Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

June 9, 2021

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

I first bumped into Telelogos when I started going to ISE in Amsterdam, and while I'd never heard of the company, I wandered off impressed by what I'd seen.

The digital signage software company had a very solid platform and some of the deepest, most powerful device management tools I'd seen. It sounds boring, but that's the stuff that can really matter when you have big, scaled networks.

The company is French and has worked mainly with big, enterprise-level clients in that country, and in other parts of Europe. It has also had quite a bit of success in Asia and the Middle Wast, particularly in banks.

In the past year or so, Telelogos has started laying the groundwork in sales and business relationships to establish itself in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

I spoke with Christophe Billaud, the company's Managing Director.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Christophe, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what Telelogos is all about, the background, and so on? 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, sure. We are a software company, a pure software company that comes from IT and have existed for more than 30 years now.

At the beginning of the company, we were making file transfer software and then a data synchronization and data integration software for four major retailers. In fact, the software was intended to basically automate, secure, and optimize the data change between one corporate server and a remote location. So mostly retailers who have a lot of different points of sale, and want you to secure their data transfer between all their shops and the head office. So that's where we come from the IT: Data synchronization, data integration, and then we added the device management features because customers want to manage their IT equipment, first the POS, then mobile devices, and all the equipment they have in the shops.

So we come from this world and10 years ago, something like that, we added a new domain in our portfolio: digital signage, and, and of course, as you understand when we develop the digital signage software, we didn't reinvent the wheel and we integrated inside our digital signage software, all the data synchronization integration and device management capability that we already had. So that's what makes it a little bit particular in this market as we come from this IT world and not from the content or the AV market. 

David: Yeah, that's really interesting. I talked about the importance of data integration and device management, and most of the companies in the digital signage industry, the software companies started with the presentation side of their platform and gradually they've added some degree of data integration, and they've got better about device management, but you've come at it from the complete opposite. You did all that stuff first and then added the presentation layer. 

Christophe Billaud: Exactly that, and again, that's what makes us a little bit particular and that's what is interesting in our positioning today as we’ll talk about later, but we think there is a shift between from the AV to also an IT world. That's what makes our offer interesting for the integrators, I think. 

David: How do you see that shift happening, is it just in the discussions or who's in the meetings, that sort of thing? 

Christophe Billaud: Of course when we discuss this with our customers and partners, but we see that in projects, it seemed that before most of the projects were about only broadcasting media with few interactions, almost no integration with the information system, even on the Seabright network.  But now it seems that there is a real trend towards exploiting the huge amounts of data that companies have. Everybody's talking about data mining, et cetera, but people usually don't truly know how to use that, but I think it's really a change for the industry, for the digital signage industry, because there is a great opportunity to use and make the most of these data with digital signage.

There was a possibility with platforms like ours to make these data visually accessible to the workers and customers and to use also this data to condition and to trigger the content to make it really efficient. So I think it's a real opportunity for all the industry. 

David: Yeah, I think it's really important to focus on data just because there's been this endless problem in the digital signage industry of how do you keep the screens populated with fresh content and relevant content? And the way you can really do that and make it hyper-relevant is using data from information systems that matter, and as you say, content that can be triggered and shaped and everything else by what the system is telling you. 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, and that gives also the possibility to have a wider customer range, because before digital signage was retail, banking, corporate, but now we see that it's across all verticals, can be manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and what is really interesting is that digital signage is shifting from a “nice to have” application to a business-critical application. 

So that's really important for the customer because you are really optimizing for productivity and also for the system integrator because you are not just offering simple digital signage, like a loop, but you will offer a business application to the customer. So the value is not the same in the profit also. So that's really important for all the industry. 

David: Most of your business historically has focused on France and Western Europe, right? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, historically. But for example, we have been selling to Asia in China for almost 15 years now.

David: Are there particular verticals or types of companies that you tend to have worked with? 

Christophe Billaud: We work in all verticals, but it's true that we have a lot of banks in our portfolio. I was mentioning China, for instance, we're having China City Bank, Bank of Communication, Rural Bank. In Hong Kong, we have the ICBC. We had an interview with Nedbank, South Africa some days ago. In the Middle East, and of course some banks in Europe. So we have a lot of banks in our portfolio, I think because security is really an issue for them and to have a really robust infrastructure and that's what we offer with out software.

So yeah, baking is something really in our portfolio, but again, we have a really good market share and corporate and retail, and now we see a lot of new projects in manufacturing, supply chain, logistics as well. 

David: There's a lot of options out there. Why is it that they would go with you guys, given so many companies selling software solutions?

Christophe Billaud: Yes, I think we're talking about the shift from AV to IT, I think that's one y point for the partners now because we believe that in most projects like that when you have to integrate data, it's not only an AV project anymore because you have to integrate this data. You have to find a software solution, which is agile enough to be able to integrate the data at the beginning of the project but to make it evolve also, and that's really important because almost everybody is capable of hard coding and bespoke development for a project at the beginning. But you have to keep in mind that the project will evolve. You have to connect to the legacy system, but to all the new applications, et cetera. So you need to get the system, which is agile enough to do and thanks to where we come from, we have this data integration capability, which is really simple.

You just have to set parameters, and that really helps the partners to follow the customer and to follow the project, and there are all the things that are really important when we are going on any project. Because when we are talking about data integration, that means that you are in the company network. Before, usually with the projects, we were on a different network because there was no integration with the information system. Now, when you are in the network, of course, you will have security concerns. You have to make sure that your software would comply with it and security rules. So you must make sure that you have really robust software, that's also something that we offer, and the last thing that we see is that today most projects are not only traditional displays anymore, but you have a lot of new devices coming to the field. Of course, you have SOC inside the display, but you will have tablets, you have smartphones, kiosks, even IoT devices sometimes.

So you have a broader range of devices, and usually the traditional AV integrator, they are not used to that. So they are asking for tools, how can I manage these devices? How do I integrate this data? We will help them by providing them with the tool, and of course, the partnership and the service to follow them.

David: The kind of partners that you have in different countries, do they tend to be more on the IT side systems integrators side, then on the AV side and that’s traditionally putting in conference displays and things like that. Could they work with your platform?

Christophe Billaud: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, we have more AV partners than IT partners because this market is coming from the AV. So since the beginning, we had AV partners, but now it's true that we see new competitors for the AV industry, pure IT integrators because they can see digital signage project as a traditional IT project because, for them, displays like a screen, a player is like a PC. You have a network, you have data, so for them, it's an IT project, but of course, this is a company that will miss all the expertise on content, on these kinds of things, and I think that AV companies are going to take the skills of IT companies to be able to face this new competition. 

So to answer your question, we had a lot of AV integration companies. We still have a lot and most of our partners are still AV companies, even if we have a new kind of partners like Gemini or this kind of IT company because I think that bigger companies see digital signage as an interesting market, because it's not small project in silo in a company, but it can be across different services in bigger companies worldwide. 

David: As I mentioned earlier, there's a whole bunch of digital signer software options out there, and a lot of them are kind of islands of activity like you log into a digital signage system, you do all your content management and everything out of that, but it doesn't really relate to other systems it's its own thing.

Do you see the future being much more where digital signage is just a component of a larger sort of AV/IT initiative? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, I think we will have a lot of interaction between digital signage in global projects, and it will not be just a digital signage project. That's why we think that's our strategy, which is to focus on developing software is a good strategy for that because it will be something independent that will be able to interconnect with any kind of IT equipment in the company. 

David: Is it getting easier to extract and use data from different kinds of business systems than that in the past? 

Christophe Billaud: Easier, I'm not sure of because you have more and more applications, you have legacy applications, new applications, so I would not say that it's easier because you have a lot of data or multiple choices. That's why, I mean, it's really important to have a platform, which is really agile where you have just to set parameters, because if you make bespoke development, then you're stuck with what you have done at the beginning, it's really difficult to make it evolve and difficult to maintain and it's really costly. 

David: How do you encourage a sniff test on this sort of thing? Like with all these companies now saying, yes we do data handling, we do data integration. We can show real-time data. 

You've been doing that for 20-30 years. I suspect there's a difference between what some cloud-based CMS is saying and what you're saying. So if I'm an end-user, how do I sort out what's good, and what's kind of threadbare? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes. Sure. As you mentioned, everybody can say that they do data integration or even device management. But I think that the main difference is in the way you do it. Again, you can make bespoke development to be connected to one specific application. That will work. You can do it by coding but then you have a lot of different data sources when you want to change regularly the data structure, when you want to do a lot of things like that and make it evolve.

If you don't have just an easy software with parameter setting, which is ready to connect to different applications, that would be a nightmare. So all companies will be able to connect one specific application by coding. Everybody can do it, but to have software be able to connect to different application data sources, databases, just by setting parameters and to make it evolve reasonably, it's really something different. 

I mean, for all these users and all the integrators, I would say just come and talk to us where you can test out the software easily, see how it works, and how easy it is to use. 

David: think you have a lot of data connectors already pre-written, right?

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that's the mechanism we have. We choose all of that and we also build a partnership with different companies and to be able to make that, for instance, we just launched a partnership with SAP in manufacturing. That's something really important to have access, to all this data and to be able to beta serve all these customers, to make all these data visually accessible again in manufacturing or transportation or logistics, for instance. 

David: So if you're hooking into an SAP system or something, is that relatively easy or is that like a quarter million dollar job? 

Christophe Billaud: No, it can be easy. I mean, like in every project, it depends on how far you want to go, how much data do you want to extract, the process you have, but no, once again, it can be something really easy to use. 

To begin a project, it's not a hundred million dollars and it can be done in some really easy steps.

David: When you're working with larger enterprise-grade companies and talking about things like data to data handling and device management, are they asking you about that, or are you selling that into them? Saying this is the sort of thing that you could do or do they already know. 

Christophe Billaud: With large companies, I would say it depends on the verticals.

For instance, in banking, they are used to doing that to get the financial data and the extraction into their information system. But for instance, manufacturing or transportation, logistics, they don't really have the use case. They don't even think of digital signage sometimes. So we have to tell them, yes, we can do some kind of digital dashboarding of what you can extract from your information system, from your ERP, and what you can have. 

I mean, they usually don't think of it. So in some industries, that's something really new. So we have to tell them about what we do, for example, all the verticals to the manufacturing and logistics, we tell them that it's possible with digital signage.

David: Once you tell them about it and explain that you can visualize your KPIs on the production floor of a factory or whatever. Do they still have to think about it and rationalize it, or they kind of conclude that would be very useful? 

Christophe Billaud: Really most of them think that it's really useful. It’s just that they have to find the time to make it. But yes, it's really a prediction game and something that is really important for them because they're always trying to find a way for the manufacturing to really bring this information in front of the worker when they are working and it's always a nightmare.

And that gives them these possibilities, and what is interesting with digital signage that you can have a mix between these KPI information coming from the information system, mixed with security information or in general communication, that's also something important. 

David: Yeah. I'm sure that if you just have screens up telling you what the production volumes are and all that, after a while it starts to become a wallpaper. But if you can blend it on other things, then people are going to look at it repeatedly. 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes it's really prediction-oriented, meaning that when the guys are working on a specific operation, we will trigger the right content to tell him what he's doing right now two minutes after bringing another media. So, as I said before, you can make the data visually accessible and also trigger the right information during the operation process. That's also very important 

David: Where does Telelogos start and stop in terms of services? 

There are increasingly software companies who are becoming quasi integrators and also consultants on everything else. What's the scope of services you guys offer? 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that's an interesting point. We have seen a lot of companies like that. I mean, coming from software and being integrators mostly in retail, because they want you to get there and say, “Okay, we do software, we got a name. We can have the project.” We do not think that's a good idea. We will keep our business model, which is really clear. We just do the software and we sell through via our business partners. First reason is that the integrators, they are our partners.

If we become a service and be an integrator, we become a competitor to our partners and that's not what we want to do, and secondly, I think that's not the trend of the market. If you look at the not only digital signage market but globally speaking for example on IT, we see that a lot of companies tried in the past to make software and then to add services. But finally, that you didn't make it because it's a different job, and again, you have your partner as a competitor, and we also feel when we discuss with customers now, especially large customers, that they want to build the best solution to be free. Sometimes they want to change a piece of the puzzle, not to be stuck with one partner and each priority solution. So I think for the customer, it's really important to be free and to have one integrator, which is the best solution, and if the customer is not happy with one or the other, then it can change.

I think one of the reasons also that digital signage projects, some years ago, where you just launch a project or a new concept in retail, for instance, and this concept will be the same for five years now. We see that there are a lot of needs for evolution, not only with the pandemic, but globally speaking. So you need to change the concept to change something, to connect to another data source, to do something new, and that means that you also need agility and you have to change that, and the last thing about that is that the digital signage project is also evolving, meaning that before you had one digital signage project in silo, in a company and more in a big company, we see several projects in different services in retail and supply chain then corporations and they will have different needs and they will not take one vendor that has a different solution every time, sometimes they will want to validate one software, one solution to use it for different services, sometimes not.

So they want to be free to change, and so I think that the future of the markets, that the company will choose their solution and they will choose an integrator to make the whole project. 

David: Yeah. I certainly hear that over and over again, that they don't want to deal with five different vendors, all pointing their fingers at each other when there's a problem, that they want to deal with one person, one company. 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, I mean, they can have just one company in front of them, but inside the project, you have different solutions.

I think that's important for them, and when we are coming to IT, also in terms of security for the IT people, I think it's important for them to validate software security validation takes time in big companies. It's really important. So if, for example, in a big company, they have 5 or 10 different digital signage projects, because one is for retail and one is for corporate, etc. They don't want to validate 10 different software, but once they validate one, which is good for all that they are doing, they're usually happy to use it for different uses, and then they will choose an integrator to integrate all the solutions. 

David: Tell me about CLYD, it's a device manager, but it's its own entity. Is it not? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, it is because CLYD is a device management software. It's included in our digital signage suites media for display. So when you buy the entire digital signage solution, you have it on board, but there's also software and mobile device management, which is used on its own to manage mobile projects.

David: So it can be completely distinct from a digital signage project? 

Christophe Billaud: Exactly. It can be totally distinct, but of course, it's really useful in digital signage because it will allow you to manage not only the content with CMS, but to manage the device themselves, players, the displays, and that's also something which is more and more important that asking our partners and customer because they want to make sure that the project is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure everything is working by having software, hardware, inventory, to also be able to make what we call preventive maintenance.

And that's with this software, we can monitor any critical elements of the PC, so we can check the hardware software, the disc space, the fire, the nature studies, et cetera, and when there is a problem, automatically we'll have alarms and we can launch automatic action to prevent or fix the problem.

David: Do you sense that your buyer base, your customers understand the value of device management more than perhaps they did in the past? 

Christophe Billaud: Oh, yes, they do. That's for sure, because, again, before digital signage was just a project on the side. Even sometimes IT didn't even know that they had digital signage because it wasn't on their own network.

Now that it’s coming to the IT infrastructure, that's a must to manage the device, not only to make sure that it's working, but it's also to ensure security, to make sure that it complies with IT and security rules. For example, when today we have a lot of Android devices going on the field, I don't even know if the customer knows how many devices, Android devices, which are deployed are rooted systems, just because it's easier for the manufacturer and for the software provider to have a rooted system because, and it's a little bit technical, but in Android to make some particular function like reboot, or to make a silent installation, you have to get some special rights, but when you have a rooted system on your network, such a huge security breach.

So that's why you need a real device manager, which is loaded by Google and by Android to be able to pair from all these features and to ensure the security of the device, but now in big companies, security’s just a must and device management also is a must. 

David: The company started to take a look at North America as a market to expand into, I know you already have some partners there, but you're taking a serious look now at North America. Correct? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, completely. As we mentioned before, our major footprint in EMEA. We have a lot of customers in Asia also, in Africa. We now have an office in Mexico actually. But in the US even, we have some partners, and now we will have some nice customers, but it was some opportunities.

Now we want to expand our footprint in the US. That's really important for us, so to find new partners and we are also looking for an acquisition or merger or strategic partnership in North America to be able to accelerate and to really be able to build a real transnational company in EMEA, Asia, and America.

David: Is it a challenge to reach from France or because you've been doing Asia and elsewhere, it's just another market? 

Christophe Billaud: It's not just another market, I think. North America is a huge market. It’s a good market, a technical market. I mean, there are a lot of competitors there, and I think it's difficult to go quickly and have great visibility without having a local partner.

That's why we're really looking for a strategic partnership there. 

David: How was that going so far? 

Christophe Billaud: So far we are just trying to find the right company, but we are still looking for that. So if some company is interested to contact us to discuss it, we will be of course, totally open.

David: I speak with software companies and with private equity and VC companies, and there's a lot of shopping happening, right? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, that's true.

David: So it's a competitive market in its own way. There's a lot of companies saying we would entertain a discussion and there's a lot of VCs saying we would love to be able to be introduced to X and Y.

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that’s true, I mean digital signage, I would say is a recent market. So like all emerging markets, there are a lot of small companies and now they're reserved for consolidation, so that's totally natural, and it's true that there is a lot of consolidation now. But it's not that easy to find the right company with the same strategy and this mentality.

David: Yeah, there are lots of people who would happily sell to you, but do you want to buy them? 

(Laughter)

All right, Christophe, that was terrific. I appreciate you spending some time with me. 

Christophe Billaud: Thanks a lot, Dave. 

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

June 2, 2021

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

QSR has always been an interesting and very active sector for digital signage, with chain restaurant operators being early adopters of the technology for menu displays.

But the pandemic has shifted digital screens from being a better, more cost-efficient way to manage menus to being mission-critical to many operations - particularly when in-store ordering and dining was shut down in many places and the only way to do business was in the drive-thru lane.

Global Display Solutions (GDS), which makes outdoor displays for situations like drive-thrus, had an online panel session recently that explored the digital transformation of QSR. I was asked to moderate - a job made easy because I had really great panelists.

Along with Robert Heise of GDS, I chatted with Jackie Walker of Publicis Sapient, Dana Stotts of Arc Worldwide and Jeff Hastings, the super-smart CEO of BrightSign.

There was no presentation to sit through first, so what you have with the audio version of the session is about 60 minutes of insights on what's happening with digital signage in QSR. In short - lots! 

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Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

May 19, 2021

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

I was scrolling my way through my Linkedin feed recently when I stumbled across a post from a guy who said he was the inventor of the much-debated term digital signage, with a bio photo that showed him wielding a bottle of champagne that was about the size of a golf bag.

Clearly, I needed to speak with this guy.

So Neil Longuet-Higgins and I got on a podcast call the other day to talk about his claim to coining the term digital signage. Turns out he kind of adapted it from someone outside the industry, who was looking at a video wall, and didn't know what to call it.

He's been around pro AV and digital signage for some 30 years, so we talk about the early days and challenges. We also get more broadly into what he does - running sales for a company west of London called The LED Studio.

That company specs, designs, manufactures, rolls out and manages large format LED displays, including a new microLED video wall product that competes with the big boys of the display business.

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TRANSCRIPT

All right, Neil, thank you for joining me. We've not met, but I was intrigued by what I saw on your LinkedIn bio that I stumbled across. It said you're the guy who invented the term or coined the term, “digital signage.” So it was your fault? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I'd like to think so. Some people might disagree. It was many years ago when I was running a video wall company in the UK and everybody used Barco monitors and electronic projection cubes, but no one was using them to advertise anything, and we ended up putting some small Barco monitor walls in 20 or 30 shopping centers in the UK, and we just called them video walls. There was no mystery to them. But then one day I had a phone call from a security guard who said, “Your digital sign is broken.” I said, what are you talking about? I think you've got the wrong number. He said, “No, your digital sign”, and I thought he was talking about neon or something, and then he went, “No, the one with all the pictures on it,” and I suddenly went oh, with the video screen? He said, yeah, and I actually thought about that after he'd made the call, I thought, “hmm, digital sign!”

So we started to promote it as Digital signage for advertising and the name stuck internally, and then some of the people, the suppliers would start to use it, and it just picked up from then, and I forgot about it for such a long time, and then eventually it came around and people would ask for digital signage, and so yeah, so a few people back in the day, remember it. 

It's interesting because it's a term that has been debated, really since it started to gain any kind of common usage and people would say, “That's not the best thing, puts it in a narrow box. It should be called dynamic digital signage, or it should be place-based media or on-premise.” Just all these different things. I've forgotten all the different terminology that was being suggested. 

Do you think it really matters as somebody who's been around it this long?  

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I don't think it does, to be honest, but it does great when people use something I'm not familiar with, or they seem to dream a new thing up just for the sake of it.

The classic buzzword at the moment is direct view LED. All LEDs have been direct view from the very first one. You don't look at it far from a mirror or anything, and I think LG coined the phrase initially to differentiate internally between their LCD screens that were backlit by LED. But it seems to be something that's picked on now. I prefer the phrase TruLED but it's like different countries and regions have different ideas. 

People will call an ordinary LED screen, a “video wall” when technically it's not. But people know what you mean. As long as people understand what you're talking about, that's fine. 

Why do you prefer TruLED? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I just think “direct view” describes nothing. It would be like saying your television at home is a direct view television.

Yeah, don't sneak up on it from the side. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, it'll spot you these days and it'll already be recording you. That's probably for sure. 

Yeah. It's interesting because LG would be one of those companies that caused the problem to begin with by marketing LED TVs when there were LCDs, but they had LED backlight arrays.

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, and I think we always try to call something new, with micro LED and mini LED. People will come up with different names for stuff to try and make it unique to them, and that's what the marketing of all products is about, to try and make something unique and get the buzzword out there.

How long have you been around “video walls” and digital signs generally? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: In the late 80s, early 90s, I was with a video company called Pro-Quip, and that ended up being one of the largest video wall companies in the world and through the 90s and got very big, and at the end of that company, we were looking at the beginning of the LED. 

What I like about being in the business so long is seeing some of the people who initially worked with me as junior technicians and things, they're now senior people within the industry and also some of the designers and people I worked with, are now stalwarts of the industry and they've designed a lot of LED screens and things like that.

So the video wall network that you're putting in shopping malls that were for advertising?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yes, it was. It was called center network television, and it was a great idea, but the costs of it and the reliability, it was too far ahead of its time because we were recording things initially on a Phillips laser disc which was very expensive, about 1500 pounds back then to get a single disk, and then we moved onto the Sony CRV desks but they suffer from all the dust the bad environment of shopping centers and things, and even the original CLT Barco screen technology, you used to have to stick your hand in the back initially to color balance it. It was dangerous stuff!

And I'm glad the technology has moved on, but I think if we would've been able to have flat screens that were memory sticks back then. I think it would have really taken off, but it was the cost of doing it was hard. 

So compared to today to do the same physical footprint of a video wall in that kind of environment, if you were doing it now, would it cost less than it did at that time or would it be a parity?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It would cost less now, and one of the things was changing content. You could only afford to have a new laserdisc pressed once a month, and then you had to go around and physically change that content, and now we just take for granted that you'll just upload it via the cloud too, via whatever CMS system and that was just not even thought of back then. 

And you had to cross your fingers that the laserdisc player was going to last, right? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, they were forever falling over. 

They would last what, like 3000 hours, maybe? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: If we were very very lucky. 

Oh Lord. So you would have a tech out there, like every three months or something switching out a box?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, I mean, you would try and be a little bit proactive on things and, remove them and clean them and et cetera. But the housings that were made were fairly basic, and whereas they had vents for keeping the monitors cool, all the rubbish would get sucked in there, and yeah, laserdisc was never going to be a format for long-term use.

So if you're thinking back to the late 90s, what were the technologies that you were praying would come along that would make your life easier? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think when it came to the conversion of someone's advert to put on to any format, we always wanted a digital video player and it did happen in that time, and I remember thinking, “I don't really understand this,” cause there's not a disc spinning around or videotape running along with, where's the image coming from? But it was early hard drives done by, I think it was Digital Video Systemswho developed one of the early ones. And, that was the first big step to moving forward. 

And then I guess the next one would be well, really internet, but just high-speed connectivity so you could actually send a file out instead of driving it over?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. That's key as it is with all systems these days. You've got to have that network around you or that internet and with that, the world is your oyster really. 

So you're now with a UK company called LED Studio running their sales?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: That's correct. LED Studio, we're celebrating our 10th year at the moment. It's one of the world's best-kept secrets. We are based in Swindon, we have a very large facility there and we have our own brand of LED screens called VOD Visual, and a lot of our business is OEM for other brand names, we do white labels for a lot of the UK integrators. But we are starting to promote ourselves as a proper brand because our technology is quite far advanced than many other people.

We've just introduced quite a few new products that are groundbreaking in the industry and people are suddenly going, “Oh, we should've been watching these guys. We are trying to catch up.”

It's a challenging industry to be in because there are so many companies selling roughly the same thing. How do you cut through all that? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It's your product that speaks really. In the LED industry, everybody has over the last few years, self-declared themselves as experts. We actually have experts so the owner of our company is an expert. He designs the screens and we look at things in a different way. We try to keep LED simple. We try to keep it economical, and we just don't like to complicate things, whereas if you were to touch Samsung's The Wall screen, for example, you'll feel it's very hot. You won't burn your hand on that, but it makes you think it shouldn't be like that. So we've designed screens that run very cold. They have heat sinks to take the heat away from the LED and that gives you a better life span. It gives you much better color stability, and we just think there are obvious things that people are missing, but there are so many screens churned out of small Chinese factories.

Shenzhen back in the day was half a dozen companies and now it's a big town or city with thousands of manufacturers. They take no prisoners, they copy everything, and it's good in some ways, because technology moves on, but it means that every time you bring out something new, you only have a certain period with it while it is new.

Yeah, that's a challenge in that I would think in a lot of countries when you see a brand like LED Studio, it would be reasonable to assume that these guys are a reseller of some white-labeled product out of Shenzhen, they're just getting contracts manufactured, but it's really a happy sunshine 8:8:8 LED or whatever, as opposed to something that was originally designed.

But you're saying, you guys do the engineering, design to your specifications, and then get it to contract manufactured overseas somewhere?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: We have our own factory and everything is designed in the UK. We're just about to be awarded “Made in the UK” status. Obviously, the factories have to be in China because that's where the supply chain is.

But once things are made there, like the first part of the assembly, PCBs and things are done, all screens come to the UK for final testing and assembly. So by doing that, and normally in non-COVID times, our CEO spends two weeks of the month in China overseeing quality control and manufacturing, and that's been very difficult at the moment, but looking to get back out there very soon, hopefully. 

I've been to China, I've been to Shenzhen. There's a huge range of manufacturers from Intel-level cleanroom kinds of facilities to open window facilities. I remember one place where there were ducks walking outside and there were no controls at all. There's dust flying around the whole bit. So it must be difficult to try to do this without going there and keeping an eye on things.

Neil Longuet-Higgins: We often have some of the staff from China over in the UK, and so there's normally a kind of a fairly good fluid exchange of people, and that's where we win on things like that. Also, a lot of our businesses OEM. So those people will check us out very thoroughly, and we won't get the work if we were another one of those little companies. 

You have to compete with big multinational brands like Samsung and LG, all the way to very specific LED brands like Leyard, Unilumin, and those kinds of guys. How do you compete with them when they have the marketing muscle that you can only really dream about? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think that's the difficult thing. Samsung and LG, have absolutely millions of marketing and advertising spend, and it's all too easy with a certain project for them to step in and say, we'll give you some advertising and whatever, and that can bring their price down effectively.

So you know, you can't compete with that, but we compete with the fact that we believe we have a better product. It's a lot nicer, more economical, and has newer technology in it, and that's where we win. When people come to see us, they are quite amazed, and they see the passion that's in the company for LED screens.

Is the buying audience more mature? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think it's still pretty split. There is the kind of high-powered buyers that people would like to be talking to, but it's a massive market. Over the years I've had receptionists, who've been tasked with finding that company digital solution for the next five years, and what will starts as a telephone call from someone who knows nothing about it, can end up someone's spending millions. 

So you can never discount anything there. The verticals in this business are everywhere. There are the sports, the retails, et cetera, and there's always someone you've never heard of who could spend a lot of money with you.

When LED really started to get some traction in the pro AV marketplace, I would say it was maybe four or five years ago when you started to see fine pitch products come along then and everything was marketed around the pixel pitch. That was it. It was how you distinguish products, and it seems to have moved on from there, and buyers are more discerning and they're looking at contrast levels and energy efficiency and all kinds of things. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, energy efficiency is probably one of the most important things at the moment. We have a billboard that we've designed called, The Fusion. It's the most economical outdoor screen on the market. 

Whereas in the UK, a typical 48 sheet, that's six meters by three, would cost about 8k-10k pounds a year to actually run just on the electricity. The way our screens work now, that's down to about 2k-3k pounds. So it's a 70% saving by designing a better screen. 

And I suspect that's not widely known, is it? People think since it’s an LED so, therefore, it's automatically an energy miser, but they forget that there are thousands or millions of these little lights. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, absolutely, and just going back to what I said earlier there, the older type of screens had lots of fans, were very uneconomical. They got very hot, lots of screens still run very hot. They're not efficient and it's down to getting the LEDs themselves to work as cool as possible, and that gives you quality and life. 

We offer a warranty of up to 7 years on some of our products. You don't get that if you buy a cheap screen out of China. 

And a cheap screen out of China might look good on the trade show floor at ISC because they've spent two days color balancing and optimizing the thing, but it's not going to last that way, is it? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: No, definitely not. We walked around ISC and we had our screens on quite a few stands there, and they're normally set up pretty well but it's a minefield out there between a screen being built, and let's just say an AV company in the UK importing that and installing it, they normally won't have the correct equipment to color balance and things like that. But if you buy a good quality screen, we can't say the name of the company, we're putting some screens all over the world at the moment, and they're coming straight from our factory and they're going straight into retail units. They just work. They don't need color balancing. They don't need lots of setups. It's plug-and-play. We try and make it simple. So a stand builder can just put a screen in.

I've made the observation the last several months. I see LED as now being a mainstream product, whereas I think it was a niche going back, a couple of years and further back than that, but it seems when you start to see it in pubs and on the sides of fairly nondescript buildings and things like that, it's entered the mainstream. It's no longer something that's worthy of a press release when somebody puts one up. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah. You see them everywhere. Some people think there's too much signage. I certainly don't agree with that. But yeah, they are becoming mainstream, but we are looking at a stage where a TruLED screen will be in your home in five years. 

Samsung and LG announced that they were pulling back from the LCD market because the technology was moving on in pixel pitch and that in LED and it won't be that long before your 55-inch screen in your living room is TruLED. I mean we've just made a 55-inch cabinet, which is the largest cabinet you can buy to replace the LCD video wall.

So there's variable pixel pitch and depending on your budget, whether you're retail or a control room where you need really high resolution or whatever, it's something that is lightweight, cheaper to run and it lasts twice as long as LCD. You know if an LCD goes wrong, you tend to throw it away. That's not very green. 

But the problem at least for now is, it's probably also wickedly expensive, right? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, absolutely. At the fine pixel pitch of, 0.7 or 0.4 or what have you, it's crazy money. But that's true of everything. It's a bit like when they said about computer memory to half in price and doubles in size every year, and it's a similar sort of scenario with LED. 

I assume you're talking about micro-LED and less so about mini-LED. Do you see the market moving to micro? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yes, it does. We've recently introduced the vivid micro-LED and that's proving really popular with high-end installs for both home and the office.

People have always been chasing resolution, and although everybody wants their screen to be 4K, most people don't run any 4K content on it. But yeah that's the future. Mico-LED will get bigger and bigger. 

And at what point does it become something that doesn't give people heart attacks when they see the price?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think realistically four to five years, we'll see that price come down. There will always be cheaper alternatives, and even now you get some people who will buy a TV that costs them 20k in the house, others are quite satisfied with something that's 200 pounds. So there will always be two different markets, but they will start to merge definitely over the next few years. 

Do you see much demand coming for - I don't want to say alternative - but maybe unconventional LED platforms like LED on glass, on film, mesh displays, that sort of thing?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, there are a few different things that are in the pipeline. We already have things like the mesh and the transparent screens and things like that, and some of those are on glass and some are on a more kind of structural format, but I think there's always something new that will pop up when someone has an idea. 

I don't know where the future will be. I think whatever format we end up with eventually. Receive cards and sending cards will disappear and things will merge and as it becomes a consumer product, that's I think when we'll get some big changes. 

I realize we're in a nutty time with COVID and everything, but I'm curious where you're seeing demand and where you expect demand to come as life normalizes?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think in the traditional market. Sports will always be a big thing. We've got the virtual studio and in filming, that's getting very popular now and there are big studios in construction around the world, and they're all wanting the next big thing. We're trying to develop that at the moment and hopefully by the end of this year, we will have a new product in that marketplace that will again, change the face of it. 

But until all these things really get going, I mean retail's a classic example where there's no money there at the moment. The high street is pretty dead, not many people can afford to put LED in their whole estate, but quite a few people would do it in their premiere stores and things like that. So there's still a big market there, as we're seeing with more people working away from the office or smaller offices, they're having more meeting rooms with better quality video links and screens to go with that. So that market is coming up. e

Even as LCD gradually fades away, that will be replaced with other markets. Digital menu boards or things like that at the moment, it's only an LCD market, but that will change as well. 

You've been running a LinkedIn messaging campaign coordinated with London Digital Signage Week, which I think is next week where you're saying, I think somewhat cheekily that we'll pick you up in a giant Texas-sized, Stretch Limousine, and show you around some of London's best LED installations. Is that a serious attempt? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Not really showing the stuff in London, we're based outside of London in Swindon, but we are in a couple of months opening a London showroom in Paddington, but at the moment, trying to get people who are not really traveling a lot from London to Swindon since it has become harder.

So I've put the offer out there that we will send a call for you or pick you up, take you back. You can have some refreshments on the way, and we're hoping that we'll take people out of the smoke and into the fields. 

And for those who don't live in the UK, where the heck is Swindon? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It's West of London, about an hour. So it's not far. 

So you could take a train out there, but if somebody wants to take you in a nice higher car, even better! 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. 

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

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Brilliant. It's been really good to chat, Dave.

 

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

May 12, 2021

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

If you spend any time on Linkedin, or even platforms like Instagram and Twitter, you've likely seen quick videos of LED displays somewhere in Asia that are using anamorphic, three-dimensional creative to get viewer attention.

We've seen spaceships look like they are emerging from the screen. Giant sloshing waves inside what looks like an aquarium. Huge robot hands reaching out from the screen. And on and on.

It's becoming a thing. But it is not a terribly well understood thing.

Which is why Larry Zoll from Sensory Interactive, which does what it calls dynamic real estate, reached out and suggested the emerging creative trend would be a great thing to explore in a podcast conversation.

Zoll is the managing director for technology and innovation at his firm, and has been fielding questions and requests about this stuff for a long time now. What's clear is that not many people understand what's going on and how it works. For example, customers ask if the LED display technology they have in place, or are putting up, will support the anamorphic creative pieces they want to do.

The short answer is yes, because this is all about the creative, and not about the display hardware.

We had a really good chat about what this visual trickery is all about, how it's done, and its limitations. If you watch 10 videos out of China and South Korea that have anamorphic creative, you'll notice nine of them are shot at a very specific angle. Because the visual effect may only work from that angle. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Remco, thanks for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Video Window is all about? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. Thank you for having me, David. Video Window is a glare controlled with a media platform. You can compare us to segmented tintable glass, which doesn't exist. So it's tintable glass with segmentation and those segments work like addressable pixels and with those pixels, we control the transparency of the window. But as we show content, we can actually show interesting videos, graphic art as glare control. So our system controls the transparency of the content, and we're developing all kinds of nice content for Video Window to work like glare control.

So you can think of gamification. We already had Pong. We're now working on Space Invaders which can be controlled by passengers because our main target area sector is aviation right now in any public transportation hub. Based on QR codes, people can then grab their controller and play Space Invaders, but it is glare-controlled, and we also have generative video art. It's all glare control. 

So it's smart building glass that doubles as video walls. This would be a quick way of saying it? 

Remco Veenbrink: If you change the word “wall” for “window”, then yeah.

It works like a video wall, but it’s transparent and that way we don't need to be in front of a wall, we can be embedded into the glass, and we actually serve people, the planet, and profit. We can also reduce the CO2 emissions of a building and help in reducing the carbon footprint of that building. So there's the tintable glass aspect.

So what's the underlying technology. Is it switchable glass stuff or is it LED embedded in glass? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's liquid crystal. That's the core, it's a thin-film transistor liquid crystal display. So it's TFT. We started out with a twisted nematic, so TN LCD, and we recently developed a high-resolution display based on TFT. 

