're at just now. Trying to move away from this feeling that you have to have the biggest display in the world for it to be valid, and a lot of the business for us and a lot of the inquiries we get are from the likes of the Middle East, where they want to build very big, very impressive, very bright, very colorful displays and they say, we want a hologram that will fit in a football stadium and fly around in the sky, and you have to say well, that's great, but that's also impossible using anything that's even imaginable today, let alone physically achievable, and so yeah, we are very much a case of trying to be as honest as we can with the limitations, but also with the opportunities because regardless of the fact that our technology is relatively small compared to large screen billboards, we have got the ability to create sci-fi-inspired interactive displays that you can put in personal spaces, in museums, in galleries, in shopping centers, and they really do look like something up close under scrutiny that you might see in a Marvel movie, and that's the kind of relationship we're trying to find with other companies as well.
There are other types of the display as well. You probably talked to Daniel about some of his displays, which are levitating grains of dust and things like that, and the challenge I have with them is yes, you can make a 3D image, but you have to look at how long it takes to make that 3D image and they're really more akin to painting with light. It's long-exposure photography. You have to manipulate something and move it around over a long period of time to bring it, to build a single image, and scaling those types of displays is impossible. It’s the same with laser-based displays, whenever you're moving a single dot around, you run out of resolution extraordinarily fast because it's a linear thing, and even with Aerial Burton exploding the air with a laser they can only do about 1000 or 2000 dots every second, and that breaks down to being able to draw maybe a very simple two-dimensional shape whereas to draw a detailed image, an elephant or anything like that, that we've displayed in the past, it requires upwards of 30 or 40 million dots a second to do that with each image, each volume contains millions of dots.
Where do you see this going in, let's say, five years from now? And are you at that point selling products or are you licensing the technology to larger display manufacturers? Or something else?
Gavin Smith: So at the moment what we're doing is we're looking for projects that we can scale and one of the first projects that we're working on just now and the technology can be applied to a range of different industries. As you can imagine, any new display technology. You could use it for CT scans, you could use it for advertising, for point of sale, for a whole lot of different things. But you have to choose those projects early on when the technology is immature, and that is low-hanging fruit if you want to use that term, and so our low-hanging freight at the moment, we believe is in the entertainment industry, digital out-of-home entertainment to be specific, which is the likes of video gaming and entertainment venues, and so 2018, we were in the Tokyo Game Show with one of our machines, and we were situated next to Taito at the company that made Space Invaders, and their board came across their senior members and they played with our technology and they really liked it. And so we entered into a conversation with them and over several years, we have built a Space invaders arcade machine called Next Dimension, and that's using our rotating volumetric display with three projectors each running at 4,000 frames per second and a large rotating volume, and we've written a new Space Invaders arcade game and Taito has granted us the license to bring that to market. In order to do that, we're now doing commercial testing and technical testing which involves taking the technology into venues, play testing it and getting feedback from the venues on the suitability of the game and the profitability of it as a product. So with that game, our plan is to follow in the footsteps of the previous Space Invader game, which was called Frenzy made by Roth Rolls. It sold 3000 or 4000 units globally. So if you could do that, it would be a profitable first venture in terms of bringing technology to market, and at the moment, we're looking to raise some capital. We need to raise $2-3 million USD to do the design from the manufacturer for that and build the first batch of machines which would be rolled out globally.
Now, that's really seen for us as a launch of technology using the IP of Space Invaders as a carrier, a launch vehicle for the technology, but once launched and once our technology is widely known and understood, what we then plan to do is build our own revenue generating model and technology platform that can be deployed to venues around the world who can use this as a kind of an entertainment device where you can run different IP on it from different vendors and do a sort of profit share with the venue owners. So a cinema, Chucke CheeseB, Dave & Busters, those types of venues, as well as bowling alleys, VR arcades, and all those types of entertainment venues that currently is starting to grow in strength, largely because people are now looking for entertainment experiences, not necessarily just staying at home.
COVID obviously threw a curve ball our way as well. When our Space Invaders machine was sent to Japan for testing, COVID had just happened so it went into internal testing within Taito, and then Square Enix who owns Taito, their parent company decreed that Taito would no longer manufacture arcade machines but would license their IP only so that kind of threw a spanner in the works and they've come back to us and said, we'd love the game, but we want you to bring it to market, not us. So that's one thing we're working on just now. There's a video of Space Invaders: Next Dimension on YouTube that you can look at, and it's a really fun experience because it's a four-player game. We've added the volumetric nature. You can fly up and down during sub-games. You can bump your next-door neighbor with your spaceship and get a power-up. It really is for us a way of saying, look, this is a new way, it's a new palette of which to make new gaming experiences and the future is really up to the imaginations of people writing software.
All right. That was super interesting. I learned a lot there and some of it is, as often the case, I understood as well.
Gavin Smith: That's great. I'm glad you understand. It is a hard thing to wrap your head around, especially for us trying to demonstrate the nature of the technology in 2D YouTube videos and LinkedIn videos, and you really have to see it with your own eyes to understand it, and that's why this week I was over for a meeting with BA Systems, but I took the opportunity to spend several days in London at a film Studio in SoHo, in London, the owners very gratefully let me have a demonstration group there, and I spent two days last week demonstrating the product to ten or so companies come in and see the technology, and it's only then when they really start to get their creative juices flowing and that's where POCs projects kick-off.
So that's what we're looking for just now, are companies that have imaginative people and they have a need for creating some new interactive media that can be symbiotic with their existing VR and AR metaverse type stuff. But really something that's designed for people up close and personal, intimate experiences.
If people want to get in touch, where do they find you online?
Gavin Smith: So we have a website, which is just www.voxon.co. Voxon Photonics is our Australian company name, and you can find us on LinkedIn.
Actually, my own personal LinkedIn is generally where I post most stuff. That's Gavin Smith on LinkedIn, you can look me up there around, and then we have the Voxon Photonics LinkedIn page and we're on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube as well. We have a lot of videos on YouTube. That's a good place to start. But if you wanna get in touch, contact us via Voxon.co. Drop us an email and we'll be happy to have a meeting and a video call.
All right, Gavin, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Gavin Smith: My pleasure. Thanks very much for having me.
Wednesday Mar 08, 2023
Brandon Harp, Electrosonic
Wednesday Mar 08, 2023
Wednesday Mar 08, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
When I see an ambitious new visual display project lit up at a new or reno'd airport, office tower or attraction, I just about assume that if it's in the US, the company that put it in is probably Electrosonic.
The company is, technically, an AV systems integrator, and there are lots of them out there, of all sizes. But where corporate meeting spaces, control rooms and reception areas are the day-to-day work for most of those companies, the bread and butter work for Electrosonic is in locations where experience is the primary consideration and mindset.
The company - which has offices in the US, Europe and Asia - has a ton of experience and expertise in delivering AV and IT jobs that involve more than getting infrastructure in place. They work a lot with creative design and technology shops who are fantastic at the big ideas and compelling visuals, but want and need to hand off the install to a seasoned team.
I had a great chat about Electrosonic with Brandon Harp, a senior business development manager working out of the company's New York offices.
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Brandon, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on Electrosonic and what it does that's different from a lot of the AV integrators who are out there?
Brandon Harp: Sure. Thanks, David. I appreciate you having me on the podcast. I've been a longtime admirer of your content and so forth, so I've been following you for many years, so I really appreciate the opportunity.
So Electrosonic is a technology professional services firm. We design, build and support innovative technology solutions that create unforgettable experiences where people live, work, and play for many years. You probably know of us from the museum and the theme park world but we've expanded over the years and have really started to focus solely on immersive and experiential environments, and so for us, we're a bit of a specialized firm. We do consider ourselves still a boutique-style AV systems integrator, but the kinds of projects that we work on are global level and span a multitude of different industries, including corporate and retail and attractions and a multitude of others.
