Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

September 23, 2020

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

Advocates for Connected Experiences is an umbrella organization created several months ago, that pulls together the people and shared interests of a variety of organizations that deliver experiences to guests.

That can be in places like retail, in museums, commercial properties or theme parks.

The short form for the group is ACE, and it was pulled together and somewhat driven by the Digital Signage Federation - notably past and present board members like Kim Sarubbi, Beth Warren and Laura Davis-Taylor.

One of the early efforts from ACE has been a monthly series of online discussions about important topics, that pull together top people from member organizations. The most recent one was about connected experiences now and post-COVID, as we all all hope there is soon a post-COVID.

I was the moderator for the discussion, and this is the audio track, which is roughly one hour.

The panelists included folks from Shop!, SEGD, Geopath, the DSF, the Location-Based Marketing Association, Blue Telescope, The Experiential Designers and Producers Association, Retail Touchpoints and AVIXA.

There's a lot of voices and you won't always know who is saying what, but the content is worth any confusion you might experience.

TRANSCRIPT - skipping this episode ... too many voices to sort out who said what. Anything particularly brilliant was not me.

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

September 16, 2020

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

If you have been around digital signage for a while, you have almost certainly heard a discussion at some point about accurate color reproduction on screens, and the problems big brands can have with that.

The example used most often is Coca-Cola Red, which is a VERY specific red.

It can be a problem at the display level, but it also has to do with the source. A small research team of academics and students at Clemson University in South Carolina are well down the path of sorting it out.

In their case, the problem was Clemson orange - a very specific shade of orange seen on 10s of 1,000s of shirts, hats and giant foam fingers during Clemson football game broadcasts. The orange shown on TV sets and replay boards is not, in some cases, the right orange.

A research project called ColorNet is using AI and neural networks to make real-time color adjustments on the fly to the broadcast signal - using an algorithm light enough that it can run on an off-the-shelf PC.

I spoke with Dr. Erica Walker and graduating student Emma Mayes about the project, and how the technology might be applied as a low-cost box in the back of digital signage screens - so that networks run by brands can really show their true colors.

The chat is a bit technical, but even I got most of it.

One other note - I THINK at some point I reference Clemson as being an SEC team. Wrong. It's in the ACC. I'm in Canada. Ask me about curling.

This is how you'd reach Walker - eblack4@clemson.edu

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TRANSCRIPT

Emma, Erica, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what ColorNet is all about? I know it's a university project that you guys presented at Display Week, going back about a month or so. 

Erica: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having us today. ColorNet is an artificial intelligence solution for brand colors to be displayed correctly on screens.

So not a color solution that would display all colors correctly, that solution already exists. This is specific to a brand color, and in this case, Clemson University’s orange and purple. 

That’s because you guys are working or studying out of Clemson, correct? 

Erica: That’s correct. And actually the solution could work for any color. We just happened to use the colors that we see the most on our own campus and in our athletics. 

Which is orange? 

Erica: That's correct. 

So this is a project coming out of the graphics communication department, or is it multiple departments? 

Erica: It actually includes a lot of different departments. Each of us on the project is from a different department. In fact, I'm from graphic communications. The students are from engineering and computer science, a variety of engineering degrees. And then my co-creator, or co-inventor, works in a multidisciplinary department with a focus on data science.

 Okay, so what's the problem you're trying to solve here?

Erica: Yeah, thanks for asking that. It is something that is very commonly talked about at Clemson Athletic games and probably at other universities as well. But, the orange is incredibly recognizable, our brand orange for Clemson fans. And when you watch a broadcast of the football game or basketball game or baseball game, the orange is always skewed. It's always normally skewed towards red. Now, obviously the settings can be impacted by the settings on your screen itself, but what if we could address this at the feed level, at the camera level, at the production level? 

And that would ensure that if Clemson orange is a Pantone color that is going to be color accurate, at least coming out of the feed?

Erica: Exactly. That's really that's the tipper right there is that we don't have control over other people's screens. Like the screen inside your home, we aren't trying to make any adjustments to that. That would be the homeowner or the screen enter the bar that would have to make those adjustments, but we can make adjustments to the screens inside of our facilities. So the big screen inside of the football stadium, we could adjust that cause we have control over it, but the main thing is just having a clean feed, having a feed where Pantone 165 is a recognizable color and it displays correctly.

And why is that a problem either, you know, if I'm a Clemson fan, I know my orange, but, if I'm a Syracuse fan, maybe it's a different orange who's going to know other than the Clemson fans? 

Erica: Right. So, that's a fair question. On any given Saturday, there are over 70,000 people in the stadium watching the game, and so that's a big audience, but in general, we just use Clemson orange as kind of a testbed, for this example. So it could be done for soccer teams, you know, in Europe, the big leagues. It could be done for major league baseball, it could be done for NBA finals. It could be done for really anything where brand color is recognizable to a fan of any team of any sport.

And again, you can't really control the final output, like on my TV, if the calibration is off, it's gonna show it to be orangey-red instead, or wherever. Will this help that at all? 

Erica: In my head, if the feed is better than more than likely, it will show better on your TV. Now that's not true if you've amped up your colors or if maybe, I know there are settings that are specific to gamers that they like, and so if you've changed the color settings on your TV, then that could be a problem, but one of the conversations we've been having with these screen manufacturers is what if we could address this at the screen level as well? But obviously, the goal of artificial intelligence is not to weasel our way into people's homes and make adjustments on their TV.

So that's not the goal, but we do think that we could address it in, think of like large format displays. So if you go to the Coca Cola headquarters, they want their Coca-Cola red to display correctly on the screens that are scattered throughout their entire building or their manufacturing facility, or anywhere where they have the control over their screens.

So kind of thinking of it from the brand level, as much as from the consumer level. 

Yeah, it’s not really the business application here, I mean, you mentioned that there's a patent around it and the idea around that is for really super brand sensitive, color-sensitive companies like Coca Cola, and any number of other ones, that they have more of an assurance that the broadcast advertising is going to look in the color that is really important to them?

Erica: Right now, that's what we're looking at as brand applications. So, as I said, there are solutions out there to solve, like overall, you know, a correct profile so that your TV shows colors accurately. So we aren't trying to necessarily do it across all colors, we're trying to really focus on the brand colors. 

Right. So how does it work and how did you get started on this? This doesn't strike me as one of those things that you wake up in the middle of the night and go, “I must solve this.” 

Emma: Right, so the basic approach that our team took is that we were trying to make it where when you're color-correcting, instead of correcting the entire frame, instead, we're working more with image segmentation. So the current process with athletics is that, oftentimes, they have to pick something in the frame and color-correct to that, and just hope everything falls out. So with basketball games, they look at the court and they say, “okay, the Clemson paw print in the middle of the court has to be brand color. Everything else will just be what it has to be.” 

But we're trying to just get that right. The idea is that, well, what if we can make it so they don't have to compromise? So that way, it can be segmented, So we're color correcting the correct areas and frames as opposed to everything else. The idea was also to decrease the kind of manual burden on the technician when it comes to the color correcting, so we looked at doing image segmentation through machine learning by creating a convolutional neural network. 

I know what those are. 

Emma: (Laughter) Without getting into the nitty-gritty. We usually just look at the acronym CNN, so you don't even really have to know how to spell it, but what I’m saying is, just the gist of it that we basically looked at this game footage, we pulled it and we used Adobe Premiere Pro and the Lumetri color panel and we basically picked the range of colors we wanted to correct. So that way we can adjust it to kind of perceptually that natural approximation of what we're looking at for that color brand, and then we pass in the color incorrect and correct footage into the model and it creates a mask and it's basically just showing pixel by pixel what's the difference in color.

And so the whole idea is that our model is able to generate these masks and automatically generate exactly what those corrections are gonna look like. So once we created this data, we trained it, and then that way it learned how to color-correct to these brand specifications in these image segmentation.

So that way our grass is in a weird color, our court is in a weird color. We're just adjusting the jerseys and the Clemson football fan gear and the audience, so it's fixing the colors that need to be fixed and leaving alone what needs to be left alone. 

And is that because you're segmenting it and isolating certain elements of it, that's how you can do it in real-time or near real-time as opposed to doing it in post-processing?

Erica: What makes it able to do it in real-time is partially the hardware. You need hardware that can run on that. And it really just looks like a desktop computer, like a regular box that you're used to, but we do want it to run it in real-time. And so in order to do that, we try to make everything as slender as possible.

Some neural networks have just millions of parameters that they're checking on and we kept making things smaller and smaller so that it could run more efficiently. Now there is a point where it gets too small, and it runs too quickly and it's not as effective. So that's part of the research piece of this is that the students are learning at what point do we make adjustments to make this efficient versus to make it effective? 

I have this idea in my head, and again, as anybody who listens to me knows I'm not an AI scientist or anything close, is that there is some pretty serious computing hardware, a big server room full of computers doing the work of the neural network, but it's sounding like you're saying this is just like a box? 

Erica: Yeah, it can actually run on something as small as a raspberry pie, believe it or not. It doesn't run in the same frame rate that you'd want to run for an event, but we can run about 8-10 frames per second on a Raspberry PI. You don't need an entire room full of servers in order to process this in real-time, it's very doable.

