Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

October 6, 2021

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

I am a huge believer in digital signage software and solutions companies that narrowly define their vertical market and then go after it, as opposed to the many companies out there that say, in effect, we do digital signage.

Those kind of general offers can be deadly, I think, when there is sooo much competition.

So I was intrigued by an email from TrilbyTV that talked about its focus on the education market in the UK, and even more intrigued by the marketing line that the platform and service was built by people who understand and work in education.

I had a chat with TrilbyTV co-founder Neil Emery about how the six-year-old company was founded based on years of working in UK schools doing Apple and Google training. They saw all the dead screens and bad programming in schools that they visited and concluded that they could deliver something better.

David: Neil, thank you for joining me from beautiful Devon. I was struck by the assertion on your website. That Trilby is the only digital signage platform built by people who understand and work in education. What do you mean by that? 

Neil Emery: So we were Apple trainers, Apple Education trainers for 12 years, we started back in the days when schools had lonely suites of iMacs that only the art teacher and the design teacher would allow sort of their students on. Everybody else looked in and thought, what are these computers? But for us, it wasn’t about Apple. It was about making sure everybody knew the power of things like the iLive Suite, things like iMovie and GarageBand. So that's where we started training with Apple and its resellers, sort of companies that sold Apple and then the iPad came out and it went completely bonkers for us as accredited trainers for Apple and we would work with lots of schools, especially those that were going one-to-one with iPad to make sure they had a vision and a plan. 

So we really understand what needs to be in place for technology to be successful, and that tends to be where schools and colleges fall down a little bit. They tend to rush in and buy technology, but they don't think about what needs to be in place to make it successful, and there's a lot that needs to be in place, and we were involved in some of the biggest one-to-one iPad projects in the UK, such as Harlow college, such as Portsmouth college. So we've got a real understanding, again, of what needs to be a place and that's very much how we present ourselves with digital signage as well. It's not just about sticking screens on walls. We work very hard with our customers, especially our groups of school customers, to make sure that they have a plan in place, to make sure that staff are signing up to that plan. So that there's some consistency across what they're uploading to their digital signage. So that's what we meant. We are very education focused and that tends to be very different from other companies that are out there. 

David: Yeah. There are any number of companies who have laid it down that education is one of their key verticals, but it's much more business driven and addressable market driven than, in most cases, any real experience with the education system.

Neil Emery: Yeah, the reason we started TrilbyTV is because when we were sitting in those school receptions waiting for a member of staff to come and grab us, we would look at a digital signage screen that was turned off, or if it wasn't turned off, it was showing content we felt that had little impact, and that's again, because they know they had no plan behind it. Someone had bolted some screens to a wall. Someone had bought into an over complicated solution that was meant for the commercial space and people had given up, and we were there to create really rich content on those iPods because that's what Apple is all about. Everyone can create, but there was no nice, simple mechanism for us to share those two screens around the school or college. And we felt signage was the perfect mechanism to share that content and evidence, the learning so that everybody could feel proud. 

But again, what was in place back then was not meant for education and the people behind didn't understand education to the degree that we felt we did, and that's how TrilbyTV was launched and developed.

David: So when did that happen? 

Neil Emery: Six years ago now. Yeah, we gave up everything we're doing with Apple and Google at the time. We'd just written Google's transformational planning workshop in the UK. That was mainly down to my co-director, Ben Stanley, who is extremely knowledgeable in the education space. His company, Trilby, that he used to run with his father, hence TrilbyTV. They'd been going 30 years of working in education. So again, huge amounts of experience, but TrilbyTV as a single product, six years we've been going now. 

David: So it was more of an evolution of what you were doing as opposed to, “Alright, we used to run a funeral parlor, and now we're doing this”?

Neil Emery: Yeah, kind of. We did lots of things. We did the training piece for Apple and that kept us very busy. We were presenting not just for Apple, but again for its resellers that sold Apple. We were doing direct training for apples all over the world, not just in education as well. We were doing video production. We were doing lots of stuff, and I think lots of people probably looked at us and thought it's great, but what do you do? 

So after sitting all those in all those perceptions for so long, we just knew that there was a product needed that was a bit more honest than what was out there in this space and that's really what made us jump into being brave and developing TrilbyTV into the platform that it is now. 

David: So it's one thing to have the subject matter expertise and the understanding and the business contacts within the education market. What do you do though on the software/platform side that makes it differentiated, that makes it finely tuned to the education system?