So when you say high resolution, for a typical structural glass panel that you're using would you be realizing full HD resolution or 4K, or how does all that work? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's 2K resolution right now, and we're happy to work together with an OEM who can actually build that for us, because before we had a 15 millimeter, like half an inch sized pixel that was a rather big pixel, but this new generation of Video Windows is built together with an OEM. 

Okay. So you're - I don't want to say approximating, it’s the wrong word - but the visual experience is not that much different from what you would see on a conventional LCD display then, in terms of resolution? 

Remco Veenbrink: Nope. It's a 2K square pixel resolution. So that's a bit different from a normal LCD display. They are subdivided into subpixels. So you have RGB sub-pixels, and we don't have those. We have square pixels, it’s a monochrome pixel. 

Is there any opportunity to go to RGB or is it always just the way you do it and it makes the most sense to be monochrome? 

Remco Veenbrink: RGB subpixels take away so much transparency that you need a backlight, and as we use the exterior light, the sunlight, the daylight as our backlight. So we wanted to make it as transparent as possible, and with RGB subpixels it's dark. It's pretty dark.

With LCD technology, I don't think we will get an RGB transparent screen that could work as glare control the way we use it. We've seen some interesting developments with the electoral wedding which was done by a Dutch professor. He came by, he showed the technique, but that's years out before that will be available.

That's a very fundamental technology that's still under development and that's a CMYK solution, and that means as there is no black in there it's pretty watercolorly still but it's an interesting technique. I don't think that with TFT LCD, we will ever see an RGB transparent display that can be used in the way that we do.

So using the natural sunlight as a rear illumination of the display, so to speak, what happens at night? 

Remco Veenbrink: Then our backlight is gone. Predominantly, we’re glare control so we embrace the sun. We embrace the daylight, instead of fighting it, whereas video walls would actually increase the lumen output and really put more nits in there. We actually have a higher contrast ratio when there's more sun. On the new panel, we're testing it and averaging it out but it's around 8 Watts per square meter, and we average this out because usually, you don't show a full black as an image. So when we put it as a full black image, it's around 8 Watts per square meter, and that's so little especially if you compare that to those high brightness screens, they become more efficient over time but that's 800 Watts easily per square meter.

So if you address the areas that we aim for 100-400 square meters, you're looking at some serious energy consumption, and yeah, for us the 200 square meters you could still run that on a normal outlet. It's very energy efficient.

So if I'm sitting in a departure lounge at the airport in Rotterdam, what am I seeing on this window glass? What's showing, and how does it look? 

Remco Veenbrink: Right now, we have content agreements with the local museum, with a local art Academy and they all provide content for us. So it's a lot of cultures, it's a lot of art. We also have poets that provide work. So we have poetry that shows, we make that with the motion graphics into an interesting film and we have a Pong playing, so you can log in with your phone and play pong and that's all in a mix. So we have five-minute mixes. So we show commercial content, we show artistic content and we show gamification, and yeah that's how we add value, and next to that, we also have a close connection to the internal communication department from the airport who uses our screen to address certain messages to passengers, for instance, all the COVID measures, we run that. In every other film, we show those measures that people should take into account. 

And you show operational stuff as well, like “You're at Gate 5 and this is a flight to..”, that sort of stuff? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, that's the new stuff but we haven't installed our new high-resolution screen yet. In two months, it will be installed, and there we can show flight information and wayfinding because that is too detailed for pixels with a 15-millimeter size, and even though we have a 25 square meter set up, you can only show one flight at a time and people like to have an overview. But that's definitely coming and that's what we're building right now, is the API integration to have that flight information shown on our hardware. 

And you mentioned you're primarily focused on mass transport, particularly airports. Why are they interested in your product?

Remco Veenbrink: Good point. Their main issue right now is non-aviation revenue, making more cash flow. So they need more money, and we can help them with increasing their non-aviation revenue by showing commercial content. So we have a threefold advantage. We have ad experience cause we're mostly at addressing the gate areas.

So we can add more experience for the passengers by showing artistic content, gamification, and interactive content. We can actually reduce the CO2 emission by helping the climate control system and by being more transparent which allows for daylight to be a bigger part of the basic illumination of that area. So we can help save energy, and then with the commercial content, we can help add non-aviation revenue so that we are addressing their biggest pain, that profit part. But, they all have to also live up to their goals, which is reduced CO2. 

When it comes to the media side of things on monetizing these window displays, do you get pushback because A) it's only in black and white, and B) it's only running during daylight hours.

Remco Veenbrink: The daylight hours, we can address. It's all proven technology. It's just not so sustainable and we really like the sustainable aspect of our proposition. The color, I tried to explain to them that if you have an 85-inch commercial content full-color all over the place anyway, do you really want a 100 square meter display to be full-color? Your entire terminal will be blended or washed away in all kinds of colors. 

Color is very intrusive apart from it being actively lit or, 

The fact that it's black and white allows for such a big screen to be part of your building. So it integrates really nicely and even has a soothing effect with our generative video content. We show biophilic design, so we show leaves and flowers and we imitate the canopy of a dense forest where sunlight is broken up, and we create a very nice shadow pattern, which is moving, which is very soothing and that shimmering light really is calming down the passengers. 

This is an added value that really doesn't need color. But there's a lot of communication that we can do with being monochrome and a lot of premium advertising is still done in black and white by choice because it just has a more premium feel to it.

Do airports typically use a tintable electronic glass of some kind, or is this new to them, regardless of whether it has the media capability that yours has? 

Remco Veenbrink: Tentacle glass is being implemented, I've seen it in a couple of American airports. That's done by either Sage or View, those are two big players. One is American, the other is French. 

Tintable glass is a good solution. It's just that it's pretty expensive, right? Your return on investment is taking pretty long. So with our solution, our segmented tintable glass pays for itself immediately because we offer it in a leasing option, so the costs for leasing are way below the profits for advertising. So actually we don't ask people if they want to buy our stuff, we ask them how much money they can make from their glass. 

So you work with some sort of a leasing company and if an airport comes to you, you are able to set something up for them?

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, that's how we do it. We work with the Global Leasing Company, or at least in the States, that's how we do it. So we reach out to them. We have a potential client in Luxembourg, for instance, how can you finance that, then they do their jobs and yeah, they find a leasing solution, and then we can offer it to them, and then, most of the time that's done pretty quickly. They take one week maybe, and then we can make them an offer, and then together with the media department of the airport, we can assess the media value for them, and then we can each see how far we can make a profit for them and how fast. 

And is it typically like most airports would have or at least substantial airports would have a media partner that owns the out-of-home media rights for that property, like a JCDecaux or whatever. Would they be the ones selling this space? 

Remco Veenbrink: It would be a collaboration. We had an airport that already had that concession in place. Decaux is a big player, Clear Channel in the States and there are many more players. Some airports still do it themselves. They don't have an intermediary agency in between. But we would work together with those players and agree to make an agreement. 

We saw in Europe, here in the airport that really like our solution for the added experience was to be installed near the security area where we also proposed a nice film for the security to show how it's done, those instructional films, but we had some nice content creators, and the airport really wanted it because they also had a glare control issue near the security area. So they just came to our table and said, “The two of you need to fix this.”

We see Decaux as a partner. We are not the media agency, we can turn any content into glare control and that is our main differentiation, and we don't have a sales department that reaches out to advertisers on a daily basis.

What about control of the displays, in terms of airports again Decaux or the airport themselves will have some sort of a content management system, whether it's Decaux with a BrightSign, or I don't know whether they're using Omnivex or whatever it may be. Do they work with your CMS or do they have to use your content management software to update your Video Window display?

Remco Veenbrink: The latter, because we need to adjust the content to work as glare control. So our content is the active layer, controlling the amount of glare control, controlling the amount of transparency. It's a good question by the way because that's what we're now working on with our software engineers, to create an API that can fetch content and then on the fly, adjust it. 

The challenge there is that our screens are depending on where they're placed, but they're so big that architecture and architectural elements like pillars and columns, and what have you are breaking up the display, the canvas, and the building is part of the canvas.

So what we want to automate, and this is under development, is to do an automated plan and scan, where we make sure that crucial areas are always shown at the unobstructed areas of our screen and logos, they cannot be obstructed by a pillar, eyes shouldn't be blocked by column, that type of intelligence. That's what we're now implementing in our content management system. Other than that, we have an editor standby that can do that on the fly, but if we want to move into programmatic advertising this has to be developed and that's what we're doing, but that comes with a lot of convolutional neural networking image recognition, it’s pretty next level. 

Complicated stuff, yeah. So speaking of complication you're having to come at this from a few different angles, and from what I can see from your background, you've got one founder, who's a Banker, and the other founder who's has a fine Arts degree, but you're dealing with structural glass design, you're dealing with the engineering of sound baffling at an airport, you're dealing with software for glare control and you're dealing with media displays. It's very involved. 

Remco Veenbrink: It's a lot of challenges, yeah, but we have great advisors. You know this is something across multiple sectors: glass construction glass is a world of itself with a lot of demands and safety regulations. We don't pretend to know that, but we do know people who are fully an expert in their field, and yeah we tied that all together. So we have the expert of liquid crystal display so he knows that world. Glass construction we work with Bill Kington who is really open to innovation. That's a strong name. The content management systems, we work with the best of the brightest from the technical university here in terms of computer engineering. 

So that is what we are developing in-house. We always reach out for the best expert available, and if he's not available, we make sure that he gets interested in what we're doing. 

So would you say you're a software company primarily? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. Now that we start using high-resolution screens, we decided to be agnostic in terms of our display components and we set up a whole spec sheet. It's built on our spec sheet but we're not intending to build displays, that's a whole industry in itself and pretty challenging and its margins. There's only a couple of OEMs left, so it's all consolidating.

Yeah, that is a market, and once again, there we just reached out to the best and they know how to do it. 

So if you're going to sell against some of the other technologies that are emerging out there like transparent mesh LED and LED on a film that can be adhered to window glass, and then even LED embedded in glass, what's the argument for your product versus those options? 

Remco Veenbrink: Those options are great, but they’re not glare control. So you can’t put them in the sun and try to read them. If you're looking against the sun with those structures, it's not happening. 

If the Window did not have any active glare control happening, is it 100% transparent, or is there a kind of sense of haze or how does it look? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's transparent, but as you probably know liquid crystal displays work with polarizers. So you don't have a hundred percent transparency, but the transparency that we have is very much comparable to glass that is implemented in buildings these days.

It's tinted in some ways?

Remco Veenbrink: There's always a tint in the glass, and there are coatings in the glass which are fixed. So the thing with that, and the great advantage of tintable glasses, for instance, in the winter, you don't want the block the heat. You can actually use the temperature that the sun produces in the infrared spectrum to warm up your terminal and that can really save a lot of money and really save a lot of energy and really help reduce the carbon footprint. So if you could switch on and off the ecoating, that would be really interesting. 

That doesn't exist. So Ttintable glass can really help to warm up in the winter, and in the summer we play our content a bit darker, and then it's tintable glass and you can really help to bring down the energy usage to a good place.

Are there any limits in terms of display performance or updating speed? So for instance, you can do 30 frames per second only?

Remco Veenbrink: We can do 60 frames per second, which really makes it stand out from the others that use the electrochromic process, which is a chemical process where ions go back and forth. That takes minutes. So you know, that will not bring any video footage to the window anytime soon, but there are developments which also use liquid crystal display. For instance, Merck is developing tintable glass based on that technology, and we were in touch with them.

We're in touch with the founders of that technology. Actually, they already exited the company, so those are our advisors. So these guys who have developed this for Merck are also advising us on how to do it, and yeah, they don't do segmented, they do mono cells, big mono cells, but switching time is indeed much faster.

And then there are suspended particle devices from research frontiers which also take seconds to alter the state. Nothing that we know of is as fast as our technology, which is 60 frames per second, and that allows for video.

And in terms of updating, if there was some sort of an alert for say a gas leak in an airport terminal and your CMS is tied into the alerting system, would it take minutes for that alert to show on your screen, or would it be as instantaneous as it would be on a normal digital sign?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we run with their signage systems. So, they can overrule any content that we’re playing, and they can own their communication tool, obviously.

So it's not going to take, as you were saying where some of these other technologies take several minutes for a new message to build on the screen or whatever. if there's an alert, it's an alert and it happens right away. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, we can install that. We haven't installed that yet, but yeah our technology allows for that. That's like an API integration where they have pre-set images or notifications that they can then push, and when they push something, it will over overwrite or override any other content. 

Okay. So you're in Rotterdam's airport right now. Are you fully in there or do you just have a demo?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we actually have two installations. One is facing Northeast and the other is facing Southeast. 

And that's like one exit away from your offices, right? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. 

And you're also in Amsterdam’s Schiphol? 

Remco Veenbrink: The funny thing is that the Schiphol group actually is the owner of Rotterdam airport.

So it’s a small country and the Schiphol group has several airports, amongst which also JFK Terminal 4 and Brisbane. So yes, we are talking to the Schiphol group, and they're all very eager to come over in two months to see our new installation, a high-resolution installation. So yeah, we have high hopes there.

So if I wanted to see Video Window right now, I would have to go through Rotterdam airport? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. For now, that's true. But we're also talking to a museum in Philadelphia that’s interested. We are discussing some installations with airports in the States. But due to Covid, it’s a bit quiet on that front. 

What's the state of the company right now? You’re obviously a startup. How big are you? How are you funded? 

Remco Veenbrink: Oh, we're bootstrap, self-funded so far and any investors out there can reach out to us. 

We are nine people at this point. As you said, there are two founders, and we have seven software engineers and they're all doing honors programs, and so they're the best of the brightest and we're very happy with our team, but we're looking to expand. 

We to set up shop maybe even the States, we were reached out by several system integrators who would like to represent us in the States and in Canada. Also in the middle East. So it’s starting to move fast now, and that's really great to see because as a startup, you have a dream, you build on it. That's great to see that it’s catching on and South by Southwest also really helped in that sense. We were pitching there. We were second in the future of travel still.

So that was a very nice experience, and we were also actually approached by a American investors. So we are discussing raising money. 

Yeah, there seems to be a fair amount of investor money out there right now. I get phone calls and emails. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, indeed. Yeah, interest is so low that, if you have money you better invest it into something. And yeah, it's a very likable product. It's pretty cool. It has a high wow factor. It serves people, the planet, profit, and it gets noticed. 

That's great. All right, Remco, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, Dave, thank you very much for doing this podcast. 

 

 

 

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

April 28, 2021

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

As vaccination rates climb and we can seriously look at getting back to some normals in our daily lives, there's a lot of discussion happening around what consumers will expect, and accept, in terms of personalized digital marketing.

Things like appointment-based shopping and personalization grew more prevalent because of lockdowns and necessary pivots by brands, and consumers are now somewhat conditioned to services that are more tuned to their needs. 

But at the same time, there are still lots of concerns about things like being tracked in some way by technologies.

We talked about all this on a recent roundtable panel organized by Advocates for Connected Experiences, an umbrella organization that involves numerous industry associations and bodies that touch on advertising, retail, marketing and design.

I moderated the session, and noted how great it was that the gender balance was completely off, with one guy and a bunch of super-smart women.

My panelists included:

  • Kim Sarubbi, who chairs ACE
  • Debbie Haus, Retail Touchpoints
  • Kym Frank, Geopath
  • Cybelle Jones, SEGD
  • Beth Warren, CRI
  • Laura Davis-Taylor, InReality
  • Stephanie Gutnik, Verizon Media

This is a special edition of the podcast.

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Larry Zoll, Sensory Interactive

Larry Zoll, Sensory Interactive

April 21, 2021

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

If you spend any time on Linkedin, or even platforms like Instagram and Twitter, you've likely seen quick videos of LED displays somewhere in Asia that are using anamorphic, three-dimensional creative to get viewer attention.

We've seen spaceships look like they are emerging from the screen. Giant sloshing waves inside what looks like an aquarium. Huge robot hands reaching out from the screen. And on and on.

It's becoming a thing. But it is not a terribly well understood thing.

Which is why Larry Zoll from Sensory Interactive, which does what it calls dynamic real estate, reached out and suggested the emerging creative trend would be a great thing to explore in a podcast conversation.

Zoll is the managing director for technology and innovation at his firm, and has been fielding questions and requests about this stuff for a long time now. What's clear is that not many people understand what's going on and how it works. For example, customers ask if the LED display technology they have in place, or are putting up, will support the anamorphic creative pieces they want to do.

The short answer is yes, because this is all about the creative, and not about the display hardware.

We had a really good chat about what this visual trickery is all about, how it's done, and its limitations. If you watch 10 videos out of China and South Korea that have anamorphic creative, you'll notice nine of them are shot at a very specific angle. Because the visual effect may only work from that angle.

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TRANSCRIPT

Larry, thanks for joining me. What's your role at Sensory? 

Larry Zoll: I am the Managing Director of Technology & Innovation for Sensory Interactive. 

And what does that involve? 

Larry Zoll: That's a great question. It involves a little bit of everything. We get involved in projects from conceptualization and revenue assessment all the way through content creation and operation of a lot of the projects that we get involved with.

My role really depends on what the scope of the project is. I help our design teams bring what they draw to life, I help our project management teams implement a lot of the technology that we're talking about/that we're implementing, and I am also the main point of contact for most of the vendors that we work with and learning about what's available on the market and what's new coming to the market and how we can best represent our client's interests. 

So you're the poor guy who gets the sales and biz-dev people walking up to you and saying, “Hey, I promised that we could do this. Can we?”

Larry Zoll: Yeah, that's exactly right. “I already told him we could do that. It's doable, right?” 

You're in Boston, but Sensory is in a few cities, I think? 

Larry Zoll: We are in six cities. Our headquarters is in DC. We have offices in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, and Austin. 

Yeah, I had it in my head that Austin was the head office, but it's just an office?

Larry Zoll: It is right now the biggest office, but the headquarters is in DC because that's where Randy is and Randy's our CEO. 

Okay, and how would you broadly describe the company, are you like a solutions provider, would you say you're an integrator? 

Larry Zoll: No, we're not an integrator. We don't sell anything. We are an owner's representative and a trusted advisor to our clients. We work with commercial real estate developers and corporations to help them bring digital experiences to life. 

Randy has trademarked the term, “Dynamic real estate” and that's a large focus of what we're doing. 

Like I said earlier, we really can work from conceptualization and revenue assessment all the way through operations. Our Austin team has a group of architects that do a lot of our design work. We have a full project management team that does construction project management for the projects that we get involved with. The revenue assessment team helps our clients to understand the potential return on investment and internal rate of return that's associated with their projects. Our operations team in Dallas runs a lot of the installs that we end up installing. We have a creative team that can build content as well. 

Okay. So you would have a commercial property company come to you and say, “Hey, I saw this big LED display on the facade of this building downtown, whatever, or I saw it in the lobby of a commercial office tower. We'd like to do that. Please help us.”? 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, exactly, and that can mean a number of different things for a corporate client. That t might just mean that they're looking for somebody to help them boost their brand presence in their building.

But more often than not, we're working with clients who are looking to generate revenue off of their installs. Sometimes that's a big lead. Sometimes it's a network of LCDs. Sometimes the digital experience doesn't necessarily have to have any display technology at all. It could be about analytics and all kinds of other stuff.

Okay. So one of the reasons we're talking is because you sent me an email on my having written several posts recently about anamorphic 3D visuals on LED displays primarily in China, but also in Korea to some extent, and I wrote the other day about one in Indonesia, and there seems to be a lot of buzz and excitement around these displays because it gives you the sense that there's something jumping out of the screen or emerging from a screen, but there's a lot involved in it to get it right, and you were telling me that you have clients who are coming to you saying, “Hey, we saw this, can our LED display board do this?” 

Larry Zoll: Yeah. It's been very interesting because those videos have been circulating foR the past six, nine months or something, and it's very exciting to see, you see these videos from a street corner or from a highway and it looks like a spaceship or the wave is coming to crash down on you, and I think it's very well-crafted content.

But I think there is maybe a misconception that what you're seeing is based on the technology of the display itself and not the content that's created for the display, and that's why I emailed you. It's a conversation I've had a couple of times with clients or prospective clients now about how, what your display is capable of is has nothing to do with not necessarily with the content that goes on it, but you have to think very intentionally about what that content is. 

Yeah. So you don't need a particular type of display. We both go to lots of trade shows when those things were on and they have like glasses-free autostereoscopic, 3D LED, and this was this and that, and you see it and think this is stupid, but somebody’s trying to sell it and it's not about that at all. It's about what you produce. 

Larry Zoll: A hundred percent and just to put a point on that. I did some research on the displays after we had talked and the displays in Korea are the manufacturers that we see out in the marketplace on an everyday basis, there's not one given manufacturer that's creating a piece of hardware that is capable of displaying this content.

A well-planned installation with a capable content management system and capable processing power is going to be able to play this content regardless of who's making the actual display. 

I pay attention to this stuff all day every day, and when I first started seeing these anamorphic displays or anamorphic content pieces, I was thinking this is pretty amazing, and I got a note from somebody else who was a content creator that said, “Yeah it's very cool but what you need to understand is in a lot of cases, the visual effect that you're wowed by is only visible from a very precise angle, and it's usually with those ones that wrap around a corner.” I don't know what the geometric term is, but it's off that angle, right?

Larry Zoll: Yeah. I noticed the same thing. Almost every video, especially if it's the one display in Korea. They're all taken from basically right off of the corner of that display. 

The way the anamorphic content is created is that it's basically a morphed perspective. So since you're morphing the perspective, that morphed perspective is only going to be effective from a very specific point of viewing comb. So if you go out to the far side, either one of the far sides of that display, it's going to look very different than it does from that corner, which is one of the reasons I think the Jakarta display is so interesting because the content on that display is meant to be viewed straight on, which I imagine, it provides a much more consistent view of the content. 

Yeah, just for people who are listening: the Jakarta display is on the side of a building, a commercial building on a busy roadway, although I think every roadway in Jakarta is busy, and the way it was designed to take on the look of the building and the concrete horizontal bands on that building, and then you see from distance, stuff just appearing to emerge out of that building, and you get that dimension and unlike, as you were saying, it's not just from a certain corner, you can see it from a faraway, driving along this roadway. 

Larry Zoll: The whole process is very interesting though. I was talking to the head of our content creation team the other day about this, and it's such a precise process to put these pieces together because of the way you have to morph the perspective on these things, creating it as a is quite an impressive feat.

Is there a toolset for it or is there like an Unreal Engine for this kind of thing? 

Larry Zoll: I don't believe there's a specific toolset. We were talking about it and from what I understand and keep in mind, I'm not a content creator. I'm a general technology guy...

But you know how to talk to the animals... 

Larry Zoll: (Laughter) I do, yeah. But from what I understand, the content can be created with any of the other tools that are used to create content. It's a matter of understanding the process and doing the math to morph the perspective correctly.

Interestingly, I think the term anamorphic’s original definition was surrounded by the aspect ratio of different films, so changing a 16:9 film to a 21:9 film is an example of doing something anamorphic and so using the term for creating this 3D content is somewhat of a new concept. 

Yeah. These are visual tricks that have been around for centuries in a lot of respects. Obviously, there weren't motion graphics in the 1400s, but there were Trompe-l'œil paintings way back then that were effectively doing the same kind of thing, where it creates this idea of dimension. 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, a hundred percent. If you search YouTube for 3D anamorphic before any of the content that we're seeing on the digital displays now, you get a bunch of tutorials about basically how to create a 3D anamorphic effect with paper. So a hundred percent, this has been around for a long time in a variety of formats, and I think this is just the latest iteration of that. 

So if I'm a motion graphic designer and I realize neither of us are, how steep of a learning curve is there to do this stuff well? 

I can't imagine that if I'm used to just creating Ad spots for, I don't know, a JC Pennys or something like that, with price slides in, the photo slides out, all this and that to then have somebody say, “Okay, now do this!” There is like a Mount Everest curve, right? 

Larry Zoll: Again, neither one of us are content creators, so everything might be useless, but from what I have seen, I don't know that it's a huge learning curve. I guess that depends on your skills and your expertise, but it looks like it is largely centered around creating a grid for your piece of content that would represent your display and then creating a secondary grid on which you build that content and then stretching and morphing the two grids so that they match, and that's where the crux of it comes in. 

Now, how do you figure out what the proportions of each of those grids are? I don't know. That's not my area. I don't know what math or what other skills are necessary to figure out what those two grids look like. But I don't believe it's necessarily a huge learning curve, but there's definitely some process there. 

The display layer - as we were saying earlier, there's no specific type of display that supports this, but do things like a pixel pitch or anything else factor in terms of the quality of it, other than just the pure viewing quality as it relates to distance? 

Larry Zoll: I’m sure as with any other display or the content for any display, you need to be cognizant of what you're designing for and who your primary viewing audiences are. When we talk about LEDs, we're very intentional about the pitch that the display is manufactured out of, because we are thinking about who's going to be using that display and where they're going to be standing, or what area they're going to be walking through.

I think as long as your display has been well thought out, I think that the level of thought that goes into anamorphic content would be equal to any other content. 

When I had demos years ago of some of the early glasses-free 3D LCDs that were coming on the market and never really went anywhere, two of the things that I was warned about were: a) the video files are monsters, and b) they take a lot of time to render and some skills around it too to do it well. Is that the case with this or is it just the way you produce it and then it's just a video file like any video file? 

Larry Zoll: It's basically a video file. We have seen internally, we have seen a lot of changes in the way that we create content over the past couple of years. We have our farm of servers that we use for rendering our content, and obviously, the amount of cores you have for processing has a direct effect on how long a piece of content takes to render. 

We, and other content creators that we've been speaking with over the past, I don't know, I'll say 12 to 18 months are really starting to take advantage of some of the tools out there that don't require that sort of rendering time. There are more and more content creators that we're seeing who are taking advantage of things like Unreal Engine and Unity and things like Touch Designer to create content that's immersive and realistic and easily adaptable without a lot of the large rendering times that we see from a lot of the more traditional content creation tools.

So let's talk about - for lack of a better description - the point of these things. 

I've seen a lot of these videos and it's a flying saucer emerging from the corner of a building or a bull jumping out or whatever it may be, and I thought these are really cool, but I'm not sure what the point is, and as a company that works with these real estate companies and they come to you and say, “Hey, we want to do this!” 

What's the process and the needs assessment and the decision-making that you do that would decide whether this makes sense to do? 

Larry Zoll: That's a really interesting question.

I think the point of the ones that you've seen and the ones that I've seen are exactly what we've seen, it’s just getting eyes on these things, and so many of them, I can name at least three or four off the top of my head that have gone viral, that have gotten millions of views on whatever online platform you've seen it on.

What does that do for the display itself or the brand or the owner? It's a great question. I mean I can't think of a single one of them that has a brand associated with them or has a name associated with them. It took me a few minutes of Googling just to figure out where one of the displays in Asia was, and who did the content. So whenever we're talking with clients, especially when we're talking with clients who are looking for revenue-generating displays or revenue-generating projects, we're discussing the entire life cycle with them. 

I mean content is so important and keeping content fresh is so important, but if the goal is to bring recognition or brand presence or something then that needs to be a major part of the conversation throughout the life cycle of the project.

So if you have something like a giant wave splashing against an aquarium-looking LED facade, what's that doing?

Larry Zoll: That's a good question. I don't know if I have a direct answer for you. As I said, there's nothing on that giant waves splashing that tells me where it is or who's sponsoring it, or why I should be paying attention to it. It just looks really cool, and it's great to look really cool. It's important sometimes just to demonstrate what these things are capable of. 

I don't know why it is important if you're in transactional ads or if you're a sponsorship partner. It's hard to say without any sort of messaging on there at all.

So it may be a simple case of this being a somewhat nascent idea at least for LED video boards and the early creators of content are doing stuff that just looks cool, and maybe the next wave is stuff that actually has some brand relevance or some more relevance to the location or whatever. 

Larry Zoll: It could very well be.

It kinda reminds me of the hologram from Back to the Future 2 with the stadium, it's headed in that direction, right? So right now, we have a bunch of people who are creating amazing-looking content that is just amazing-looking content, and maybe the next wave of that is a transactional ad campaign that's taking advantage of those tools to create something that really brings a lot of excitement around a given brand or something like that.

Is there any reason why you could not do this on, let's say a 90-degree corner with a pair of 85-inch LCD displays, would you be able to do the same thing? 

Larry Zoll: That's a good question. I think you might have some trouble because with the LCD you're going to have a bezel there in the middle, which might have an effect on the perspective, and the viewing angle on those 90-degree LCDs is not going to be as good as being around the corner with LEDs.

So I don't know if that would be as effective. If you were going to do it with an LCD, I have to imagine you probably want to go more with the straight-on shot.

And could you do it with projection mapping, if they are edge-blended? 

Larry Zoll: I don't see why not. There's already so much you can do with projection mapping that you can't do with anything else. I don't see why that would present any challenge. 

So for all of the real estate companies who you work with, when you say they're trying to monetize, is it primarily through third-party advertising, or do they quantify their monetization in other ways?

Larry Zoll: When we approach a new client and when we're trying to figure out a plan for new ways for clients to engage in revenue-generating displays, it can really be through any number of different methods. 

It could be a straightforward, transactional advertising agreement where the real estate owner works directly with the media sales company. It could also take the form of partnerships or sponsorships or any number of different agreements, either directly with brands or with media sales agencies or something similar. 

I have heard a number of times from companies that work with real estate firms that they're putting large LED video walls into the lobbies of their buildings or some other public area in a building with a monetization plan, but it doesn't have anything to do with advertising, it has to do with recruiting new tenants and retaining the ones that they already have. Do you hear that? 

Larry Zoll: That's something we come across for sure. Creating amenities is another thing that we're working on actively with a number of our corporate clients, and something that doesn't have to be directly monetized to have value. 

I think that's a part of what's been successful about some of our more corporate work is that we help them create these environments that are exciting and associate a brand with a look and a feel and something dynamic. And I think that in and of itself has a lot of value, not just from an amenity standpoint, but also from a brand-building standpoint. 

You know, if your building has a large LED in the lobby and you're able to sell that to a particular client because they want to make sure that they have space for their brand to be seen outside of 10-30 floors in the building, I think that's absolutely valuable. 

Yeah, I mean Comcast Center is an example of a very large corporation doing that in their lobby for 10+ years now, but I'm sure there are other buildings that have multiple tenants where they're just trying to create an overall buzz about the place and make people think, “Okay, this is a cool building to locate my company in”, or “I want to stay here because these guys have this and other places don't”, and “This is what impresses my clients and my staff.”

Larry Zoll: Sure, absolutely. We’ve done a few of those ourselves. (Laughter)

What do you see as important to still be developed in this wall space. So when I think of it, I think of LEDs still being quite fragile unless you're using these ones with hardened coatings. Is that important if you're putting something in a public space? 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, I think we're in a really interesting time in the narrow pitch industry right now. There are a number of different ways that a lot of the manufacturers are thinking about a) the pitch itself, and b) how to make these displays more viable longer-lasting, and all of that. 

It's really interesting watching the industry develop around that right now. We've gotten to a point where I liken it to the digital camera industry. For a long time, it was all about megapixels, and then at a certain point, everyone realized for the everyday person, there's not a huge difference between 15 megapixels and 20 megapixels, so what else are we going to do? We're going to increase the sensor size and talk more about the color depth and gamut and all of that, and I think we're getting to a very similar spot in the narrow pitch display industry because we've gotten to a point where there are multiple manufacturers out there at this point who have sub-one-millimeter displays.

So what else are you going to do? Everybody knows that those displays are fragile. So we got to figure out a way to make them less fragile. So does that mean there's a glue-onboard display or does that mean a chip-on-board or a flip-chip, there are a million different ways that are being explored across the industry to try and figure out the best way to approach this market that I would say we probably got another 18 to 24 months, at least of seeing things just really taking a lot of different turns until the industry really settles on a consistent path forward.

Yeah, I think we're coming out of the pixel-pitch war so to speak, and everybody for the last five years has marketed on the basis of, our pixel pitch is just that much tighter than the next guys, and I've found it interesting with the manufacturers that are out there microLED that if you look at their product specs, their pixel pitch is like 1.2, 1.6, that sort of thing. 

But what it does, because the light emitters are so small, there's all this black, so they're marketing on the basis of, or at least they should be marketing on the basis of contrast as opposed to pixel-pitch, because who cares about that, it's all about the black. 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, a hundred percent.

In addition to that, we've also been having a lot of conversations recently about pixel density, and why that matters in terms of the number of pixels and how quickly that number changes. In fact, I was talking to a client the other day who was trying to decide between a 1.67 mm display and a 2.5 mm display, and even though to a lot of people that sounds like a very slight difference, when you do the math and dig into it, you're talking about a difference between close to 15,000 pixels per square foot, and 34,000 pixels per square foot.

That's a huge difference. So there are a lot of different factors and when you bring micro-LEDs into the mix that changes, that changes the conversation again. Because obviously, they’re much smaller, so you can fit more in there. But yeah, contrast, pixel-density,  hardening technology, there are so many different ways that the industry is going right now, and it's really fascinating to watch and to stay on top of. 

What about video wall processing? When I was at ISE last year, the last ISE that there was, I bumped into an old industry friend and he was sitting in a booth that was just being built, and I looked over at this display and thought, “Whoa, that looks really good”, and I asked him, what is that, like a 1.5 pitch? and he said, “No, it's a four,” and I said, “really?” And he said, “I work for a video wall processing software and a server company now, and this is what we do.”

It was a bit of a revelation for me and granted that a lot of it goes to just choosing the right source content to begin with, but it really seems like video wall processing is one of those things that's not all that greatly appreciated yet in the industry. 

Larry Zoll: I agree. Processing is important now and it's going to become more and more important in the very near future because of these narrow pitch displays and how much more common they're getting, resolutions explode very quickly. And you need to make sure that the processor and the equipment that you have behind the display that's parsing all of that data, parsing all of that information, is able to provide you with the best possible result because once you get above 4K, I don't think the industry is to a point yet where 8K is anywhere near standard, but once you get up to 4K, it becomes a real challenge to push all those pixels, and if you don't have the right technology behind it to do that it doesn't look good. You gotta make sure that equipment is rock solid. 

Is there a project that Sensory is working on right now that we should be looking out for some time in 2021 that you’re allowed to talk about?

Larry Zoll: That is a good question. We most recently finished advising on the Moynihan Train Hall in New York. We did the digital strategy on that and did a lot of the project management work on the install there, and if you haven't seen it, it's a really great representation of what a digital network can be. 

There's LED, there's LCD, and everything is tied together through transactional media and train schedules and it was a real feat by everyone who was involved in it. It turned out really well.

Yeah, and it'd be pretty wild for somebody who comes through an old Penn station in that basement like thing that's there, and then you go across the street into this Train Hall and think, “Oh my God, this is beautiful!” 

Larry Zoll: It is a gorgeous space. 

Well, I look forward to seeing it, when and if we are ever allowed to travel again.

Larry Zoll: Absolutely. 

All right, Larry, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it. 

Larry Zoll: It was great talking to you, Dave. Thank you.

 

 

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

April 14, 2021

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

One of the larger digital signage networks in North American retail has been quietly building upon in Sam's Clubs, the big box warehouse club stores that Walmart runs in competition with Costco.

There are 25,000 or so screens in the stores and the aggregate audience that sees those screens is somewhere between 25 and 30 million people, per month.

The network started with TV walls - with one media playout box pumping a signal to as many as 40 TVs. So that gets the numbers up. But Sams's Club has been adding more screens in the auto service area, at the customer service counter and in food services. It is even testing digital floor projections.

The network exists to boost the shopper experience and support brands that have product in these stores. The operating model is much more about generating ad revenues that cover the operating costs of the network than it is about a new revenue stream for Sam's and Walmart.

Digital signage veteran Mike Hiatt runs the team that operates the in-store media network, and he has a great perspective on what's been done and what to do now. He was with Walmart years and years ago when PRN had CRT TVs hanging from ceilings, in the retail giant's first iteration of in-store digital signage.

Susie Opare-Abetia runs Wovenmedia, the San Francisco digital signage content and solutions company that has been running and growing the Sam's network since 2014.

I had a good chat recently with Susie and Mike about how the network operates, how it's growing and what they have collectively learned about running a big screen network in a cavernous big box store.

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TRANSCRIPT

Thanks for joining me, Mike, I think most people will know what Sam's Club is, but could you give me the Cliffs Notes twenty-five words or less explanation for the people in other parts of the world who don't know? 

Mike Hiatt: Sure. Sam's Club is a member retail organization, similar to Costco, and we're part of the Walmart family of retailers.