I don't pick it up and carry it around, but, but you certainly could if you needed to. 

So this is not a million-dollar addition to a TV studio or something? It sounds pretty elemental in some respects. 

Erica: Absolutely, you know, really when it comes down to it and Emma can probably speak on this better than I can, but really all an algorithm is a text file that you have to train, like the real meat of it on our end is training it and making it effective and making adjustments because it is in a new area that you can't just go and Google, “Hey, I'd like this algorithm that can do this.” We're actually doing it and modifying it as we go. 

So for a Clemson football game, if you have, I don't know, 20-25 cameras, whatever it may be. Do you need a processing unit for each of those feeds or is a master feed funnel through one box?

Erica: We only need one. Actually, the way it works is, you're right, they do have like 20 cameras and range from little tiny GoPro cameras up to, you know, high-end broadcast cameras with 4K, and so those are all processing that color so differently.

 But it all comes into live, it's coming into a production studio. So if you watch a lot of athletics, like NFL or, even NCAA, sometimes they'll show you the trucks and inside of the truck, all of those feeds are coming in, and they are making those adjustments on the fly as the feed comes in. They choose which camera feed they want to show, and then it gets projected out and all of that's happening in real-time. 

And so we actually talked about different places that ColorNet can live within the system and the place where we landed it is that if we have it right inside of that production suite, you only need one device or you can have it on the other end of that production suite, and you still only need one device, but then you're only color correcting the feed that's actually going to get put out there, versus correcting all the different feeds on all the different cameras.

Is this a problem that's common to any live event broadcaster or is it defined by the quality of the equipment you're using, like would a local community cable operator have a much bigger problem than let's say Fox Sports?

Erica: The problem is pervasive anytime you have brand colors. I'm gonna show my age on this, but I don't know if you remember when Reese's Pieces was the product that was advertised in E.T. when E.T. came out. And so, you know, even in a Hollywood film, you have a brand and that brand cares about their colors.

And so it is pervasive everywhere, but the piece of equipment actually can run anywhere, it doesn't need a fancy studio, it doesn't need ESPN type quality. It could run at any small studio just as well as it runs here, because once you've trained it's really running on its own. It's capable of doing the work without a lot of manual input. 

So in theory, is this a box, like I could order it, in theory, on Amazon, pull it out of the box, plug it in, plug the feed-in and plug the output in and give it power and off you go, or is this a whole bunch of tweaking and software and behind the scenes to make it all happen?

Erica: To answer that really the box that we ordered, the box that this runs in, it was ordered off of Amazon. It is just like a plain old normal computer box, you know, like a desktop, but the magic happens inside of the training and inside of the algorithm and inside of the adjustment to the code, so it's not really the “special sauce,” so to speak really what happens, prior to receiving the box. 

Right. But do you train it? Let's say heavens forbid that another SEC school uses this, would that box have to be trained for the Crimson tide colors or whatever?

Erica: Yeah, I think you understand a lot more about this than you're letting on, but that is a 100% the case. We would have to train it each time, as needed per color, is our current structure, but I'm actually gonna let Emma jump in on what we're thinking about moving forward.

Emma: When we trained for Clemson orange and Clemson purple, the way our data was set up, it was that you're going to look for these ranges of colors around the brand color so that way, you know what kinds of areas you're going to be shifting to be correct. Our goal is to try and kind of generalize it.

So the idea is, we can give some kind of hardware to deliver to the shader and painter with these corresponding teams. So that way they can change what color it is. So we're going to come up with the new approach to it, where instead of looking for this range of colors, to then shift, we're going to look for these areas. So we're hoping to train so it can pick out the jerseys where the fan colors are and it's very adjustable considering what those colors are. So that way you could pick up this technology and plug it in for a different team and it could work that way instead of just being limited to a specific brand's color palette.

Right. Okay, so I'm a digital signage guy. This is a digital signage podcast. I wonder, of course, what the applications potentially are for the digital signage business. 

You mentioned, early on Coca Cola and how across its a corporate campus and its many corporate campuses really, if it has a signage network with the Coca Cola brand on there, if the output PC or PCs or media players are outputting nominally incorrect colors, this could be put in the middle of it?

Erica: Absolutely. So, that's one approach that we've considered. So let's say that let's use our Coca-Cola campus example. 

They want to ensure that no matter what footage is going on what type of screens, they may have multiple brands, I don't even know, that the Coca Cola red is always correct.

And so in that case, you actually would put ColorNet at the screen level, so we would want to pull it down to a much smaller device, more like that Raspberry PI size, so that you could actually just slap it right onto the back of each screen or each set of screens and have that screen Coca-Cola ready, you know? And so you can sell it that way to a brand owner versus having it at the live video remixed phase. 

Do you sense the addressable market for this has a whole bunch of brands in particular, who are that color-conscious or is it a subset that really cares and others who, you know, “our brand color’s blue” and that's all they say.

Erica: Actually, coming from my background, I was steeped in brand from a print perspective. And so from a print perspective, the tolerance of brand colors on your box or bottle or flexible packaging, is very small. It's measured in Delta Es and they say it's a 2 Delta Es.

Most companies don't want you to be any further off the brand color specs than Delta E. And that's basically just a measurement saying, this is as close as we are willing to purchase the product. Like if it goes over 2 Delta E, we don't want your printed product. And so coming from that background, all of the big brands care, all of them want their color to be correct. 

I know there's an argument going on right now, that might've stemmed out of that recent in AB and SID type conversation, from Display Week. But this idea that screens are actually changing our tolerance for brand colors and at some point, are we not going to care so much about brand colors? Because we are willing to accept them further apart, from the brand spec, because of the screen differences that we see. 

I still think that brands are willing to put money, time, and effort behind their branding in general and that they are going to care if their product looks correct because it is as much a part of their identification as any other part of their business. 

Yeah. That would make sense. I'm sure there'd be some reticence around spending thousands upon thousands of dollars per site to do that, but if it's, as you say, a Raspberry PI device that could just plugin via the HDMI feed or whatever into the display, then yeah, maybe they'd be happiest clients to do that. 

Erica: Yeah, especially for those big brands, I bet you and I've never sat in the branding room for Coca Cola, but both Coca Cola and Pepsi use a color of red, right? I bet you that their branding teams would just go to battle over making sure that all of their products are the correct color of red so that there is no confusion on the customer level of which product you're actually looking at.

Yeah, well, I've certainly heard those stories in the past when it comes to digital signage and Coca-Cola red and a few other colors that the Coca Cola people flip out if it's not right, and they had some big problems with early-stage video walls and things like that and there was a particular product that they really liked because of the saturation levels and everything that gave them as close to the print grant as they wanted to see, I don't know if it was that 2 Ease measurement or whatever you were talking about, but it was good. 

Erica: Yeah, and you know, some companies will have different Pantone colors for their print products compared to their screens. So for instance, Clemson has two different oranges, and when it comes down to it, the Pantone that they've chosen for screen and the Pantone that they've chosen for print products, so the difference between CMYK and RGB, those two oranges look the same. 

So it comes down to this perceptual thing. So it's not always about hitting the same Pantone and it's about the perceptual brand recognition of that orange, whether it's on a car, whether it's on a screen, whether it's on a Jersey, and so on.

Okay. So this is a combination product or initiative of a couple of professors, and I think four students, is that accurate? 

Erica: Yeah, that's correct. We had four students, and then we actually just added a new student this semester. So obviously the great part about students is that they have wonderful, fresh ideas coming into a project. The sad part is that they do graduate and go away, like Emma graduates in December. 

And so, there is kind of this rotation of students who have worked on the project over time. 

So where does it go from here at some point Does this become a company or does it get licensed or was that just so far off that it's hard to really kind of rationalize? 

Erica: Certainly from our perspective, our goals align a lot more with the research end and sharing what we find, but from a university level, we are involved with the university research foundation and their job is to help connect us with potential manufacturers or companies or lines of products that would benefit from us.

And so from the university level, they have a lot of interest in that. I'm not opposed to a company or partnering with an existing company. But certainly, you know, the students getting experience out of this and our personal research goals, our primary. 

In the conversations with the companies provide a lot of opportunities to, have funding and to expand, and to come up with new ideas of how this technology could perhaps be implemented. 

Is there an application as well for things like medical imaging and seismic imaging where life and death decisions or very expensive decisions are made based on the color of some high-resolution image?

Erica: Absolutely. We've been looking at expanding this out into some different applications and you really hit the nail on the head as one of the ideas that our team had bounced around is, what if this could be used to emphasize a lifeboat or something like that is lost at sea, you know, how could we make it really fast and really easy, despite all the reflections that waves make? And we've looked at it as an agricultural thing again, where it's emphasizing, if there are healthy plants or if there are weeds, so it really could be modified and used in a lot of different contexts, just like you're saying.

So what came out of SID in that presentation that you did? Did you have companies or other really smart people coming up or contacting you?

Erica: Yeah, exactly, but not so many from virtual conferences we've found, but when we've done some presentations in person and unfortunately, SID was not one of them this year, which I was super excited about that audience.

But when we have presented in person, it has led to lots of conversations with different companies and ideas of how it could benefit them and their customers. 

Okay, so if there are people listening to this who actually understand it fully, how would they track you down and how do they sort of get involved in this in some way, or get some questions answered?

