Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Ori Mor, Wi Charge

Ori Mor, Wi Charge

September 14, 2022


Anyone who has been on the ops or finance side of digital signage and digital out of home knows how complicated and expensive it can be to realize the simple task of getting power to a screen.

It's a particular challenge in settlings like retail - because store designers, until recently, didn't think much about the need to get power right in the aisles and in merchandising locations.

Battery-powered displays are one answer. Power over ethernet is another. And there's of course the often expensive and possibly unsightly option of running electrical infrastructure - wires and maybe conduit - all the way to the screens and other gear.

Wouldn't it be great if wireless power was a reality?

Turns out ... it is, and one of the companies leading development already has small displays for retail and hospitality that get their power over the air, using ceiling transmitters and receivers built into the screens.

Right now, Wi Charge's screens are just tablet-sized, but that will change.

I get the rundown on wireless power from Ori Mor, who is a co-founder and Chief Business Officer at the Israel company.

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Ori, thank you very much for joining me. Can you give me a background on what your company does?

Ori Mor: Hi, Dave, happy to be here. We are doing over-the-air wireless power, and over-the-air charging. But when we say over-the-air, we mean a range of 10 meters (30 feet) and not proximity charging, like charging pads.

So this is very different from just those close contact charges where you put your phone down and it does it that way? 

Ori Mor: Yes, very different. The phone charging is a type of docking station without wires, but a docking station. You still need to do it on your own, knowing that you are now taking care of charging and the docking station, the pad itself is being wired. We are talking about something that is more close to WiFi for power. 

Is this a commercial product or something that's still in R&D? 

Ori Mor: It's not in large volume yet, but it's a commercial product. It's deployed in Canada, the US, and Israel, and it's going also to a few locations in Europe and actually at the end of this month, also in Brazil.

And the company is in Israel, correct? 

Ori Mor: Yes, the headquarters and R&D are in Israel. Marketing and Sales are mainly in the US, but also in Korea and Europe. 

And how long has the company been around?

Ori Mor: 10 years. 

Did it start trying to solve this problem or was it something else that found its way into this?

Ori Mor: We started by doing over-the-air wireless power. The main application was charging smartphones, but the technology is capable of powering other devices as well. 

I was curious about the application for digital signage. I gather that you have a digital display that you could use in a retail setting, but it's a small display. You're not at a point where you could power a very large display? 

Ori Mor: Yes, that is correct. We started with the five-inch display based on demand that we got from prominent retailers and CPGs from across the world who were interested in being able to power devices at the edge of the shelf. Obviously, we can't power 16 displays. So we started with a small display. We are now doing seven-inch and nine-inch as well. But the promise is, as you said, being able to power devices at the edge of the shelf without the hassle of running wires or replacing batteries.

And is that the problem that's being solved here, just simply the unavailability of power, right at a, like a shelf edge? 

Ori Mor: Simply put, yes. People do display, people do CMS, and people do Digital advertising in retail space already, but usually, it's limited to very few locations and we are enabling it to be widely spread relatively easily. 

And the problem is, in a lot of older retail and older can be like 10 years old, That there just isn't power on the shelves, right? 

Ori Mor: Yes, That is correct. The gondolas are moving, The shelves of Heights are changing And as you said, there are in most of the retail locations, there are no wires. Maybe near the wall, but certainly not in the middle of the store. 

There's power over ethernet, but I gather that has its limitations in terms of where you wanna put it and the cost of it.

Ori Mor: Power over ethernet is capable of powering displays. The problem is, again, routing it to something that changes with time, usually twice a year or even more, and you need to wire it to every different shelf, which is expensive and cumbersome.

So the setup with this is a transmitter and a receiver? 

Ori Mor: A transmitter, and a receiver that is embedded within the display device. 

Could you do a retrofit, like a bolt-on receiver? 

Ori Mor: Actually, no. The displays are designed by us at this stage because we know how to optimize in terms of power consumption. It's a dedicated development optimized for wireless power. 

In the future, I believe that we'd be able to support existing displays but we start with something we can control. 

Is the power stable, or is it a bit like WiFi where it can kind of drop momentarily here and there?

Ori Mor: There is always a rechargeable battery in the device. So we charge the device and the device draws its power from the rechargeable battery. So it gets steady power from the battery even if power drops. 

Are you restricted with the displays in terms of what you can show, like is it just static images or to run full 30 frames per second video?

Ori Mor: We are doing full videos. 

Okay, and was that a mountain you had to climb or was that right out of the gate that would work? 

Ori Mor: It was pretty simple. That wasn't the challenge. 

With the transmitter, how does that manifest itself? I think it's something that you mount in the ceiling?

Ori Mor: Yes, think of it like a router in the ceiling with a range of 5-10 meters, the transmitter locates client devices and beams a directional infrared beam to the device where the device converts the infrared beam back into electricity. 

Does it have to be like a line of sight?

Ori Mor: Yes. Wireless power with meaningful power is the line of site technology. You can do non line of sight using RF, magnetic and even with infrared, but the amount of power that you can deliver with sight will be very low for reasons that I can explain if you wanna dive into. 

I probably wouldn't get most of it.

Ori Mor: Oh, you would get it. When you do non line of sight, it means that energy is being spread in the room and you only harvest part of it. It has two drawbacks, a) the amount of power that you draw that you receive is lower because you waste a lot, and b) you fill the environment with unwanted radiation that the regulator and the customer wouldn't want. So if you do choose to do a non line of sight, it's for very low power. 

And what are the safety issues? 

Ori Mor: We passed all the safety certificates worldwide. FDA in the US, IEC in UL as well. It's approved to be safe under all conditions and that's the claim to fame for the technology we can deliver meaningful power yet it is as safe as your optical mouse. 

You're walking around a cafe or something where this is set up and you let's say you work there. Are there any long-term implications of being around this radiation so to speak? 

Ori Mor: No. Think of it like it's even safer than your wifi router. The beam is very directional. So outside the beam, there is an absolute zero. It's not a wifi router that sends radiation to every location and only part of it is being harvested or absorbed by your cell phone. The beam that leaves the transmitter, a hundred per cent of it, reaches the receiver, a centimetre away from the beam, and there is an absolute zero, and when you cross the beam, it shuts off automatically, 

Hence the need for or the value of having a battery on board?

Ori Mor: Yes.

So how long would that last if somebody put a large chair or something in the way, and it was blocking, would that mean eight hours later, it stops working? 

Ori Mor: Yeah. It's a design criterion. We designed it to be able to last a full day on a battery, but you can design it differently. It's a trade-off between the size of the battery and the thickness of the display. 

So if you talk about larger displays, a 30-inch display, a 55-inch display, which is quite common in digital signage, at least. How long off are we from that being a possibility? 

Ori Mor: That's too big of a question for me. I'll tell you that we are not even trying to target this at this point in time, but I'll give you an example of how technology develops. You probably know that when we started using the internet, we used 2.4 kilobytes or something like that. 

I go back to 256K modems, I’m old. 

Ori Mor: Yeah, and we are now doing a podcast where I'm sitting on probably 200 megabytes per second. Whether the technology would take us there, we will have to figure it out by seeing. 

So this is a matter of time, more than anything else.

Ori Mor: Yes. Time, the economy of scale, components becoming more capable and scaling up performance. 

I would assume also that you guys don't wanna be a display manufacturer. You're doing it right now just to demonstrate what's possible, but I'm thinking you'd like to license this to the display guys, as opposed to making your own? 

Ori Mor: That is absolutely correct.

Wi Charge is a company that knows how to deliver wireless power and we do that for many different applications. We chose a few to show how it works. There's a big opportunity here in terms of market demand. We chose a few applications, one in commercial, one in smart home, and one in consumer, just to see the market and then to license it to the relevant guys that can do it much better than us.

When do you see that happening? 

Ori Mor: We've already had deals that are licensed-based and it's like a domino effect. It's like how penguins jump to the water. They all stand at the edge of the ocean knowing that the food is in the water, but still hesitating and then one jumps in and immediately after a hundred thousand jump in. So by showing the way, we would unlock this domino effect. 

There are some Korean university researchers I wrote a piece about last week that were also doing wireless power. Are there any number of initiatives out there doing this? 

Ori Mor: Yes, we have seen more and more companies or universities doing wireless power. What they're doing right now, we did 10 years ago, so it's nice that they’re catching up. 

We see over-the-air charging happening already and it's happening in different ways with different technologies that allow different value propositions. So you can expect to see more and more of this. 

Is your focus right now mostly on B2C (Business to Consumer)? 

Ori Mor: No, we are actually doing commercial applications, like the displays. Even the consumer applications that we do, start with commercial settings. It's simply easier for us. Consumer, we are doing very cautiously and very few applications, but actually, before the end of the year, you'd hear announcements about consumer applications from us. 

Right, because you've been at CES a number of times and before we turned things on here to record, you mentioned that the company would be back at CES in January.

Ori Mor: Yes. There's another reason why we are doing the display. It expedites the go-to-market. When we can actually do the turnkey product, rather than only the wireless power, we can offer solutions to end customers without hesitations. 

It's easy to do it in B2B, but we already have a few consumer applications.

What's getting traction for the product right now, like a particular use case? 

Ori Mor: The displays are seeing tremendous, overwhelming demand. The other products that we do are smart door locks, which you probably are not so smart, not because they can't be smart, it's because people are worried, designers, OEMs are worried that if they would add smart functionalities, batteries would run out way too fast and then the end user would be stuck locked outside over a dead battery. So we are unleashing this as well in parallel. 

Yeah, it would be the same with those surveillance cameras that people have at their homes, the Nest cameras and so on.

Ori Mor: Exactly. Since they need to go to sleep to preserve their batteries. There's a phrase, I think a professional phrase, which is called the back of the thief. By the time they wake up, the thief is already on the way out. 

You mentioned you were seeing tremendous take-up on displays. What's going on there? How are they being used? 

Ori Mor: In various ways. Edge shelf displays in retail locations. I'll tell you what I can say and there are a few other things you can publish, we will send you when they go live. 

It's the usual thing. The clients don't want you talking about them, right?

Ori Mor: So what I'm disclosing right now are things already out there that are available and in a few weeks there will be other use cases as well and I'll be happy to share them with you, both images and videos. So we are doing table-topping restaurants, this is already out there. We are doing edge shelves in grocery locations. And we are doing other devices for grocery locations, which are quite cool, but I'll wait on how they look till we launch them. We are also doing displays in shopping centres like jewellery and other stuff, it's a display it's so generic, you can put it anywhere. You can wrap it and you have advertising at the point of decision. 

And this is not just in Israel? 

Ori Mor: No, most of it is outside of Israel. Texas, New York, Michigan, Idaho, Toronto, and Sao Paulo.

I'm sure one of the determining factors out there is the overall cost. What this does in terms of cost versus what you would pay to run conduit, run power or ethernet cabling to a display that way and people would do a spreadsheet exercise and decide, okay, this is less expensive to do it your way. 

Ori Mor: Exactly. 

What is the cost of a transmitter? 

Ori Mor: Oh, you'd have to ask our partners. They're selling the solutions to the end customers, not us.

Okay, but is it hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars? 

Ori Mor: Hundreds, not thousands. 

And it would install in the ceiling just like you would put in a ceiling light? 

Ori Mor: Yes, it takes a few minutes. 

For the display, understanding that these are your proprietary displays and you've tweaked them and everything else, but the hardware cost for a receiver, is that something that's also hundreds of dollars? 

Ori Mor: No, much less.

It's nominal, so it'd be like another component inside a display? 

Ori Mor: Yes. 

Does the system also radiate WiFi? 

Ori Mor: Yes, the communication with the display is over WiFi, over 3G. So with the end customers, it depends but they can run the content through a CMS on their own, independently.

So in theory would a company that makes WiFi equipment, like routers and so on, could they conceivably add your capability into their product line? 

So if I'm a company that makes networking equipment, like Cisco or more B2C stuff, could they add Wi charge capability to their WiFi routers?

Ori Mor: Yes, but I'll explain how. These companies are used to creating infrastructure and delivering connectivity. They can do the same for power, power as a service, not just data as a service. The only difference is that transmitters should be located most of the time on ceilings rather than hidden in the closet, that's the difference, and now the 5G routers are on ceilings for the exact same reason. They are almost in the line of sight. 

You mentioned metering. With the energy issues that Europe's facing right now because of Russia, there's a lot of concern around energy consumption, and I wonder whether we're gonna get to a stage where power would be metered for this sort of thing.

Ori Mor: Let me answer this in two ways. Since it's a service, it can be metered. It's an extension of the electricity grid and the same as you paying for watt/hour for electricity, you probably would be paying a watt/hour for wireless electricity, so it's only a natural extension. Regarding power in general and sustainability. What we also discovered is that a single transmitter that we are now shipping saves up to 5000 AA batteries and that's even on our first gen only. So it's probably your and my body weight in batteries saved by each transmitter that we deploy. 

Is the transmitter always pushing out energy and therefore the meter's always going or is it more of a demand thing?

Ori Mor: No, it's a demand thing. When there's no demand, it goes to sleep. 

All right, interesting. That would be a lot more efficient. 

What about distance? You mentioned 10 meters right now. Will that improve, just like the other things? 

Ori Mor: We did a test for a government agency for 100 meters successfully. But then we decided that as a company we need to focus. It's either we do indoor for consumers or commercial, or we do outdoor for other types of devices and we chose the short-of-range options.

So the technology can easily do a hundred meters or probably more, and there's actually a company that does that. This is their forte. We chose to focus on the inside. 

Okay, but you could, in theory, have advertising displays on a sidewalk, and the same in drive-throughs, a lot of costs involved in trenching and everything else to get power out to the display?

Ori Mor: Oh, there's actually a company that we work with that is considering using our solutions for care pickup and drive tools. 

And there would be enough power cuz those are extra bright displays?

Ori Mor: So for them, we are considering making animated e-ink displays. As I said the large displays with LCDs or OLEDs are out of our range at the moment.

So if people wanna know more about Wi Charge, where do they go? 

Ori Mor: Website and LinkedIn. 


Ori Mor: Yes. 

Perfect. All right, Ori, thank you very much for spending some time with me.

Ori Mor: Thank you, Dave. I enjoyed it.

Paul Ciolino, OptiSigns

Paul Ciolino, OptiSigns

September 7, 2022


It has been nagging at me for the last few months that I didn't know a hell of a lot about OptiSigns, even though the Houston-based company was a main advertiser on Sixteen:Nine.

That's been fixed, having had a great conversation last week with the company's sales director Paul Ciolino.

We got into a whole bunch of things, from the company's roots, how software development bridges the US and Vietnam, and their go-to-market model. OptiSigns is focused on making a product and services available that manage to tick the much-demanded boxes of intuitive and affordable, but also have a lot of sophistication and scalability.

Ciolino works out of New York City, which will help explain why you might hear sirens in the background.

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Paul, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the background on what OptiSigns is all about? Because I know them, but I don't know much about your company yet. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. Dave, thanks so much for having me. First of all, excited to be here. You're my first podcast ever so it's a wonderful honor for you to have, but OptiSigns is a cloud-based digital signage solution and really the key tenets of OptiSigns signs are: Can we make it a low barrier to entry? Can anybody use it? Is it easy? Is it accessible? Can people deploy on myriad, different platforms or OSs? 

And we try to check all those boxes as much as possible while making it all cost-effective. 

And the company's based in Houston? 

Paul Ciolino: That's right, yep. 

How long has the company been around? 

Paul Ciolino: So it was founded in 2015, but really the growth started happening within the last three years and we're seeing incredible year-over-year growth now. 

Back in 2015, there was already any number of easy-to-use, I don't wanna say entry-level because that kind of diminishes the product, but friendly, price effective, on and on, and I'm curious what prompted the founders to look at the market and go, okay, there's an opportunity here, because, from my perspective, there was a lot of what you've described already out there?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. That's a really good question. I think when you think about digital signage top-down and you're looking at it with a bird's eye view, there's just a huge TAM there, right?

Even if it is a saturated market, there are hundreds of vendors that do it today. There are a few really big players and there are a few really big players that do it really well. The key differentiator for us is probably just going to be on the usability side of things, and I think that was where, the powers that be, were sitting in a back room somewhere saying, how do we put our footprint on this industry? What can we do to make ourselves stand out and be late adopters of getting into the industry while also being a significant factor? 

Yeah, it's an interesting balance that has to be struck in that I've seen a few times promotions for companies who say that we have a very easy-to-use friendly platform and when I've looked at it or other people have looked at it, they said, it's not really all that friendly or easier, or sure, it is friendly, but it doesn't do much. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, I think that's a good point. When we have this conversation internally a lot, and sometimes I talk to our customer base about it, but really the idea behind designing OptiSigns from the ground up with our engineering team and from a product perspective was like taking a look at something like an iPhone, right?

When you purchase an iPhone, you get the iPhone, you take it out of the box, you put a SIM card in it and you just start using it. You've got an iPhone now. So we thought about that with a digital signage lens, and that's where we started putting our plan into motion. 

So when you are a new user of the system, how does it work, is it software as a service? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. At our core, we're a software company. We don't do the installation. We don't do hardware sales outside of a couple of pre-configured devices that you can get. Really, what we do focus on is just that UX/UI component. We have 135 native app integrations now, from a simple weather app to Tableau, Power BI and more sophisticated web scripting and an open API, so we run the gamut of what you can do with digital signage. 

Is there a particular market that you guys are targeting? 

Paul Ciolino: So the nice thing about digital signage is that there's just so much variability in actual implementations. So when we think about targeting somebody specific, we do have our eyes on a couple of industries like logistics right now is something that we're making a big push into. We're also looking into things like healthcare, we've got a pretty good customer base with healthcare already, but we're seeing a lot of organic conversations happen there. So we're like, hey, what do we do? How can we accelerate their growth into this vertical and things like that?

That's interesting because I was waiting for you to say, yeah we're chasing retail and QSR and then I'd be rolling my eyes because everybody and their sister is, but logistics and healthcare, I think that's really smart. They're not all that addressed yet, and I'm curious, what's the ask in logistics, is it for visualizing data like Power BI and Tableau?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times these people are using more bespoke dashboards as well. So when you think about trying to take something out of the box, and then you think about maybe the staff over at one of these logistics companies, let's call it a trucking company or something like that for example, maybe they don't have the bandwidth on the it side of the ball to have somebody spend three weeks creating a custom integration with an API or something like that, which they can do with us. But we offer OptiSigns where you can basically take your internal dashboards that are gated by username and password, and you can script the authentication and the execution of that username and password, and then get to your target resource that way. 

Why do they want that? Where are they showing on these screens? 

Paul Ciolino: They're showing everything from lead times to rotation schedules to availability to weather, to all kinds of different, increment factors that could be going into either a trucking scenario again, or maybe we've got some type of supply chain issue, and they're doing a full SWOT analysis in their backroom and they have to have all of this real-time data come up as they're planning around the next week, month, quarter, half year, whatever they're gonna do. 

So it's really myriad, just like all of our deployments are as well in different verticals, you can use it however you need to. 

I find that interesting because so much of the attention in digital signage is around the wow factor, creative like amazing displays and all these things that are going on, and to me the long tail of digital signage is the stuff that you might describe as boring, just like showing KPIs on a screen or giving instructions on what to do when something happens like an alarm trigger or whatever, like that stuff doesn't get anybody's pulse racing, but it's incredibly valuable to the day to day of a company, right? 

Paul Ciolino: I think there's been like this large front end push to make signage sexy when I think, at the end of the day, the reason that somebody's gonna go pay for anything in a digital signage space is that they need it and they need specific things to be up on the screen.

I'm not saying you can't make things look sexy with OptiSigns, obviously, you can do that, but at the end of the day, we want people to be able to take anything that they need to have up on their screens and deploy it easily and efficiently without breaking the bank. 

You mentioned breaking the bank, your pricing tiers are pretty friendly in that. I think I saw it was $10-12 a month, depending on what you're doing. Is that accurate?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, that's about right, and that's gonna be the starting price, obviously, if people are gonna be looking at growing their business with us and scaling, which is something that we specialize in as well, just making that ease of scaling, something that comes out of the box with us.

It could be anywhere from $10-15 a month per screen, unlimited users, unlimited resources uploaded into the cloud, and all that kind of stuff. 

The $10 one gives you a lot of functionality, but as you scale up or tier up, so to speak, you are just adding more capability.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, basically the way you can think about it is, let's say somebody's got maybe they even have a hundred screens or something like that, but they're gonna be putting the same thing on a hundred of their screens. They probably don't need to go into the conversation about creating manual permissions or a brand kit or reporting for their advertisers that are paying for ad space or things like that, so they can live with that standard plan that we have and be happy all day. 

They still have access to 95% of the functionality on the platform. It's just gonna be some of those more robust features binding to an IDP or an SSO provider or something like that or creating a monitoring and alerting system where they can enable triggers for different events to go to specific people and make sure that they've got as much uptime as possible.

That's all quite interesting because when I think of the pricing tier that you're at, it's usually small to medium business operators who the company is targeting and they're never talking about data binding or anything like that, it's just about you can put this menu on a screen and you can change it on demand.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, and you hit the nail on the head there. We have incredible organic growth within those verticals where you're looking at QSRs gyms, and places like that. But I think the thing that we've been doing really well this year, especially, and especially in the last quarter and a half or so, has been getting into really earnest more of those enterprise deployments, where we're talking about, we've got a GDPR situation in Germany or something like that, and we have facilities on five different continents and we need to make sure that everybody's got the right access and we've got audit logs that they can enable and we really do pair very well with very robust security concerns. 

Yeah, that's interesting as well in that I've talked to a few companies who started out targeting the small to medium business market and have migrated to enterprise because of the demands of customers, but also it's just that if you're dealing with the entry level market, you're being beaten up on price and it's not necessarily easy to scale that kind of management of all those different customers. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, and I think that's something that's, again, credit to our engineering team, they make it so easy for people to scale on multiple different levels, whether you're talking about headcount as users within the platform, you're talking about multiple locations, or you're talking about multiple screens within a single location, and it really does just make it very intuitive. We've got our support team as well who's great. I think the CSAT that we talked about in our H1 review was like 94 or something like that, and that's an objective number, I'm not putting a lens on that one, but I think when you think about implementing something new and you're looking at a by process that maybe has 15-20 touchpoints or something like that, you're making a pretty big commitment just from a G&A perspective as a client, and then you think about, okay, is this gonna save my needs for the next year, three years, five years, ten years, and if so, how is that gonna look? What is my hardware, reliability gonna look like and things like that, and we kind of cover all bases. 

Is it important when you're dealing with those kinds of pricing tiers to minimize the number of customer touches, make as much of your offer and your software self-service and not have to provide a lot of support and customer contact? Not that you don't wanna talk to your customers, but it's just that if you have a whole bunch of them, that means you need a whole bunch of people to deal with them.

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely. Yeah, so that's again, credit to our engineering team and the way that we laid the bedrock as a company from our founders to be able to build this thing where it is very self-service. 

Another thing that we do that a lot of companies these days are moving towards is we've got a support blog, we've got a support site. We've got a ticket creation system, a phone number, and an email. It's very multi-threaded in how people can actually go about getting the help they need, and I think that's something that has allowed us to spend time on growth and not as much time on maintenance, while still providing an exceptional level of service to our customer base. 

You've mentioned a lot of growth in the last three years. Why do you think that is? What is it that's resonating? 

Paul Ciolino: So at the end of the day, every company's going to have a little bit of this slow out of the gates kind of motion, right? And once you get the feeling for an industry and a customer base, and you have enough conversations and you get enough feedback, all of those things combined into something very powerful, even from a business owner's perspective, where you're like, okay, I can listen to these things and then I can go act on them. And one of the nice things about us is we run a very agile team, a very lean team, and we have the same communication with the same people, a lot of the time, and so that means that we can go ahead and pivot on almost a weekly basis with our roadmap if we need to, and we can effectively release functional app integrations or just things that maybe we don't think about that our users think about.

And I think that level of service that comes from, even the engineering team level, is something that is really hard to achieve in any business in 2022 these days. 

And some of the software development's done in Vietnam, right? 

Paul Ciolino: That's right. They have a very close working relationship with our founders. They've worked together for a long time. They know how to communicate effectively, and it's really paid dividends for us as a business. 

Is that kind of a historical thing? I don't know South Texas all that well, but I believe that there's a pretty big Vietnamese diaspora there that went over there for fishing fleets and everything else, but I suspect there's still a lot of business ties back?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. I can't speak to the geopolitical business ties within the founder's relationship levels. Personally, I've benefited from the influx of the Vietnamese community in Houston via Cajun cuisine, but outside of that, I think it's just something where people have worked together before, I've worked with people and at a few different companies or something like that, and we can talk about anything at the drop of a hat and we can make an effective decision when it needs to be made

How do you sell? Is it just direct to the customer or are you doing things like an affiliate channel or reseller channel?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, so we absolutely do offer that. We have a couple of different options available. We've got an affiliate program to where, maybe you don't wanna spend the time or you don't have the time or the capital or anything else to be able to go and become a reseller, but you have a lot of people that you know in your network that are interested in digital signage.

So we've got that affiliate program. You can make some money off of referring customers to us and it pays out quarterly and things like that, and we try to make it very easy and low maintenance for them to maintain those relationships, and then also generate business for us that are not cold leads at all. They're very warm leads. 

The other side of that is gonna be that reseller pro reseller program that you mentioned and that can work in a few different ways. You can package the software, if you need to, you can white label it, and that's not even in our top-level plan, that's in our middle level plan. It's not like we're gate keeping too much here like we really do wanna make this software available to anybody that needs it, and we're doing that in several different ways as well. 

You're happy enough to be just operating under the hood and nobody even knows it's OptiSigns? 

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely, that's why I'm off camera. 

You have an $80 Android stick that you offer as a hardware option. I'm curious how often that comes up as an ask or are they using any number of different platforms out there, because I know you have a web player or that's the foundational player.

Paul Ciolino: So going back to the low barrier to entry that we're going with at OptiSigns. We're OS agnostic. You can deploy Windows or Linux, we've got an ARM Linux. We've got LG commercial grade native app, an Android native app, and Fire TV so you can use a Fire Stick as well. It really doesn't matter how you deploy with us, that is just there as an Option. We don't make any money off of those devices, they're literally just there in case somebody thinks that's the best deployment for them, and if you go to, like Reddit or somewhere third party where there's no Optisign sales lens on it, you can see that these Android players are generally very reliable. 

We've had them deployed for, I think over a year and a half now, and we've got over 99% uptime with them. So things like that, providing reliability to our customers and, places like Australia, where it gets super hot over there, maybe there's not the best wifi connection, things like that. Those are really good deployments. I think we've got over 10,000 of our Android sticks that are out right now, and that's just one of our deployments.

Oh really, and are people going down that path because they are price sensitive or they just want like a dumb-down device that they can just stick in?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, I think it's somewhere between those two. Okay. So if you think about it like a Fire Stick, it's gonna be a little bit cumbersome, people can go watch ESPN or something like that on a Fire Stick. If you're looking at something like a Raspberry PI, right now those are incredibly expensive. We do sell those too, just in case that's what people are familiar with and maybe they need more granular security pushes or something like that to their systems.. 

That's interesting, I've never heard somebody say Raspberry PIs are incredibly expensive, but I know what you're saying. Once you fully get them out, they're not $35, right? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, with supply chain stuff happening right now, they're like $300 or something like that. That's what I've been hearing. We're selling them for $130 on our site, I think, but outside of that, you've got the ability to do something like an Intel NUC, or you can do a Micro PC, or you can have a full-blown computer behind a screen.

When you think about something that marries the functionality of what those things can do without the processing power, because you don't need it, but you also have the reliability that's gonna be above something like a Fire Stick, or if you're just using a web browser version or something like that, I think that's a really nice, happy medium. 

One of the devil's advocates arguments around web players for digital signage is: yes, you can get this application running on any number of different kinds of devices, whether they're smart TVs or Fire sticks or whatever it may be, but there's not a lot of device management.

How do you counter that argument? 

Paul Ciolino: Honestly, it's not really our job to counter that argument because it's not gonna be our most recommended deployment. We're not gonna sit in front of the University of Central Florida and say, you guys should be using a web browser version for all 360 TVs that you have or something like that. We're gonna tell 'em like, what do you need? Do you have wifi in every area? Do you need an ethernet adapter? Do you need to go to a Raspberry PI? And so we'll have a very consultative conversation with our customer base before we even get into demoing the software. So that's like the first thing that we wanna nail down with our customers: How are you gonna deploy? And let's figure out the reasons why you wanna do that, and not just because, you're used to doing it that way, or you heard it was the best from like Jim down the street. 

So you are saying that you have native players as well, or you have web players that have device management?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, so kind of all of the above. So if you wanted to go, like with what's called our managed device route, right? Like you could do something where you get that $80 Android stick, we'll charge you a little bit extra, as long as you have a pro plus package, you're gonna have our version of an Apple Care where we have an MDM, our support team can remote in, they can troubleshoot. You don't have to spend valuable time with your IT professionals or anything like that to go and troubleshoot these sticks. We can do it for you. 

So is that your happy place? If a customer goes down that path where obviously you're making a bit more money out of them, but you remove some of the mystery, so to speak because it's a known device.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely, and I think at the end of the day, we're happy if our customers are happy, and that's why we have that consultative approach on the deployment. 

Tell me about the app store/library. You mentioned you have a hundred plus apps on there.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah. So we’ve everything from, something like just a native designer app that's within the platform, or something like the Adobe Designer Suite, or like Canva or something like that. Something simple, something that most people that are creating digital signage are gonna need at some point.

How does that work? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, it's basically a frame within the platform, it is just like an app. It'll take you to a page where you can design from a template, we've got like 700 plus templates out there right now. Everything from menus to employee appreciation to emergency notices, all that kind of stuff, and then you can go ahead and configure each element on the page. You could even do something like pull from a data source where we can map elements within that page to a spreadsheet in Google or Excel, and so for QSRs in particular, this is really beneficial because they can go into a spreadsheet, never have to log into OptiSigns again, once they get the framework of their menu done, they can just change their pricing by changing that spreadsheet.

Do you have to work with your customers to help them figure out what to do?

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely, and that’s within the fee structure that we have, with supporting meetings, and obviously we've got our blog with really good documentation on it as well.

Where are you seeing traction in the marketplace? I know you mentioned healthcare and logistics. Are there particular areas where there seems to be a lot of interest and more of an ask than maybe in the past? 

Paul Ciolino: We talked about it earlier actually, but one of the places where we see a ton of room for growth is gonna be in that reseller side. So creating those partnerships and channels. We have a couple of partners where if they need to have somebody do install and maintenance, we can do that as well. We're never gonna be that company that vertically integrates all of that under one umbrella, but we can certainly provide the introductions to those.

We predict that the reseller marketplace is gonna be a significant chunk of our revenue within the next two years. 

You also have a mobile app, which I was curious about. Is that a mobile app for control of the screens? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, nail on the head. So that's just gonna be an admin app. You don't want to go on an iPhone 5s and start designing on there for screens that are gonna be much bigger than that.

We tried to keep it pretty myopic with the app deployment. That's just one of those things where somebody's on the go, maybe it's a small business owner, maybe it's somebody in a larger company that is going around and they wanna show something cool to their stakeholders or shareholders or whatever it's gonna be, and they can go ahead and just control it ad hoc as they need it.

Was that something that you developed because a customer was asking for it, or you could just figure out that this is something that would be useful?

Paul Ciolino: I honestly can't speak to the inception of the idea. But I do know the way that we think about things in general and it’s like: 

Is there going to be a need for this at some point?cHow much is it gonna cost us from a time money perspective? Is it worth it? And then we just go do it. 

You also have an audience analytics add-on, what's that about? And is that something you guys wrote or is it a partner? 

Paul Ciolino: No, that is actually a proprietary algorithm that our engineering team has done as well. We're talking about basically three different statistics here. The first one is going to be gender: Is the person looking at the screen male or female or walking by the screen, male or female? The second is going to be dwell time, and that's gonna be, how long is this person in front of the screen for? The third is gonna be attention time and that's how long is this person interacting with the screen for?

And so when you think about reporting, OptiSigns does it really well in a couple of different ways. The first way is going to be like a proof of play reporting where you've got an advertiser, they're paying for a certain ad to be played a certain number of times over a certain period, you can batch those reports, send them out, do whatever you need to do, make sure that everybody's cool. Everything's transparent. Everything's above board. 

Same thing with AI reporting, but that's gonna be more in the split testing realm of things, right? Where you design an advertisement or you design a menu or you design something and you want to see how people engage with it when you test different versions of it and so you can basically take August 1 through August 31 on this design, September 1 through September 30 on this design. What does my dwell time look like? What does my attention time look like? How's my split looking? Are males interacting more with this design? Are females interacting more with that design? All that kind of stuff.

The audience analytics stuff using computer vision has been around for probably 15 years, and the challenge in the past was that it was expensive and you had to have additional hardware and everything else, and that kind of ruled out much adoption. 

Has that changed? I believe it's $5 a month at MSRP so I suspect at scale it gets cheaper than that, and I'm assuming you're using just simple USB cameras to do the capture. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, honestly, I think you could probably just pitch this for me at this point, but basically you need any camera that can see, right? It doesn't have to be a fancy camera that can do like 4k or anything like that. You wanna make sure that you're setting it up at the right distance, obviously, you don't want a $20 USB camera trying to find out who’s looking at the screen 50 yards away or something like that. 

