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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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.