Erica: We would love to hear from people. Again, it's so exploratory still at this phase, and so hearing what real companies with real customers, what they need, what is their pain point and how could we consider ColorNet as a potential solver of that pain point, just reach out to us. My email is at eblackor@clemson.edu. 

Okay, and you guys have a football team, right? 

Erica: (Laughter) We hope we have a good one again, fingers crossed. 

Is it a challenge because people think so much about Clemson as, you know, a big sports school, football school, when this is a totally gearhead kind of science project with AI coming out of Clemson, do they go, “Oh really, you guys do that too?” 

Erica: Well, we're hoping that we actually solve a problem for our athletic department. So fingers crossed, we've proved it out that it can be done. And right now we're just kind of taking a back seat to whatever Coronavirus brings for this coming season.

But our original intent was to be up and operational for our athletic department this fall, which we're capable of doing, but again, we're just kind of taking a back seat to all the decisions that they're having to make to keep their student-athletes safe and the fans and all of that. 

Which is a moving target right now. That's broadcast may be more important than ever for the next few months. 

Erica: I agree. There's no telling where all this is going to go, but we have our first football game on Saturday, and so fingers crossed, everybody stays healthy and well, and we can get that type of normalcy back for Saturdays. 

All right, Erica and Emma, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate 

Erica: This was a lot of fun. Thanks for inviting us.

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

August 26, 2020

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

Ask a digital signage provider about its target markets, and a hell of a lot of them will list banks among them. But only a small handful of companies are solely focused on the financial services sector, and the best known and most enduring of those is JohnRyan.

The Minneapolis-based company has been providing branch merchandising and messaging services to the banking sector, globally, for decades. It's also one of a few companies who can credibly says it was doing digital signage before the technology had a name that stuck.

I chatted recently with JohnRyan's President, Nancy Radermecher, who has been at the company for more than 20 years.

We spoke about JohnRyan's roots, but also about what's going on today. Bankers have long been in the midst of what they call digital transformation, but the pandemic has turned five-year plans into five month executions.

We talk about the evolution of retail banking, and how digital signage and interactive digital apply. We also speak about what kind of content really does work in banks, and why.

Nancy has a passion for data-driven content, and nerdy stuff like integrating systems. We dig into where she thinks platforms for business, like digital signage, are going.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, Nancy. I know JohnRyan pretty well. I'm thinking about a number of people maybe don't. So if they don't, can you give the elevator pitch about what JohnRyan is all about? And, we can also get into maybe how things have changed through the years. 

Nancy: Sure. We are historically a retail marketing agency, meaning that our clients are end-users, operating financial retail establishments, and we take a sort of strategic and all-encompassing approach to retail marketing. And within that portfolio, is digital signage. So over the years, digital has become a far more important and central product for us because people have moved a lot of their offline retail experiences into the digital world. And it's from that perspective that we entered the digital signage market. 

Yeah, it seems to me, I can remember that the first thing I knew about JohnRyan is that you had a legacy business where you were doing things like handling the compliance of all those brochures that would be in sleeves and bank branches and so on because somebody had to manage that otherwise the same stuff would be sitting in there for years. 

Nancy: Sometimes that even happens to digital signage, but yeah, you're absolutely right. And when we started in digital signage, it was because we were in the United Kingdom and passed a window of a building society and there they had a stand. On the bottom of that stand was a giant video desk, and then above it, there was a screen and they were making use of a firmware technology where you could actually superimpose changing text on top of a video background supplied by this video desk, which in its day was absolutely remarkable.

And so we thought, goodness, is there something to this multimedia approach to what we do today? And we began the exploration based on that. And in fact, one of the people involved in that project is still with the company today, the original building society project. So it was, oh my god, the early mid-nineties, I can tell you that the word digital signage didn't exist.

So we kept trying to find ways to explain what we thought this could be to one another before there was the terminology that you can apply to it.

I think we're all still struggling to explain what digital signage is to people. 

Nancy: Yeah. Fair enough. 

It's improved, but is the focus entirely on retail banking, or do you service any other sectors?

Nancy: Opportunistically we've stepped outside of retail banking. The company initially was focused on chain retail, conventional retail. We moved into retail banking quite early on and pretty much stayed there to this day. 

And is it just the big whale account banks in North America, or are you working globally and working with banks of all sizes?

Nancy: Yeah, we do tend to work with larger banks. The mega global ones are particularly attractive to us, of course, but we work with banks, say super regionals versus community banks. And we've worked in many different countries and still do today. 

Yeah. You used to have an office in, is it Spain?

Nancy: Yeah, we have a presence in Spain, but the, European offices are in London. 

And when you focus just on retail banking or primarily focused on retail banking, is that advantageous? I strongly believe that's the case that if you're going to be talking to very large companies, you sure as hell better know their business, but I see all kinds of companies who will go in and talk to anybody who is willing to take a meeting with them. And, I've been in some of these meetings and thought you guys don't know crap about this industry. 

Nancy: Yeah. I think there are probably two reasons why domain expertise is important in Banking. One is, I guess the obvious reason and the one you just referred to that, it's a good thing to understand something about the client's business situation, business challenges, business opportunities so that you can help them in relevant ways, but banking, I think imposes a second criterion, which is a very particular approach to security, as you can imagine in it and we would all hope to be the case. 

Why? (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. What on earth do they have that requires security? (Laughter)

So it has implications as to how the system is engineered and it has implications about how data moves and there's a high demand also for flexibility in engineering, which maybe you wouldn't expect, but banks may differ in how they approach their security regime. 

We've over the years had to be careful not to be too prescriptive, in how data is transferred, what kind of media player hardware is used because they have very specific ideas about that. So I think financial services is one where you actually really do need to understand the industry to thrive in it.

When you're in these kinds of meetings, is it more the case may be with a retailer, pure retailer, you're talking about what the system will do for you and with the banks you are talking about, what you can stop the system from doing or preventing it from happening? 

Nancy: Yeah, that's right. That's a very good point 

The other thing that's interesting, and what you just said is, I think, as an industry, I'm always surprised a little bit about how much of the literature that's published by digital signage companies, possibly even us, focus on the benefits of digital signage and the sort of basic understanding. And I feel like banking, probably like a lot of other verticals, really understands that, they know why somebody would do digital signage and the conversation is no longer at that level, “why would this benefit you?” No. 

Yeah, my eyes roll up into the back of my head when I go on a software company's site and see a little Chestnut of what is digital signage.

Oh God. 2020 guys. (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. And I think, the questions about business case ROI, I think those have all been answered for the industry. 

We were talking earlier about digital transformation and how COVID-19 has forced a very rapid acceleration of digital transformation plans. You were talking in terms of going from three to five-year digital transformation plans to things that had to happen in a matter of months or even weeks instead 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting, and I was just looking at some more industry literature yesterday, in the banking industry, they've all been pretty clear on the shape of things to come in terms of increasing levels of digital adoption on the part of bank consumers. And with that has come, a general understanding that as time goes on, the number of branches will decline, the nature of the activities that take place in those branches will move from the transaction on cash-based activity toward consulting activity.

And by and large, that was something the industry really wanted to see happen because it changes their cost dynamics quite dynamically for the good. So what's happened now is that there's been a really rapid acceleration of what everybody knew was gonna happen anyway. And in a certain way, that’s kind of welcome news for the industry in the sense of accelerating something that was desired. 

On the other hand at this level of speed, I think it's given people a lot of challenges in the very near term. 

So what's transforming in a retail bank? 

Nancy: Strategically, what's transforming is when and why customers are going to want a physical location. So, as I said a moment ago, it's really going to be far more of an advice and guidance proposition than a transactional proposition. But in the near term, what's transforming is the manner in which that advice and guidance proposition is delivered. So when your lobbies are not open and all the time, when people don't have free access, that's creating all sorts of logistical complexities about how do you let people in the branch, how do you manage appointment traffic? Nobody envisioned that they would have to answer all these questions all of a sudden in one big hurry, that has an impact on digital signage, of course, because it provides an opportunity to actually use digital signage to convey to customers new policies.

Obviously, there are opportunities to manage, customer check-in, and flow using digital tools. The screen's gonna be an important part of conveying where you stand in the queue and what's going out in the branch. In some senses, this is making digital signage a more integral part of a successful branch operation, which is good.

It's more than just a communications tool. And there were other examples of that. I think increasingly people are going to embed digital experiences in the onboarding process. We've all seen these bankers clickety clacking away on their computer terminals when we're opening an account.

Some banks now turn that screen toward the customer when they're clickety clacking. But I think hopefully it will be a full-on multimedia onboarding experience, so seminars and financial wellness or all sorts of things that are going to happen, as the branch becomes more of a center for health and guidance than a teller-counter.

Yeah, I go to a particular bank and it's just a suburban location, so there's not a lot of razzle-dazzle there, but it does have digital signage and it's the same bank I've been banking with for 30 plus years or whatever. So I don't see a lot of other ones, but there seems to be a standard feature set that I noticed there and in other banks in general, where there are displays behind the counter and there are displays in the seating area and maybe there's a display over the ATM bank, but it is generally just being branch marketing, “We're wonderful. We have this new thing. Here's the weather”, blah, blah, blah. And it's not terribly compelling and when I've seen banks of the future, in North America and, particularly in places like Dubai, I've seen things like virtual tellers and remote Financial service advisors, where they go into a little pod and you can discuss with somebody who's on the other side of the city or country.