But outside of that, it really is just plug-and-play. Does it make sense financially for you to go invest the time and the little bit extra money for that to get that kind of feedback for your own purposes or for your client's purposes? If yes, then, it's a great option to have. 

Does that change the hardware set-up at all?

I guess what I'm saying is does the $80 Android stick no longer the right device because you've got the extra overhead of the video processing? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, nail on the head again. You're gonna need to do a Linux or a Windows deployment with something like that, just because of the processing power that's needed to be able to effectively communicate that data back to the algorithm. 

So just going back to the company, how large is it? 

Paul Ciolino:  So we're just sub-20 right now so we're a very small shop. We definitely move quickly for sure, and again, just going into that, learned communication that we all have together, makes it really efficient for all of us to get stuff done.

And it's just privately held, self-funded that sort of thing? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, precap and no debt. I asked about shares when I was joining and they said yes, but it'll be very expensive. 

So what can we expect out of OptiSigns through the rest of this year and into next year? 

Paul Ciolino: I think more the same, we're gonna be obviously focusing on a few different verticals going forward as we identify some customers, as we continue to move internationally, we've got a decent customer base in the EU, UK. We're blowing out into South America at this point a little bit. We do have a decent customer base in Australia as well, and then I've been having conversations with people in places like Somalia and other countries in Africa. So the reach is wide, right? And we've really only tapped that kind of outreach from a marketing perspective, even. We really haven't put a whole lot of dollars into growing our business internationally. It's mostly been organic. 

So I think you can see that we're gonna be growing organically again. We're gonna be trying to be more aggressive in the way that we ideate on how we're going to tackle new verticals and things like that as well. But yeah, at the end of the day, we want to continue to make a product that will take any screen and turn it into a digital sign that you can use in any way that you and your team or your clients need to use it. 

All right, and they can find the company at 

Paul Ciolino: Yes.

Paul, thank you very much for spending time with me. 

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely. Dave, it was a pleasure.

Chad Hutson, Dimensional Innovations

Chad Hutson, Dimensional Innovations

August 31, 2022


Experience is one of those terms that's being heavily used and sometimes abused these days, as companies in the digital signage ecosystem talk about what they can do for end-user customers.

Everything, it seems, is somehow experiential or immersive. But what does that really mean and how does it manifest itself in projects that use display technology?

I had a really good chat with Chad Hutson, who very much qualifies as an experience design expert and has the project portfolio behind him to back that up.

He ran a well-respected agency in Chicago called Leviathan, stuck around for a few years after it was acquired, but this past year hooked up with a company that would have been a competitor in the past - Dimensional Innovations.

He's now DI's Chief Strategy Officer, and spends his time working with the DI team and with customers - working a process to understand needs and then develop solutions that deliver on those needs, and realize an experience that can be everything from simple to elaborate.

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Chad, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Dimensional Innovations is all about and what your role is there? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, you bet. We’ll call it DI for short, to make it easier for both of us. DI is an experience design and build firm, based in the US, down in Kansas city, and they are really robust at not only designing and building the physical experiences but all the fixtures that can be built out with the wood shop, metal shop, paint and a giant two-story, high 3d printer, which is pretty amazing, we also use, but also on the digital side, we have deep roots in technology, both in being able to figure out what's the right technology for the experience and then creating the content and the interaction that goes within those experiences as well. 

So I'm the new Chief Strategy Officer, it's a new role at DI, I started about eight months ago with the organization and that role just organically evolved. They were kind enough to say you're making a positive impact and we'd like for you to do a bit more. It's good stuff so far. 

So it sounds like the company bridges a few things like there's some traditional AV integrations side to the business. There are some elements of a creative technology agency, but there's also a fix-your-fabrication kind of company as well. So you're into a whole bunch of things. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that's a pretty good encapsulation and it’s a team of about 300 people, so they're not messing around.

And you're up in Chicago, right?

Chad Hutson: That's correct. I'm in Chicago when I sleep at home. I travel around quite a bit, both down in Kansas City and wherever the clients are as well. 

And Kansas City is what, like an eight-hour drive or something like that?

Chad Hutson: From Chicago, that's not too bad. I think like maybe six and a half, but I’m always flying though, always in the air.

You don't wanna drive in the middle of the winter? 

Chad Hutson: No, flying in the middle of winter is already a challenge enough. 

So people are gonna wonder, people who know you that you came from a company that you founded called Leviathan in Chicago, much more of, I would say, a creative technology shop, at least that's the term I use. 

I'm curious, as somebody who founded that company, what compelled you to leave? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that was an existential issue, I guess you could say, just trying to debate with myself, what can I do in the future? Yeah, Leviathan is still a great shop, although it's going by a different name. My partners and I sold it to another digital agency called Envoy back in, I think, 2017 and I was happy to stick around for a while. I think it's been close to five years since I decided to stay put and continue to run the organization. 

But I'd say where Levithan was just all about that hybrid of digital and physical experience, Envoy as a larger group, they are versed in everything from e-commerce to branding, and I don’t know, just felt like what I love was maybe not as front and centre as was what Leviathan did, so there is certainly no bad blood whatsoever, it was good to stick around and see it through a lot of great accomplishments there. But DI was always in my side view and they were always staying in touch and said, we'd love to talk about what the future could be. At some point, the stars aligned and that's why I went over to DI. 

That's a decent run anyways. When a founder sticks around, they might stick around for a year or something, so three to five years is pretty good. 

Chad Hutson: I agree, and the cool thing about the DI is, for me personally, it filled that missing gap BECAUSE whenever we were contacted about a digital experience, it could be like a lobby or experience for a theme park, it was always just limited to that digital scope, and it was later in the conversation. 

So with DI, because they are involved in the entire experience from even very early days what is the purpose of this space and what can it serve? Who's gonna be there? What kind of experience do we want them to have, digital and analogue? That's really the reason why I went over there, and I really love it over there. 

Yeah, I wanted to get into that. What is the whole process involved when you engage with a new customer? 

When I have done consulting in the past, the first thing I say to a new client, or even just in the early stages when we're having our first conversation is okay, why do you wanna even be talking and looking at digital? And I suspect these days when people start talking about wanting something experientially designed into our new space, experiential is such a huge catchall and somewhat abused term that you really have to enforce some kind of discipline to figure out what's gonna work here.

Chad Hutson: Yeah, you're absolutely right. The process is really, I don't wanna say it's not much different than any other firms, but we're very curious people, and so we want to ask our clients, what do you envision for the space, who is going to be there? What kind of assets do you already have from a content perspective? What's your technology infrastructure for the rest of the space? We don't want to build something just in a bubble from tech and IT standpoint. So really getting the lay of the land and asking a ton of questions, not just logistic or technology-wise, but more just thematic and just really trying to figure out what they know, and more importantly, what they don't know, so we can help discover what that is. So thinking about that space, we want to have the right purpose and the right functionality. 

So then we get into high-level ideas of what it could be more like rough sketches along with even rough buckets of what budget could look like for those experiences, and they may say that's perfect or, that's a bit rich for us. And then from there, we start to refine those ideas and also refine the pricing and what the technology solutions might be and what the narratives might be from a visual and oral content standpoint, and then we start building it and we never leave our clients high and dry. After we build, we always like to be involved when we can in content refreshes, in support of that experience and yeah, hopefully, continue those relationships for years to come. 

There's a business reason why you wanna stick with the customer and do the content refreshes and so on, but I suspect some of that is just simply that you wanna stick with it because it's your team's baby, so to speak, and you’re enrolled in it.

Chad Hutson: That's right, and since 16:9 has a touch of snark to it, I'll say that we would definitely want to keep the good children but for those who are grown up and ready to leave the nest, we welcome them leaving the nest. So we do try to nurture the right relationships in the right ways.

When you're engaging with new customers, I'm curious, about how often they really know what they want to do. 

Chad Hutson: That is a great question because when we speak with clients, we know that they know their brand better than anyone else. We can't come into that conversation with the assumption that we know them inside and out, that's absolutely not true, but from a guest or user experience standpoint, I feel like we can balance out what they know about themselves. For example, sometimes the conversation leads with technology. “Oh, we absolutely want to use VR here”, or “we want an immersive experience” and as much as we get excited about all those conversations, we also have to say, why do you think you need that? And we want to make sure that is the right solution from a narrative or technology standpoint. So yeah, that's what I have to say about that.

I was curious how often you have customers who are saying, “Yeah, we want a big LED video wall in the lobby”, or we want this particular type of technology and they're just thinking in terms of the wow factor as opposed to what this will actually do.

Chad Hutson: Oh, every time, and I'll also pick on architects a little bit. I think some of the larger architecture firms are definitely getting better, they have their own experience design teams.

The Gensler and so on, they've got people who know that stuff now. 

Chad Hutson: Exactly, but otherwise, depending on who's making the decisions, it is truly based on grandeur, so having the largest screen, “I went to our competitor's lobby and they had a giant screen, and I want ours to be bigger.” 

So sometimes it can be down to that, but I think what is thought of just so little is content strategy, meaning, some folks think about content, what can we put on the screen, but okay, that's great, now what's going to be there tomorrow and the next day, and that can become prohibitively expensive if it's not thought of the right way and how to get the right content there. Some of it can be big and beautiful. I know that what used to be Obscure Digital and now they're I think they've been folded into another organization, but people talk about the Salesforce lobby and still talk about it even now, and it is a beautiful experience, but it is that exact same experience over and over again. So how can that be more dynamic? We'll have those ooh-ah moments, but we need something else to fill the space and not just be a pretty screensaver.

Yeah, I've seen some projects and the narrative is describing the projects after they've been lit up where they're talking about how this changes the whole experience of travel or whatever it may be in a rail station or an airport, and a vast screen or a set of screens with all this very expensive content and so on and I'm thinking if I'm a traveller, what would be a great experience for me is something that says, “Track 14 is this way” because that is what really matters to me, not being uplifted by this amazing content and all that, just show me where the hell the train is. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, it has to be practical as well as transformative. I feel like if people are travelling, yes, let's get them excited about their destinations, let's give them a moment of surprise and delight but let's be practical about it too, and use elements of wayfinding. Not everything has to be wow, and flutter and fluff on these large screens.

And I suspect it's difficult at times to convey to the client that there's a technology investment here and so on, but you have to keep this refreshed and, you can't just have your quarter-million dollar data visualization piece from some artist and just run that thing forever?

Chad Hutson: You're exactly right. I think I might know the data visualization artist you might be speaking of, whose work I do love, don't get me wrong, but you're absolutely right. 

If a client's investing upwards of half a million or more on a display and they automatically assume, I need $25k to $50k for a video or I'll just use stock footage, that is just a bad investment. There's so much more you can do.  The reason why you have a screen in the first place is to show content, it's not just to have a static piece of wall art hung up. 

Is it now a case when you and your team, as you’re Chief Strategy Officer, I'm sure if there's a whale client, they pull you into it? You mentioned you're travelling a lot, so that's probably why. You immediately start thinking about how digital fits in here or do you try to kind of park that and listen to the client and then think digital would be good here, but maybe not? 

Chad Hutson: Oh, great question. Certainly from my previous roots, thinking through a digital lens has been instinctual somewhat, but since going to DI, it is definitely starting with more of the basics and leaving digital and analogue out of it.

It's more about fact-finding and learning more about who they are and what they want to accomplish, and then the solutions fall from that. So that's been actually a welcome shift that not everything has to be tech-savvy, but I'm a techie at heart, I can still remember coding on a radio shack color computer using BASIC way back in the 80s. So yeah, I'm a geek and I like technology. It's front and centre of my mind a lot of times. 

When you think in terms of experience design, how do you define experience? And I realize that's a big question. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, that is. So not intended to be a shameless plug, but the thing about DI is that they work across not only pro and collegiate sports organizations, but also larger brands, museums, retail, and entertainment, so theme parks and such, so the experience is different across all those, but I think consistently people want the experience to be intuitive.

I guess some brands don't have a clean brand, but in our opinion, we want the environment to be clean and welcoming and not intimidating. Perhaps if you're going through a frightening exhibit at a Disney park, maybe we do want that to be more thematic and scary, but a good experience just makes you feel something, and I know that some people might roll their eyes and go, oh my gosh, if we're walking through a company's headquarters, do they really want their guests to feel something?

And I would argue, yes, whether it wants someone to buy something, or want them to have moments of surprise and delight, even in a museum, you want them to learn and take that piece of information with you. So the experience, I think initially, no matter what you do or how pretty it is, if you don't feel something that you're not gonna remember that experience and I think that's ultimately what these destinations are about. Do you want folks to remember it, remember you as an organization or tell your friends about the amazing experience you had? So I would say that it is really front and centre, the emotional component. 

But the emotion isn't necessarily “wow” or being bowled over by the scale of a screen or the 3d anamorphic illusion on a screen or whatever, it can be as simple as, “I'm feeling calmer about being in here” because now I know where I'm going” or “I feel better about the meeting I'm about to have with this company” because I'm seeing the company's history on this video wall, it’s explaining everything that they do and I'm thinking, holy shit, these guys are amazing. 

Chad Hutson: Oh, a hundred percent, Dave. I'd say there's a sliding scale of what you want people to feel and we don't always crank that to 11. I think y might need certain degrees of it, like a moment of surprise and delight, in a customer's customer sales centre or in a museum like, oh, wow, I wasn't expecting that, and that's nice, but not everything has to be “whoa” and gigantic and expensive. 

It's adjustable depending on what we need people to take away from that experience. 

Yeah. I just wrote about a project the other day that was in a residential lobby of a building in Boston and it was a pretty small kind of corner wrapped LED that was only 10 feet square or something and I was thinking, okay, that makes sense in that kind of setting, that it's not enough where the residents are thinking well, now I understand why my condo fees are so high, but it's just something that helps give the lobby a bit of a lift, but also has information on there that's useful. 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, isn't that the beauty of display technology? It is dynamic. So it can be so many different things. Sometimes it could be too many things, and so we want to pick the right bitsto have in that space, but it's dynamic and it can be evergreen . 

What about budgets? I imagine, as you were saying in your kind of project scoping and everything, that you're trying to get a sense of what their budget restrictions are, whether they're bottomless or tight, and is it possible to deliver an experience on a pretty modest budget? 

Chad Hutson: Yes, I would say so. There are some simple tips and tricks that can be used. I would say that much like with an artist of any sort or any kind of designer, sometimes working with constraints yields some of the best results, whether you’re out of time, you're out of money and you just really have to become inventive on how to make that work out.

If any clients are listening, I would never want to encourage purposely limiting the budget just to see what kind of brilliance can come from that. But yeah, I've certainly seen some very impactful experiences. It Doesn't necessarily cost a ton, but you can be inventive in how you use those lower cost solutions and make it effective. I think about the analogy of the giant lobby screen, instead of having one giant screen, can we break that up into different sections and pieces so it has an interesting footprint and ne minute, we have content on individual screens and the next we have this larger canvas that is, even though it's broken in pieces, everything works in concert with each other. So value engineering is the mother of invention sometimes. 

I'm thinking of the project in Denver at a Wells Fargo office tower where there was obviously some nod to budget limitations where they did these five or six vertical slats that made it kinda look like you're seeing out through fence slots, and that was a way to have big LED strips that wouldn't cost the same kind of money, and they didn't have to be particularly high rez because you were seeing them at a distance, but that was a way to create visual impact, but not have something like the scoreboard at the Dallas Cowboys stadium.

Chad Hutson: Yes, and I think I know exactly the one you're talking about. They're really tall and narrow as well. But yeah, they are certainly impactful, I would agree.

Do you also have products now at DI? I was looking on the website and it said like you had some package products as opposed to everything just being custom to the client.

Chad Hutson: Yeah. Good eye there, Dave. So there are some products that we have developed and clients say, oh, we really like what you did for this client, could you do something similar? So after doing that a number of times, we just realized we can take some of the best parts of some of these projects and not necessarily repurpose them. But clients oftentimes are saying our budget is limited. What can we do? Can you repurpose this? 

So that is in essence what we have done with a few different things. There's something we call it, coloring wall, which essentially we use gesture sensing technology to let people, oftentimes kids, let's have a low touch, very simple and intuitive experience where they can stand in front of what looks like a giant coloring book page, it's just a white page with black outlines and waving our arms or running past it, and it fills in the color in a very painterly fashion. Once we figured out that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time, let's take some of these ideas and repurpose them. We can do them, we can replicate them and we always improve upon them, I think every time we do that. 

And you can also reduce some of the cost too because you've already written and everything, right? 

Chad Hutson: I guess we could say we're trying to be benevolent and generous to clients, but we're also trying to make money off of what we have, IP we have created in the past. 

The gestures that you're describing, kids are naturals to interact with those sorts of things and have fun and all that, but I've seen a number of cases where that same sort of gesture technology is designed for brand advertising or experiential. activation, so to speak, and I've wondered, do these really work with adults? 

Chad Hutson: I remember when the Kinect first came out, I think that was around 2011 or so. My team at the previous firm were actually hacking it before there was even an SDK or software developer kit available and I think we were all just amazed by it and assumed this was going to transform how everyone interacts. 

But what we figured out along the way, I know the DI team has this figured out also is that there's no international language, if you will, for gestures. You can wave and say, hello, you can flip a bird, if you're really upset, you can use a right turn or left turn, but I think that with these sorts of gestures, particularly with adults, they're not gonna wave their arms around like a crazy person. 

I can't imagine many CEOs doing that willingly. So we've figured out that we have to keep those gestures very simple. It's more about standing in a place and it triggering content, or as I mentioned with kids that can run and be silly and that can fill that coloring book page very easily, but for the rest, it has to be super intuitive. If you are having someone raise their right hand or raise their left hand to advance an icon or a cursor, then those instructions have to be given in, I don't know, 15 seconds or less and have it figured out instantly. 

It's been my experience that with experience design, that the ones that really work are those where the architect or person who designs the space, the physical look of a space is involved early, so that the screen technology doesn't look like it was added on, it's built in, like it's part of the original design. Is that a fair assessment? 

Chad Hutson: Oh, so fair. Otherwise it's just just another giant rectangle, sitting in a lobby. It stands out, but more like a sore thumb than it does something that's integrated into the architecture. So I'm a big fan of all the involved parties talking as early as possible. 

An architect's thinking we can integrate a screen here, but speak to the technology partner and think about what's the right pixel pitch, viewing angles could be an issue or ambient light. So I feel like the more that all the right people can talk early on, it can be beautifully integrated and it can be the right technology and the right content.

That's one of the ways you can reduce the cost, right? Because if you really think about it, then you can use like LED ribbon strips instead of a giant rectangle that you were describing to have the same kind of impact 

Chad Hutson: Yeah, absolutely, and getting creative with almost a sculptural version of a display. I think I know a lot of people in our industry who talked about the beautiful work for the AT&T Discovery District, and there were many groups that touched that, but there is a sculpture that was fashioned after AT&T logo that's in that space, and it's it's also has embedded LED ribbons similar to what you described and yeah, it makes for an interesting experience and that brand touch is subtle. So kudos to that team on creating a pretty cool experience. 

Yeah, it's like a halo sort of tunnel thing. 

Chad Hutson: That's the one! 

Yeah, that is nice. 

With LED rapidly emerging and evolving, is that kind of the main go to thing now for DI when you're thinking about digital or are you still looking at OLED and LCD and other technologies? 

Chad Hutson: Yeah. Direct view LED is in almost every conversation I feel like just because it is a great technology. This is not a slam on the AV industry, because I know technology can only advance as fast as it's able to. The supply chain is an issue, the pandemic was an issue. So I feel like not that tech has stalled. It's not the case at all, but I feel like advancement has slowed a little bit. 

Definitely LED ribbons, direct view LED, some things that we've been playing with more recently, there's it's more of a smaller format now, but I'm sure that the size is growing. Actually I'm certain, I've seen some larger versions of it, but displays like the looking glass factories, the display looks semi holographic. You can use other gesture sensors for that. So that is a more of a one-to-one experience versus a giant shared experience. But I'm excited about that. Even outside of display technology, seeing what is being done with AI and creating visuals, platforms like Dall-E and Mid Journey, where you can simply type in a prompt and boom multiple versions of what the computer thinks is the right image for you, and I think that's also starting to step into video creation as well. It’s mostly static, but I've seen some early images of video. 

I think that talk about being able to have dynamic content. Data visualization is one thing, but constantly having even photo realistic or having what looks to be an artist creation being done on the fly is pretty amazing.

Yeah, my son is heavily into all that stuff and DALL-E and he was just asking me to give him a prompt and I gave him some crazy prompt, like squirrels playing croquet or something, and 30 seconds later, there it was!

Chad Hutson: It's nuts. I'm gonna try that, squirrels playing croquet, wearing pink tutus in a desert and yeah, I bet it'll give me exactly what we want. 

Yeah, and god knows why, but there you go. 

Is the kind of flexibility that we're seeing now with LED important in that you actually have physically flexible modules, but you also have ribbons and you have LED on film, LED embedded in building glass and so on. Do those open up new opportunities? 

Chad Hutson: Absolutely, they do, Dave. If anything, the first question is: can we do it? And we get excited and then it's a matter of pricing and availability and that's sometimes because it is so new or brightness could be a factor, or the glass has already been specked out and it's a matter of could we retrofit it, and it's just not as feasible, but now that we know those technologies are available at least for future endeavors, we are absolutely thinking about that as often as we can. Maybe it's a little bit of a gear list, but also it could be the right solution for a space.

Clients sometimes say at least, from a large scale perspective, we don't want anything that's going to obstruct views or have something where you can see wires or pieces or parts of the technology, and sometimes that's unavoidable, but I think if we can have the slimmer format of some of these ribbons or the embedded LED into glass, that solves some of that. So we're really excited about the future of those. 

Is there a particular lesson that you've learned through the years that you apply to a lot of work now? 

Chad Hutson: Honestly, if we're talking about an experience that does have a digital component, it is really pretty much what you and I have been harping on a lot in this conversation, which is just bringing the topic of content upfront, before decisions are being made about technology. 

I'm a huge supporter of the AV industry and that beautiful content can't be as inspiring sometimes if it's not on the right kind of display or the right scale either. But I'm thankful for the integrators and other technology folks that I know that always ask the first question of: Yes, you wanna display but why, and what would go on a display and why do you want that, and yes, we're an AV integrator, but you need to have conversations with the architect or your creative agency, whoever it may be, so that's not falling flat because honestly, for, if there's a lesson learned, it's folks in the AV industry. They can be blamed if I spend a million dollars on this giant lobby screen and it doesn't do shit, and that's absolutely not true. If the right content solution is there and the experience that is intended is considered more heavily up front, then everyone looks good in the end. 

Absolutely. All right, Chad, thank you very much for spending some time with me. That was super interesting. 

Chad Hutson: Oh, thanks. It's good to be back on 16:9 and hope to talk again soon.

Telmo Silva, ClicData

Telmo Silva, ClicData

August 24, 2022


Integrating data has increasingly climbed the priority list for more ambitious and involved digital signage and digital OOH projects. The big driver for that is how near or real-time data makes what's on-screen automated and triggered, which means more timely, targeted and therefore relevant messaging.

Lots of CMS software companies offer some degree of data integration and on-screen presentation, and we're starting to see some third-party companies that work mainly in digital signage - like Screenfeed - also offering data display toolsets.

We're also now seeing well-established data handling companies making themselves known in this sector, particularly to help make some of the more complicated set-ups both happen and then reliably, and securely, work. ClicData is a software firm based up in the northwest of France, but has clients globally that use its Business Intelligence platform to bring data in from more than 250 sources - into a single, harmonized data warehouse.

I spoke with co-founder and CTO Telmo Silva about Clicdata's roots, how its platform works and how it can be applied in digital signage applications.

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David: Telmo, thank you very much for joining me. Can you tell me what ClicData is all about? 

Telmo Silva: I started ClicData in 2008 as a pharmaceutical-focused data analytics company, and later branched out a little bit into making it a wider-used data analysis, data management and data intelligence tool for all sectors, and hence the name, ClicData from ClicPharma before, and yes, this tool is really the culmination of that learning in the pharmaceutical sector that we thought is applicable to really any sector. 

David: Okay. So if I'm sitting here listening to the beginning of this podcast, some people might be wondering, those in digital signage and the AV sector, might be wondering, okay, why am I listening to this? How does it plug into that sector? 

Telmo Silva: Absolutely, and it's funny, Dave, because an acquaintance of ours asked me, should we do this podcast? And I said, yes, absolutely, because everything generates data and digital advertising is definitely one of the factors. 

You have to know where you're spending your money and what you're requiring and who's looking at things, and one of the first clients we had in the early days was actually a Canadian company out west that had this technology on elevators to take snapshots of peoples and try to recognize their age group and their demographics and as they're playing the videos on the small screen on the elevator, try to figure out what's the retention? Are their eyes moving and moving away from the screen and so forth, and how long do they stay hooked for those short 30-second clips, and things like that? And that was actually my first introduction to digital advertising and a use case for ClicData, a very successful use case, and I was hooked on that. 

I was hooked into that so much that where ClicData is based out, which is France, there's a very large history of retail companies here that spent a lot of money on aisle advertising, and they start using those concepts, not only in terms of video and monitoring but also in terms of monitoring the paths of customers through their stores, optimization of aisles and things like that, where to put the digital signs and advertising and so forth, and all that generates a lot of data that you have to make sense of. And this is really well ClicData comes in, right? Those point solutions with digital advertising are part one, but without actually collecting all these from the different stores, and different locations that start making sense of it, it's just data, right? It does not turn into information until you do something with it and that's really where we come in, in trying to bring as much data from the different systems and different points of information really that a company may have, or a client may have and bring that into something that makes sense, that you can aggregate, that you can slice and dice, and then further down the line, then expose that to your customers, and say, okay, this is what you paid for.

David: So you're aggregating and harmonizing and developing insights around the data as opposed to being a collector of data, right? Like you're not doing any of the computer vision or sensor-based work yourself? 

Telmo Silva: We do not, but we do have all the necessary connections just with the different systems. Unlike potentially other systems that are very well standardized, each vendor of those displays of those collectors may have their own interfaces, APIs and so forth. They may have their own storage formats and as you use the different systems, your challenge is really to understand, how can I connect to this one now, and how can I extract information that I want out of that. And our connectors are actually quite flexible in that sense where we have fixed connectors for some of those systems, but for others, we have generic connectors that you can kind of configure to tap into that data. 

David: Would this be something that might be called middleware?

Telmo Silva: I would say potentially, yes. It depends on your definition of middleware. Ultimately we see business intelligence at least the portion of data analytics and reporting that we offer, as the next step before you feed it back and you go, okay, now I understand the results that I've received here, what improvements are we gonna make? And we start to cycle again, right? 

So again as an example, you may start receiving data from certain videos and start saying, okay, this is the demographics and so forth, can I make some adjustments to my campaigns or to my videos or to the sequence of videos that I'm displaying? Again, I'm going back to that video on the elevator concept and optimising that, so it is part of that loop of data collection, data analysis, making decisions based on that data, and then feeding that back into the loop again.

David: When you started the company accessing data from all kinds of different data sources was very complicated and time-consuming, and you had to get all kinds of permissions and all kinds of meetings and phone calls and everything else to work it out. 

One of the things that I gather has changed over the last decade or so is that most platforms now have APIs, it's easier to get stuff out of them, and so on. So has your role lessened, or has it increased because they're always changing and there are so many and if you're an independent company, like a digital signage company, a software company, you have to stay on top of that, or you would use a company like ClicData that's spending all their time doing that and making it easy?  

Telmo Silva: To answer your first question, it has actually increased, right? Whereas before we would ask a vendor whether that be Facebook or Google and say, our mutual customers have data on your advertising network, right? And again this kind of can expand to any type of data vendor or data collector that we may tap into and before they would basically know it's our data, and the consumers of course start reacting against that, right? Today, If you do not have an API, if all you do is get my data into your system, but not give me anything back in return, then I don't want anything to do with you.

And we've seen backlashes at times with Facebook, Cambridge Analytics and things like that, where those types of sharing are also kinda gone another way rather, but nonetheless, today, if you do not have an API, then you're a second-class citizen on the internet and on the software technology stack. So that is great but an API is still an API. It is a programming interface and it does require some knowledge and it's not a standard. Just because we call it an API does not mean that they'll follow the same standard, it's very well organized, and it’s very well understood. So every API has its nuances, its little quirks and its own way of paging through the amounts of data that it can offer.

And so our role has actually increased due to that, because again, as I was mentioning before our connectors know how to deal with those different variations and those different formats and schemas that the data may be provided with. So in that sense, it's actually increased the need to have a tool, like ClicData, to be able to tap into those APIs and bring it into a format that is easily digestible by any analytics tool, including our own tool.

David: How much is involved, if you wanted to do this yourself and let's say you wanted to Integrate information from four different business system sources or whatever, within your company? Is that something that would take a morning, a month, or a year to do if they weren't using something like ClicData?

Telmo Silva: If they were not using something like ClicData, they obviously need somebody technical, but it would take an extensive amount of time for development, and again, large companies still do that, where they write custom interfaces to bring the data and amalgamate them into one single source of truth. This is where millions of dollars are being spent on data warehousing projects and business intelligence implementations and so forth. So not having a tool like ours definitely would require a good technical team, and again, depending on the sources, potentially database analysts, database experts, SQL developers, API developers, whether they do it in Java or Python or what have you.

And then bringing all that into a data warehouse will definitely take more than just a few days. In my previous life, prior to creating ClicData, that was my bread and butter, and these projects would go on for 3-6 months. With ClicData, if we have the connector that you need or if you can configure your API connector and you have a basic understanding of APIs, you should be able to do that within a day, to connect three or four data sources and start seeing the data flow through into ClicData. 

David: So on a project launch basis and certainly on an ongoing operating basis, it sounds like if you're running a spreadsheet model on this and a business argument, it would take a huge amount of cost out of the equation and time, and these are people you don't need to hire? 

Telmo Silva: It goes on to just beyond hiring and the people behind it, because, having somebody who can accompany you if you're not an expert or in the technical side, then it may be worth it. But the bottom line is the continuity of it as well. It's okay to build a prototype. It works once but the next day, you don't want to have to do the same thing, right? You don't want to have to copy and paste the data into Excel or out of Excel again and repeat and so forth.

And also, technology is what it is, business evolves as it is, and so you always need these adjustments. It is an investment that you have to make towards being data-centric, being data-focused and to say, I want to build these systems that collect the data on an ongoing basis that I can automate the reporting that can save you time as well in reporting these numbers back to your team or your clients or your management team and all this combines into the ROI that you're looking for, and yes, there is a technical side of it as well that there will be savings, whether it's in consulting or in minimizing, at least the number of times that you involve them, to gain access to your data. 

David: If I'm a customer, what am I buying and how am I paying for it? Do you buy an enterprise license or is it software as a service? 

Telmo Silva: It is totally software as a service. We do not offer any on-premise installations of software, and this is because we want to be rapid at giving new features, new connectors. Connectors continuously change, and there's new software in the market and we wanna be rapid in making those available. So software as a service is really our model, and what you get when you subscribe to when you get one of these subscriptions, which is monthly or yearly based, is you get basically all the connectors. You get a data warehouse, a database available to you through Microsoft Azure, that's our partner, and you can have your data stored in over eight different regions around the world: US, Ireland, Canada, Germany, France, and a few others, and once you have that data warehouse, that’s your piece of the database there, the data starts flowing through the connectors. Once that is in your data warehouse, then from there you can actually build downstream flows, you can tap into it directly with Excel if you want, or you can use our dashboard tool to start creating dashboards and graphs and charts and tables indicators. 

You can share those dashboards with other people. You can publish them to your customers, et cetera, and then you can just automate these things so that it just does that every day or every morning or every hour.

David: Is that the primary output that you would see for digital signage and digital out-of-home home networks, probably more so on the digital signage side, would be data visualizations and dashboards? 

Telmo Silva: I think that would potentially be one of the use cases, analyzing the data that's coming through and making decisions based on those as normal reporting and analytics data tools would. The other part of it and some customers of ClicData do this is they just use the collection capabilities of ClicData and the data warehouse to store their data, but then they feed that into other tools of their choice, tools that potentially they wanna do some more advanced machine learning on the data, maybe they want to write their own special code to analyze it, or maybe simply feed another system that requires this data to consume it and so forth.

ClicData is really a multifaceted tool that can be either used just for collection and aggregation of the data or all the way through to data visualization and analytics. 

David: Okay, so you would have almost like templates or widgets of some kind that would be able to do develop dynamic charting and things like this based on what you select?

Telmo Silva: Absolutely, much like you would do on a pivot table in Excel, to drag and drop some columns, and the chart starts taking shape with columns, rows and so forth. That's exactly our design, it's very user-friendly as much as we can, we do have a lot of options for styling because not everybody likes the same styles and colors, but in essence, it's very much an Excel-like data visualization tool built into ClicData.

David: If I'm a digital signage CMS software provider and I'm working with, let's say a financial services company and they wanted data visualization, if I wanna put that visualized chart into a schedule, so it shows up on the digital signs around the workplace. Is that an HTML file or how do you get that up on a screen?

Telmo Silva: If you want to embed our dashboards into third-party applications, into screens, we have quite a few customers that have screens around the office, we have a railroad train station system that actually publishes our dashboards on every single station and stops with the schedules and things like that, and their performance, so are they late, etc. 