You said you expanded into this from museums and those kinds of attractions. Was that a conscious decision or is that just where the business was going?
Brandon Harp: Right after Covid, we made a decision to go back to our roots, which were always these complex sort of custom environments that we had been working in for many years, which our clients best knew us for. We've done away with just the kind of typical hang-and-bang conference room projects. We still do a portion of those if there is an element to a more project that fits better into our scope. But we've really done a good job, I think, as a company of being able to identify where our strengths are and where we can really add value for our customers. And that is really in that experiential and immersive sort of environment working with video walls, various different interactives, projection mapping, and things of that nature.
Is it a situation where you don't really want to do the meat, potatoes, boardroom, collaboration displays, all that sort of stuff because there's no money in it or minimal money in it, or is it just not terribly interesting?
Brandon Harp: I think it's a combination of all those things, Dave, I think with the standard corporate conference rooms, it's really become a race to the bottom, and we just as a company have recognized where our strengths are on delivering these projects and really our delivery model best lends itself to more of these custom really high-end engineering projects where we need a certain level of technical ability that not all integrators have, and so those are the kinds of projects that we're setting our sights on, and that's the ones that we continue to get hired for because of our ability to not only project manage, but engineer and design.
Something you might not know about us is that we actually have a full design consulting firm within our larger company, and we look at things through, I would say, a much more creative lens. So it's less about just engineering a system, and it's more about looking at it through a creative lens and saying, all right, what's the user experience? What is the story that you're trying to tell? How does that all get fused with the architecture? And then really thinking about at the end of the day, what is the human connection and what are they gonna feel as the system gets implemented and they go on to use it.
Yeah, you've found this niche and pretty lucrative niche in that a lot of the AV/IT systems guys can be very good at the technical side of putting something in. But they've probably not spent a lot of time with video walls or projection mapping or inversive environments, and you just start talking about that and they're looking at you like, could you say that again?
Brandon Harp: Yeah, absolutely. I think, again, it goes back to our roots, working on dark rides and so forth in theme parks. If you can imagine some of the complexities of being able to projection map in an environment like that, we've been able to essentially replicate that and bring that same methodology, that same sort of design consulting and engineering into corporate spaces, briefing centers, visitor centers, lobby attractions, things like that where you've got this sort of experiential element that we're best known for, and then we help you think through it creatively and our creative technologists and knowledge experts can really help the clients think more about, okay, what is that user experience? What do you want them to feel? As opposed to just looking at boxes and squares on walls and trying to price technology.
So our approach has been a bit different, but it seems to be very effective with our clientele, and they like the fact that we're not afraid to take the technology away from them in order to really think through that content experience, to think through what is it not only short term but also the longer term for their environment.
It's interesting because so many places are now being defined as attractions. So 20 years ago, an attraction was a theme park or a museum but now, as you alluded, a corporate lobby is an attraction.
Brandon Harp: That's right. We've seen a big uptick in that right around the time of Covid, so 2020 and onward. What we're also seeing is that there are quite a few real estate developers now who are trying to take on these attractions. I think one that you're probably familiar with, that everyone has either been to or is aware of now, is SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, where SL Green was the real estate developer behind an attraction like that, which is an observation deck that spans multiple floors and is multi-sensory.
So working with real estate developers like that who have a good understanding of real estate and square footage, how do we apply that to an attraction-based environment and help them be able to have the very best system to create that guest experience, and that's what we've been doing and that's why we've continued to get hired for these large scale projects that seem to have those sorts of elements.
For that one in New York, what was driving SL Green?
Brandon Harp: What was really driving SL Green was the vision that their CEO, Mark Holliday had to have this observation deck that sits high above the clouds in New York, and as part of a major building that went up just next door to Grand Central Station, which is One Vanderbilt and so 90 stories up in the air, you've got this multi-sensory experience where people can not only come and see and enjoy the views of New York but also be immersed in these various different rooms and environments that really lend itself to something for everyone.
You don't necessarily have to be a tourist to enjoy it. You can also be a local or someone just passing through. But it really lends itself to something for everyone, and now we're starting to see more and more of these major supertalls that are going up, that are changing the New York skyline, having an element of an immersive experience in it, whether it's an observation deck or a lobby experience, an elevator experience, things of that nature.
And where did they see the money out of that? If it's an observatory high up, I assume they're charging for that.
Brandon Harp: They are. It's a paid attraction. So that uptick in paid attractions inside of corporate, what were typically fully corporate buildings is now something that we're seeing more and more of.
Yes, you may have, all the other floors in the building are corporate tenants, just like One Vanderbilt. But it also has this attraction there that spans four floors. So you're starting to see this mix of not only corporate, but attraction-based entertainment, and think about it, in New York City, it's not a theme park like a Disney World or a Universal, where you've got lots and lots of acres to play with. We're talking about going vertically here for these attractions that go up in New York City. So we're starting to see a real uptick in that and really being able to apply all of that methodology that we've developed over the years in how to deliver those projects successfully for the theme park business to these corporate institutions.
I'm assuming it's a bit of a delicate dance for these property developers if they do that sort of thing because if you turn your building into a tourist attraction, you're at the risk of a lot of crowds and people wandering around, and the regular tenants are fighting their way to get to the elevators and things.
Brandon Harp: Yeah, I think to combat that, what they've done is for example, One Vanderbilt, they have all the tenants have their own lobby, so they're actually utilizing their own elevators and so forth. So their day is not interrupted at all by anything in terms of crowds or anyone trying to get into One Vanderbilt. For the observation deck in SUMMIT, it's got its own separate entrance and it's actually very well thought through. I think what impressed me most about SL Green was their ability to adapt to the ever-changing kind of design and environment, and they really did a good job of listening to all of the consultants that they brought in.
Again, they're real estate developers, and so to take on a major attraction inside one of the largest buildings in Manhattan is something that was a bit foreign to them. But they really brought in great consultants to help them think through every aspect of this, which is why it runs so effectively and efficiently now.
You mentioned that you have a design consultancy. What is all that about?
Brandon Harp: So our design consultancy practice is based out of Las Vegas. We do have design consultants now that are remote as well. So we have a few here on the East coast and in Denver and a couple of other strategic places around the US and overseas in Europe.
But for us, it's very much about AV consulting. What you may not know about us is that we also do security surveillance, access control, as well as information communication technology, which is your structured cabling as well as acoustics. So oftentimes we find ourselves in these conversations very early on with architects and owners and people who are designing these experiences, and so they want us to be a part of their team to help steer the technology decisions, and so we're finding that we're being hired more and more early on in these projects because we look at things through that creative lens. We consider ourselves creative technologists, very true to our trade and very client-focused throughout, and being involved very early to help steer and guide the solution through master planning is very important to the outcome of these projects, and so now what we're seeing is an uptick in design-build as well, because we're working very closely with the owner and the owner reps at an early stage to really flush out the design and the intent, and then if we're able to come in and do the AV build, which we're finding is happening more and more, there seems to be a real desire to have one hand to shake at the end of the day when it comes for all design-build and all the way through to support, which is what we offer.
Do you find that the end users, whether they're property developers or just building owners or major tenants or whatever, that they are smarter or more sophisticated about what they wanna do than maybe they were 5-10 years ago?
Brandon Harp: That's a great question. I think it's still a mixed bag. Honestly, I think there's oftentimes when clients come to us with blue sky ideas, or maybe they have some sort of concept renderings that they had hired a firm to put together for them and then they ask us, "How do we execute this?” and “What do we need to be able to be successful?” And I think that's where our design consulting practice comes in. We help them really think about not only the technology but more importantly, what's the outcome, how the user feels and what are they gonna experience here that's gonna make them want to continue to come back and continue to talk about this.