And those things have been very “branch of the future” sort of things that I've never seen adopted, but I'm getting a sense from what you're saying, that the novelty of that will become much more an operational thing out of necessity. 

Nancy: Yeah, I think that's right. There are a lot of things in what you just said that interests me. To your first comment about the placement of screens inside a bank, you're absolutely right. Where you would typically see them as the areas you describe but what's happening now as banks are moving more toward almost a lounge conception of the branch where the bankers are now untethered from their desktops, and maybe can help you with that with an iPad and in a roving fashion, it really diffuses the problem of where to place your digital media, because now suddenly everybody is milling around in a kind of uncontrolled environment, and there are obvious focal points, dwell areas, sightlines, like there always were in the past, which is a challenge.

But then, on the level of the content and just compelling experiences, one of the things that we've learned over the years through mentors, many different experiments and trials and tests is that it's really important when you're thinking about innovative change to a bank branch that you don't lose sight of the fact that the consumer is seeking utility above all else.

So do you have a really cool idea of a touch screen? And I think we've all seen many of these in branches of the future. It might be cool from the perspective of the multimedia designer who gets to create it and win an award for it. But it's a real challenge to get banking consumers to decide what they want to prolong a visit to their local bank branch in order to interact with content that most people intuitively believe is available to them at home.

Anyway, it's tough to reign in the impulse to, I don't know, saddle a bank branch with all sorts of “cause you can” stuff without thinking long and hard about what customer utility is being imparted. So the example you gave of the video conferences is a perfect example of a high utility, high-value digital investment in a bank branch. And there are all sorts of reasons why doing something like that is valuable to both customers and to the bank versus some of the multimedia poster children that we've had. 

Yeah. Let's do something to connect and gesture and all that and embarrass the hell out of people. 

Nancy: Although you had on your podcast just this week, I think an article about one that made sense, but it kind of proves the point I guess.

Yeah, probably a $2 million popup event by IBM, and that's what everybody's going to do, but it was good. (Laughter)

What is the content based on all those years of experience that customers do want in a branch?

Nancy: This is interesting and actually this is my favorite topic, really. So one thing we've learned, and this will come as no surprise to you or to anybody, is that Financial services advertising on its own is not that commercial for people. And there's a very good reason to use sort of general interest communications in a bank branch as a way to get people used to view the screens at all.

So you mentioned the weather before. Our testing and results in time and time again, whether it comes up as the thing that people remember most and want the most. And it also happens to be very easy to deliver us as so if you can mix and match general interest information with bank information or place bank information in a more general interest context, and, an example that might be. If there's something happening in the mortgage market, tying your mortgage messaging to something that consumers are generally aware of and concerned about is a good thing. We've also seen some kind of interesting results that would suggest that if the ratio of bank messaging is a little bit lower than you might initially think you want, the recall of those messages goes up. And I think that's because there's more sustained viewership of the general interest information. People’s attention is more fixed and focused and for that reason, the bank messaging that crops up intermittent get more attention and more recall, which is really interesting. 

In my exposure to banks, I've certainly got a sense that they're very excited. The bank market is excited about being able to have some continuity between online and broadcast and other mediums and push that same campaign into the branches.

But you're saying that at that point, they're in the branch and they don't need to be sold and drawn into the branch cause you got them. 

Nancy: Yeah, and it can reinforce the value of your brand by providing helpful tips. There's a huge demand for financial wellness information right now, not just because of recent events, which has accelerated it, but also because a lot of younger consumers actually don't know much about money management and want to, so that kind of helpful guidance information is also something people like to see. Another thing that people really want, believe or not, is to see pictures or names of people who actually work in the branch. That is always a highly recalled type of messaging. 

Just casting back to something you just said about content creation for other mediums. I think where this is all headed in terms of digital signage, content production in banking is toward, more and more repurposing assets that were created for other digital channels and bringing those repurposed assets together and to constantly updating, constantly iterating news and information streams.

It’s less of a purposeful agency endeavor where somebody's building a 60s mp4 and more of rethinking it more as a large-format webstream, something like that. I don't know exactly the right metaphor. And I think banks will find that they don't have to spend a lot of money on content production to have a lot of really good locally relevant information on screens in their branches. 

That sounds to me back to the work I did with a very large bank. And, I sat at a meeting where we're talking about content with the agency and I became persona non grata, the devil, the antichrist by suggesting just that what was the point of a 60s spot in a window display that was going to cost a hell of a lot of money when you could be repurposing all kinds of other media assets and automating the content. And that did not go over well with the agency because that was their cash cow. 

Nancy: Exactly. It is interesting because, and I was thinking about this earlier this week that this is one of those rare instances, where to do it better, is also a way to do it cheaper. It's not like you're giving up anything, you're gaining something when you start thinking about digital signage content in a more disaggregated way, just snippets of bursts of information using static assets even that you have. And, our clients have huge repositories of assets and tips and all of these things are available aplenty inside of banks’ asset management databases. And mixing and matching these things creates a really low-cost way to build content, but also superior content, which is just such a great thing. 

Yeah. I assume that bank marketers are pretty savvy and understand this whole concept of Omnichannel and more so than let's say, “regular retailers” or all kinds of other potential clients in that, they have these digital asset management systems and everything else, and they understand automated and dynamic content based on data assets? 

Nancy: I think they do in all of their online applications, but it seems to me that they are generally puzzled by why they can't somehow better leverage their online assets to digital screens. And I suppose that's because maybe we in the industry have not rapidly embraced that model or educated the market to the model that actually, no, it is a logical thought to think that those other assets can be repurposed to digital signage. But you don't see a lot of it happening, right?

So maybe the digital signage industry too has been a little bit in the paradigm of the agency that wasn't so happy with you creating longer-form content, purpose-built for this media versus looking at an alternative way of doing it.

Yeah, you get the sense that even regionally sizes and certainly national and international banks, they are in the thrall of probably multiple agencies and it's in their express interest to control the thinking really, and certainly the budgets of these bank marketers. There's no incentive for them to say, “Hey, you don't need to do all this really expensive stuff. Just do it this way, and we'll surrender to that $5 million.” 

Nancy: Exactly. But I'll tell you what. I think with declining levels of traffic and branches and the general stressors that banks are facing now, in terms of justifying marketing investment at the point of sale, that's going to prompt a change. 

One of the things that gets batted around a lot these days is the whole idea of “interactive” in a bank setting and other retail settings. Is it safe to touch things and all that... 

You know, banks have ATMs, there's just no way around. You can't do voice control, or at least I don't think you can, or I wouldn't want to use that. So you go into a bank, you're already conditioned that, “Yeah. I'm going to use a touch screen and I'll whip up my notes advisor and everything will be fine”. Is there antsiness at all around introducing more interactivity to reduce the one-to-one contact with staffers? 

Nancy: For sure. I'm hearing a lot of focus on touchless experiences, and so trying to figure out how to clone interfaces to people's personal devices or bypass the need for them, that's a huge issue the industry is trying to address because, as you mentioned earlier, video tellers, video conferences, these things are really important to the branch of the future because they become the only kind of financially viable way to deliver certain services to certain branches in the network. So they're essential to the value proposition and will only become more essential. 

So yes, I think there's a lot of work being done and a lot of time being spent on how to make those interfaces appealing and acceptable to people in some of the ways I described. I think on the level of our business, digital signage, thinking back on the concept of utility touchscreens roles for marketing purposes has been very difficult to implement successfully. You've probably seen Microsoft, like those surface tables in bank branches, they came in and then they went away, interactive kiosks came in and then they went away. We've done a lot of things with touch through bank windows, we've done QR codes, we've done scannable brochures, that launch interactive experiences, printing brochures on demand, and all of them face the same challenge that they require a customer to prolong their visit in the bank branch and they're not delivering really clear apparent utilities. So it is just at the level of the basics. The tougher problem with all that, I think, is not just managing people's concerns about hygiene today but just the use of it at all. 

Yeah. It's not as private as going on a touchscreen to look up some health issues, but, if you're going to be doing loans, calculators, mortgage calculators, and things like that on a screen then other people can see.

I don't know if it bothered me all that much, but I'm sure a whole bunch of other people would be very concerned about anybody seeing that. 

Nancy: It's not just that, but you're also likely having in your hand a device that does exactly the same thing, So you can use your phone to do these things when and where you want to do that versus standing at a kiosk, so it's an interesting challenge. 

In terms of banks. you’re focused on retail banking, but there's a whole bunch of bank office space and giant office towers full of banking people and even with work from home, that's not going to totally change, those office towers are not going to clear out.

Have you guys done much work in terms of the back-of-house digital signage for banks? 

Nancy: Yeah, that is actually how we got our start. Our first network was a 900 branch training network within the UK, delivered by satellite because that's all there was, daily kind of huddle and corporate communications. So we've done a lot of that, more focused on the branch and then the corporate headquarters. But the technology as that you would know well drives one versus the other is exactly the same. 

Is it hard to crack the larger opportunity on the back of the house side? 