So it's a membership-based club big-box membership club? 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, if you've been to Costco, you're very familiar with Sam's Club. We've been competing with them for quite a number of years and there's a lot of subtle differences between the two, but they're both basically member-oriented clubs and member clubs create a unique perspective for retailers and we can talk more about that later if you're interested. 

And you run the media group, Sam's Media group, right? 

Mike Hiatt: I don't run the whole group. The entire group is all monetization, all the monetization tactics for Sam's Club that will include online, mobile as well as in-club. I handle in-club.

So basically in-store media. 

Mike Hiatt: Correct.  

All right, and Susie, your company is providing the software and the content solution and basically the overall solution for a rather large network, right? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: That's correct. So we've been working with Sam's now since 2014 when we did office deployment and so they used our platform, which consisted of all software suites plus a content library to manage all of the screens in the clubs. 

And what's the scale of this network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: It's actually pretty ginormous, you know, roughly about 20,000 screens across the chain, which is about 590 clubs. So you've got about, just North of 40 screens in each club, and that's in the electronics department, and currently in the term battery department. 

So it's like a typical big box going back many years where they have a TV wall full of different flat-panel TVs, all driven by this one or maybe a handful of media players all pretty much playing the same content and you've also got stuff in the battery and tire area, and now you're expanding in other parts of the store? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: Yeah, that's correct. So like you said, the TV wall and electronics, and that's essentially powered by BrightSign meaning the plans connected to a series of amplifiers and then we've got two screens in the tire and battery, ceiling mounted just above the tire and battery services desk, and then we just finished deploying a pilot in 55 clubs. That's super exciting. I'm showing Mike will talk more about it, but that's basically adding screens in the cafe. Six large 75-inch displays in a cafe, displays in membership, and then floor projection technology in the aisle basically. 

And I'm jumping ahead of myself here, but I'm curious about what the floor projections will solve a lot about. 

Mike Hiatt: It's an exciting opportunity for us in terms of looking at it, we've been running one-off tests for quite a while, just looking at technology and how we could maximize the floor and use it, ‘cause it's really just a Greenfield space, right? And Woven came to us with some technology that got me really interested, which was laser projection versus the LCD. 

I had been looking at LCD optical technology, from these projectors for years, and went on to the Path to Purchase Institute and DSC and you'd always see the different projection technologies and I never was interested because I know I couldn't roll it and roll it to the scale that we needed it because I didn't want to have to get people up on ladders every year or less changing out halogen light bulbs, and it just was never practical for us to even consider it.

But then when Woven came back to us and said, “Hey, we've got this new technology we found that some of these new providers, or, some of these providers are now developing, which is the laser technology with no moving parts.” I got really interested, and so we started working that internally at Sam's Club, and we were able to put together this idea, which was, we could throw messages onto the floor and basically not have to compete with product facings and all the other stuff that you had to deal with when I was at Walmart having to deal with monitors on the shelves. You don't have to compete with the merchants, and it's great because your sightline is right there on the floor anyway. So it's not like you don't have to look up 20 feet in the air.

Is it purely for advertising or a kind of in-store promotion? 

Mike Hiatt: We’re using it for both? One is we're putting in some projectors to promote our scan and go product, which is a great mobile product. If you haven't ever used it and if you're a member of Sam's, you should really sign up for that because scan and go is fantastic.

Basically, you can scan your own items when you're in the isles, and then you basically check out by just swiping your credit card that's already in the mobile app, and then you can skip the line, and so we created this fast lane just as mainly a way to promote the idea of scan and go. So we have dedicated a special lane in some of our clubs with the pilot test. There's a lane now, and then above the lane are two projectors that are just showing these really cool arrows using the projectors that kind of show your way out of the club, and it's just a fun way to promote the idea that you really should be using scan and go and skip the line altogether.

And of course, during COVID, this has been a really popular trend. You're not having to deal with going through the checkout line. You just scan yourself out, and you take off. So we are using it for that, and then we've got projectors that we're testing and still in testing mode. But testing that from a monetization standpoint, where we put supplier advertising or advertising products, all endemic on the floor inside what we call the race track or that main thoroughfare of traffic as people move around the club near the product. We want to have it obviously near the product where most displays are. 

You mentioned monetization. I'm curious what the business model is, if you're using in-store promotions, you're doing endemic advertising for brands that sell in the store, and then maybe some third-party advertising. 

You've got potentially a pretty big audience. Is the idea of the screen network for incremental revenues for the company, or is it a cost-recovery model first, and if you make some revenue beyond that, even better? 

Mike Hiatt: That's a great question. It really acts as a way for us to put technology in the club to help the members experience.

Being a member club, club members think of us as a country club for retail. We take care of our members. We want our members to feel valued and we want them to have a good experience when they're in our clubs, even probably more so than say a particular retailer or grocery chain would, and it's because they pay money every year to participate.

And so as they come in, we want to make sure that the technology is helping them, and so as a part of that, the monetization piece, at least when it comes to the in-club area, we want to promote products that they're interested in, and of course, the suppliers want to do that as well. And of course, we want to charge them for that, and that allows us to do the cost recovery. 

We're not focused on maximizing advertising revenue per se. That's not our main objective, even though if it happens, that's great, but that's not why we do it, and that's not the main focus, and so we're really not interested in non-endemic. Sam's Club has traditionally been, we've been focused on endemic advertising only, just because we're not trying to create a media network that spans beyond that.

Okay. So if I am a third-party brand, there'd be no reason why I would ever sell on Sam's Club, you're not really interested in their advertising? 

Mike Hiatt: Not really. There are some opportunities we're talking about, some other tests that we're looking to do, but they're mainly out in the parking lot or out where the fuel screens are, the fuel pumps, but not inside the club.

Susie, how often does content change on the network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: So that's a really good question and it really depends on the channel. So for example, in tires and batteries, it's going to be changing less frequently, and you have the, like you said, seasonal promotions and specials depending on holidays and that kind of stuff, and then you have the menu board, if you will, of services, which is pretty fixed.

In electronics, it’s quite different. The monetization strategy really drives the frequency of updates if you will. In some cases, content’s getting changed on a weekly basis, in some cases, it's, a couple of times a week and in some cases, it's less frequent if it's more like an evergreen sort of seasonal content. But in general, the idea is just to try and keep the programming as fresh as possible in that department. So that, if a member is shopping with Sam, maybe a couple of times a week, they get to see a little bit of variety in that loop. 

Yeah, I would imagine that there's a lot of thinking that has to go around the programming model because of that frequency and also because of sightlines, and I'm really curious to hear from both of you about TV walls and having a generic feed that goes across 40 different TVs and a whole bunch of different manufacturers and do they get fussy or are there any issues around what's on those screens, so that makes one look better than the other or whatever?

Susie Opare-Abetia: That's a really good question. I can talk to the tech piece, basically, what we're doing now with this, we're pretty much wrapped up with a third-generation platform in electronics. So we're delivering everything from delivering HDR, so the highest quality but then the tech is able to downscale that signal so that it was even for a very sort of low-end HD set. So the way the system works, it's pretty much agnostic to what you're feeding it. So we feed it the highest quality and the better sets get a better quality signal. 

But in terms of the actual content, yes it's the same across all the TVs and maybe Mike can talk about how the different manufacturers get their share of time on the network. 

Mike Hiatt: The short answer to your question is yes, they do get fussy. 

I can tell you a lot of stories, but obviously, if you think about it, if you're a TV manufacturer, you want just to talk about your TVs all the time and so there is that fight there. But we believe strongly, the company as a whole believes strongly in a unified vision for the network where we have this one image that's running all the time. So we liked that idea of synchrony and pulling that together that Susie had talked about from a strategic standpoint because we feel like the club looks better versus the more chaotic version where you would have your own thing. 

However, we do make accommodations for top-of-the-line models that they want to show off and get excited about, get people excited about what you'll see, like one-off kind of kiosks set apart from the TV wall and Samsung showing their Samsung content, LG is showing there content and Vizio and so on. So there is some of that there, but the majority of the screens are all playing the same thing, and then as part of our agreement with them is that we are there to support them as suppliers, and so we make sure that their content that they want to run is also part of the programming mix for the TV wall.

So as part of the relationship we have with them as strategic partners, we want to make sure that they're able to promote their TVs, even though there'll be Samsung content on an LG TV and vice versa, we have no problem with that because we want members to be able to compare and contrast TVs anyway and the only way to really do that very well is to be able to look at them, play in the same content. 

Yeah. I could just imagine the conversations standing with a Samsung rep when it's an ad running on an LG TV or vice versa. 

Mike Hiatt: Yes. (Laughter)

Sam's club is a pretty big footprint place with, I don't know, 40-50 foot ceilings and so on and a lot going on. How do you think in terms of sightlines and choices around content and how big a display has to be to suit the environment and the dynamics?

Mike Hiatt: It is a big space. It's really funny, I've always worried “Oh wow, these TV screens are just getting too big”, and when you're seeing them, like down next to you they look gigantic and then you stick them up on a wall and they're like, wait for a second, that's way too small. 

So we live in that world quite a bit at Sam's when it comes to those kinds of things with sightlines. But I will say that the technology is getting there where it's affordable to bring in the big enough screens that we're starting to bridge that gap of where historically the screens were just a little too small and trying to roll that out across thousands of locations, the numbers really add up, and but I think we've turned that corner over the last few years where we can afford those 75-inch screens, which are more than fine when it is, in most situations, what we're trying to do, and in fact, in some cases, we're having to re-sculpt how they fit on the wall because we just don't have that much room to put these big screens. There's only so much real estate on the wall, so that's good. 

That's all been good, and so I feel like we're getting to a happy place if you will, between the size of the screen and the size of the box, if you will.

So you've got 25,000 screens. What's the monthly audience, the aggregate audience?

Mike Hiatt: The audience that comes in is about 25 to 30 million per month that come into the club, and those numbers, COVID is really messed with us a little bit because we've had these giant groups of people come in, and then we've had some real swales like it's really hard to look at comparables over the past year.

And also our curbside pickup has gone way up too. So people that used to come into the club, a lot of them, because they don't want to be in the club due to COVID or other reasons that they're getting, we have a club pickup set up where now we just roll it out to their car, and they buy it online.

Yeah, I suspect there's a whole bunch of businesses that are going to have an asterisk beside 2020 and 2021 in any kind of timelines or story of their business, just saying this happens. So like the anomaly is explainable. 

Mike Hiatt: Yes. Even though I know that our merchants are really struggling because, if you're the person responsible for toilet paper, for example, you had a great March 2020.

There's no way that your March 2021 is going to compete with it, so it's going to be interesting for all of us, as we try to create new baselines and understand, how we're truly growing 

And because you do a card read every time somebody buys something, you know how many people are in the store, right? Or at least how many members, and if you extrapolate that, it's 1.2 people per card or something that you that's how you get to your 25,000?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah. We've also done viewership studies and we're doing some new technologies where we're able to track that more accurately. As far as the individual people that are in the club, you're right, we do have the ticket counts, but depending there are some variables there, you'd have to try to, like you say, model and extrapolate 1.2, for example, And and we do and can do that, but we're actually looking at some other ways to track it more regularly because typically our insights team, they like to keep some of that data close to the vest and not even share it internally.

Yeah, that was going to be my next question and I'll try it anyway. 

Is there any data around the kind of cause and effect, if you put an endemic. Advertising piece up for let's say organic olive oil from Italy or whatever. Can you then look at the selling rates of that olive oil when it's promoted on the screens versus those times when it’s not promoted on the screen and say, okay, it bumped it by 10% or whatever?

Mike Hiatt: Yes, we can do that. We haven't done that as much, mainly because of just the issues that we have with resources. It takes quite a bit of work actually to do those types of reporting, and we spend most of that time on the online side of the business with our resources to do that. So there's been sales in the club, mostly as an awareness-building channel, and that you're reaching members in the club, at that zero moments of purchase.

And that's the kind of way we promote it more than trying to attach it exactly to the point that they had an opportunity to see this spot and then they went and bought the product.

It’s more like new on shelves? 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, exactly. The floor graphics pieces, I think are going to change that formula a bit over time as we learn and figure out exactly what we're looking to do with the floor graphics program. But I can see that be in a place where we would actually create custom reporting based on sales lift or what we call return on ad spends, or ROAS, for the floor graphics because it's very direct or that product is local close to those screens, whereas you remember, in Sam's club, the TV wall, for example, is way up at the front. So as you walk in, you see them but you're not exposed to those messages when you're back there in the freezer, buying frozen chicken. 

So there's a real 50-yard disconnect between the media and the chicken. So trying to connect that dot gets very circumspect, even if you are able to figure out that this individual walked by the TV wall when the frozen chicken ad was running, which is hard enough, and then trying to figure out when they actually made it back to the chicken, pick it up and put it in their cart and then made it around to actually purchase it.

Those are some details that are hard to get your finger on conclusively. 

So if I’m a CPG brand, and I'm launching a new, I don't know, body lotion in a giant bottle, that's going to be deeper into the store. Is it hard to sell them into screen participation or they understand through explanation and maybe intuitively that this is better than people just stumbling across my product, it's better if I make them aware that this is available?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, I think especially when you're launching a new product, we've seen a lot of success that way, where you think about that you're investing in the new product line, you're putting it in a Sam's Club and we don't have nearly the number of SKUs that say a Walmart has, but the SKUs that we do have, do very well from a sales velocity standpoint. And so yeah, a lot of them say, “Wow, okay. So I've got a new SKU inside of Sam's Club. It's a new three-pack,” that kind of thing where it's its own SKU. It's nothing that you can't buy this anywhere else really, and so as you walk in, you want to be able to impact them as best as you can.

We do a lot of that where you'll be driving that new product purchase and it's that zero moments where they're in the club, they're in the buying mode, it's not so much immediate as interruptive, and whether you're trying to read something on the internet or watch a TV show or something like that, we're interrupting you with an ad message. There are no interruptions inside of the Sam's Club because you're actually shopping. That's what you are doing. That is the editorial and the editorial and advertising, it's one and the same if you look at it that way. 

Susie, is Woven media building all of the ads, or are you building the content that's running in between the advertising and the advertising is coming in from agencies or perhaps from Sam's?

Susie Opare-Abetia: So it's essentially Mike's team that works with the suppliers as well as the internal merchandising teams and marketing to produce that content that's advertising or promotional, and then basically what happens is all of the content gets uploaded to our servers and then Mike's programming team is able to essentially combine the ad content, the commercial content with our third-party content, which is a mix of premium content across multiple categories, like sports entertainment, etc.

So that you end up with this really engaging experience that is skillfully crafted so that it's not just ads all the time. You're basically engaging the member, you're driving TV sales, and you're also promoting Sam’s Club and as we discussed, other products in other departments o in the electronics department. 

Did the experience over the last seven years of working on this network reshape some assumptions around what you think people want to see when they're shopping in a Sam's Club versus what they really want to see?

Susie Opare-Abetia: Yeah, so Mike's team actually has done a really good job with some of the studies that they've done to determine what content categories really make sense. For example, we know that, believe it or not, food is a really compelling category and as is obviously sports and movie trailers, video games. So there's definitely been, over the period, more learning about what content captivates which audience and the audience: is it male, is it female, etc. 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, it really is fascinating. The male/female breakdown, where the males spend a lot more time watching the TV wall in particular. But they also represent a much smaller percentage of the actual members, regular shoppers in the club. So you want to take care of both audiences. But it is fascinating to see and then, of course, one group wants to see sports and skiing and all the different fun stuff, and then the female side is more about travel and food like Susie was saying.

Mike, you have an interesting history, so to speak, in terms of in-store media, in that, you had a first go-around working with Walmart on its in-store digital media network, and then went off and did your own thing, I believe, and then now you're back with Walmart but through Sam's. 

Is there a clear distinction between the way things were done, let's say 10-15 years ago when you were involved with Walmart, and now? 

Mike Hiatt: Oh yeah. When I first got there and inherited the system, we had CRT TV's, like 50 feet up in the air… (Laughter)

This is the old PRN network, right?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, the old PRN network and we wanted to evolve that, and that was a really fun project for me to get into, and I never had any digital signage experience before that. I had been basically a VP over media direct operations for an ad agency in Salt Lake City and had worked in high tech, like previous to that. But I had some different ideas and some thinking about what we wanted to do and had a good relationship with PRN and we organized a kind of a next-generation network, and we were using satellites at the time. We don't do that anymore. 

There's been a lot of fundamental changes that have allowed us to create a better experience and be better at our digital signage experience in the store environment. 

So yeah, I don't know what you want me to talk about. I could go in any number of directions. What would you be interested in learning more about? 

I’m curious about what you've learned and obviously, it's a lot easier to do now in many respects, and as you say, the sightlines and the display technologies are a lot more visible and compelling than TVs hanging from ceilings.

Mike Hiatt: One of the best things that I've found, and what I learned in my Walmart experience, which was really reassuring to me in this space, is that when done correctly, digital display or retail media actually works, it actually drives purchase. It actually makes the promise hole of what we always try to do in the advertising space, which is influence the purchase, and again, it has to be done correctly, and we were doing that with those endcap screens that we had in the club or in the store on the endcaps, and we definitively over and over again with an early solid methodology were able to show incremental sales lift from those positions and the better the content experience, the more proactive the content was, it was a definite art to design the content that would run on those screens. 

But as we got better and better at that, we saw tremendous gains over our control claw, our controls stores for that product. That's the really encouraging thing is that when done correctly, it absolutely works and if you can get the media source very close to the product. A huge piece of that is making sure that something is working and it's not trying to do too much, so many digital signage deployments are trying to do too much and it makes it too chaotic and you just need to be focused and simple.

So we learned a lot of things doing that whole process that allowed us to actually create a successful network and we're implementing those things today at Sam's Club and the, but the cool thing is over with the last 14 years, has been that we're finally starting to work better across the silos, if you will, because in a large retail organization, you think about any kind of deployment, like what we were doing at Walmart, you have to transcend operations, merchandising, marketing, and IT, and to get all four of those groups together when they all have different EDPs that they report into can be really difficult, and it's been historically a struggle, not only with my experience at Walmart and Sam's, but I think any big retailer. ‘cause when I went off and did my own thing, I was working with other retailers and they were dealing with similar problems, but it's a lot of that trying to get organized across those silos, it makes it very difficult to actually have a successful implementation a a lot of times. 

What compelled you to go work again for a big company as opposed to yourself? 

Mike Hiatt: It's funny. I left and did my own thing and was really enjoying it and was traveling the world and doing exciting stuff and working for a variety of retailers and technology companies, and one of those was Walmart, and so I was going back to help them and work on them, like beyond what I had done when I was there full time, and then also part of that was Sam's Club, which they wanted to redesign their network, and so I got involved in that, and then part of that was better understanding monetization and how we wanted to sell, and so we had a sales team handling the in club stuff and a different sales team handling the online, and so I made the decision, working with my people at Sam's Club, we decided we wanted to combine those two, and so by doing that, and then we reworked the technology side and that's when we brought Woven media in and they weren't selling, they weren't a sales facing organization with suppliers.

And Triad was and Triad was handling the online piece, let's have them handle the in-store piece or the in-club piece, and that started to work really well. I went off to do other things as a consultant and at the time, Roger Berdusco, who was our CEO at Triad reached out to me and convinced me to close my business and come work for him full time. So that's what I did, and yeah, came over and worked for Triad and basically running all the in-club or in-store and retail media-related stuff, while 90% of the rest of the company was focused on the online world, and we did that for several years and then, of course, one thing led to another and Triad ended up being bought by Sam's Club and they brought us all over, and so we were part of WPP and because it’s a long story, I won't get into all the private equity firms and the details associated with that. But at the time that we were, WPP and Sam's Club decided they wanted to bring it in-house, but they didn't want to try to build it from scratch.

They wanted to leverage our expertise, our people and our technology stack, and so we figured out how to put that package set up together and we moved over to Sam's, and so I’m back at the mothership, so to speak. 

Yeah, so you just woke up one day and realized, “Oh, I'm here again?” (Laughter)

Mike Hiatt: Yes.

Susie Opare-Abetia: Thank you! (Laughter)

So Susie and Mike, what are people going to see over the next year or so at Sam's Club that's going to be added to the network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: Basically if you walk into Sam's club, and I said there are 55 deployed already, but basically over the next couple of years, we're rolling these new channels out across the chain. So we're doing 270 this year, and then next year we're going to finish out the rest. So if you go into Sam's Club, you'll see the cafe area, on both walls of the cafe, you’ll see three 75-inch screens, three of them facing the club and three of them facing into the cafe area, and those a mix of menu boards, as well as sizzle, big wide freezies, and hot dogs and what not to attract people into the cafe.

So a really nice mix of programming, synchronized in some cases across those three screens, and that's essentially replacing the paper signs that you see today in the club. So you'll see those in cafes. You'll also see, as Mike mentioned, the flow graphics projection in the scan and go aisle, and you'll see 75-inch screens in the member services areas. So this is where members go and find out more about travel services or financial services, or, do stuff with the membership, and that already is shown to have really moved the needle in terms of the member experience, the ratings. The screens are driving the ratings of that experience which is great.

And then you'll see, in some small number of clubs, you'll see the racetrack projectors that Mike mentioned in the aisle. Sam’s Club is still testing those and figuring out when they want to roll those out. 

All right. This was super interesting. I appreciate you guys spending some time with me.

Susie Opare-Abetia: Thank you, Dave, this has been great.

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, this has been a lot of fun.

 

Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

March 24, 2021

Montreal's Stingray has built up a global business providing curated music channels for consumers on their cable systems and through streaming, and also for retail through in-store radio systems. But the company also has a fast-growing Business division that's focused both on shopper experiences, using digital display, and on shopper behaviours and interests.

Stingray has been most active in Canada, and particularly Quebec, but it is making moves to expand in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

I caught up with Renaud Lafrance, the Chief Revenue Officer for Stingray Business, to get a sense of how his group operates, the product offer and the state of the retail market as we start to come out of this awful pandemic. 

We get into a bunch of things, including how retailer needs have evolved in the past year, and the value of analytics. We also talk about a big sports retailer's flagship, filled with digital, in suburban Montreal.

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

Renaud, thanks for joining me. Let's start by giving you background on what Stingray is all about. I spoke with Pierre from your company about three years ago, but it's certainly time to do an update. 

Renaud Lafrance: Yes, David. First of all, thank you for having me on your podcast. I've read a lot of great things about it.

Let me give you a very brief summary of the Stingray organization: Stingray was founded in 2007. We're a publicly listed company as of 2015, and essentially, we're a business leader in the music and visual media in the world. There are essentially three business units of Stingray: 

#1, Genesis is what we call our broadcast plus streaming app business. This is where you see many cable operators around the world, but let's say in the US operators such as Comcast, in Canada Rogers, and such where you have audio channels. And throughout the years, without many acquisitions, we've added other channels, other solutions, such as Quello, which is the Netflix of concerts and karaoke, we have the largest licensed karaoke catalog in the world, and we have different platforms for the karaoke, not just cable operators, but in the world of OTT (over the top) platforms such as Amazon, they're distributors of our content and Roku, Samsung TV+, which are using our audio and visual channels. Different products like NatureScape is one of them. If you ever have a Samsung TV or an LG, both are partners of ours. This is loaded directly into the smart TVs. So this broadcast/streaming app business is one of our units. 

The second unit is Radio. We have a hundred radio stations, like old-style broadcasting. The third business unit is the discussion today. The one which I take care of is Stingray Business, which is all about in-store media solutions regarding music and digital signage and experience as well as insights. 

You're a Montreal company and I think you got your start on the digital side by acquiring another Montreal company called Groupe VIVA. Is that pretty accurate? 

Renaud Lafrance: Yeah. So since 2007, our Stingray Group Inc, we've done 48 acquisitions into different divisions, but in the distinguished business division, our first foray into digital signage was in 2015. Before that, we had acquired other commercial background music companies, but the digital signage, digital experience portion of the in-store media world started in 2015.

And yes, it was a local Canadian company called Groupe VIVA and then we also acquired another digital signage company called Novara Media out of Toronto, and we also acquired a company in Europe, in Benelux, which had a mix of commercial background music and digital signage, a company called DJ-Matic, and where we have a presence in the Netherlands in both Belgium, and we also acquired last year during the pandemic, our Mexican affiliate Basha, which has many large enterprise brand clients with digital signage rolled out in Mexico. 

So is that kind of a strategy for the executive to grow through, at least in part through acquisition?

Renaud Lafrance: Absolutely. Stingray’s strategy is a growth twofold into user acquisition and also a big push in organic growth as well. The combination of the two. 

So your streaming music business is global on the digital media side, the quasi digital signage side, is that primarily North American and more so than anything so far in Canada?

Renaud Lafrance: So just to give you a little context, we have around 125,000 locations. With one of our solutions or both or more than two in retail locations. So music, signage, business intelligence (what I would call insights) so we have a global footprint. So our strategy was really to become a global player and really take on global enterprise clients.

We have to have a footprint and not just the footprint, feet on the street with a full staff taking care of support, taking care of project management, taking care of curation, taking care of all the integration necessary for both signage and music, commercial music install. So this is why we have an office in Sydney, Australia for the APAC region, with a full team over there. We have the European team, the Mexican team, USA, Canada, and all our different offices have the signage capabilities, embedded with the commercial music to give a full in-store media solution package for our retail, brick and mortar clients in the different verticals that we operate.

But is it fair to say that a lot of your business to date has been in Canada and you're now expanding? 

Renaud Lafrance: When we acquired the company in Europe, they had a certain percentage of revenue coming from signage. Mexico is, I would say 80% digital signage, but it's fair to say that like notable large clients like we have banks in Mexico with a full digital signage rollout, the largest pharmacy chain in Mexico also under digital signage and but of course, still the bulk now is Canada, but very quickly moving on to American brands as well as global enterprise brands for digital signage, as we speak. 

And you did some sort of, I think it was a partnership more than anything else, with a US company called Space Factory, going back two, three months, yeah?

Renaud Lafrance: So the thing with Space Factory is that we started with the partnership with them, they're a veteran crew, a collective in the in-store media world. They'd been operating in the past 30 years in various different businesses that are well-known such as play networks and others. And we just combined our efforts to really launch our conquest of the American market.

As of Jan 1st, we exited our relationship with our partnership with Mood Media, where initially we were exclusive for Canada for commercial music and they were for the US. Now, this is over and one of the reasons why we partnered with Space is to accelerate our penetration in the American market with seasoned veterans. And again, we're always looking at tuck-in acquisitions and major acquisitions in the American market to further consolidate and further grow our in-store media business as well as we built and we're continuing to build a full organic sales team in the US and going after enterprise brands always.

So, I'm an end-user, I'm a large retailer in the US and I'm interested in what Stingray’s Space Factory has to offer. What all is it that you guys do? Do you start right at the consulting idea stage and take it all the way through to ongoing management? Or are there a start point and an endpoint?

Renaud Lafrance: I think with our unique blend of solutions, not just on the business side, but also on the consumer broadcast side, we have a lot of assets and we have a unique position, a combination that we can bring to the marketplace. I'll take Insights as an example.

As we bundle these, the media, music, technology, digital signage experience, Insights. Also, for instance, I'll give you a little more background on the Insights portion. We acquired a company last year called Chatter Research, and they've developed a very clever way to get feedback from retail clients, thus giving very sought-after information on customers. The way this is done in the retail world these days in the past years, often you go and shop or even shop online. You'll sometimes get a request to fill out a survey, go online, fill out a survey. What chatter has done through a proprietary AI engine is really a clever easy way to interact with clients to talk about their experience. We call it a conversation. 

So if you're a purchase or an operator, with a QR code enabled through signage or through different media placements in a retail operation, you have a conversation with an AI text-based on your smartphone. Thus you're answering and the AI will look at 1200 inflection points. So instead of asking you questions, eight or nine questions. It's an open conversation. And then the AI captures this data and there's a dashboard with which retail management can really consult every second of the day, if they want real-time feedback coming in, classifying it and seeing what people really want or what's missing.

So this intelligence is I think, now a vital part of our whole in-store media solution offering and it also makes it another value add and something very distinctive as to bring to the business world. 

Yeah. It sounds like a chatbot, except instead of it being for virtual stores, it’s for bricks-and-mortar stores.

Renaud Lafrance: Yeah, but it's more than a chatbot because it was really built for the whole retail marketplace and there's also a version online for a lot of our retailers that have e-commerce, especially these days in the pandemic. So it's not a chatbot, it's really focused on getting feedback from clients and really capturing all of that and building a dashboard, establishing the NPS (Net Promoter Score) and executives can have deep insight that they would never get with simple eight-question feedback. 

This is very different, it seems from a lot of the retail analytics that has been marketed in the last three or four years.

I think I went to a show a couple of years ago, and the trade show floor was filled with companies selling AI-based, computer-vision based retail analytic, and I've not seen a lot of take-up of that stuff, so going out this way with an opt-in app basically seems very different. 

Renaud Lafrance: It's very different. We've also had our different digital experiences with digital signage solutions using AI with facial recognition and so on, just establish with our clients what's working, what's not working with content, and so on, but this is really smart, simple, and conversational. And there's no app, by the way. It's just, you just look at the QR code, or you can just text the number and you start the conversation via text. 

This has been an interesting 12 months, to say the least, and a difficult time for a lot of retailers unless they sell groceries or they're a big box or they sell liquor.

I'm curious: how the last year has been in terms of what retail needs are, what retail interests are in digital experiences in-store, has it gone quiet on you, or is there still a lot of interest or even perhaps more interest than there was in the past because things are so different now?

Renaud Lafrance: I will give you an answer based on geography because, in all our different countries where we have our retail clients, we have a different mix. For instance, in North America, we were lucky to have a lot of essential business clients, such as supermarkets, drug stores, banks who always stayed open. In other geographies, we have sometimes more of a mix of restaurants, cafes, hospitality, and so on. And whether it's Europe or Canada, the USA, or Mexico, a lot of them were shut down, and are still shut down.

But overall, we were very lucky to have enterprise brand clients and a good concentration in the essentials, and even the QSR clients, kept operating with a drive-thru, curbside pickup. 

The second part of the answer to your question is yes, we are seeing the demand for new things. Signage whether it's signage that will be at the entrance of the store, look at store counts, people counts, like the whole messaging for COVID. Another thing that's happened along the way is on the audio side, the music side, because we have thousands of locations where we can broadcast messages, we've been broadcasting a lot of COVID messaging for our retail clients. Less visual but more audio, so you absolutely reach everyone that's in the store. So COVID messaging, health and safety, whether it's for the employees or for the general consumer walking in the store, that‘s been very popular, and even using our insights solution Chatter, we're getting a lot of new information from clients stating what they need, what they want, what they're looking for and what they'd like to see within the retail experience, the customer experience regarding visual content regarding less touch. 

Are there still budgets out there? There are retailers who are prepared to spend or are they on hold?

Renaud Lafrance: Funny thing is a lot of retailers, and again, if you look at the focus on large global brands, whether to engage with a current vendor and they want to switch because some people in some companies in the industry have been affected, I’m talking about some of the competition, might not have as healthy a balance sheet.

And, it's very interesting to see the number of our fees and then the number of large deals that are currently in negotiation with major iconic brands around the globe that we are currently involved in. So regardless of, let's say 2000-3000 store global chain, won’t name a specific brand, but they are affected in different countries, but they are still looking at modernizing, looking at digital experience within the store, the customer experience. 

We've been saying for many years that maybe the retail footprint will be reduced but the experience will be augmented. So the short answer, David, is that surprisingly does a lot of activity right now. 

That's good. I'm also curious, there's been a lot of things written and a lot of speculation on things like panel discussions and so on about how retail has changed and how selling is moved to the parking lot, to the curbside that there's a big demand for personalization, that there'll be appointment-based shopping and a lot of the way that we do shopping in places other than big-box grocery stores and so on, will change as a result of all this. Are you seeing that at all? 

Renaud Lafrance: I then we are seeing, and if you look at different verticals, I'll use the example of QSR, for instance, with certain QSR, forward-thinking brands, the proliferation of drive-thru, some drive-throughs are now two lanes, three lanes.

As we just mentioned, using a mobile app to pre-order delivery at specific spots within the curbside pickup. You're seeing multiple channels now open up and even in the discussion with someone autonomous cars delivering food, and we were involved with a signage portion within the car and also the feedback insights portion within that a delivery service that will be launched later by a major QSR brand. 

You also mentioned some fully-automated stores coming online. You’ve seen Amazon Grocery, and closer to us, Circle K is also looking at the convenience store automation lab. We've also done a great new concept with a Canadian-based QSR chain called Recipe Unlimited, which holds around 1300 locations spread out over nine brands and they developed a new concept where all their brands can be served with one kitchen, and you pre-order, or you just walk in like a giant vending machine and there's no sit-down, you just pick up in your cubicle, the meal you ordered and you go home with it, but you have access to all the brands within one kitchen instead of going to different restaurants, obviously. 

I'm using the QSR example, and then we could go on to different verticals, we've seen ghost kitchens happening. We've seen many different innovations coming up right now that we want to assist partners with these clients in helping them bring, in the QSR business, as I've stated before, they're also looking at experience: what can we do to have a unique experience? So more investment’s going towards experience and made into new experiences, into new delivery methods instead of a proliferation of a greater number of locations to serve their client base. 

One of your colleagues, Martez sent me a video that showed a new store that you guys have worked on in suburban Montreal and out in Broussard that is a sporting goods store and you guys have done quite a bit of sporting goods stores. Can you tell me about this Sports Expert store and what the thinking was behind it? Because it's pretty ambitious and big. 

Renaud Lafrance: This unique store, I think the square footage is around 65,000 and the owner-operator has currently 10 sporting goods stores under this banner, called Sports Experts, pretty much Dick's Sporting Goods in the US and yeah, we've been partnering with them for a number of years and the specific owner really believed in revamping to create more experiences and made a lot of multimillion-dollar investments within his stores, and specifically this large one where we supported them with unique solutions: LED interactivity, obviously our commercial background music embedded with a special playlist made for them, Chatter’s in there also, and it's really become like a flagship store, iconic store and the ROI is clear. Even if it was a substantial investment for the total store, the total footprint of the store. After it's been open now for a year and a half, sales are better than expected based on the considerable investment you made in that store, not just with our solutions, but with everything put together.

Sporting Goods is an interesting one. There's a rival Canadian chain that has opened a lot of big flagship stores as well and they've been to a point of amusement for me because they seem to want to throw everything, including the kitchen sink into the stores, in terms of visual razzle-dazzle, like there's gesture, there's interactive, there's everything, and I've walked through there and thought, and a lot of times, “I'm not sure why they did this.” 

Are the Sporting Goods retailers getting a little more sophisticated in terms of what they do and why they want to do it and getting past the, just a pure visual excitement thing? 

Renaud Lafrance: I think so. I don't know if you want to mention the banner or not? 

(Laughter) Go right ahead if you want, or I can... Starts with Sport. 

Renaud Lafrance: Oh, yeah. Okay. I'll use the example of the Sports Experts one where you have a refrigeration area as if you were in the Arctic, and you enter and you try some coats on and so it's not just digital experiences and it's unique. 

So that's an example of what's making it different and unique, or you enter an area where there's rain so that you can test the rain gear and the permeability of different coats. And I guess if you look back in the eighties and nineties, the mall was at the centerpiece of social activity for a lot of teenagers and adults. Now we're seeing entertainment come into retail. We're seeing experience. As you were talking about the store near the greater metropolitan area of Montreal on the South shore, they are in an open outside mall. And you're seeing all these developments around entertainment in these openings, again, the pandemic and last year have stopped some of the development, but we all foresee this to continue on the experiential side melting retail, hospitality, entertainment, all in one. 

Yeah. I've been out that way. I don't think the store was open at that point, but certainly, there are some great restaurants right in that immediate area. You've got some premium retailers there, it's not your average shopping mall.

Renaud Lafrance: No, and there are other real estate developments coming up across North America where you'll have concerts, like major hotels set up within the retail shopping area. They become destinations in themselves, maybe a precursor that is the West Edmonton Mall, but we see more and more of this and experiences are becoming very important.

Yeah. It can't be just a destination to go shopping because you can go shopping on your phone or on your desktop. 

Renaud Lafrance: Exactly and I think, with our global footprint, we are very well positioned to really partner with these brands to bring these experiences.

So when you have the first meeting with a chain retailer, it doesn't really matter what they sell, just a chain retailer, and you have that first conversation, what do you ask them? 

Renaud Lafrance: I think we have to understand the brand and what is their story, and what they want to create as a client business experience.

So I think the first part always is really understanding the brand and what the brand means to their client base. That is the first and foremost thing, and then after that, you get into the solution aspect, but that is the key item to really capture and I think a lot of people are skipping that part. And this is where you can come up with enduring solutions, instead of coming up with a lot of hardware where you've seen this many times where things were not well thought out and there is no content, there is no value, but there is some signage, there is some experience, but little value because the content was not really well thought, was a second thought to the whole hardware networking logistical piece of the digital signage operation.