So getting in early like that has really been very effective for us, and then the build portion of it as well, which we've always been very known for. Having a good understanding of the project from day one has really made it very effective for us.
How important is scale? We've seen all kinds of press releases about a LED video wall that's 60 feet wide or 100 feet wide, whatever the dimensions are. But I'm wondering if you're starting to see a more sophisticated approach where you are not just thinking about the scale, but how it fits, how is this gonna work within the environment? All those sorts of things.
Brandon Harp: Yeah, I think some of the clientele has thought that through or they've gathered information from other projects. Some do have maybe a bit of a more sophisticated approach, or they have someone who's a technology advisor who's been helping them think through things. I think where we come in is really to be able to help them take that to fruition, right? And take it to the next step. So I do think it's still a bit of a mixed bag.
In terms of the scale itself, it depends on the project. I think we do a number of projects that are gonna have multiple locations over and over again, and we create this blueprint for those, but we also do a lot of these one-off projects, as you can imagine, especially when it comes to museums and theme parks and briefing centers and things of that nature where it's one of a kind experience and we really have to be able to deliver on what the client's looking for.
Yeah, and that's a bit of a challenge I would imagine. One-off projects are awesome when they come along, but it becomes a bit of a roller coaster ride as opposed to the predictable recurring services you might be providing.
Brandon Harp: It is very much and we find with these one-off projects that because of the size and the scale of them, typically they take anywhere from a year onwards to be able to complete. So you can imagine that requires a great deal of patience and skill and making sure that we have updated schedules just strong project management, and strong design engineering early on to make sure that we have the very best system in place. But, also the supply chain is another thing, right? And so not to go too far of a rabbit hole on that. But if your projects are typically a year to a year and a half in length, often what we're finding now is that the client wants to know right out of the gates, are there any stumbling blocks in terms of supply chain challenges? And then we have to order this material, and equipment very early on in the process in order to combat that or we have to find something else that we can use in order to deliver the system on time and within budget. So it's a bit of, as you said, a rollercoaster is a great way to describe it.
You said a year and a half. With some airports and let's say hospital campuses, that's probably more like a 4-5 year planning cycle, right?
Brandon Harp: Certainly, yeah. I think the year to a year and a half seems to be average, but yes, to your point, we often find ourselves involved in airport projects and so forth where the delivery date is 2026 or 2028 even now. And again, I think it has to do with being able to get in early with the right people, make sure that we're providing them with what they need to be successful, and then staying in touch and in tune with what's going on through the life cycle of the project and the management of it. Project management in AV has always been a hot point, right?
And so for us, it's very much about the project managers being able to see through a project of that length properly and show it the adequate attention that it needs to be successful.
I'm also guessing that because you're sometimes looking that far out for an airport or something like that, you really need to stay on top of emerging technology and think about, okay, I'm not thinking about what I'm going to put in right now with what's available right now, I'm thinking about what's going to be out there three years from now, which might be micro LED or something else that isn't really commercially available right now.
Brandon Harp: That's very true and that's a great point. It's certainly something that we take into consideration on all of these projects.
I think you have to look at the manufacturers and the longevity of their companies. Are they gonna be around for many years to come? And what does the product roadmap look like? And I think that's why we have our key partners that we work with who are very good at understanding what's coming, what's future, making sure that they stay top of mind with all of our designers and our engineers to ensure that at the end of the day when the system is installed, that it is the most recent and up to date technology, and it's not something that's going to be phased out or end of life that just simply isn't feasible when it comes to spares or replacements, anything like that.
So Thinking that through, especially on these longer projects is really important and that's what makes us effective.
I've been intrigued when I've seen big design agencies like Gensler or content-driven technology shops like Moment Factory where they've worked with you guys a lot because I get the sense they know what they're good at, they know how far they can take a big idea, but at some point, they have to hand it off to somebody who's good at the execution.
Brandon Harp: That's exactly right. We have developed, I think, the kind of the secret sauce for being able to work with companies like Gensler and Moment Factory, because you're right, at the end of the day, they're the big thinkers, right? They're the creatives who ultimately generate the user experience that is on those LED video walls, or on the digital signage or the interactive, or the inside of the projection mapping, and so forth.
For us, we have to play that supporting role and not every project is exactly the same, but we do understand what their strengths and capabilities are And then we play a very supporting role in that, and we've now made it so that it's a well-oiled machine and as partners, we're very agile and limber enough to be able to say, we need to pivot a little bit, or we need to look at this a little bit differently than the last one. And again, not Two projects are all the same, and so I think it's our ability to work with them and adapt to ever-changing circumstances and projects and environments that allow us to be as effective together as we are.
Do you try hard to stay in your lane, so to speak, and not get into the creative stuff?
Brandon Harp: I think at the end of the day, you have to have a creative vein in you to work here, right? That's ultimately what we do. We're constantly pushing the envelope of what's possible, but we also have to put the trust in our partners, and I think we do a really good job of that.
We've never been a company that's done content or experience design, and the reason for that is that we have a multitude of partners who do and who do it very well, and so for us, it's more about playing that supporting role with making sure that the technology is something that they can work with when they're creating their content but it's also something that is gonna be easy for the end user to use if that's a requirement, and really just play that supporting role.
I think that, at the end of the day, what people see in what they view on these large displays, as you talked about, is really the product of the creative minds that go into the content and the storytelling, and we're there to play that supportive role.
I think that's more what I'm asking is: you guys conceivably could have a creative team that would produce the big visuals and so on, but because you work with some great partners, you do your thing and let them do their thing and don't get into a competition.
Brandon Harp: That's right. There's no competition there. Where I think we do is supplement them very well is our executive consulting. So we have Will Bolen, Chris Conti, and Chris Moore, who are executive consultants who work for us, those three individuals are super talented. They've got a great deal of experience, both working hand in hand with clients to help them think through what it is that they're looking to do with their space. But they're also very technical, right? So they come up with sketches and little drawings and things like that can really make them multi-faceted individuals within the company, and that's why they're so effective.
Oftentimes they get paired with the likes of Moment Factory or Gensler or an architect or an experienced design firm who's looking to help their client uncover what is possible with the technology and then from there, we work it through design consulting and into systems integration, and then all the way through to service.
Do you have end users who are coming to you and just basically saying, “I want that!” because they've seen something?
Brandon Harp: Yeah, believe it or not, they do, and I revert back to SUMMIT One Vanderbilt again because it's very unique. It's award-winning and it's just something that everybody, I think is aware of or familiar with now, especially in New York City and they constantly are saying, how do we create that, or even in the airport environments like we just did Terminal A at Newark, I've had multiple airports say to me, “We want that 232-foot long video wall right at departures or behind the check encounter” and our response to that, Dave, is often, do something different.
It's great to be able to pull inspiration from other projects, but no one wants to see the same project replicated. So how do you pull inspiration from something that's that unique, but then put your own spin on it? And especially in an airport environment, because it is high traffic, it's a public place, millions of people and users go through there. How do you do something that differentiates? And that's what we always try to coach our clients into thinking about, what is it that's gonna make you the next talk of the town? How do you get yourself to that point where people are taking selfies or people are talking about the technology and the experience that they had as they moved through the airport? So those are the kinds of things we keep in mind.
Yeah, there are really two tracks in airports. You've got the big immersive experiential, almost like public art installations, but then you've got a lot of LED and flat panel displays that are just about making the experience of getting your way through the airport to a gate and onto a plane easier.