Nancy: I think it didn't use to be. We got our start prior to things like the internet and email and podcasts and websites. All of those become really viable corporate communications vehicles for the sort of information that we were imparting through our digital networks. So the case needs to be made that multimedia delivery of some of these messages is a superior form for those messages than plowing through an intranet.

And I think that the case can be made, but given all the other things that banks have to contend with in their overall digital transformation, I don't think that's going to make the top of the heap. 

I know that you've spent a lot of time thinking about where all of this goes and you have the benefit, so to speak of working in an already demanding vertical where the security demands are a lot higher. Where do you see things going or do things like PCs and media players and all that will start to go away? 

Nancy: Yeah, definitely there's a move afoot in the world around us toward, edge solutions, and there's no reason to think that digital signage wouldn't be an edge compute solution. What we hear from corporate customers a lot is that they're very frustrated by the proliferation of point solutions in their branches. They'll have a solution for digital signage, they’ll have a solution for POS, solution for managing appointments and on.

And each of these solutions is vertically integrated. It contains a monitoring component. There's a service plan that they have to have with somebody for it. And this kind of really adds up a lot of complexity. So this future of bringing these disparate point solutions together in a sort of commonly managed edge environment, I think is very real and the sort of streamlining that clients that we deal with would really like to see.

So I think those of us who provide digital signage solutions should be hunkering down and really focusing on our software and imagining that it might be deployed in a manner like that in the future. 

So this is a couple of steps beyond the recent and prevalent question of, “Do you have an API?”

Nancy: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah. 

A few months ago now, I think, you guys were acquired by AU Optronics out of Taiwan, a company that had already acquired ComQi, which does digital signage. How is that going? 

I know the AUO people and they're from Taiwan, so they're super nice and super smart and all that, I assume this was a good event for you guys. 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting because we remain a very entrepreneurial, agile company as JohnRyan. We're operated pretty much autonomously from the other units in the group. So from a day to day experience, it's actually just the same.

But on top of that is something very nice, which is a huge resource for engineering and the number of patents. I think they have 29,000 patents. There's a lot of people that can answer tough questions within that company. Access and understanding of the really detailed aspects of display technology both now and in the future.

I mean, it’s really a great thing to have that sort of resource available to us and obviously an incredibly strong financial group as well. So that opens up opportunities for subscription-based deals with clients and all manner of things. So it's been going well.

Yeah, there have been instances in the past of hardware companies, display companies, buying software companies, and you just go, “Oh boy, this is just going to meander into nothing.” And that's what happens. But, I've certainly got the sense from Stu Armstrong, who is now overworking with you guys, came from ComQi.

The ComQi experience was just that. They have certainly mentored them and had their back and everything else, but left them alone to do what they needed to do. 

Nancy: Yeah. And I think the interesting part of that might be that in some of these acquisitions by hardware companies buying digital signage companies, they might be viewing those digital signage companies as routes to market for their hardware.

In this case, I think it's almost the reverse where AUO was interested in closer to the customer, more solutions-oriented businesses in order to provide feedback to it about where it is going. And so that's a great role for us to play. We're obviously interacting with people every day on the level of their business challenges and we have good and meaningful insight, I think for them.

So it's a two-way traffic and AUO supplies some display panels, but they're also a supplier to the other manufacturers who produce digital signage displays and other displays. And so there is no agenda that our goal is to sell AUO products in particular only when they get the solution.

Right, but it does give the opportunity. If you're looking at a bank deal that's 1100 branches and 10,000 screens or whatever. You don't necessarily have to buy from a consumer or commercial brand, you can go directly to a manufacturer and cut some of that cost out, which is going to be attractive.

Nancy: Yeah, affordability is really going to be a very big factor for our business going forward. It's going to be interesting to see how people reformulate their offers and streamline them. We talked about content earlier. I think there's going to be a lot of interest in that sort of content approach. Now, when there really isn't the luxury to do it any other way, and that's going to affect every aspect of our business. We've been spending a lot of time over the summer looking and kind of reinventing digital signage. There's some stuff that we're going to be putting out in the weeks months to come, but not taking anything as a given, right? Let's look at the hardware. Let's look at the connectivity. Let's look at how content is created. Let's look at how maintenance is done and just across the board, trying to emerge from all that with a really streamlined, focused approach. 

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

Nancy: Well, it was nice to catch up. Thanks.

 

Stephen Borg, meldCX

Stephen Borg, meldCX

August 12, 2020

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

There are times when I come across an unfamiliar company and it’s clear, really quickly, what they do and offer. But other times, not so much.

When digital signage industry veteran Raffi Vartian joined a company called meldCX a few months ago, my core response was, “OK, that’s great! Glad you’re sorted out. Ummm, who???”

Since that time, he’s walked me through what the Australian-based company, which is now growing its footprint in North America and elsewhere, was all about. If the company has an elevator pitch, it would be useful if the building that elevator’s in has a lot of floors. It gets complicated.

My simpleton explanation is that the company offers a platform as a service that makes it much easier and faster for software vendors, integrators and solutions providers to stick to what they’re good at. The customer worries about the user experience and key functions of an application, which can sit on top of a meldCX technology stack that has already got things like OS compatibility and scalability worked out.

So, when a client asks a vendor for a solution that could be very complicated, a lot of that complication has already been handled via the meldCX platform. So the job can be accelerated and the costs controlled.

I spoke with founder Stephen Borg, who splits his time between Australia and the U.S. He  walked me through the origins of the company, how it works with software vendors and integrators, and related an interesting and different take on using computer vision to keep facilities and devices sanitized in the midst of a pandemic.

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TRANSCRIPT

Stephen, thank you for joining me. you're in Australia, I'm in Nova Scotia. So, I think we're like 14 hours difference in time zones and all that. But, we'll make this work. 

For those who don't know much about meldCX or anything, can you give me the rundown on what the company's about?

Stephen: Yeah. So really, we started meldCX about four years ago and it started as a research project. So I got a team together, internal people, and external partners and customers, and we started it as a reason project and said, what are the common problems in delivering devices to physical space? How can we do this better? 

And what triggered that research was my background in the AOPEN group, the work with Chrome and Fujitsu, we had a common thread of problems and they were just assumptions at the time. But we looked at them and said, okay, what are the things that stop a rollout? Where are the unnecessary costs? What stops it in its second phase? Because we find a lot of customers don't know what they don't know until they get three years into their cycle and find out they hit a brick wall. So what are all those points? Then we researched and built some codebase.

We did that for about two years before we decided to commercialize it. And then we won two or three significant global customers out of that research and decided that meldCX would take its own path, become its own entity, seek its own investment. We commercialized it in the middle of 2019.

And in that short period of time, we have around 80 customers, like enterprise customers across four continents. So it's been a massive take-up, so it's been a very exciting journey.

Now was the research work for AOPEN or for Fujitsu or was it JV or…?

Stephen: Yeah. So I started it as a piece of work that I kicked off with a team looking at what are the common problems. So we looked at Fujitsu data, we looked at AOPEN data. We worked with various customers, we worked with different partners, major providers and it really started as just a bit on a paper.

Then from there, we decided, there is some significant gap here and there are areas that we can help. So, we took that and said, okay, let's do some test cases and initially, it was funded by myself and a team of interested people and we had some great support from AOPEN and the Acer group, around some goodwill, some developers, some research analysts and the like.

I'm just trying to wrap my head around what the outcome or output of this would be. A little bit of what I talked about with Raffi was about the idea of making Chrome devices like the AOPEN Chrome basis more extensible so that they could work with things beyond just plugging into the back of a computer or back of a monitor, that sort of thing that could work with printers, other external devices, that sort of thing.

Is that kind of the gist of it?

Stephen: We found two things, Chrome taught us a lot. Okay. I helped architect the first sort of commercial Chromebox with Google and what we quickly found was there are two distinct development camps and that's across signage, kiosk, and interactive devices. 

So you have a development camp that looks at quite thick architecture, is very versed in modifying drivers or going deep into windows and modifying it and bastardizing Android, so to speak. You have that sort of skill set and then you have a very dynamic backend, highly functional, web first orientation, and these developers needed to meet in the middle somewhere.

And we discovered the hard way with Chrome because we were trying to bring customers across to this new web-first environment, without the tools or the plumbing to get across. And then conversely, you had some really cool tech coming down the pipe that didn't even consider a physical environment. You know, physical security, reliability, no popups on a screen that people can't touch.

So that was phase one and we ended up enabling some big clients on Chrome, doing some things such as payments, ThinkPad integrations, biometrics integrations, accelerators like Movidius, those types of things, we enabled in Chrome initially.

And then we made a decision to say, okay, what we want to do is take these digital building blocks and if a customer uses them, they should be able to run on any operating system. So now, if a customer has built their app using meldCX tools, that can run on Android, that can run windows, soon Linux, without changing the codebase from Chrome or vice versa.

Would you call this middleware?

Stephen: Yeah. in some ways it's middleware, what we do is quite unique. The middleware covers three stages, that is the original deploy piece. Typically middleware just allows you to build and propagate. What we do is we allow you to either build using it or using our existing modules.