And I think David you've been using examples of sometimes office tower lobbies where you've seen great content. I think the lobby, seating area of Netflix, you're immersed in some of their other shows, in their series. That’s using the complete power of the digital experience and creativity and really do something different. 

Yeah, then you get the flip side where there's an office lobby and they put in a giant LED wall and they don't really seem to know why they did it and they just go out and find some 4K footage and run it on there. I can remember one in Miami that I saw and it was showing scenes from the Miami waterfront and the Miami waterfront was across the street from the buildings, I was like ”if I want to see that I'll go outside.” (Laughter) 

Renaud Lafrance: Exactly, David. If you understand the brand, you understand the story, you can create a unique business experience for the client and I guess content and the way you draw the whole experience out is crucial.

All right, Renaud, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.

Renaud Lafrance: Welcome, David. It's always a pleasure and good luck with your podcast. I think you have a great tool for our digital signage industry. 

Thank you. 

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

March 17, 2021

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

There was a lot of skepticism and debate in the digital signage community when 4K commercial displays started coming on the market, with industry observers openly wondering if visual messaging applications needed that high level of resolution.

Several years later, 4K is perhaps not common, but certainly being used in many projects, and both accepted and supported.

And as 4K bedded in, the industry started seeing some of the bigger display manufacturers showing 8K displays at trade shows, and the debate about the demand and the challenges for super high resolution displays started all over again.

One of the ways an industry builds awareness, acceptance, support and standards for a new technology is to have working groups or organizations of stakeholders. There's an 8K Association now, and the companies that got it going asked display industry veteran Chis Chinnock to step in and run it. An industry observer, writer, analyst and consultant, Chris has been around displays forever and seen the evolution. He understands what the engineers are going on about, but has the skills to explain it in terms mere mortals can understand.

He explained to me where 8K is at on the adoption curve (it's still early) and we get into the implications of 8K on infrastructure. He also explain who will want and use 8K, and why.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining me. Can you tell me what the 8K Association is all about? 

Chris Chinnock: Sure. Thanks for having me on your podcast, appreciate that. 

The 8K Association was formed at CES in 2019, so about a little over two years ago, and it was formed with panel makers and TV makers primarily and that's when 8K TVs were starting to come into the market and we had some initial goals which was to promote those 8K TVs, to develop a certification program for those 8K TVs, to begin gathering 8K content for our member use, and to begin education of the professional community, because we're going to need a full 8K ecosystem from content creation, through distribution and display for this to become mainstream.

Is this the sort of thing that wouldn’t necessarily just happen organically?

Chris Chinnock: It would happen organically. We just wanted to form the organization to try and help facilitate communication and maybe move the ecosystem a little bit faster than it would've done organically. That's all.

And is this something that manufacturers do? I think of some of the other certifications and reference designs out there?

Chris Chinnock: Oh, yeah and there's tons of these organizations out there with different marketing goals or ecosystem development goals, so we're not reading any new ground here. We're, this is a tried and true kind of approach. 

For example, in the 4K transition, the UHD Alliance came up to do a promotion and development of UHD or 4K content, mostly aimed at consumers and then the UHD Forum was originated not long afterwards, which was focused more on trying to educate and develop the 4K ecosystem and the professional community and they developed a bunch of guidelines and whatnot to help broadcasters and filmmakers implement 4K workflows. In many senses, we're following that model and learning from what they did and trying to leverage that going forward. 

Yeah. It's an interesting thing. You have lots of people saying, “8K: is that something we're ever really going to need?” “There's no content for our…” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. These are all the things that were said about 4K and lots of questions as to whether 4K whatever take route at all and it certainly has, is it the same argument or is this a little more nuanced because 8K is like super duper high resolution? 

Chris Chinnock: It is the same argument. We had naysayers six, seven years ago for 4K. We've got naysayers for 8K now. Absolutely, it's a different environment now, but there's also a lot of things that are similar to what was happening in 4K six, seven, eight years for sure. 

With 8K, you're talking about super high resolution. In the context of digital signage, where would 8K be particularly useful and applicable? 

Chris Chinnock: From what I'm gathering, we've actually been poking around in the proAV space, trying to understand what the needs are for 8K, to tell you the truth and what we're learning is the big need is really in distribution and transport. So the canvases are clearly getting bigger and larger in digital signage. An 8K digital signage is not uncommon, I don't think nowadays. But it's not necessarily in a standard 16:9 format. They come in all kinds of aspects, ratios and configurations.

But what we're starting to see is, these big canvases, you want to start with a higher resolution source of master file, so that you can have a piece of that 8K master going out to various parts of this display. So if you letterbox it or clip a PC in there, you want to start with a high resolution piece and not have to do upscaling at the display itself, if you can avoid that, because there are some issues with that.

So the main argument is interesting, with the 8K Association and the website, you even have on the navigation bar, just straight out, “Why 8K” and I go through things and some of those objections, so to speak are: you can't see the resolution, that the human eye can't even raise, can't even resolve 8K now. 

I don't think that's quite accurate, is it? 

Chris Chinnock: No, it's not and people make that argument based on simple acuity, that is the Snellen chart and it's literally based on geometry and that is a big part of vision. There's no doubt about that. But human vision's far more complex. There are higher order things going on, they call it hyper acuity, so that allows you to see, for example, the differences between parallel lines and slightly unparalleled lines. It allows you to see stars in the night sky that simple acuity says you can't see and perhaps more importantly, we form images in the brain, the retina and the eye is part of it, but the brain puts those signals together to create an image. So we sometimes and often do fill in details in our brain to create that image of the world. 

So if you have an 8K image versus a 4K image, it has less artifacts, it has more texture and detail. So it creates a higher sense of realism. It's subtle and the hyper acuity may say you can't see that difference, but all these other factors reinforce that it's more real, it's more present.

Do you have to be within a certain kind of viewing cone or proximity in order to appreciate that difference between 4K and 8K? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, certainly the closer you sit, you will see more detail and sharpness and texture, and that's for sure, because that's part of the simple acuity part. But also remember, we're talking HDR signals for the most part with 8K content now. So it's high dynamic range, it's white color gamut. All these things make a big difference. 

Yeah, if you're using high dynamic range, then you can see an incredible amount of detail that isn't otherwise revealed. 

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. 

From your point of view, are there certain kinds of applications for signage that make more sense than others?

Like from my point of view if it's at a museum or something where you're going to get people who are going to be walking up close, that's when it starts to make some sense. 

I just don't know that anybody's ever going to need a 8K digital menu board in a QSR. 

Chris Chinnock: I agree with that, absolutely and museums are one perfect example. I know I've seen in some trade show demonstrations, they'll have an artifact that can be either a video capture, a 3D video capture of an artifact, or it could be a very high resolution computer generated image. 

But now you can go up to the screen, you can really look at this artifact. You can zoom in on it. You can rotate it and you don't see any discrepancies in that image. You've got lots and lots of resolution to play with here, so it's much closer to lifelike 

In terms of math, what's the difference? And I hope I'm not putting you on the spot here, but just generally the difference between a full HD file and an 8K file, in terms of size and what are the implications in terms of the equipment, graphics cards and everything you need to play it out. 

Chris Chinnock: File size is going to depend on the compression that you use. Maybe a better way to look at it is what's the bandwidth you would need, the uncompressed bandwidth you need for various files.

So I think full HD is somewhere around three gigabits as I recall. But now if you want to do 8K, I think the highest reasonable level that you want to do is 8K at 60 frames per second, 10 bit and now the difference comes with color subsampling. If it's video, you're going to do four to zero color subsampling, that's about 30 gigabits per second. So ten times full HD, right? If you want to do broadcast quality, that's four to two color sampling. That's 40 gigabits. You want to do four-four,-four for high resolution graphics in proAV, 60 gigabits per second.

Woah!

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, so here's the problem: it's a distribution challenge, right? So there are solutions out there. If you want to do proAV, you can use HDMI 2.1. You may have to use two connectors if you want to do four-four,-four. That's a real challenge, just to sync those and it's going to be short distance, right? So your player's gotta be right by, probably a standalone 8K display of some sort. 

The other side of the coin is IP distribution, right? That's a huge trend in the whole proAV space. So there's a lot of solutions that are out there to do that now. A lot of them are focused on one gigabit networks and that's just not gonna cut it for 8K, right? So we're starting to see, there’s at least two organizations that I know about that are trying to develop some standards in this. One is the Software Defined Video Over Ethernet (SDVOE) and that's focused on using a 10 gigabit network to support it.

10 gigabits is okay if you use some kind of a mezzanine codec, like JPEG XS. That's supposed to be a lossless codec that you can compress up to fifteen to one. So you can get all those signals onto a 10 gigabit network easily with JPEG XS and then the other organizations I'm aware of is the AIMS Alliance organization, and they're developing what's called the IPMX standard. What they're doing is borrowing video over IP standard from the SMT organization from broadcast and that standard is called ST2110 and it has all kinds of high-end features in it for broadcast, including redundant distribution. So you have two Ethernet channels So if one fails the other one's always there. It's got high-end timing and grand master clocks. 

We don't need that for proAV for the most part. So the AIMS Alliance is specifically trying to take that broadcast standard, strip out what you don’t need, add in some things that you do need for proAV and develop a new standard.

So if I'm somebody who runs a facility operations for a Fortune 500 company and at their main headquarters office campus, the CEO has bought an 8K TV for his home and says, “I love 8K. I want my whole digital signage network converted over to 8Kx8K displays. It can replace the 4K's or the 2Ks that are hanging up on mounts and all that.”

What are the infrastructure implications if you want to be moving files around on the wide area network and everything else? I suspect you're thinking about even the cabling, certainly have a lot of the hardware that's moving data around everything else. 

Chris Chinnock: Absolutely and that's why you have to have a network that can support this. If your corporate network is based on a one gig ethernet structure, you're going to have to upgrade that. I know some of the new Intel motherboards support both 1 gig and now 2.5 gig ethernet outputs over, I think that's probably over Cat 5 cables and that may be sufficient if you're using a video and can compress that enough to get on a 2.5 gig network. It's pushing it a little bit but it's possible. It, again, depends on the client here, if they're really sensitive to having pixel accurate images or if it just has to look pretty good, I should say really good, but...

If you want to go to a 10 gig network or a 5 gig network, these are all much better because you can use less compression. But they come at a cost: all your network switches and maybe the cabling have to be upgraded to support this as well. 

Yeah.So like a regular Cat 5 may not support it and then you're pulling hundreds of meters of new cabling? 

Chris Chinnock: Potentially. Yeah, absolutely. Or, maybe just go to a fiber network to be future-proofing who knows? 

Wow and so I would imagine some new builds are future-proof like crazy, but there would be probably 90% of the built environment out there would probably need to be tweaked in some way, right?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think so. 

One of the other arguments about 8K is that there's no content available. Is that true?

Chris Chinnock: It is true. There is very limited content out there. The interesting part of that is that actually a lot of content is shot on 8K cameras and there are now 12K cameras out there. Black magic design is a 12K camera. So it's being captured in 8K or higher, but it's not being finished in 8K or distributed in 8K yet. 

Is that because there's no market for it? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, partly. You gotta have a certain critical mass of 8K TVs out there before you start streaming to it and I think streaming is going to be the first way that we see 8K content coming to consumers and you need good codecs out there to distribute it too. 

NHK has been broadcasting 8K content for over two years now but they're broadcasting at 80 to a 100 megabits per second with high compression ratios, and that's just too high. Netflix is 15 to maybe 25 megabits per second, that's where most of the streamers are coming in right now for 4K content. That's where you need to get, maybe you could start at 40 or 50 for a premium 8K streaming service, but you quickly got to get down to that 25 area, I think in my opinion.

Is there a likelihood that there will be more content produced that is in the right format? What changes that?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think again, you need that critical mass of TVs out there. You need a cost-effective distribution system and when that arrives, especially with these new codecs that are coming like VDC, I think you'll see major streamers jumping in with an 8K service.

Another argument is that production costs are also high. Is that primarily the costs of cameras that are like Black Magic Design and RED cameras that can shoot in that? Or, are there a whole bunch of things?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, there's a bunch of things there and those were exactly the same arguments for 4K adoption, six, seven years ago. It's more memory, it's more bandwidth. The camera costs are a little bit higher. The storage costs are a little bit higher. That's all true but I think we're also in a very different era now. So with this pandemic, we've seen a big acceleration of production workflows to the cloud. There's no doubt about that, with all the remote production that had to go on. We're also, I think, going to see an evolution of that. So more and more production will go to the cloud and I think that actually favors 8K production as well, because what we're seeing and a company, FrameIO just demonstrating this, they have a camera to cloud service now. So you can be on set shooting with 8K cameras and as soon as you finish that take, it goes right up to the cloud. The original camera files are in the cloud and then from the cloud, you can do proxy editing proxy color grading. You can do everything and have dailies right back on the set the next morning.

This is going to revolutionize, I think, the way movies and TV shows are produced, 

When you’re talking about compression. I think in terms of compression somewhat clobbering the file, does it have any noticeable impact on quality as opposed to the native file? 

Chris Chinnock: Sure and that just depends on the compression ratio.

JPEG XS up to 15:1, that's supposed to be a lossless thing. So visually lossless, if you're at that kind of compression ratio, but if you get into a distribution, that's called a Mezzanine Kodak. If you get into a distribution Kodak, one goes to consumers, Amazon or Netflix is using, HEVC and is going to be hundreds to one in compression and so you can potentially see our artifacts that way. 

Especially now, when you put us on a very large screen, that's tens of meters wide, you'll definitely see things on that size screen that you wouldn't see on an 80-inch screen.

Is 8K best suited for flat panel displays as opposed to LED? 

Chris Chinnock: Not necessarily. With LED again, because it's a bigger screen, it's less forgiving, because any artifact is just more visible. 

What about the timelines on all this? You mentioned how six, seven years ago that the fuss that was out there was around 4K and nobody's ever going to use it or anything else… What do you see are the timelines to a time when 8K is a shoulder shrug? 

Chris Chinnock: Well, there's a graphic that we one of the market research companies put together that showed that the resolution transitions and now we're talking about displays here. So when a display of a new resolution was introduced to the time it was selling at 50% of retail sales.

So SD to Full HD, Full HD to 4K, and now 4K to 8K, that cycle is seven years and consistently seven years. So you could argue that we're a year, maybe two years into the 8K cycle at this point. The pandemic probably added a year to that. So if in seven years 50% of sales are now 8K TVs, we saw how fast 4K TVs were adopted and how fast 4K streaming came onboard. 

Will history repeat? Probably. 

Is this primarily a consumer driven product or do you envision a lot of commercial adoption of 8K displays? 

Chris Chinnock: I think the push today and certainly the focus of the 8K Association has been on consumer entertainment, production and the entertainment production value chain. But as we have already discussed, there are clear needs in the proAV space here as well, particularly for all these larger canvases for rental and staging, for corporate environments, for pop-up events. We talked about museums, there's medical imaging that's an important area as well, that's coming on board. 

How about 8K VR? That's starting to happen as well. So there are a range of different applications here, including broadcast as well. It's happening in broadcast too. So yeah, it's happening in a lot of different areas, even security cameras. There's 8K security cameras now. 

Is some of that just a function of end users and integrators and everybody else wanting to have the latest and greatest and say, “We're doing 8K, we're doing AI, we're doing machine learning.”? Or, they're just jumping on the latest? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, and I think, that's what companies do, and they always have to make the next product a little bit better than the previous one. So 8K is a natural next step and I'm glad you brought up this idea of AI as well, because that's also very different from where we were during the 4K transition. 

Upscaling in the 8K TV, AI based or machine learning based and neural network based now is a  completely different technology from when we had upscaling and 4K TVs. AI is being used in the encoding space as well to help reduce those bit rates and do seen optimized encoding now. So we're just at the very beginning of this AI capability and the cloud capability. So the combination of these I think is going to be very powerful.

If you're using display technology that has AI based upscaling and it's that good, do you really even need to produce at native 8K or are you in a lot of situations and are going to be just fine with 4K upscaled? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, today that's a very acceptable solution. In fact, it has to be the solution because that's what we have out there.

But one of the scenarios that we're trying to standardize in the 8K Association is, we don't really have a good name for this yet, let's call it Smart Streaming just for purposes. But the idea here is that you encourage those 8K camera original files to now be mastered in 8K, so you create a naked finished movie or piece of content. 

You now smartly downscale that to 4K with some metadata about how you did that. You now use conventional encoding techniques, HEVC, or AV1 to distribute that content the way streamers are doing that now and if you have an 8K TV, you can now read this metadata smartly, upscale that back to 8K and theoretically, that gets pretty close to a native 8K distribution scheme in terms of image quality.

If we're talking about four to five to six years before 8K is really settled in, companies that are thinking right now about a refresh of their display technology and the supporting infrastructure for the digital signage network they're running across whatever environment it may be in, do they need to be future-proof now? 

Or they're fine with what they have at the moment and they can just have in their heads that the next refresh cycle, we'll be looking at 8K?

Chris Chinnock: I think it depends on the number of pixels they want to put up there. If it's a big canvas with a fairly tight pixel pitch, which means it's a lot of pixels then absolutely, I would be thinking of a higher network structure for that. If it's a smaller display with a bigger pixel pitch, then maybe you don't necessarily need it. 

And we're talking 8K, but I have seen the stories for 12K and I believe even 16K. Are those things that will exist beyond labs? 

Chris Chinnock: I would not underestimate that capability, yes. I believe that will probably happen and we'll go through this whole cycle again. “No one could see it. We don't need it. It's too expensive.” 

I read something saying 16K is pretty much perfection, that's like 20/20 equivalent, perfect eyesight. You're seeing everything! 

Chris Chinnock: That depends on the screen size. 

Ah, okay. This is all over my head. 

Chris, how did you get involved with the association? 

Chris Chinnock: I was actually asked by the TV manufacturers to help form it. So I said, yes. 

And is this a full-time gig or among the many things you do? 

Chris Chinnock: No, it's one of several things that I do, yeah. 

Just for the listeners, what kind of work do you do? 

Chris Chinnock: I've been in the display industry for close to a thousand years now. (Laughter)

I've done all kinds of things. We published newsletters for quite a while. We did market research reports, consulting services. I've run a bunch of events on this. I do white papers for clients, et cetera, et cetera. So my focus has always been on the cutting edge of display related technology. So 8K is one of them. 

I'm also very active in the light field and holographic displays, AR and VR are key areas for me and micro-LED and mini-LED is also an exciting technology for me as well. 

Yeah, and the fun thing is everything you're looking at is ever evolving and always interesting.

Chris Chinnock: That's why this job is fun. I learn something every day, right? 

Yeah. That's the same with me. People ask me, I'm in my early sixties now and people are asking me, “Are you thinking of winding down?” And I say, not really because the stuff I work on is interesting and I follow the stuff that's emerging and that's always fun.

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. I'm with you. 

All right, Chris, I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Chris Chinnock: I appreciate the time. Thanks, Dave.

 

Bill Robertson, NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance

Bill Robertson, NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance

March 10, 2021

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

Suppose something bad happens - like a tsunami or a gas leak - and the alert messaging comes up on TVs and digital signage screens in English text. That's great, except if much of the viewing audience consists of first-generation immigrants who barely speak or read English.

It's pretty much the problem, right now, with public alert systems, and a volunteer organization called the NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance is trying to fix that. Called NVISA for short, the body has come up with a way to add universal graphic elements to emergency alerts.

Called Visually Integrated Display Symbology (or VIDS), the system can be adopted across a wide range of communications platforms, notably digital signage.

In this podcast, I speak with alliance member Bill Robertson about the thinking behind these graphical alerts. We also get into detail of how digital signage network operators and solutions providers can plug into the system and put it to work.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Bill, thank you for joining me. What is the NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance and why did you form it? 

Bill Robertson: The NVISA, as we call it is a group of like-minded initially technology companies that had different pieces of technology that were primarily focused at the upcoming ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard. We had different elements that we could use or leverage and many of us that formed the NVISA were members of the ATSC, what was referred to as the “I Team”, implementation team, where we talked about this and helped present some of the elements that are the standards that embodied in ATSC 3.0. We saw more opportunity in getting together and not just being standards based and focused on those particular things, but how could we leverage this? What could we do together as a group, again, of like-minded individuals to be able to represent these things.

And some of it too is not necessarily having to wait until people adopt that new standard, but what could we do today? What could be leveraged with even today's technology? So the initial start was some technology companies, but more broadcasters and other people have joined the Alliance to help modulator what's going on, what and how it could fit, what other things we could do.

So it's been a nice thing about this next gen video thing does not necessarily say that it's gotta be the next in this type of standards implementation, but what else could we do to improve the whole idea of information? 

Okay. So I was interested in this because I got a press release talking about how your organization had put together a series of recommendations for symbols to use for alerts, correct?

Bill Robertson: Yeah, and that was actually our first product in Working Group 1. I was a chairman of that particular group and what we focused on is a recognition that there are things in the broadcast groups in North America, primarily the United States and Canada, where there are members of the community, emergency managers, females on the United States side, whether Canada on the Canadian side, that issue alert information and the alerts can go out over radio, in audio broadcast and they can also go over television. People have seen these in the United States, they're usually accompanied with different tones to get your attention, to make sure you understand, “Hey, this is an alert. This is information.” 

Well, the interesting thing about those is they're represented in, if it's a television thing, there's an oral component and a visual component. We've got text crawl, we've got audio that's associated with it. The trick is that those particular things have never been really associated with something that wasn't texts that had to be read. Or it might be a full screen display that takes over the primary programming and displays what the event is about. But we've seen more of a situation where if we could represent those with a graphical element, we could do a couple of more things. Number one, you're not reliant on them being able to read the particular alert, what it is. That seems a little strange, only in the fact that if English or French may not be your native language, let's say we needed to represent something to a Spanish community, to a Slavic community, whatever it might be, that if we can use symbols that are more generally understood to represent a particular event that's happening at that time, we think that is a better way to help communicate. 

So it's not just saying, you have to have the text and you have to have a crawl representation or you have to have a full screen slate, but many times, when you see this, if you see a lot of other symbols, like Stop signs’ got a standard shape for them and people will know what they mean, others signs, things like that represent information that can be conveyed without having to do any kind of motion, without having to display anything else. If we can put that symbol up there, we can definitely communicate. 

There must have been a lot of debate around the symbols?

Bill Robertson: There's some interesting things around that. There actually was a good body of work that was already done. So we leveraged a lot of that and some of these are ISO standards. There's actually an ISO standard on different societies; it's actually referred to as societal security emergency management guidelines for color coded alerts. In that standard they represent, okay, “here's a color code” and we adopted that into our recommended practice. One thing I should point out too is NVISA's not a standards group. We are coming together as a coalition of people and we're publishing these kinds of work as a recommended practice. So it's an idea that, here's some things that we've put together as like-minded individuals and we think has roots not only in this particular part of the industry, but in many other things, again, wherever there's visual displays and digital signage is the perfect example. Hundreds of thousands of these displays all over the place that could take advantage of a similar kind of thing. And by us mapping these things or looking at these symbols and bringing that together, it really helps. 

Another ISO standard for graphical symbols for public information, again, most of these, by the way, tie with hazardous waste or potential electrocution, you've seen some of these things as you approach a building many times, those kinds of things, but there's another group that's called the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS goes by the acronym, NAPSG and they've done quite a bit that goes beyond just electrical symbols or gas, chlorine gas, natural gas, those kinds of symbols that you would put up as warnings to the general public. But they've done things to incorporate elements like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. 

And so we leveraged a lot of the work that was done and didn't just say, “okay, we're going to take this symbol.” Now some of the symbols, I will tell you, are a little complex if you start to squeeze them down onto a small display size, but they do a pretty good job of conveying the information. A tornado looks like a tornado, the symbol is pretty well described. There's other things too, where a flash flood looks like a house with waves so you know there's things going on. 

What we had to do was they didn't cover a lot of the event codes that are used in public alerting. So we had to either craft a couple of things around it, or reference them in a slightly different way. There's things that can be communicated to the public that are just simply information, for example, a school closing would be an information. It doesn't have to have a sign that might jump at you and scare you into action, but it's an informational type of thing. Maybe an exclamation mark or maybe we did a little cloud symbol with an ellipse to say, “Hey, there's information here, and pay attention to it.”

One of the important things that we did was not just about the symbols, but was also in adapting these ISO standards for people that are colorblind and to reference the symbol with the particular essence of the alert, “is this a really traumatic type of event?” For example, a tornado is a pretty substantive short fuse, quick action type of thing. Your life, limb, property are in potential danger. So we escalated some of these alerts to be represented not only by the symbol, but we added something to the symbol where we did a double underline and that was again to reference this, if I just put up the same symbol, for example, flash flood and flood watch look like the exact same symbol, but by adding a color border around them, we can represent them differently. So red with a double underlined says, “Hey, pay attention” More information to exchange and reference things. “Hey, this is an important thing.” “It's red.” “It's got this.” 

We also looked at the idea of contrast so that if the font was done in a proper way, and it had a certain speed to it, things like that, but it would be enough contrast. So people that had again, either colorblindness, maybe in the red, green spectrum or other things like that would still be able to at least read the text or be able to discern the difference because the double underline is different than a single underline or no underline. And that's again, the basis of what we did.

Yes, there was some debate, there was a lot of stuff, but I think we centered on some really good elements that we came up with to really represent what we were trying to go after. 

Yeah, I think there are three tiers of alerts. Is that accurate? 

Bill Robertson: We actually have five groups and that doesn't mean that the symbols change but group one, which is the most important one, for example, I use a tornado warning, something that has a substantial impact and again, a short fuse, it's a very timely thing you needed to take notice very quickly. In group one and group two, we use the same symbols. We use the same color background, but we have a unique thing that we set. One of them is an example. If you were to tune into your TV set and you happened to be watching while the alert is being sent, the typical scenario is that the alert pops up there, maybe we can put the symbol up there too, the alert scrolls by, and then it's over. It's done. You switch back to regular programming. 

The trick there is that the alert is still active. The alert hasn't gone away. The fact that you're still in a danger situation is still there. It just so happens that it just doesn't show up on the TV screen. So what we've done is set up a situation where the symbol would pop up and then the crawl or the text information would be displayed associated with that. Now, when I talk about a crawl, typically on television, you're familiar with these things, ticker-tape crawls, we went across that kind of stuff. Again, if that symbol pops up with it, you've got some association. If it goes away or let's say you tune in after it's already displayed, you don't know you're under an alert.

So we have a scenario that says: Group one has the symbol and the text displayed together. Group two uses the symbol, but no text. The nice thing about that is, for example, you might have a, let's say a tornado warning for an hour. You're in an active storm cell area. You've got a tornado warning and it's active for an hour. So now I can pop up the thing with the texts, say you're under a tornado warning, but then I can leave the symbol on the screen. It's not really blocking a lot of other information and programming is still up, but I've got persistence in that group too, that says I can leave the symbol up for the duration of the alert, not meaning I know how long the crawl is, but the duration of the alert says, what does the emergency management group say the duration of this event is, and keep it up for that period of time. So we've got like a watermark. So it's using the same symbol, it's in the same position and everything.

And so when when the crawl goes away or that information goes away, that symbol can persist. Now, this has deeper meaning in the future, that might be a clickable type of link. So here's an example:say the alerts have already been broadcast, the alert, the audio, everything has already gone. I tune in 10 minutes later. I see the screen. It's got that little icon up there. I wonder what that's about. I don't have to go search someplace else. It could be a clickable link. So on my smart TV or my display or whatever device I happen to be viewing this particular content on. I could click on that and it would take me to a page or to an area where I could find out more information about what that event is, what's going on, do I need to be prepared for what's happening? 

So that persistence in those really severe alert things really helps us set a standard and I say that loosely in a standard body type of thing, but in a way of representing important information and giving guidance on how it could be used to form a sense of iconography that people could use in the rest of their display technology.

So what would happen if this wasn't done, or I guess because this is just brand new, what's happening right now in terms of alerts. Is it just a problem that a lot of it's in text and it's just an English? 

Bill Robertson: Yeah. You're going right down that path. The situation that we have, and obviously I'll speak a little bit more to the United States because of the EAS system in the United States, the primary alerts are done in English. That's it, that's the kind of the native thing it's done in English even if it's a Spanish station. The worst case scenario is it could be a Spanish radio station and you’re still going to get the alerts in English. And that's not very good for that audience. 

So in the same context you would have English text information on a Spanish channel, so if you're looking at a video display and all of the programming, all the advertisement, everything else is all in Spanish, you've got your target market. All of a sudden, I pop up in emergency information, which emergency managers are really seeking to communicate to as many people as they possibly can. I want you to get this information out. It needs to disseminate to as many people as possible. 

And so if you just typically look at the normal things, there's no sign, there's no icon. You're going to get an English text crawl. You're going to get English audio over a Spanish station. That's not very good in really trying to communicate what's going on and to whom they can really discern that information and take action on it. The idea of this alerting is to be able to know whether you need to take action and what type of action you need to take. Typically that's described in these alerts, that's an important situation. 

So the idea is if we can take this stuff forward and people start to adopt this “VIDS” idea or this visual information display symbology. That's how we've coined the term VIDS to represent and do a better job of leveraging the stuff we've already vetted out. We vetted out the icons we've done the colors. We've done a lot of other things. It doesn't mean people couldn't modify that if they want it to, if there's something that they want to present a slightly differently, perhaps for a station ID type thing, but it's really to help bring this together. Bring this symbol that is universal. If there's no language issue with presenting the symbol and therefore it can be more easily discerned by people that don't have that native language skill or a may not be able to read the text, may have a visual impairment about reading it, or don't have the language skills because it's done only in one particular language.

And I assume it's important to have everybody on the same page in terms of the symbology use, because if you have five ways of showing a condition, you're just causing people to look at it twice and go, “okay, what does this mean?” 

Bill Robertson: Exactly and that's why, again, what we did is, we didn't invent that. It wasn't an idea. In fact we loathed the idea of trying to build graphic symbols because a lot of the stuff was already done. It’s “can we leverage them?” 

And by leveraging the stuff that's already out there and doing a little bit of improvement in what we think is by adding the double underline, so you can differentiate both the elevation of the alert, because again, the symbols could be the same in a flash flood and a watch, which isn't as meaningful or impactful if it was a flash flood warning that, that's the next step up. 

So that actually by the way, ties back into the group. So group one is the event codes or the event information is displayed with a symbol. Group two is the symbol-only to persist for those really important alerts. And then we go into group three, which has a yellow color again, focusing on what we should do for cautions or warnings and types of things. It uses a single underline under the symbol, again, to differentiate it, so we know where we are with the symbol, and represent that in terms of, “Hey, this is something of importance. It's not as critical as a red alert, but you've got a yellow alert.” So again, that color coding, we think is important. There's blue that we do with some symbols and most of the blues are done as informational types of things. Again, it's not a critical life/limb/property type of event, but it's something that's informational. Again, school closings or a road closure someplace because of Some kind of construction thing or accident even as it may be. 

And then the final one, is group five is a green background, no underline under the symbol. And that's really, again, a level of information, but they're typically for tests. So this is just, you could in essence, ignore it. “Don't worry, it’s green. Everything's okay. We're fine.” It's just up there to help say, okay, I can't read the text, but I understand this is just a simple message. No action necessary. 

So I'm an end-user with a digital signage network of some kind, let's say on a university campus, or I'm a digital signage software vendor, or a subscription content service as well.

How do I use this? How do I plug into it? What are the implications of operating it? 

Bill Robertson: We've had a couple of companies already implement VIDS in their character generation devices. One of our partner companies in NVISA has done this and we actually have some examples of what this looks like, which I can send you the YouTube video links I think would be very nice because again, when people see it, in a classic sense, a picture tells a thousand words and so they can see it and they get a better understanding of what these different types of things look like.

But for the content providers and especially the digital signage network, we would love to see them adopt this similar thing. And there's a couple of things around it, but again, the symbols are there. We have them available in JPEG and SVG format so they can grab the symbols. We've gotten the table already built for what event codes they're associated with. So we've done a lot of the groundwork. All we need is more people to gather the information that we've already provided and adopted into their product. 

The one thing that they will need in that environment and we've seen a lot more of this, and this is coming from my work, let me say my day job at digital alert systems,is we build the devices that listen for the event codes, that listen for the emergency managers and even in some respects the emergency managers use our equipment to generate the alerts that go out over the air, over the internet. And when we receive those, we can pass that information into the signage systems, into the character generators, into those things. So in other words, for the most part, they're doing their normal thing. They're showing and displaying the content that is already set up for that sign. if it's a map in a mall, if it's a menu in a restaurant type of thing, whatever it may be, they're doing their normal work. We can send them a message over IP that just says, “Hey, if this display is in this location, given some geo coordinates about where it might be, then here is the alert that you're currently under.” And Dave, part of the stuff that I look at around this is there's an idea that in college campuses and facilities, enterprise facilities that have a lot of signage around in their particular campus areas, they live in what I call a hyper bubble.

So it's a hyper-local bubble there. They're sitting here and they get information and they exchange it inside the building or inside the campus. There's not a lot of recognition of events that might be going outside that could impact them. Again, there's a lot more of these and we've been doing a lot of work in my day job about facility managers and other things about adopting this type of technology, because if I'm in that environment and what's really good, is these signage elements have a great way to communicate. It's fast, it's a great way to communicate, you can get very impactful messages, and when I say impactful, I'm talking about again, just because I get an alert, what I want to do is know, okay, I'm under an alert, but what should I do? If it's a gas leak, is it chlorine gas or is it natural gas? What should I do? 

Those things all come into play about information that you can exchange about these. Plume maps, there's a whole range of different things.

If we can then pierce that hyper-local bubble and bring in information. So for example, a campus is part of a city, part of a County, part of a state, and there may be events that are happening across that entire environment that they need to know what to do and if we can bring that information in and transfer it into those signage components and it's in a form that’s not only well known or is going to hopefully become more well-known in the typical broadcast community and cable casting community, then these people will recognize, “Oh, okay. I see it. I've got an alert information and I can display it.”

That's using an interim box of some kind that's sniffing for all that stuff. What happens right now, if I'm in a jurisdiction where there's an Amber alert, or if there is some other kind of public safety alert, that's pushed out to smartphones and to broadcasters and so on? 

Are they also using some sort of an interim device or is it just sniffing like a data cell or getting something triggered out to it that causes a message to pop? 

Bill Robertson: There's a couple of different things because, in the United States and Canada, the United States has what's called FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they have a server that is called IPAWS which stands for Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS) and it uses a technology that's called CAP (Common Alert Protocol). Again, we're talking about the government, so there's going to be acronyms. 

There's a similar type of thing that is run by a private company in Canada, and that entire methodology of alerts go through those kinds of clearing houses. Now the important thing too, is not every alert goes into those servers. In a local thing, let's go with some Teton County, for example and I want to generate an alert, it might just go out over the air and the sheriff there generates the alert. It goes out over the air. It never goes and sees IPAWS. So you can have some local ones and if you're not watching for those, you may miss them, but there is this idea of these integrated servers in Canada and in the United States. 

The problem is those devices or those servers serve a ton of information because there's a lot of agencies that are on them. What you need to do is to act correctly and so at every television station, every radio station, every cable head-in, there is this intermediate box that its job is to listen and monitor those things and it's also set up with a set of filters. So it's looking, saying, “okay, I've got all of this information, but is it important to me?”

Number one, does it rise to the level that I've set? I'm not going to get every alert and broadcast it, then you end up with a really bad situation of just constantly crying Wolf and no one pays attention to it. So the idea is to have a device, an intermediate device that monitors this feed, these feeds, and it says, “okay, is it for my area? Does it rise to the occasion that I need to pay attention to it?” And if it does, I basically need to decode that and turn it into text and audio because many times, for example, the ones in Canada, they don't come with audio. We actually use a text to speech engine to create that, and cause it to create the audio for the particular message. 

So the nice thing about that is: that capability that idea of having this intermediate device is to monitor, to look and to format it, so that the downstream devices, the character generators, the digital signage content only have to react to what we say is important because you preset it for what values you want and it has all of the information necessary for that. Here's the text, here's the audio, play this, represent it this way. 

So in a lot of circumstances in the digital signage world I would say 80, 90% of the networks that are out there are running as software as a service. So the end users may be using a service that is used by hundreds of other companies.

Does the central digital signage software CMS company need to have one, a listening device for all of its networks or one for each of its networks, or how would that technically work? 