Brandon Harp: I actually think there are three, Dave. I would add the digital out-of-home experience as well there, because there's the Clear Channels and the Intersections of the world all have these large contracts with these airports and real estate owners who have their screens as well And in a lot of these airport environments, like Newark for example, there are over 80 displays there that is specifically geared towards targeted advertising.
Then you've got your art piece, which you mentioned, which is more experiential and immersive, and then the third pillar is the typical airport communications, right? Because people have to know where their flight is and how to get from point A to point B, whether it's wayfinding or something of that nature. But there's really a multitude of digital endpoints that go into any airport or terminal experience.
Yeah, I have been blabbering away lately that if you really wanna see the state of the art of digital signage and how that technology is applied in different ways, go look at a renovated or new airport terminal.
Brandon Harp: It's true, and the government's flushing a lot of money into obviously the infrastructure and redevelopment of these airports.
That trend we feel is gonna continue and it's gonna continue to push the envelope for what is possible. I think at the end of the day, you're finding that these old, outdated airports really just need a refresh, something that's gonna make people wanna fly out of there. Something that's gonna set the tone for the trip that they're about to go on. But also just as silly as it sounds, put a smile on their face. If there's a way to make people feel at home or comfortable or keep them entertained so that they're buying more concessions within an airport environment, that's a huge win for that terminal and that airport.
I just wanna know where my gate is, how to get there, and how long is it gonna take me to get through the various lines.
Brandon Harp: And maybe where the bar is?
Is there a trend that you're starting to see emerge?
Brandon Harp: Yeah I think there is. I think, just at the start of 2023, we've seen a real uptick when it comes to experiential and immersive environments in higher education, but also in sports.
We're finding more and more of these higher education institutions wanna give students access to a big video wall that may have a multitude of interactive touchpoints and ways of being able to use the system itself and interact with it across a multitude of different tracks throughout the school.
So there's been a lot of that recently and then sports as well. These kinds of one-off experiences within stadiums and training facilities and things like that. There really has been an uptick in those through since the start of the year and we're expecting that trend to continue.
Is there a big project that you're allowed to talk about that we're gonna see in the next calendar year?
Brandon Harp: I can't really get into the specifics and the name of it, but the one that comes to mind for me is an immersive museum experience that's gonna be happening downtown in Manhattan, just outside of The Oculus, so a well-traveled area. It's a building that probably anybody who's from New York or has been to that part of the area is gonna be revamped and it's gonna be led by an immersive artist and a team of people who are really invested in not only the video but the audio portion of any given museum experience.
So you can expect upwards of 20+ video walls and large-scale rooms with huge projection-mapped walls, floors, and ceilings. Just a variety of different experiences as you travel through each room. So it's something that's on the horizon, and the scheduled opening date is right around Labor Day of this year. So we'll see if that holds true. But in any case, it is something that's upcoming and we can give you more information on it as it unfolds.
That’s led by a real estate developer?
Brandon Harp: It is another real estate developer, so much like we were talking about earlier in the conversation with SL Green, this is another company that's very prominent in New York. This is the first real venture for them into more of the attractions type of space. So they do need a lot of help, but we're there to provide it and the support that they need to be successful, and we really anticipate this being a game changer for them and especially for lower Manhattan.
All right, Brandon, thank you!
Brandon Harp: Yeah, thanks, Dave. I appreciate you having me on today.
Wednesday Mar 01, 2023
Mark Ossel, Global Signage Alliance
Wednesday Mar 01, 2023
Wednesday Mar 01, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
When I was doing my initial recon walk through the many halls of ISE a few weeks back, I went by a stand that was highlighting something called the Global Signage Alliance, which was unfamiliar to me and made me curious.
The stand's occupants weren't there, and I was on the go, so I never got a chance to get filled in at the show. But I asked some questions and made some contacts after the fact. I assumed this was a Euro-centric version of the Digital Signage Federation. There have been 2 or 3 of those, I think, and maybe this was another. But it turns out that's not what the GSA, as it is called for short, is all about. It's a formalized user community for Samsung digital signage software and smart display products.
The cynic in me thought "OK, this is kinda like big pharma and energy companies that form institutes." Imagine me doing air quotes around institutes. But that's not what this is, according to GSA chairman Mark Ossel. He says the organization was initiated out of common needs among companies - starting in the Netherlands - who wanted to share information, ideas and business opportunities ... who were all, also, using Samsung's CMS software MagicINFO, or Samsung's smart signage displays. It's the shared purpose, strength in numbers thing at play here.
However, Ossel did say that Samsung does now provide some financial support. This makes sense, at least to me. A user group has the interest and mission to stay closer to a product and its evolution, as opposed to being disparate end-users that end up with new functions or features just getting dropped on them by a technology company. Which happens.
For Samsung, they can be closer to some key customers and support a user community, without perhaps doing as much heavy lifting to build and nurture that community.
Have a listen.
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Mark, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what the Global Signage Alliance is all about?
Mark Ossel: Yeah, my pleasure, thanks for asking. The Global Signage Alliance is a user group, meaning a group of companies, and individuals from the digital signage world, coming from the creative side, coming from the services side, or being an end-user company using digital signage. So it's all kinds of companies who basically come together in the organization. It's a nonprofit organization, on a global scale, to exchange information, and share experiences but at the same time where there are opportunities to work together because these days more and more opportunities cross country boundaries as well as of course cross the own area of specialism. So you want to join forces with other companies to basically be able to fulfill the requirements of a proposal, tender, or procedure where you basically need to combine hardware, software, services, implementation, installation, integration, whatever it is, beyond what your own capabilities are.
So it's working together as well and then last, but not least, joining forces for marketing events or all kinds of exposures, which we jointly do to promote digital signage and the capabilities of the group. Moreover, the group as well secures the quality of what is being delivered by, in fact ensuring training to employees, and staff members, raising the bar in the quality of what is being delivered.
In the future, we want to create a quality stamp to let the market and the buyers know that these are companies that have the right skills to deliver a quality solution.
What's the backstory? Where did this come from?
Mark Ossel: It started in the Netherlands with a few companies in digital signage who basically understood that it makes sense to work together as well as to exchange experience, and information sharing and those companies had in fact an informal network, then it was growing with other companies across Europe, and then basically, yeah, it came to the point that we said it makes sense if we formalize this as a nonprofit organization with the structure of members, have a dedicated staff, have a formal board and comply with all the necessities you want to have as a decent organization.
When I was at ISE two-three weeks ago, I was walking through one of the halls, the digital signage hall, and walked by the Global Signage Alliance stand. Unfortunately, someone must have stepped away for a break or something like that, there wasn't anybody there to chat with, so I'm catching up after the fact.
I assumed when I was walking by that, oh, this is like a European version of the Digital Signage Federation, and there's been a couple of runs at that by different organizations In the past, I'm not quite sure where they're at, but when I'm digging into it a little bit, I actually see this is not necessarily a broad community, it's really focused around Samsung and Magic Info and its platform. Is that accurate? And why is that if so?
Mark Ossel: Well spotted and, no one was there at the time you passed by, but it was interesting because we wanted to raise awareness for the GSA at ISE and ISE basically does recognize that we now start to represent a segment of their target audience and of the market, and they were willing to give us the ability to be there on the stage.
Yeah linked to Samsung platforms, not only Magic Info but any Samsung platform. The reason is, you need to make a choice as a company on what technologies you use, and approximately half of the screens come from Samsung. We do believe in the architecture and the embedded capabilities in the screens. So it made sense that all those companies joined forces using the Samsung platforms and believed that it was a proper way forward. We also get some support from Samsung and that works both ways.