So you can definitely embed that, and it's just simply a URL. You put that inside an iFrame, inside your web page, and the iframe immediately refreshes if the data has been refreshed, so you don't have to do anything, you just have to open it up in a browser, maximize the screen and boom, your dashboard is live and will refresh automatically. 

David: Aare there any kind of limitations on how real-time it is or is it just how you wanna set it and how it works at the other end, in terms of data generation? 

Telmo Silva: Our schedules have the ability to go on a minute basis to your data sources and pull the data in, however you can use our API, because we too have an API, to push data in, and in that case, the push is up to you. If you wanna send it once per second, you can. These will not be full data loads. These have to be small packets, a few rows, a few hundred rows at a time, potentially. 

But you can use our API to bring in real-time data, and again, the same concept, whether we pulled it or you pushed it, everything downstream gets refreshed and gets activated for you.

David: I suspect that's a conversation that you and your sales engineers have at times with resellers and end users, “Sure we could do real-time, but for the application you're talking about, do you really need that, or is every minute or every five minutes fine?” 

Telmo Silva: Absolutely, and this is why we stopped our schedule at one minute. Again, you have to be really in a high traffic, high volume situation, and to be able to make a decision in real-time, and that's ultimately the key, right? It really is up to you and there's the cost associated with you developing a push notification to other systems as well.

So it really is up to the customers, but yeah, in some sectors there are times that some folks ask for real-time when in fact, their data doesn't change on a daily basis. Case in point, Facebook, they themselves only refresh their own metrics or expose their own metrics on a much larger time scale. So for us to do real-time with certain systems and certain data sources is just refreshing and using bandwidth for nothing. 

David: Do you have to make statements and assurances around privacy of the data or that's not really your issue, whoever's collecting that data or you're gathering that data is the one that's gonna have to worry about that, you're just enabling the use of that data? 

Telmo Silva: Even though obviously data privacy and respecting the customer's data is our number one thing, we do have a role to play. If we're talking in Europe, GDPR is a huge thing. Every country has their own protection laws and privacy protection, like the California Data Protection Act. Every country and state and province has their own or has started some type of laws and regulations.  Us being a European company, but with customers in North America, we have to be very careful. This is why we're almost the only ones that actually are able to start your data warehouse in any country that you wish in those eight regions that we've mentioned, and that's step number one, but we are a data processor for you. We don't know what your data is, but we are processing your data for you. It's our application, and we are responsible to make sure that there's no external access to it, that if there are court orders, we have to make sure we validate and check them with our customers and so forth. 

Luckily that has never happened, but we don't know what your data is. So we are not able to be really responsible for it, but that's part of our terms of service. If you put data that you are not entitled to use or process if you put data that is not legal for you to own, that's the responsibility of our customers, but obviously, we would have a role to play in that in this GDPR system where we are responsible to at least point out or give it out if asked legally, obviously. 

David: I assume you get a lot of questions around security as well.

Telmo Silva: Oh, absolutely, and again, this is why we partner with Microsoft Azure. Our expertise is really making the software intelligent, and easy to use, that it processes fast, that we can process thousands and thousands of files and sources and dashboards a day, an hour really, and not really on the physical and digital security of these data warehouses and systems. And this is why we rely on Microsoft Azure severely. We have a strong SLA with them to protect our property and our customer's property, their data. 

David: I know almost nothing about the technical side of what your company and others like it would do, but I assume that a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of security is on the Azure side and you take advantage of that and you let them worry about that, but, make sure that you're working according to their policies, right? 

Telmo Silva: Absolutely, but it also takes our knowledge to encrypt the data and to make sure that their configuration is set up correctly. I think that is the positive and negative of cloud-based systems, like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. It's so easy these days to just start a server anywhere and start putting data into it. It's much harder to make sure that nobody else has access to it and to make sure that it's protected and so forth. And even within Microsoft, there are some checks and balances there as well. We can’t say, just because it's Microsoft's or Amazon or Google that takes care of your data, we're pawning it off on them, and if something happens, let's go to court.

That's not how it should be handled. There has to be some responsibility on the people using those systems, and how we code the application, and to make sure all the settings are set up correctly. So it is a team effort between the vendors and us, and also our customers to make sure that they're comfortable with the fact that we are ISO certified, SOC certified HIPAA compliant, et cetera. This is time and an investment on our part to make sure that they should not be just for the sake of having a stamp, on your website saying, “We are ISO certified” and that's it. It does take effort from both companies and all parties involved to make sure that the data is secure and private. 

David: So Microsoft is a major business partner, but they're also a competitor, through Power BI?

Telmo Silva: That is correct. Power BI, their visualization tool is a competitor to our data visualization module, not necessarily to the whole ClicData platform, and they do an excellent job at it as well. 

David: But I assume your company has its share of competitors, right?

Telmo Silva: I believe there's data visualization for every type of business in the world. Power BI, Tableau, ClickView. I don't wanna name more than three, but there are at least three hundred of them, and let's not even go beyond those, let's just talk about Excel, there’s some amazing visualization in Excel and it has been around for years. So there's a lot of great experience, but again, these are tools and they are distinct separate tools, and if you have to load up Excel or Power BI or whatever every day to hit refresh, and then export it out and think about security and access, then that's the downside of these tools. They do a great job for that initial data investigation but are terrible for the ongoing maintenance of it. 

So what we say is, whereas we may not be as advanced as some of those tools, potentially. If you're trying to do something very specific that only Power BI can do, maybe we cannot do it. The upside of using our tool is that you don't have to do anything else. The data is there as soon as it's refreshed, the dashboards know that the data is refreshed, it immediately sends emails out to the people that are on the list for receiving this dashboard, and they get it on their mobile app. They get an alert, whatever, right? It's all automated for you. 

So if you want to spend less time wasting copying and pasting and using Excel and these tools, then, these are the types of platforms that you need to look for. 

David: I assume the other thing is that you stay on top of it because APIs change and data sets change and everything else and if you just had it developed yourself internally or if you outsourced the development, a month later, the schemas and things could change and all of a sudden it doesn't work, right? 

Telmo Silva: Absolutely. We see that with the big players obviously, Google, Instagram, Facebook, and others are constantly improving their APIs. Security keeps changing around the world. We're phasing out certain types of security, TLS 1, TLS 2, et cetera, and APIs need the security, they need to be compatible with it. So this is really where most of our customers get their benefits is to say, okay, ClicData is taking care of all that for you, and then make sure that the data keeps coming in, and flowing into your data warehouse. 

David: So if I'm a digital signage content management systems software provider, or Perhaps an AV/IT systems integrator who has an ask from clients or wants to incorporate this into their service offers, what's involved?

What are the first questions you have to ask them? Do you support this, do you support that, or are there any really real barriers? 

Telmo Silva: We start by looking at their data sources, right? If we can't bring the data, if they're using a very specific format of a very specific system that we cannot gain access to, typically very old ones then we're upfront about it. We say that you're not gonna get this data in, and you're not gonna be able to report it.

David: It's on a mainframe system or something?

Telmo Silva: Mainframe, believe it or not, we can connect to it. It is important for us and believe it or not, there are still a lot of customers, especially in the retail sector that does mainframe, IBM series of servers, those things that we thought don't exist. They exist and they exist in quite a lot of companies. So we still support those. But sometimes it's just very cryptic or the format. I cannot give you an example off the top of my head but we have this, as I mentioned before, a very robust kind of API connecting connector that takes a lot of options, and most of the time we can configure it to fit.

But yeah, if you're a provider of data that pretty much says: I'm not giving you access. I can only give you monthly reports or something like that. Yeah, you can import those reports monthly by hand. Is that something that you really wanna do, et cetera? So we discuss alternate solutions like that.

But yeah, that would be the first step. The second step is what are their objectives? Are they looking for visualization and embedding these dashboards and putting them back to their customer in a self-service mode so they can monitor the success of their campaigns, their ads network, et cetera? Or is this internal use for analytics and so forth? So we discuss those items to make sure that ClicData is the right solution for them, and if all checks out, I think then the next step is just to get a trial account for 15 days and connect a couple of data sources, see what you can build. We have an in-app chat tool that allows them to ask questions as they go along during their trials. Ask your questions, ask how you can do things and get that first initial prototype, and that's a big advantage of being a SaaS product, there's no installation, you lose nothing, right? You don't have to install or return servers. You just get started, start connecting your data and start playing around with your data and start visualizing and prototyping within your team, get success quickly, get motivated quickly as well. That's a big part of it, and from there, you just start your subscription level.

David: What level of skill do you need? 

Telmo Silva: To do complex things, you definitely need some SQL sometimes, some function programming, as you do with Excel, we are all different experts in Excel. There are those of us that use Excel just to type in numbers and your basic drag and drop, and that's it. And then there's those that know to do Lookups and they know a few more functions and then there's those that do Macros in Excel, right? There are different skills, and with us, it's the same thing. It really depends on what you need to do and how much your data needs work. So we have our own kind of Excel-like language that they can use, very similar to SQL as well. They can do a lot of things with the data. 

We needed to make ClicData very powerful, and very flexible to ensure that we will not be stumped by a specific need or a specific customer request. But at the surface, we also try to make it easy with a strong UI to write those hard-to-write functions behind the scenes through an interface that is a little bit easier to use.

David: So at a minimum, you want somebody who has an interest or a knack for this sort of thing, as opposed to Margaret in Sales and Marketing saying, “Here, you do this!” and she gets the deer and the headlights look? 

Telmo Silva: Absolutely. Now you can, if you have, and some customers of ours do this and they split the work of connecting and making the data available versus consuming the data, right? 

You have your technical person, the person that knows the data very well to create these kinds of slices and catalogues of data and make them available to the rest of the team, and the team then goes in, either with our dashboard editor or report editor, and does their own dashboards and their own kind of visualizations or with other tools as well. So there are also those splitting of functions that sometimes are important to put in place into a company.

David: ClicData is in Northwest France based in Lille, correct? 

Telmo Silva: Yeah, we have three major offices. That is our head office, the engineering office in the north of France. We have one in Toronto, Canada, and we have one in Texas so we're all over the place a little bit.

David: So Europeans are gonna engage through your European offices and Canadians and Americans can find a couple of offices on this side of the pond? 

Telmo Silva: That's correct. 

David: Where do they find you online?

Telmo Silva: 

David: It's important to say there's no “k” in the click. Somebody got to it before you could get the one with the “k”? 

Telmo Silva: I believe so, or maybe at that point in time, we wanted to make it very even with four and four, Clic and Data, I'm not sure.

David: Oh, they'll find it. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Telmo Silva: Thank you for having me.

Tom Goddard, World Out Of Home Organization (WOO)

Tom Goddard, World Out Of Home Organization (WOO)

August 17, 2022


The World Out Of Home Organization has been around for decades, but under a French acronym that didn't mean a lot to much of the world. The non-profit changed its name from FEPE International to its new handle a few years ago, and has never looked back.

It now has members from all over the globe - with outdoor advertising companies of all sizes and stripes signing on to benefit from lobbying, networking, policy discussions, standardization, research and education.

The organization also does a heavily attended global conference each year, as well as at least a couple of regional versions in APAC and the Middle East.

I had a great chat with out of home media veteran Tom Goddard, a London-based Irishman who gives his time and experience as the organization's President and Executive Chairman.

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Tom, thank you for joining me. Where are you today? 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, nice to be here, David. I'm in sunny London. We're having a Mediterranean type of summer, which is a hit and miss here, but we're having a lovely summer at the moment and I'm right in Hyde Park, so I'm looking into the park and all the joggers. So it's a lovely spot, it's about 28 degrees, so pretty cool. 

Hopefully you have air conditioning! 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, but I hate using it. I've had to use it a bit lately, but yes, I do. 

So you are the head of the World Out of Home Organization? Can you give me the background on yourself and what that organization is all about?

Tom Goddard: Yeah, of course, David. For my sins, I'm President of the World Out of Home Organization, it's an honorary reposition and the World Out of Home Organization is a not-for-profit body and its purpose is the same now as it was when it was set up 63 years ago. It's really to drive sector growth. 

When the organization was set up in 1959 by Jacques Dauphin who was one of the pioneers of French outdoor media alongside JCDecaux, it was originally called FEPE which is short in French for  Federation European Publicite Exterieur, and in later years, it expanded outside that footprint and became a truly global organization. So in 2018, we decided to rebrand as the World Out of Home Organization, which we launched the following year at our Dubai Congress, which happened just before the pandemic, and so we're now the World Out of Home Organization, but we are 63 years old. 

Yeah, I have known a few people who would make reference to FEPE all the time, like Sheldon Silverman when I was in meetings with him, and I didn't know what he was going on about, but when the name was changed, I was like, “Oh, now I get it!” It’s a more universal name.

Tom Goddard: Yeah. It's very plain and it says what it does. 

With regards to your background, are you a media owner guy or an agency guy or something else?

Tom Goddard: Yeah, I'm a media owner guy. I come from the media owner side and I've had a long career on the media owner side, all the way from a small company started in Ireland to running the International division of CBS Outdoors, as it was then called. More recently I was the chairman of Ocean Outdoor in the UK, which is one of the leading digital out-of-home companies in the premium sector.

Are you still active, or are you still working? 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, I'm still pretty active. I just stepped down from Ocean, just about a year and a half ago, but but I have also got a business called, Out of Home Capital, which I've set up with with eight other very experienced out-of-home professionals, and it's a global advisory business that helps all sectors of the out-of-home ecosystem to achieve their strategic plans. So I'm busy with that alongside my active work in the World Out of Home Organization. 

Out of Home Capital, is that also a funding entity or purely advisory?

Tom Goddard: It's mainly advisory, but we do have access to capital sources, and we do advise, for example, out-of-home media owners who are perhaps getting ready for a sale or getting ready for an IPO, we do advise them on how to go about preparing for that and also we have sources that we can recommend in terms of of capital investment.

Is that a going concern that keeps you busy or is it one of those things that's a little little bit of peaks and valleys, where a project comes up and you're all busy and then there's not much going on and you can relax and then something else comes up.?

Tom Goddard: We set it up a couple of years ago and within two weeks we had our first project, which was a New York Bank making an investment, needing a due diligence report, and since then we've been steadily busy, including working for a large private equity operator who were examining the potential sale of Clear Channel’s European assets, and we have three European city projects at the moment where we're advising European cities on their out-of-home strategy and on their smart city strategy. 

So it's really getting traction now, David, and when we set it up, we wondered how it would go, but everybody seems to tell us that there was a gap in the market, there was a need for this global advisory business and that seems to be the case. 

I did a lot of consulting for a bunch of years now. Now, I'm just focused on Sixteen:Nine, but I would get emails and phone calls from people asking about whether I could do advisory on digital out-of-home and I would just flat out tell them that there are other people out there who know a hell of a lot more about that particular side of the business than I do, and I would point them that way, because it's just not my thing. 

And we’ll talk about it later, but I’m eternally confused by the whole programmatic business. I understand it at a macro level, but boy, it's complicated. 

Tom Goddard: Absolutely, but if you get any more referrals, just send them my way.

But interestingly there are not a lot of advisory units out there who really have the depth of experience needed. For example, we're just in the process of advising a large Asian media player who wants to get a tall hold in Times Square in New York, so you can get things like that along with major retailers who are looking to maximize their digital assets in their supermall.

So there aren't many companies that have the ability to assess the audience value and also know about the aesthetics and the environment. 

So how global is the World Out of Home Organization at this point, are you covering every continent and how many members do you have?

Tom Goddard: Yeah, it's really taken off in the last few years, particularly since we rebranded, David, it's amazing what that has done, but we now have over 150 members worldwide. That's mainly large out-of-home media owners like Lamar, OUTFRONT in the US, and then JCDecaux in Europe, Out of Home media in Australia, Phoenix Metropolitan in China, and we also have lots of national out-of-home trade bodies, like the OAAA in the US and FAW in Germany, Outsmart in the UK and the Outdoor Trade Association in Japan. 

The other good thing about our organization is we also admit service providers in the out-of-home sector like Daktronics and BroadSign in the US are members and most of the ad tech providers like View and Hivestack and Vista are members, and of course all the major BD buying agencies as well, Kinetic Talent and Rapport. So we totally embraced the entire 37 billion out-of-home ecosystem. 

So if you want to be a member or you're considering being a member, it's not really the case where you go, do I join World Out of Home, or do OAAA or whatever, you can be a member of all of them, and it's not a conflict, and you're not choosing sides? 

Tom Goddard: No, in fact the World Out of Home Organization is an international global body whereas the trade associations like Outsmart in the UK and the OAAA in the US are mainly national associations, and what we do is we connect with them and help to amplify the work they're doing and also help them to develop standards and best practices. So it's an entirely complimentary thing that you would join. 

And also you would join it to be a part of a sort of a sharing and learning platform and to get access to our extensive database and active networking forum, and of course you get favorable discount rates to all our events. Somebody said to me recently that our annual Congress is really now a must attend event. 

Is that the big thing, the resources and the conferences and so on? Are those kinds of the main motivators for joining? 

Tom Goddard: They used to be, David. We used to very heavily rely on our annual Congress which is highly attended by the senior people in out-of-home. But we are now doing our annual event, we had one recently in Toronto and next year's is in Lisbon in June, but we're doing two fairly major regional events. We've got one coming up actually in October in Southeast Asia for APAC and that's based in Kuala Lumpur, and we've got one coming up in February in Dubai covering the MENA region. 

So the events are a big attraction, but there's a lot more to the organization now, including monthly global Zoom calls with members, webinars and lots of other stuff that's going on throughout the year.  

Is it a case where you have media companies, particularly those who cover multiple companies competing in many respects, but this is a forum where they can collaborate and share ideas and the competition goes away for at least a little bit? 

Tom Goddard: That's a very astute question, David, and that's the tightrope all trade associations walk and what we do is we try to focus as hard as possible on sector growth and all the things that contribute to sector growth. And what you get is fierce competition locally at national level, between out-of-home media operators, both at the media owner and the media agency level. But there are lots of areas where it makes sense to collaborate and cooperate at association level to drive the sector because there is hard evidence now that a 1% sector growth is five times more valuable to your bottom line than a 1% growth within the silo.

So when you talk about the sector, are you talking at a macro level about out-of-home or digital out-of-home? 

Tom Goddard: I'm talking about out-of-home at a macro level, and don't forget that, 63% of global revenues still come through the classic out-of-home channel or static, as I think you call it in the US, but that is obviously tipping year by year in favor of digital.

Some markets are at 80% digital and other markets are a lot less than that. I never foresee a situation where the market will be all digital. But I think the majority will be digital, but there will still be great work to be done with classic billboards, doing directional work for the likes of McDonald's and other big retail operators. 

Yeah, there's any number of instances where I've seen digital in play and thought that wasn't necessary, it was almost like they did it because it's digital, that makes it shinier and newer and more attractive and a poster, a printed stock would've been just fine. 

Tom Goddard: Yeah. I guess because of the capital investment required, out-of-home media owners are pretty cany when it comes to the ones that need to be digitized. It's usually a very high value site. Sean Reilly at Lamar has a statistic that shows something like 4% of his inventory produced 27% of his revenues. Forgive me if I haven't got the numbers right, but we are moving into an era now where less is more. So I think you'll see a rationalization of out-of-home inventory around the world, but it will be higher value and more digital.

Yeah, I'm curious if your organization has a role in mentoring a lot of the startups that come along? These are the companies that want to put screens on everything, I just wrote last week about a company in London that's putting them on delivery scooters, and I tend to roll my eyes on a lot of these new kinds of efforts, but I thought that one was actually pretty spot on given the way London works and everything else, but there are so many dreamers out there that think they can put a screen anywhere and it's the road to riches route for them. 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, as we would say in Ireland, David, “God bless them!”

We would say, “Fill your boots!”

Tom Goddard: The simple fact is you put multiple screens where there is a huge audience, and on the back of delivery bikers is not exactly the place to get a return on that investment. But I think that there's always gonna be left field entrepreneurs coming into the industry. 

Where you see the big changes is with the high value sites around the world, and of course, lots of advertisers are cleverly using trophies or marquee digital sites on their social media as well. Most people who buy space in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus in London get wonderfully extended coverage and amplification on social media. So I think, in terms of dynamic content, in terms of the fact that involving memory and encoding digital motion really scores very high in those areas. 

So is that part of the reason why you're seeing like lights, particularly in Asia, you're seeing a lot of these, anamorphic collusion types of creative that they are hoping will also get picked in social media and so on, so it's extending the reach?

Tom Goddard: Absolutely, David, this is a really very exciting new innovation and Ocean calls it deep screen, and there are various sorts of versions of it.

What we're finding, which is very exciting in our sector is that there's two levels of creativity, the traditional great ideas that the great creatives come up with as well, and then there's the great creative technical applications, and what you've just described, that is a great example of the attention getting the ability of these deep screen ads and they just go viral on social media. 

Yeah, I've found that there's only been a few campaigns that have somehow rather threaded the needle between really interesting visuals but actually an effective ad. There have been ones where I'm trying to figure out okay, who is even the brand for this, but once in a while you see the ones where they've managed to achieve both.

Tom Goddard: Yeah, the people who invest in these types of locations also use them as part of their annual reports in their own collateral material, they use them in their websites. They get tremendous mileage out of them. 

Most of the great creative directors of our times always say, if you can get it right  on a poster, on an outdoor ad, you get it right on all media, that's as true today as it ever was. 

Because it's short and sweet and to the point, right?

Tom Goddard: Yeah, you've gotta get the message across swiftly and you've gotta be entertaining. 

Yeah, I try to emphasize in my past life with consulting clients, that this is not a storytelling medium, it's a glance medium. You've gotta get your message across really quickly and somehow resonate with them. 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, you're dead right. 

One of the challenges through the years, particularly in the early years of digital out-of-home was getting acceptance from media planners and buyers, that they would understand the medium, that the level of measurement was good enough to mirror what was happening online and elsewhere, and it wasn't just guesswork about audiences. Is that a hurdle that's now being cleared? 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, very much, and of course the research is very robust now, in terms of the work that digital out-of-home does. 

At a broader level, David, we are now in a global media market that's all about screens, and of all the legacy media, out-of-home has converged best with the digital era, and is regarded really as text friends, so I think we now are an integral part of the digital screen world and there's a terrific amount of research to back that up.

We recently spent a year updating and distributing the audience measurement guidelines, because it didn't include digital in the previous version, and it now fully includes the digital part of our medium, so we're well covered there. 

Is it possible to have global standards or is there just too many differences region to region or even country by country?

Tom Goddard: No, it absolutely is possible to have global standards, and that document, which is a 100+ page document put together by Neil Eddleston and Gideon Adey, two of the accepted global gurus on audience measurement, that has received tremendous endorsement from organizations who are all consulted in the process. 

You can have a model that fits most markets that is adjustable for the physical state of the local market and the level of maturity in that market. But yes, the important thing is to try and have an accepted level of research across all the markets so that the CMOs are talking the same language when they're buying out-of-home.

I know you're not a hardcore technology guy, but I have to ask about LED just from the lens of LED has opened up the opportunity to get beyond standardized billboard shapes and standardized kinds of locations, so you're now seeing the sides of entire buildings, including the Burj in Dubai being lined with LE  lighting that at a great distance can look like an ad.

Are we heading to a time where it's going to be like a few of the movies out there, like Children of Men or Blade Runner, where there are billboards on the sides of buildings and blimps and everything else? 

Tom Goddard: I think we're there now, David, certainly in China. If you go to Shanghai, it will blow your mind, and what's great is that there was a time when out-of-home media owners didn't have the greatest relationship with municipalities in cities, but cities now and out-of-home media owners are working collaboratively to integrate great digital treatments in the fabric of the cities and to connect with the smart city technology.

I think most mayors in the world now would regard large format, digital media and small format, on street furniture units to make a statement that this is a progressive city, this is a city that's moving fast in the digital age, so I think we're there. I think you can do nonstandard formats, particularly on super premium, as we see, and even now, we see some incredible treatments, with groups of drones being brought in for special occasions, so digital out-of-home is really, as I said, of all the legacy media, it has embraced technology best, and I think is really well equipped. Because when we started this organization, when our forebears started this organization, it was for the same reason which was to drive sector growth. But then, the big tech guys came in with television and later color television and now out-of-home is competing against the tech giants that are preeminent in digital marketing and in digital media. 

So we have to move along with that, and that's what we're doing, and this is why digital out-of-home is the second fastest growth medium in all of media . 

Is it part of your organization's charge to demystify or simplify some of the enabling technology, because I'm somebody who's been involved in the industry at various levels for more than 20 years and I struggle mightily to understand everything going on with programmatic, and if I'm having trouble, I suspect a lot of other people are. 

Tom Goddard: Yeah, you’re dead right. I've been banging on about this at various conferences. I think what we have is that programmatic is really simply computer-to-computer trading between SSPs (supply side platforms) and DSPs (demand side platforms) and it's gotten a bit complicated in out-of-home because we've added multiple layers on top of that, such as data stacks, real-time bidding capability, dynamic content, etc, and all these additions are meant to enhance the process and make it even more targeted and precise, but you're right, they also increase the complexity as well. 

We often have programmatic panels at our conferences and I appeal to the panelists to speak English and stop talking in all their tech language and we are getting better, but I would have to admit, David, I think it's unnecessarily complicated, or we make it unnecessary complicated, and certainly that's something we need to work on.

Yeah, I wonder if some of it simply has to do with all the different vendors, almost inventing terms so that they can differentiate themselves from a bunch of other companies that are doing roughly the same thing? 

Tom Goddard: Yes,. I think this gets back to my overriding point: our real competitors are not the other outdoor companies, our real competitor is at sector-level. So the more standards we have, the less complicated it is for media planners and CMOs to look at the medium and buy the medium, the faster the sector will grow. 

You and I are absolutely aligned on that, and it's something that we work on constantly. 

In terms of the overall organization, if you had to identify what your main sort of challenge or thing that you wanna accomplish in the next couple of years, what would that be?

Tom Goddard: Yeah, fortunately, David, in out-of-home, there are way more opportunities than challenges at the moment, but the ones that are in my mind that need more attention are audience measurement and sustainability.

We still have huge deserts, huge markets, and regions around the world that either lack or have suboptimal audience measurement systems, such as China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and again, getting back to my point that if we can all get up to speed in terms of industry standard and languages, you know, I was down at the WFA, the world Federation of Advertisers Congress in Athens a couple of months ago, and listening to the brilliant CMOs talking on the platform there, and they look at things globally and they move around a lot, so it's very important for us to get all those markets that don't have audience measured, and we're introducing ourselves an initiative following our 100+ page guideline book called “Measure the World” to encourage those markets, to put the investment in through their national associations.

And then of course, the second thing is sustainability, which is a big challenge for every company and every citizen. 

Yes, and I guess the other one that is steadily coming up is security and network security and locking down your billboards and your digital posters. 

Tom Goddard: How do you mean? 

In terms of not getting hacked!

Tom Goddard: To be honest with you, David, it's a very rare occurrence, but it does get a lot of publicity when it happens and it's usually from a novelty point of view. I saw something a couple of days ago that was rather amusing, but it's very rare and our security levels are very high and that's why it's very rare. So I don't see that as an issue. 

Yeah, I think the mainstream media companies certainly understand it. It's the smaller kind of entrepreneurial operators who are trying to cut corners and then they discover, “oh, we shouldn't have cut that corner.” 

Tom Goddard: That's right. 

So if I'm an organization that is listening to this and thinking, I wanna know more, I perhaps want to join the World Out of Home Organization. How do they find you? 

Tom Goddard: As I said, the World Out of Home Organization is a not-for-profit organization. Our board of directors, which is like a who's who from the out-of-home media owners association, all give their time voluntarily to the organization. Its only function is to improve and promote out-of-home globally, and to drive sector growth. 

The membership fees are pretty nominal and the value that you get from the association makes it a no brainer. So you just log on to our website and there's a place there where you fill out the application form and join, and we are enjoying a very steady growth of new members at the moment. But it's not just about getting membership fees to cover the basic cost of running the organization, it's about learning and sharing, and everybody, as I said in Toronto, at the Congress, whether you are big or small and you have a story to tell, we do a weekly newsletter and everybody has a chance to tell their story in that.

So from my point of view, but of course I would say this anyway, David, it's a no brainer to join the World Out of Home Organization. You are doing only good. 

It's, correct? 

Tom Goddard: Correct! 

All right, that was terrific. Thank you for spending some time with me.

Tom Goddard: It was a great pleasure and I hope this nice weather continues, and let’s chat again sometime to see how much progress we've made.


Thomas Philippart de Foy, Appspace

Thomas Philippart de Foy, Appspace

August 10, 2022


Appspace has now been active in this industry for 20 years, and through much of that time the software company was one of the larger players in a crowd of companies all chasing the general business opportunity of digital signage. But in the last few years the company has pivoted, in a big way, to the well-defined vertical of workplace. The company now describes itself as a workplace experience platform for both physical and digital workplaces. Digital signage is still a main component of what Appspace does, but just one of several in a unified platform.

I caught up with Thomas Philippart de Foy, who has been with Appspace for a decade and is now the EVP of Product Innovation. In our chat, we get into what took Appspace down the workplace path, and then how it all works within an organization.

The company has a PILE of users and says its software is in place at roughly 200 of the companies listed in the Fortune 500. But it also offers free accounts to smaller users, drafting off the well-used concept of freemium software - allowing people to try before they buy.

If you are looking at workplace - either as a vendor or as an HR, IT or ops person, listen and learn.

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Thomas, thank you for joining me. You've been with Appspace for a very long time, right? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Just celebrating 10 years in September! 

Oh, okay, and we first met a number of years ago in Dubai, but then you moved to Costa Rica, which was a bit of a pivot, but now you're in Belgium for a holiday, right?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That's correct. I relocated to Costa Rica to get closer to the US time zone while still enjoying tropical weather.

You don't get tropical weather in Antwerp or wherever you're in Belgium? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Rarely, once a year in the summer, there's a good day, and then the rest is rainy. 

And you don't like that? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Once a year, maybe. 

So Appspace, that's a company that's been around for a very long time. When I first got to know Appspace, it was very much a general digital signage CMS platform, you know, “What are you doing? We can help you out!” And you were, at that time I believe, working pretty closely with Cisco, but in the last few years you could, you very much seem to have become a company that's all about workplace experience and digital signage is one of your outputs as opposed to being a pure digital signage company. 

Is that a fair assessment? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Absolutely. We're celebrating our 20 years anniversary this month, so such a big milestone, and the firs 15-16 years was really building a cloud-based CMS for digital signage. We had some mission statements. We wanted to be hardware agnostic, OS agnostic. We wanted to be cloud first, and then a few years back, we started expanding our offering and went into the room scheduling worlds, where a lot of other companies were playing, and just added that as a feature.

Then just two years ago, Summer 2020, one of our biggest customers on the West Coast came over to us and said, “Hey, we're looking to return to the office after the pandemic. We need help in providing our users with an app that would allow them to reserve workspaces, comply with security policies and so forth.” And we decided to get onto that journey and build a product, and six months later we launched. So January 2021 and 30 days later, we signed one of the biggest tech companies as a customer, and from there it's been quite a ride. 

Did the company go towards workplace because it looked like an opportune vertical to be in, or was it what the customers who you touching or asking for and it pulled you that way?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, in the last 10 years, I spent a lot of time meeting with customers and trying to understand their challenges and see where Appspace could help them. In this scenario, the customer came over and they had a real challenge, which we saw many other companies would have, and there was really no one in the market that had an answer for it two years ago. So we thought that's an opportunity in which we could really put some focus, leverage our existing enterprise grade platform, cloud-first experience and credibility in our large enterprise customer base to just go and expand the use case. 

Really, we also see that there is a correlation happening with workplace communication and workplace management. It's not gonna be two different things, it's actually gonna be one, and we thought we could come from our workplace communication expertise and go that direction while probably some more workplace management products would probably start moving towards workplace communication, and there would be a consolidation.

You also acquired a company called Beezy, which was all about the workplace as well, right? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, when we entered workplace management, we also launched our employee app, and from there, we got a lot of requests from customers to focus on employee communication in the app itself, and we met with Beezy, they had a very similar company culture, they had a good size and they had a product which was very modern, very forward looking and built on Microsoft SharePoint, and we thought that would nicely align with our product platform and our vision, so that's been a very fun journey, onboarding them into the Appspace world for the last few months. 

Now is Beezy still a brand, or is it that their IP and their capabilities are rolled into Appspace? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: We're rolling them into Appspace step by step. The brands are consolidating under a single brand. Now, it's the Appspace Modern Internet by Beezy, but we are clearly focusing on aligning all the different teams under a single organization, and also the brand and the product will be one. 

We definitely don't wanna run two separate products. We've always had that philosophy that with Appspace, it was one platform and features and not multiple point products so we're gonna continue doing that. 

There are digital science CMSs that say that the workplace is one of the verticals that they're in, and then there are companies that just do room booking software, and maybe the displays hardware as well, they blend those together. There are hot desk companies and everything else.

I'm thinking, like in a lot of other vertical markets, that the end user really doesn't wanna have to cobble together an overall solution that features all these different components and different companies doing them, they'd rather just have one company doing it all. Is that a fair statement?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yes, and the pandemic has accelerated the need for platforms versus point products. 