So we have a customer that wanted to add some AI elements to the existing app and didn't have the team to do it, and they just plugged in some of our modules. Or you can run applications side by side and make them talk to each other. So we want it to be really flexible. We didn't want to have to tell people that you must build in the Meld to use Meld. 

That's a big leap and it's something that's a bit of a barrier at the start. So we didn't create or force any customers to go into any proprietary language or tech. You can just add these tools or refer to these tools and create a high-end device, even if you've had no experience building a kiosk per se.

So we let customers take content or apps they’ve created on Adobe or web apps and turn them into devices that can operate online, offline, talk to local peripherals, etc. using our tools and our sort of process. 

I'm thinking about a creative agency that I knew in New York a few years ago that was working with a very large athletic wear company. And I was doing some consulting. These were guys who were very good at creative and very good at interactive user experience and all that sort of stuff. But they were being asked to do everything, coding hardware, sourcing, and putting together the touch screen overlays, the whole nine yards. And I'm thinking about what they were saying, “We're having to do this because our client wants us to do it, but this is not our skillset at all. Please help.”

What would happen if that kind of a company was then told, “We want you to do this interactive user experience, we also want you to do payments off of this, and we also want it to interact with smartphones or that sort of thing.” and they would be deer in the headlights. Is this the sort of thing where if they knew that meldCX exists, they could jack their way into that and it would enable them to produce something that's hardened, secure, and reliable?

Stephen: Yeah, exactly. So we just had a customer roll-out, which was really unique. Contact tracing applications for pubs and clubs and bars, and it was an agency and their integration aspects were quite complex, so we enabled the Chrome device to do Apple Pass and Google Pass so they can send digital tokens or loyalty cards to their customers, tapping as they walk into the establishment, it would contact trace, plus give them points.

Now the agency scoped out a year project. We delivered that in two months on meldCX, right? Because all they needed to do is focus on the UI and we had already done all the certifications, the Apple compliance, the Google compliance, and really, they just used our widgets, got it up and running, and the customer is rolling out now. 

So in that case, not only did we help the initial build process but ongoing, Meld manages the OS. So Meld won't let the OS go past the build. So for example, if it is Chrome, and you've built your app on, v83, it won't allow Chrome to update past v83 until you've told it to update. And if it picks up a critical security patch, it might notify you of the impact of that, and you can test it without having a physical device. You can test it in an emulator. 

In this case, they were using a development team in Melbourne, a development team in India. and they tested virtually using our emulator so they don't even need physical devices. So that's a great example.

I know “middleware” is a very simplified way of trying to describe it, but since I'm a simple person, would I describe this in certain respects as a middleware as a service?

Stephen: Yeah, so we have two essential products or product lines. One is a PaaS (Platform as a Service) product. so that is someone that wants to build their own app. It gives you all the tools. It gives you things like PCI compliance, advanced security, even tokenization of devices, a whole range of builder widgets so you can use those blocks. 

In fact, we've had quite a few, ISVs build their applications or move their applications across Meld, really just reappointed to the Meld resources rather than rebuild anything. And then they can go off and run multiple operating systems. We were dealing with a signage provider (that we’ll announce soon) and I think they had a team of 30 devs and they had seven dedicated to operating systems and after moving across the Meld, now they don't have any dedicated to the operating system, which is a sunk cost, they have them focusing on features. 

So that's one of the things we're providing and we also help them become an enterprise. So now they can use our certifications, our security compliance, our SSO, all those things that corporate entities need as a minimum requirement, they can just utilize what we've already done, right?

I completely get what you're saying. My worry would be that in a hyper-competitive marketplace, like the digital signage software marketplace, many of these companies compete on price. Layering you in adds more cost. 

Although, you've said it removes a lot of costs. Because in this case, this company doesn't need seven guys. or engineers, focused on operating systems, but how do they balance that out? Does it become net savings?

Stephen: Look, there are two aspects. Signage, you're right, it’s very competitive and I wouldn't see, for example, an entry-level signage player, that's playing a web URL, having the need for something like Meld, unless it was their first foray into Chrome and they didn't want to do the development, they just want it to point to us. 

On the signage space, we're working with partners that want to move up the food chain. And what I mean by that is they want to be an enterprise, they want to have multiple touchpoints, within the customer and they potentially want to use other aspects of Meld.

So Meld has its PaaS platform and it does have SaaS modules as well. So we have products such as advanced machine vision. And in Meld, you can schedule machine vision models or AI models. You can schedule content and apps all in the same way and pair them together.

We just worked with a global car company, and they have an app that they spent a lot of money building on, an agency built it and they wanted to add some visual elements...

An agency costing a lot of money???

Stephen: (Laughter) Yeah, and I looked at it and went oh well, but they didn't want to go back to the agency and wanted to use Meld to add some AI elements and what we ended up achieving for them is that we used the cameras within the devices and gave them content sentiment analysis, tokenization of people using it, so if they went into a pop-up that was in a shopping center and then later went into the car dealer, the car dealer wouldn't get any personal details, but they'll see, “Look, this family of four was playing with this car in a shopping center for an hour and they got to this configuration price point.” and that dealer would end up with that profile as they're walking in.

They did that and a lot of that was prebuilt with those tools in Meld. They just used those tools and ran it side by side with the application, and that was a six-week process. So they're the type of customers or partners we're using where they're taking it to that next step.

And also, even some small signage providers when they go enterprise now with all the security requirements like SSO, data restriction compliance, GDPR, all of that's really overwhelming for them. So we take care of that. 

As long as they stick to the guidelines we set in place, they can be compliant too, and they can really pump above their way.

Is one of those guidelines is that you have to use Chrome devices or is that just one of the ways you can do this?

Stephen: No. So, we use our Chrome and Windows. So one of the guidelines is, for example, the hardware. We're hardware agnostic as well so as long as the hardware has some security components like it has a TPM or we can access the firmware to create, assign digital devices, we allow it into our network. So we won't allow a customer to say add an Android device because that can't be secured. 

We are PCI level One, so the highest PCI standards. So we will ensure that the devices meet that standard if they want to be able to use any of those certificates, if that makes sense. 

Yeah. Google made a big splash about four or five years ago, about entering the digital signage market. And at that point, there were a number of Chrome devices and there was a feeling, and I was among them and I thought, okay, this could be a big deal, but then it never really went too far. There's only a handful of companies that are using Chrome, Chromeboxes and other devices, but for the most part, the world has moved on and Android came back and Android is getting a lot more serious and there are lots of special-purpose devices, set-top box kinds of devices that are being used. 

I think it's interesting that you started down the path of Chrome, but I suspect it's going to be important to communicate, at least in the context of the digital signage ecosystem that this is not just a pure Chrome play and they don't have to go down that path.

Stephen: Yeah, that's correct. And look, we love working with Chrome. I think it's come a long way. And, one of the reasons why I think adoption wasn't so rapid in this space is what I explained earlier. You have a lot of people who are used to hacking an operating system and bending it the way they want it to bend, but then you tend to compromise security, you compromise feature updates. There's a lot of compromises when you're doing that. So what we tried to do is take the Chrome methodology, make Chrome more adaptable to this market. 

We're doing offline content, talking to peripherals, running multiple apps at the same time. So I haven't come across anything of light that we can't do in Chrome that you can do in other operating systems. I think Chrome forces you to be compliant, to maintain security standards, and there are not that many players that have the skills to work within that compliance framework. 

So initially we made that easier and now we use that same compliance framework, which is the class-leading for an operating system, across the other operating systems. We've worked very closely with Microsoft to control updates, and we're about to release some dedicated Android devices that are secure, have digital certificates back and forth, and can only play up that generated from Meld. 

So even if it's your own APK, if it wasn't generated from Meld, it won't have authority. So it's super secure. You can still update the Chrome browser within Android, independently of Android, so it's very flexible but maintains that security first principle.

You mentioned machine vision and I believe the product is called Viana. You're bringing computer vision at least in the context of digital signage, into a pretty crowded marketplace in terms of a number of companies that are selling variations on video analytics for audience measurement and so on.

What's the distinction about Viana that sets you apart from the other guys?

Stephen: Sure. So Viana actually didn't start with a sort of visual analytics, in the way we see it in Signage. It started on some really deep learning projects. One, which you can look up, it's called Project Sally, where for our post postal services in Australia, we did handwriting recognition and package recognition to be able to sort parcels at a kiosk device.

You can go up to this kiosk, drop your handwritten parcel on the plateau and it will detect if it needs a customs declaration, pre-fill most of it, dimensions, calculate the cost and everything else. 

So that was quite deep learning because if anyone tried to scan my handwriting, you’d need a really decent model. 

For mine, it's not going to work.

Stephen: (Laughter) So we did that, and we got our synthetic data set generating 14 million impressions a week or variations of handwritings, and we started saying, okay, how do we do things a little bit differently around visual analytics? How do you go beyond just saying, okay, this is how many females or males of this age have walked past this screen? You know, how do we take it to the next level? 

It’s kind of I've been there, done that thing.

Stephen: Exactly, right? And we're not going to engage in something that's highly saturated unless we can add some differentiation.

So we sat down and worked through it and said, okay, what are we trying to actually get here? So we're not just trying to get the number of eyeballs, but what we're trying to get is the amount of attention time, we're trying to get the content sentiment to understand the content sentiment and how that relates to other systems, other processes or advertised media. 