As a user group, we are now recognized by Samsung as well as a proper sounding board for them, providing input on the requirements of the market. So they listen to us, we talk directly to their developers and give direction to the developments and the next generation, based on what we feel we need as a market and with new products, of course, we are the Guinea pigs to test it before it gets to market. So it works both ways. It works quite well to have a loyal dedicated highly skilled group of companies working with Samsung on moving digital signage to the next level
Yeah, I could certainly see the business advantage to companies to stay close to Samsung or some other company that's developing a platform like that, because you can either have the new advances, the new thinking dropped in your lap, and hopefully it makes you happier or you can be contributing to what that development roadmap and product roadmap looks like by being tight with them.
Mark Ossel: Exactly, and now we not only get to know it in the beginning, but we basically drive development as well in the direction, and we have the discussions on next-generation technologies because there might be a time delay of one or two years from development to market release. So we are involved in the early stage but as well with any changes to current products and new requirements or taking with new products as well, the migration path from one to another or the coexistence. It all comes to play, and then, yeah, being able to provide feedback from the market, from real people who work with it on a daily basis. That is to the development team of great value as well.
Did Samsung as a corporate entity approach a loose-knit group in the Netherlands to formalize something? Or was this something that this group formalized and then went to Samsung and said, hey, we wanna do this but in order to make it happen, we need some financial support ‘cause there's just the day-to-day of a nonprofit and you may have a small budget, but you still have costs?
Mark Ossel: Yeah, sure. So it went the first way. So the group of companies coming together created the organization, regardless if Samsung could support it or not. Because we saw the need and the benefit of a group of companies working together, like exchanging information and all the things I said to work together on larger projects and we had seen the benefits already of that. So the drive came from the market and Samsung, they do welcome it.
What happens if you are a digital signage company that works across a number of platforms and not necessarily just Magic Info and Samsung's embedded smart displays? Is there any value in being a member and can you be a member?
Mark Ossel: Good question. Although many of the members we've got today are dedicated to using the Samsung platforms because that's where their skills and knowledge are based upon. So I don't see many of them using other technologies as well. But if there would be a company that has a mix of technologies, yeah, sure, they're welcome as long as they use the Samsung platforms as well. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense to join. I'm pretty confident that over time, they will use the Samsung platforms more and more because of the added value of focusing on a specific platform and technologies. If you spread your knowledge over a number of platforms and development tracks, your staff becomes too thin, instead of being really deeply focused and trained on a specific technology. I'm in favor of focusing in every respect, that means as well on skills. Knowing a little bit about a lot of platforms does not give you the advantage of knowing some technologies and platforms very deeply.
How many members do you have right now?
Mark Ossel: We started, in fact, just before the Corona. The timing was unfortunate, so we had to put it on hold. There were no events. It was a bit of a strange world. So we held a ceasefire for some time. And in fact, this year we relaunched the organization. We have a few dozen members right now. It's good to see that even during ISE quite some companies basically were interested, and a number of them signed up on the fly immediately. There are some, of course, who have had to request permission internally or approval from their senior management to join.
But most of them, if not all, see the benefit if we talk and explain what we're doing, and the fees are so low that it’s not a showstopper to become a member. We expect during the course of the year, to bypass a hundred companies as members, and then of course grow beyond.
When you have somebody walk by the standard at ISE or elsewhere and they say, okay, give me your elevator pitch. Why should I join? What do you tell them?
Mark Ossel: Ah, good question, and that question of course we answer quite a lot of times. But basically, If you are in digital signage and if you have projects which cross your own area of expertise or cross geography boundaries, you need to act to basically have a partner network of companies you can rely on, data level quality as well. You build a family network. You can work together as well as you can benefit from the experience or the complimentary solutions which the other parts of the family have, then it makes sense for you to join as a member.
If you basically now look at the memberships they're mainly from Europe, but we are now expanding as well. In fact in Africa, and South Africa, we have members in mid-Asia, and Eastern Europe is growing. We get some interest from the United States, so it's getting more global as well.
Is Samsung helping raise awareness?
Mark Ossel: Oh yes, they welcome it in many respects. First of all, this has become a channel to market for them. A way to communicate to the market as well as new products, provide training. We are using doing where Samsung does presentations as well as where if our members do presentations or demonstrate showcases of successes they have implemented, then we see Samsung staff joining those webinars to learn about how their products are being used in the market.
So in that sense, it works and vice versa. They like the success stories, they like to understand how those products are used and see those showcased, and we basically create a portfolio on our portal as well through online sessions, get the messages across on what can be done or what has been with the technology.
So in a lot of ways they're encouraging a user, community, user forums, and user discussion without having to directly manage that themselves and not create the illusion, but have that degree of separation so it doesn't feel entirely like, “Here's our Samsung forum. Come here, and oh, by the way, while you're here, we'll sell you our pots and pans.”
Mark Ossel: Correct. It's to some extent, of course, related to technology and discussions on exchanging information about how they deploy the technology, but it's the other wider discussion on trends as well. Take the trend to the cloud. Not only as storage but also as software in the cloud. The integration of all the social media, the metaverse type of concept, and the impact on digital signage. We spent quite some cycles on security. We did as well security audits on some solutions. Interconnectivity and interactivity as a topic is being discussed, where more and more sensors of any kind, any format are being applied where the interconnection between applications to basically have more data-driven content, use more artificial intelligence in the backend, between the different applications, which through APIs, access data.
The market demands more flexibility, and more real-time interaction with the end user, and the consumer as well. There are so many trends in the markets that can be discussed and discussed between members. If you look at the younger generation, they want experiences in every respect being in a museum or in a retail store. How can you create that experience? How can you create that interaction with the social media platform? It all comes to play. It's as well, regardless of the lower level technology, these are the topics that are of interest to all the members and yeah, if you talk about it, you hear the different ideas, and it triggers your creativity as well.
So once in a while, we have those sessions where it's a bit like sitting with friends at the bar and discussing major things and trends, which basically trigger your creativity to gain some new ideas on how to apply that as well.
For the interest that you've had from North American companies, has there been any kind of pushback or questioning about, “I'm already a member of the Digital Signage Federation, why would I also join this or do I have to choose?”
Mark Ossel: No, I don't think we get the matter of choosing. In most cases, we talk to them and they see the advantage specifically for American companies that they now get access to a network in Europe, and if they have a customer, like a retail chain, which basically has a global presence, it's of great interest to have access to partners network, friends, and family in Europe, which basically in rollouts or in that kind of thing, it's beneficial to basically expand the network, in fact, beyond the United States.
So if there's a let's say an integrator that is using Magic Info for actually, I'm thinking of a school district in Florida that has an integrator that does a ton of stuff like that if they somehow end up getting questions about, could you take this platform to France or to the Netherlands or Belgium or whatever if they're part of your alliance, conceivably would have business ties or at least exposure to companies over there that could maybe do this in tandem with them or in collaboration with them?
Mark Ossel: Exactly. You got it, and of course, if they have built a great solution, why not promote that in Europe? And it might be something that works, as you said in the case of that school district, maybe that is an application that could be a perfect showcase here, and it gives them access to this market through the network of partners here.
One of the things that were happening at ISE, apart from the black-walled fortress that Samsung weirdly had limited access to their whole stand, was discussion around the evolution of Magic Info and how there was a new platform coming called VXT. Is that something that your group has been aware of and has been talking to Samsung about?
Mark Ossel: Oh yeah, sure. Long before ISE, we started discussions with Samsung on that new platform, VXT. So yeah, as said our alliance is not limited to Magic Info, but all the platforms of Samsung, so this will be part of it as well in the future, and we have discussed functionalities as well as coexistence migration between platforms and so on with Samsung.
So would you say there's been a benefit around that in that you somewhat have insider knowledge of what's coming ahead of perhaps some other companies that are just now starting to get exposure to what this thing is?