Pre-pandemic on the workplace management, you had the IWMS to manage all your assets, you had room booking solutions for the room scaling panels, you had visitor management solutions to bring visitors into the office. There were all point products, and then on the workplace comm, you had digital signage that was a point product, you had kiosks often very close to digital signage, and then you had email publishing, you had intranet. All of those were point products as well. I think what we're seeing now is they're unifying on both sides. So you're starting to see vendors who offer room booking, hot desking, visitor management, and then on the other side, you've got companies who are starting to consolidate and acquire, and they're doing digital signage, employee app, intranet, email publishing, and what we're doing is both at the same time, which is probably our biggest unique differentiator.

We believe, if you have an employee app, it's not only about employee communication or workplace management, it's the two combined. So a single app on users' devices versus multiple apps.

And I assume that resonates well with the business communicators and the IT people within a company, because they don't wanna have to deal with all these different logins and back in and out stuff? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: I guess there's two sides to it. There's certainly the administrative side to it, but there's also the user adoption. A big part of the return to the office is implementing new tools for employees to reserve access into a building, reserve a meeting room or a desk, and comply with formalities, that's for sure. But the other side of it is how do you communicate with those employees? How do you let them know what are the new rules in place? What are the new policies? How do you communicate what are the new benefits in the office, the new technology available? 

So being able to communicate in the same app that you're actually gonna reserve your workspace, invite your visitors, makes a lot of sense, and I think that's what HR and Corp comms are really liking with our story is that one app will do it all and it will of course integrate with all their backend systems and so forth.

So if I am a business communicator at a large corporation and I want to address these issues, what can you do for them and how does it work? 

Are they buying an enterprise license? Is it cloud based or are they installing something on prem, and how does it all come together?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, it's a great question and it's a big one and there's two sides to it. Once again on one side, you've got the admin, the console is fully cloud based, you don't need to install any software on your desktop, and you can start by just going on, create a free account and you get a full featured Appspace environment.

We don't monetize features, we monetize users and devices. So even with a free account, you’ll have all the features of Appspace, but you'll be limited in the number of users that can log into the app and the number of devices that you can register back.

So it’s the whole idea of Freemium? 

I just wanted to ask because “free” is intriguing to me. You don't see that very much in digital science anymore, unless it's entry level super limited in what it does and so on, but you're doing free with the idea of onboarding people, getting them used to the system and them realizing, I like this and I'm willing to pay for it? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, so what we think is that in order to be successful with Freemium, you need to have a platform that's really self-service, and I think that's what we focused a lot over the last 10 years is simplifying the product to the point where someone who just goes on our website, creates a free account, in 30 seconds is in the Appspace account, able to register a device, create some awesome content, publish it to the device and it's working, and we were able to do that for digital signage, but then we were able to expand that into all the digital communication channels and also for workplace management. 

So we maintained Freemium when a lot of other companies started thinking, “That doesn't work for us, let's go back to a trial account with someone hand holding you.” We don't need that with Appspace, you can get started, and so we have a huge amount of customers that create free accounts every month, and then when they're ready to expend, they just need to click on the link and they get in contact with a Sales rep and they can just either swipe their credit card or work through one of our partners to buy a subscription.

Is that a huge amount of free signups every month? Are there no maintenance until they actually contact a Sales rep and say, “I'm interested in paying for this”? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That's correct. They’re touchless most of the time. 

We have very large organizations that will have a lot of different free accounts, different departments, different team members who will create free accounts and get started, and then when they're ready to move and they want to do the security assessment and they want to talk contract and large scale deployments, they reach out to us. 

So I guess your sales people might look at big tech company, X and see that they have five different free accounts in different departments, and the salesperson could go to them and say, “Guys, you’re using a lot of this now, do you wanna harmonize it?” 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah. Our sales team, for sure, we also have a big marketing organization now. The product is also supported, so when you log into Appspace, you will have certain steps to follow to register a device, create content. It's the system that is holding your hand, not users.

And then along the way, you will have opportunities to get help, to talk to people. You can go to the knowledge center. Our Sales reps are already really there to help customers get to the next level, which makes it nice because when our Account Executives talk to customers, they already have a good understanding of what the customer has been doing with Appspace and they can really jump right into it. 

What happens when you have potential new customers who already have some sort of a room booking system and scheduling system, and they like them. 

Do you have APIs where you can just continue to work with them or do they have to abandon that and go entirely with Appspace?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: No, so we have open APIs, fully documented and online for every feature of our product. So we're happy to integrate with existing solutions that the customer may have still under contract or they're happy with it. What we're seeing though is very quickly customers consolidate because they see an opportunity for cost savings, for ease of management.

And then, you know the story of a unified platform, if you have an integration with an emergency system or your building management system and the fire alarm goes on, you can broadcast that message to a digital sign, to a visitor management kiosk, to a room scheduling panel inside the room on the video device, and that can be done really easily when you're using a platform. It's much harder to achieve when you're using point products, because you need to integrate each point product with a security system and many don't even support that concept of broadcast. 

So what we're seeing is when customers onboard Appspace for one use case, they very quickly start seeing the opportunity to save money, ease operations, and then benefit from the platform features and capabilities. 

Are you able to provide analytics? 

I've heard about this in the past where you start to get a sense of how a workplace is being used and where people are dwelling and how often rooms actually get booked and how many people are in the rooms, and it helps to size and maybe rethink some of the meeting spaces that a company may have.

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, so analytics and reporting is huge, and it's actually for the two sides of the product: for the workplace communication, understanding how users are interacting with content, whether it's on the app, on their phone, on their desktop, whether it's on a kiosk. 

We have this concept of a corporate Netflix. We've had that for yours where users can actually browse content on demand, very much like you browse your video content on Netflix. You do that with the remote control, with a touch panel, whatever the interaction you want to use. We track all of that, and that gives a lot of analytics on how content is being consumed, the success of a campaign and so forth.

And then on the workplace management, we have the analytics of what are the most active users, what type of workspace they book? How long do they sit at a desk? How long do they use a meeting room? If the meeting room for 10 people was booked, but used by two people, we have that data, so you can size your resources accordingly based on demand. 

And then you can visualize everything inside Appspace, but we also created integrations into Tableau, into Power BI. So customers can actually export the data and visualize it in their preferred data visualization tool. 

And in a workplace, the Power BI and Tableau stuff is interesting. I'm curious, are workplaces now much more sophisticated to where they see digital signage and visual communications as doing a lot more than congratulating somebody on their birthday or their 20th year with the company or whatever it may be. They're getting into visualizing KPIs in real time and that sort of thing?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Oh, yes, for sure. The number of customers that display building analytics when you enter the building, when you get on the first floor, where you can see the floor plan, you can see the heat maps, you can see the air quality, you can see the average temperature of the neighborhood. That certainly is a very common use case nowadays, providing building insights to users on digital signs is becoming really exciting. 

I think what we're seeing is a huge opportunity of combining workplace management and workplace communication is when you now have context to where digital signage can help, and you know that in the retail world, there's been a bunch of vendors who've monitored gender, age, ethnicity in order to manage communication campaign to those audience and measure also. In workplace management, you don't really care about age or gender. But what you do care is which user is sitting where, and when you've got a majority of salespeople sitting in a neighborhood, can you actually change the content to relate to those people? And that's been something that we've done a lot over the last year and a half is creating that context of digital signage experience, where even though I'm going back into an office where it's a hot desking hotel, the content still speaks to me, because the system is aware that I'm gonna be sitting there, and I think that's huge, because in those days you used to know exactly where people were sitting so you were planning your content for the sales team based on where people were sitting. Now, the system will automate that process based on the data they get from their workplace management feature.

And they're not using computer vision or things like that? Because when I come in to work at an office, I have to book a specific desk, and that's how you know that I'm there, right? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Either because you're booking a specific desk or you're sitting at a specific desk, and when you're actually sitting, we are able to identify who you are, and therefore dynamically say what's interesting to you is more sales data or more product marketing data, and therefore we mush multiple channels of content together to provide a perfect playlist that matches the audience. 

But how do you know I'm at that desk? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That's where workplace technology comes, whether it's smart docking stations, whether it's physically connecting into the network and passing the user identity, whether it's those new video devices that we see popping left and right on the desks. It could be when you have a desk puck, which is similar to a room scheduling panel, you arrive and you will scan the QR code with your phone and authenticate and check into a desk and say, this is now my desk. So we have a lot of different tools that allows us to identify the user and therefore to get that data that we need to personalize the workspace environment. 

Through the pandemic, particularly in the first months, there was all kinds of discussion about how the workplace was gonna change, because those workplaces were being hollowed out through lockdowns and so on, and there's been all kinds of discussions and debate and everything else, particularly in the last six months or so, is where workplaces have started to repopulate as to whether it really did change all that much, and whether everybody's just working from home or everybody's into a hybrid thing. 

You're on the ground, so to speak, you're dealing with companies who are implementing this stuff. What's your sense of what's actually happening? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: I think companies are worried that people are not coming back to the office as quickly as they had hoped they would, and although many companies during the pandemic said that they would not require employees to go back to the office. It's very different two years later, we realize how the workplace culture is important, and having people, if not every day, at least a few days a week, come into the office and meet their teammates and so forth. So we're now seeing a sense of urgency from many customers to find ways to convince people to go back to the office and that comes with offering a new experience, offering new services. 

The new experience is making sure that regardless of where I sit in the building, I have the building talking to me, the building is aware that I'm there and being able to personalize that experience, and I think that's where digital signage is playing such a critical role. But then in the employee app, when I'm booking a room or when I'm booking a desk, I may need different types of services, maybe I need different technology, or maybe I want catering services. I should be able to do that from the app and reserve this ahead of time, and we're seeing a lot of demand around those new experiences where employees will get more benefits when they come to the office, not only benefits of a better physical workplace, but also benefits in terms of the services that are offered, and that will incentivize them to come back into the office, and then naturally, as people will come back to the office, they will meet their teammates again, and they will see why it's so important to meet in person, and that will create a dynamic, and at some point I think we'll get back to somewhat a normal situation where most people will go to the office more regularly.

Did the pandemic accelerate something that, from your perspective, was going to happen anyways and just speed it up out of necessity, or were there a lot of companies that weren't really thinking about changing how their workplaces were experienced? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That's a great question. I actually think the pandemic gave the opportunity for large organizations to make a cultural change in the workplace that was planned, but maybe seen as a 5-10 years initiative, and they were able to do it in 2 years. 

Hot-desking in hotels is an example. We've been talking about hotels and hot-desking for years, but no one was able to implement it. It was such a big cultural change. The pandemic gave the opportunity for companies to take the decision, to reduce real estate and implement hot-desking in hotels, and they had a good reason for that, and for employees, it was like a natural thing that was happening. It would have taken years to get there otherwise. That's why no one was really focusing on the technology for it. 

I also think that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of apps, like Microsoft Teams. Many companies were still using Skype for Business and other tools and they were struggling to unify under a modern app like Microsoft Teams or Slack or WebEx, and this gave them the opportunity to do that, and by doing that, all employees now have one common app on their personal device, whether it's a phone or a desktop, they're able to communicate, chat, exchange files, and we've just launched our embedded app for Teams. So now you have Appspace embedded in Teams, which means users don't need to download a new app to reserve their workspaces or receive team communication. They have all of it inside one app, and I think that's an acceleration that's a result of the pandemic. 

We obviously saw how Zoom and Microsoft and WebEx grew from that. That has also helped in the adoption of new technology, like workplace management and employee comms. 

Yeah, I was curious about that because if you have all these other workplace tools, the next logical thing to integrate into there would be video conferencing, but that's that's an entirely different business and pretty damn complicated. So the easier path would be to integrate with something like Teams, right?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That's correct. I think Teams offer the framework to embed an app fully into Teams, handle the authentication for the user, and then from there, we have so much insights on what the user needs that we're really able to personalize the experience.

The Teams embedded app is a huge win for customers because if you think of a very large service organization with 200,000 desk workers, rolling out a new app for communication and for workplace management is a big challenge. Getting users to download the app or deploying the app to their personal device, enabling user authentication, tracking how users are actually logging in the app. This is no longer a challenge when you are embedded in Teams, because one morning you wake up and on your sidebar, you've got a new button, you click on it and that's where you reserve your workspace, that's where you see your workplace communication, all of it in an app that you were already logging in every morning. 

So I'm a CTO at a very large tech company, and if I'm a CTO, the company's going down, but regardless of that, if I'm sitting across from you and I say, “okay, this is interesting, make me comfortable that this is secure.” What do you tell me? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: We obviously work with close to two hundred of the Fortune 500 companies, so we're used to working with very large organizations that have very strict security requirements, and our product (the cloud service) is already approved by IT, by Security and enabled whether it's for digital signage or room booking or visitor for one of the features. 

Enabling suddenly to turn on the other features doesn't require any more security assessment because the product has been approved. We also have only one app, whether you are running our app on a system on a chip display, on a kiosk, on an iPad, it's the same app in a different container. And this means that once you have your app approved for one of the use cases, your app is actually approved for all the other use cases. That's again been strengths on our side is trying to keep it single simple platform that allows you to really very quickly scale this across your organization.

One thing that's come up a lot in the last couple years is digital science companies who addressed some of the ideas of remote work by having, in effect, a network screensaver, something that would push out to home based workers and pop messaging on a screen and all that. Are you doing that sort of thing, and if so, is it widely adopted? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, it's a little bit what we started doing five years ago inside meeting rooms on video devices. When the video device is not used for video conferencing, pop up a screensaver and its Appspace, it's running natively on the client and it will display all the important communication. In the case of a meeting room, we're targeting a wider audience. 

Now, when you run our UWP app on a Windows device, we obviously know who is the owner of that device, so we're able to personalize the content. Now, I see this as an interesting use case for screensavers. Although I've never seen someone sitting in front of his laptop watching a screensaver as they do a digital sign, drinking a coffee, but I do like the experience of: you're running the Appspace app on the desktop, it's in screensaver mode. When you plug in your laptop in the office or at home, it pops up the experience where as a user, you can say, “Hey, I'm working from home” or “I'm in the office”, and that then trickles into a whole series of events that makes your colleagues, your teammates aware of where you are working from today, are you in the office and so forth. 

So screensaver for just pure content playlist, that's really easy to achieve, but I don't know that this is a huge benefit and a huge win, but coupling that with workplace management can be really interesting.

Yeah, I do like the idea of being able to instant message somebody in a way, other than an email, but you're right. If I was working for a large company and I was sitting at home and there was something steadily popping up on the screen telling me about Millie's birthday or Bob's retirement or whatever, I'd be looking very hard to figure out some way to disable it. 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: One thing we did though, is we worked with a big law firm in Canada, and the CIO managed to convince the partners to move from a physically assigned office to a hot office, if you will. Very challenging, because lawyers and partners are very conventional. They like their workspace environment. They want their corner office. And what the CIO was able to convince is there would be new sacrifice in the personal experience and to do that, they put in every office, a digital sign, 55 inch display coupled with video or not, depending on the office profile. Outside the office, there is an office scheduling panel. 

The partner from home is able to reserve on their Appspace app, “Hey, I need an office from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and these are the amenities I need.” They reserve that workspace, and when they come into the office, they actually check on the panel outside or on their phone and the digital sign instantly switches to their personal channel. They have potentially their practice news, maybe their preferred sports news, and also their family pictures that they want, and they've just personalized that office with content for the partners and that made them really excited because now they had a big 55 inch display showing their practice news or their family pictures instead of those little frames on the desk that would take the dust.

I think when technology really increases the user experience and doesn't sacrifice anything, I think this works really well as a home office as well. If you have an extra display and you can use that real estate, that makes sense, but let's not be mistaken, people care about themselves primarily, they want information that's relevant to them. If I'm at home, I don't know that I want this birthday of a colleague, but I wouldn't mind having pictures of a year ago from my family and kids that I celebrated, maybe that's more useful for me. 

We haven't talked about back of house and all the discussions around being workplace, as it relates to an office, are you doing work in production areas and industrial areas and so on?

Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah. So if you remember, we acquired a company called The Marlin Company a couple of years ago, and their main focus was industrial. A very large amount of customers in that space, and we've been working a lot with those customers in transitioning from digital signage, which was a normal evolution of printed posters to digital content and focus a lot around safety and workplace wellbeing and so forth to communicate on personal devices. 

Now, frontline workers typically don't have a company email address. So how do they log into the app? So we combine digital signage with the employee app. Digital signage will say, “Hey, there's a new employee app. To access the app, scan this QR code!” User scans the QR code on their phone, enters an employee ID and a phone number and a few seconds later, they get a one time password to create their credentials and they are now logged into the same app as the desk workers with different feature sets, but it's the same app, and now they also have the ability to have employee communication, team communication. They can chat, they can react socially and comment on the content the same way anyone else. 

This is breaking the barrier between the desk workers and the frontline workers where really the frontline workers who didn't have a lot of the technology stack because they didn't have a company email address, where everyone has a smartphone so why wouldn't they have the same benefits? And that one time password, no email login has been huge win for us and for our customers in making sure every employee is aligned and has access to the same capabilities. 

Last question, this conversation flew by. What's the installed footprint for Appspace at this point? 

Thomas Philippart de Foy: It's always hard to say because we count users. We evaluate that around 10 million users benefit from Appspace around workplace management and workplace communication today. We have around 2,500 customers, two hundred of the Fortune 500, and deployments that will scale on the screen size between 50 screens and 10,000 screens for a single customer.

And on the user side, our largest deployment is 175,000 users logging into our app to receive team communication or reserve workspaces. So very large deployments. We like to focus on large customers, but with the Marlin acquisition, we were able to really get into the industrial segment where you have a lot of smaller organizations, maybe not always smaller in terms of number of workers, but maybe smaller in terms of number of physical workspaces.

Yeah. All right, this was great. I learned a lot, which is, I guess the point.

Thomas Philippart de Foy: That was great. Thank you so much for giving us the time. 

Hans Feil, Etulipa

Hans Feil, Etulipa

August 3, 2022


E-paper displays are, by far, best known for the little e-readers people use instead of printed books. The core technology used for those readers is what's also being used for things like meeting room displays and updated bus stop schedule signs that run off batteries and, in some cases, solar chargers. But that's all been in black and white and gray. Color displays, and particularly displays that can do full motion graphics and video playback, have largely stayed in the bucket of future technology.

A small Dutch company is well along the path of changing all that - using something called electro-wetting display technology that gets its brightness from the sun, and would be used as low-energy alternatives to big LED video displays used for out of home advertising.

In this podcast, I have a detailed chat with Etulipa founder Hans Feil, whose company is rapidly evolving and maturing the technology, and has a big investment and R&D partner in Daktronics, the big South Dakota-based LED manufacturer. We get into what the technology is and how it works, its differences with other kinds of e-paper, how it sets up, and its benefits.

The company is still at the advanced R&D stage, but far enough along that it anticipates being in small quantity production next year, through a manufacturing partner in Taiwan.

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Hans, thank you very much for joining me. Let's just get right to it. What the heck is electro wetting display technology? 

Hans Feil: That's a good question. It's what they call reflective display technology. Of course, you probably know about it already, but if people don't know, the introduction that I made is that I say you probably will have an e-reader, many people have e-readers nowadays and it's black and white and a little bit slow, but you can read it outdoors. If you take your iPad outdoor in the sun, it's difficult to read. We have something like your the display on the e-reader, but then with color and it's fast, and that's the that's the difference.

So it's a reflective display technology. It reflects light so there's no back light behind, it doesn't emit light. So if you take our display into the dark, you don't see anything unless you light it up with a back light or front light. So that's for newcomers. If you're a chemist or a physicist or a scientist, I’d probably say it a little bit different, in the sense that what we do is that we manipulates liquids colored oils, and we have a layer colored oils and with little cells with oils and we can make small droplets with it and the size of the droplets we can. 

For instance, if you compare to print, many people have ink-jet printers and if they would take a magnifying glass and look at the paper, they're see little cyan, magenta and yellow droplets on the white paper, and what we do is we’re mimicking this printing with cyan, magenta and yellow. So we have a white paper or white reflector, we call it. And we have three layers of glass on top of it with cyan, magenta, and yellow oil and each individual layer, we can switch this oil droplets, making them small or big. And if all the layers are spread, it's black because you don't see anything, all the lights are absorb. And if there are all the droplets are small, white or nearly white and depending on which droplets you switch and can get all the colors of the rainbow, and that's all very low power. 

From what I read on your website, unlike traditional, if you wanna call traditional ePaper, what we would know from E-ink displays primarily, this can do 25 frames per second motion, which is quite a bit different because when you see something change on an ePaper screen, it goes nuts for a fraction of a second as it reorganizes itself. 

Hans Feil: Yes, and in our case, it doesn't really reorganize, droplets just become big or small and it goes very fast. 

Was that a big step to get to the point where you could change them that quickly or is that kind of inherent in the technology design? 

Hans Feil: It comes automatically with the technology. It has never been slow. 

And with ePaper, and I'm certainly not banging on Eink, but they spent 20+ years advancing their color displays and they'll put out press releases saying we now have more color support than we used to but basically it's been a very long road to get 'em to full color. 

You're saying you've got full color gamut right now? 

Hans Feil: Yes, but also in our case, it was a very long long route too. The first paper of Rob Hayes and Johan Feenstra from Phillips Research was from 2003, so 19 years ago, this nature paper, where they're first showing to the world electro wetting display, or at least the concept and some examples. So that's 19 years ago and since then we are working very hard on progressing technology, making better making it possible to manufacture displays and so forth. So it's also a very long route. 

So what's the tie, if there is one to Phillips? 

Hans Feil: Right now, there is no tie except that we are located here in Eindhoven, what they call High Tech Campus, Eindhoven and it used to be the same campus, but smaller from Phillips Research in the old days. So the technology originally, the effect of switching oil droppers, was initially invented here a few hundreds of meters a away from the place where I'm standing now. 

Am I remembering correctly that you have a background with Phillips as well?

Hans Feil: That's correct, yeah. I worked what they call the Phillips Research Labs since 1988 in various functions, but mostly quite scientific work in the old days, when it was a very scientific lab. And then I worked for a number of years in battery technology, lithium polymer batteries, and by the end of the 90s, and I got in touch of the guys who started this electro wetting displays, I think in 2004, so I'm 18 years active in electro wetting displays already. 

So like you said, it has been a bit of a road then? 

Hans Feil: Yes, sure.  

When did Etulipa start? 

Hans Feil: I’ll share a bit of history. At Phillips, when we were working on electro wetting display technology, we did a spinoff called Liquavista, you may have heard the name. It was early 2006 and a little bit prior to that, there was interest from the German automotive mirror manufacturer, a very big one, who wanted to see if this technology could be used for rear view auto dimming mirrors, and at that time it looked very promising.

In fact, after co-founding Liquavista, half a year later, together with an old colleague, I cofounded Miortech and Miortech was dedicated to use this electro wedding display technology for rearview mirrors. So by the end of 2006, we started this company, Miortech, trying to make the mirrors. Turned out to be that technology was not as fast as we hoped so there was a lot of development work to do. We really had to go back to the drawing table. In fact, we found out that there was a better way of making electro wetting displays with a different architecture that solved most of the initial problems. We patented that and then we started making prototypes of this mirrors, but basically it was a little bit too late, the market evolved and these automotive companies didn't want to really want it anymore. 

But also in fact, if you're trying to make a mirror with small oil droplets or small cells, there's also always some light scattering from this droplets and so we could never get this mirrors fully free from haze. It was always a little bit of haze, so it was not good enough. So by the end of 2012, so it was almost 10 years ago, we said these mirrors are no good. It's a display technology. We have our own patented way of making electro wetting displays, maybe there are display companies who are interested in, for instance, licensing this technology, the way that we make the devices. Turns out to be not so easy, but at some point of time, we were asked, “Can't you make outdoor display with this technology?” And in fact, that's the sweet spot of electro wetting display. 

If you really want to have bright, reflective colors, you need CMY, the stack of cyan, magenta, yellow. Just black and white display plus color filters is just not bright enough because you are throwing away two third of the light and so for reflective, you need CMY, and this stack has always a certain thickness because of the glass thickness, which also mean that it limits the the pixel density that you can reach. The rule of thumb is that the the thickness of the stack, CMY is roughly in the same range as the pixel size. And for outdoor displays, if you have a 10 millimeter pixels that's pretty good, that's pretty high resolution already. 

So we made a few samples with CMY, very simple samples. And we went along to outdoor display companies, including Daktronics at the time, it was 2013 or 2014 or something like that and we showed it to the folks at Daktronics and they liked it. So they said this looks promising, of course, it was very early days, we just had samples. But since then, we have worked together with Daktronics. They became a shareholder, supporting us all the way, step by step from small displays to black and white displays to full color displays that we have right now. So the story started in 2013, when we stopped the mirrors and said, okay, we need to move to outdoor displays with this, and I think it was a good bet. 

Did you find yourself going in the direction of outdoor displays because of market size or was it more the case of a company in Daktronics that specializes in large format, outdoor displays, was interested in it and therefore you had an automatic market partner? 

Hans Feil: No, the funny thing is, when we were still at Phillips and we were looking for what kind of markets we would first do with Liquavista, with the technology. I did some research on different markets and I found out that outdoor display markets was in the sweet spot of the technology. But then, and we are talking about 2005 or something like that, the venture capitalist who invested in Liquavista really want to go in mobile displays. So it was at a time when Nokia was still big and the market was growing so reflective displays for cell phones was the automatic market and we put aside the outdoor display at that time. 

So talking about my first PowerPoints I had and spreadsheet about market sizes for electro wedding displays for outdoor was already in 2005, so I had it always in my back of the minds and I had presentations ready when we made the switch. That's the reason why we visited Daktronics and a few others. So we didn't make the move to outward display just because of Daktronics, we had chosen for outdoor displays and it just fits with Daktronics. 

So just like LED displays, the kind that are manufactured by Daktronics primarily, these displays have a pixel pitch, correct?

Hans Feil: Correct. 

So there's a gap between each pixel basically? 

Hans Feil:. Yes, they're point sources, sort of. 

And right now it's 10 millimeters, which in  LED terms would sometimes be referred to as P10 or something, but I'm reading that you anticipate that you can get it down to 2.5mm? 

Hans Feil: Yes, that's correct. We already have made samples with TFT back planes with 2.5mm pixel pitch. So right now we have P10, so that are the first displays that we're making but the next stop would be 2.5 millimeter and also larger tiles. 

At P10, that's very competitive with conventional billboards that you would see on the side of a road and up above a building, that sort of thing. 2.5 means you could have it as a sidewalk level display that somebody would be able to view quite nicely from say 10 feet away?

Hans Feil: Yes, exactly, like bus stops, sidewalks and that kinda stuff. 

Yeah. Do you have to get even tighter than that, and is it possible if you wanted to do print and bus schedules and things like that? 

Hans Feil: If we want to go to smaller pixel sizes, what's needed is somewhat thinner glass. So right now, the glass that we use is 0.5 millimeter and we have a stack of number of pieces of glass but if you go glass that’s 0.2 millimeter or 0.3 millimeter, we can go to pixel sizes of 1 or 1.5 millimeter. 

Is that something that's possible, or it's not even developed yet by the glass manufacturers?

Hans Feil: Oh no, the glass is there. There's even thinner. Basically, we do it step by step, but the glass is there. 

So this isn't a wish, it's just a when? 

Hans Feil: Yeah, exactly. There are many things that are a when. 

These units are, again, similar in certain respects to LED displays in terms of they have cabinets or tiles, and they stack together?

Hans Feil: Correct. 

What are the sizes of these tiles, and are there limitations as to how many you can put together or is it modular and it can be as big as you want?

Hans Feil: It's modular. The the tiles that we have right now are roughly 10 inch, and we have six tiles in one panel. That's how we build the displays that we have here in our backyard. And the next step with 2.5 millimeter, we're looking for 21 inch tiles so there'll be bigger tiles and smaller pitch, but there are no limits in how big you can make the displays of it. It's just metal scaling up the electronics and it's all modular. 

With the video support, I read that right now you're demonstrating animations and not full color video. Is there a reason for that or is just a matter that that's what makes sense right now? 

Hans Feil: Yeah, that it's mostly electronics development. There are two parts to this, one is the uniformity of the tiles. We are constantly improving the uniformity so the gray scales and the gray scale definitions become better and better, so that's what's needed, and the electronics development is a separate thing since we have to see how fast we can make the electronics work with the number of gray levels we have. Right now, it's designed with 7 bits color so you can have 128 droplet sizes per color, which for reflective is very much, to be honest, the uniformity is not so good that we can really make this one on the 128 droplet sizes very precise. It's a little bit less but that's all about scaling up the electronics. 

In the advertising world, generally speaking for digital out-of-home advertising, they're not using full motion anyways, except for spectaculars in Times Square and those big wrap arounds and so on. There's one heck of a lot of deployed stock that is just digital posters basically?

Hans Feil: Yeah, for example, along freeways, you're not allowed to do any animation and so on. 

So as long as you can address full color and have the clarity that people want, they're happy? 

Hans Feil: Yeah, with the first display out here, it was a test for us to see what's the color space that we can see, what's the impression that we have, and so far we are quite happy. 

In fact, all the visitors that come along, many of them do not have very high expectations because they don't know what to expect with reflective colors and the the veterans, so to say, who have seen reflective displays before, they know when colors are dull. But everybody was surprised when they walk outdoor and see what we have in terms of color and brightness. People are amazed. 

I believe I saw that these displays can handle 15,000 lumens, that's the maximum brightness? 

Hans Feil: To be honest, we didn't measure it exactly yet. That really depends on how much sun comes on it. It scales perfectly with the with the amount of sunshine in the environment. It's like when you have newspaper, I don't have to tell you, of course, that newspaper in the bright sun is very bright but because your eyes are accommodated to the brightness of the environment, you don't do not really notice that it's so bright and that's the same with our display. 

In fact, here’s a funny story, the cameraman who made his shots for the video clip that we have, he was he was used to taking shots of video or display and he suddenly realizes that he didn't have to adjust all his systems when the sun goes behind the cloud, the display didn’t become less bright because the trees and the grass, et cetera, also became less bright. It was then when he realized, okay this is different from what I've seen so far because LED displays are brighter compared to the surroundings all the time.

Yeah. It's wildly different, it's the opposite of outdoor LCDs, which are the primary things used for display totems to advertise street furniture, that kind of thing. They're always battling the sun, they've gotta be at least 2500 nits to eve overpower glare and so on, and you're saying, the brighter it is, the better it's gonna get?

Hans Feil: Oh yeah, it's fine. But also, today's very gray weather here and I've been there with visitors when it was raining in and it still looked pretty good. It's only when it's getting really dark, likewhen the sun goes down, then you really notice. But it's the same with your eReader. At some point of time, you realize, okay, now I do not see enough contrast anymore, I have to switch on my back light or front light or whatever you have. 

That backlight or front light, whatever it may be, that's running off of a battery that's charged by solar collectors, right?

Hans Feil: Yeah, that's correct. 

So you can be completely autonomous from electrical power grid, but is there enough power out of that battery to do cellular connectivity for updates? 

Hans Feil: Yes, sure. In fact, the trailer that we have out here, that was designed to have an LED display mounted on it, so that there's a little bit big battery, but it's one solar panel, a lead acid batteries in this trailer. In fact, we have never charged this one, never. Previously we had a black and white display on it and with our color display, the power consumption of our display is so low, we don't need to charge it.

One thing I noticed in the reference photos is that the units have seams. It reminds me of 5-10 years ago when the LCD manufacturers every year would come up with some definition or description of even narrower bezel or seams in between the displays, and when LED came along, that got of a lot interest just because the seams went away, and people who were designing spaces were saying, okay, I wanna use LED instead, because there are no seams.

Are you getting any pushback about that about the seams that exist and will those with time go away? 

Hans Feil: Pushback is a big word, but people do notice the seams, and although the seam here that we have here is smaller than the width of one pixel, so if you walk to the display, of course you see the seam, and we prefer to have narrow seams or no seams, but you can see the seams. If you walk away, they become less noticeable, and if you cannot discriminate between individual pixels anymore, then the seams are also becoming very thin or hardly visible.

With LED display, if you walk toward the display, at some point of time, you can see the individual LEDs, right? The image breaks down and it become little light dots. And in our case, you start noticing the seam more and more. If you're really standing in front of it, of course you’ll see many seams, but when you walk away on to say 30-50 feet for P10 pixel then it's hardly noticeable anymore. But again, of course, everybody wants to have thinner seams or no seams. So we have a program working on that to get them thinner, less noticeable. And also in future, when we go to larger tiles, seams will become thin. 

We had a big outdoor advertiser here in Holland who who used our 100 square meters screens with P10 pixels, and said that this solution would be good, and not to worry about the seams very much because for 100 square meter display, you're standing 50 meters away or even more, and you won’t see the seams anymore. 

Where's the product at, are you now shipping or is it still in R&D? 

Hans Feil: No, we are now in the testing phase. So we have it out here in the backyard. The next display will be made and shipped to South Dakota for evaluating by Daktronics and their customers. By the end of the year, we are targeting to have a production capacity with our partner, URT in Taiwan, for 50 square meters per year, which isstill not much, but it's doable. And then early next year, we think the first display will be used by first customers here in the region because turns out there are parties that connected to us that have been waiting for low power display for many years but they couldn't go anywhere because the only thing that they had was LED, right? And now they have this option which some of them were looking for it for many years already. 

We have a client who, every two years, was making calculations about power consumption of the display and every two years he was disappointed that it was never low enough, and now suddenly he got in touch with us and said, this is what I need. So he’ll probably use a number of our displays in the first half of next year. 