Bill Robertson: There's a couple of different ways to do it and it's not dissimilar to the way that a lot of cable and even some broadcast companies have done central casting. So they've got remote locations, transmitters set up in one city, but they're actually being fed content from another remote city. 

Depending on the level of engagement, and the reason I say that level of engagement is in the United States, the FCC says that you have to have very specific standards. In other words, there's a requirement that says you must monitor off air signals and you must monitor the FEMA iPAWS feed. Again, that's under the purview of the FCC, for example, or in Canada, the equivalent situation where you are required to do that. In an area it's not a requirement, you can phase yourself into that and that way, if the central CMS system has the capability of discerning, “If I send it to five areas.” And in Canada there are SGC or special geographic codes in the United States. It's they're called FIPs codes, very similar to ZIP codes so that you've got an area that is defined.

If I send 10 different area codes, let's just use that as the idea. If I send 10 different area codes to the CMS, then the digital signage content management system is able to say, “This is an alert for this area code and I can send the alert information only to those receiving points.” So if I have the capability of breaking up my content or the alert going into those receive points, then you can do it in a central point because I can assemble it back to that central point, I can send information out and it's a great way to do it. It really is going to be dependent on kind of the design typology and how much addressability that CMS provides for different locations. 

All right. So if I am, again, an end-user or a digital signage solutions provider of some kind. I've read about this, I've listened to this podcast, and they're interested, what do they do? 

Bill Robertson: One thing that they could do right now is they can download the VIDS document the recommended practices from the NVISA website that's www.nvisa.org and so  if you go to the nvisa.org website, you can download this recommended practices and the symbology. Once they take a look at that and understand what we're talking about in the context of the symbols and things like that, we can make available the symbol set, we've got that available for them, and we can talk to them more about specifics on integration and then some of the other companies that they can talk to about how they would be able to assimilate that information, get it into their displays, where does the information come from? How was it received? What protocols are used? And that kind of stuff. So we can take them through a number of different things, but I really would encourage them to take a look at our recommended practices.

One of the things that we did in the practice document is make sure that it wasn't based on things like scan lines or pixels but really is a ratio, it's a relationship because if it's a 16:9 display, or if we rotate it for a vertical presentation where it's 9:16 or something else we want to be able to have the the icons and these text types of elements in the same relative position. Again, if it's a smaller screen, I'm not giving you fixed sizes for the number of pixels, there's a ratio of banner height to symbol height and that's an important distinction too, so that we can be very flexible in whatever format the display might be.

All right. That was terrific. Very interesting stuff. Thank you so much for spending some time with me, Bill. 

Bill Robertson: Dave. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. 

Again, if they just visit the www.visa.org website, take a look at the documentation, give us a shout, let us know if we can help!

 

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

February 17, 2021

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

Gary Mundrake's company, TSItouch, has a tag line that flat out says The World Needs More Touch.

He'd like, of course, to sell the world more touch technology, but there's a larger story about his 10-year-old company's activity in the digital signage and pro AV marketplace. He and his team sell the technology, but they're also evangelists for interactive touch.

The company sells a range of touch technologies that generally get applied as retrofits to commercial displays, making them interactive. When the pandemic really started hitting about a year ago, there was a lot of debate about the future of touch screens. Would people still be willing to use them, if they were a host for contagions?

While there have been reports here and there suggesting the virus can live on a surface for a long time, the prevailing opinion from medical research is that surfaces like touchscreens present far, far less risk than one-to-one interactions with other people.

So getting things done by touchscreen is likely going to be faster, easier, better and safer than dealing one to one at an order counter.

We talk about the touch business in broad strokes, how certain technologies apply, how the past  year has been and how the next months look for TSItouch and the touch ecosystem.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Gary, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what TSItouch is all about? 

Gary Mundrake: Thanks for having me, David. TSItouch primarily manufactures touchscreen and protective solutions for large format displays, as well as a lot of video walls. Obviously there’s some other ancillary things we do, but that's our primary focus., 

avid: Oh so that's why you call yourself touch? 

Gary Mundrake: Make sense when you think about it. 

You have this tagline on LinkedIn and elsewhere that talks about the world needing more touch. What do you mean by that? 

Gary Mundrake: Metaphorically, I guess in the age of COVID, we're all looking for more touch, just human interaction. But purely as a marketing tagline, the world needs more touch. We're trying to promote touch screens, but with a little tongue in cheek, just the world needs more touch in general. 

You have in your product line, a bunch of different kinds, there's PCAP, there's IR and there's I think ShadowSense. Why are there different types of touch overlays and how do they sort themselves and how do you know what to use for what? 

Gary Mundrake: So and we back up a little bit, I say this often I say: touch is a commodity if you think about it in the market space, it's a commoditized product. Where we differentiate is everybody wants that commoditized price, but they all want a custom solution. So when you take and compare responsiveness to features, to aesthetics, to price, you end up in a situation where one size doesn't necessarily fit all well. So while we have a run rate of all those different products, it's really matching the solution to the end customer and that means matching the touch functionality with the display functionality in the environment they plan to use it.

So you have to have that broader selection of solutions. We do a lot of touch, obviously for Samsung, NEC, LG, and those type of display manufacturers and if you look at all of these displays they have, the reason that they have more than one 55-inch display is that they have different markets and are trying to meet with it much like we have more than one type of touch solution for that 55-inch display.  

The theory being is to get the customer what suits their needs best not what we are trying to sell.

When it comes to, the one I'm most familiar with is PCAP, because that's what we use on everything from tablets to smartphones, is that by far the most demanded product? 

Gary Mundrake: In the large format market space, It's really not even close to the demand for IR. The reason for that is IR, relatively speaking is a much lower cost solution and it meets the needs of so many customers. It just meets the bill. 

When touchscreens started coming out, you can thank Steve Jobs for making them ubiquitous to the end-user. When they first started coming out, we had companies that bought touchscreens and we'd say what do you plan on doing with it? They're like, we don't know, but we just want to have a touchscreen. They were willing to buy touchscreens because they were touchscreens, not because they had an application. If you fast forward to where we are now in the market space, people view touchscreens almost like cash registers in retail and digital signage. 

The touchscreen isn't the selling feature, it's the functionality they want. They want that to be almost invisible to the fact that it's there if that makes sense. So it's about performance and cost and application. Other retail environments we operate in, where aesthetics is more important than functionality, and other environments where the price is more important than aesthetics, and then sometimes applications won't work in this environment or that won't work in that environment. 

A good example is, if you're familiar with the LG and Samsung outdoor displays that are getting fairly ubiquitous, they come on a factory-installed protective glass that prevents you from putting PCAP on it. So we use outdoor IP65 rated IR. Most people when they call you their first question is can I get a PCAP on this? Because they think that's what is the right solution? But the reality is it's not because you can't apply a PCAP to that display. So it's constantly tailoring the need but IR is consistently the go-to product for price and functionality.

So with IR, you're not going to get the degree of maybe accuracy and snappiness that you might get off of PCAP, but you can do it at far less cost. Is that a way of describing the trade-off? 

Gary Mundrake: No, the trade-off isn't really accuracy. The accuracy of IR, it’s s actually more accurate than PCAP. If you think about it, PCAP is effectively a grid of invisible wires running through the glass and most manufacturers of PCAP have a set number of wires. So you have X running vertically and X running horizontally. So on a 55-inch, the space in between that wire set is X, when you go to a 98-inch, the space in between that wire set gets much bigger, which results in a loss of fidelity. 

Whereas in IR you're adding more LEDs to the strips to accommodate for the size. So your accuracy stays linear from a 32-inch up to a 32-foot video wall. It's really the aesthetics people like PCAP because it's got that flat front aesthetic. It does give you a little bit smoother perception, but functionality. I think the IR is performing just as well. But aesthetically, it's never going to look as well. 

And with IR, just to describe it, you've got these rails that sit around the perimeter of the display right, and then it's triangulating where your finger is?

Gary Mundrake: That's correct. yeah. So you're essentially blocking light with the IR and those rails, now there are different technologies within IR, some are made better than others and then if you take something like the ShadowSense, which we mentioned earlier, which is almost a hybrid of that IR and some cameras, if you think back to the old day of the optical touch, that's no longer used, but that gives you a little bit more of fidelity and functionality beyond PCAP and IR. 

How do you handle IR outside? I'm looking outside right now, up here in Nova Scotia and we had, I think, 16 inches of snow yesterday and I'm wondering about digital street posters with all that snow sitting in the frame of this thing.

Gary Mundrake: Sure. So we actually deployed about 50 of these to the Nova Scotia ferry system about two years ago. Not Nova Scotia. The other side of Canada, British Columbia.

But that was an issue and a concern they had as well. So when we do outdoor touchscreens, it goes back to that solution that meets your needs, not what we're offering. So if you're in an environment where you're going to see snow load, then we actually integrate a heater system into the IR touchscreen with a thermostat in it. So it melts that snow that accumulates on the shelf. If you're going to be near a very wet environment, like along the coast, then we incorporate stainless steel, even though it's powder-coated it turns out powder coat doesn't really stand up to the abuse of the ocean spray for any little nick. 

So you can take a standard outdoor display and for a 55-inch, we actually make, I think it's six different products depending on the environment, they all have the exact same functionality per se, to the end-user, but the built processes are different, and the components are different depending on the application. So I think what you’ll see is, our sales team spends very little time selling and very much time consulting. It's understanding what's your application and not just your application, meaning it's retail or it's corporate, but it's the environment that it's going to operate in and all those other factors 

Is your sales team talking directly to end-users, or are you dealing much more with manufacturers and solutions providers?

Gary Mundrake: I would say that it's mostly with the solution providers, the integration companies that are all out there, but for more complicated projects, we end up working directly with the end-users through the resellers.  We actually sell directly to end-users.

Our goal is to sell through the resellers and distribution partners, but we do spend a lot of time visiting with end-users, consulting with them in conjunction with our reseller partners. 

Which makes sense. So we've been going back and forth since COVID hit and talking about the impact this was going to have on the touchscreen business, when it first bubbled up, me not knowing anywhere near as much about the touch industries as you did wonder, what this was going to mean and whether it was the end of touch screens, as we knew it, at least for a while, and that hasn't played out that way at all, has it? 

Gary Mundrake: So it has not. When COVID first hit and became really full-blown, I would say a bit of a pause. I would say that over the past 10-11 months that we've been going into this, it has been a great opportunity for other forms of interactivity to get some press and get out in the public and deal with questions like is voice going to work, is gesture gonna work, will QR codes work? And I think in some instances, there are some companies that have come out and they've done well by COVID, not implying they tried to take advantage of it. But, it gave them an opportunity for their capabilities to get some sunshine and maybe some more serious luck than they would have pre-COVID. But that being said, there's nothing that's been out there, and we look at it I would say daily, that's really come in and said, this is the game-changer.

My argument since we started this company in 2011 has been that way as long as your primary method of interfacing with your cell phone is a touch screen, that's going to be the primary method of interfacing with digital signage. When cell phones start using something else as a primary method of interface, that's when we need to really look and start really doing a shift. 

It's helped as well that the science and the findings that are coming out of all this are evolving and whereas in the early stages, there seemed to be this sense that touching things was dangerous, over time it's evolved to the realization that surfaces are not a particularly efficient carrier or host or whatever you want to call it for COVID that the risk is exponentially higher in talking one-to-one with people, right? 

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. I believe when COVID first started coming out, there was an overabundance of caution and concern and a lot of unknown and certainly, over time, it has become apparent that pathogens can pass on a surface. They always have, and always will be able to, but the probability of someone becoming infected with COVID by touching a surface is very small and the probability of you contacting COVID by touching a touchscreen is even smaller. As an example, I used a few months ago, if you can open up, pick your retail establishment and a person can get in the door. So they opened the door. They pick up products, they pick up merchandise, they pick up food, they go to the counter, they use the restroom. If you can do all those things by your touch screen is where people are going to get infected, it just doesn't make sense. I think that most markets have accepted that fact.

And some markets have made touch as the method to communicate. They went the other way. They said I can clean a touchscreen so if you don't have to talk to the person at the counter, you're not going to get a person to person transmission, because it turns out machines aren't actually breathing, coughing, or sneezing and they're fairly easy to clean, but I can't really wipe down the person at the counter. 

Yeah, I noticed that going back to April or something, there was a demo for a McDonald's in the Netherlands and they had their self-directed, self-guided ordering kiosk in place and that was their primary form of transactions for exactly that reason. McDonald's made the decision that yes, you're going to touch something, but this is way safer than talking to somebody four feet away over an ordering counter and that was my big molar to realize, “now I get why this would make more sense.”

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. Last fall, probably I guess maybe the September, October timeframe. We did, I don't know, maybe 150 screens that went into a hospital network. I don't know West Coast, entirely for visitor check-in because they didn't want visitors coming into the hospital to approach people behind the counter and they did a pretty rapid deployment of a lot of screens into that one hospital network. And by and large, it seems that larger rollout type customers, people that have been doing, I'd almost call them rolling rollouts for years, they just continued through the pandemic. They just kept doing it. Some companies that were starting to do rollouts apart of the pandemic went on pause, and now we're starting to see them reappear and reinitiate, but certainly, it impacted our business. We took about a 30% hit in revenue last year. We did keep our staff, but we took the revenue hit, but we are seeing a continued positive trend. I wouldn't say that we're back to where we were going into this but I do see that sometime April-May, we'll start seeing a real trend toward our revenue returning back to its pre-COVID days. 

Is the business, do you expect it to be the same, or has it evolved in terms of the profile of applications?

Gary Mundrake: So the touch applications haven’t really evolved that much. We, as a company have evolved a little bit. As I said, in the intro, we're primarily manufacturers of touchscreen or protective solutions. So we're seeing more emphasis on protective solutions, but also concurrent with what we've said, okay, what else can we do to bring in revenue?

When you're seeing, revenue declines and that, what else can we do? So we've started doing some kitting for customers. It turns out we sell one component of our solution, most of the time when you're installing a touchscreen, you've got a touch screen display, a player, a mount, and other attributes that go with it. And historically, we build up kits of these and ship them out to the customer. And over the past 8-10 months, we've gotten more into putting this all together. So we'll ship this project for you and we'll ship you out the whole solution to your retail store or to wherever it's going to. So they get one pallet.

 So it's kinda, it's moving away from our core business and I don't want to say that that's what we want to become. But, it offsets some of our costs. That's not a wildly profitable business, but it does offset some costs. So we do those kinds of things. But I think by and large, the market will come back to touch and we'll be doing pretty much what we were doing two years ago, two years from now. 

So I'm curious if you're seeing new kinds of applications. I wonder about things like remote meetings now that we're all trained to and conditioned to doing Zoom calls all day long and team meetings and so on. 

If I was in a Home Depot and I was trying to figure out how the hell to do something with plumbing, which is terrifying for me. If I could talk to a subject matter expert from Kohler, from the floor, I would rather do that than talk to some guy in an orange vest who may or may not know anything about plumbing and it might be just talking out of his butt.

Gary Mundrake: So there's this whole idea of doing things remotely and the example is an interesting one and it puts a lot of flavor and context around that. The issue that I think you run into in that environment is if I go into a retail store and we do a lot of displays for retail stores and some big box stores, people don't necessarily want to communicate with somebody else. That's why they want to use the touch screen. They want to be able to go in and do it at their own pace and browse their own way. 

Like you said, the guy in the orange vest may not know what he's talking about, but the people that are looking for that kind of help, they're probably not going to feel comfortable doing it over the VTC per se, they're going to do it at home before they go shop, before they go into the big box store. If I need to understand how to, I'm trying to think of something, you would go to Home Depot and not know how to do it, so what kind of hinges to put on the cabinet door? 

I think most people have researched online before they went to the store. I don't think they would get to the store and then say, “Oh, I'll go up to this kiosk. I'll hit a button,” and one the backend of that, managing that capacity loading on the back end of it. So you've got rooms full of people sitting there and I also think, by and large, people don't like talking even though we've all become, video calls are ubiquitous right now. I think by and large people don't really like talking through video machines. VTC has been around for years and years and years, right back to the days of the poly-com even the late 80s, early 90s.

So it's been around 30 years and it has a market space, but I believe people don't want to do it as a routine way to communicate. That's just my opinion. I just don't see it. I think the applications for touch that you'll see post COVID are eliminating that check-in person or adding even more density of touch into retail environments, larger box stores where you can go up to the screen and find your own inventory or find your own part. 

Prior to COVID, we were seeing a lot of it going into the dressing rooms with mirror walls. It was a pretty big uptake in that, but I think by and large people don't want to talk to other people via a camera in a public store. To me, it's the idea of using voice to communicate, get rid of your touch screen, and use voice And I always say, imagine being in the airport, you've got 300 check-in kiosks for a United airlines up there in a row. Can you imagine 300 people simultaneously trying to check in each one, yelling at their own machine? 

I say, the world needs more touch, right? We go back to where we started. People like togetherness. They like feeling together. They like feeling involved. You yelling at a machine is not very comforting.

They also like privacy. So people like to be with other people, but they like privacy. People don't want to stand there in front of a TV and talk to this machine, not knowing how loud the modulator is. So the person on the other end hears them while everybody in the store is hearing and going, who’s that tool? It's like the person that's walking around the store, talking on their cell phone, they're yelling into their phone. Now imagine that, on every aisle, a home Depot somebody's yelling, that'd be entertaining for some people. 

I think the application is more of giving people information that helps them make a buying decision on-premise and that's really where I think in the retail sector, it goes and then in more of the services sector, it's a lot of the wayfinding, the guiding, the check-in tasks that you can eliminate a person for without eliminating the experience. So when you're looking at the hospitality and those environments, they want people to have the experience. So if it comes down to just a mechanical transaction, I don't think hospitality will adopt it. But the flip side of that is, prior to COVID, cruise ships were doing a booming business with touchscreens because it was easy for people to get information: Where am I? Where's my restaurant, my bar, my casino, my pool, my room, all those things. And those kinds of things, I think will come back and I think they'll come back even stronger. Because it gives you an opportunity to review, to give someone instant information that you'd know they're looking for.

Yeah. Cruise ships actually might be safer than they used to be. Just because people will be hypersensitive now to washing their hands and doing all those sorts of things. Not that I'd go on one, but they're probably going to be safer. 

Gary Mundrake: Since we do a lot of business with cruise ships, I'm not going to say anything about cruise ships. (Laughter)

I am curious. There's a company up here in Canada that is marketing elevator buttons that are hover based. So you just have to put your finger near the button, you don't have to touch it cause therefore it's safer and I've seen a number of hover based products like that out there where it's a kind gesture and I keep looking at him and thinking 99% of the people are just going to touch it anyways, if they're a quarter inch or way, they're just going to bang it unless you have somebody right there telling them no, don't touch it.

Do you see any potential for these things? 

Gary Mundrake: No. 

Your elevator button example. How many times have you been in an elevator and somebody pushes the button and the little indicator lights up, “Okay. You selected Floor 47” and they push that same button five more times, even though they have a positive reinforcement of a button and have a back lit light, showing them it's been activated, they keep pushing it anyway.

So you're going to hover and it's going to light up and you're going to assume that worked? If you don't trust the touch, you're going to trust the hover? And to why, again, it goes back to the why, if you're in an elevator, you came from somewhere and you're going to somewhere 

You touched 20 other surfaces on the way in and out. 

Gary Mundrake: And really the elevator button that's what's going to get you? 

It's like having the giant steak and stuffed potato, and five gallons of wine and then saying I can’t have that piece of Pecan pie because I got my health to worry about here. 

Sounds like a good night though. 

Gary Mundrake: It does.

I'm curious about the touch industry as a whole. Is there a Holy grail, something that everybody wants to resolve that still needs to be figured out, or is the Touch industry where it needs to be in terms of the technology? 

Like it does what it needs to do and the big challenges are the normal stuff, like getting costs down, making it more efficient, making it snappier, or whatever?

Gary Mundrake: I think by and large, and I say this right now, and tomorrow I could be made a fool of, but I think the state of the art, it's pretty much there for what you're asking for to do. The real advances, I believe in touch are going to be in the PCAP market that we talked about earlier. If you think about your typical cell phone, that's going to say a 3.5 inch screen or whatever, so the manufacturers spend millions of dollars marrying that perfectly design touchscreen to that perfectly designed device and the interface is perfect all the time and they make millions and millions of them. Whereas we're taking a touchscreen that's made in the thousands and marrying it up to displays that many have never been married to a touch screen and maybe we're only doing it in the hundreds. 

So there's a little bit of finesse involved in adding that PCAP touch to that display and I think the real advancement will be refining that to make that less cumbersome so you don't run into issues with responsiveness in the light because you have a poorly matched solution and it removes that finesse. Now the flip side of that is as long as it requires finesse, it makes it harder for other people to mimic us. But I think that's where the real advance is, it's making that PCAP a more stable product for easier integration. 

And then ultimately of course, like everything, we get asked all the time, “if I buy a million, are they free?” Everybody wants the price to go down. Actually, that's what I tell people. I tell people frequently, even if you buy a million of these, they're never going to get it for free. Some people believe that. Yesterday, in a discussion with somebody, they said what's the price for 500? I said this is the price for 500. And they said, what's the price for 5,000? And I said, really seriously, it is not going to get free. Even if I quote you a million of them. But somehow people have that in their minds. I'm just going to keep buying it, asking for more and more until it gets to free, but it's just not going to go there.

The price will continue to decline. Obviously we've had some impact on the US with tariffs, for products coming out of Asia. Fortunately, we bring products in and out of multiple countries. We don't get hit on every product with that but I think some refinement of the PCAP technology and the price point coming down will only further saturate the market space with the products of touch.

All right. That was great. Thank you very much, Gary, for spending some time with me. I appreciate it. 

Gary Mundrake: Dave. Thanks for having us And please don't forget: the world needs even more touch. 

 

ACE Roundtable: The Tech That Worked In 2020, And Going Forward

ACE Roundtable: The Tech That Worked In 2020, And Going Forward

January 27, 2021

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

Just before Christmas, I moderated an Advocates for Connected Experiences roundtable that tossed around thoughts on what technologies were used to get us all through 2020, focusing on what really worked, and will continue to work into 2021.

It was a video discussion on Zoom, but it translates nicely to audio. I had technical issues with the planned podcast for this week, but this is a worthwhile, albeit last-minute stand-in.

The first voice you hear is Kim Sarubbi, one of the founders of Advocates of Connected Experiences, or ACE.

Also on the discussion, Joe' Lloyd from AVIXA, Kym Frank from Geopath, Beth Warren from CRI and the DSF, Cybelle Jones from SEGD, Bryan Meszaros from OpenEye Global, Asif Kahn from the Location-Based Marketing Association, and myself.

This podcast is produced with the kind, ongoing support of ScreenFeed, the digital signage content store. Get awesome-looking, engaging and automated subscription content for your screens.

 

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient

December 16, 2020

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

There is a long history of very large companies of all descriptions finding their way into the digital signage industry, but they have tended to come in with fanfare and then exit quietly out a side door.

Often, the digital signage effort is a bit of a skunkworks that doesn't have a lot of energy behind it within giant companies that do a 1,000 other things.

That does not appear to be the case with Publicis Sapient, a giant interactive agency that has offices all over the world, 20,000 staffers, and a product and service called Premise, that does digital signage among a bunch of things.

The company has been working on it for 10 years, and has some very big, but unnamed clients using a platform that is all about data and speaks directly to the concept of omnichannel and the goal of producing content once and publishing to many devices and platforms.

Jackie Walker has been working on Premise since it was just a notion, and is what they call the capability lead. We had a great chat about the roots of Premise, how the team works with clients, and the present and future of signage, which is all about APIs, data and the end of walled software gardens.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, Jackie, we haven't met in person, but it's great to meet you virtually. I have certainly known about Publicis for many years at Sapient and when you were dabbling or when the company was dabbling in signage through Sapient Nitro. So I was intrigued recently when I saw a press release about Sapient and a platform called Premise, and I wanted to find out all about it, and you're the product manager (product lead) on it? 

Jackie Walker: That's right. I have been working on it for the last 11 years, so I am very close to the solution. 

This is your baby. 

Jackie Walker: This is my firstborn, yep. 

Is it temperamental? 

Jackie Walker: Yes. I have had two human babies since, but this is the one. 

Okay, let's go to the very basics of it. What is it? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So let me tell you who we are first, for those of your listeners who don't really know who we are. The Publicis group is, of course, one of the largest media holding companies in the world, with about 80,000 employees. A few years ago, Sapient, which was an independent company, was acquired by Publicis.

So now we are Publicis Sapient. We're about 20,000 employees, in 53 offices worldwide and in terms of our capabilities, we’re basically the digital transformation hub of Publicis group. So we think about strategy, consulting, customer experience, and then agile engineering, and so about half of our people are really technologists and engineers. And we think about how we digitally enable our clients in terms of both, the way that they work and also the way that they serve their customers. So pretty broad scope. 

I've been with the company for over 10 years. This was my first project. It wasn't called a Premise when I joined, and really what we were trying to do was, back then, that was when everybody was just learning how to spell omnichannel and put it on a PowerPoint slide, and really my first project was, we called it the Super Secret Airport Project and back then the idea was to take the airport space (because it is a slightly underserved market) and really think about how we fleshed out an omnichannel solution. So we built this end to end platform that was all about content management, real-time data, airport flight data, and built the solution that would enable our clients to drive their websites, their mobile applications, and then later digital signage from one common platform.

So that was really the frame. 

Was this driven by a client ask or was this like a hole in the market that you guys thought you could fill? 

Jackie Walker: I think it was a “hole in the market”/”wouldn't it be cool if”, right? So there was a group of people in Boston, the spouse of one of our team members who worked for SH&E, an airport consultancy, and they were talking about the ways that airports really struggled to communicate consistently with their customers across channels, right? Back then it was not uncommon that an airport would be operating 3-5 content management systems for each of their individual platforms, and so the idea was that we should consolidate this, right? We have a unique point of view, we have a skillset to do all of this, website development, app development, content management, system development from an enterprise lens. Let's see where this goes. And then we started signing up airports to actually deliver some of those capabilities.

Now, is it in the DNA of the company to build your own platforms as opposed to partnering? Because 10 years ago, it's not like somebody was wandering around the streets saying, “Please, God, somebody come up with a digital signage CMS.” There were all too many of them. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, that's very true. So we partner a lot and typically, even from the beginning, when we started this program, we were using SDL Tridion, which was a pretty well-established, web, and mobile CMS at that time. That was really the content foundation of what we were building.

We didn't want to build a “CMS” to use that kind of terminology, because most of our clients if you think about it, are operating enterprise CMS solutions, and so part of the “what if?” was, this novel idea that a customer could change their content in one place and that content change would immediately publish on their website, their mobile app, their digital signage, which is a little bit of a different frame of the problem, I think. 

Yeah. Certainly, you know you're joking about omnichannel and learning how to spell it, the whole premise has been around for a very long time, but I've noticed in the last two or three years, it's really come to fruition and you seem to get a lot of pushback from larger companies, potential clients essentially say, “I don't want to have 4-5 different platforms to do my messaging, I want to do it off of one thing and it should go everywhere. I don't want to have this walled garden for digital signage and another walled garden for mobile, communications, and so on.”

Was that the thinking? 

Jackie Walker: A hundred percent, and again, back then, like omnichannel, was a word on a PowerPoint, right? We had these cute diagrams that contained phrases like “all your enterprise services and you're going to have this API layer”, and everybody had to learn how to spell, right? And then all of a sudden magically all these consumer channels are just consuming data consistently through these APIs and it's all gonna work. That was really, I think the North star of that vision, but it's taken a little while for clients to actually get to that level of sophistication and that's been one of the things we've been watching closely is that progression where this dream of having these fully API enabled enterprises is now getting to a point where that is the expectation, right? 

Clients have all their infrastructure in the cloud, they're using common systems. They're starting to do consolidation across content, and now they're starting to do consolidation of data. And to me, that's the other key piece of the puzzle, it’s not just thinking about the content and the customer experience and the POS or the product inventory systems or their content management system, but then also thinking about how their customers interact with all of that data, all of that experience, and making sure that data is able to be used consistently across channels. So no content silos, no data silos. 

And when you started down this path 10 years ago, shared data was not easy. You could have these conversations, but they would say, integrating with our data set and all that is a quarter-million-dollar job, or it's just not possible, or you can't see it where it's not secure or we're worried about it being secure and on, there were all these problems. Now, data's pretty easy to get out, right?

Jackie Walker: That's right, yeah. It's definitely gotten much easier and just the flexibility has improved greatly as well. I think clients are used to it as well. You know, you're going to have an interface that you're exposing and then all of your channels that you're deploying are pulling from that content.

So I think, yeah, there's been a huge transformation there, which has been a big enabler. 

Do you have to, when you're working with clients, explain that integrating data is more than just being able to pull a number from one directory or folder or whatever it may be and make it show up on a screen and make it show up on another device, that there's more to it than that? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think that's the thing that's really interesting about digital signage, and I had the benefit of building websites and building mobile apps before we started on digital signage, so I had that digital experience frame of reference, right? This is how it works, this is how you're going to build a web page that's going to be pulling content from 10 or 11 different data sources, stitching that together and you understand how that works. And then you look at digital signage and it's a little bit of a novel problem, right? Because there are some differences with digital signage. Like the analogy I use is, if you build a mobile app, you're going to build one piece of software, you're going to deploy it on a cloud infrastructure, back then it was a physical infrastructure. You deploy it on infrastructure, your problem as the enterprise, like the client-side is worrying that you're hopefully releasing defect-free software and your infrastructure, your cloud is stable, right? You don't have to worry about Tom, Dick and Harry's mobile phone. Do they have connectivity? Is their phone charged? Like all this stuff, right? That's not your problem and the customer understands that. 

With digital signage, every little digital sign you put out in the world is your baby and now you're responsible for making sure that it has power, it has the internet, it has content, no matter what happens, it has content, and so there was a little bit of reframing that we had to overcome to be able to make sure that we were solving that problem comprehensively. And those differences really ended up being what guided the product development for premise and the digital signage solution was this idea that we were thinking about bridging that gap between an API enabled customer ecosystem and deployed digital signage at scale. So we were trying to fill that hole between the two. 

Yeah, there's been any number of very large companies that have decided, we're going to write a digital signage module or we're going to branch into this. And they get a basic platform working where files are playing one after another, maybe not even with a black gap in between them or whatever, and they're rubbing their hands together and saying, “Hey, we've done it!” 

There are a lot of problems that can develop, as you've said, and I suspect you guys discovered over time that once you have all these deployed devices in all kinds of different environments, all kinds of hell can break loose. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely and I think that's an important differentiation too. I think there are so many signage solutions that were born out of looping media, right? And so the conversation is how do I build the best playlist? And there might be interruptions, there might be things that go into that but by and large, you're thinking about full-screen video, how many video segments of the screen can I have, maybe I'll have an RSS ticker, like you're thinking about slicing and dicing the screen, but your primary content is video content.

And I think for us, we've always been approaching this thinking about modularized data-driven content. So even if you think about what we are doing in the airports, we weren't just thinking about a video playlist, we were thinking about what's the list of restaurants that's going to show up. What's the list of restaurants that are going to show up that might be different if I know that there's a flight delay next to that gate, and so all of that is query-based data. 

Back in the day, our first clients were using Flex for the interface. Obviously now everything is HTML5, but it's all modularized content and so I think it's a different way of looking at the content problem as well. Are you thinking about big  full-screen content? Which again, then you're thinking about how you manage a playlist and make sure that your large video files get moved down to the device without getting corrupted, all that kind of stuff.

Whereas if you're thinking about this HTML5 content, it's just a little bit of a different frame of reference in terms of what you have to be able to do, the different pieces that come together to enable that, and then the analytics as well, right? Like how are you getting a level of analytics that is again, akin to what customers are used to from web and mobile channels. 

So tell me what Premise is, and if I'm a cranky CMO or CEO in a meeting with your team, and I say, “why do I need this versus brand X digital signage CMS that I'm already using?”  

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I've had many experiences where I've worked with customers who have already gone through a digital signage selection process, they've already picked their partner. And they say, “Okay, we are working with X platform and now we want to deliver an experience on top of that platform, what can we do?” And the problem is typically that they didn't ask the right questions about the software capabilities when they were doing the platform selection and then when it comes to the time to actually think about the experience, now they're designing backward from the platform capabilities, as opposed to designing forward from the customer experience, which is the position you always want to be in. So I think when I think about what Premise and how it's different, it's really thinking about in-venue experience enablement. 

We say in-venue because we might mean a QSR, we might mean a retail store, we might mean a hotel. So any physical place, we're really focusing on the real-time analytics and AB testing capabilities, and we're focusing on integrations and that is really at the forefront. So if I'm working with a QSR, the starting point is going to be the point of sale, it's going to be their product database, it's going to be their product photography. We're going to want to know as much as possible about their data models and so that we are thinking about it from what can we reuse, what do we tack onto, what are the places where we can create leverage points from what they already have, and then we're filling in the gaps, to be able to support the additional needs for digital signage that are maybe slightly different than what their needs are for web or mobile. 

I might not have big video assets for the web, or certainly for mobile. I might want to use different types of product photography, I might need some different ways of thinking about that. So that's really the approach for us and I think a lot of our clients understand it because they've dabbled and what they've seen with other solutions is that they're not able to get the level of integration that they're expecting.

So they'll go through the initial conversations, the technical design and think we're going to integrate with our CMS. And I think, when you say those words, they can mean different things to the vendor and the client, right? The vendor might mean I'm going to pull a data dump every seven days and the client thinks, if it's integrated to my CMS, I'm going to make a change in my CMS and it's going to publish, and so I think a lot of clients are now starting to get to that level of sophistication and understanding where they're realizing that there is a little bit of a gap between what the current capabilities are in the market and what they want to deliver.

I had a conversation with someone in the hospitality business that manages a bunch of properties. They do a lot of merchandising of their onsite restaurants, their shows, all that. You can think like a Vegas casino type, that frame of mind, so they have all kinds of stuff that they're trying to sell customers and all of it is manual. So if they need to change the priority of a piece of content, there's a huge manual effort to go in and update their playlist on all of their screens. So we talked with them about what would it look like to build an AI engine on top of that? 

It could look at occupancy in restaurants. It could look at ticket sales, yield projected versus what they've actually sold. So it could prioritize what are the things that I merchandise to my customers that are meaningful. I don't want to merchandise a restaurant that's sold out, that doesn't help me, it doesn't help the customer. 

And what we found is that the level of metadata to be able to fuel an AI engine to be able to start to do some of that, even on a rules basis, just didn't exist in the digital signage solution they were using. Even at that level, when you start to want to deploy AI and start to get more sophisticated about the ways that you're deciding what content goes on the screens, I think the current vendor set, the current solution set in digital signage is somewhat lacking and that's really why we're in the business and we're pursuing it so aggressively is that we keep hearing more and more of our clients talk about this unmet need.

And is that a function in a lot of cases of them being in there refresh cycle where they're there four years in with a particular vendor realizing they like the notion of this, they like the outcomes of screens and so on, but they need to do more, and they're now realizing their initial platform that they went with just doesn't cut the mustard, so to speak? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, it's a mix of both, some of our clients are in refresh cycles, some of our clients have just done pilots and they're realizing that maybe what they thought they were going to get out of it isn't really coming to fruition and then some of our clients are starting to look at this for the first time, right? They're recognizing, especially QSRs at the drive-thrus, that's a huge area of focus for us right now, because of COVID obviously you look at the market in the US, like 80% of QSR still have paper at the drive-thru. Now 90% of their business is going through the drive-thru. So there's this huge gap between the capabilities that they're able to deliver.

How are they going to meet customer expectations and the solutions that they have available? And we're really saying if you're going to do it for the first time, don't think about what you want to do tomorrow, because maybe you just want a JPEG of your menu tomorrow, but once you make that huge CapEx investment, especially outdoors, be smart about what you're going to do there because in the next five or seven years, you're going to be wanting to do a lot more, probably. You're co-investing in data initiatives, in loyalty programs, how do you connect the dots? That's always my big call to clients, is to think about what's the customer experience roadmap? And being a little bit aggressive so that you're not making a mistake on the hardware you're deploying, or even if you're buying an all-in-one solution that you're working with a partner that's not going to be able to grow with you.

This sounds much more like an engagement, a project, as opposed to “All right, I'll buy my software. I'll use Publicis Sapient’s Premise, and you know, Bob's your uncle, that's it. You may get some support.” 

It sounds like you guys want to be in the weeds with the client, from the ideation stage, all the way through to execution, right?