Mark Ossel: Yeah, absolutely. Before ISE, we had conversations about it already and at ISE we even had a specific session with Samsung and some of the members were present on this topic as well. Yeah, we are at the forefront of that development as a group.
Now, there would be some people who would suggest, it's got some similarities to, let's say, pharmaceutical manufacturers who create institutes and associations and alliances and things like that as a front for their company. It gives them separation by doing it that way.
Are you getting those kinds of questions or even criticisms at all, like this is just a Samsung thing and they've called it an alliance, but it's not really a nonprofit, and so on?
Mark Ossel: No, in fact, I don't get it.
It is truly a non-profit organization and independent. It's our own choice to work closely with Samsung, and we see it as mutually beneficial. We get early insight, we have the ability to give feedback and change direction where we feel it would be required. Samsung sees the advantage of having a loyal group that provides professionals with proper technical knowledge to provide valuable feedback.
It's a win-win. There is no dependency either way. It is beneficial for both sides.
And what's your background on this? How did you get involved in the work that you do in digital signage, what is that?
Mark Ossel: I started a long time back, with a video company that goes back to the early 80s.I have been in the IT industry as well since the early 80s. So the combination of audio, video, and digit digitization has been my path. Been on the board of a signage company for 30 years.
Oh wow. Which one was that?
Mark Ossel: It’s DVC, a Dutch company, pretty significant. One in digital signage and in traditional signage. But yeah, I have some other activities well in the energy sector, and it's funny to see that all those things now perfectly come together. Energy and sustainability have become even big things in digital signage. It's one of the major topics and concerns of many customers, ranging from, how much energy a screen use? Or how can I manage the energy consumption or sustain it?
In a broader sense basically reflects everything from packaging to your total CO2 footprint which now becomes a topic in many discussions as well. So that's one we see as well in the development conversations of hardware and what you can drive and manage through software in this sense on this hot topic.
Yeah, that's such an interesting area now that people in North America, like me, have looked at Europe and thought, okay that's a different circumstance. Few people in North America seem to be asking questions about energy consumption for computing devices and displays and so on, and then Ukraine happened and everything else has happened around it and now you're even hearing people in the United States and Canada asking the questions around, how much power is this consuming and how do we limit that?
Mark Ossel: Exactly. It's simple things like, what's your standby power? How can you control the energy? How can you measure it? And I'm assuming it goes a step further. Even if you look at content, some content can be created to use less power than others.
You use all white it's blinding and it's really sucking it up. If you use black backgrounds, it's not using power.
Mark Ossel: Yeah. Those simple things start to make a difference. But then as well, if there's nobody walking nearby can you dim it, can you have the sensors checking and dims if there's nobody it's the area, why would you have streetlights on if there's nobody in that area at all, huh? And so more sophisticated solutions to address this topic are hot right now as well.
So if people want to find out more about the Global Signage Alliance, where do they go? What do they need to do?
Mark Ossel: First of all, look at the website, gs-alliance.org.
That's where they basically have the initial information and the contact details to our staff who basically then provide them with anything they want and then we'll take it from there and welcome them as a member.
And it's just one tier of memberships, right?
Mark Ossel: Yeah, it’s simple.
EUR 250 and you're in, as long as you qualify, right?
Mark Ossel: Exactly EUR 250, then you're in and you start making money if you really use take advantage and use the network.
Thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Mark Ossel: Thanks, Dave, for asking the right questions and giving the opportunity to get the GSA across to your audience as well Thanks for that opportunity, and continue with your great programs.
Tuesday Feb 21, 2023
John Hoyle, Sook
Tuesday Feb 21, 2023
Tuesday Feb 21, 2023
The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT
If an entrepreneur or an established brand wants to open a temporary pop-up store on a busy retail street, there's a lot of planning, work and cost involved in making that actually happen.
So what if there was a retail space in a high profile location that could be rented for as short a time window as an hour ... that uses LCD video walls and software to establish the look and feel of the shop?
That's the operating premise behind Sook, an interesting UK start-up that has digital-first spaces for rent in attractive locations around the UK, including London's retail-lined Oxford Street.
I visited that Oxford Street location when I was in London recently, and had a good chat with Sook founder and CEO John Hoyle.
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John Hoyle: So it's really easy to quickly create a clean and bespoke environment and so that means you can literally do whatever you want in these places. It's a space that is as much about non-retail uses as it is about retail. It could be somewhere to have a screening of a movie, it could be somewhere to do yoga, pilates, or meditation or it's a shop in the more traditional form.
The whole rationale behind this is that if you facilitate hourly access to units like this, which would otherwise be empty, you can actually drive three to five times more revenue than a traditional lease because you are making use of the time before, you know, standard rent is over a 10-year period, deeply inefficient because someone sits in a space and expects there to be effectively making all of their money on in the peak hours whenever those are, which is like a Saturday. Using this you can drive your own footfall, drive different peaks across 120 hours of the week and generate more revenue, as well as make it much more efficient for occupiers to come and engage with the space.
It's completely modular. You can take this entire fit-out away and move it elsewhere. It's all free-standing so there's a selection of furniture. You can see the hanging rails and shelving units here which makes it super easy for someone to come and self-serve if they want to. So using QR codes, you can learn exactly what you need to do, full WiFi, utilities, audio, et cetera, anyone can come quickly turn this into a space to use for whatever they want. These modules obviously can be disassembled and moved to another space. So we don't take leases. We are just a device that operates as an asset management tool within specific spaces. If a landlord wants to move us, they can, there's a small cost associated with that, but it's much more economically and environmentally sustainable to have this fit-out that can be reused in multiple other locations.
This one is slightly compromised because we're over two stories and the rear loading is in the basement. It actually works better on one level with a big back of the house. It's a bit like a theater set. All of the physical preparation happens out back so that you can efficiently roll into the space for your activation.
I'll show you downstairs. Everything that’s here, we can take away. There’s storage out back, but this has been everything from a rave for Jaegrmeister who launched a party, to the launch of a High Streets Reports by a big industry insider to a salsa dancing class. So it's all about using the same space for multiple different activations and doing it in a way that allows digital content to drive how you make that place appropriate.
That's why it's interesting to me that they have started to add digital screens to retail kind of after the fact and now we're in the situation where you have people who look like this, that are setting up pop-up retail with digital as the enabling part of it. So you can change the feel of a store, change the message, and everything else with a few keystrokes.
John Hoyle: Absolutely. If you think about where the brands of the future come from, they are gonna predominantly start online because the barriers to entry are much lower. But they need that IRL engagement to have an authentic touchpoint with their customers. But they don't wanna scale as the private equity-backed retailers in the past have by taking 120 leases and then marketing them. They want to dip in and dip out and have an online-type solution that's agile to determine where works best for their product and to make use of the fact that they can drive their own footfall through social media.
So if you think about it, I suppose a good example in the UK might be a, let's say Superdry, a challenger brand that's had to play the game of real estate to get where it is, to become AN established brand. We believe that we can facilitate that happening for the brands of the future without them having to need a real estate department to negotiate leases, to deal with the portfolio of assets. In fact, there will be this agile solution that they can use as they see fit, and what's interesting about that is that suddenly you are changing the role of a shop as a static distribution channel for stuff, and you're making it much more of a point of engagement for customers to actually meet IRL, the people that sit behind their brand and the products, and that can happen everywhere. There's no need now for perhaps the flagship in Central London or the concept store in Coven Garden because the various entries are lowered by this solution, you could take your product to secondary locations around the UK, do it for a weekend drives an enormous reaction because the people in, let's say Northeast England are not used to seeing something like that and then get out without any of the legacy, liabilities or commitments that you would normally get through these.