Are the upfront costs for this going to be higher than that for the upfront cost of conventional LED displays for the same footprint and are the savings more on the backend because you're not using power?

Hans Feil: Yeah, that's correct. Right now, we are making them in small quantities So the price is not really reflecting how it can be. But indeed, there is a huge savings in situations where people have to make a connection to the grid, which can take months before they can get a connection, and it’s also very often very expensive. We had one small, black and white display in a New York City bus stop, it turns out to be that the solution with our displays in that bus stop with a solar panel and a battery was 30% cheaper than the original version with LED displays, which were connected to the grid. 

This connection to the grid and all the work that, that goes along it and permits and so forth, make it very expensive. So even when there was a battery added and a solar panel added, and our display was more expensive than the LED one, it was much cheaper to have reflective displays. It was also new for us at that time. 

So going forward into 2023, if I am a outdoor media company in, let's say Australia, and I want to buy this, am I going to be buying it through Daktronics, or will you be licensing this more broadly than that? 

Hans Feil: Most likely through Daktronics. Probably the first smaller smaller display here in the region, we will install ourselves because that's more convenient, it's nearby, et cetera. But once this becomes bigger and more mature, it's our goal, our business plan that we will be creating the panels and Daktronics will make displays with those panels and sell them worldwide.

And as you scale up maybe the existing manufacturer in Taiwan who right now might be a contract manufacturer doing small lots, you would figure it out from there what kind of manufacturing capacity you’d need? 

Hans Feil: Yeah. So for now that they have enough capacity, there should be no problem.

We are open for talks, the whole consortium of URT, Daktronics and ourselves, if there are any other major display company who says, okay, I also want to adopt electro wetting displays, because we always believe if we want to make this successful, we should not really keep it all for ourselves.

And there's lots of money to be made,-without a lot of grief-in licensing.

Hans Feil: Yeah, we're open to do anything that's reasonable. But there are many in fact, maybe all the major display companies that at some point of time tried making electro wetting displays and did R&D but they found it very difficult and stopped with it. 

We have our own technology, what we call second generation technology with different approach and we solved all those problems that were there with the first generation electro wetting displays. It has taken some time, but it's worked quite well now.

I'm looking forward to seeing it at some point, somewhere. I hope I don't have to go to South Dakota in the middle of the winter, but you never know. 

Hans Feil: Well, you could also come here, but I'm not sure if you are in Europe anytime soon. 

Yeah, well, Eindhoven has a better football team than Brookings South Dakota, so that would be a better trip for me. 

Anyway, thank you very much for spending some time with me.

Hans Feil: Yeah, I'm very glad that I got opportunity from you to talk about this. And I hope you can watch our display anytime soon, either here or in the US somewhere. Seeing is believing, in fact, and reflective is just different. 

Yeah. I completely buy into the idea that it's one of those things that it's interesting to read and to hear about in a podcast, but to walk up and see it is where you're gonna close the deal.

Hans Feil: Yeah, exactly. 

All right, thanks again.

Hans Feil: Thank you very much, and hope to see you soon.

PJ Thelen, RoveIQ

PJ Thelen, RoveIQ

July 27, 2022


When PJ Thelen talks about the company's software and hardware, he focuses almost entirely on the experiences they enable and deliver, as opposed to the features and specs of the technology.

It's refreshing, because a lot of the conversation and marketing around outdoor displays for directories, wayfinding and advertising has been - at least in recent years - about how they were more than just screens, but smart city devices that did a variety of things, including WiFi connectivity and IoT sensors. Thelen went so far as rebranding the company he now runs from smartLINK to RoveIQ - getting away from the heavily-used smart moniker and emphasizing how Rove speaks to enabling people to navigate a space with intelligent - the IQ bit - guidance.

The company has a CMS, sophisticated mapping, an ad server and analytics capabilities all designed to help people find their way around big places. The early adopters have been commercial properties - like mixed-use lifestyle developments. In many to most cases, those are wayfinding directories with mapping, supported by advertising.

But Thelen sees a lot of possibilities working with large-footprint healthcare, helping people find their way around sprawling medical campuses. There would be physical screens providing guidance, but in his vision, RoveIQ guides people from the time they park in a hospital garage all the way to a specific building, floor and waiting room.

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Peter, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what RoveIQ is all about? 

Peter (PJ) Thelen: RoveIQ really emphasizes smart kiosks and wayfinding software solutions. 

We just rebranded our organization from smartLINK to RoveIQ and Dave, a big reason for that was we wanted to make sure our new name is better aligned with the solutions that we bring to market and the value that we provide for both our customers and partners. Now the word Rove, it's the whole idea of wandering, discovering, et cetera but the IQ element is to do it in an intelligent fashion. So you have a very efficient and enjoyable experience.

So if somebody listening to this is trying to visualize what you do, the visual that would immediately spring to mind would be a display totem outside in a public plaza or something like that with directory or mapping, correct? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, without a doubt. So I always use the analogy, Dave, to pretend that you're going to a place for the first time. You're not quite sure where you are or what is around you so you leverage the hardware and our software to understand what is available and then ultimately leveraging either the kiosk experience or the mobile experience allows you to essentially get to where you want to go leveraging a Blue Dot scenario, which obviously is our wayfinding software.

Blue Dot scenario, what do you mean by that, or is that just the name of the software itself? 

Peter Thelen: No, that's just the analogy I use Dave, where if you think about where you are and let's just say, hypothetically, you want to go to a restaurant, the dots correlate to the path that you need to take to go from where you are to where you ultimately want to go.

The old name, smartLINK, connoted the whole idea of smart cities and that there were all kinds of companies coming up with smart city kiosks in the last decade or so, and I don't necessarily see a lot of traction for those sorts of things. Is that kind of driving this as well? What if you better focus on the whole idea of guiding people, as opposed to saying this is this station that will do all these other things to help cities become smarter? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, we took a step back. RoveIQ is a software company. It just so happens that it needs a hardware platform to promote the value that we drive on a day in and day out basis.

In our minds, smart was widely used. It didn't necessarily correlate to exactly what we do today and where we're going tomorrow. From a search engine optimization perspective, it was tough just because there's so many smart this and smart that. As RoveIQ continues to grow, we're growing more and more into other verticals beyond just the smart city. So the bottom line is that we wanted a name that more appropriately aligned with who we are and what we're doing on a day in and day out basis, and it just made sense. 

It was a great exercise. It was about a six month long exercise with a phenomenal local company here called Brand Fuel, and we're very happy with the results.

There seem to be two kinds of threads of these kinds of outdoor street furniture displays. There are those shopping malls and community business districts, that sort of thing put in to help people find their way around intelligently, and then there are those that are there primarily as advertising. “Oh, by the way, there's also a directory” or “there's also some sort of a lookup thing” but it exists for advertising. Do you go down one path or the other, or do you serve both? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, that's a great question, and we definitely serve both, but there is no doubt that the emphasis of our software is around creating experiences. Experiences that a visitor or a resident is wanting to have, or is not expecting, and ultimately has, which generates this great feeling. 

Our software, which we consider a platform. It is a content management solution. It has the ability to be an ad server, which allows you to download and upload ads as well as schedule ads, then it has this third element around data analytics and reporting. So we feel like we have some of the best software out there. But there is no doubt at the end of the day, we're trying to promote more experiences as compared to just ads. 

But a big part of the ROI from a customer perspective is that digital out-of-home ad opportunity, and post COVID that's growing significantly, which is creating great opportunities. 

And ultimately, regardless of the venue and the scenario, something's gotta pay for the thing, right, so that's why advertising tends to come into play? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah. We always say there's hard and soft ROI in terms of your investment in RoveIQ. The soft is the experiences that both the customer, the resident, the visitor, incurs on a per visit basis, and how do you measure that? Secondly, it is the digital out-of-home ads based on whatever DMA that property or the city resides in that correlates to how big of an opportunity that is, and then the third element, which in my mind is still fairly immature, but it's becoming more relevant and more mature each and every day is this whole idea of how do you leverage the data? 

Whether it's the touch analytics, whether it's the video analytics and then the ability to potentially incorporate both WiFi and mobile, and then what do you use to do with that data to do something of value with it. 

You mentioned experience, how do you define and characterize experience? 

The experience can be what you see on the screen, what it looks like and everything else, or the experience can be, “that was easy. I found what I was looking for quickly, and that was a great experience” because now I can go in and experience whatever public plaza or mall or attraction that I'm at? 

Peter Thelen: At the end of the day, people want to be informed, they want to be educated, they want to gain access to information in a very quick and inefficient manner, and ultimately, they want to. 

We're designing our software where when you approach a kiosk and you start to interact, you can get off of it in less than 40 seconds and feel really happy about the experience and you're on your way, and you feel like you're on your way in an intelligent way. I always use the analogy, Dave, if you come to a property or a city for the first time, you're gonna be inclined to use our software. We at, RoveIQ wanna make sure every time you visit that city or that particular property, regardless if you know where you are and what is around you, because of your previous experience, you want to, once again, interact with our software, it causes you to want to come back, and if you're coming back, that means we're doing our job and adding great value to the customer, the property, etc. 

So if you're doing your job, this is where repeat visitors tend to migrate to like Moss to a light. They just know, “I'll start here to help me find what I'm looking for”?

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct, and our new brand promise is this whole idea of enriching lives through intelligent software designed to move humans, then we elaborate saying both physically and emotionally, and that emotional element is probably the most important. 

So where does your company start and where does it stop in terms of services and technology that you provide?

Peter Thelen: So knowing that we're a software company that ultimately needs a digital display to add value and differentiate, we're providing a fully integrated solution to a customer, which obviously includes the hardware, the related installation, the software, and then the ongoing maintenance. To do all of those things, you need to wrap it in a bow from a project management perspective, and then ultimately you're bringing this data element and this advertising element as part of the overall solution as well so the customer looks at you as a one stop shop. 

So we have that ability today. Now, obviously, we leverage partners where that is their core business to add the ultimate value and aspects of the overall solution. But hopefully that's transparent to the customer. 

Yeah, I'm guessing that you guys would be happy as clams if you could just be a software company and not have to worry, or really even think about hardware and just provide the specs that it needs to run on this sort of thing, but as you say, people want one stop shopping, they want turnkey. 

Peter Thelen: Yep, but that does bring up a good point. Before I got here in May of 2021, we were predominantly dependent on hardware. Of course, in the last 14 months we've made phenomenal strides in promoting mobile-only solutions. So if you think about something as simple as a smart city or a mixed use real estate, yes, you're walking up to a kiosk, but as you exit that kiosk, you can scan or text to phone, to basically take that exact same experience from the kiosk with you on your mobile device, you don't have to download anything, it is considered a web app and off you go.

We're also offering mobile-only solutions which are cool. As we penetrate colleges and universities and healthcare, we're not dependent on that hardware. You can get the benefits of our software, just leveraging your mobile device which has been pretty exciting to see and we look at that as a high growth vertical. 

So in theory, let's say on a university campus, you could walk up to a support column in a building and there'd be a QR code on there with a message that says. “Having trouble finding your way? Scan this!” and it'll launch your app and off you go? 

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct. 

How do you make money off of that then? 

Peter Thelen: Well, that's all our software. If you think about it, the theme you're probably hearing from me is, we're a software company, and every time we're providing value around our software, there is a fee for that subscription base , it's monthly and it's based on the opportunity. 

So in a conventional setup where you are providing display hardware, you would have a play out license for that display, but with the university campus or something like that, if you're not using physical displays, you would just have some sort of a site license for the campus?

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct.

Okay. That makes sense then. I'm curious about wayfinding. Mapping for big public displays has been around, I'd say at least a decade, maybe 15 years, and like everything it's evolved, and I saw on your website, one of the things you talk about is three-dimensional wayfinding. 

Over the years, what has your company found in terms of what resonates with end users? Do they care about certain things like it being three-dimensional or do they just want something that's very intuitive and quick? 

Peter Thelen: I've concluded it's all the above. I think users today are smarter than ever. They have a very high expectation in terms of the experience that they're aspiring to have. So they want everything. There's a lot of wayfinding solutions out there. So we always think to ourselves, what makes ours better than the next, and knowing that we emphasize experiences, how do we really promote a better experience as it pertains to that whole wayfinding experience? 

So not everybody does 3D, most only do 2D. The whole idea of interactive is a big deal, and we obviously wanna promote that fairly aggressively, but the one thing that we're really emphasizing, Dave, is this idea of hyperlocal. Do we capture all elements of a property? So when an individual starts their journey, leveraging our software, it's a great experience. They very clearly know where they're going, they can visualize the surrounding environment and as they're going, there's no fear and uncertainty or doubt about where they're ultimately going to get to, because there's a high degree of confidence in that.

The hyperlocal is a very important element to our solution. It could be as simple as a bench, it could be a tree, it could be the look and feel of the building. Our UI/UX team does a phenomenal job of configuring the property on a per deal basis to make sure it looks and feels just like that property actually is.

So some of the areas you're in like Port Orlando in Orlando, or Miami Design District and so on, if a shopping or mixed use outdoor district like that approaches you guys and says we want to do this. What is involved? You were talking about the UX design and everything. Do they go on site or how do they put this together? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, it's a lot of different elements, which makes it fun and exciting, but ultimately it starts with a site survey, where we walk the property with the respective owners. We identify those high traffic areas. We understand the goals from the owner in terms of what they really want from this hardware and software. You have to define the advertising opportunity as part of the whole digital out-of-home. Sometimes it's a great opportunity, sometimes it's just an average opportunity and in some instances, based on the location of the property, it might not exist at all. Then the last element is this whole idea of data. 

Data is becoming more valuable like I referenced earlier. Each owner wants different types of data sets that's important to them. So as part of the onboarding, we define those data elements. But as we leave that site survey, you're taking all these pieces to the puzzle and assembling them into this picture that correlates to ultimately what they want which is a combination of hardware and software that are strategically placed throughout the property. We've built out the software in terms of the configuration so the experience as you approach the digital display looks and feels just like the property. 

I always use the analogy, picture your iPhone. When you open up your iPhone, you have the various apps on the first page. That's no different than what we do for a customer as part of the configuration process, and then we build out the maps. Take into consideration that hyperlocal, 3D concepts 

It is the core goal and aspiration simply to ensure that people who visit a venue like Port Orlando or whatever, to just not be lost and frustrated, or is it a little more sophisticated and evolved in the case of trying to influence where they might go?

Peter Thelen: I'm chuckling a little bit because it's both. If you think about the whole idea of moving people physically and emotionally, the physical aspect is the wayfinding, and that is the emphasis of our software, but we're one of the first in industries to roll out augmented reality selfie. I was at the Avalon property outside Atlanta, Georgia last week, and I sat on the property for three hours, Dave and I watched people interact with our software, and 70% of the people were leveraging the selfie and having an absolute blast with it in terms of what filter to use, how many people to incorporate into the selfie picture. I watched them scan or text to phone and I watched them walk away giggling, because they were so happy with the experience. 

Okay. So this is walking in front of a totem, there's a camera, it's capturing your image in front of the camera and then you're overlaying it like mouse ears or whatever?

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct. I would say think of Snapchat filters, that's the exact experience that we're promoting, leveraging our software. 

Is that all just about the experience? Like I did this at this location and it's going to brand it and say I was at Avalon, and I did this fun thing and it's cascading out to that person's followers and therefore it's helping the Avalon brand? 

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct, and then the other side of that, and I'll just use an example of coupons. Think about the whole dynamic of a property wanting to potentially push more and more of the visitors to select locations or select stores, think about the whole idea of, I'm at Avalon for the first time, where is Lululemon? I used the software to understand where Lululemon is from a wayfinding perspective, Lululemon then offers me hypothetically a 10% coupon for today's spend, I scan that QR code, I work my way to Lululemon, I obviously make my purchase, I go to the POS as part of my payment process and I get 10% off my total order.

Lululemon's ecstatic that our technology drove people to their store, but the visitors were ecstatic because they got 10% off that they weren't expecting, everybody's happy. Those are the ideal scenarios. So the next time that family comes to Avalon, they're gonna be very inclined to leverage our software to understand what other coupons are out there.

That's got traceability too, right? 

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct. 

Yeah, and is that happening very often, people using it?

Peter Thelen: The answer is yes, and it's happening more and more every day. RoveIQ has only been around since 2016, it was started by two individuals that also had another company. So you could make an argument, it really was a hobby.

I came here in May of last year. We had very talented people, it just needed more direction and more leaders, and we're adding new features every single day to our software to once again, heighten the whole idea of creating more and more experiences.

. Did you know much about this space when you came into it? 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, I did a little, I do adapt to be dangerous, but I ran an IT solutions company for 19 years. I spent my last two years at an organization called Kroger, a rather large grocery store where I ran a division called Sunrise Technology, and that was all about leveraging technology that Kroger developed in house and realized that it worked, and the ask from me was to take that technology and sell it to the global retail world. 

The emphasis of that technology was digital shelves inside a grocery store. So I took that same experience, in that case, it was a digital shelf. In our RoveIQ world, it's a digital display, but the elements of the solution were very similar: data, advertising and experiences. 

I noticed in the press release announcing the name change that you also made a reference to healthcare software that was coming and I thought that's interesting, so what was that all about and is it now live? 

Peter Thelen: I've had so much fun with the team and healthcare customers working on this new concept and it's going great. The premise is fairly simple. If you think about the average experience today, where you have to go to a healthcare facility tomorrow, and these healthcare facilities continue to get bigger and bigger, which from a patient perspective, creates a lot of apprehension and anxiety around, where do I park, what entrance do I go in, and how do I ultimately get to the department that I'm needing to go to? 

So leveraging our legacy software, we have made tweaks where we are now integrating into their Epic and/or Cerner, where essentially a patient gets a text the day of their visit and that text takes them from their current location to the correct parking garage via car, then transfers to foot from the parking garage to the correct entrance, and then continues from the front entrance to the actual department. All leveraging a mobile device and obviously our software on that mobile device, and needless to say, it's addressing a rather large problem in healthcare that we believe with confidence we can solve and we're pretty excited about it. 

Now, where does it stand? We're in pilots as we sit here today, which means we're learning every single day with a set of customers, and needless to say, our goal is to go live with many customers as we enter 2023. 

That's an interesting one because an awful lot of big healthcare complexes started off as one building and ended up being eighteen buildings and they're all joined together and it's confusing as hell to find your way around, and I can certainly respect the idea of something that can say: go out this door, go down this hallway, go up three levels, then turn right and left, and eventually you're gonna find your way there because without it, you might have to leave super early because you know you're gonna get lost. 

Peter Thelen: Completely agree, and if you think about the idea of hyperlocal and our legacy software with these enhancements, we can promote this unbelievable experience where you always feel like you know where you're going and where you need to go to ultimately reach your destination. And from a customer experience perspective, these healthcare entities that we're working with today, that's one of their big issues. 

People need to feel good about where they need to go and how to go about getting there. 

Do you address language as well?

Peter Thelen: The answer is yes. Now our current pilots, they have not asked for that, Dave, but the bottom line is, our software has that capability. 

Yeah. I asked because years ago I had a meeting with a hospital in Toronto and it was in a very multicultural area of Toronto, and they had a roster of staff and volunteers who just handled all the different languages that came to the reception desk, asking where the Pediatric Clinic was or whatever, and they would have to call people and say, we need somebody who speaks Lithuanian or Tagalog or whatever it may be, and it was this monumental challenge. 

I suggested at the time that you might wanna look at some sort of interactive directory that you select your language first, and then it takes you where you need to go that way, and they said that's interesting, but they wanted to just do the wow factor, I can't do stuff in their public areas instead, and they're like, oh, okay, that's not gonna solve any problems, but fill your boots. 

Peter Thelen: Yeah, the bottom line is you wanna make sure you have software that can cover the population. The healthcare entities we're working with are defining that population. Needless to say, we're making sure our software can perform, and since it's our own proprietary software, the sky's the limit in terms of the capability and potential. 

Yeah, I could certainly see what you're describing is working well on university campuses as well, particularly for night courses and part-time students who aren't familiar with where they're going and really the same thing in airports.

Peter Thelen: The airports for us, Dave, have been a tough market. It's so competitive, there's a fair amount of rather large players. Don't get me wrong, we focus on airports, but that's not necessarily where we have generated the most success today.

Airports are also pretty conditioned to media companies coming in and saying, we'll put this in for free. 

Peter Thelen: That's a hundred percent correct. I can play that game all day, every day. I can play, it's just a matter of, can I compete? 

Yeah, you're not gonna win too often when the other guy's saying, we'll put it in free for you.

Peter Thelen: You know that's the dynamic we deal with every day on a per deal basis. Based on the perceived digital out-of-home advertising opportunity, that can create a free experience or that unfortunately you have to pay for, it has to generate the corresponding value. So those are the discussions we have. 

I'm guessing the majority of the opportunities that you run into and close are in some way bolstered by advertising, and there aren't that many that are purely just an informational display?

Peter Thelen: It's interesting, we've had a phenomenal 2022 and the characteristics of each deal really are so different, especially as it pertains to advertising, and there is no doubt when advertising can generate that ROI on its own, it makes it a very easy decision for a customer. But when that's not the case, then it correlates to what are the other value elements and is that important to our property? And we're seeing that increase more and more, which has been exciting, because obviously that's creating great opportunities for us. 

But there's no doubt, advertising is a big play here and at the end of the day, we're trying to do everything within our means to bring the best solution forward around advertising to optimize that ROI from a customer perspective.

You mentioned programmatic in your press release. So are you working with the many programmatic companies out there? I don't even wanna rattle 'em all off, cuz there's so many and I'm so confused by it. 

Peter Thelen: Yeah. So our software, because it's this platform and has this ad server capability, it integrates into programmatic partners, and we're constantly looking at the appropriate programmatic partners and then obviously incorporating those into our solution. 

So yeah, that's a big opportunity. This whole idea of unused inventory, how can it be sold in an automated fashion? These programmatic partners make it very easy to fill a high volume, usually obviously lower revenue elements, but still important from a customer perspective. 

The company itself, is it private or are you publicly traded? 

Peter Thelen: No, it's private. It resides here in Northern Kentucky, right outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The emphasis today is within the United States, although we're always looking at growth outside of the US, but it's a fairly small company, but it's doing some really exciting and fun things.

How many folks do you have working there? 

Peter Thelen: So we have 12 people today. I'm trying to grow that by an incremental three between now and year end. We have about 25-30 unique customers across five verticals: smart cities, mixed use real estate or lifestyle centers, we call it entertainment, but the emphasis really there is sports arenas, and then college universities, like we talked about earlier and healthcare. We're heavily focused on five verticals. 

All right. So if people wanna know more about RoveIQ, where do they find you? 

Peter Thelen: Our new website is, which in the last three weeks has gotten a lot of attention, which is pretty exciting. But they can also email me, which is pretty simple:, and you have my commitment that I'll respond and give it the appropriate attention. 

All right this was great. Congratulations on growing the company the way you have.

Peter Thelen:. Dave, I really appreciate your time. I appreciate your support. You do great work and thanks for giving RoveIQ an opportunity to talk about what we do on a day in day out basis.

Rosemary Valenti, Outdoor Solutions Group

Rosemary Valenti, Outdoor Solutions Group

July 20, 2022


New York City is a massive out of home media environment, but much of the attention gets directed to the giant LED boards in Times Square, when there all kinds of other interesting and high opportunity environments that also generate a LOT of eyeballs ... like the ferries across the Hudson River.

Outdoor Solutions Group has many, many years under its belt doing static advertising on the ferries that take commuters back and forth from New Jersey - from wraps on boats and shuttle buses to ad posters and big banners in the ferry terminals.

The company had been slow-walking its digital plans for a variety of reasons, but when COVID hit, the company decided it was time to start converting some of that printed stock to digital. Part of that was triggered by the simple observation that as the economy and riders started coming back from lockdowns, digital interest and buys were coming back faster.

I spoke with Rosemary Valenti, who has spent a long career in New York OOH media circles and fully took over the business when her husband died a few years ago, after a long scrap with cancer. She now has a son helping her out, and partnerships with established digital partners in Broadsign, Pearl Media and TSItouch.

In this podcast, we get into why Valenti's firm took the digital plunge, its challenges and benefits, and her plans to convert more of the print positions to quickly refreshed digital displays.

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Rosemary Valenti: I'm Rosemary Valenti. I'm the CEO of an Outdoor Solutions Group in New York, and I've been in this out-of-home world for a very long time. I started this company with my husband, Mark Valenti in 1996, but we were both in the out-of-home world prior to that, we were in companies that are now considered outfront media.

And your son's still involved in the business, right? 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, actually, Matthew was an infant when I started OSG, and then by the time he was 15 we had him, as a courier almost, going in, dropping off mail, that's how he earned his allowance, did some inside of the ferry postings and he was an intern, he was great. He learned a lot of the business and now he is Vice President of Outdoor Solutions Group. 

Nice, and you've run it on your own since you lost your husband? 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, in 2018, we unfortunately lost Mark to cancer. I took over the helm, but Mark and I did this for years. I had a backseat for a while, and he was more in the forefront when the kids were little, and then I would in those say 10 years, we were just in tandem running it pretty much, and then when he got sick, we needed a little help, and then after that, I just started to run it and then Matthew had some experience at Clear Channel Outdoor for a little bit, and then came in and joined forces with me and is instrumental in everything that we do together. He's great. 

Good. It's nice to have him involved, I guess. 

Rosemary Valenti: Yeah, even my other son has posted things. It was a family affair for a while. But that's not my other son's career path. But we do all participate in this. 

Your environment is transit, and particularly the ferries, along the New York waterways, correct? 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, New York Waterway Ferries are our business partner, and they specialize in ferrying people from New Jersey waterfront properties or New Jersey over to Manhattan, and then we have locations in Midtown and Brookfield Place, and it was static for a long time, and then we decided to introduce the digital, which we needed to do, especially after COVID. 

We got shut down for a little while in COVID, and had to rebuild it from the ground up, basically. So we had a lot of entertainment, a lot of Broadway, so we lost everything, and also New York Waterway had only essential service for a few months, and so they were shut down, and so we slowly have come back just like many transit systems, but in New York we were hit hard so it took us a long time to get this back up and we're there now. But we took a hard look at the company and we saw digital coming back faster and bouncing back faster than any kind of traditional transit, so we implemented converting some of our traditional, basically if you wanna call theem street furniture, but they’re six foot by four foot, that's what we pulled out in some of the terminals, and we put in a 75 inch Samsung QMRs which really is helpful to have, you can send creative right from the office desk. 

Yeah, really. So why do you think digital was coming back faster than static?

Rosemary Valenti: I think people wanted cancellation clauses, there were less production fees. You could easily take something in and out, you can change creative. They were a lot of people who were speaking to the public about COVID through out-of-home and we didn't have that in the beginning. We didn't have that opportunity, but you saw advertisers doing messaging about COVID, and then saying, we're back and all different things. But we were shut down and so when we were coming back, we wanted to make sure we had something like that and what Waterway also wanted that, they have their own spot, they can alk to their customers through us because we put them inside the ferry terminals, and we also put them inside the ferries themselves. 

Yeah. So you have various terminals, they're like small airport terminals with concourses and you've got what used to be light boxes are now digital, and then you've got, I think portrait displays that you've got on the actual ferries? 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, we did everything portrait display. So our in wall in the ferry terminals, which is really in the waiting areas and some of the pathways that they walk through to get into and then to get onto the slips. Those are 75 inch portraits, and then in one of the areas we have like maybe a 55 inch where some of the seating is facing, and then when they get into the ferries, they're 43 inch and they're right at the entrance and exit door. So you come into the lower level of the ferry and that's where our screens are, everything's portrait. We figured one piece of creativity is easier. 

We're trying to do a two minute uninterrupted loop through the whole system, so an advertiser gets the entire system, which then can give them 90% of the ridership almost, if you think about that, they're in the highest traffic ferries, and then they're at the terminals. Right now, on the New Jersey side, in Port Imperial / Weehawken, and in Midtown and in these ferries, that's our phase one. We intend on putting in some more digital. We just have to do it in phases. 

You're also still recovering from COVID, right? Not health wise, but business wise. 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, that's why we're doing it in phases. But much of the ridership is back and it's a little bit different. It used to be more Monday to Friday. Now they're seeing those as many people on a weekend, then there might be a Tuesday probably because of split work weeks, right? So I think people are taking advantage of this city more because they don't have to go every day to work. 

Our partners, New York Waterways, they're seeing almost a steady flow back in, it’s just different for them, which is great.

Is the ferry ridership profile a bit different from what you would see on Long Island rail, or particularly the subway? 

Rosemary Valenti: Definitely different from the subway. I would say it's an affluent audience. So I would say maybe more a Metro North that goes up to Westchester and somewhat like a Long Island railroad. We have a very affluent and high education especially there's people that live on the waterfront. So some of those waterfront areas in New Jersey have all been built up into these million dollar apartments, so it's really becoming a beautiful area. They have a beautiful skyline view, and then what Waterway did is once they land in Midtown, they provide a complimentary bus service to go Midtown down 34th street, 42nd, 50th. You take your route and they make it, basically from home to the office so you can circumvent subways, you can circumvent everything, they call it door to door, and it's a complimentary bus. 

So those are the buses that we wrap. They have a fleet of buses along with the fleet of ferries and then downtown Brookfield place area and Wall Street, it's all pedestrian, you walk to your offices from there, cuz it's much closer. So they don't have to take mass transit really. 

And I would assume that if I think about being on New York subways, that a great many of the ads are for English as a second language courses and career colleges and things like that, I'm guessing that you're getting different kinds of brands who are advertising on your screens?

Rosemary Valenti: I would say that the subways have a mix of different types of advertisers, but we're getting high end real estate, we've been getting some alcohol brands, we had HubSpot where they wrapped a ferry and they went onto the digital and they wrapped a bus. So that's a CRM. So we're getting certain things like that, and Broadway have come back. We have Disney's Lion King and Aladdin, and we're getting more interest in that sector again. But, we had lost a lot of that so that's coming back and we just got Fire Islands, Hulu. So they did like a partial ferry wrap, but they also got onto the digital and obviously streaming is like digital. So that's great, and they had done a big pride event here. So we had sponsors of that pride event and then they were also on our ferries and the ferries were chartered to get to that pride event in Governor's island. It was called pride island. Yeah, there's different types of advertisers that we would get high end real estate that they might not get in the subway. 

I'm guessing that long before you decided to start the conversion over to digital, you were getting banged on by no end of display and software companies to make that conversion quicker. What was holding you back? 

Rosemary Valenti: Strategy, trying to figure out exactly what to do because there were options. Do we do a big spectacular, do we do LED instead of the screens, so we really wanted to figure out where should we go? And as we looked at our own dioramas on our walls, right at eye level, and we said, it make perfect sense to update these into digital because they're sitting on benches next to them, they're buying tickets next to them, they're walking past them when they're trying to get to the bathrooms. They're all in the area, in the ferry terminals that make the most sense, and inside the ferries, it was absolutely an easy decision to just put these right at the entryways. So you come in, you sit down and you face our screens. 

Is it technically challenging to put them in something like a ferry becaused of the salt air and everything else?

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, actually, we worked with TSI Touch and they gave us these anti-glare screens and protective coverings, so we needed to work on a design with that. Even in the ferry terminals, they have a wall of glass that you are sitting in and there's a wall of glass facing the Hudson river. So we needed anti-glare. We wanted to make sure they were protected with tempered glass because people do roll their suitcases sometimes. So we needed to get all these components factored, like what do we need in this to put this in? 

And then TSI Touch actually supplied us with them once we told 'em what we were looking for, and then we had to deal with the design of our ferry terminals. So in Midtown, there was a lot of steel. So they helped us fabricate the enclosures that kind of go with the flow and looked somewhat like the enclosures we had on a more updated version of the enclosures, and same with the Port Imperial / Weehawken, we did a a black covering so it looked like a giant iPhone. But we had that kind of color on the walls prior. So they were instrumental in helping us with the design and they also made sure that the heat could escape. There's all these elements that you have to do when you have to put these in, then you have computers in the walls, and I would say that when you talk about inside the ferries, we have had to get to a cradle poin because there's no LTE. So you had to figure out how to get the LTE across the Hudson and back every 20 minutes, and there is electrical issues on ferries, just like in trucks. 

Yes, they call it dirty power!

Rosemary Valenti: Dirty power! That's exactly what they call it. Yeah, we had to work with Marine electricians to make sure we had the right surges or something that may deal with a low power instead of a high power. So that's some stuff I didn't understand, but now I understand. 

The good news is, you had your baptism in fire. So if you can put screens with everything involved on a bouncing, rocking ferry, going across the Hudson, putting them in a static, enclosed building like a ferry terminal should be a walk in the park?

Rosemary Valenti: Yeah. That's why we did the ferry terminals first. Yes, we had to learn about the ferries and deal with ferry operations and you know, they're using these vehicles, you gotta take them outta service for us to install them. It's not as easy, but they're very helpful and they wanted this and we work well together, but I didn't understand a lot of Marine things, and I've heard terminology that I never understood, like “give her a splash” and that means a ferry going back into the water. 

And then for software, we use Broadsign for content and programmatic because that's something that everybody's taking advantage of and we wanted to get involved in that as well. So Broadsign educates you, they have the support staff, they teach you everything, and they're fabulous to work with. So we're really getting dynamic advertising.