So we not only built our own custom model that looks at content sentiment analysis but applies various metrics and various sorts of triggers and integrations that make it really easy to do more. And then we took it a step further and all the training models are based on synthetics.

So we haven't gone out there and pointed a camera at the public and started training. You know, you have a natural bias doing that. So what we've done is all our computers, all our training data is synthetically generated. It doesn't have the ability to even understand race, let alone be skewed to race but it does understand things like age, gender, beard, glasses, brands of clothing they might be wearing, are they wearing a hat in a hat store? It gets really detailed and we can pick up quite a comprehensive profile of that person that is entering your establishment, and you can start drilling in and say, okay, I want to understand more. I'm thinking of bringing game caps into my store, how many people were in caps of this type, and you can really start drilling down and understanding that level of detail.

And one of the modules that have come out of Viana is at the moment called Sami?

Stephen: Yup. In fact, we started this project prior to COVID. 

It's an interesting story. I was sitting in one of our offices, and being from Melbourne, I was there quite late and the cleaners came in. And they came in, checked in, sat at the conference table, cleaned that table. They were there for two hours, emptied the bin, and left. And I'm thinking, this has to be a better way to understand what's being cleaned, what's being done, how do we go away from this clipboard on the side of a wall saying this has been cleaned and we don't know if it's been done?

So we started that project and we got the provisional patent for it and then COVID hit and we said, okay, this is ideal for COVID. What it essentially does is that it can plug into any camera system, or digital camera system or you can use it with a USB camera if you choose to, and it looks at hand emotion, distances, body distances from objects. And what it starts to do is, for example, if you have a conference room, you can highlight a table or highlight those areas, it will start self-learning the digital structure or framework of that room and it'll start monitoring touchpoints.

So I might say, “After each conference, I want an SMS to go to X person to go clean it.” So what would happen is once that person goes, who gets an SMS (or Messenger or any type of message), walks into the room, accept it, and the camera where she looked for the hand motions that it's been cleaned and it will show the hotspot areas that people were engaged with prior to cleaning.

So you can really take any inanimate object and point these cameras towards it and set a threshold. You might say, after three interactions or people standing nearby, we want this cleaned and you can even set a range for hands or range for airborne, it is if someone's coughed in that area. You might want to set a meter range around that individual going in, and not only it will encourage you to clean, but it will record a complete digital manifest of that. So you'll get that pop-up, you'll engage with it, you'll clean it.

It will monitor all the hand motions. We don't keep any details of faces. We've done a lot of training on what a cleaning motion is, and it will send you an image of the hotspot areas, and if you've cleaned those hotspot areas, it'll send you a notification saying you're done and it will keep a central digital manifest of it all.

So I think that's interesting for the business environment but I would imagine where it could get really interesting would be in things like food processing environments, where they're worried about Listeria outbreaks and everything else, where you've got to have cleaning compliance versus the boardroom table.

Yes. It should be clean, but it's probably not the end of the world. If it wasn't.

Stephen: That's right. We're getting companies coming to us in all sorts of spaces around this. Food preparation areas, pharmaceuticals. We have an interesting one right now, a very, large spectacles retailer and what they're doing right now because of the COVID situation is every hour, they have two people in-store, retail associates, cleaning every single spectacle in the place. So they're using us to have focus areas. So the cleaning can be more frequent, but less broad. 

And in fact, you can have triggers so you can even use it on any kiosk, doesn't matter what operating system, what OS. We have a module that sits on the kiosk and can monitor touches and it doesn't require a camera and it will send you information saying this kiosk has hit a threshold.

We're working with an airport right now, and the first thing it would do is if that kiosk hit a threshold, it will shut down that kiosk and encourage you to go to the next chaos until someone can clean it and as you go into that cleaning mode, it will show you the impressions and all the hotspots where most of the touches were.

And if you're using a virtual eraser, it will not let you finish that process until you've rubbed all of it out and it will even ask you to say, please clean the PIN pad, please clean this and that, as a digital checklist. And that's rolling out this month as well. That's part of the Sami suite, 

So, if I'm charged with cleaning these things (and please God, I don't want that job) but, you would see a screen that has what amounts to a heat map on it that's visualizing what in particular needs to be cleaned, and as you wipe that down, the heat map colors are changing or the heat map is going away and it's going back to the normal screen. Is that a good way of describing it?

Stephen: That's correct. And the main point is the digital manifest, so the person that's cleaning it will have to be standing right in front of it. They'll click on their phone, they could have got a message of some sort, and then it will go into that mode, and you can associate that person with that compliant cleaning regime.

The first thing it would do is make you clean the whole surface and then it would make you focus on areas and have that sort of visualization so that way you can have a deeper clean and there’s some AI behind it, how many touches or how long the engagement is versus how much you have to clean up for based on the type of solution.

So if it's Clorox, it might say, this is how long you need to do it. Customers can vary that in the dashboard. So they can say, it's this many impressions or I want this clean for X minutes. I want us to not allow customers to use it, and we've just had a customer that wanted to add facemask to that, so it stops the kiosk for anyone signing into that kiosk or using that kiosk unless they have a mask. They just added two Meld modules together and created that scenario.

Yeah. I worry about a lot of these companies that are coming out with hardware products that are squarely focused on dealing with pandemic issues right now, because it's going to take longer than most people expect, but this problem will go away and I wonder if these products will be relevant at that point, versus what you're describing, which is great in the current, health safety environment, but it's going to work for a whole bunch of other reasons down the road in a whole bunch of other different scenarios.

Stephen: Exactly. So we originally started these concepts because a lot of customers use our touch screen for food or food ordering. Coli is very stubborn and it stays on surfaces for a long time, so we originally started this for things such as Listeria, Coli and general cleanliness and bacteria. 

And we're very lucky to have one of our large teams, or actually I opened at the time in Taiwan because they see a lot of work around this space and Taiwan seems to be leading the world around this space. They seem to be the best in the best state for COVID.

So we've got a lot of feedback from them on this, and having a purely hardware solution to solve this problem which may or may not be a short term, but it really needs to be multi-use and have a broader purpose than just this, and really that's what we're focused on.

It's good housekeeping. It's allowing you to create a digital manifest and to make sure it's actually done because we actually did a research piece before we started. We're working with a very large building management company, so they own buildings in the city, and then they go lease them back out and manage the buildings. And they didn't actually know, compliance. The only method of compliance they had was when the cleanup badged in and badged out, that was it. They didn't know if anything was done, which could be dangerous, in this environment. And also, just generally, you want to know if you're paying for that cleaning service that it's actually being done.

Yeah. Where's the company at, in terms of, working its way into the marketplace? You've hired Raffi Vartian. I believe you have a guy down in Dallas or Austin. Where are you at and how do companies engage with you? 

Are you working through a channel, is it a direct connection? How do people find meldCX and get the conversation going?

Stephen: Yeah. So we started off, in Australia. so we've got quite a big Australia team and some resources in the Asia Pacific region. We decided to kick off the US because, one, we have quite a few customers that are in flight, so you'll see, by the end of this year, them going live with some significant rollouts.

So we hired two people initially, that is, Edward Doan, he’s actually ex Chrome, he was part of the core Chrome team and led parts of that team. And he's come across to lead the meldCX business in the US and Raffi Vartian. And we tend to look at it in an interesting way, in that, if the project is unique and we believe that projects can come down the pipe and can be used by our partners, we will engage the customer directly for a period of time. 

So for example, in the first version of Sami, we worked closely with our customers who allowed us into their environments and create training data and do that type of thing, and then we'll make that sort of publicly available and work with partners to deliver to those clients. 

So we are a partner-centric business. We tend to use ISDs and SIs of all types. We do work with some agencies, and some consultancy firms as well but we do have some multinational, bleeding-edge type use cases that we will engage indirectly and then make those facilities or even sometimes the sample code available to our partners so they can go and modify it and do it for their customers.

Okay, so to find you guys, is it meldCX.com?

Stephen: Yup. meldCX.com.

Perfect. All right, Steven, thank you so much for taking some time with me from all the way over there in Australia.

Stephen: Yeah, thanks for your time. 

2019 DSF Coffee And Controversy

2019 DSF Coffee And Controversy

October 30, 2019

A couple of weeks back I was in New York for the annual Digital Signage Federation Coffee and Controversy event, which I moderated.

I was able to grab audio last year and post as a podcast, and this year we managed the same. The audio is OK, at best, but you should be able to hear just fine.

Your big challenge will be discerning who is saying what, because the session was me and five great panelists, all with terrific insights and experience.

The topic was privacy and proof, as it relates to tech being used for retail and advertising insights. The speakers were:
- Dylan Gilbert, Policy Fellow at DC-based PublicKnowledge
- Laura Davis-Taylor, the Co-Founder of Atlanta's HighStreet Collective & LivingRetailLab
- Kym Frank, President of New York-based Geopath
- Amy Avery, Chief Intelligence Officer at New York agency Droga5
- Jeremy Bergstein, CEO of New York agency The Science Project

By all accounts it was a great session that could have gone another hour or more. The DSF is working on video clips, as well, which will be available to its membership.

Please note it is double the length of a "normal" 16:9 podcast.