Jackie Walker: Yeah, you're hitting the nail on the head. So the play for us is not the digital signage licenses, so to speak. That's not the piece that we're interested in. It's not a set it and forget it solution. I think there's a well-established part of the market that does that really well, like grab it and go.

What we're really trying to do is work with customers who are looking for more involved customer experiences that are really trying to use this channel to make an impact on their business, that recognizes the value of analytics and AB testing, and that are thinking about how do they pave the path to driving differentiated customer experiences over time? And so there's a little bit of consulting, there are a few creative services, there's a ton of technology, all that kind of comes together when we're engaging with a client. 

I'm going to assume that your preferred client or the clients that you end up getting are those who have a history with agency services and work already, because they know how you guys roll and how things happen versus somebody who maybe started out with brand X digital signage CMS and has never really worked with an agency other than maybe producing some creative for them and all of a sudden there's a full-tilt engagement, which is, you still got a few zeros attached to it and there's a lot more involved.

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that's right, and it could be either, It could either be the marketing services side or it could be the systems integration side. So we definitely have had a lot of success in using the solution with existing clients where we already have a technology footprint with them and then it becomes about how do you leverage what you're doing in one part of the business on this additional channel? I think that's a huge part of the value proposition. 

Yeah, and certainly a macro trend within digital signage is this idea of one throat to choke or turnkey solutions, I don't want four vendors, all pointing fingers at each other when there's an issue. 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that can be a little bit of a double-edged sword, right? Sometimes I think about what happens, and I've seen this with a number of clients where they treat digital signage as a siloed point solution.

“I'm going to buy digital signage,” and even the terminology, like a digital menu board is a great example, it sounds like you're buying a physical thing. 

“I'm Bill, I'm buying an object.” 

Honestly, that's a lot of how it's sold by a lot of companies, which I think is goofy, but nonetheless, they saw it as SKU, as a thing.

Jackie Walker: Yep, absolutely, and I think what is becoming accepted is this idea that digital signage is a digital channel. It is like your website. It is like your mobile app. It is a digital touchpoint for a customer, and I think we, as an industry, haven't done enough to push the capabilities and the thinking around the types of experiences that clients can deliver. It's been allowed to function as this kind of siloed thing on the side. So you have, even in an organization, the people who are buying digital signage are often not the same organization that's managing the rest of their digital customer channels, which is also a little bit mind-boggling sometimes.

So that's another piece that I always try to encourage customers to think about. This is not a, not just a marketing problem, it's not just an IT problem, and it's certainly not just a store-ops problem. It's actually an intersection of all three and you need to make sure that you're bringing all three of those organizations along for the ride, to make sure that you're going to end up with a solution that actually works and delivers value to the business.

Yeah, years ago I had a very large multinational brand consulting client that was putting signage solutions into their stores and the department I was working with was relationship marketing and they referred to themselves as the land of misfit toys. 

It was just like skunkworks, they caught all the stuff that nobody else wanted to do. It makes me curious because I've seen this with other very large companies where they have created digital signage business units or effort, and it's functioned largely as a skunkworks and you can tell it's a skunkworks, and sometimes the people who are running it are people who put them there to get them the hell out of important meetings or whatever.

(Laughter)

I’m not saying that in the slightest with what you're doing.

Jackie Walker: I’m glad I gave you that impression. 

Not in the slightest. You know your stuff, you've been doing this a long time, so in the larger context of Publicis Sapient, how much of an effort and how much visibility does this have in terms of the overall company? I know it's hard to give a percentage, but... 

Jackie Walker: That's a great question. I think there was a period where it was a little bit of a side business, so to speak. We were doing things like this airport managed services platform for wayfinding. We had a bunch of different clients. It ended up extending to like retail casinos, we had a sports stadium that was using our wayfinding platform, but it was a little bit of this thing that was allowed to continue to progress, and then, I think what has happened in the last couple of years, as we've shifted our focus to digital business transformation, and I actually remember really well a conversation I had with my boss, like when we started internal communications around that change and frame. 

I said, I'm really excited about what this will mean for the work that we're doing with the Premise because it's so tightly aligned to our strategy as a business, and he looked at me and I said, if you think about it, so many of our clients do so much of their business through their physical footprint when you think about retail, when you think about QSR, it's insane for us to not have an offering that directly addresses the opportunity, to drive business impact in their physical venues, right? And the reality is, if you look at the solutions that are available, it's not a place where we're going to be able to readily partner with existing companies, existing CMS, digital signage solutions, to be able to deliver those types of outcomes. So for us, we actually think about it as the market is moving in this direction.

We had a ten-year plus headstart, I think. A lot of people in the industry will say that the future of digital signage is probably going to be driven by software, and I think we're in a really great position to springboard that for ourselves and realize outcomes for our clients, in an accelerated manner because of this asset with Premise.

Yeah, there are not many good things to say about COVID, but it has forced an accelerated digital transformation plans of a whole bunch of companies, retail, QSR, and beyond, from something that we're going to do in three to five years to something they had to do in the next three to five months to survive, and I gather you've benefited from that. 

Jackie Walker: Definitely. I think it's just been this, at Publicis Sapient level, it's really validated our strategy. I am a little bit of a Kool-Aid drinker, like I really believe in the work that we do, that's why I've stuck around so long personally.

And that's also why I haven't made the choice to go to a more traditional digital signage company. I think that the unique perspective that we bring to the table because of the scope of work that we do for our customers every day, the focus on omnichannel, the focus on customer data, the focus on AI, the focus on marketing efficacy and performance marketing, we just have a completely different perspective and a completely different group of people and experts that we can bring into engagements to deliver outcomes that would be just absolutely impossible otherwise. 

Now the last time I went to the National Retail Federation Show, there must have been at least 20 booths, maybe a lot more companies, all showing retail analytics, shopper analytics, computer vision-based stuff, sensor-based stuff. 

You're talking to a lot of retailers, you're talking to a lot of large corporations. Do they see this as being as important as the vendors seem to think it is?

Jackie Walker: That's a great question. I personally get frustrated with all these point solutions because I think they do end up being just that. 

It's like queue management, so we're going to instrument the environment, we're going to understand the queues and then that's going to help us optimize customer service, or we're going to now measure everyone's temperature when they come in and that kind of theater around it is going to make people feel safer and better, and so there are all these little solutions that pop up that isn’t well integrated. It doesn't all come together particularly well, right? Beacons, one of my favorite examples, we talk so much about Beacons and it's like the mobile beacon and what are we going to do? And the push notifications, and now there's a ton of movement around geo-fencing and QSRs too, you know, to hook into kitchen operations, but they're really the same technologies that could be, if done right, enabling a ton of different types of capabilities of customer interactions, of different ways of driving value for the business on the customer, but instead, they're thought about as these little things, dot one kind of additions, that doesn't particularly connect. 

So I think that's a hard pill to swallow. They each has their own, it's a different SaaS model. You have a SaaS subscription for this, you have a SaaS subscription for that, so I think that's a big challenge. So that's something I try to think about when I'm working with customers, what are the existing initiatives they have? What are the existing capabilities they have and how do you stitch them together in meaningful ways so that you're maximizing their current investment, but also thinking about how you connect the dots moving forward. 

I think QSR has some great opportunities ahead of it, with regard to different service methods. So now they're pushing so many customers to mobile order and pay, which is fantastic, but they're going through the drive-through still, like how do you deal with these customers? Because if you're showing them the same menu board that you're showing somebody who's. trying to order, you just wasted an impression, so to speak, with that customer, right? You could have told them something new and different. You might have totally different messaging for them because you know them, or even if you don't know them, they already ordered, right? Or if it’s a delivery driver, you know that it's a delivery driver. You could know that. So how do you start to think about the intersections of these different service models and different technologies to create better customer experiences? 

You mentioned customers. Are there any customers you're actually allowed to reference and say, yeah, we work with these guys? 

Jackie Walker: Not today, Dave, you know how that goes. (Laughter)

Oh yeah, the big agencies and big clients, you don't mess with those accounts and upset them in any way, but we can think of Fortune 100, Fortune 500 kinds of companies? 

Jackie Walker: That's really the target group and the group that we work with the most. Yes, absolutely.

All right. this was terrific. We could have chatted for a lot longer. It was very nice to virtually meet you and hopefully, we meet each other in person someday. 

Jackie Walker: Absolutely, when there’s offices again, right? (Laughter) 

All right. I really appreciate you giving me some of your time. 

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Dave, take care.

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

December 9, 2020

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

I have been working with both AVIXA and invidis for most of the year on a series of monthly roundtables, called Digital Signage Power Hours.

They’ve all been great, but the one we did recently on experiential media in real estate was particularly good … because of the people who kindly provided their time.

We had David Niles, who created and still works on the Comcast Experience, one of the earliest and still one of the best projects out there involving LED in real estate.  

We also had Amahl Hazelton, one of the big thinkers at the famed experiential creative agency Moment Factory. Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, was on, as was Jeremy Koleib, whose Consumer Experience Group works with property companies on big LED projects. And we had Emily Webster, the Senior VP of Creative at New York’s ESI Design, which is behind some of the best experiential real estate you’ll see in real estate.

We could have chatted for hours, but we had 50 minutes. Listen, learn and hopefully enjoy.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

Kym Frank, Geopath

Kym Frank, Geopath

December 2, 2020

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

Measurement in the out of home advertising industry used to be as low tech as people with clickers, parked on roadsides and busily counting the cars going by.

That would give media companies a really basic sense of how many eyeballs MIGHT see a billboard in a given time period.

The out of home industry has long since matured, and a lot of it is now digital ... and much more varied than billboards and transit shelter posters. Measurement has also matured in a big way, and has grown super-sophisticated.

Out of home media is very much a for-profit business, but a key player on the tech measurement side is actually a non-profit ... supported by hundreds of companies in the ecosystem.

Geopath is populated by data scientists and site auditors who do audience location measurement based on a pile of different data sources - the biggest one being aggregated, anonymous data from smartphones.

Geopath's tools, which are used by media owners and brands, help build a current view on the mobility, behaviour and attributes of out of home audiences.

A lot of this stuff is way the hell over my head, but thankfully Geopath's President Kym Frank is very good, and patient, at explaining things to knuckleheads like me.

TRANSCRIPT

So, Kym, for those people who don't know much about Geopath, can you explain what it is and how does it work? 

Kym Frank: Sure. So Geopath is a really unique organization. We've been around since the 1930s, we were formed as a joint initiative between the OAAA, which is the Industry Association for out-of-home advertising, the ANA, which is the Association of National Advertisers and the 4A's, which is the Association for Agencies.

So we have existed since the 1930s with the sole objective of measuring out-of-home, digital out-of-home, and all its formats advertising. We're a nonprofit and we are still to this day, governed collectively by agencies, advertisers, and the media owners themselves. 

So being a nonprofit, I assume you're funded by your members.

Kym Frank: We are. So each of our members pays dues to our organization that supports the development of our measurement system and the maintenance of our measurement system itself. So it's a really great setup, because everybody just pays a fraction of the cost to develop these metrics and then they are able to be, universally used by the entire buying community, across all the different formats that we measure. 

So who would be typical members? 

Kym Frank: So we have a lot of out-of-home members from the big operators, like Clear Channel, Lamar and Outfront, all the way down the line to some small members who have three or four billboards, maybe.

We also have agency members, so big holding company agencies down to independent local specialists. And then we also have some advertiser members as well. In fact, our executive committee has representation from Coca-Cola and representation from Constellation brands, which is the brand that owns the Corona brand, and so we have grown quite a bit. In 2015, when I joined, we had 180 member companies and as of today, we're at approximately 390 members. 

Nice. You've doubled it and then some. I'm sure you tell the board about it, right? 

Kym Frank: I do all the time. 

Is there a for-profit competitor, like a company out there that has data that you would pay for and measurement that you would pay for?

Kym Frank: Sure, so we don't say we have competitors. We say we have “friend predators”. 

Geopath provides currency level measurement, and I would say we probably measure 95% of the industry, but there are other kinds of measurements that are out there. People might want to understand how their campaign performed in terms of conversions, so did our mall ads drive people to make a purchase? So there are a lot of other companies out there that are doing that kind of measurement for sure. 

So that’s more on the analytics side, right? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely, so more custom solutions, things along those lines. There's a lot of technology out there that measures things in different ways, like I know you and I have spoken about facial detection technology, and people who are connecting to the individual devices, so there's a lot of different methodologies out there. 

This will seem like a really obvious question, but I'm going to ask it anyways, cause I'm not very bright. Why do media companies need measurement? 

Kym Frank: That is a good question. So advertisers across channels, this is not an out-of-home problem. Advertisers across channels want to understand, what did my campaign deliver or, on the front end, what should I be buying with my advertising dollars? And how much of it should I be buying? So that they can understand the scale of a campaign that they're purchasing, are they reaching the right people? Are they reaching enough people? How many times are those people being reached by my ads? It's really important to advertisers. 

In the old days on, by old, I mean like 10-20 years ago, even that’s recent, a lot of out-of-home was just measured by gross audience counts, right? Like highway traffic or foot traffic meters, that sort of thing? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So when I joined the organization, the legacy metrics, a lot of that was coming from rubber hoses in the road, like the department of transportation, traffic counts. So nowadays we're able to use things like connected car data and mobile device data, but that was not available.

So yes, they were using manual counts. In fact, if you go way back in time, we used clickers, so people would stand under a billboard with a clicker in their hand and count the number of cars that went by in an hour. 

Yeah. And the same thing in shopping malls, there'd be somebody there with a clipboard just clicking away?

Kym Frank: Yep. 

Amazing. So is good audience measurement something that just validates making immediate investment, or is used to also optimize the investment that you're making, that you've already decided? Like, I'm going to be in this market, I'm going to do these things, but I want to know a hell of a lot more about the audience and then tune the media and tune the campaign so I get more out of it. 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. Optimization is key and it's a lot of what we've been working on since I joined the organization. When I joined, we had the ability to target pretty standard demographics. So I'm interested in reaching women 18 to 34, but since we've updated our measurement system, we now include information across 8,000 different audience types. So you're able to understand which units I should be advertising on. If I want to build a campaign to reach people who are likely to be buying a new car within the next 12 months, it's really changed the way out-of-home is bought more from more as an audience channel than as a patient vehicle.

Now, both are still very important because you want to reach people in the right location, but you also want to make sure you're reaching the right people. 

And where does the data come from? You mentioned geolocation data from mobile phones, but there's a whole mashup of things you use, right?

Kym Frank: We, so we have a data fusion engine is what we call it. We take a number of different kinds of data sets, there's just no silver bullet that does everything, so we combine a number of different data sets for what they are best at. So we are using mobile device data, that's typically data that's captured by apps that people have opted in to have their location tracked on their phones. That's all anonymized and aggregated, so we're not ever following around one unique device or anything along those lines. We get data from connected cars. We have data from Maps, we still do validate against some traffic information and real-time data that's available from other sources.

We're partnered with Claritas, that's survey data for some audience targeting. It's a huge data stack and a lot of modeling that goes on to develop the product that we provide to our members 

Are things like census data also important? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. In fact, I know that the census has been very troubled, due to COVID. 

And a guy at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Kym Frank: I didn't say that. But yeah, the census has been very challenging, but it's very important, not just for Geopath, but it is something that is utilized across pretty much everyone who does any kind of survey at that population level. So really very important. 

Yeah. I think you've said in the past that the best data that you get, if you had to look at all the different elements, is the mobile data, right?

Kym Frank: Correct. That is the biggest piece of what we built. 

If I have a media network, an out-of-home media network of some kind, and I don't know, let's say I'm in hospital waiting rooms or whatever, if I don't have some degree of measurement, if I've not part of Geopath, If I don't have that kind of data available, will a media planner even look at my network? 

Kym Frank: I think so. I mean, it certainly helps to have data attached to it and it has to be data that the buyer feels comfortable with, but there are certainly strategies that would involve using a network that maybe does not have a level of currency.

The fact that when you're talking about a network along those lines, while they may not have impression and data or reach and frequency data, usually everyone has some kind of first party data. You may know if you're a hospital network, how many patients you have, you may know if you're at a gas station, how many receipts are generated.

So there's always some kind of data available, but certainly currency data and impressions data or reach and frequency data, that's what a buyer's really looking for. 

Yeah. You've mentioned currency data a few times now. Could you explain what that is? Cause I'll be honest, I'm not totally certain what you mean by that.

Kym Frank: So when we say we measure currency, it's really because those are the impressions that are being bought and sold for the channel. Every channel has its own kind of currency. So a lot of it's measured by Nielsen, which you may be familiar with here in the United States measures television, and so then we provide that currency for out-of-home.

And is there a challenge with there being different currencies and having some sort of a common currency? 

Kym Frank: And that's exactly why Geopath was created, it was to provide a common currency across all of the different formats of out-of-home. So prior to the generation of this organization, every different operator had their own sets of numbers and it was impossible for a buyer to put them together. Because we have built such a large database of all of these different operators' inventory, it makes it really much easier for a buyer to go in and say, okay, I bought inventory across 30 different operators, but I know what it delivered collectively because the currency is very common and that's really come a long way, because as we've recently announced, we launched in-venue measurement. So prior to this past year, Geopath was not measuring things like airports and malls and bars and restaurants, but we were able to stand that up and we look forward to our buyers really being able to buy a package of roadside inventory and combine the data with in-malls or in-bars or in-airports and get a comprehensive number.

Yeah. Those are two very different dynamics when you're talking about highway billboards or spectaculars in big cities and then talking about screens and bars and all that, like that must've been quite an exercise to figure out how you equate all these different kinds of mediums in one platform.

Kym Frank: Right and every network is very different, yeah. We have partners who have jukeboxes in bars and then we have partners who have very large screens inside of transit hubs and measuring each one of those is very different. We measure every screen, every spot we audit them all. It's pretty complicated, it's the only thing we do, it's our priority So we want to make sure we're doing it right. 

So when you say it's the only thing you do, it’s like you have a bunch of data scientists working for you? 

Kym Frank: I sure do. 

Those are expensive.

Kym Frank: I have a team of auditors. We really do have two products, right? We audit the inventory, so we have to make sure it's where they say it is, that the signs are the size that's been reported. We measure the angle, the oncoming traffic, whether that's foot traffic or oncoming car traffic, we measure all of the different places where a sign can be seen from, so that's really step number one, so I have a team of auditors also who spend a lot of time looking at inventory and just making sure that it's in the right place.

So we have an audited inventory database that has millions of locations across the country in it and then we measure those units, and that's really the data scientists. 

So if you weren't doing an audit, what's your read on how accurate network representation would be? 

Kym Frank: It really depends on the network. So we just really did a whole re-audit of everything we measure on roadside and back in the day when people would report, which direction their units were facing. For instance, if you think about a billboard on the side of a highway and the highway is, let's say it's 80 East and the unit was on the westbound side, they might say it was a westbound facing unit. But now when we go in, we actually can go into satellite imagery and look at that unit and say, it's not actually perpendicular to the roadway. It's not actually facing that one direction and getting it to the exact degree. And the reason that's important is if you're approaching a unit on a highway, we want to know at what point in time, can you see that unit so that we can accurately measure how many impressions it's delivering. 

Yeah. I'm up in Canada in Nova Scotia, which is just all forests, it’s like Maine or New Hampshire or whatever. And, when we go down to see our daughter, she lives about 40 minutes south of us, and there's a Wendy's billboard that I've seen for the last two or three years and wondered if they're selling this to Wendy's because you can just see the top of it. Because all the trees have grown up at a level and I'm sure if they were looking at that and wondering, why am I paying for this? Because nobody can see this unless they just recognize the colors and go, okay, that's a Wendy's billboard back there somewhere.

Kym Frank: Yeah, we really do take into account exactly how long oncoming traffic and, it gets even more important, Dave is when there's a digital unit that is showing multiple ads. So how many of those ads can someone see as they're approaching the unit becomes a really important part of our measurement system.

So with the audits that you do in the height of a pandemic, how do you do that? Is it all of using satellites, and asking people in local areas to go onsite and take photos? 

Kym Frank: So we do use photo sheets from our members, almost always have photos of their inventory, cause they share them with advertisers after a campaign.

So we take those photos, but then we do use satellite imagery, and there's some really great information in Google maps. Now we can actually pretend we're in a car within Google maps and drive down the road and go, at this point in time, this is when you can start to see that unit, and once the car passes this location, you can no longer see it. So we've been really empowered by Bing and Google, developing these great map technologies. 

We've been on a number of round tables over the last few months for different things. And you've spoken a number of times about how things have been going through COVID-19 and how you measure movement of people and activity in general. And there was certainly a dip, but it seems to me the last time we were talking and from stuff I was looking at, it's come back to really pre-COVID levels of activity. 

Kym Frank: Correct. So when we're talking about the number of people who are leaving their houses on a daily basis, 75 to 76% of people are going out on any given day. Usually that would be closer to the low eighties, so there is a little bit of a depth, and then the miles that people are traveling nationally, we are at 92%, I believe this week versus the week prior to COVID impacting traffic in March. So there's a little bit of a way to go. 

What I think is really interesting about the data is it's a very significant market-by-market and it varies depending upon where a market you are looking at. New York was obviously very severely impacted, but there's places in the country where traffic is actually higher now than it would have been in March. 

And it has that kind of measurement being important for both the media owners and the brands to understand that, yes, you may have this sense that we're in lockdown and nobody's going out or anything else, but here's the data that says otherwise? 

Kym Frank: A hundred percent. So one of the reasons we put the data out and we really thought it was going to be a very temporary situation back in March. 

One of the reasons we put it out was people were saying things like there's no one on the road and we knew that was completely not true. There were people on the road. In fact, there were quite a number of people that were out on the road. So we try to avoid that focus group of one phenomenon where people go, “I was driving yesterday and there seemed to be less cars.” So we put those data out and it's funny cause I was having a conversation with my counterpart at a radio company who said that he's using the Geopath data to combat the same kind of conversations that he was having with advertisers and brands who were saying, “There's nobody on the road, so no one's listening to the radio,” and he said, we go in with the Geopath data and we say, “No, look, there really are people on the road,” so it's been a huge benefit for our channel to have access to those data in near real time.

And I really do have to be thankful to so many people who helped us get that solution up off the ground super fast. We had an entire committee of some of the smartest people in the industry working alongside us. as things were getting really pretty ugly in the country, back in the springtime, who really helped collectively stand up something that was very reliable, very stable, and very fast.

The industry as a whole, you've got a lot of brands, particularly retail brands who have been really struggling and other ones that have done well through all of this, have you seen a shift in buying an investment in media at all? Or is it just sluggish like most things are sluggish these days?

Kym Frank: Yeah, I think every channel has been impacted. Advertisers are more cautious with their dollars right now, so we certainly felt impacted, as a channel, but things are starting to look up for us and I think the same as is true, whether you're looking at television or radio or print, we're all just coming out of this depth now, and then looking forward to next year, we've got some pretty good projections. It looks like out-of-home will bounce back. So I'm really excited about that. 

I still get emails and phone calls from startup companies all the time who want to do or are planning to do, or in an early throws of doing a place-based network in some sort of defined venue, whether it's groceries or I don't know, ski resorts, I'm making stuff up at this point, but, are there pieces of advice that you provide and also, do you have insights on what of those startup networks have a better shot than others?

Kym Frank: So we always suggest, and we're happy to give some advice to folks if they want to give us a ring before they put the screens up and before they put the signage up, to just understand what are the best places, locations, angles to optimize reaching people prior to making the investment. Like we have a lot of information on duration of ads and duration of content and how to optimize that kind of stuff from a mathematical perspective before you make an investment in putting up inventory. 

We can get access to that information because we're measuring so much already. So one of the things we're working on right now is curating norms so that we can understand if you're going to put inventory up in a bar or a restaurant, what kind of impressions can you expect to deliver? So that people can really figure out, okay, before I put the investment down, is this going to be worth it? Am I putting the screens in the right places? Am I running the right kind of ad durations and ad spots? 

I think also to reach out to people who own that kind of inventory and talk to them and ask, “how is your network performing?” before they go in, so I think the out-of-home industry really is a pretty unified industry where everybody recognizes that we can't compete with each other. We need to compete for ad dollars but when we compete with each other, we just don't do as well. So it's an industry where there's lot of people who are very generous with their time and very willing to help.

Yeah and I think that's important because I run into so many early stage business models where it's just all about the venue, and this idea that (let’s say Bars) there's so many liquor brands out there and there's all these craft ones and so on, so there's so much money available for advertising, and then they start this thing up and realize, “oh my God, advertising is actually pretty hard.”

Kym Frank: Right. At the end, making the choice between being a local network versus a national network or somewhere in between, is also something to really think about. 

Are you going to be selling every screen you own to the same advertiser, or are you going to be splitting that up and selling it regionally or locally? Because that has an impact on how you staff your sales team for instance, and how you structure your network.

Yeah. Going back to a mobile location data and the whole fuss about privacy. There was another instance up here in Canada, a couple of weeks ago. The Canada's privacy commissioner went after a big shopping mall operator saying, “You were invading consumer privacy by using anonymous video analytics,” and I went off on that because it said right in their own report that it was anonymous so what was the big deal? 

When it comes to mobile location data, have you had to tread carefully around using that and how you present it, or do people just take it as a matter of course? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So there's two things in that question, right? There's the “what are you doing and are you doing it responsibly?” And then there's the “are you speaking about it responsibly?” 

And I know I sound like a total broken record about that because I get concerned when people say they're doing things to sound super sophisticated and tech savvy, and then they get you in trouble because you're talking about what you're doing in a way that's just not responsible. So when we built our system, we built it in such a way that it was as responsible as humanly possible so much so that we probably went to the extreme because it's so important that our currency not step over line. 

We built it deliberately to not cross over any lines, but then when we speak about it, it's again like a broken record, you’ll almost always hear me say, it's aggregated and anonymized. In fact, I think the vast bulk of our members probably say it’s aggregated and anonymized multiple times per day, because it's now been so drilled into us that we are in the public space and we want to make sure that people know we're not doing anything that people should be concerned about.

Is it a case where you see less of a focus from consumers because they've already made that bargain, so to speak, if they're going to use Uber or something else that absolutely requires location for it to work effectively that, “Okay, we've signed off on that. We're okay with that,” versus camera's on and the out-of-home display and they're saying, we didn't sign off on that, so that's terrible but the anonymized data that comes off of a phone, we're okay with that. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. Online has been doing it for so long and people are so used to it. 

“I was shopping for shoes and then the pair of shoes I looked at has now been following me around my browser for a week.” 

I think people just accept that's the case. The camera thing, I know you and I've had this conversation a multitude of times. We do not really use any kind of camera technology. If we have a member who has cameras installed, we will take their data as a calibration point, but we don't actively use that ourselves, but it just makes me laugh that people get upset by facial detection technology, because everybody had VHS tapes with cameras running in every location across America and no one ever really got upset about it, but suddenly there's a technology that actually makes it more responsible because you're not recording people as they're shopping and for some reason that makes people upset. 

Do you not use the computer vision stuff more so because it's an analytical tool as opposed to an audience measurement tool?

Kym Frank: For us, it's just not scalable. We measure millions of locations across the country, and some of those locations don't even have electricity running to them, and some of those locations, that's not allowed and it's just not a scalable technology if you're measuring millions of locations. 

Are there mountains, so to speak that you're still trying to climb in terms of amassing more data and developing even deeper insights? 

Kym Frank: Certainly. The conversation about recency, so how recent do the data need to be, and at what cadence does it need to be reported? So those are conversations that are more business implications than data implications, that we're having with our membership, because out-of-home is typically still bought in four-week cycles, so do we need daily data?

And a lot of this has gotten escalated by the increasing footprint of programmatic buying that's happening in our channel. So it's pushing us forward, certainly COVID has pushed us forward from an evolutionary standpoint on data, because everybody wants to know what's going on with COVID last week, not three months ago. So that is certainly on the forefront for us. And then, I think as a channel, less of a Geopath issue, but more of a channel is demonstrating the true value that out-of-home can bring to an advertiser or a brand, how we can drive increases in purchase and how we can drive foot traffic?

And again, I say that's not a Geopath problem. We don't really do attribution or campaign effectiveness and to say it's an out-of-home problem is not true either. It's just a media problem because every channel needs to find ways to demonstrate its value and I think it's hard for everyone, how do you demonstrate that somebody listened to a radio ad and then made a purchase? So connecting those dots, it's a media challenge. 

Do you see a time when there'll be a demand to have real time data being used for out-of-home? 

Kym Frank: I think near real-time certainly. I don't know that we need to know what happened an hour ago, but certainly we would like to know as recently as possible. Right now, there's just data costs associated with processing that level of data so we have to make an assessment on the return on investment in investing in that level of data for everyone who's using the data. Is it worth it to invest in storing, processing and accessing that level of data? I don't think we're quite there yet. 

So last question, what should we be seeing out of Geopath in the next year? 

Kym Frank: So Geopath is in a pretty big R&D phase right now with our Insights committee, really trying to answer the questions that we were just discussing. So what levers do we need to pull for the next five years, to fuel the next five years of growth for out-of-home?

So we're having those conversations now, I think we're going to continue to grow our membership. We have a constant stream of new networks coming online. In-venue, we are doing doctor's offices now, we're doing grocery stores. So I think the other interesting thing that's happening right now is the question of what constitutes an out-of-home network?

So that line is very much blurring for us. We're seeing a lot of wrapped cars. We're seeing stuff that used to be shopper marketing type networks, now coming over to the out-of-home side. And then there's also what typically would have been considered television, but a television in a location like a bar or a restaurant and we're starting to measure those now too. 

So what constitutes out-of-home, is I think the big question. 

So is that media owners, for people who do things like shopper marketing and so on, following the money? 

Kym Frank: I think following the money, but also following the data. Because we have the ability to measure those networks, it's like the best of both worlds for them, right? Maybe they weren't being considered for an out-of-home buy in the past because they were shopper marketing, but now they can also put metrics behind what they're providing on the shopper marketing side. 

All right, Kym, thank you very much. That was great.

Kym Frank: Thank you so much. I'm really honored to be a part of this. 

Honored. Wow. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. 

You obviously lead a sheltered life. 

Kym Frank: Well, recently for sure. (Laughter)

Stephan Odörfer, 4tiitoo

Stephan Odörfer, 4tiitoo

November 25, 2020

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

While we all have learned, and mostly remembered, to wash or sanitize our hands after we touch surfaces, the ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly made a lot of people antsy about touching any surfaces unless they really, really need to.

Self-service screens are one of those surfaces that makes at least some people jumpy, and things like voice-based ordering or throwing screen controls to the customer's smartphone have come up as alternatives.

Now 4tiitoo, a German company that mainly does eye tracking for workplace environments, is touting a solution that would enable doing things like ordering a burger at a restaurant chain to be contactless.

A built-in sensor on the kiosk would track and respond to what a customer sees on the screen, all the way from a welcome message and through to order confirmation.

This is not stuff out of a sci-fi movie, but a riff on existing technology that takes endless mouse work out of repetitive office jobs and allows workers with greasy or occupied hands to navigate and update a screen just by looking at it.

Stephan Odörfer, one of the founders of 4tiitoo, walked me through the thinking, and how it all works.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: All right, Stephan, can you give me a rundown on what your company is all about and what your technology does broadly? 

Stephan Odorfer: Sure. So at 4tiitoo, what we're doing is all about natural interaction, using your gaze, first of all, but in some use cases also combining speech and gestures. So basically combined, I would say natural interactions that humans can do. So what we're mainly doing nowadays is we are controlling standard workplaces, from accounting to support centers to engineering, and largely replacing the 50 year mouse, so that means, while you're having your hands on the keyboard, you start typing and when you want to select a different input field, for example, in your SAP environment, you just look at this field, which you're doing anyway, and you continue typing because our software understands what you want to do and basically predicts the intention and proactively helps you in your daily tasks.

So this is what we are usually doing for several years. Now, what we have been doing lately is hands-free or completely touchless interaction in kiosk situations, or in dedicated restaurant situations where you use your gaze, as you do today, you browse through the menu, an automatic disc will roll a list while you're reading it and our system understands that you are currently in reading mode and obviously what do you want to do at the end of a page? You want to continue scrolling it? So the system automatically scrolls for your reading speed and what it also does is obviously if you want to select a salad or a burger, you just look at these items, and then we developed a special way to basically trigger these elements, because it's not about just looking at them and boom, it happens. That's not good. So it's rather a way to basically first select something and then trigger something just with your gaze.

So this is in a nutshell what we're doing. 

David: The restaurant applications for self-service ordering and so on, was that something that was already an ask from operators prior to COVID or is it because of the pandemic that this is now something that's being put together? 

Stephan Odorfer: It was clearly connected with the pandemic, the topic of people being afraid of touching surfaces or the need in restaurants to continuously make sure that these surfaces are clean. We have seen this in manufacturing environments. We have seen this for a long time already so we have productive solutions for people on the shop floor, having gloves, et.c.controlling their shop flow terminals just with their case, so that they can continue doing their actual job with their hands. 

Now going into the restaurant business, it's quite similar because it's a clear interface, you have a bunch of options that you can touch or click on and now basically look at, and it's not a complex interface. So what people are doing there usually is pretty similar and due to the COVID-19 situation, people were looking at solutions for not having to touch things, on the one hand, and what we could offer with this technology is not only replacing this need to touch something but it's also using our gaze technology, we also see what people are interested in and based on this information, we can predict what the user wants to have, in this case, what he's looking for and then in this case, can propose recommendations for based on his current view, his gaze history, not based on the history of other people, but on his very history. And, therefore we can not only make his experience more personal, more individual, but also create a potential for upselling and cross-selling, from the store.

David: So you're using machine learning or some kind of computer vision to do that? 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. So it’s a local based technology because privacy is an important topic for us. So it's not being transmitted in the cloud, everything that we do here in this personalization runs on the local system and what it basically does, it understands where you're looking at and what you're not looking at, which is very important.

So this is an area where we have already filed several patents because one of the most important things is obviously at work is what you look at and how you look at things, but what is also very interesting is what you're not looking at, because in your peripheral view, our autopilot works. So, the autopilot in our brain basically works if I say two plus two, in our brains, it just makes sense. But if I say 42 times 17, there are not that many brains where the solution comes up. So we need to focus on that and do the math, but the automatic part in our brain that is basically getting, selecting what should be put in or focus. So in this area, when I'm scrolling, for example, let's say scrolling through a menu in a restaurant that has different pizzas. For example, what I'm doing is, I'm basically quickly running through a page and I'm scanning things like we do if we do a Google search, for example, what is reading each word and if it makes sense, if our autopilot says, “Hey, this could be an interesting result,” only then we put our focus on it and then we read it and then we decide, and we basically understand what you already get rid of in your autopilot, because this is very important to create a better funnel and to create better results in less time. 

David: Okay. So when the original, maybe not the original, but the most familiar gesture sensors out there, the Kinect sensors that came out maybe 10 years ago, there were attempts at that time to use gestures as an interactive interface for screens and the objection I always had and observed, was that there was a big learning curve for people to figure out how to use this, and I would imagine in something like a restaurant environment, where a lot of the goal is to speed up transactions, speed up decision-making and everything else, how do you get past something where you're walking up to a screen for the first time and it's an unfamiliar interface?

Stephan Odorfer: That's a very important question. You're absolutely right. The older folks out there probably remember the Minority Report scene with Tom Cruise, where he's doing all these fancy moves and controls the computer with that. Well, think of this as if you would do this next too. The learning curve you were mentioning, it's also a topic of how long you want to do this until this is more a sports event than an operation off of a screen, right? Your eyes are constantly moving anyway. So before you touch something, before you gesture, or just pointing at something or click a mouse or whatever, your eyes are always already at this point that you want to address. And that's the magic of eye tracking. 

So the question is how do we make sure that, in our standard environment, there’s a steep learning curve that people get familiar very fast with this technology and on the other hand, in a kiosk mode, people get that it's a robust environment, it's a robust operation. It's completely a hundred percent sure operation in terms of that the user knows what's going to happen and what to expect, etc. because this is necessary that people would accept it. And what we came up with is a way to confirm things and rethink from basically his gaze information so that we can predict what he wants to do and why we have done this is because this is something that we are focusing on, so the company itself is seven years old, but, my partner and myself, the founding partners, we are focusing on this technology now for almost 10 years. And we came up with, if I remember the first days and the first month and years, it looked pretty different, in terms of how we control computers today.