I would imagine that's another baptism in fire you had. If you're been doing static advertising for 20 plus years, to all of a sudden wade into this Labyrinth, I would almost call it the programmatic world, must have been bewildering, cuz I try to write about it and I'm bewildered.

Rosemary Valenti: It is. I think that's why I think my husband was even approached prior to that and didn't wanna do it in the beginning. He saw a lot of companies like that start and then maybe fail. So we waited quite some time, but my son was at Clear Channel and he was selling Times Square billboards and things like that so he understood digital more than I did. So he was a great asset for that, and then we partnered with Pearl Media last year, and they also helped us understand this and they helped strategize with us and we ended up using one of their guys who branched off on his own Daniel, Oak city Integrations is his company and he helped us with the software and guided us in the implementation of all of this.

Okay, so you do media sales through Pearl and you also get backed up through programmatic buys?

Rosemary Valenti: We have a rep deal with Pearl Media, so they help us with the advertising as well as ourselves, and programmatic goes through Broadsign, and that makes that side very easy. So yeah, that's how we are getting an influx in sales between OSG's staff and then Pearl’s sales staff.

Because you are in terminals and ticketed environments, people go through turnstiles or something like that, I would assume you've got a pretty reliable one traffic and impressions count, and you wouldn't have to rely so much on venue analytics?

Rosemary Valenti: We joined Geopath and they rated not only our buses on the streets, but our dioramas that were existing and then our digital, it was switched out to digital. So we worked with Geopath and we have over 2 million monthly impressions per advertiser, because there's a lot of signs in there. We launched with 27 screens. So because we were rated first with Geopath as static and then converted existing things, it was pretty easy for them to help us. We explained that it was 15 second spots within a two minute loop and they could easily do the conversion and help us with that. All advertisers look for the audited so we give audited impressions. 

And are you with other associations as well?  

Rosemary Valenti: We worked for the buses, which are static, with Street Metrics and they helped audit those, and OAAA is somebody we belong to but that's just a membership organization. They had done a study once on one of our ferries, which was all state. So we've seen those studies. But  they're a good source. 

Do you think you could have stayed as just analog or now that you've gone the digital route it makes sense? 

Rosemary Valenti: We knew we needed to go digital, we didn't wanna stay analog. We wanted to be updated. It’s just that my husband's health was a problem, and so it held us back the 17 months he was sick, so it held us back. But then, when COVID hit, we knew we needed to convert. 

And now that you've done it, you talked about the quick turn on being able to change ads and things like that. Have you been able to assess the ROI value of it? Like you've done it and it makes sense? 

Rosemary Valenti: Yes, it makes sense. It happened faster than I thought, some of the return on investment, which is great. So we're seeing the digital take off and people really like it. Like I said, they can just send you a file, we can push play. 

We've even had like the Yankees come in for two day stints and then two day stints, like when they first open season and then a bobblehead thing. So those short term campaigns we could never have done with static so it really helps. 

Yeah, I would assume with the static thing, particularly if you're gonna replace a bunch of light box posters with new print ones that don't turn that quickly, it's like numerous days, at least? 

Rosemary Valenti: You mean just to post?

Well, if somebody says, “I would like to do this” then the creative's gotta be done, and then it's gotta be printed, then it's gotta be sent to the site, then somebody's gotta switch it out and everything else, it doesn't happen in half an hour. 

Rosemary Valenti: Right. You need an install team, you need to print them. Your print could take a few days for us, say a regular diorama, which is six foot by four foot, but it could take several days to print a bus or a ferry and it takes over a day to wrap a bus. It takes a day to wrap a bus and a ferry. It could be one day if it's good weather, but with the ferries you're dealing with weather conditions.

But the combination, they're starting to like the combination because you get to hundred percent share a voice with your static, and then you get this digital where you can change creative. We've had the cannabis expo run with us. They had four different creatives on the walls that were running, simultaneously and then they gave us some static. So the combination, they knew they were always gonna be there, and the diorama sat down in Brookfield place, but they were part of a loop inside the ferries so they were getting on the wall and in the ferries as well as some traditional and that combination is really nice. 

There was a company that didn't last, maybe it was COVID, but I think it was more about regulations, that was floating an LED display on a barge on a river. I can't remember whether it was the East River or the Hudson. 

Rosemary Valenti: It was on the Hudson. They they made it illegal. I think it still may exist out in Florida or something, but… 

Yeah, I think they’re in Miami.

Rosemary Valenti: It was removed because it was interrupting the Hudson river view for one of those people that paid a lot of money to have that view, and this light is flashing in your giant windows, they all contacted the mayor and the governor and they got that removed. I think, to them, it was unsightly. It was very bright. In their offices, you could see it going up and down. That's why ours is static, it's static on the ferries, it's not something that's lit up like that. It's still a fabulous 84 foot long message on the ferries, but to put the digital on the water and then flash it up into both waterfront sides of the river when these people, I think, pay all this money to have a waterfront view, but imagine just putting your kid to sleep or something, and then you these lights are flashing in the window. I can't even imagine all the things that they were hearing, but they did force them out of New York.

Yeah, I was just curious because if you are doing static, doing basically vehicle wraps, but on a ferry, if you could do that with LED that was permanently there and just changed the file, even if it wasn't flashing, it was just solid, that would be very efficient and maybe have an ROI down the road, but then you might face the same heat. 

Rosemary Valenti: Yeah, that's not something that we're interested in. I would imagine some of those screens have to use generators, which could make things even louder, or you're on the waterfront, you're bumping around, but it probably is taxing. Think about if it's a generator that has to use gas and now you've got this whole diesel/fuel issue right now going on with how much everything is, but I think that it's too invasive, the digital going inside the waterfronts, their views. 

I think there's too many voices saying we don't want this. 

How competitive is the media environment in New York? I know it has been like that for a very long time, but I'm curious because there's just so many different ways that people are putting advertising on. 

Rosemary Valenti: I would say it's very competitive because you have traditional billboards going down the West side highway, you have all the transits, you have the subways, you have buses. So we're all fighting for the budgets. But we are the only ferry wrap program but there is digital inside of some of the other ferries that run around, but all out-of-home in Manhattan is competitive. We're all looking for an edge.

Yeah, and they're all coming out of COVID, just the way you guys are as well, right? 

Rosemary Valenti: We're all coming along. I think I think we're pretty much back. We're one of the top markets, right? So if we're gonna be anywhere, it's nice to be here because we have a lot of people, but I would say that I'm seeing that people are contacting me daily to ask me about my rates and my business and that's a plus because we did go a while in COVID when it was deafening. 

Are you looking to expand or is it more about building out the digital side of the portfolio you already have? 

Rosemary Valenti: We are looking to expand on the digital inside of our terminals more and we're partnered with Pearl so we're strategizing if there's other opportunities. They have some good stuff too. So they're right i near where we are so it offers this great synergy. 

We're looking to expand. We buy again, we still wanna, we still have a little bit more phase to build out just with New York waterway. 

All right. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

Rosemary Valenti: It was great to speak with you too. I appreciate it. 

All right. Thanks for your time. 


Johannes Troger, Ameria

Johannes Troger, Ameria

July 13, 2022


Health safety concerns that become top of mind for the whole planet back in March 2020 led to a lot of assumptions that the interactive display business was going to go touchless, with screens managed by mid-air sensors or perhaps by voice.

That only kinda sorta played out, as touchscreen companies did just fine through the pandemic. Staffing shortages and a desire to minimize staff to customer contacts led to widespread adoption of self-service screens used to order food and buy tickets.

But a German company that specializes in touchless technology suggests while consumers will use touchscreens to specifically get and do things in faster and easier ways, situations in which the screens are more about experience and discovery are going touch-free. Ameria argues that when a screen experience is opt-in, consumers are happier if they don't have to touch the screen - for health safety reasons and also because of the age-old worry about the cleanliness of the people who used the screen before them.

Based in Heidelberg but selling globally, Ameria is focused on the software that create, enables and delivers touch-free experiences using optical sensors. I had an interesting chat with Johannes Troger, who runs business development for the company.


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Johannes, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Ameria is all about? 

Johannes Troger: Yes, thank you, Dave, for having me, and sure, I can give you a little rundown. So Ameria is originally a software company coming from software project development, and a few years back, we went into the brick and mortar retail space providing interactive solutions. We are all about bringing a great experience to the customer, and started providing a lot of touch free or touchless solutions to customers. 

So this is one of the things we are doing, and we are also providing a cloud platform behind that to manage all the solutions, to bring out the contents and to collect the data.

And you're based in Heidelberg, Germany? 

Johannes Troger: That is correct. We're based in Heidelberg, Germany. We're founded here a few years back, actually by a couple of students from Heidelberg University who met there and found that there was a big market for software development, and yeah, that's how it got started, and then after a few changes, we arrived at where we are at now.

Are the students still involved or has it kind of evolved from there? 

Johannes Troger: So one of them is. He’s our CEO, and the other one left a few years back, but one of the founders is still heading the company and is still our visionary behind everything we do.

Okay, and you're a private company, but you have outside investment?

Johannes Troger: Yes, we are a private company. It's still mainly owned by the founder and his family, but we have some outside investors. So the biggest part actually goes to a crowd investing group. It's a German platform called Companisto and we did a few rounds with them, which was a really great way for us to do it because it allowed a lot of people who also come from the industry to invest, and they didn't have to go in with large amounts but they really became our marketing and PR crowd and then we have a few larger investors also involved, but it's mainly in a family office space. 

And what's your role with the company? 

Johannes Troger: So I'm really heading the business development and partner development part of the business, so on the one hand, I'm a lot out there. Now again, out there at trade fairs and conventions and so on, talking to potential customers, also working with a lot of our partners and also still have some accounts which I started developing when I started at the company, and where I'm still involved in projects, which is always really good because from once in a while to see what's actually happening out there, that's really good.

We met at Infocomm in Las Vegas two-three weeks ago, and I'm curious: was this kind of a first foray into the US to start to build out that market or have you been active in it for some time? 

Johannes Troger: In the past, we had some projects in North America, but they were mainly driven by customers from Europe who we supported in projects with their companies in North America. So really Infocomm was the first foray we did into North America, also talking to potential customers there, to potential partners and getting a feel of the American market.

How would you describe the state of the business? Are you out there with active installations and everything else, or are you just building things up? 

Johannes Troger: So we are out there with active installations. They're usually not at a large scale yet, so we're talking about a lot of pilots and a lot of small scale installations. So it's about at this stage of the business, and I think we are on the verge of the first bigger rollouts with the Touch Free technology. 

And is that the lead product now, Touchfree?

Johannes Troger: Exactly. That's what we've been focusing on in the last two to three years. We actually had some touchless solutions already before the pandemic, and we used them mainly in retail for promotional campaigns. We used them at trade fairs for companies who wanted to basically get more attention to their booth. But it was a niche product. It worked really well in what it was supposed to do but people didn't really see the need beyond that, and so with the pandemic hitting, a lot of companies realized that there are some companies out there in the market who are already doing solutions like this, and they came to us and based on their needs and requirements, and based on our experience and ideas, we started pushing those solutions, developing new options and re-augmenting our portfolio where it was needed. So that became really the focus.

It's interesting, when the pandemic first hit, the conventional wisdom was that this was the end for physical touch screens, nobody was gonna use one ever again because of the contagions on the screen and the inability to keep them clean and so on, keep them disinfected, so to speak.

What kind of played out is, touch screens actually had a pretty good couple of years through the pandemic because it was determined that separating one to one human contacts was safer using touch screens, even if you did have to wipe them down or do that sort of thing. So self-service became a big deal. So I'm curious because I thought that, okay, a lot of this is now gonna go to touchless and voice, but it didn't, but what did you experience? 

Johannes Troger: So what we experienced is that, pretty much as you described that at the start, a lot of companies believed that the day of the touch screen was over and what we experienced over the course of the pandemic is that, there is a kind of big divide between solutions which are, I would say more process based. So you mentioned self order kiosks, for example, in the QSR space, and then on the other hand, there are more experience based solutions which are more geared towards marketing and inspiring customers and so on, and so with those process based use cases, we really see that touch screens are big in business and I think it’s kind of got the, “You still have got to get where you're going” thing behind it, right? So people really want their food, and as you mentioned, it feels safer to do it via the screen than to stand in front of a person at the counter. 

So people use it and it's quite funny because even before that everyone could see all the studies about how dirty they were and how people were not washing their hands, and so on. We don't want to get into those kinds of unpleasant things, but it was pretty clear before that, but it didn't stop people before that, but when you see on the other hand use cases where companies try to bring an experience to their customers, inspire them, acquaint them with probably new products they have or with new services they're offering, there, we see that touch screens are not working at all. So if people don't understand what they're getting out of it, they're not gonna start interacting with a touch screen.

So they'll opt in when they're hungry or they need a transit ticket or whatever, but if it's for discovery of new products and promotions or accessorizing an outfit, they are less likely to want to touch something?

Johannes Troger: Exactly!

Okay, interesting. So one of the challenges that I've seen with touchless, and it goes back to the days when people were using Kinect sensors, gesture sensors, and so on, there was a learning curve and there was a problem with accuracy, and I'm wondering where that is at now?

Johannes Troger: Obviously, the technology has developed a lot, and I think the way it has developed this much more on the software side. So really the side from which we are coming, because we are not creating our own hardware sensors, we are really hardware agnostic in that. 

So I think there are really some different things that happened. For one, the Kinect really worked based on creating a full body model, what is called the skeleton of the body and then tracked different joints and different points of the body, and that always meant there was some latency in it, and that always meant that you had to keep the interface with really large buttons and so on because it wasn't very precise. 

And you're asking people to perform!

Johannes Troger: Exactly, and you usually have a certain distance from the screen and they have to make really big movements. So this was actually really the first solution we offered and we saw that it worked really well in any environment where people were in a kind of playful mood anyway, or where a lot of kids were involved and so on. So this worked really well or where you really wouldn't ask, People not to perform too much in front of the screen, but they still had a good experience, and so what we do now, for one, you're much closer to the screen so you can really work with an interface that you could also use on a touch screen. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it's advisable to just display a website, right? Because even with touch, you wouldn’t just use a normal website, you would probably make the buttons larger and so on. But it's precise enough now that after a bit of learning, you can actually even interact with a website without any trouble. So this precision problem, it's really a thing of the past. 

What we also do is that we give users basically visual cues, so they get a sort of cursor where we have a dot and a circle around it, and then they know, okay, if they move closer in and the two merge, then that's when they do the click and they get a click sound. So it has become more intuitive, more precise, but at the same time, you can also help people to ease into it, and then regarding that whole latency problem, here we are really working with a combination. So it's not only about modeling the hand, but it's also about taking a lot of other parameters, like distance to the screen and so on and tracking objects in this kind of 3D space that we create and that really allows you to interact very fast.

So I assume the UX design is super important, like the workflow and that you've learned a lot through the years? 

Johannes Troger: Yeah, absolutely, I think that's next to the technology and to making it really precise on the software side, that's really the key point and that's also why we realized pretty early that we had to be involved in that process, at least at the start. 

So, we really pass on our experience with that to agencies of our customers, we are really involved in the whole design process, and obviously it's about a lot of things, I think some of the things also have to be considered when you talk about touch screens which you use in a public space, obviously the size of buttons and the positioning, so position them in places where it's comfortable for people to reach and things like that, and a lot of those things, once you look at it, they seem pretty obvious but they're not that obvious when you're designing it, and when you're in the middle of the process. 

Do you have to tell people up front on the screen, so to speak, that you don't need to touch this, or is it intuitive enough that as you reach to touch it, it’s gonna blink and give you a signal that, yeah you've done your action already?

Johannes Troger: So we've been experimenting with a lot of different ways to make people aware, starting from not making them aware at all and just letting them find out themselves. But what we do a lot of the time is that we give them little hints, little popups and so on when they touch the screen that they don't have to, in a nice way, and that it's basically a nice service to them that they don't have to touch the screen, but what we also do is that they still activate the button, even if they touch, right? So I think that's important because we don't wanna punish anyone for probably not getting it a few times. 

At Infocomm, we had an app where the hint said in German, please don't touch or you don't have to touch. But it said it in German, and I was always joking. We do it wherever we are in the world. We do it in German because German is such a nice language for ordering people around. At the beginning we experimented with things like, if you touch the whole screen turned like flashing red and you would get MC Hammer’s Don't Touch This song and stuff like this. But what worked is, and we have tried a few apps where the concept or the idea behind it is that people, not in a straightforward tutorial get made aware of it or get taught to do anything, but that they explore it for themselves and are drawn into this by realizing, oh I'm moving my hand in front of the screen and something is happening.

So for example, we have one case where it's all about recipe inspiration in grocery stores and there you get drawn in by some audio visual cues to look at the screen, and then if you start moving your hand in front of it, and if you're about 20 centimeters or 15 centimeters away from it, there's this wooden cooking spoon on the screen, which starts moving with your hand, and so almost by accident, you realize, oh, I don't have to touch, and I'm still doing something, and we also do this with start buttons, which follow around your hand when you move it in front of the screen. And so this kind of accidental realization that, this is a touch free solution that is working really well, and that's what we can see in our data, and when we talk to users, which we routinely do, they usually say that's probably the most satisfying moment that they feel when they found out for themselves that this is something new.

When you install something, is there an adoption period where you can see at first there's lots of people physically touching the screen, but maybe a month later as you get repeat users, they get it? 

Johannes Troger: So it's probably not so much an adoption period over the whole group of users. What we see is that typically a larger proportion of the users get it right away. So what we do is we basically track all the movements that happen in this kind of 3D space in front of the screen, and we use this to also tweak our algorithms and to work on that, and we also track how many of those little messages pop up when people are actually touching the screen, and so at one point when we were checking the numbers, we thought, okay, there's a hell of a lot of those messages, and we realized that they were restricted to very few sessions. So it seems that few people who don't get it, they really don't get it but the majority of people get it pretty much right away. 

And this is optical sensing, right? So it's like those old leap motion, little chocolate bar kinds of size things that create this physical space in front of a screen?

Johannes Troger: Yeah, exactly. So we usually work with multiple sensors so that we can attach them on the screen, so in a kind of kiosks solution, they're built into that, but we also provide little boxes, which you can click on the sides of just a normal, old, passive screen that you have, and they basically from both sides, create this field and this multiple, camera approach also allows us to scale up in the number of cameras, which also allows us to, for example, in the retail solutions add a third camera, which is looking out and basically scanning the surroundings so that we can react to people walking past with the content in some audio visual ways.

So is there a little bit of AI and machine learning happening? 

Johannes Troger: There is actually quite a lot of that happening, especially in the tweaking of the algorithms in regards to precision and to making it more intuitive, so one of the things on the roadmap is to use that to also be able to react to the way someone is interacting, so that after a couple of clicks we understand is this a power user, is it a regular user or is it a first time user? And then we can react in terms of the guidance that we give, and in that, there's quite a bit of machine learning involved. 

You said you're a software company first and foremost, but you do sell hardware. Are you selling, kind of display totems that have this technology embedded in it? Because it's just simpler to have a full package, as opposed to saying, “We can do this part now go find the other part”? 

Johannes Troger: Yeah. This is what we do, obviously in the early stages, and it's different for different use cases, right? So, for example, if it's about retail, we have partners who built the kiosk Systems, there's obviously a number of providers out there who custom build the kiosk to do what the customer wants, sometimes there's more involved. So it could be like a printer to be added to print out the recipes or some card reader which would be included. So that's where we work with the experts, but we can basically then deliver it end to end. 

I guess what we're planning when we get to larger numbers, this kind of partner ecosystem is obviously gonna grow and what we are also working on is to also have basically this kind of retrofit model we can use the screens you already have and just have an upgrade path.

So it sounds like you do hardware because you have to in the early days, but ideally you're behind the curtain, so to speak, enabling other hardware manufacturers and solution providers to make this happen? 

Johannes Troger: That's really the goal, yes.

But you gotta get from here to there first, right?

Johannes Troger: That's always when you bring in something new and when we were talking about the content and about designing the the UI and so on, I think if you bring out something new, you are always required to do much more than what you probably consider the core of your business, and of your innovative capabilities. I mean, if you do passive digital signage or you shoot a TV commercial or something, they're out there. There are thousands of agencies who understand the channel, who understand how it works and who can tell any customer perfectly how it works. But when you come to some new channel, which it really is, then there is no agency out there who has a whole desk full of best practices, and that's what we are seeing a lot of the time. 

For example, with one customer, we were working on a solution, which is placed in petrol stations, and before that they had passive screens there and they obviously have what they do online, which is the only stuff they know how to do interactively, and so somewhere in between that, we had to find a way where the brand’s people said, yeah, that's fine, that's along our guidelines because they didn't have guidelines for that channel. So it's really about developing concepts for a whole new channel, and that's the same really with the hardware. So we talk to the hardware producers, to the kiosk producers and manufacturers, and we discuss with them how to best mount the sensors and how to bring it together.

So yeah, that's the fate of anyone who brings in an innovation, but I have to say, it's also the fun of it, right? Because it allows you to not only see this very narrow field in the value chain, but to also learn and understand about many other areas and become a more rounded business person for that. 

Is it just the software that creates this field and does motion capture and all that? I believe you've got composer software that allows the end user to fully design the experience that their customers or their users are gonna see? 

Johannes Troger: Exactly. We have a cloud software suite also behind that, so part of that is a composer software, which allows you to build the content. So you basically just upload the assets and activate them, and the other part is the, it's called the CX manager, the connected experience manager, and that really takes care of all the content distribution scheduling but also taking in the data that is created because other than a touch screen, we also have a lot of data that tracks what happens before someone starts interacting with that outward looking camera, ao we know how many people walk past, stop to look at the screen and so on, and it's really for monitoring the hardware, and it's really a system we started building a few years back and it's really geared towards being a central hub for all sorts of different interactive customer experience solutions that you have out there. So it also runs augmented reality car configurators which we did for a customer. It also runs beacon systems and mobile apps for customers. 

So the idea is really everything that you bring out there for your customer experience or for creating customer experience can be run via that centrally.

Interesting. I noticed on your website that you referenced beacons and I thought there's a technology that had its moment and didn't seem to get much in terms of broad ranged adoption, but you're using them. How are you using them? 

Johannes Troger: So, with beacons, it's use case where is really in the automobile industry, and It works in a way that the beacons are placed in the cars, and then if you have the manufacturer app you can step next to the car, and it displays all the facts about the configuration and about the car you're standing in front of

On a smartphone or…? 

Johannes Troger: Yeah, on a smartphone.

So the idea behind that is really to provide information and then to allow people to take this information, and for example, then include it into their own configuration that they probably have done online and that they have stored in the app, and so that there really is a kind of exchange between the physical experience of the showroom and the digital experience they probably started at home. 

If somebody stops you and says, who's your big client? What's that reference case that you like to talk about? What is that? 

Johannes Troger: So, in automotive, the most work we have done is with Porsche, so for a long time they were our largest client and they were the most innovative ones really when it came to how to deliver more experience or more digital experience to their customers. In retail and consumer goods, the longstanding client and the most innovative one, and the one we were able to try and learn the most with this is definitely LEGO, and I think one part of that was really that they obviously understood the kind of playfulness of it right from the start, and what we are seeing is that really the retailers themselves that's something that really only has happened for the last two or three years.

I think, five years ago, a lot of the retailers still felt okay, the whole digital stuff in brick and mortar, that's mostly gadgets and let's just hang up a couple of screens and that's fine, if they even did that, but now for the last two or three years even in grocery, retail and so on, I'm hearing a lot of managers saying, okay, we know that we have to move and we know that we have to do a lot to be ready for the future, and I think the exciting thing at the moment is that other than, if you wanna build an online shop, there are a lot of people out there who can tell you that's how you build an online shop, but when you come to digital in the brick and mortar space, there's no one who can tell you those are the two or three recipes, that's how you build it, and that's it, right?

So probably passive digital signage is about the only thing that people by now know how it works, and you can find someone who does it for you and executes it nicely, and that's fine. But anything beyond that, it's still a lot of trial and error of finding out what is it really, what the customers want? What do they need? How can we attract them to use something? 

All right, this was great. If people wanna know more about the company, how do they find that out? Where do they go online? 

Johannes Troger: Obviously, the first point is our website, so it's

Okay, perfect. All right, thanks again for spending the time with me. 

Johannes Troger: Thank you, Dave. Thank you for a really interesting half-hour with you. 

Alex Epshteyn, Zignage

Alex Epshteyn, Zignage

July 6, 2022


If a company wants to hang its business hat on the proposition that it is very good at visualizing real-time data to screens, it helps to have a big, very familiar client that heavily uses that sort of thing.

A small New York City start-up called Zignage has that in the New York Stock Exchange - providing and maintaining a platform that shows the numbers and trends charting on screens around the hyper-kinetic trading floor in Wall Street.

The company grew out of an NYU media lab and spent its first few years working mostly behind the curtains, developing signage and data-handling capabilities to software firms and end-user clients. But a few years ago, the company made the decision to develop a brand and start selling its data-centric capabilities directly to end-users.

I had a great chat with Alex Epshteyn, the CEO and Founder of the company, about how it got started, where its headed, who it all serves, and how there can be a huge gulf between software shops that can take a number from a shared data table somewhere, and running mission-critical, hyper-secure visualizations on a stock exchange floor.

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Alex, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Zignage is all about, how they started and how long you've been around? 

Alex Epshteyn: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Dave. Zignage started in 2009 formally, and we started at the NYU Incubator while I was doing my graduate work at the Media Lab in NYU and suffice to say the company was more interesting than the graduate works. So I started doing that, even though I'm from the east coast and this doesn't typically happen, it kinda happened here. So initially, conceptually, we were gonna get into the digital out home space and we were gonna build an auction backend that people can bid for spots on digital signs. So kinda a slightly novel idea, especially in digital signage and we couldn't do a big enough raise, and then we found a number of these sort of remnant advertising platforms coming into the market and we decided, since I have a pretty good little black book of enterprise clients, and we built the platform to about 50% at that point, in mid to end of 2009, let's try our hand at some enterprise folks, and what ended up happening is a trajectory that basically pushed us for about eight years, which is we built a middleware and a toolkit, essentially our own toolkit, that enabled us to build very quickly CMSs and builds and anything related to that, data bindings for third party systems like CRM systems and CRP systems, a variety of backends essentially, and we essentially entered OEM space.

So we built products for other companies. Some of them were large, some of them were small. We had a tremendous amount of NDAs and non-competes, as you can imagine. These companies would not like you to advertise your own stuff while you were building it for them and typically we would have maybe one or two of these customers at the same time. So from 2009 to about 2017, maybe a little bit later even, we basically did work for third parties and we built a lot of different solutions, and around 2018, we decided that we were gonna attempt to productize. That means, essentially build our own, front facing, become a brand, and move away from a pure sort of project solution, even though we had a product in there. But it was a product for us, not so much for the end customer and to get into the market and so we did, and in the meanwhile we had two direct customers during almost all the time.

NYU was one. We had a number of schools at NYU that we were able to pitch, and successfully had running, so NYU Law School, NYU Engineering School, where I was a student and then NYSE where we initially partnered Thomson Reuters. So Thomson Reuters did the data and, most of the application stack actually, and what we provided is a device management framework and advanced players to run the WebGL and all the other things that they needed to run for the New York Stock Exchange. This was under the NYSE-Euronext regime, which has since been bought by the Intercontinental Exchange. This was in 2017, which was a formative year for us. As I mentioned, NYSE under the new ownership came to us and said, “Look, Thomson Reuters is relatively expensive and essentially they're reselling us their data, how about you guys take on their responsibility?” You get nine months to replicate and you get this support contract that basically takes over for them, at a discount for them but it was a nice option for us. 

We took on the challenge. Because we were able  in these intermittent years we built up so much experience and know how to deal with realtime sources, realtime data sources, and WebGL specifically to make things pretty bulletproof whereas perhaps some other HTML5 technology that is fairly popular in digital signage would is maybe not robust or maybe not as performant. So we took that toolkit and applied it to over essentially at the New York Stock Exchange and took the contract over and successfully we did that. So at the New York Stock Exchange today, they're actually running two separate solutions from us. They have our more standard on print solution for their marketing group and then they have a much more customized, almost like an OEM version for their trading real time data, which are now classed as a number of financial data widgets. 

So if I'm at the NYSE and I'm looking down on the floor, or I'm walking around the floor with all the guys with the funny jackets and everything, those various dashboard screens that I see with all the pricing indicators and everything else, that's all being driven by you?

Alex Epshteyn: That is correct. So everything essentially above the workstation level, everywhere above the trader level, if you just look up above the 5’8” level from the ground, you’ll basically be looking at our solutions. It actually is a full gambit of our capabilities. We have synchronized video, real time widgets for financial data consumption, charting types of things and a lot of different ticker technologies that we've custom built and some of our generic ones, and streaming as well.

The only other company that works with us at the site is Haivision, so they provide the backend system and supplementary streaming solutions. So we consume their feeds and also feed them. 

They’re a video distribution company? 

Alex Epshteyn: That's right. So we're actually partnered with them. So they're one of our partners in space. We like working with them, they are a nice Canadian company to say the least and I know some of the original folks that sort of constituted the company and they have grown as a company tremendously through the years. So we really like working with them. 

Yeah, this must have been a really big holy shit moment for you guys when you got that deal because it's not like winning a hundred locations QSR chain or something, this is the New York Stock Exchange. It's on the TV every day with endless photos and everything else, and it's mission critical. Like you can't say, oh, we're just doing a software update and we'll be back in 10 minutes?

Alex Epshteyn: Indeed, and the escalations we get are pretty hardcore. We have just a few minutes to get things going, and philosophically, we try to blend some aspects of redundancy with a lot of resiliency because redundancy itself, some folks who deal with these sorts of mission critical situations, could itself present its own set of problems, right? So you want the system, the platform itself to be as resilient or high availability as possible to use a term out of the server space. 

So yeah, it was a huge thing for us and ultimately, we specialized in a lot of financial services and non-retail banking is a more generic category or an area we do very well in and we work with some integrators in the space that are known for it as well in terms of channel. Currently our CTO is actually the chief architect of the Thompson Reuter solution. He came on board with us a year ago, a year and a half ago as a full time hire. He was a consultant for many years after Thomson Reuters got customization space, and he worked with us for a long time and then finally our CTO to do other stuff, and Steve came on board. So we're very well positioned for this work. 

So for your company, if you had to do an elevator pitch saying what all you do, what do you rattle off for them?

Alex Epshteyn: I think what we would do is, as you mentioned, mission critical type of usages, whichever vertical, right? We've done things with SCADA. We've done things in transportation that I wish I was at liberty to say, maybe soon, and it doesn't have to just be financial data. It could be sports feeds. It could be building services, things of that sort that are critical for the use. That's one of our specialty points. 

The other is, I would say, while we're very happy to have relationships with a number of hardware companies, we still have really some high end hardware that we field. So what we do is, for very demanding applications, not necessarily mission critical ones, but those overlap obviously, we provide a full-stack solution, and these players, we're getting into the realm of show control type of players, really beefy and professional level graphics capabilities. So we do sell those. Those are fully our stack, and this way we can guarantee basically the solution as opposed to having us do a certain portion system integrated to another and so forth. 

The last thing I would say is while we still support some level of OEM work, we currently have two customers that we work with. Our business model changed a bit in the last three years of supporting them. We have our standard SaaS business and in some cases we modified it for on-prem. So it's already flexible, but we also have a platform as a service offering to really support those OEM customers. So it's a lot less expensive in volume, very scalable, and I would say those are the things that really make us stand out. It's real time data, data visualization, full-stack solution with hardware to do very difficult things often, and finally, configuration where people assume real, ad-hocs customization. There's an assumption there, right? If you're doing something very bespoke, the assumption there is that it's gonna be insanely expensive and take a long time to build and that's true if you haven't built two dozen variants of it and you don’t have a toolkit to basically assemble it from parts like a LEGO set, which we do.

I would assume that your calling card when you go in to talk to opportunities, when you can say, yeah, we do the New York Stock Exchange, we do all the data handling on that, and you could imagine it's more than a little bit secure and mission critically oriented. I suspect that makes the target customers feel pretty comfy?

Alex Epshteyn: It does, and even before them, it makes consultants who put us on the bid lists and generally are interested in finding parties that can actually fulfill the scope, call us. So we don't really advertise much, and that's gonna change, I think, maybe next year. We're gonna do maybe a marketing splash at some point next year. 

Right now, it's all word of mouth, and we do get a lot of calls. There's a lot of projects we actually pass on because they're not in our sweet spot and they're distractions, but the projects that we do take on are often difficult. We even do work in retail, as I mentioned to you, and the types of deals we take in are always really heavy data integration, visualization, where they are very automated workflows, there's almost no humans involved where the humans are basically special events, and then the system essentially corrects for automation again. 

Yeah, I've been writing about data visualization for 6-7 years now, and when I started writing about it, it was pretty rare and beyond FIDS displays and things like that but it's now pretty standard. I'm curious because you guys are obviously super deep and experienced in that area, when you see all the other software companies saying, yeah, we do real time data, we can do realtime data handling, we can integrate, we have APIs and this and that. 

When you get into a conversation with a prospect, how do you distinguish what you do versus other companies who say, yeah we do all that too, cuz I suspect it's different? 

Alex Epshteyn: It is. One of the first things we've put on a table is that we can mostly guarantee our resolution time SLA, nobody else can pretty much. Most people will be aggressive, pick up the phone and work the problem, but the way that our stuff is built, we can fix the problem. We can guarantee fixing the problem within a certain period of time. Now it's not inexpensive, sometimes it's actually affordable for a lot of types of businesses where a fully custom solution would not be. 