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Maris Ensing, Mad Systems

Maris Ensing, Mad Systems

October 23, 2019

I wouldn't want the job of trying to boil down what Mad Systems does to an elevator pitch, unless it was a very tall building with a very slow elevator.

Based in Orange County, California, Mad Systems is technically an AV system designer and integrator, but these are not the guys you'd hire to put in some video-conferencing gear and some screens in the lobby.

It's not unfair to suggest the Mad in Mad Systems has to do with Maris Ensing and his engineers being a bunch of mad scientists. Go through the company's project portfolio and you find out they've put together a steam-driven aircraft and a 20-foot high tornado.

The company also did a big part of one of my favorite projects - the alumni center at the University of Oregon, which has a set of very tall, but moveable stacked LCD displays.

Ensing and his team have got involved in all kinds of things over 20 years, but in our chat, he talks a lot about a new AV management system the company has built from nothing - called Quicksilver. Among many things, Mad has patent applications underway for a new kind of facial color and pattern recognition system designed to instantly personalize visits to places like museums.

I'll let Ensing explain that and other things. This was one of my easier podcasts. He had a lot to say and there was little room for questions. Enjoy. 

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Matt Schmitt, Reflect

Matt Schmitt, Reflect

October 9, 2019

Reflect is one of the longest running companies in the digital signage sector - operating out of Dallas since 2001. The company built up its CMS software business largely in retail, but in early 2017 did something of a pivot into ad scheduling and targeting.

I wondered, when I first got walked through what's called Ad Logic, why Reflect was going in that direction, given the addressable market seemed a little limited and companies like Broadsign had a serious head-start on competitors.

Turns out that Reflect was responding to client needs for something that was kinda sorta digital OOH, but was less about agency-driven media scheduling and more about retail and place-based networks that wanted to monetize their screens with endemic advertising. So in a medical office network, they wanted to schedule and runs ads for, say, big pharma and medical device brands.

I spoke with Reflect's president and co-founder Matt Schmitt about his company's journey, and how Reflect has evolved from a software shop to one offering everything from strategy to creative work and media sales.

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Michael Provenzano, Vistar Media

Michael Provenzano, Vistar Media

August 14, 2019

Programmatic media buying and selling for the digital out of home marketplace has been going on for many years now, and grown a lot more sophisticated, and a lot more used.

Just as the digital OOH business has matured and expanded in the last few years, so have some of the key players - notably New York City-based Vistar Media, which has been at it now for eight years and is seeing crazy-good growth these days.

 I spoke with co-founder Michael Provenzano about the online roots of his business, and how he took much of the same approach into a medium and supporting tech business that was, at the start, kind of all over the place.

 We had a great chat talking about what Vistar does, why it built its own CMS, the role these days of data, and whether programmatic is the answer for media-based digital signage networks, or maybe just PART of the answer.

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Fab Stanghieri, Cineplex Digital Media

Fab Stanghieri, Cineplex Digital Media

May 22, 2019

Canadians all know Cineplex as the dominant movie theater chain in that country, and the Toronto-based company has also been expanding its reach, in recent years, into other related lines of business.

Cineplex now has entertainment-centric restaurant-bars, is bringing Top Golf into Canada, sells out of home media and runs a thriving digital media group that's doing most aspects of digital signage for major enterprise customers in Canada and beyond those borders.

Fab Stanghieri was a senior real estate guy with Cineplex, charged with building and managing the company's movie house portfolio. He had digital media added to his responsibilities a few years ago, and while it was unfamiliar territory at first, he's embraced digital to a degree that it is now his primary focus in the company.

I was passing through Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and Fab kindly took some time to show me around new office space, which is set up to help ideate, deliver and manage digital signage solutions for Cineplex clients.

 

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Alberto Cáceres, Trison

Alberto Cáceres, Trison

February 20, 2019

Being in Amsterdam for ISE recently offered a chance to meet up and talk to some people who are squarely focused on business on the other side of the Atlantic.

I knew Trison was a major player in digital signage solutions in its home country of Spain, but I didn't realize the company had a far greater reach than that. In 2018, Trison was in the middle of 2,500 digital signage and related jobs, in 76 countries.

The company started 20 years ago doing audio solutions, in northwest Spain, and has grown into the major solutions provider for retail digital signage in Europe and beyond. A Coruna is home base, but Trison has offices in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Shanghai, Mexico City and elsewhere.

I spoke with CEO Alberto Cáceres outside the ISE press room.

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2018 DSF Coffee and Controversy, in NYC

2018 DSF Coffee and Controversy, in NYC

November 7, 2018

I was in New York last week for the Digital Signage Federation's annual Coffee and Controversy breakfast event - a panel discussion that each year brings together some of the most influential leaders in the digital signage industry.

I'm on the DSF board and my fellow board members drafted me to run the panel - with Chris Riegel of STRATACACHE, Jeff Hastings of Brightsign and Beth Warren of Creative Realities.

There's only so much controversy you can whip up around digital signage, but I tried ... and if anyone in this industry was going to stir up some shit, it was Chris. He didn't disappoint, nor did Jeff or Beth.

The women who ran the AV for the event very kindly generated an audio recording for me. This is about twice the length of a normal 16:9 podcast, but if you didn't have the chance, time or budget to get to New York last week, you can have a listen to what was said.

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Rich Ventura, NEC Display, on ALP

Rich Ventura, NEC Display, on ALP

October 31, 2018

NEC Display has been fairly quietly involved in analytics for a long time now, but it just got very serious and noisy about that capability, with the launch of something called ALP - which is short for Analytics Learning Platform.

It's a retail intelligence program that uses cameras and other sensors, AI, big data, cloud computing and network appliances to give retailers a better sense of what's going on in their stores.

Tied to digital signage, a retail intelligence platform can optimize messaging based on who's in there, how long they're in there, and the historical patterns of what those people tend to buy. The gold for retail operators is understanding conversion ratios - the what really happened stuff when messages were pushed.

There is no shortage of retail intelligence platforms out there, but none that I know of built from the ground up with signage as a core element. I spoke with NEC's Rich Ventura, who drove the project, to talk about ALP's roots, how people in the signage ecosystem plug in, and how it all fits. 

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David Labuskes, AVIXA

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 20, 2017

I was in the Washington, DC area last week for what turned out to be the rebranding of Infocomm as AVIXA - a loose acronym for the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association.

The trade association had invited me, and a pile of other trade journalists, for a press conference and follow-ups about … something. They wouldn’t say what and had us signing NDAs promising we wouldn’t spill the beans ahead of time.

It’s a lot more than just a name change for Infocomm, which will still be the name of the big annual trade show and versions of it in other countries. The new AVIXA branding reflects much deeper thinking by the InfoComm board and executive team, which is run by CEO David Labuskes.

On the tail end of a crazy-busy launch day, and in the middle of a cocktail party, I managed to grab Labuskes for a chat, to find out what AVIXA is all about, and what it  means for people and companies in the digital signage industry.

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David Mou, Pilot TV

David Mou, Pilot TV

May 23, 2017

I was introduced to Taiwan’s Pilot TV and the company’s product evangelist David Mou by some of the folks who invited me over to Beijing recently for a speech at InfoComm China. Mou wanted to tell me about his company and thought it would make good podcast material.

I tried to dodge that, because I’m about as excited by digital out of home ad networks in c-stores as I am about traffic jams and Jane Austen movies. Soooo many ad networks like that have failed.

But he’s a persistent guy, and when we met at that Beijing trade show, he rattled off what was going on, and pretty quickly convinced me this was not another no-hoper “built it and the advertisers will come” screen network.

These guys are heavily into analytics and proving to packaged goods and other brands that this is a medium that works, and they already have 8,000 screens running in Taiwan and beyond.

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Rodolfo Saccoman, AdMobilize

Rodolfo Saccoman, AdMobilize

May 16, 2017

There’s nothing all that new about digital signage networks using video analytics to get some sense of what’s happening with audiences near screens, but AdMobilize is not just another company peddling the same old stuff.

I spoke with CEO and Founder Rodolfo Saccoman about a product and service he says rolls up a wide range of different measurement technologies under one simple, harmonized platform.

Saccoman comes out of the IT side of the hospitality industry and he totally gets the importance of customer service and experience. He also understands buzz, and the insatiable appetite out there for cutting costs. That may explain, in part, why the company’s AdBeacon measurement device runs off the extremely buzz-worthy Raspberry Pi board.

We get into a lot of things in our chat - including how he thinks computer vision and artificial intelligence will work in the future in digital signage and digital out of home.

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Ke-Quang Nguyen-Phuc, Quividi

Ke-Quang Nguyen-Phuc, Quividi

April 12, 2017

A lot of companies have come in and out of video analytics for digital signage, but the one constant has been Quividi - a French company with an anonymous pattern detection product a lot of people will tell you is the gold standard for this tech.

I sat with CEO Ke-Quang Nguyen-Phuc during a break at ISE a few weeks ago, and got the rundown on the company and what’s going on with this technology, now and in the future. We talk about the distinction between face recognition and face detection, and what the technology can do for network operators and brands.

We also get into the insights delivered by audience analytics, including how long people really look at screens, and what screens generate the least attention. It's a little technical here and there, but you'll learn stuff.

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