It's a service in just about every respect, right?
If I'm a fashion designer, which is a very novel concept, if I wanted to open up a pop-up store for the weekend, I wouldn't have to worry about the AV. I wouldn't have to worry about any of that stuff, I just do a deal to have the space for six hours or whatever it is and you guys can take it from there, right?
John Hoyle: You can dice it in whatever way you want. So you could be completely absent and we would run the entire piece for you, including fulfillment, staffing, and even the design of your space, and you can obviously have complete control because using Canva, which is an Australian Photoshop unicorn, you can drag and drop whatever you want onto the walls and you can walk around in 3D before you come here. So you can be in the US and control space in Oxford Street without having to be here. So that opens up enormous opportunities where at a fraction of the cost we can serve you.
But it's more about just that flexibility for occupiers. It's also making physical spaces available for all sorts of uses that are not necessarily traditional retailers. Social media is becoming increasingly important as part of the customer shopping experience. So working with those sorts of brands to engage IRL, onboard customers online, and complement what they're trying to do online is really powerful.
But equally, if you think about amenities. In the UK, retail banking branches are closing down in record numbers because they just don't make any sense with the rise of online banking. There is a real community value to those places for some people. Could we run a banking offer in the lunchtime slot, which is when people wanna go to the banks and not be there the rest of the time? Can you bring digital art into play? Gaming, estate agency, car showrooms? A whole spectrum of retail uses that basically haven't existed in the physical high street for all sorts of reasons previously to be used in a much more agile way in our spaces.
Is there a typical time window, like the amount of time when you are seeing bookings?
John Hoyle: It completely varies. We've had a guy take the space for an hour, turn it into a shrine to his girlfriend and propose to her. Equally, we were a Corona testing center in one of our spaces for I think 14-15 months, which is a sign of the times. We have three-month bookings. We have three-day bookings, and that's the point, different people wanna do different things at different times and that really is the core of what we do. No one needs a shop seven days a week, hardly, practically, no one needs a shop for a decade. Think about the time that you need to do activations. Let us manage the headache of all of that, learn from it from analytics, and then get out and do something different.
The old mantra in real estate about location. I suspect that still applies, right?
John Hoyle: It does, but it's a mindset rather than a reality. My belief is that footfall is a flawed metric, and that's what really underpins that location piece. The way we've done retail traditionally is that you found a location that suits you. Adjacencies are important, but you are really basing it off the demographic in the area, and then footfall, and that's a deeply inefficient model when you think about it. To make a 10-year bet on a place based on a data set that you see at that period in time, sit there for a decade, and only make money on maybe a Saturday or a Sunday. The rest of the time you have a loss-leading asset. You can't be agile and change if something about that location changes, and you're not learning anything about customers elsewhere.
So what we are saying is why not be far more granular, why not figure out which hours of the week your product works in? So Greg's, which is an incredibly successful restaurant brand essentially, it's famous for its sausage rolls, and they sold more Greggs sausage rolls last year than there were Big Macs in the UK, to put some scale on it. So their biggest selling unit is at Birmingham New Street Station and its peak time is from 10:30 on a Friday evening. It's people who've been drinking in pubs, buying sausage rolls, and are out on their way home. The other time they do a lot of business for essentially the building trades very early in the morning. So they are completely different profiles to an apparel brand, for instance. What we're saying is why don't you blend all of those different uses into more concentrated, more efficient spaces?
Is it nimble enough that you could do multiple occupants in a day?
John Hoyle: Yes, absolutely.
Have you done that?
John Hoyle: Yes. When you think about it, most shops don't open till 10:00, and most close at about six. Then you've got four, maybe five hours in the morning, which lend themselves to wellness, for instance, and then in the evening when shops sit dormant, this could be an event space, and that's pretty lucrative. In fact, in its own right. I think we could hang our entire business model on what shops would see after hours in certain locations to use this amazing digital tool, to be a private room for a restaurant or could it be a Deliveroo restaurant for instance, or could it just be a party, but rather than renting a bar and having a minimum bar spend of a few thousand pounds, you can have something bespoke, where there is amazing digital content of the person whose birthday is, for instance. Children's parties, and meetups, there are limitless ways of effectively monetizing space when in normal retail times, it's just closed.
Yeah, I've certainly heard of restaurants that are daytime cafes that have realized, okay, we have a kitchen and everything else, but we shut down at 3:00 PM, why don't we have a breakfast place in the evening? It's a Mexican place or whatever, and they're using the same kitchen, but you're sweating the asset more.
John Hoyle: Absolutely. The same principle applies here, just we've gone to extra lengths to make it more versatile. The food and beverage pieces are probably our most challenging use case because of the infrastructure that's required. You can't just have bare walls and exact screens, so that's our limit.
Although you can cater in these places, you just can't really prepare food through cooking. But yeah, given that there are fast approaching a hundred thousand empty shops in the UK alone, and that problem persists throughout developed markets, why aren't we making use of these assets better and doing it in a way that can be financially sustainable?
If you do it, what's really interesting is that there is a market for people who want to use these spaces at the right price point, and in the UK, if you have an empty shop it becomes a business rate liability, which is like property tax in the US. So an empty unit isn't just an empty unit, it's actually a liability for landlords. So what we're saying is let's bring them back into the community, let's make them accessible. Let's engage with customers in a completely different way, to the risk-free basis that has been the important use of the real estate asset furniture for so long and engages with a whole new spectrum of occupiers that just didn't exist 10 years ago.
If you have a hundred thousand empty shops, is it a risk to you with that many available spaces, the rental property becomes commoditized, the price comes down, and it becomes a challenge for you to be competitive with that?
John Hoyle: Not really, because our model is an arbitrage on whatever the rental levels are. Right now empty shops are a huge opportunity for us, and when you think about it from our customer's point of view, actually rent shop occupation costs are only about 30% of the total costs of having a shop. When you think about the cost of staffing an empty shop. To my point where if your shop is only really profitable on a Saturday, It is really painful having to staff it for the other six days of the week and a landlord will demand that you do. If you're in a shopping center, you have to be open. That is part of the deal, and you think about the inefficiencies around stock, people buy, and there are billions of pounds of stock sitting on shelves around the UK. It's absurd. Why not lend an online demand model with an IRL activation?
Yeah, create a public showroom and get fulfillment on the back end.
John Hoyle: Exactly, so we believe that we are creating the opportunity for massive efficiency across the board. It is hard to get brands to think differently. There is a huge amount of inertia around some of the big established brands who just have always done things a certain way.
It's the, “I want that unit. I want it for 10 years with a five-year break, If we get X amount of football and we price our stuff at Y, that will convert into profit.” There are lots of guys that cannot think beyond that and that's one of the challenges of being changemakers like we are is getting the 10% of early adopters to think differently about and do stuff, right?
So where did this come from, this idea?
John Hoyle: I launched it out of an accelerator called Zinc, which is all about delivering social ventures for profit. My background is in real estate. I'm a landlord, formerly at Grosvenor in Central London. So I was deeply frustrated having been on the other side of the fence about the inefficiencies and the huge numbers of occupiers who are excluded from shops.
The reason there are a hundred thousand empty shops is partly price points, but partly accessibility. All the ancillary costs around lawyers, agents, and these guys are all set up to do deals that have to be at least a year, but generally five and ideally ten. That struck me as such an enormous opportunity for disruption. That we've seen in the office space. We've seen it in the huge residential space. Huge global unicorn businesses have disrupted those sectors, but no one has done that in retail yet, and it's slightly more complex. There are the customers of your customers to think about. There's stock, there's a brand, and that's why a fit-out is necessary to facilitate all of that.