So let me explain with an example. If you look at things, a button for example, what it usually does today, it has a so-called dwell time, which basically means time taken between you looking at a button and it triggering within a specific time of say two seconds or whatever. So as always, it's taken too long for a nice interaction and it's too short and therefore too many false positives, if you speed it up. So what we came up with is basically a way that you select within a split second, you select something, you can basically think of in a Windows environment, you can select on the desktop if you click an icon, if you click it once; you select it, if you click it twice to double click, then you trigger it. But you can also look at once, select it and then press return, that's basically the same. So you select it and then you trigger it. And that's the same, what we are doing. So you look at a burger and you select it, right? If you want to trigger this and put this in the cart, for example, then every time you select something, a button pops up that basically triggers the selection and to put it into the cart or whatever happens, forced by this button. So it's always a two step system and that's robust enough, but if you know how to deal with the system, you can do it super fast because our eyes are controlled by the fastest muscles in our body.

So no matter if you are looking from the lower left part to the upper right part, you can do this in a split-second while if you would need to move your hand, that would take much longer. 

David: And if you want to select something, are you blinking or doing something like that to confirm?

Stephan Odorfer: Yes, this would be a possibility to blink, but blinking is also controlled by the autopilot in our brain. So nobody is actively blinking except for these specific situations where you blink an eye to show somebody that you're winking, so that's a specific action, but if you would need to blink to every time that feels awkward, it is possible to control the interfaces with blinking and eye tracking is something that is here for many years for decades, in time. And where it came from is from psychological studies, from marketing studies. We all know these heat maps, search results, et cetera, where it also came from is that it's possible for impaired people to control a computer. So that's the great way and the only way for many people to take part in this world, that is the internet and communication, etc. And if they can only use their eye muscles, because everything else is not possible anymore. Then this is a great way,but there are other ways, better ways to trigger things which are not blinking.

Another opportunity would come up, maybe in your mind would be nodding, but anything like these blinking and nodding has too many false positives. So that's why we came up with this other solution. 

David: So walk me through this, if there's a hamburger chain and you have a self-service ordering kiosk and you're using your technology, I walk up to this thing, what is it telling me right away? 

Is there a message that says you can navigate this whole thing just using your gaze? 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. It would not be that it's only possible, right? So you should always have a fall back option in this case, this would be touch, right? Because you don't want to force people in a direction you want to offer them a better way or different way in the first place.

And after they experienced it in a better way. So it would be introduced to folks as, “Hey, you can touch me, but you can also just look at me and I will understand what you want to do.” And, based on this very first approach, the system basically understands, “Hey, there's a new customer approaching me”, so the system understands that somebody is looking at the system and it can welcome the customer. And based on this, if it's a new customer who is not familiar with this technology at all, then it's very simple, either he can take a short tour in the situation, which is , I would say something like 5-10 seconds long, basically just to understand what it is and I see great potential in terms of viral marketing here, because, just think about somebody controlling the device just with his gaze, and  his buddy is filming this and putting this on YouTube showing how innovative this solution is basically, right? So he understands, okay, this is how I can do it. And then for example, if he goes through the list of burgers in this case, he doesn't need to learn anything. That system understands that this guy is reading and it scrolls automatically as a biometric. So there's no need to understand something. The only thing you need to understand is basically that you look at a button and you see a little shine around this burger, for example. So that must integrate into the user interface and the corporate identity of the brand, obviously and it gives a little shine so that means it's selected. And then this button pops up and since this is the first time for a user this button popped up, obviously the user will have a look at this button, so that's the way we say, “next time, you're going to look at this pattern. You're going to select this burger to put in the cart, understood? And then you just look at the button.”

And then you've got to go because you don't need to learn anything else. You just know that it's a system that scrolls automatically for me, and you understood this because you experienced this and if I'm looking at a button, okay, this other button pops up and once I'm looking at this button, I trigger it. If I'm not looking at this button, it's vanishing right away after a split second. 

David: So if I decide, I want the cheeseburger with bacon, a prompt will come up and if I look at it, it will confirm that I want that and put it into my “shopping cart”? 

Stephan Odorfer: For example, we have different buttons in such an interface, for example, the amount, so I want to have two burgers or three burgers, what is the difference if you use gaze control instead of touch control or something. Nowadays our eyes are our sensors, they sense information and put it into our brain. What we are doing, it's not only sensing, we are also making our eyes the actors, so they are acting actively.

So for example, if you think about driving in the car and you have both your hands on the steering wheel and  you want to change the radio station. If you're familiar with the car, you know, without having your eyes looking at the center cockpit, where you need to put your hands to turn up the volume or to change the station, right? Because you just know where your hands need to go, but if you need to look at this element, for example, you see +++, you would need to create the information within your peripheral view. If you look at +, you need to create the number that you're currently at, right next to the interface because you need to understand that you are at 3+ and you can now stop looking at +++ because it goes up gradually. Similarly, if you say how many burgers do you want, then you just look at one of our five buttons, one, two, three, four, five, because that way the restaurants know what amount of burgers or salads or whatever people are usually having. So, you don't need to choose 28 salads or something. 

David: So you go through that whole ordering process and then you would use more conventional payment systems like credit cards, or maybe even a phone scanner, NFC tap or something like that. Is there a point because you're already using a camera and you're looking at the retina or the iris of the viewer, could you make payments off the biometrics of that person's unique eye characteristics?

Stephan Odorfer: It’s theoretically possible, yes. And, if you look at many Asian countries, it's already the standard, right? It's not something sophisticated, that's already something that they do on a daily basis. 

David: But they don’t have GDPR there. 

Stephan Odorfer: True. Absolutely true, and that's exactly why I said it's theoretically possible. Biometrical identification, for example, this eye tracker that we are using can also be used to log into your Windows system, using the Windows Hello technology and what it basically does is it's not sending the data anywhere, it’s basically the same if you use your iPhone or your Android phone, that you use the same infrared based camera technology to identify that it's you, but it's only asking, is it you or not? You don't need to have the connection to a database. That's the main difference here.

As I said, it's theoretically possible, but this is not that's neither a focus of ours, nor it is something that is necessary in this case, because what you can actually do is you use a QR code to pay, that's one thing, use a touchless credit card or debit card to pay, so there are many ways of contactless paying in a way. What it furthermore does and I pointed this out a little bit earlier, already. So while you are browsing this, and looking through the menu, basically, what we understand is what are you interested in? Because we know that such an eye tracker collects data at about 90 Hertz, so 90 times a second. We understand where you're looking at and this information can be used to basically understand using this autopilot information, what you're interested in and what not. So in this case, for example, we can say right before the checkout, “Hey, you were thinking about taking this ice cream dessert.”

So why not offer it again at the checkout, but as we know what kind of ice cream you looked at and thought about and based on this case pattern, we understand that you really thought about this, so it's not historical information, it's personal.

And therefore you have a much better conversion rate of having upselling and making the cart size larger. 

David: If I'm a kiosk manufacturer and this intrigues me, I have QSR or other retail clients who might be interested in this, what are the hardware implications for this? Do you need to add a separate PC that just does that processing? Is there a separate, specific camera that you need? Those sorts of things? 

Stephan Odorfer: So an eye tracker consists of three different parts. One thing is the infrared lighting, so that's LEDs like you also have in your iPhone and Android phones today, you have a camera, a solution that is basically the same here. There's a special infrared camera and you have an ASIC, so it's a dedicated chip on board on the eye-tracker itself that does all the math, because through the USB port that is connected, only X, Y coordinates and X, Y set coordinates of your eyes are transmitted. So there's no camera image transmitted or saved at all. Everything is calculated in memory and just not saved at all. Also in terms of privacy, this is a standard equipment that can be easily built into the hinge of a notebook. So it's really small sothe volume you need to put into your existing kiosk solutions is really tiny.

And they're the only thing that is necessary. It needs to be put below the screen so that you can easily track the whole screen range with this. 

David: Okay, so you don't need a separate PC running an Intel or that sort of thing to make all this happen. It can just happen off of a pretty simple hardware setup? 

Stephan Odorfer: While you can do that, it depends on the use case that you want to do. For example, if you want to do the prediction, intention prediction parts that I was referring to, and this is something that is not produced on the eye-tracker itself, that is something that runs in the software on local hardware and therefore you should have an up to date device. This could be an Intel processor because the Intel processes have a dedicated deep learning algorithm embedded that we can use, and therefore much lower CPU consumption needed because it's already built in. So the commands are built into the hardware itself. 

David: So if you had a touchscreen kiosk, you could have both functions like all those stuff that the touchscreen kiosk normally doe, could run on there and your technology could run in parallel. You don't need two separate devices to do all that as long as you've got enough hardware. 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes. 

David: Okay. There was a big fuss recently up here in Canada, where I live, about a shopping mall using cameras. And even though it was anonymous video analytics, it was misinterpreted and there was all kinds of upset about it, even though there's really no reason to be. There's nothing, no privacy invasion happening there.

How do you get past that with customers who worry about it and with the general public? Because even though what you're saying is, it's only the eye coordinates, people are going to see cameras and go, “Oh my God, my invasion, or my privacy is being invaded here!” 

Stephan Odorfer: It is absolutely important. So first of all, it uses a camera, but it's a sensor. So it means that the camera images are not saved anywhere. So that's the first thing. Then in terms of our company, we are based in Munich in Germany and Germany has a very strict privacy law. So even in specific areas, there's this even going further than GDPR requests and for the company itself and for me and my partners, this is a very important topic, because we want to make our vision. 

And our mission is to make computers understand us humans and not us humans to understand how our computers operated. This has been for many years that we had to learn how things work. It's now time that computers understand and predict how they can serve us because that's their duty. So in this way, we need to have a better understanding of how we can serve and therefore we need data. If you don't have data, and say if you want to learn swimming in a pool without water, it's not possible. So you need the data. Therefore we have that.

We have certificates of Germany Privacy, that's nothing familiar outside of Germany, probably, but it's a DECRA, it's called a data audit which makes sure how we handle data, how we process data, how we delete data and how we, anonymize and pseudonymized data and aggregate data. So to really make sure that the data we use, has nothing that can be transferred to any individual. That's very important because I don't want a big company to understand what I'm interested in.

The model that we follow for data privacy is basically, something is on one side of the wall, so that's the local part and then there's a part on the other side of the wall. To make this more plausible, think that you're searching for a result and you need to access data online, because this is something that we also do. If you need to load more information, for example, they are doing an e-commerce search and you're loading more information, more t-shirts that you're looking for. So our way is that we ask for a hundred new results and locally, we only use 10 of them. So the guys can put a hundred results in the system, but they don't know which ten of these hundred are we using and needing. So that's basically how you can get around that somebody else is building a model about the person you are serving.

So that's one thing and thinking about these kiosk solutions where all the data i, on the device anyway, and as nothing is transmitted to a server, to do the local optimization or the local personalization, there's no problem in terms of privacy. Furthermore after the session is done and somebody else appears, then we start from scratch basically in terms of the data and personalization.. 

David: Last question. Is this all what we've been talking about conceptually, or are you in the field with self-service kiosks that are doing all of this? 

Stephan Odorfer: So for now, three- four years, what we are doing is we are equipping large enterprises for their standard places, right?

So that's efficiency in ergonomics and benefits. The same goes for the shop floor, so we have productive environments running in a hands-free touchless interaction, not collecting a burger, but just confirming a step in your assembly process, for example. So that's what we're doing through the pandemic.

We have seen this request from hardware, software and solution providers on the one hand, but also from the customer's side since they are looking for other ways to solve their problems. So this is something that I'm pretty sure we're gonna equip, in a few weeks, for example, a completely touchless QR system of a large company that offers their guests to understand more about the company and understand how to get around, sort of a compass, for example, completely touchless, and that's pretty much the same because you have somebody approaching a terminal, the system says, “Hello!”, when it comes to you and you use it for 1-3 minutes, and then you move on.So that's very similar And, so I'm looking forward to seeing this in kiosk environments. 

David: So the interest is absolutely there, but we're still in fairly early stages of seeing this out in the marketplace. Yes. 

Stephan Odorfer: Yes.

David: Okay. Very nice to speak with you. Thank you so much for spending some time with me.

Stephan Odorfer: Absolutely. Thank you for the invitation. 

David Niles, Niles Creative Group

David Niles, Niles Creative Group

November 11, 2020

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

In a technology landscape where even last year's big thing tends to get old quickly, it's pretty amazing that the lobby-filled LED installation at the Comcast tower in Philadelphia remains one of the best visual experience projects out there ... more than 12 years after it was first lit up.

If the project is unfamiliar, imagine walking into a very large corporate office tower lobby, admiring the wood walls that line it, and then seeing those walls are active, and that there are little visual stories being told.

The project went live when few people even in this industry knew all that much about direct view LED, doing a 4mm wall years ahead of when AV people started thinking and marketing in terms of pixel pitch.

I spoke with David Niles, whose little company did the original job and continues to work on it, through a recent LED upgrade.

We get into his long background, starting in architecture and early computer graphics, and evolving into pioneering work with HDTV, again years ahead of when people were using terms like 1080P.

We also talk about some of the other work done by his team.

I spoke with Niles last week as he puffed a morning cigar in his central Florida backyard. I was staring out at my Nova Scotia backyard, wondering when predicted snow flurries were going to blow in.

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TRANSCRIPT

David, we'll get into the Comcast experience, but that's not the only work you've done through the years. Can you tell me about your company and what you do? 

David Niles: If I would start backward, what we do today is, I make large scale multimedia experiences. Mostly for, I guess you would call it public art spaces and buildings, sometimes residences, all over the world. And that's what I do today, where I started is, it's a long list and I'll try and go through it quickly. I really started out in architecture. As a kid, I was fascinated with building and really enamored with architecture. I thought it was extremely novel. I was 10-12 years old, reading all Franklin Wrights books and studying his plans. By the time I was 12 or 13, I taught myself how to be a draftsman and I could draft, and eventually went out in my early career, designing and building outdoor cafes, stores, interiors in New York City. But I was always frustrated with this idea that as novel as I thought architecture was, it was turning into this sort of commodity for run of the mill things and I believe that the future of dynamic art is really in that thing called television. So very early on, I was fascinated with the idea of television and the medium of video and in the early part of my career I was involved with video art, very early pioneers of video art and in New York City where we would run out in porter back and we would shoot all kinds of things that we thought were for art. 

Parallel to that was involved with music and music recording and engineering, sort of altogether and theater to some extent, live theater, and that eventually melded into me getting more and more involved with the medium of video and television, summarily rejecting the idea of broadcast television. It was terrible, those television shows had terrible graphics, horrible lighting, and all this other stuff. 

One day I was sitting in a loft with some friends of mine and we're looking at this video, art that we were making and other than the three or four people in this room, looking at some protracted very boring thing that we shot and realized that we really weren't doing anything and that maybe, being popular and television needed change, needed revolution.

So I decided at that moment that it was more important to get involved with the idea of changing television and bringing art to the popular medium, rather than narrowcasting in this, three or four guys in a room, looking at video feedback on a monitor and thinking it’s wonderful. So I started to get more involved with the idea of taking what was then non-broadcast equipment and seeing if I could adapt this into making a more popular video with it and I was about 18 or 19 years old, I met up with an investor, who lived in France, who felt my ideas for creating a revolutionary mobile unit, that would permit us to go out and shoot and create on the spot more organically, without all of the baggage of what broadcast television was, at least in those days, if you wanted to go out and shoot outside, you were talking about a 50-foot trailer with 25 guys with screwdrivers, cameras that weigh 400 pounds.

He put up the money to invest in making a video mobile unit that would permit us to do that and it was a long story, but eventually, that mobile unit ended up in France and he invited me over to shoot a jousting competition in Carcassonne and this mobile unit that I built, it's a one-man show. This is one guy that had one, two-inch machine and three IVC 300 cameras. These were semi-professional, well they were professional cameras, but they were not high-end RCA, Marconi cameras. This sort of almost looked like a bread truck, it was a small van that housed all of this stuff.

And I basically went to France to shoot this jousting competition and ended up staying in France and convincing this investor to let me take it apart and rebuild it and make it better and this is years before there was any sort of private television or private videotape production in France. It only stayed on television and we pioneered the idea of creating broadcast facilities in France, to supply the French channels and eventually American and basically world channels for sporting events. 

Years later, I was able to buy out the original investor, because business was very slow for the first five or six years and set up my first company in France, where we ended up building that first original mobile unit, but ended up building nine more and became the premier facility in Europe for HBO, ABC, CBS, French television, German television, English television, in high-end video production.

That was France. Of course, pioneering, I was always pushing the envelope of never being satisfied with the state of the art of the existing equipment. It was too heavy. It was too complicated. It wasn't innovative enough. So I have an engineering side where I would go back and look at this hardware that existed at the time and modify it, adapt it, and create these sort of revolutionary for their time outside broadcast vehicles and studios, and somewhere in the early 80s, I had a reputation for being a hardware pioneer and Sony & RCA were constantly throwing new ideas at me and new products that they were developing.

Sony came along and they said, “We have something we want to show you, David” and I said, “what would that be?” 

“Something called high definition television,” and they took me into a room and they showed me the very first prototype for high-def TV and a transfer of this high-def TV that was made to the 35-millimeter film and I looked at it and it blew me away. “Holy mackerel!”

Now, this was a frustration that we'd had in Europe for something that Americans wouldn't understand is that if you produced a 65-pallet television on videotape, the French channels would not accept it. They would not accept videotape. They would only accept 35-millimeter film. So everything that we produce, whether it be a TV commercial, or anything else, or even a commercial for the cinemas, because in France, they put commercials in cinema, we would have to convert our videotape to film, and the only way to do it in the 70s was to do an elaborate kinescope process that Technicolor had developed. 

So we would have to produce absolutely perfect 65-pallet television and then take it through this kinescope process to create, well, 35-millimeter film that looked pretty good, but of course, it's limited in resolution and contrast ratio, but it looked pretty good, so we were constantly trying to get the best we could possibly get. So when I saw HDTV for the first time, looking at a video picture with a better than thousand line resolution and a contrast ratio that was amazing, I was blown away and I said, I've got to do that. So I spent several years negotiating with the NHK in Japan and Sony to allow me to buy the equipment to launch HDTV, which is what we did eventually. In France, we opened up the first studios in the world that actually produced HDTV, not necessarily for broadcast, but for transferring to 35-millimeter film, because we looked at it as either a new medium or a medium that would compete with 35 millimeter, which is the beginning of the HDTV revolution.

Our studios in France were very successful and we produced the first commercials in HDTV, the first movies in HDTV behind and a lot of our customers were calling from America, New York. And I said, “Wow, I need to expand my company,” to open up a New York office, which is what we did in 1987. We opened up 1125 Productions in New York, which was a fully equipped HDTV studio and production facility in New York City. It was an enormous financial investment but parallel, if you look at the history of HDTV, HDTV in 1987 was a very disputed medium as the American broadcasters really didn't want to know about it. The cinema community, of course, said you're not going to replace anything, you're not going to replace this beautiful film with the electronic medium. So it was a very challenging, uphill battle. 

It's a very long protracted story so I'll try and make it shorter. 1125 Productions was mostly a a very sophisticated post-production studio that we had on Fifth Avenue with mobile units. Eventually, I needed to start to produce HDTV programming on my own to start to fill the void as we needed a studio, and we eventually took over the Ed Sullivan Theater, where we built HDTV studios in New York and that's my television career. 

There's a lot involved, though I'd say it's a long story after that, but you know my roots and storytelling, show-business, theater, music,etc. everything else lends itself to, again, going back to this idea of these enormous pictures and these enormous experiential things that we could do with HDTV, that we really couldn’t do with it any other video mediums. 

So in the Sullivan theater, we built a 60-foot screen, and did perhaps through the photorealistic projection and we opened up a Broadway show called, “Dream Time” that ran for 145 performances and the big feature of the dream time, aside from being successful, was that it had fully integrated photo-realistic HDTV imagery that was projected with live actors, and you couldn't tell the difference between the live actors and the projection. It was actually a really cool show. 

What year was that? 

David Niles: That's 1992. And still, if you Google, “Dream time”, you'll see that there's even a Wikipedia page that some people put on, I had nothing to do with it, that talks about it. 

We eventually then sold The Ed Sullivan theater to CBS to do the Letterman show. I opened up studios around the corner in the studio 54 building and continued doing HDTV and other stuff and then got involved with Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, again, in the form of HDTV, but, more so with Radio City Music and their desire to expand the holiday show, which is the most important product that they're doing there, into bringing a LED screen at that time, one largest in the world that covered the whole back of the stage to be able to embellish the Radio City Music Christmas show, which we did. 

We put the screen up and we created an entire animated and coordinated sync to the background for their holiday show with great success and that brings us to where Comcast came into all of this. 

Yeah. I was going to say there's a lot of connective tissue here that I wasn't really aware of. 

David Niles: Yeah, it was interesting. Comcast, the backstory for Comcast is Comcast, at that time, in 2000, was basically a lot of administrative offices spread, pretty much in separate office buildings all over Philadelphia and Comcast became the major tenant for a spec building that was being proposed by a company called Liberty Property Trust. Liberty Property Trust are real estate developers in the Philadelphia area and my original contact was with the real estate developer that came to me and, I guess it was 2000, 1999, and they had this idea to do this spec 53-story office building in Philadelphia, and they wanted to create a sales center to pitch either anchor tenants or many tenants for their revolutionary new thousand-foot tall building and they found me and they came in and they saw what we could do, and I came up with an idea for creating a sales floor with a lot of virtual things and a lot of features that were like this experience that as soon as you walked off the elevator and it was one long interesting almost theme park ride to sell you on the idea of moving into this building, and the main feature of this thing was a room you ended up in that I designed, it was in the shape of an oval and you would sit in this room and it looked like you were in this oval-shaped room and in front of you was a 16-foot wide by 10-foot tall granite wall and this Brent wall was actually one of the materials of the spec building that Stern had designed, that Liberty Property Trust wanted to build, and the lights would dim automatically and it would go into this 10 minutes show that we produced, that would start out making you believe this is going to be a sales pitch for a building - it's going to have 25 elevators and it's made of granite and it's got 4,000 off spaces, and all of a sudden, you're now going through this 10-minute thing about falling in love with Philadelphia with shots of Philadelphia and interviews with JL and other key people and the architect, about the wonderfulness of being in Philadelphia and why you needed to be in this building. It was a very compelling, absolutely beautiful film.

And at the end of the film, it goes back to this granite wall and this granite wall slides away physically. And it reveals real windows that are actually looking out onto the site for which this building is going to be built and long story short, the lead tenant for this building became Comcast. Comcast decided at that moment, they wanted to unify all of their 5,000 workers into this new building and that this was going to be their new headquarters, and eventually, as they started to build the building, Brian Roberts, who's the CEO of Comcast had made frequent trips to Japan, he’s a very innovative guy, absolutely really smart. 

He decided that this lobby, that Stern had designed, this huge lobby and all of these wood panels. He wanted something that was going to make his 5,000 employees inspired and feel good about moving into this new building. The developer that developed the building, wanted to at the same time, create an instant destination for this new tallest building in Philadelphia and basically, I had just finished doing Radio City and they'd heard about it and they. invited me to pitch them my ideas for what to do in there. And our pitch was that we wanted to do something that was unexpected and we created a whole bunch of animatics and things, and we said if you put screens up in the lobby, you can do time and temperature and because Comcast is basically a cable TV operation, we're going to put up thousand channels. Things that would be typical, but it looked fine and then I said, wait a minute, let's talk about the unexpected, what don't we expect to see? And we incorporate something that is ever-changing and inspiring without interfering with what I consider to be private time of the public. 

Private time of the public means that, when you come through the front door of Comcast and you're walking towards the elevator, you can't do things that are too intrusive, that are screaming at you, not audio-wise, but screaming at you for your attention.

For the Comcast side, it was doing something that would be more a gift to the city. Something that was more socially redeeming without being video art, video art in a negative sense and it had some meaning. For the Liberty Property Trust side, it was their subway station name, that's underneath the Comcast building and there were another 10,000 people that come through that lobby every day, so how can we create a meaningful destination for these people coming up the staircase that allows them to enjoy something and then not feel as though they're missing something if they walk away from? 

So we created this idea of one doing the unexpected and two, using theatrical things because people relate to people, where we take ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that are like fun things to watch and from that, we created this whole plethora of things that could happen up there. And then Comcast came back and they said, “David, these ideas are great. This is wonderful. We love it. But how do you create hundreds of hours, thousands of hours of original programming, because we don't want to be constantly producing for this thing cause it's very expensive, and keep it fresh?” 

So, I went back and designed what we called a content delivery system, which is the system for which we actually get this content up onto the screen that is ever-changing, that's able to create its own content, by connecting pieces of pre-recorded content together in a logical fashion, not random so that it stays fresh. And Brian Robert said, “Okay, David, you can do this, but you've got to guarantee me that I will have two years worth of content that's going to remain valid and appear to be new all the time, without creating hundreds of thousands of hours.” 

Remember that basically scenarios in the Comcast center last about a minute, there's a minute and then it'll go back to being this wood wall, disappearing and then coming back. We rotated about 1200 pieces of content every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That's a quantity of content that's impossible. I mean broadcast stations don't even do this. 

This was like in the mid to late 2000s and nobody was talking about direct-view LEDs other than people with jumbotrons.

David Niles: Oh, that was the first challenge. In the mid two thousand, you were looking at LED screens that were 6 millimeters, 8 millimeter, 10 millimeter, jumbotron, so it was first because I needed this to be photorealistic, you had to believe that what you were looking at was actually real, that was part of the magic of it. So I had a longstanding relationship with Barco broadcast from my television days because they make a lot of broadcast products and Barco was doing LED, but LED in 6 millimeter and 8 millimeter. And I went back to Barco and with Barco engineers, we developed the idea of doing a 4 millimeter pixel pitch wall, which for 2006 was revolutionary.

We did tests, we set up eight screens in studios in New York, did subjective tests, objective tests. Again, there were other competing companies that wanted to build this screen, Mitsubishi wanted to build this screen, Daktronics wanted to build this screen, and we eventually ended up developing this with Barco.

Comcast eventually was convinced that Barco was the way to go, and we ended up doing the first NX4, a huge screen. It's 80 feet and it's up to almost 6 million pixels, 6,000 pixels wide. This was revolutionary for its time and then, of course, a content delivery system to be able to deliver to this. There were no servers that would do anything, no pipeline that would do anything larger than HDTV 1920x1080, and we're trying to feed something that's 2000 pixels wide by 10,000 pixels across. That's not going to happen. 

So we ended up designing and building a content delivery system that was capable of doing that. But again, Brian Roberts and Comcast came back to me and they said, “Listen, this is the front face of our building. This is our image. This has to be mission-critical.” And of course, I go back to my days in television, where there's no such thing as something going wrong, you don't do a live downhill skiing event from Switzerland, it's feeding 20 million television sets. There's no such thing as “Oops, the camera doesn't work.” That doesn't happen. I mean it does, you just don't see it. So in designing the content delivery system, we designed several levels of redundancy, such that, in the event of any failure behind the scenes, it would automatically switch over and change so that the problem would remain invisible on the screen.

And in the first eight years of operation, the screen was never turned off. It never ever went down. After eight years of operation, a couple of years ago, it was the end of life for the NX4s so we actually changed all of that, but basically, the new installation, the new content delivery system, and the new screen is based on the same original design. So what levels of redundancy we had built-in, you can't see the problem if there's a problem and eventually, it's a lot of hardware, things do go wrong, but you just can't see them. 

How does Comcast know this is working? How do they measure that this is having the desired impact? 

David Niles: That's a really great question, because Brian Roberts was constantly analyzing and he's very analytic, and even when we were proposing the ideas, we had the meetings in Comcast where he invited 50 people that worked in the building to come up and I made a miniature model of a lobby where we projected story worlds, started animatics and things and scenarios that we were developing and we actually had focus groups come in and vote on paper and tell us what they liked and didn't like, what they thought and even before we actually started shooting, we were having results in 97% off the Richter scale. 

When it finally opened, one of the first things that began to show, other than people that loved the original Comcast experience, was the holiday show. Brian wanted desperately to have, aside from what the wall does every day, during the holiday seasons to run a special holiday show, and the first year that we did the holiday show, within several days of this thing opening, it went viral and the holiday show is a 15 minute or 18 minutes show that ran every hour, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock, eight or nine times a day in the lobby of this office building. And within several days after opening, every show was jam-packed. You could not get into the lobby of the building. The lobby would hold on a couple of thousand people. It was an enormous success and you have to imagine, this is a building lobby, there are no chairs in it, there's no place to sit down. All you can do is stand on this couch on this granite floor and people from all over would come running in on the hour to see this spectacle, and now the holiday show is in its 12th year and because they eventually put in counters and analytics to see how many people came in when they come in, we've had millions, that's plural, millions of visitors. The hardest thing in the world in show business is a free attraction. That's the hardest thing to actually promote, ‘cause I've done, Broadway shows, et cetera. Once people have bought a ticket, they're bought halfway into something, but when you do something for nothing, when it's free, when it’s open to the public, it's the most discerning audience. It's the hardest audience and the success has been phenomenal.

And even though it's part of the design of the wall, we don't do any advertising for Comcast on it. There's almost no branding whatsoever, but this idea of doing a gift to the city, the public relations response to this wall has been extraordinary. And people don't like cable companies, even if you go online and you look up Comcast, you'll see, blogs opened up a little bit of the, we hate Comcast, we don't like the bandwidth, it's screwed me out of this, but that thing that's in the lobby, it's genius. 

Now I don't want to paint you as a one-trick pony because I know you've done other work. What are some of the other projects that your team has worked on lately? 

David Niles: Another one also for Stern, who is the architect of Comcast, we, of course, did the George W. Bush library, which is an interesting 360-degree video experience. It's in the central part of the library complex called Freedom Hall, which is this very tall, huge square room where people gather, after they pass security to go into the library, they gather in this room before they're actually admitted into the library section and as they gather in this room, they're basically looking at what's a drawn level, which is doors and paneling and stuff. But, at about 12 feet high, it turns into what looks like a hand-painted mural that goes 360 degrees around them up to a skylight area. And as they're standing in there, this hand-painted mural, when enough people gather, all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Images of sand dunes and tumbleweeds and a desert landscape, Texas landscape looks hand-painted, and all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Tumbleweeds start to move around. Surround sound, original orchestra track begins to play and this goes into an eight-minute presentation about the office of the presidency, what the office of the presidency actually means. and it's about the fact that our presidents come from the people of the land, to become president and it's done in a way where we're looking at again, it's a very big challenge to shoot these time-lapse images of the American landscape, the textures of the American landscape in 360 degrees, photorealistic above your head and it's a very inspiring thing. People, all of a sudden start pointing, looking. The end of that experience is that the screen explodes into thousands of images, in what looks like, almost passport photos of all kinds of Americans, young, old Americans from a hundred years ago, colors, all races, all this and that. And it turns into this enormous mosaic of these pictures of Americans and some of these pictures are larger than others. And those pictures that are larger than others are actually what looked like passport photos of everybody that's standing in that audience and somebody will notice it and they start pointing and it's like popcorn going off in a popcorn pot. They all start and it's basically, they're incorporated basically thousands of pictures and the pictures begin to dissolve off leaving. Today it would be 40-44 pictures that are up there that are left up there that are 44 presidents, so it's a very inspiring thing. It's about the office of the presidency. It's not necessarily about a particular president. 

But that's a big one. In Washington, DC, we have the Media Arch at the City Center, which is an Archway. There are no two of my installations that are identical. There are similarities to Comcast in so much as it's got rotating entertainment, it's ever-changing, it draws quite a large crowd. 

Other installations we've done pretty much all over America and in Europe and in China, they're all different, but they're very large installations and also some very small ones. What we love to do is challenge ourselves. We constantly deal with clients that are saying, “This is what we want to accomplish. How do we accomplish it?” And what I mean by accomplish is, like in the Comcast experience, Brian Roberts wanted to have his employees feel connected to this building and inspired. At the same time, Liberty Property Trust wanted to create a destination. We love a challenge. The Bush library was another challenge. It was, not to make something specific that is, for Bush, the president, ‘cause that's where the library is here for, this was an overture to the idea of the office of the presidency. In California and in other places, it's people telling us specific goals that they have to see what we can come up with to create something that fills those particularly, sometimes commercial, sometimes not commercial and we love that idea of the challenge.

And again, we've done dozens of tiny lobbies. We have one that we're about to install in New York City, which is a ceiling in a very important office building, but it's very small. The lobby is only 18 feet wide and it's about 80 feet long and we're putting a ceiling in there. The lobby's beautifully been re-redesigned, and here we're creating a virtual ceiling that is an experience that works from the front door you walk into, down this 60-foot lobby that has a reward to it being there without interfering with the architectural design of the lobby, it's complementary. It blends in, it doesn't look like, “Oh, let's put a screen up there and we'll put a lava lamp on it or something. 

All right, David, this was terrific. We could talk for hours. I want to thank you for spending some time with me. It was really interesting. 

David Niles: Thank you so much for the questions, they are really good.

Tomer Mann, 22 Miles

Tomer Mann, 22 Miles

November 4, 2020

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

The Silicon Valley firm 22Miles tends to be thought of in digital signage circles as a company focused on wayfinding, but that's only part of the story.

It does indeed do a full set of features that help people navigate their way around malls, medical centers and corporate campuses, but 22Miles has evolved through the years into a rich, API-driven digital signage CMS platform that does a lot more than floor maps.

In this podcast, I caught up with Tomer Mann, a senior executive with 22Miles, and in most respects, the face of the company.

We get into what they're up to, the pivots made to deal with 2020, and how its COVID-19 counter-measure technology has been future-proofed to have a life AFTER this pandemic ends.

We also solve the mystery of the company name. Think horses.

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TRANSCRIPT

Tomer, thank you for joining me. I know 22Miles, I'm sure lots of other people do too, but can you give me the rundown on the company for those who are not familiar with your firm? 

Tomer Mann: No problem, Dave. Thanks, so 22Miles was founded in 2007. Our head engineer is actually the founder, so we're very much a Silicon Valley, the cultural mindset of a full CMS platform. He founded the company, primarily as a multi-touch way-finding solution and we've evolved to an immersive digital signage, visual communication platform and we continued to just innovate and add daily features to the system because him being the Silicon Valley mentality, he's got 50% of the company being developers behind him and that's our differentiator that we love to brag about is that we're this full CMS solution that never stops innovating. 

Is it a public or private company?

Tomer Mann:  We're privately owned. 

Okay, and how big? Thirty people, hundred people, three thousand people? 

Tomer Mann: We are 50 to 60 people on average. 

Okay, cool. Silicon Valley is an expensive place to have software developers and engineers. Is the whole headcount there or do you have them dispersed? 

Tomer Mann: We have them dispersed, but we're actually, especially now with everything and there was that California lockdown for a while, we are slowly merging things to our Atlanta or Duluth office. And I think I'm going to be more in Duluth now than anything else. So we're dispersed. We have people in Indiana, Rochester, I'm remote, Sacramento. So we're a little bit everywhere. 

Yeah, these days in particular, but even normally for a software development company, there's not one hell of a lot of need to have everybody under the same roof.

Tomer Mann: No and I think we're learning that more and more that remote does work. As long as you've got good employees that can be accountable for themselves and want to have the company thrive and which means they thrive, I think that remote is going to work and I think remote will be something that a lot of people will shift for as a normal, going forward into this new world.

I don't want to say new normal because everyone says that so I'm going to say new world instead. So I think that it's worked for us for a bunch of years and we were able to not have to worry about remote because we were already doing it. So now it just emphasizes that it is something that makes sense to continue our path forward in. 

What's the story with the name? I don't tend to get fixated on names, but when I type in 22Miles, your company comes up and I think with it a Donnie Wahlberg action movie. 

Tomer Mann: Yeah, that Mark Walberg guy, that Miles 22 movie. It was a good movie. He actually might have helped us if anything else. But yeah, so the head founder being an engineer, wanted a name that made sense around the wayfinding platform that he created and so he dug in, and with 22 miles what he found was that in the olden horse and carriage days, no one would travel in any given direction. So radius directional, more than 22 miles, someone randomly told me that horses can't travel on any given day more than 22 miles so that kind of all makes sense. So for any service from your home, no more than 22 miles. 

Okay. Mystery solved. You started in wayfinding and, as you said, you've evolved. Was that an evolution that was driven by customer asks or, your founder and the head engineer just saw where this could go? 

Tomer Mann: Actually without sounding cocky, it was actually all me. When I joined the company, it was me that said, “This is an amazing platform, but it's not enough and we have to make this a full digital signage platform.” Because we're wayfinding, sure. It could be 2-5 units in a building, but with digital signage it can be hundreds or thousands of units within an organization, especially in hospitality, especially in healthcare, and especially in education and then obviously agile workplace corporations. 

So I put that seed and within a couple of weeks of ideas going back and forth, we were able to redesign a whole new version of the software and a whole new CMS, to really create this immersive platform. 