The other one is that most data visualization takes a lot of shortcuts, it really leverages, not to get too deep in technicalities unless you want me to, basically JavaScript and CSS, the mainstay of HTML5. But all of our data visualizations are built in WebGL. It's like the difference between driving a car on the road and driving a bullet train on tracks, right? There's no interruptions to the bullet train. It'll just go and it'll be on schedule. There's no interruptions. There's no jitter. There's no movement. That sort of paradigm. So we like to guarantee behavior of our data visualization, especially dynamic like charting or graphing libraries that we use and implement. It's actually extremely difficult to build something that you would think is easy like a ticker or crawler. 

Whatever data that's feeding it, I’m sure we both have probably seen a lot of instances where it stutters, it has problems, it doesn't refresh on time and doesn't deal well with different fonts and whatnot. That's just not true of our solution. Our solution is, I would say, cutting edge on dynamic data visualization. 

So for an end user or for an integrator, they have to educate themselves that just because a company says they can do real time data doesn't mean they can really do it. That means they might be able to reflect a number that's in a data table and show it on a screen, and that's quite a bit different from what you're talking about. 

Alex Epshteyn: It is and maybe the third aspect is most of the companies we work with already have accounts with the big data warehouse places like Refinitive, IBS, and a number of others, so we already are super familiar with these back ends. In fact, we have things that monitor the APIs. We routinely do a lot of monitoring of real time or just dynamic sources. So this is a huge value add in the industry, and I wish more providers would do that because ultimately, if you are a data fed platform, it's up to you to tell the customer something's failing on the back end because they won't know, they'll assume all sorts of things, but you need to critically have the tools inside to tell what's going on, and if you build it out in a smart way, you can also alert the right people at the right time that something's happening and to look into it. So you can be proactive about it. That's the third item, I’d say. 

They also change like the schemas and everything without telling people, right?

Alex Epshteyn: That's true. But it's a super exciting space. Once you have the core technology built out. You could really do a lot, in terms of, consuming this kind of data and I think generally, signage, we're in a slightly privileged position regarding this, but I think there's a move into industry towards generative and procedural content away from more Codec-heavy content. Although, there's obviously gonna be overlap for many years for both.

We certainly support Codec playback in a variety of ways, synchronized, on different players and so forth, and there's nice innovations like AV1 coming onto the market nowadays. But you could do so much more with generative dynamic content, it's a big difference. For instance, we had a client that wanted us to expose much more of the controllability of a layout, standard design tool inside of our platform. Now, typically we would not wanna do that because there's some nice tools on the market like Premiere, like After Effects, real tools that they generally use. But the problem that certain customers power users I would say are having is they don't wanna have to export an After Effects file and have it encoded in something, that's time, that's sometimes money because they do it externally because they don’t have a kit on-prem, or in the cloud. 

So what we've done is basically have a simpler version of something like Adobe Premiere or After Effects that lets them make quick changes in some key framing or some transitory effects and they don't have to put the whole thing into a codec. So that seemed to really resonate with certain power users that we have and directionally, it's the area that we'd like to innovate in.

Is it important to make a distinction between generative data for business applications and generative data for artwork? Because I see a lot of video walls out there that are set and forget. They're driven by generative data and it's just these abstract visuals that are swirl and kind of bloom and everything else, but that's very different from, I think what you're talking about, which is what on the screen in terms of charting or what appears is based on what the data is influencing, it's it's shaping what appears? 

Alex Epshteyn: That’s correct. A lot of general data is canned, right? It's almost like a video basically, and some experts, some design shops typically would change it for you, and it becomes evergreen content, day two, three, and day four. What we try to do is something a little bit different and we work with some really nice design companies as well. So just to be completely clear, we don't do the design ourselves. We typically either partner with a company that's really good at it. Sometimes the company brings us into the opportunity, right? 

The consultant can also spec us to partner with somebody or the end client may have relationships with companies that do this very well. But, I would say the formulation, the recipe for this kind of thing, to make it dynamic is a few things, and that's where this sort of generative content becomes more like a Zignage type of problem, as opposed to something that you could hire a design house to basically build for you, right?

One is that you could update content even if the filters or the generative piece is running. Separately you might be able to in CMS have the tools to change the filters of the generative option, just as I explained prior, and finally have trigger conditions. We do mostly casting, right? There are some great companies in space. I think they're very good at that kinda stuff. They do a lot of smart interactive signage. We do a little bit of that, but we mostly do narrowcasting. So in our world trigger conditions come from some sort of backend system. It could be a calendaring system, it could be something smarter, right? Where it's not just a boolean condition. It could be a multivariable that basically has to click off a list of things that can happen. And that's really where we can add a lot of value and it overlaps with the kinda work we do with the New York Stock Exchange. We generally term it as business logic So we really do some smart business logic and I think it's actually, there's a lot of growth in that area once we apply modern sort of machine learning to it to make it extensible to go further. 

But with that kind of approach you have an ability to modify a piece of content continuously, right? It's a living piece of generative content, even if it's not dynamically fed with financial data sources, or sports data sources. 

I haven't seen your user experience, but I'm guessing people listening to this are thinking, this is really interesting, but I'd be terrified to try to use this software. What’s it actually like?

Alex Epshteyn: You’re not gonna be terrified because we are one of the proponents of nearly or fully automated systems. So often what we do for non-power users is to give a build out to the software that our customers use, and then everything is essentially this business logic that I'm describing to you. 

It’s kinda like a headless CMS?

Alex Epshteyn: It's like a headless CMS for the non-power users. For the power users that really like their tools like Adobe, or you could just use a Dropbox or some sort of hotfolder mechanism. We're also partnered with a number of DAM solutions. There's a lot of workflow that happens in digital asset management solutions, including tag based workflows. 

We do a lot of tag based workflows nowadays, where we consume the tags that are done in a DAM, and essentially they find their way onto the right players at the right time, and on the flip side, we do have a standard suite. It's actually going through a major overhaul at the end of the year, what we call Z Cast 6. It does have a number of these power tools. But our CMS generally follows a certain idea. It was popular for a while and it's hard to execute unless you have our kinds of customers, which is what we call an additive UX. So it's the opposite of something like Microsoft Office, right where you have a billion features and there's a long learning curve if you wanna learn everything.

What we do is really try to identify the user story behind what needs to be done. We create the access controls that really expose certain parts of the CMS, and even within the same context, add or remove tools as needed. That creates a situation where there's almost really minimal training. I think one of the biggest problems we're trying to solve for our direct customers, or channel customers is the attrition that happens in major enterprises for users of digital signage, right? Like one of the biggest problems we face even in huge banks is the fact that digital signage is consigned to a webmaster subcategory. Like they manage the CMS that's published on their portal, and then somebody in that team or a few people in that team handles digital signage as well. So that's historically been a problem for our whole industry, and what we're trying to tackle is kinda remove both the friction of adoption and also try to give them the tools that they need, and if they use tools, bridge those tools, that's our philosophy on that end.

So what's the structure of your company? Are you a private company? 

Alex Epshteyn: We are a private company. We're an LLC in New York, and we're about 20 people. Most of our development used to take place until very recently in Ukraine because one of my partners and I from there originally. So as this topic is in the news, unfortunately, forget about our team. The fact is cities in the eastern part of Ukraine are partially destroyed but luckily a lot of the folks that we would use are in the Western part of Ukraine now, and we continue to use them but not all of them unfortunately.

So you're having to manage your way through that along with other things, right? 

Alex Epshteyn: We did, and they're very talented folks. We have worked on so many projects. 

Yeah, it's interesting. I was trading LinkedIn messages with another company and he was talking about operating out of Odessa and they're still like opening QSRs and things like that and putting in menu boards. 

Alex Epshteyn: Good for them. That's exactly what they should do. 

Yeah, and I was thinking, boy, all the other challenges you have out there, like supply chain and everything else, layer in a hot war on top of that. Good lord.

Alex Epshteyn: Our problems are very small compared to the real problems in Ukraine and the world. But it's a small world. You sort of face these things as they come. 

Well, hopefully someway or other, it gets resolved. I'm not quite sure how, but this was great. Can you let people know where they can find your company online? 

Alex Epshteyn: Sure. It's 

So signage with a Z on the front? 

Alex Epshteyn: Correct. The last word is Zignage. You find me on LinkedIn, Alex Epshteyn. That's where mostly we do our sort of minimum branding that we do. 

All right, but we'll be looking for more later in the year, right? 

Alex Epshteyn: Absolutely. We're excited to make some announcements in the transportation space, some more in the financial industry and some more in retail.

All right. Great to hear it's going well for you. Thanks so much for spending the time with me.

Alex Epshteyn: Thank you, Dave. My pleasure.

Naveen Viswanatha, Google

Naveen Viswanatha, Google

June 22, 2022


The prevailing impression of Google and digital signage is that the tech giant came briefly into the sector a few years ago, made some noise, and then quietly left. But the reality is that the tech giant has continued to be active in digital signage, and there are numerous screen  networks out there running on Chrome OS devices through different CMS software vendors.

Then there's Android, the Google-developed operating system used on a pile of smart displays and separate play-out boxes.

But now Google is again getting visibly active in the digital signage and related kiosk ecosystem, extending an existing program called Chrome Enterprise Recommended to software vendors who use Chrome OS. It's also introduced a Chrome OS device management license,  for narrow-purpose uses like screens and kiosks, that works out to just a touch more than a couple of bucks a month. And there's Flex, an application that can extend the life of a Windows box by running Chrome, and enable screen networks using a blend of playback hardware.

I think a lot of the early interest in Google, back in 2015, was with the relatively low prices of the software and hardware. These days, it likely has more to do with scale, manageability and security.

I spoke with Naveen Viswanatha, Google's product lead on Chrome OS.

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Naveen, thank you for joining me. What's your role at Google? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Hey, thanks for having me. I am the Chrome OS Product Lead for our solution areas and our solution areas include virtualization, contact center, and very recently we've beefed up our kiosk and digital signage solution area. 

Are you at the main campus out in Silicon Valley? 

Naveen Viswanatha: I am, indeed. Yeah, right here in the heart of the main campus in Mountain View.

How long have you been with Google?

Naveen Viswanatha: I have been with Google for 16 years but I haven't been spending the whole time in Chrome OS. I've been using Chrome OS for about 7 years, I believe.

So you're almost a lifer in Google terms? 

Naveen Viswanatha: I guess so, it seems like that. 

I'm gonna talk about Chrome OS. Can you give me a sense of the installed base globally for Chrome OS? I don't need like today's number, but just like … it's many millions, right? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah. We don't break out specific details, but yeah it's in the millions and that kind of spans, I would say across three broad areas. Education is one area. So students and student Chromebooks and boxes. Consumer, and then Enterprise and, within Enterprise, that's where my focus is in the solution space. So yeah, that's how we look at the overall market, but yeah it's seen a tremendous amount of growth, especially in the last several years.

Yeah, the pandemic really put a push on Chrome for Education, right? 

Naveen Viswanatha: It did. I would actually say that it increased an already healthy appetite for Chrome devices within the education space. I actually used to be part of the education team, and we went from devices that were primarily purchased by schools and districts to devices that were now starting to see adoption in the home and that was the kind of recent trend that we saw over the course of the pandemic is really devices being used in the home, remote for delivery of curriculum. 

Would that be driven in part by just the simple fact that the kids are learning at home now, and the parents are seeing the Chromebooks and thinking, okay these are perfectly workable laptops?

Naveen Viswanatha: That's entirely right, and in addition to that, some of the unique capabilities allow students to use their education profiles. So the same profile that they use on their Chromebooks at school, they can log into a personal Chromebook at home and all of their data, all of their bookmarks, their applications, everything is synced to them pretty uniquely.

And so, that ability of having this kind of floating cloud profile was another reason that it became really easy to simply adopt Chrome devices at home. 

Okay, so on the enterprise side, you know, this is a digital signage podcast so we talk about digital signage. I assume that relative to education and to consumer, the percentage of the installed basis for digital signs of kiosk would be still pretty small, right? 

Naveen Viswanatha: It's smaller. It's growing though, and in fact, I would actually say that we saw a lot of acceleration, arguably more acceleration broadly in the Enterprise space, over the pandemic in terms of growth, relative to the other verticals I was talking about, and a lot of that had to do with unique capabilities of Chrome that aligned really well with some of the challenges that businesses had during the pandemic to really maintain business continuity, whether that was remote work or whether that was increased concerns around security, data protection due to being remote. 

These are all things that Chrome OS was really designed for, and so over the course of the pandemic, we saw a huge acceleration in these trends, and as a result Chrome OS was really the platform and endpoint of choice for many organizations.

When I wrote last week about the announcement that, of the the recommended track for kiosk in digital signage. I said that Google made a big splash in the digital signage space in 2015. They took a big booty in the middle of the primary trade show for the industry and had all kinds of people looking at that booth and going, “oh, interesting, these guys are involved. I wonder what that means and will they take over and so on…” and it didn't really happen, there would be suggestions that Google got into the space and then got out of the space but what I wrote was basically, maybe they stepped back a little bit visibly, but they've continued to be in the digital signage and kiosk space and have a pretty decent footprint that isn't known. 

Is that a fair statement? 

Naveen Viswanatha: I think that is a fair characterization and I'm glad you brought that up because, as we've seen the trend over the course of the last couple of years, some of the trends that I was talking about with regards to the pandemic, those trends around moving to cloud and web are significant. Those trends in moving to remote and hybrid work are significant, increased data protection and controls are significant, and that primarily those three things really accrue primarily to end user computing so Chrome books and Chrome boxes used by employees. 

But in addition to that, I think this kind of ties back to your point, we did see a lot of interesting trends as people started moving back into physical spaces. So increased expectations from customers for self-service options, increased expectations from employees for more engaging physical environments when they do return to the office, and these kinds of latter two trends are unique to kiosk and digital signage. So that's where we started really leaning more into this business that we have had for some time, as you mentioned, but really on the backs of what our customers and our partners were doing and what we're seeing as broader trends, we really wanted to lean into this area and really help drive more growth and drive more value into the overall ecosystem znd so recently we have really beefed up our efforts around kiosks and digital signage. 

You know, when you work in a very niche industry like digital signage, you have this distorted idea that it's actually a pretty big industry, but in the the overall scheme of things, it's tiny, and I wondered if Google, going back a few years, looked at digital signage and continued to look at it and thought this is interesting stuff. 

Signage and kiosks, it's got some possibilities, but it's so small compared to education. How much focus have you put on it?

Naveen Viswanatha: I think that's a fair question. The reality, I think is that we have always maintained that we want to be an enterprise computing platform, or commercial, basically anything that requires a business or an organization or an NGO or a government to purchase devices and be the primary buyer. So it's a very broad space, and over the last several years, we have endeavored to really beef up our capabilities around end user computing. That was somewhat timed coincidentally with the pandemic. So that was an area of focus for us starting in 2018-19, really to emphasize these focuses on these solution areas, as I was mentioning, to really go after distinct sections of the enterprise market, and then very recently, starting to invest in kiosk and digital signage because we're starting to see additional trends driving that and those trends being lined up with ChromeOS capabilities.

So I wouldn't say it was due to the size of the market in particular. I think it's just in terms of when we think about our overall strategy and where we saw our customers really taking the platform, we wanted to really lean into those areas, and so that's really been the main driver is trying to meet our customers where they are, and identify areas that have a strong product market fit in the enterprise space and you see that as a reflection of the key solution areas that we're investing in, including kiosks and signage now. 

So when Google as a company takes an interest in something like this, how does that manifest itself in real terms? Is there like a dedicated team or is this one market that a broader Chrome OS team pays attention to and puts some work into?

Naveen Viswanatha: That's a really good question. So I keep referring to these solution areas and maybe it'll help a little bit because I think that'll help frame the answer to your question a bit more to talk about what these solution areas are. 

A few years ago we started looking at where we were seeing product market fit and where we were seeing our customers adopt Chrome OS beyond education, and really noticed that to deliver a robust solution built on top of this platform, you really needed to have an end to end solution that customers and organizations knew was just gonna work and work really well, and so what that meant was there's really four components to these solution areas. So there's underlying features and capabilities of the operating system itself, so security, APIs, core functionality that the operating system provides, even for enterprises, things that are unique to the solution areas and I can list off a few new features and capabilities that we have as an example that are unique to the kiosk and signage solution area but that's another part of that. 

The second component is around management. So how can these solutions areas and their administrators and the folks that manage these solutions, manage the platform easily? And then there's an ecosystem component to this too, and this is really what I think rounds out our notion of a solution area. An ecosystem includes devices so endpoints and OEMs, as well as peripherals and then ISV partners. So solution providers that actually build their products on top of Chrome OS and we ensure that they're optimized and integrated into the operating system. So that's what constitutes a solution area, and as we saw increased focus and investment in those solution areas, we started really orienting our teams to deliver against that. 

On the product and engineering side and the UX side within Google, that means that we still rely on broad platform capabilities that you think of more as foundational layers, but increasingly we have teams that are focused on delivering features capabilities, management capabilities, specific to solution areas. And we'll talk a little bit about that or what we did for the kiosk, and then in addition to that, we really started focusing our partner teams on the partners, both the devices, peripherals, as well as ISV partners that we wanted to work with to really bring these solutions to life, and so there's increasing focus around these areas and we're really organizing ourselves across the stack to really deliver towards these solutions.

So you have this Chrome enterprise recommended track for “kiosk and digital signage”. When I saw that, I wasn't familiar with it and I thought, okay, they've created this, but in doing a little bit of digging, it looks like you have Chrome enterprise recommended tracks in other areas already. So this is something you already do and you've added digital signs and kiosks? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, that's exactly right. The solution tracks that you saw prior to the recent announcement for the kiosk track were really built around the end user computing growth that we were seeing in the last several years that I was alluding to earlier, and very recently, last week we announced the kiosk and signage Chrome enterprise recommended solution track, and so nine partners that we worked with, their solutions are validated, they're optimized, they're integrated into Chrome OS. That means that our partner engineering teams have worked with these organizations to ensure that everything that they build on our platform works. They are regression tests every release that comes out. So we're really tightly working with these organizations, and we only expect, especially in the kiosk and signage space, this category to grow over the coming quarters and years. 

And this whole validation process, is that to keep your engineers sane or is it in certain respects, a marketing tool to say this is kind of Google approved and Google validated?

Naveen Viswanatha: It's a bit of both actually. We actually go through and test these solutions within our own test labs, and then these providers also will be testing their solutions with every Chrome OS release, and as a result of that, we badge these providers, these ISV partners of ours, and that badge effectively denotes that level of confidence for any organization that's going to adopt an end to end solution.

Some of the companies that are involved in this are pretty small in relative terms. Are they getting involved, to use a term a colleague of mine used to use, “to bask in reflected glory that we're working with Google” or have they made a business decision based on the technology that this is where things are going and we wanna get ahead of it?

Naveen Viswanatha: I've spoken to many of these partners and really a lot of it boils down to their alignment either from a business or technology standpoint that they want to really align their solutions with a platform that they feel is going to help them scale their business. These are organizations that are typically developing web-based applications that are lightweight, robust and work well on Chrome as a web-based operating system.

Security is a big concern for them, and I think it's a growing concern in the signage space. We've spoken to many customers having concerns about their screens taken over. If you have more and more screens in your physical spaces, your brand and your operations are potentially at risk, and so a lot of these partners kind of align to that element of Chrome, and I think the simplicity in being able to remotely manage devices, that's another area that these partners have really embraced and benefited from. 

So I think it's really around looking at what technology and platform they want to align with and that's where we've started our conversations with them and as you mentioned they represent a specific segment of the market, and I think over the coming quarters and years, we're really looking to add more partners to our kiosk and signage Chrome enterprise recommended track.

I got a sense back in 2015 that when the first iteration of this came out and you had a whole bunch of partners really quickly that a lot of the energy and interest around Chrome devices was, here's low cost management software and relatively low cost playback hardware versus the PCs that were out in the market then and it was just at a point when you were starting to see set top boxes and things like that being used. 

I sense that's changed, that the partner marketplace is a lot more sophisticated, and as you've alluded to, they're looking more at things like security and ease of management? 

Naveen Viswanatha: A hundred percent, that is absolutely right. The kiosk and signage landscape has shifted dramatically, I think, in the last, 18 to 24 months really, kind of emerging out of the pandemic as well, and I think it was shifting before and then I think what happened was that a lot of physical spaces started really being underutilized during the early part of the pandemic, but then that really set customer expectations and business expectations a lot around how they can be use technology to really digitally transform their businesses, and so as people started moving back into physical spaces, customers started moving back into physical spaces, it came with a fervor that I think has really accelerated some interesting opportunities in the signage space.

Opportunities and threats too, as you mentioned, security and data protection and these things are becoming more and more of a concern. Updating, if you have more screens and more kiosks in your physical space, the kind of traditional operating systems that were being used, don't lend themselves well to that, right? They don't lend themselves well to being updated, being patched, being managed remotely. I think we've all seen blue screens in airports and different types of signs before. That's becoming more and more challenging, just the reliability and remote management. 

So as these trends are starting to really put pressure on a lot of businesses, that's where Chrome OS is starting to really be considered more and more as a robust platform that can really help accelerate the next phase of digital transformation in these physical spaces.

I get the argument for Windows and the bloatware and the crap on there and the updates you can't control and all those sorts of things. It's less of an issue with Linux but there's still an issue? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Linux is an interesting platform. We don't see it too much ourselves but I think one of the challenges with Linux has to do with that it can do anything you really want it to, but in order to get it, to do what you want, it takes a lot of tuning, a lot of configuration, a lot of setup, and so I think you'll be spending the cost as an organization on either building up the technical capacity and knowing how to do that and really piecemealing a solution together, and at some point you're probably gonna ask yourself, is it worth it for our business to really become a Linux expert for our digital signage and kiosk strategy? Is that really core to driving the customer experience or should we rely on a platform like Chrome OS to give us a lot of that as part of its core capability? 


And if you're using something like Chrome OS as a software firm, is there less demand to have in-house expertise around an operating system, if you're using something like Chrome versus Linux? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, I would say that's one of the common benefits that we've seen. Recently I spoke to a retailer abroad in Asia, and they were saying that they saw an 80% reduction in staff having to focus on updates and management of the platform, and I asked the question because I wasn't sure if they said 80% or 18% because 80% sounded really startling and in fact they said no 80%, and now these individuals, they're effectively being focused on higher order capabilities with higher order needs within the organization rather than just going out and servicing screens and devices that needed to be updated, they're focusing more on higher value business objectives.

And so absolutely, I think this is one of the areas where businesses need to ask themselves is this core, or is it context? It means core to obviously incorporate digital signage and service options within your business, but is it core for your organization to understand exactly how an operating system is gonna work?

One of the arguments that a very successful company in the digital signage space called BrightSign makes … they are spin out of Roku and the CEO is saying that one of the reasons there's a lot of attraction to our hardware is we don't really have an operating system. It's our own proprietary operating system. So there's nothing to really hack. There's nothing you can do with it. 

I understand the risk with Windows and to a lesser degree with Linux are, and I know you do harden Chrome, but what are there ways in? And if there are, please explain them to me. (Laughter)

Naveen Viswanatha: That's actually one of the areas that I think we have a very strong track record around, and I will add that systems will get compromised over time, and unless you have a security team, a large robust security team, actively monitoring and ensuring that exploits and vulnerabilities are gonna be patched consistently, that turnaround time needs to be very quick, and that's exactly what we do on the Chrome OS side, and I think you can look at our track record. We have zero ransomware attacks ever reported on Chrome OS. 

It's also another component that if you double click into the security piece of Chrome OS, it’s really baked into the operating system. Many other operating systems out there will think about security as a bolt on afterthought. It's core to exactly how Chrome OS works. I'll give you a couple of examples. 

Executables are blocked from running on the operating system, they're just blocked. And so that's a huge vector of vulnerability that is just removed entirely. Timely security updates, like I was talking about before. We have the ability to roll out updates on a four week cycle. Even if you're part of our long term stable channel so organizations that don't choose to get four week updates on the operating system, they wanna actually get six month updates instead, even if you're on that six month long term stable support channel, we will still roll out critical security updates to you. So you get the best of both worlds, right? And again, we have a whole team of people that are watching and monitoring what kind of vulnerabilities are out there on a consistent basis, and I'll mention one more thing really quickly and that is that the operating system files are kept in a complete, separate partition, so they can't be modified at all. So let’s say with kiosk, your app is hacked in some way, or there's a vulnerability in the application that you're building, the operating system itself is hardened and entirely isolated from the application session itself.

It's just a handful of things to think about.  I think any chief information security officer or CIO or organization that's really looking at security needs to evaluate it broadly, and we have a lot of great material that can tell you beyond what I've said here. Why Chrome OS is a very hardened and safe operation.

I suspect you've also learned a lot through the years too. I know that some of the companies who were early on with Google using Chrome OS, they were frustrated by new versions that would break their software, and I think you got to a point pretty quickly where you started to pin the OS versions and a company could stay on that until they're ready to move to the next one instead of being auto-updated. 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, and we have learned a lot over the last several years, and you bring up a good point. One of the design principles that we really try to anchor on, when you think about what a business wants, they want predictability and control. They wanna know when things are gonna change, they wanna have the control to be able to initiate those changes. 

Even if we have this release train rolling out great new updates, security updates, new features. As a business, you want to be able to throttle that, and yeah, we have a number of different controls that have allowed organizations to do that. A long term stable and support channel, which I mentioned expands the actual stable channel that the operating system is on for six months. So that was a big one that we announced earlier this year. But in addition to that, the ability to, like you said, pin different application versions and be able to know exactly when you wanna roll those out, there's a number of other controls that allow you to better understand how you're gonna update your fleet. 

So tell me about Flex. 

Naveen Viswanatha: Ah, we're super excited about Flex. So that was one of the three big announcements we had around CER. The first one was the Chrome enterprise recommended solution track that you alluded to earlier. The second one was a brand new SKU that's focused specifically on kiosks and digital signage, and we can get to that in a moment too, and the third one was the incorporation of Flex. 

So Flex is something that we announced earlier this year and what it allows organizations to do is install Chrome OS on any device they already have. So if you have an existing investment, say in Windows devices, they're aging, you're not sure when you're gonna refresh them, maybe you wanna refresh part of them but you wanna get the benefits of Chrome OS, the security, the built in updates, everything we've been talking about thus far, remote management, you can now install Chrome OS Flex on those devices and get all of the benefits from Chrome OS.

So we've seen that as a really interesting opportunity in the kiosk space as many customers are starting to use that as an. Chrome OS. So they'll maybe extend the life of their existing infrastructure for a couple of years, and then we'll see them roll onto Chrome devices in the future, but we've also seen organizations look at Chrome OS Flex as a way to really tailor what they want in terms of device capabilities for their signage solutions based on the breadth of different hardware and endpoints that exist out there today.

So for example, if you wanted an existing device that is not a Chrome OS device, either based on the aesthetics of it, based on the form factor or performance, is it ruggedized, fanless, et cetera. You can look at that and say I wanna use that device. It's not a Chrome OS device, but with Flex now, I can transform that into a Chrome OS device and incorporate it into my overall device strategy.

So why can you extend your life? Is that because it's a leaner application and strips out a lot of stuff?

Naveen Viswanatha: It's because we're able to really look at the hardware and separate the hardware from the software, and so rather than relying on Microsoft's operating system support and when that's gonna be EOLd (end of lifed) or when the device itself be becomes EOLd, Chrome OS Flex allows us to effectively say, look, that's an end point and we're gonna separate the software and the operating system from the actual device components. As an organization there creates an abstraction layer for you to utilize Flex as a way to extend the life of that infrastructure. 

I assume you could also run a blended network as well, so that you could have Chrome OS devices and re refurbed windows or reclaimed windows devices as Flex devices and run concurrently. You don't have to have a network, that's just all pure Chrome OS devices. 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head and that's what we're starting to see with many of our customers who will start with Chrome OS flex, but then they’ll say … a lot of organizations, especially larger organizations, they don't necessarily have one device on one operating system or one endpoint or one operating system, they have a plethora of them and these devices might be on different refresh and end of life cycle. 

So when there might be one coming up, say, at the end of next year, Chrome OS Flex is a great way to evaluate Chrome OS capabilities. Most of the time customers overwhelmingly are happy with Chrome OS and start using that as an onboarding mechanism for other Chrome devices or then rolling out Flex to other parts of their fleet that might be the end of lifting and subsequent years. And so during that time, they will have, like you said, a hybrid model of Chrome OS devices, as well as Flex devices, and you can absolutely manage those through the single pane of glass, like via the partner pane of glass, one of the nine partners that we just announced, or even our own admin console.

You mentioned a new SKU. What is that? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah we're very excited about that. The new SKU is called the kiosk and signage upgrade, and what it does is it unlocks all of the signage capabilities that an organization wants, but none of anything else that you need. And what I mean by that is that Chrome OS is an operating system that serves end user computing, as well as signage. On the end user computing side, you need capabilities to manage users, user profiles, logins, different types of login modalities. But on the signage side, you don't really need that, right? Even if there's end user interaction, there's a lot of user modes and user capabilities that are not part of that overall management…

Because it's a dumb end point in a hell of a lot of cases? 

Naveen Viswanatha: I wouldn't use the word dumb, but because it's a highly focused endpoint, and as a result of that, we tailored a SKU which is $25 per device per year. So that's half off, two bucks a month basically, enterprise SKU, and for that, you get this 50% off SKU and very focused functionality, still gives you all the security, all the device controls, cloud management, reporting and insights. You just don't get the user controls that you get with the Chrome enterprise upgrade SKU, and that's the full SKU. 

But if you did want those user controls, for whatever reason it may be, could you use those? And could you run a blended network with both kinds of licenses? 

Naveen Viswanatha: Absolutely and we have a lot of customers that that, that are doing exactly 

One thing that came up a few years ago and there was some buzz around it, but I don't know where it went. There was chatter that Android, which is pretty widely used in digital signage as well, was going to converge with Chrome OS and it was going to be the same thing that didn't really happen or did I miss it? 

Naveen Viswanatha: No, it didn't happen. I've been on the team for seven years, so I'm not sure if what you're referring to is before my time, but we do have Android and Chrome OS as a company, two operating systems that serve different parts of the overall market.

Now you're right that there is going to be some overlap. We see Android in the signage space. We see Android focusing a little bit more on mobile kiosk type of use cases. So a customer associate in a store walking around with a tablet style device, so things along those lines, whereas Chrome OS feels like it's a bit more focused on fixed facility types of infrastructure, and that's how we see the segmentation today. And we obviously worked very closely with the Android team. 

Over time I think, as things evolve somewhat organically, if there are opportunities to bring these two capabilities or two operating systems together, that's something that we will consider but today we see a pretty natural segmentation.

One thing I will add is that you were talking about managing a blended environment. With the Chrome OS capabilities and Android management capabilities, many organizations are managing both Chrome OS and Android endpoints through their universal endpoint management solutions. So that is a way that these two solutions can coexist even today. 

This has been great. I could have talked for at least an hour or more, but we committed to a certain time window, so I should honor it. The last question I wanted to ask is just very simply if software companies and solution providers wanna get involved, or at least look into this how do they start?

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, so you can go to our website. We have a lot of great information on our website. For customers, we have a wayfinding guide. We have information about the different solutions that we have for kiosk in terms of both devices that they can use at as endpoints, as well as peripherals that they can also utilize. 

On the partner side, on the solution provider side gets in contact with our business development team. I know we are actively looking at working with more and more partners. I mentioned earlier that we listed nine and that's just a starting point, and what we've seen is that on the solution provider and ISV side, as you scale out globally, there are a lot of kinds of localized partners that do a lot of work in different regions, and so we expect this area to really build out significantly over the coming years. So get in touch with our BD team and our business development team, and be happy to work with you, figure out ways to incorporate you into our Chrome enterprise recommended program.

As you dug into this, were you surprised by how many CMS software companies are out there?  

Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, I absolutely was. Especially considering where we were just five years ago or so. It seems like this has been one of the areas where we've seen a lot of hyper specialization and hyper localization. So unlike other solution categories like contact center, as an example, you tend to have a number of global players and then a few localized players within each market. 

In this particular arena, in kiosks and digital signage, it feels very different because you look at APAC. I can't even talk about APAC as a market because each country, and sometimes even within countries, different specializations with retail versus employee spaces and workspaces has created a huge ecosystem around kiosks and signage. So yes, long answer in terms of in terms of your original question, but absolutely. 

That's good for me because a crowded market means there's more to write about and talk about. (Laughter)

Well, thank you very much for spending some time with me!

Naveen Viswanatha: Thank you, and appreciate the time and opportunity, and I look forward to talking to you again at some point. 

Jeremy Gavin, Screenfeed

Jeremy Gavin, Screenfeed

June 8, 2022


Screenfeed has, for many years, been one of the primary players in subscription content for digital signage - offering great-looking, fully-automated infotainment feeds that help populate the schedules of screens and get viewers looking again and again.

Now the Minneapolis company is introducing a new service that's a direct play on the no code software movement. Screenfeed Connect is an online toolset that allows users - whether they have developer chops or not - to easily and quickly integrate data sources into fully customizable HTML5 designs and layouts.