So if I'm an apparel designer who has just come out of some fashion school and I wanted to open my own, the commitment to do so would be many hundreds of thousands of pounds to do that, and through this model, I can open up on Oxford Street where we are for a day and have a popup and it's gonna cost well, what would that cost for a day?
John Hoyle: It depends. So it's demand-based pricing, so it's cheaper on a Monday than it is on a Saturday. If you can drive your own footfall, then you might as well take a low-value retail allowance. But you can on a good day get this space for probably just under a thousand pounds on Oxford Street, which yeah, no commitment, no utilities, no legacy issues. You come, do your thing, and when you work it works, you've got clear evidence of that that it is really useful as part of your entrepreneurial journey in terms of building momentum, it's great for content, et cetera, and the halo effect that we all recognize of our engagement is massive for your future on mindsets.
Are you funding this yourself or have you got financial backers?
John Hoyle: We have done four funding rounds. We are fundraising at the moment as well. This is our seed round where it's running for the next three months.
We're likely to have strategic partnerships with big asset managers who are invested and some retail groups. To date, it's been largely angels in the UK. There's a really vibrant ecosystem of angel investment in the UK because the government gives some great tax breaks called EIS.
I'm curious if when you approach people if they give you when the tilted head looks or they get it quickly?
John Hoyle: I think as with anything that's new, there is a bit of adoption. So we find that for our first booking, we insist that there is someone in our sales or customer service team present to help people because there's an element of anxiety. It's a bit like if you organize a party for your other half or family member and you're a bit nervous about the caterers and are people gonna turn up, et cetera, then the party starts and you relax. We see that a lot from our first-timers, but we're at 40% repeat customers, and so for subsequent uses, when you know where it all lies, you know what to expect, it's much less stressful for people.
It's just like your first day at the office when you don't know whether the photocopier works or what your password is, all of that becomes far less scary. So I think the answer is that onboarding involves more friction than we hope will ultimately be the case, and we are very much pushing the envelope of change. There is a bit of a learning curve, and then you see the penny drop and the opportunity. People's heads essentially explode with opportunities to do things that they could do because everyone's got an idea of how they might use a space like this more.
I'm a digital signage guy, so that's what makes me awfully curious about it. How fundamental were the digital screens to make this work?
John Hoyle: Absolutely fundamental. So there is a business that is failing at the moment that I was a customer of. They are effectively a booking system for empty shops, and they're pioneers in many ways because they've pushed the idea of flexible occupation, but they really are no different from a normal real estate agent, and the problem with just being a booking system is that you don't provide any of the services that are absolutely essential to launching a shop.
They're renting an empty cavity. You gotta figure out the rest?
John Hoyle: Yeah, and if you do that, they'll only rent for a minimum of a week. You turn up. You spend the first day setting up, and the next couple of days, no one comes in because it's Tuesday or Wednesday. Maybe you have a launch event on Thursday. A few people pick it up a bit Friday or Saturday, and then it's over. You spent probably 15,000 pounds. You've had to buy all of this deeply unsustainable, both financially and environmentally stuff in order to facilitate the fit-out, and you've got nothing really to retain from a legacy perspective With ours, the digital screens are utterly fundamental because that's your fit-out. That's what gives you the environment. You can take that content, you can reuse it on your socials, and can reuse it in other Sook spaces. You can send your stock around. But we will provide essentially the entire platform to allow your Sook to take place without you, wherever else you want.
Could you do these locations without the screens?
John Hoyle: It would remove a USP of ours, and of course, there is sometimes demand, but what we are trying to do is a hundred percent occupancy, and a big part of that is out-of-home media. So when we're not actively booked, we can be a billboard for your screen, which is a super light touch. It can operate when shops are closed throughout the night and generate revenue.
It is a really powerful, utilitarian way of squeezing revenue out of latent assets, and obviously, an empty shop's just an empty shop, and you can't do any of that.
Do you have a handle on what you're using for the displays? The screens are obvious, but, are you using a particular piece of software or…?
John Hoyle: You have to ask the AV guys. We've been through several iterations and in classic startup style we've tried lots of tools, we keep the ones that work, we discard the ones that don't and we're constantly iterating and I would describe that device upstairs, like a massive iPhone. Obviously, it's way less sophisticated than the iPhone today. But the principle is the same. Physically, it iterates just your Apple device and then the software behind it upgrades, but without you needing to change the device. So that is the process that we're constantly evolving.
When did the first Sook open?
John Hoyle: I opened one in 2019 as the sort of first MVP in Cambridge, and then we won a few prizes straight off the bat because it had such success in Cambridge.
John Hoyle: That's where I live. I wanted to prove that there was demand, which we did, and enough so that Legal in General, the insurance company, and pension fund, gave us our first proper site in a shopping center in Cambridge, which we opened in January, 2020, but of course, we all know what happened a month later. We were pretty quiet op operationally throughout all of 2020 and quite a lot of 2021 for obvious reasons. But we emerged from the pandemic with this site on Oxford street, one on South Molton Street, and one in Edinburgh. So it was clear that we had identified a need from landlords and we've expanded.
Is it important to be on high streets like this, like really well-known ones?
John Hoyle: Yes and no. So at this stage in our business, the startup, people don't know what it is to your point, people wanna understand it and they wanna be in great places, and we have to prove that investing is a success, and then we can generate revenue. So it is really helpful being on Oxford Street as opposed to somewhere unrecognizable.
But our goal is for it to function everywhere and for it to be a platform where Nike can reach a customer in a place that is utterly undesirable from a profile perspective, but where there are still obviously many customers and we believe actually the impact in those places could be bigger, and you asked me earlier about whether the erosion of the retail market could affect us. Well, one of the things that brands will pay us for is the opportunity cost of being able to do this, which is often in less desirable retail locations with a much higher ROI for us than on Oxford Street.
I'll give you a good example. MasterCard used our space in the Metro Center, which is in the northeast of England, it's probably one of the least affluent areas in the UK. We're in big shops, bigger shops and regional shopping centers there, and they're paying us London prices in Newcastle for the opportunity to have those spaces.
My dream is that there can be a Sook on every high street and it can address all of the community goals in the same way that maybe a town hall does, as well as being a state-of-the-art retail space for brands to dip in and out to engage with those customers and create a halo effect.
Because a fashion designer can be in Newcastle and, doesn't have to come here to launch?
John Hoyle: No, it's bigger than that. Why can't they be in New York or Dubai or Beijing? Stock light, you can use physical stock, but so much of it can be digital, purchases get made online, which through using QR codes, it's not necessarily about leaving with physical stuff, but if you are a global brand on a mission to scale, what a brilliant way of dipping your toe in the water.
And because there are so many empty sites, landlords love something that is gonna delight, that's going to be good for placemaking and community and that in some instances is more important than actually a business case for the space. It's a tool for asset managers to drive footfall into assets.
You see lots of distressed real estate where somebody's put in a gift shop or a calendar shop or whatever, and they don't have a lot of money and it just looks sad and it doesn't lift the street. It takes it down.
John Hoyle: Exactly. We wanna be the opposite of that. And I really believe that constant rotation of activity is the way to bring life back. Because you could have the coolest brand in the world in your unit, I always use the fashion apparel one, but maybe there's a better example of that, but if its peak hours are only on a Saturday, the rest of the week is to all intents and purposes in an empty shop. So it isn't adding anything to those high streets.
But running up the costs.
So how many Sooks do you have now?
John Hoyle: We've got 11. We want to double it next year, and part of that is reliant on fundraising.
We're also allowing some other systems to list on our site, and we have our first overseas site agreed upon in South Africa, Johannesburg. Got opportunities in the UAE, the US, Canada, and Europe. As you would not be surprised to hear, I'm just balancing the ama