Now because you'd already had the foundation, the building blocks for this in many ways, you just had to change the UX to some degree. 

Tomer Mann: That's exactly it. 

So is most of the business still derived from wayfinding or do you have people coming to you who don't even do wayfinding? 

Tomer Mann: The majority of the business is actually digital signage now, funny enough, but we are still typecast in the industry for wayfinding.

I think our SEO also is still the strongest for wayfinding and it's great because it is a differentiator, I think, from our 3d wayfinding that we designed and released, we're probably the strongest globally for this 3d editing tool for math module map, design, smart pathway algorithm. So people come to us for that when they see our videos, when they see our marketing and then we open their eyes and we open their minds and sometimes their pocket/books to see, wow, we can do so much more with you as a one-stop-shop, and it's great to see how we can change people's perspective and make them excited that now they've got a cross-platform that they can scale with, and not have to look for other solutions anymore.

Is the 3d side of things important as a user experience or is it as much just like the visual “wow” of it? 

Tomer Mann: It's a little bit of both, honestly. It was a novelty in the beginning, it was just something cool that we can do. Funny enough, Joey, the founder, has an open forum for all of his developers and if they have a great idea, if they come up with something like, “We can develop this within the source code. Can we do it?” He's just yeah, do it rock and roll. And so one of the developers is like, “I know how we can use an SVG file to just create our 3d dimensions within our existing module” and that's how the 3d solution developed. 

So it was at first, really a design scenario, that we added, but through that we leveraged our smart pathway algorithm to create more of a positioning system based on your current kiosk or screen. So actually the screen's position is the 3d experience, leveraging our 3d engine, as a 360 so it spins you a certain way. So it actually creates a better orientation for where to go, whether you go North or you go South or you go East, or you go West versus the 2d maps or the flat maps that you're just like, “There's your arrow” and you’re like, “Wait, do I need to go forwards or backward? I'm not sure.” 

So we can orient that now so it’s more about the physical experience that this 3d wayfinding does. 

How do you counteract the arguments that I'm sure to come up here and they're saying, “why do we need a big screen wayfinding application when everybody's walking around with a smartphone and they can just scan a QR code or whatever, and do it off of their phone?”

Tomer Mann: I'm not gonna argue with that. We do mobile solutions on our platform. So if you want mobile, we're still your solution to go to, so I don't care if you want a kiosk or a mobile application. I bet some of my systems integration partners might hate me for that comment, but our platform supports full mobile native and HTML capabilities and design. We can also do an SDK plugin. I actually tell every one of my clients and partners that they should be leveraging mobile and they should consider adding that to the scope. 

Now, a lot of the time, yes, because we work with so many AV integrators, they obviously come to us for a kiosk solution but we always tell them and their clients or end-users to add our mobile application, what we call a carry-to-mobile and the reason it's carry to mobile is that it's actually starting from the kiosk. So there's no reason not to have a kiosk as your point A, whereas your reference points or app nowadays as access control or check-in solution that incorporates the hoteling. So you visually have this as you walk into the building. 

Now we've added voice control. So now you voice your name or we add an active directory, single sign-on. So it knows where you are at with an exchange integration and shows you visibly how to get there. And then you just scan from the kiosk or QR code and you carry that entire experience on your phone and you go off, on the path. 

So we definitely suggest both. We don't suggest one or other when we really think both work harmoniously together. 

And it makes sense because for the people who are arguing that a phone is good enough, that UX, that visual experience still has to be developed anyway. 

Tomer Mann: Exactly.

I don't want to get fixated on wayfinding because I heard what you said that a lot of the business is just core digital signage. 

Why are they coming your way? I mean there are a lot of digital signage options out there so what attracts them to 22Miles, your end-users?

Tomer Mann: Yeah, there is a lot and I think that's the problem, it's almost a saturated market with a lot of solutions that are niche that have certain feature sets and that's really it. They're stuck in this little bubble. People come to us because they want an all-in-one platform, not just the digital signage software component and so we are that platform better than any other solution in the world because we continuously evolve this product and add more and more features and enhance those features, enhance the workflow and customizations of those property settings and those visual filters, and those API integrations.

So people come to us because we've got so much to offer, the building blocks are there for scalability and whether you just want a digital menu board, or you're starting with the digital menu board, and now you want an interactive video wall, or you want a mobile component to talk to the video, they're not going to find that in a lot of other software solutions. We are that total package deal and that's why I think people get really excited when they realize that ‘cause a lot of times they do come for one solution and their eyes open up to everything they can do with our cross-platform application.

So I think that's a big thing is that we've got this total solution, an immersive application ecosystem for digital technology, digital media. Even design firms come to us because it's a drag and drop WYSIWYG and they don't have to develop stuff anymore from scratch, they really just still have their design methodology there, their UI/UX, and they'll still get the exact experience without having to do full development anymore because it's just a blank canvas and all of the properties, all of the settings, all of the widgets are right there for them to assemble their vision. 

So from a novice to a graphic designer, our platform meets the needs of almost everyone and I really don't know anyone else that has that story to tell. 

So what you're saying is you could have a large technology company that's full of coders and pushes content out to mobile, pushes it out to social channels, pushes it out to the web and they could using your APIs, also push it into a digital signage network without having to do the whole nine yards of your UX and everything, they can just plug into it? 

Tomer Mann: Yep and we've actually enhanced a lot, looking at some of the market, where it's leaning towards more of a web-based, designers and portals and we were historically more of a Windows desktop designer and management system.

So since then, we've evolved to have both options. And our web portal has become night and day, especially our new version 6 release, where we have certain features on there.that what we call “quick edit settings” that can be done by someone with zero training to what we call “pro edit”, where someone can now design from scratch and it piggybacks from the web to the desktop version so seamlessly to any kind of player, a BrightSign player, the Samsung Tiezen, the LG Web OS, Android and Windows. I think the only thing we don't support is Linux, but people definitely see the advantage in simplicity to just make quick edits, quick changes on the fly, and anywhere they're at.

And so I think the more we're adding into the web, and taking a lot of the desktop features into the web, the more, again, we're going to stand apart from everyone else that's the HTML solution in the world. 

Yeah, I'd been making the argument lately. I just did a presentation the other day, talking about how a lot of the entry-level generalist digital signage CMS platforms are at severe risk of being completely disintermediated because there are platforms out there that are just API rich and don't require you to even use their front-end or anything. You just work with it the way you work with other things and that's where I see things going. Is that your sense?

Tomer Mann: Yeah. I think people want things to be autonomous. They want things to auto-sync, they don't want to have to make changes on a daily basis. So the more a solution can integrate with their existing feeds, their APIs, their management software, their Tableaus vs. their Office 365 vs. their Salesforce vs. Facebook, Instagram. If all of those things can marry very easily together with just  a data source and a token or whatever, and they can be completely hands-off, they're very happy about that and that's something that we've always had, this API's strengths really works with anything and people can just be hands-off. The system is going to dynamically update because we've added this automation and people love that and so most of the time people are just letting those data sources do a lot of the work for them and then at certain contributor level, cause we got a whole approval workflow scenario, you can you just do like a media zone where they're changing an image or a slideshow or an MP4 and that's it, and they're done in 30 seconds. 

And if a solution doesn't have those integrations, if they don't have that simple drag and drop then they're going to be left behind really quickly.

Yeah, it's okay for the muffler shops and nail salons and everything, but you're not going to get very many large clients unless you can do all that. 

Tomer Mann: And we work with Fortune 100 companies, and Fortune 500. We have multi-tenant solutions that have 200 sites worldwide, or 225 offices worldwide with thousands of mixed solutions from video walls, touchscreen video walls, room bookings, mobile wayfinding, the wayfinding, digital communication, or infotainment displays and it's just a mosh-posh of all these digital components in there.

 They've got some central control and then each office has its own localized control as well so yeah, I don't think a mom and pop shop can deal with that kind of level. 

No, we'll get into the COVID countermeasure stuff that you guys have developed, but, pre-COVID and now, do you have a sense of what verticals were quite active in 2019 and how things have changed in 2020?

Tomer Mann: Sure. Hospitality very active, 2018-2019 for obvious reasons, no go in 2020. We're getting here and there. Actually, some of them are coming back in the last couple months, but not a fraction of where they were. Healthcare for obvious reasons has had other focuses in 2020. Education has wanted to do things, but they have no idea when they're coming back online. Some are trying to reopen, some are like “Nope, we are spiking again, we got to close”. So they haven't done that well. Those three were really good for us in 2019.

Corporate sas really picked up in the last couple of months, especially since we wrote out that white paper recently about the technology IN the new workplace design from the lobby, you'd leveraging our temperature sensors or temp defense system to now adding the wayfinding and hoteling, so you know where your room is and following a one-way pathway using our modeling rules to hot desking so finding which cubicle you should or can sit at while maintenance and sanitizing and other ones. 

We're doing voice control or virtual receptionist so you're able to talk to someone, and then get further information or the delivery service man leaves a package, having the mobile application and now also the desktop notification. So even working from home, we have a solution for them, for an organization or a department to send to their team, either a screensaver or widget information. And I call it the virtual water cooler experience or gossip experience at home. So we've literally touched a little of everything in this white paper, did a good job to talk about that and a lot of our partners share that with their corporations and we've been really fortunate to have a good uptick in corporate, continuing that Transportation's down, Shopping malls are obviously down. So I think really Corporate has been like the major bread and butter of 2020, but there are still some amazing projects there. 

Yeah and you would think, with offices clearing out because of COVID restrictions and everything that Corporate would be problematic, but as you note, it will come back and is coming back to some degree and while.

Offices may never quite look the same way as they did, even those people who work from home may be coming in two days a week or whatever and maybe as you say, work at a hot desk instead of a full-time desk and that sort of thing. 

Tomer Mann: Yeah, I think a lot of the property management, the CBREs, the JLLs, the Cushman's, they created a whole new design around hoteling and hot desking and that experience, and a lot of that is to sanitize certain desks over other ones, to social distance people from each other, so all of that needs a visual experience, not only for the users but also for maintenance, for the admins, and also for security so they're all aware of what's happening and it helps with trace tracking and all of that stuff. And then they're adding sensors into the experience as well. They're adding occupancy and density control solutions. So all of that's going to be the technology of the future, I think and it makes sense and it keeps people safe, and is kind of still agile at the same time. 

Right, so tell me about temp defense and protection as a service, in the context of thermal sensing and all that, what distinguishes what you have from the way too many thermal sensor gadgets that drop into my inbox every morning?

Tomer Mann: Did you happen to read the IPVM article by the way recently? They had all of the tests they just did on all of those temperature sensor solutions. They had huge callouts on the Glory Stars, the BMSs, and the Good View and all of those, I'm not going to name some of the names that they made a big list, but let's just say our name wasn't on that list. 

The reason for that is all of the solutions out in the marketplace are just basically putting a facelift on a Chinese software application with some sensors. 

Yeah. And it's just hygiene theaters they say, right? 

Tomer Mann: Yup. There's no proof in the accuracy. There's no support, because who are you calling? And a lot of them are just kiosk solutions that literally, they didn't test the application and just decided to roll this out quickly and some of my system integrators, even partners did the same and I still make fun of them about that.

We saw that experience already in March, cause we were getting hit by Chinese vendors trying to say, why don't you use our sensors? And I'm like, this is ridiculous. So I immediately said we need to develop our own. So we wanted to have a made in America experience, especially with GDPR and privacy and all of that. We knew that this would happen and we had the foresight to that and we basically pivoted in March by April, we had a working system leveraging FLIR sensors. So a US-based solution. We knew that this company had the best and most accurate sensors for us to work with. We didn't need a black body for it as well and we just created an algorithm for better accuracies and literally every deployment, we had to go on the fly sometimes and we just continued to enhance the software to make accuracy better, to make the experience better, to add face mask detections that we needed, badge integrations, we needed printing capabilities.

Then we created our own video call server. So we have our own virtual receptionist capability. We wanted voice command into it. So we have the voice commands. You're not touching the screen with the CDC questionnaires. And then we did a mobile CDC questionnaire that you scan on the sensors. So we continue adding more and more of these features, that I don't think anyone can say they have that, because they're relying on a different provider where we are the one-stop-shop.

And so we continue to add more of these features, continue to improve the AI and machine learning and algorithm for our accuracy and I think that's what's going to put us apart from everyone else and then ELO has teamed up with us. We're working with some others, Peerless and Kiosk.com and a lot of display manufacturers, we're working with Microsoft Surface, to Lenovo, to ELO, to Aida, to MIMO, there’s AOPEN, they've all teamed up with us knowing who we are and what we can provide. And so we've created a really powerful solution to benefit from safety and agility for business continuity without having to worry about who am I calling or is this real or is it just a fake?

And I think that's the story and the value add that we want everyone to know. And we're happy about that and the extra benefits and this is how you and I started in the first place. I'm like, “I need to talk to Dave” because you made a comment about a lot of these solutions are probably just gonna be put in the closet cause they're not going to be needed anymore. And I was like, no, not 22Miles, because again, you're buying 22Miles software when you're buying temp defense and so you can repurpose this application for another solution if you feel like you don't need sensor temperature-sensing anymore. So if now you want to do interactive wayfinding or an interactive check-in or a voice-based questionnaire, or virtual receptionist, now you've got the ELO or whatever display that you can repurpose with our software and you have this CMS to edit your layout, your UI/UX and I think that's another really powerful value add with us versus anyone else in the marketplace. 

Yeah, I think future-proofing is really important right now because there's not a whole bunch of drunk sailors spending out there. You really have to think through what you're going to cut a PO for.

Tomer Mann: Yeah, I think the drunk sailor buying was already done, worked with a few different distributors and stuff like that, and they had a huge influx, like millions of units right away sold, and all of those people are annoyed, some are pissed and now the savvier, more future thinkers are coming to us because they need those extras. Those controls, those badge integrations, the virtual receptionist component is really huge for us. So we're getting more of that tech-savvy, big picture people coming to us now for those differentiators. 

What's protection as a service?

Tomer Mann: So TempDefend was where we started and then we realized there was more to the story, there's more to what we can do and like the virtual receptionist, the voice command, so we decided let's separate that from TempDefend and make those their own features and their own components.

And so virtual receptionists, where we had team and teams integration, WebEx integration, now we have our own system. The voice command, I think just makes sense for every interactive video wall, so we have that as an extra feature and a plugin or a widget now in our software, that anyone can leverage and then we decided we wanted to do something more so we created what's called secure mobile control, which is a way to operate a touchscreen or a video wall without having to touch anymore. So we created this remote app for your phone. So you've got a touchpad on an on-screen keyboard, and it basically operates as a mouse cursor on any screen, and it's called secure mobile control and we decided to just give that away for free so this is a feature we developed to just benefit everyone, and it's just a free software application. So again, all of these things are protective feature sets to avoid or COVID proof or virus-proof your digital signage experience. 

From there we decided our wayfinding with hoteling and one way or scheduled or controlled pathways made perfect sense for social distancing, where you can have data analytics for maintenance or sanitation to know what to sanitize. So now you're protecting people from cubicles or an office perspective. So with all of this digital technology, we figured out a way to leverage what we had, pivoted with some new features and create this suite of applications moving forward and that's where protection as a service came from. 

And the “as a service” suggest that it's something that you basically subscribe to, right? 

Tomer Mann: Yes, a lot of them are going into our SAS model option, or you can add as a service some of these extra features other than secure mobile control, which is free.

Okay. All right. thank you, Tomer. That was great and very interesting. 

Tomer Mann: No, thank you, David. Really appreciate it and always great to connect.

 

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

October 28, 2020

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

The QSR industry has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, and some operators have fared much better than others for the simple reason that they had drive-thru lanes.

If the business relied on walk-in and dine-in traffic, they were in trouble. But if they had drive-thru lanes with pre-sell and menu displays, they tended to make out OK. What might have been 70% of their business went up past 90%.

Last week I moderated a roundtable panel on digital signage and the QSR business, chatting for  almost an hour with top people from companies active in the space - both vendors and end-users.

The Digital Signage Power Hour was hosted by AVIXA and sponsored by STRATACACHE. I led a discussion with Dan Williams from Stratacache, who worked with McDonald's on its massive digital deployment, Sara Grofscik of Samsung, who runs the QSR business there, Dave Petricig of PingHD, and Todd Hoffman, the digital lead for Krispy Kreme, and the subject of a recent 16:9 podcast.

The session starts with me rattling through some observations, and then we dive in.

AVIXA's Marcella Walsh can be heard at the back-end, answering some listener questions.

You can also watch the webinar online here ...

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

No transcript on this one. Too many competing voices!

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

October 14, 2020

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

In the before times, when we did nutty things like fly on planes and walk around in crowds, I went to ISE in Amsterdam, and made a point of stopping by the small stand of a company called Wallboard.

An industry friend had suggested I check them out, so I popped by and had what turned into a lengthy demo. I walked away impressed and amused, thinking, "These guys are mad scientists."

Wallboard is a digital signage content management system like countless other systems on the market. What distinguishes them is a focus on IOT devices and data integration. The demo I had, thinking way back, involved a weigh scale and booze, as part of an access control system for factories.

Booze on your breath, you get pulled off to the side. If you weigh more than you did leaving than when you entered, the system and a screen flags that ... and then security people look in your pockets for stuff they think you might be taking home without permission.

It all speaks to where this whole idea of dynamic digital signage is going.

I spoke with Rod Roberson, the co-CEO of the company, which has a sales and marketing office in Dallas. Most of Wallboard's 40 or so people - the developers and mad scientists - work in an office outside of Budapest, Hungary.

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TRANSCRIPT

Rod, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a background on Wallboard? 

I know you guys, I've seen you at at least one trade show, but I wonder how many people in the general ecosystem know much about you. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. Sure, thanks for having me, Dave. So Wallboard is a Digital Signage CMS software platform. I would say that the platform does most things you would expect from a traditional CMS, managed screens, managed content, but what we really focus on is building a platform that allows our users to really build some advanced content through the use of our content editing tools, our integrations with live data and IOT sensors, and our ability to easily integrate with third party systems so that we can interact with some of the business process workflows that are inherent within those systems.

Company is in Dallas, but there's a big component of it in Hungary, right? 

Rod Roberson: That's correct. So the company was actually started in 2012 by my partner, Robert Simon. He's based near Budapest, Hungary. He started the company back then, spent about three or four years building up the platform, building the development team, and took it to market, in Europe, basically in 2016.

And then we met in 2017. I, at the time, was running the AV division of a family owned company and we were looking to build out a digital signage as a service product offering. And we were really struggling to find the right software partner for that. So met Robert, a lot of the boxes checked and we actually just started as a reseller. Then one thing led to another, he was looking for an investment partner and he hooked up with a few venture capital firms in Europe but I was able to convince them that we would be a better investment partner for him because we were strategic, we were talking to end users on a day to day basis.

And so we formalized that partnership, in 2018 and then that led to him saying, “Hey, I really need a day to day business partner to help me with sales and marketing”, so I joined him full time in 2019, and so sales and marketing really run out of the Dallas office. And then, he's running the tech team outside of Budapest. 

So how much of the company is in Budapest versus Dallas? 

Rod Roberson: I would say we've got probably close to 40 full-time employees. We've got 7 here in the States, so the majority of our company is really full-time developers. We've got 25-27, somewhere in that range of full time developers, that sit there in Hungary. 

What is that, about an eight hours difference? 

Rod Roberson: It's seven hours. 

Okay. So you've got to juggle your days quite a bit. 

Rod Roberson: I do, and it's been an interesting experience in terms of what my days look like now. I'm typically up pretty early and at least part of the internal work day is almost over at about 10 o'clock. But, yeah, it's a different work-life balance than I was used to before. 

Now, what was it that attracted you to this platform versus the 5,000 other ones that are out there?

Rod Roberson: One of the things we were looking for was just the flexibility to own our own backend, and one of the interesting things about Wallboard is that it's a distributed server infrastructure. We've got 40-45 global partners out there. And I would say the majority of them run their own servers so they really control that back end, which was an important piece to us. 

In addition to that, I just really love the flexibility of the system and the ability to do some more advanced things. I do think that, you're right, it's a crowded space when it comes to just traditional digital media playback applications but I think when you start to talk about more advanced things like data integrations, IOT sensor integrations, and the ability to start to create more dynamic content, content that reacts to the environment or reacts to something else that's happening versus just “here's a playlist I'm playing”, that's when I think, the space gets a little less crowded, and you know that originally, what excited me about the Wallboard. 

So when you say a distributed server setup, does that mean if there’s a reseller up here in Canada, you’ll  basically enable them to white label your platform?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. They can white label it and we have got a mix, we've got partners or resellers that completely white label the system, and that's very important to them, so they can do that. We also have ones that say, “Hey, I want to leverage your marketing. I want to leverage the Wallboard knowledge base.” And so they still want to be Wallboard, but they still want control of that server environment. We allow them to do that. And then that allows them to do a lot of administrative things on their end, in terms of customizing the settings, they can customize the security aspects of the system and they can create some custom programming that is very unique to their specific server. 

So if you're doing it that way, are you then selling a site license to these partners, or can you still get Wallboard as a service directly from you or your partners and pay a monthly license per node?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, so to the end-user, it looks about the same. And then most of our partners are selling the same way, which is an end-user license per node like you said. 

From a reseller's perspective, we have partners that say, we don't want to do that, we don't want to manage our own infrastructure. So we have servers in the US and in Europe, where partners, certainly new partners, can come on, test our system, but a few licenses on the system. but I would say our more serious partners end up gravitating toward their server environment.

Would these be your customer base? Would they be a little bit different from the standard customer base of a lot of CMS platforms that go after a small to medium business or they chase a particular vertical but it's a general offer? You're talking a lot about IoT and it sounds like increasingly specific and “complicated applications”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that it's an interesting question. I think that we've got a little bit of a mix of both, we've got the resellers that are very much more traditional AV integrators, they're interested in selling to those small and medium enterprises, they're selling meeting rooms and conference room technology and all that other AV stuff. And they're just bolting on digital signage as an additional offering, but as we get more advanced, we've got different kinds of partners that are into retail technology, and so they are very interested in IoT sensors. Some of our partners are just selling into the corporate environment, not so much. 

The same thing goes for data integration. The partners that we have that are really into the contact center space, they are very focused on that particular part of our platform, so it really runs the gamut in terms of, what is the partner, what's their customer base look like? And that kind of drives, what they're interested in from a platform perspective. 

So let's say five years ago, you pretty much had to go to a somewhat specialized CMS platform that had data modules built-in and had already written connectors. It was its own thing, but data has got fairly accessible now, and being able to take different data feeds from different systems isn't that technically hard in certain respects, but I assume it gets a lot harder when you get into specialized IoT sensors that maybe don't have a whole platform and API behind them.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. So you know, what we've done is, we partnered with a company called Five Stack, and they've got a microcontroller that's a nice little piece of equipment that you can connect to a bunch of different types of sensors into that little microcontroller computer. So digital analog, sensors with various different other communication protocols. So we've written firmware on that microcontroller that can talk to our CMS. 

So at that point, I can take basically any sensor integrated into that microcontroller. And that is that it acts as almost the glue between the sensor itself and our CMS that's triggering content.

If I think back all the way to the before times when you go out and meet people and all that, I went to ISE and got a demo from Robert and walked away from that after 20-25 minutes, kinda amused thinking, “these guys are mad scientists” because they were showing me all these crazy sensor integrations.

Could you describe some of the business applications that you're doing? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think it's early, we're still looking into various different use cases, but I think that one of the demos that you probably saw there in Amsterdam, we've got a partner that doesn't really have a digital signage background at all, he's a security consultant. And he recognized a need in these large factories, in his case, Eastern Europe, but there are large factories where these workers that go in and out of these things and there's a lot of different things that need to occur for them to get through the entry Gates.

So they've got questions that need to be answered, they need to specifically ID themselves, they want to make sure that they're not stealing products and services. And so there needs to be something there in terms of a live security person to check what they want to check, alcohol content, and I don't think it was not in the demo back then, but certainly now we've added a temperature check. Previously there was a need for like seven or eight of these security guards, because you've got 25,000 workers coming in at three different shifts, and we were able to essentially build a complete business process with our software, utilizing all these sensors. You essentially walk up to a kiosk. You step on a scale, you insert your RFID badge into it, you answer a few questions, your blow on the alcohol breathalyzer, you get your temperature taken, and if you're good to go, you're off into the space.

If you're not, there is an alert that gets triggered and now we've got two security guards versus seven. So there's a serious ROI in terms of reducing the labor force needed to get through this process. And then on the back end of that, they weigh you again, such that if you're 10 pounds heavier, they know that something's up.

So I think that's an interesting application. We've got a couple of others, and we're doing some proof of concepts here on the East coast. We've got a major retailer where they've got a 6X1 display. and then, and they are displaying all sorts of various different types of content. The original idea was to have buttons underneath the displays and a physical display so that the visitors could go and say, “I want to look at the Michelin tires”, or “I want to look at the AT&T services that you're offering”, and they would have to touch these buttons. Well, COVID hits, and all of a sudden they're saying, “what can we do to make this more contactless?” So instead of having a physical button there, we placed an IR sensor and we basically tuned that IR sensor, so that it only gets triggered if your finger gets within, two-three centimeters from the sensor itself. So we're able to mimic that button experience with an IR sensor to actually trigger the content. 

So you know, things like that, I think the retail space is really interesting for this IoT sensor application. I think there were some other ones with meeting room signs in the corporate environment that we were tinkering with. So again it’s early, but we're really excited about the things we can do and it's opening up a lot of conversations, you know what I mean? 

There are conversations where people say, can you do this, or this is my business need, what can you do? And that's where the mad scientist comes in and Robert goes back into his work area and comes out with some crazy ideas.

I assume that some of what you described, like the access control and weighing and testing for whether they have alcohol in their breath. Those are systems that if you went to a big multinational company, can't name one, but I can think of a few, they would say, “Sure, we can do that for you”, and it would probably cost $75,000 a unit or more. As you were describing with that company, you can buy sensors for, like they don't cost much at all, do they? 

Rod Roberson: No. It's certainly like buttons, sensors, those things, you're talking dollars, so again, there's some costs in terms of some of that customization, but we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of customer customization we have to do because it's all built on our core platform and we're reducing a lot of the custom coding that has to happen because we built these interfaces so that we can, graphically say, “when this happens, trigger this content or when this happens, trigger that.”

So that's a lot of if/then type stuff isn't in our interface as opposed to actually having to hard code that in a program. 

Yeah, I'm a huge believer in data-driven signage as opposed to scheduling a predetermined long and advanced signage that’s just rolling through stuff. But I assume that it's still a challenge to get, not only partners but particular end-users over the line in terms of understanding that this is possible and it's not crazily complicated and that they could manage it and maintain it on a fairly easy basis? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think you're right. That is a challenge and that's part of our sales process to show these things and show specific use cases. One of the things that we've done post-COVID was, we built this desktop broadcast app so you can, essentially, have some digital signage on your desktop itself, and everyone starts to really get excited about KPI's and all this other stuff. Now we have to get to the data because there's some way for us to get to whatever it is they want to display, but showing how easy it is to manage that data either, I mean, we could do it in a simple Google sheet, it doesn't have to be some massive complex database or Salesforce connector. We can do that too but even starting with baby steps starts to get people to understand what is possible and then that really gets the ball rolling in terms of, “Hey, this would be really cool and would be valuable to communicating this specific type of information, especially to a remote workforce”.

So with the pandemic, one of the things that have come along is using technologies and processes like queue management and trying to enable access control to limit the number of people coming into a facility or an establishment, a bar, whatever it may be. And it seems like all of this kind of really elevates the idea of using sensor-driven, IoT-driven signage. Are you guys seeing an opportunity there? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, absolutely, especially in Europe, there is a very big demand for people counting type solutions where they've got limited capacities and pretty strict rules with respect to how many people can be in a specific physical space, in retail and in restaurants and bars. So, definitely seeing that. 

We've got a couple of different conversations going with that respect, we've got some retail analytics companies that are already in some of these retail spaces with their retail analytics, and they've got the ability to do that “people counting” and so from that perspective, it's just data integration. So they send us the data and we can post how many people are in and count the people coming in and out. We're working on some other different types of technology, not camera related, but utilizing IR sensors to do that person counting function because it's a significantly cheaper option. So yeah, we're working on various different things, definitely seeing a demand for that. 

The other thing we're seeing is a demand for some ability to track and trace, especially in the UK right now, there's some sort of mandate to do that. I think there's a lot of these pubs and restaurants that are doing this by hand where you're walking into a pub or a restaurant and the bouncer’s writing down who the people are coming in. We've developed a really quick and easy solution where they could hit a QR code that takes them into our system on their phone. They submit their information. That then submits it back to the restaurant we were at, and we're not housing any of that data. That's data for the restaurant, but it allows them to conform to the government regulations in an easy way and it's not paper-driven, which seems like a 20 year old technology to me. 

Yeah, I would think, there's going to be some privacy pushback with that, but that's not really our problem, that's up to the government and the venue operators to sort out. You're just enabling it, right? 

Rod Roberson: Correct. 

So one of the interesting things that I saw about your company was an integration you did with HP. Can you describe what that's all about? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, our investment partner, ImageNet, that their core business is selling printers and copiers, and they've got a super-strong relationship with HP. So HP has developed this platform called HP Workpath, and it's essentially a platform that sits in their interface and it allows app developers to develop apps, primarily for printing, scanning, and copying, but we went to their developer conference last year in Barcelona and because that user interface is running on an Android tablet and we've got such deep integration with Android already, we were able to relatively easily port over our code, so that we can run on that HP Workpath and in that base and path environment. 

That tablet right now is a fairly weak piece of hardware, we've actually had to dumb down our platform a little bit, so there are no performance issues because there are all these things that these resellers are thinking to do with terms of data integration and the ability to send messages back to the service company that the printer has an issue with. 

A lot of that stuff is coming, but at this point, it's really more of a screensaver, so when the printer is not in use, it's scrolling through corporate communications type messaging and that sort of thing, and then it just almost acts like a kiosk. So when you touch the screen, our application goes into the background. They're using the printer for whatever they're going to use it for, and then after the 32nd or 62nd timeframe, it goes back to that screensaver mode. 

What are the kinds of things that you'd want to put there? I'm sure it goes beyond “Happy birthday, Becky” and “It's taco Tuesday”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think that some of it is kinda like a reminder to do some of the things that they want to be done, for example, “clean the screen” is a reminder type of a message that we're having, more generic COVID-type messages in terms of just office space, protocol, but then also more like how-tos, right? Certainly, I'm probably going to know how to scan a document that, but maybe there's something more unique in terms of what I want us to want to do, and if I'm able to put a lot of that information in almost like a kiosk type of environment on the screen itself.

Right now we can't do video, but ultimately we can push videos to that so that if I don't know how to do a particular thing or there's a trick, or if there’s an issue with the printer, I can quickly get to that from an informational perspective. 

So because it's an Android tablet device, in some cases, pretty small display, but on other ones, decent Samsung galaxy size displays, the challenge is that the processor doesn't have the horsepower or the version of Android is too old?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. I don't even know what version of Android they’re using, but I think they’re on version 4, and we're up to 11 now, and they've got a new generation that's supposed to be coming soon, I think it was supposed to be coming out this fall but I'm sure that got delayed, so we're thinking sometime in 2021, and it's still early for us on the sales side. With HP, I have weekly meetings with them and it's been surprising to me how excited they are about this because I think it's something unique for them, I think it's something that they can go tell, and if they're in a competitive deal with another manufacturer and with these copiers, it's hard to sometimes differentiate what one can do versus the other you need, if I can do this, it's an icing on the top type of a thing that I can go as a value add to win a deal.

You also see it for your company as a bit of a door opener in that meeting room signs lead to more kinds of digital signage around an office space. This might lead to, “could you also do meeting room science because you also do that directory or other stuff”. 

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And the benefit there is that it's all in one ecosystem, right?

So it's in one system where they can have their signage, their meeting room signs, communication on their printers, directories. It's not five or six different software vendors and systems that they're managing. You can all do that, in a single instance of Wallboard. 

With manufacturing and production facilities, do you see an opportunity with no end of different kinds of equipment that makes stuff for packaged stuff, or whatever that there's an opportunity to apply sensors to those things to show the state of equipment? 

I've been in auto manufacturing plants where there are big bulletin boards filled with printouts of spreadsheets that show the state of different systems and thought, “this is goofy, this is like 1985”, but that's the way they were. And you would think that being able to jack into a piece of equipment that spits out some basic readings on how it's doing, that being able to translate that kind of a sign or apply a sensor to, it would make a world of difference?

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And then making the content more dynamic so it doesn't just go into a Power BI massive dashboard where you've got 8 million pieces of data on one screen, and it's just hard to read. You're pushing the most relevant content to the screen based on whatever it is. So if System ABC is down, that's what's coming onto the screen and it's not one tiny data point, to try to find amongst a million. 

Is it challenging in current environments, because you can't travel really very much at all, except locally, to get the word out about what you guys are all about?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think certainly it's been somewhat challenging. Obviously, we were excited about exhibiting at DSE and all that sort of stuff. We made some real headway at ISE and DSE last year. So certainly from that perspective and just being able to get out and about, it is more challenging, but, with what we do in demoing software, that part, we can do virtually and, a certain part of our day in day out is more partner acquisition, and not always just in use, selling to the end-user. And that certainly has been staying fairly active over the last six months because, there's a cycle to that, people get to get in the system and learn it and test it and that's not always their first priority. And we've been able to make a lot of headway with respect to a lot of different types of partnerships. And not necessarily having to slow down so much, due to COVID, but no question, on the end-user side, and we still need screens to be deployed and turned on for licenses to be ordered and that certainly has been slower. 

Although, we see the activity picking up. We see a lot of people saying, “we want to start these projects early 2021”. So you know, that's good in terms of that activity. It's always going to be, what happens here with COVID is, obviously I can't predict that, but I'm hopeful that, we're in a stronger position or the world is, going into 2021, which will make all these conversations that we're having now come to fruition.

Are there partners who are better suited to what you do? I mean local and regional digital signage solutions providers who've been around digital signage forever, but I'm thinking because of your technical strength in the IoT side of things, that there are maybe integration partners who don't wake up in the morning, thinking purely about digital signage, they’re thinking about other elements, all the way to access control systems and things like that. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right and that's been a struggle for us, finding who is our ideal partner. We can talk to a lot of more traditional AV integration firms, and if digital signage is the fourth or fifth thing that they sell and they're really more focused on, all those other things, Crestron/Extron blah, blah, blah, that's going to be tougher.

I mean, they always love the software, but it's hard for them to focus on, even building a digital signage recurring revenue business, that's just not what they do. They're more transactional in nature and so they're not waking up thinking about that, but there are other partners that are more boutique digital signage, this is what they do. And those are the partners that really understand our systems, understand the value of the time savings related to being able to do some things without having to custom code, and another system and bandaid all that stuff together. Those are the partners, I think they're naturally faster at getting it and starting to scale in terms of ordering licenses. 

Do you see much of an opportunity for just playing plain vanilla digital signage wherein you create some content, find a playlist, you schedule it, send it out and you're done? It strikes me as that's the sort of thing that's so easy these days to do that. I don't know that it's still going to have much relevance. 

Rod Roberson: I agree. I mean that's just going to be a price war at that point. I can argue that our system is elegant and it's an easy way to do that, and we still have customers, that's all they want to do. But it's very difficult to differentiate yourself in that sort of world. 

You mentioned Android, is that the primary platform you're working on for the hardware that you're using? 

Rod Roberson: No. I think that's really driven by our partners. I think we've got a really strong relationship with BrightSign. We're seeing a lot of new partners that are BrightSign-only partners and like our software and like to be able to do that in the BrightSign ecosystem. We've got some use cases that need Windows, but there are also the partners that say, “Hey, I want a cheaper box and, and I'm comfortable with Android and I'm selling to small businesses that don't have the security agitation that sometimes comes with Android.” So it fits for their business model. 

Now BrightSign is a special purpose box, PCs, or they seem to be turning into specialty applications in signage, just because of their costs and everything and the market seems to be moving into dedicated boxes and to systems on chips, where do you see things going?

Rod Roberson: That's a good question. When we built out our system on chip integrations with Samsung and LG, I thought that that's just where the market would go and take off, and we're seeing some of that, but we're still seeing a lot of people still stick to these dedicated boxes. 

I'm not as focused on the hardware. What we want to do is allow our partners and our end users to say, it doesn't matter, choose your hardware, whatever fits your budget and your use case, but run our software on it, and so we're focused on being able to perform on all those various different operating systems and hardware components. 

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

Rod Roberson: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

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