The product of two years and 30,000 developer hours, Connect grew out of the frustration of custom content project pitches going nowhere because the clients didn't have the budget. Screenfeed, for example, might need to charge $7,000 to reflect the time needed to develop a finished, automated template, but the client might have a budget for $700.

By putting Connect together, Screenfeed now has a platform that plays to the whole notion of economies of scale. So maybe that $7,000 job could be done for around $700.

I spoke with Screenfeed founder Jeremy Gavin about the roots of Connect, and how it will be available to see and try out this week on the show floor at InfoComm.

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Jeremy, thank you for joining me for those who don't know what Screenfeed is all about, and I can't imagine there's a lot of those, but nonetheless give me the skinny on what your company does and how long you've been around?

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah. Thanks for having me, and happy to share what Screenfeed is up to.

We started as a service. I started the company in 1999, I believe. We really didn't transition to what is now Screenfeed until 2008. So we've been doing this for Screenfeed, which typically has been known as the provider of infotainment content or data feeds. Like we call it dynamic rich content, that's ready-made. It's been a lot of fun building that. We serve content to over 175,000 screens around the globe, and all types of CMS and on many different types of digital signage networks. So it's been fun to see the industry grow over the last 14 years because we've been involved in a lot of people's networks, making sure everything under the network is running and that the screens are working. We just get to provide them great content that feeds their screens, keeps them fresh, and the purpose to use our content is really, in most cases, it is to get people to watch the screen longer or get them to turn their head and look at it in the first place.

You may have some messages, it could be employee messages, it could be advertisements that you want people to see on the screen, that's maybe the purpose of the screen. But in an exchange you might want to provide them something like news or weather or sports scores to gain their attention, and in some cases, it is to inform them whether it's alerts, weather alerts or traffic. There is some utility to the content that we provide, as well.

And you guys have done some research that kind of validates the whole idea of injecting things like infotainment into schedules that would otherwise just be a series of promotional messages or workplace messages or whatever it may be, that actually does have a positive impact that it does get people to keep looking and remember the next thing that comes up on the screen, right?

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. Certainly when we started we were going off of a gut feeling that, Hey, we should put something on the screens. And truth be told, a lot of our customers probably have said that we need to check a content box. So what can we get that is easy and updates to my screens.

So it's not the same all the time. So you'll get some use from that, just to say, let's just keep our screen updated with something new. But fortunately, we've had opportunities to work with customers who wanted to think smarter about it and say, Hey, is this actually helping? And we worked with a large national bank, for example, did a number of studies on a lot of our products to see what would help them  deliver the message that they want to deliver.

And I can't give the exact details from which company and that type of thing, but generally the assumption was if we play weather, will the marketing piece that we run after the weather be seen more? And so when they did in-person testing a large thing over three months, they came back to say what was the highest recall piece. And it happened to be weather, but of their marketing pieces. The marketing piece that ran after the weather was recalled at a 40% higher rate than all the other messages. So they've said the same thing with our traffic and our sports scores, and it's been fun to see that have an impact for them.

And certainly that could be the case for all of our customers. 

At InfoComm this week, you are launching something called Connect, which is a pretty big leap forward for you guys. 

Jeremy Gavin: It is.

It's been something we've been working on for about two years and and actually came out of some frustration that I had at a couple of levels. I was at a speed dating show in London, maybe I don't know, three, four years ago and actually canceled. So I'm not going to go. I don't think they need the infotainment for the people I was going to meet with, but I said, I'm going to go anyway and I'm going to see if they don't need what I have to offer.

We're content people, what can we offer them? And so I flew over there and it was a miserable two days, not really selling anything, and I was just devastated. I'm like, wow, what's going on here? But we have always known that, we sell infotainment, we're a slice of the content pie, and I, so I came back home thinking we just need to be a bigger part of the content by the way.

We've been doing this for 10 years or eight years. We're experts in this. We know how to deliver dynamic data, how to make it look great on a screen, and so I decided we just wanted to say yes to more projects. So really and this is where Screenfeed is at, not only outside of the connection are we're just wanting to say yes to mark on projects.

We want to be the content people that people think of when they need dynamic content because we're good at it. So we decided, Hey, we need to put out a lot more products that use people's own data. They've been coming to us to license data. But we had a lot of requests during our time saying, Hey, can you offer this look community events feature?

Can you allow us to put our events there? Or we’ve got company news. In addition to the news that we're subscribing you, can we do that? And we've got involved in a lot of custom projects and there was one particular project where I felt like there was this great opportunity, this really cool shaped screen in Vegas for this bar.

And they wanted some sports scores as well as their own news and some other things, and what they want to do is really cool. And so we gave him a quote because we've got lots of great front end HTML developers, and it was going to be like $7,500, and that was us trying to keep it small because there's this one bar, what are they going to spend for that?

And, they said, no, and I was frustrated and I thought we need a better answer for that. So we built a tool that allows us to do a project like that, for hundreds, projects that used to take a developer and a designer three weeks now can take a day. It's built too. Basically it's a no code use trendy term solution that builds HTML content apps that integrate with your data.

So that could be the case of a weekly sales leader board. It could be a menu board. It could be a progress bar. I don't like to give out all the samples because. The cool thing about it is it's not just a bunch of templates. It's literally a tool that allows you to create an app. So that's connected and we've been working on it for two years and I'm happy to tell you more about it.

How does it work in terms of if I am an end-user or a reseller, am I subscribing to something? Am I paying for the functionality one? 

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, that's great. So connect, initially we're going to be offering it for free throughout the whole summer. Yeah. We want people to see, that's true. That's obviously valuable for us to see what apps people would use.

It's what the use-cases are, and in the end it's a tool to get a project from A to Z, and that's what it is. We don't want people to see it as a design tool. It's not another Canva that has data integration. It really does cut down projects time from A to Z. But when we do offer it, certainly it will be licensed similar to how we license our Screenfeed content, which is a license per player, a small monthly cost per player.

And then for Screenfeed, actually, we're launching a new pricing model to simplify things for us next week as well. So essentially you'll be able to purchase a license for all of our infotainment apps. So you don't have to decide what you want. You can change any time. Or if you really want to, you can just purchase one one app like a local community or calendar feed. And the same thing with connect apps, I get a license per player and with one license you can create as many apps as you want on your screen. So you could have 10 of our apps running in your playlist, or if you really only have a need for one app such as a welcome screen, you can just pay for one license.

So the pricing I'll be setting over the summer, but it will be very similar to our Screenfeed pricing now, which scales down the more licenses you have. So we have networks with one screen, and we have networks with 30,000 screens, and we make it affordable for them. 

And I think you said you put in 30,000 hours of developer time into this?

Jeremy Gavin: We did. Yeah, pretty much our COVID was spent building this. We did start beforehand. I got back from that show, I think in 2019, and we started saying, Hey, we got that. What else are we going to do? What's next for Screenfeed? And so we spent a few months trying to determine what that was, and when COVID hit, we just said, "Hey, yeah, let's do it." At that time, honestly I thought we'd build this thing in six months, and I thought the pandemic would be over in six months. So it really wasn't related to the pandemic. It's just, at that time we just started it, and said," Hey, let's get this done." And so from a team perspective, we expected to launch a minimally viable product early on.

But there's just so much this can do, and we just kept wanting to add more. So we had a little scope-creep. But honestly, I'm really proud of what we have and it's a very usable tool right now. In fact, we are already using it for customers now.

It's nice that I'm coming to InfoComm, which will be the first trade show with it.  

So the premise here is no code software. If I am the digital signage person in charge of, let's say, a regional savings and loan with, 20 branches or something like that, and I want to put financial data  that's not just market data, I could go into your tool set, and do this myself, regardless of whether I have any skill sets around database tables or HTML5 coding or anything like that. Right?

Jeremy Gavin: So in that use case, they might want to be showing their own rates. They might want to didn't be showing the bankers that you're working with and rotate that.

I'll give you a little story. So I'm involved in a girls' fastpitch club, and we have our own training facility ... and this is just my own use case for this. We had four different teams of girls that didn't really know each other a whole lot. They played on different teams, but during the winter, they're working out together at this training facility, and so we wanted them to learn about each other, very similar to what you might do with employees. And we had schedules, we had a number of things we wanted to push out. Of course, I wanted to put a bunch of screens in there. So I did that, and to get done what I wanted to do on the screens I had access to developers and designers on my team, but it would have taken a lot of their time.

And I can't say, Hey, let's take a bunch of time on my developers on Screenfeed for this use. So I delayed and delayed it, it would have taken probably four to six weeks, but once I had the first version of Connect built, I sent out a form just using JotForm to all the players and said, "Hey, fill out this form. What your goals are this summer? Who is a teammate you appreciate and why? what's your favorite ice cream? That kind of stuff. And with that data, I was able to make four apps within two hours ... one that showed, "Hey here's my pet, and here's a picture of me." "Here's me and here's my teammate that I appreciate, and why." "Here is our calendar, and our training calendar schedule countdown to the state tournament."

So I made a playlist there one morning, and I was able to do that. The key was I was able to do that myself, and I made it look the way I wanted.

There's a lot of template tools out there. But with Connect, you can start with a blank canvas. You can just start adding things onto the canvas and design it. You can connect to any data source currently that delivers XML, JSON, either Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, and the CSV files. We'll be adding a lot more connections to Salesforce and Shopify and everything else you can think of.

So those data connections are already pre-built. It's just easy to use the data that you already have. So as long as you have data, this is a tool for people who want to display that data. If you don't have a data source, you can also just add your data and then connect. And so there's a great data management tool there.

Some other use cases, for example, would be that we have worked with a mall in New York and they want to display a featured offering for their tenants. This happened during COVID. They wanted to do some things to help them, and it was a lot of work. We were doing this manually for them, where they'd say they'd contact these stores, try to find out what they wanted to emphasize, and by the time they get the information, their deals are almost over. So now they just send out an email link to a form that's secure. They log in, they just tell them what their offer is. They upload an image. It goes to the mall manager,  who then has an approval process within Connect to approve, and then that gets rotated into the template that was built in Connect, and automatically delivers it. So now the managers of that mall, the only requirement they've got after sending that link out is just to approve messages. And they're done. They don't have to manage anything else. Our system takes care of the rest. So it's really a workflow tool, in addition to a design tool.

Is there some sort of fault tolerance in place? I know I can remember back to the early days when companies were introducing Twitter visualization. So you can take the Twitter feed and show it on the screen. But Twitter kept changing its API and it didn't work, and I guess the same thing happened with some other social media channels. Do you have something that's doing data checking or whatever, to make sure that these data sources are still structured properly? Or do you have somebody who has to stay on top of it? 

Jeremy Gavin: Yes, absolutely. So when a new data connection is created first we have to ask, in a lot of cases, say for a Google Sheet, we have to have authenticated access to get that, unless they've made it public. We also asked for permission to cache that data securely on our servers.

We'll be able to opt out of that if they don't want to. But that allows us, if a connection breaks - Twitter and Instagram are pretty famous for that, where they just asked you to re-authenticate and they won't read your data. Or if someone's got a Google Sheet and someone in the office, that's the data source for the screen, but all of a sudden they make some changes that break it.

We have a stored last created version of that, and then we send an email notification saying, "Hey, we've got a problem. You might want to fix it. In the meantime, we'll use the last data that we have." Then there's another control that allows you to decide how long that bad data can be used. 

So that's a way for us to manage that and make sure that the screen is not impacted and then there's also some fallback messages you could apply in the template so that, "Hey, if the data's not there, display this message instead."

I spoke with Intuiface two or three weeks ago. They do interactive software and have been doing no code before people were using that phrase. And Geoff Bessin talked about how part of the rationale was this would enable developers to do things much more quickly. So something that might've taken two weeks to put together, they could maybe do in a morning or something more like that. Is that kind of the same case here? And is that your target end user - more the solutions providers than actual end-users?

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, I think there'll be a solution for both, but we see a lot of opportunity with solution providers because it allows them to say yes to more things. You mentioned earlier, we put 30,000 man hours into this, over those couple of years, and we did that, and most of those hours mean we've done work that now you don't have to do.

So an integrator who we work with a lot in a lot, we have a reseller program for Screenfeed. So we work with a lot of integrators to resell infotainment content, and they would bring us a lot of these custom projects, where "Hey, we need this to be customized. Maybe the content that we're offering needs to be customized to the brand of the user, or a new custom HTML project.

And they would generally have to have us bid it, and then they would resell our services. But in this case and most of the cases, honestly, they don't want to get into content. They want to provide a total solution, but they don't want to deal with content, and with Connect, now they really don't have to have the web development skills to be able to do HTML5. It's hard for them to hire that type of work. But with this they could sell that as a service that's valuable to the customer and then use Connect to be able to quickly create an app ... and the customer doesn't necessarily need to know that they used Connect.

They're just delivering a beautiful HTML5 content solution that taps into their data, and they can do that within a few hours. We do have a number of templates that people can start with. Again they're not just templates that are stuck the way they are there. We call them examples. You can really use them to plug in some data, and if you like the way they look, great. But you can completely customize it by taking the things out, and adding things in. And that will empower those solutions providers who want to say yes to their customers. "Yes, I can take care of your issue." And have an easy way to do it.

And the other benefit is we're here to help when they have troubles, and if they want to hire us to just implement it, we're saying yes to that. So we're going to be here to help them deliver whatever it is they need to deliver to their customer, as it relates to content. 

You mentioned the bar in Las Vegas and how there was a custom job opportunity there, and they said no, because of the cost. Was that happening a lot where you could do custom work, but the price point just didn't work for these guys and with Connect, now you've got something that's scalable, that you built an infrastructure and platform around it and therefore you can dramatically lower the costs, right?

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. Just yesterday, I had a call with a customer we used to do a lot of custom work for, and it was pretty typical that when they needed something, and they had a bigger budget, they could do $5000-$8,000 on a typical job. For example, in this case, they needed four different views of data, and it was a data source, we hadn't worked with yet. So I would have charged, I think it's still a good rate at 8,000 bucks for four different uses of data. We usually say it would have taken four to six weeks. But I'd let them know, Hey, we've got this tool now called Connect, and I'd like to try it out for this. It'll take us about a week and I'll quote it at $1600. So that's just a real life situation, where I'm going to be able to deliver for this customer now, I might have a reseller that maybe is using Connect, might say I know that customer has got an $8,000 budget. Maybe they could sell it for $6,000 and they just make more profit. It does allow us and our partners to say Yes to more people who just want to put their calendar on the screen, or they just have some data source, their weekly rates or their featured products that they want to have on their screen, and our tool makes that easy. 

Does this allow you to do some things  ... like you've always had standard things like sports news and sports scores and that sort of thing, and they've been built around the Associated Press or  other news data feeds ... could you conceivably have a junior hockey league (as you're in Minnesota) that could do sports scores and visualizations, just using scores from the league that would never be on the AP feed or something like that. But you could make it look like that?

Jeremy Gavin: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. That's a great point, and that kind of goes back to people in the past that asked us, "Hey, how can we get our content on there. A lot of reasons for people to come to Screenfeed are because It looks good and they know it works. We've been in this business for a long time. So we know what it takes, like "Hey, this particular piece of software, you want to do something in a different way. Here are just best practices and how to get HTML animation to work well to tap into data."

The beauty of this is you are not limited to the data sources we provided. As long as they have a source for data, or they're willing to create one, let's say it's easy to use Google Sheets or come right into Connect, and you can create your own columns and everything, and put your data right in there.

And you could assign a user permission for one person, whose job is to update that content, and then it pops up on all your screens. So yeah, the junior hockey clubs in Minnesota certainly could use this to populate from their schedules or their stats, that type of thing. As long as they've got a data source or we'll put it in ... this will work well for them.

So I'm using any number of different CMS software platforms out there. Let's say using. I don't know, Stratacache, or Scala or Spectrio ... what's involved, how do you integrate this? Is it just an HTML5 file that goes into a schedule?

Jeremy Gavin: Our Screenfeed content can be delivered either via HTML and just as a web page, we can deliver it as images as well, over a Media RSS, or just a direct URL. So depending on your software, there is some people want to make sure they can download in cache, at the player level, and so they prefer images. We're also working with other software providers to say, "Hey, how can we manage the  ability for it to run offline as well," and so that is another angle from a screen play perspective that we are already speaking with other software providers about. So how do we integrate this into what they're doing?

Now some software providers have some design tools or some templates that this maybe does overlap a little bit with. But we think we've taken a completely different approach, and certainly for software companies that do not have a design tool in their software, this will have the ability for them to white label the Connect solution, so they could integrate Connect right into their software. The end result is we want to enable the customers who use the software to be able to just say, "Hey, this is what I want to do and have a way to be able to execute."

Is it fair to say that if you are an end-user or a CMS software provider, that's already been working with Screenfeed using its infotainment feeds, that there's nothing technically different about integrating this?

Jeremy Gavin: With Screenfeed, we've been adding a lot more of the ability to customize our feed. So you can change colors and fonts, and we call our feed configuration pages. So a lot of people who are used to using Screenfeed, they're gone in and they've made a bunch of choices and picked some styles. And then they end up with a URL, and with that URL, they go in and they schedule it in their software and it just handles automatic updates. So they can set it and forget it.

Same experience here with Connect. They just can start with one of our templates and modify it, or they can create an app from scratch, and in the end, they're going to end up with a URL that they'll be able to schedule in their software.

And then some of the settings, for example, within Connect, can be things like "How often should this data update?" That may be, "Hey, it only updates every day or maybe it's every hour, maybe it's every two minutes." There's other controls in Connect too, such as triggers. "If this number is lower than this, then show this other product."

Or "If This Then That" opportunities that you can take care of with HTML5, and take advantage of the data that's in that. In the end, we're focused on data-driven content. So there's a lot of tools within Connect that you can configure with triggers or moderation. Bbut at the end of the day, you're going to get a URL that you can schedule in your playlist, and it'll run with all the smarts that you assigned.

Yeah, so you can, depending on what you do, whatever the case may be, you can maximize the relevance of what you're putting up on the screen. 

Jeremy Gavin: That's the power of data-driven content, and that's what we've been working on for over a decade, and is how to use that content. So to us, as you can imagine, this opens up a lot of different possibilities for us to provide some more interesting solutions than maybe just this straightforward work. 

We're not doing a lot of triggering, and although we have had people trigger ads and different things with weather or traffic conditions with their own data, there's a lot that goes they're going to want to go into that. It's going to be fun. That's one of the reasons over the summer that we're not introducing a cost because we want to see how people can use this solution to create various apps that maybe we haven't even thought of.

You've been doing this as you've mentioned for a decade or more, and I would say a decade ago, people like you and me and some others have been yelling from the rooftops, "It's the content stupid," and it's been very difficult to get people to respect that what's on the screen is more important than what's driving the screen? What's your sense of the state of the industry right now in terms of the understanding of the importance of content and creativity? 

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, definitely. When I got into the industry I came from a company that was in website design and content development. And I saw this, at the time, just being run by a lot of AV guys, I would say. There weren't even a lot of web technologies, and I thought, "Hey, yeah, people are gonna spend a lot of money on screens, that cost a lot more then, media players also cost a lot more, and I knew people were spending a lot of money ... and I thought, but once all these screens got in and the've spent all that money, they're probably going to want to leverage it, and then start spending money on content. Some people got that right away, but honestly, it took awhile. But this year, and I'm telling this to my team, I've had so many more conversations, particularly with software providers who want to partner ... where they're finding that when they're selling their service against other CMS companies, they have similar features. So they're now saying, some have invested more in content and that's a differentiator, and so they're asking, "Hey, how can we use content to provide more of a total solution or to have that advantage. But yeah, the number of people early on, like the early DSE days, we'd see people who would say "Hey, I've got my media player picked, I've got my streams, I got a rollout partner. I got everything ready. I got it. We're launching this thing two weeks ago, but we don't know what we're going to put on it for content." And that was just a theme that a lot of us, I'm sure you heard a lot of it back then. Certainly people have gotten a lot smarter, and so that's a benefit for Screenfeed.

And part of the reason why I invested two years of time for our company to double down and provide more content is that I just think people are smarter. They want smarter content. The way I look at what we're offering is this is not a solution if you just need to create a graphic. You can use Canva or Adobe Photoshop, or a lot of other tools. This is a tool for smarter content. Projects that maybe people said no to just because of the time or costs, not because of the idea. It was a great idea. We want those ideas to be able to be executed. 

So if someone is at InfoComm and they want to know more, where will they find you on the trade show floor? And will they be able to get demos? 

Jeremy Gavin: Yeah, we'll be in the digital signage pavilion at booth N1167, and we'll have the ability to give you either a quick summary of what Connect is. And, we'll also have screens and laptops there just to show you actual demos. It's very easy to use, and by the time people are listening to this, you'll be able to go to our website, and you'll just be able to create an account and start using Connect right away. You won't need a credit card or anything, just start using it and start trying to tap into different data sources.

And even though we are offering it for free, it still comes with full support. So it's not a situation where you're just kind of on your own. Come see us at booth N1167, and you can get a demo there at InfoComm. And if you're not at InfoComm, just so you can pop to our website and request a demo.

I think it does help to get at least a 15-20 minute rundown on what it is, just to level-set someone, and they'll have a better chance of figuring out how it can help them. 

Alright. It was great to catch up with you. It'll be great to get a demo at InfoComm of this, and I just wanted to personally thank you for all the support through the years of Sixteen:Nine. You proactively came to me when I said I was going to start a podcast, and said, "I want to sponsor it" ... and you've been a sponsor of the publication for a very long time, and it's much appreciated. 

Jeremy Gavin: That's been great for me. I know when I got into the industry, this was a great source and that was the case for a lot of people. It's almost like a little, it's a source that everybody goes to. Anytime I hire someone, that's part of our onboarding process, to subscribe to your blog. It's fantastic, and the industry has benefited from your previous life as a reporter ... and so thanks for all that you've done to kinda help each other share our stories with each other.

All right, hopefully we will see each other in Las Vegas. If they let me across the border. I have to remember how to do things like wear adult clothes. 

Jeremy Gavin: Look forward to that. 

Alright. Take care. 

Jeremy Gavin: Thanks, Dave.


Denys Lavigne, Oasis Immersion

Denys Lavigne, Oasis Immersion

May 25, 2022


One of the best things about projection mapping technology is its ability to completely fill a big space with immersive visuals. The resulting experiences can be good enough to become paid attractions.

There are now dedicated, ticketed venues devoted to immersive, projection-mapped experiences around the world, and one of the best is Oasis Immersion, a venue in downtown Montreal that was dreamed up by a guy who'll be very familiar to the digital signage community - Denys Lavigne.

He started and ran Arsenal Media for many years - building up a creative shop that most years would all but sweep the digital signage awards programs it entered. Arsenal was ultimately acquired by the display technology firm Christie, and Lavigne continued working for them for about four years, before deciding to step away and chase a new dream.

That's been a real journey. I had lunch with him years ago, in New York, when he laid out the rough concept for me. I did a walk-through of the venue back in 2019, when it was just a set of darkened rooms, months off from opening. Then COVID hit, and the launch plans were derailed by lockdowns. The concept and business clawed its way through the pandemic, and Oasis is open and thriving with experiences designed to both amaze and inspire.

I had a terrific catch-up chat recently with Denys.

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Denys, can you tell me what Oasis is all about? 

Denys Lavigne: Oasis Immersion is an immersive destination that was launched on February 25th, 2021 in Montreal. It's within the Montreal convention center, and it's really part of this new trend of immersion as a destination, similar to places like the Cathédrale in Paris, the Team Lab project in Tokyo have actually quite a few. So it's really based on projection and audio, it's a 25,000 square foot space structured in three galleries. There's a cafe bar, there's a boutique and there are two additional experiential areas. So I'm really proud of this project.

And this is right in the heart of Montreal, right?

Denys Lavigne: Right in the heart of Montreal, the Montreal convention center is located between the old Montreal area and the cultural district and the business district. So it's within an area called the international district which bridges to many strategic areas within the city.

And this is, if I'm remembering correctly, because I've walked through this space with you, it was an old loading dock or something for the convention center? 

Denys Lavigne: It was actually before a bus station, and it was transformed into a potential future exhibit area but the project never really came through so it was actually used as just a storage facility, and because of its location within the convention center, it wasn't necessarily easy to use as a rental space, because most of the other areas' rental rooms and conference space are on the upper floors. So it became a no man's land, and when I was made aware that this area was just sitting there, I thought this could be a great place for this project. I had the immersive destination project in mind for a while, and this was the perfect timing and the perfect location to do it. 

Yeah, you're right across from some pretty good hotels and not far away from some other ones and obviously it's a convention center, so there's a ton of people flowing through there. It's on a subway line on and on. So it seems kind of perfect. 

Denys Lavigne: Absolutely. For us, the location in terms of the site itself was really important, and the other interesting aspect about the location, it helps us to diversify the business model around the project. So we do have, of course a more B2C angle with the immersive exhibits that we present to the audience, but we also have a B2B angle where the space can be privatized for different type of events and used as a another option in terms of the rental for spaces so it works out really well from so many angles.

This is one of these “experiences” where you're going to walk in and with projection mapping, you're just going to be totally immersed in whatever the theme is for that particular exhibition? 

Denys Lavigne: Yes, so there's a lot of different definitions about what is an immersive experience these days. I think VR industry will very often refer to these types of experiences as immersive experiences, and it is in a certain way. The way I define a real immersive experience is about stepping into this other world that is dynamic and putting the visitor in the middle of the story of the experience itself and the experience evolves and there's a total immersion from an audio and video perspective. 

So yes, it's the type of experience where you walk around, it's similar to a museum and that really helped us in terms of finally being able to open because initially the project was scheduled to open early June of 2020 and of course, we all know what happened, and we were able to reopen a bit sooner than some other cultural destinations because of the fact that people walked around the space like a museum. There's no time limit. There is no official start to the show. You do have to buy a ticket to arrive at a certain time so that we can manage the traffic flow and limit waiting time at the entrance, but it's really like a very free experience in terms of the way that you want to experience, the duration, and yes, you walk into every room and there's 360 projections on the floors, and of course spatialized audio in every room, which is a really important thing that is often underestimated in terms of its importance within an immersive experience.

This has been quite a journey for you. As you mentioned, you plan to be open in Q2 2020, but then COVID hit but this is actually something that's been in the works for what, two or three years prior to that? 

Denys Lavigne: I was actually made aware of the site in the summer of 2018 and then the development process started from there. So yes, there was a process to it, and of course the pandemic added another layer of complexity to putting this project together. The past two years have been quite difficult, but we're turning the corner and fortunately, it's a good time to offer the audience this type of experience. I think there's a lot of interest and these experiences can be so powerful, and I think if we continue to do a good job from a quality of experience perspective, then we have the feeling that the audience is listening, the audience is interested and it's looking good for the future. 

We had to go through this process to put the project together and roll through the difficulties of the pandemic. But now, things are stabilizing and we're looking forward to build for the future.

When we talked about this well before you launched, you put a big premium on wanting to have very much thematically curated expositions that were built around an idea, as opposed to just having generative data artists put something up on these big canvases and make it flow and ooze and do whatever it was going to do. You want it to talk about particular topics like space, and so on. 

Denys Lavigne: Yeah, specific topics, but also specific topics at the right time, and I think that speaks to the kind of the heritage that I have coming into the immersive world through the world of digital signage and having been exposed to the different types of projects where the essence of it is to show the right message, at the right place, at the right time and that mindset carried through this project, and for us, one of the interesting aspects was to look at building a curated programming that was relevant to present at a certain moment in time so the here and now angle for us is quite important, and how it connects through not necessarily the news of the day, but the bigger picture trends of the moment. 

So this is how we approach our programming, allowing us to go in different directions. But staying relevant in terms of the timing of it, and also staying aligned with our DNA about using this media to share an optimistic perspective of life and use this media in a way that will inspire people, that will give them something that will stay within them after the exhibit hopefully, and just provide an uplifting perspective. This is really at the heart of this Oasis project, because the immersive media can be such a powerful experience that for us, the notion that it had to be relevant at that moment in time and provide a positive influence to our visitors was really important because both me and my co-founder and a dear friend, we're big fans of rays and multimedia performances, and I think one thing that we noticed over time is that there was very often a lack of connection with the times, this lack of sometimes emotion, that it was visual exploration just to explore, and sometimes it was really interesting, but we thought that a curated approach that was both relevant and inspirational, and that touched people was where we wanted to be and how we wanted to use the media. 

Have you developed a sense that the aspiration to strike an emotion with the people who are visiting, that's working? Are you getting feedback that this was more than just visually interesting to them? 

Denys Lavigne: Absolutely, and it's been so rewarding to get that feedback from the audience. We often see people in rooms that are very touched, that actually show emotions. We have feedback on our social media. Artists get direct email and visitors share directly with the artists what they went through and the emotions, and now we're absolutely where we want to be, and we want to continue to build on that. 

We actually, as part of the process of getting better as a creative group and understanding the media, which is still quite a young media. We launched an initiative called the Direct French Translation, and we worked with a startup company that uses biometric tools to measure the impact of experiences from an emotional and cognitive perspective, and we did a preliminary phase last fall as part of our Unwind exhibits and the preliminary results are actually quite positive. So we have the declarative piece, feedback from the audience, feedback on social media and on surveys and direct messages to the artists are quite positive, but now we also have a data driven piece that starts to show, starts to establish that the people are reacting in a good way and we now have preliminary patterns, biometric patternss to support it. 

If I went to Oasis immersion right now, what would be the shows that I'd see? 

Denys Lavigne: So we recently launched our Spring/Summer programming, and there were a few elements that we launched. The first one is that we activated the notion of having multiple shows playing at the same time. So we currently have two choices of exhibits that visitors can choose from. Officially, we launched a large interactive floor in our main room, which is to my knowledge, one of the largest permanent interactive floors in North America. We pre-launched it in February, but officially launched it as part of the spring/summer programming. We currently have two exhibits, the Recharger/Unwind, which is a sensory experience in the world of generative arts, but structured as a wellness experience. We're extending that show because it's been a big success for us. The show was originally launched last fall, but since there was still interest we're continuing with that. But our new main show is called Van Gogh distortion, and this is the first time that we are doing an exhibit featuring a painter and it's really about acknowledging the world phenomena that has come out of this union of the medium of immersion, and the world of painters and Van Gigh was a key figure in that movement, and we did it. 

We produced a show that is aligned with the spirits of Oasis that goes along in terms of the positive, inspirational angle, but also best practices in terms of how we feel a show like that needs to be produced because we all have seen some of these shows around the world, and some of them, I feel lack depth in terms of the experience itself. The way that we work with the painter, artwork and create a powerful, immersive experience where we actually put the people in the middle of the experience and that we use sound in a good way. For us, the painters shows we would have liked to see more around the world, and again it's an acknowledgement of that global phenomenon that has emerged from this union between immersion and painting. 

So in essence there's a big public demand. The feet are going through these places where they have these touring exhibitions for Van Gogh or whoever it is, and you could ignore it, or you could surrender to it to some degree, and build something that you think really does the job well, as opposed to just very large projections of still paintings?

Denys Lavigne: Yeah, you're right. We just acknowledged that there was a phenomenon. We acknowledged that there was interest, and I think one of the great aspects about this is that it has helped expose this new type of entertainment to a very large audience, and as the industry evolves, I think the expectations in terms of the quality, in terms of the element of surprise, people have more and more expectations.

So we felt it was the right time to push the boundaries with these types of shows, and we felt Van Gogh was the main painter that activated this movement, and in terms of the timing, we also thought it was really interesting because one of Van Gigh's strengths is about showing, sharing the emotion and in the smaller things of life, of our immediate world of nature. He brought emotions to things that we take for granted and we felt there was also an interesting link with what we went through over the past two years, being isolated and the pandemic, and just how we've reconnected to our immediate world nature, other people, the way that we view these elements and the role that they have in our lives, we thought that the timing of this from this angle was also really interesting to show and made it more relevant to focus on Van Gogh for this project.

And I guess it's something of a gateway drug as well that you could get people come to your venue to see this who, if you just had the other show on, might be a little too out there for their unfamiliar minds, but if they even get them in to see this they'll go, “Oh, that was really interesting. I'll come back!” 

Denys Lavigne: Yep, there was definitely an aspect of, we're still a new destination within Montreal, and I think it's part of the process to ensure that we get known to a larger audience, and there was a bit of that for sure, in our decision. But the main thing was about the here and now angle, the phenomena, and we've already done a good job building an audience that is really grand public, and even for Recharge/Unwind exhibit that features generative art, it's actually quite surprising and quite satisfying to see that we have people from all ages attended it and it's much more balanced than what we expected, and I think this speaks to the interest of people and this new type of entertainment, and we want to continue to build on that for sure. 

What are the creative demands involved in this? Can you say for the Recharge/Unwind material, can you say to a generative data artist, “here's the resolution, here's what you're working with, go!” Or do you have to train them? 

Denys Lavigne: We do train some people, because again it's still an emerging media. It's not like there are thousands and thousands of destinations similar to ours in the world right now. So the pool of expertise is limited, but it exists, and yes, part of the briefing is similar to more of a traditional digital signage content, or experiential media experience. There are technical specifications and are parts of the brief and there are also creative specifications that are shared with the artists. 

So Oasis immersion is not only just an operator of a site because of my background and my interests, we've also put together an internal creative team that works on developing the curating approach and the creative alignment for our projects. Each artist is informed about, what is the intent? What is the big picture of the exhibit? What is the expectation, in terms of his content and the role his content will play within the sequence, the journey that we want to create for our aud