Neil Emery: The first one was ease of use. We spent lots of time training education staff, who were so nervous about technology, that even if you put a URL on the board and ask them to put it in their iPad, if they put it in wrong, they would present the iPad to you to put that in, because that's so far out of their comfort zones. And we'd see from those early apps, like ClassDojo, iMovie, Book Creator there was usually a plus icon you'd press that plus icon and pretty quickly something would happen so that a teacher or a member of staff would feel like they'd had a success, which means then they would move on to the next stage and that's absolutely how we've built TrilbyTV, to be so simple that there's no need for its departments to be micromanaging our platform or people. So that was the main one. 

Secondly, we've made it work across all platforms. So we didn't want to charge our customers for expensive boxes, which had happened in the past, I'm not saying wrongly, but that's where a lot of the solutions made their money, but we have player apps for iOS, TVOS, MacOS, Windows and Chrome. So some of our schools will use anything from a Fire Stick to an Apple TV, to a Microsoft Notebook. It doesn't matter, they can use whatever they've got to get going with us.

Unlimited screens. So we didn't want to charge them a per screen price. We wanted them to see the impact that signage can have and to be able to grow their estate without us charging them more. So we have an unlimited screen license which since then others have followed. We've certainly seen that in the market. Some of those who look at us and what we do have moved down that route as well. So it's definitely that same, that sets us out as a USP, and the last one probably is our content catalog, where we have a catalog of free of charge content that we make with exciting companies out there, like WWF or Botanica. So there would probably be the four main areas that we focus on. 

David: There's a lot of subscription content out there. There's companies like Screen Feed and See/Inspire, and so on. They focus on news, sports, weather, curated, user generated material, all that sort of thing. It sounds like you've gone down a completely different path. That's all about the sort of thing that you would expect to see in a school, and that both parents and educators would be receptive to? 

Neil Emery: Yeah we looked at the historical digital signage, and it was very much zones and ticker-tape and newsfeeds, and that doesn't do anything for education. Actually, news can be very biased. So that's the last thing children or visitors like to see in a school reception, and plus, that zonal content, it was confusing to the viewer. So, we wanted to make their content look fullscreen and beautiful, which it already is.

I still get people though, who still want a clock and ticker-tape even though there's a clock next door to the screen anyway.But yeah, we went down the route of thinking about what content, a couple of reasons really, what would inspire them to do more of their own good content, but what could we provide that has an education focus and keeps their screen up to date and interesting. So for example, the collaboration we did recently with Britannica, the encyclopedia that is sold, I’m sure people will be well aware of, if we did a “Country of the week” so if you download that to your TrilbyTV and add it to your screens, every week, it updates itself. You'll get a country of the week, capital city, population, and five revolving facts, and that's all done within a nice animation. 

It's a nice, useful area for you to have a look at. And if there's content in there that will help keep your screens up to date and inspire the viewers than perfect. It's all free of charge and you're more than welcome to use it. 

David: How does it work within schools, like what are they using the screens for and where are they putting them? 

Neil Emery: So a lot of signage, historically, I think went in with some of the new schools, the building schools for the future as brought in by the labor government. So a lot went into areas like receptions and the dinner halls and your staff rooms, and the student corridors. Again, the problem back then was that the platforms were very commercially driven. So again, it was your clock's logos, ticker tapes, and maybe you were allowed to mix in a few pictures as well, if you were lucky. 

What we do now with schools is so at the training session I had today, I had the head of HR, I had the reception lady and I had the repo graphics lady, and we started off by having some sticky notes and I got them to write where the screens were, then I got them to right underneath who the viewers were, where, and then from there we started to define what the content was. So we work really hard with our customers to make sure that they're putting in that simple plan so they understand screens, viewers and what content needs to be dried from that. But very much historically is the reception staff room, dinner hall, and student corridors, which is where the screens are. 

David: Do they do things like, “This for the lunch menu today or the lunch menu this week,” that sort of thing? It's an example that I've seen a number of times. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely, and the nice thing is nowadays with mechanisms like Google Slides, you can add Google Slides for a menu, and the staff and the dinner hall don't even know we exist because the Google Slides presentation is online. As soon as they change that, it automatically changes on the screens, which is great. 

But we also get them to think about don't just putting Google Slides or a menu up there, how about photos of the food? We all are engaged by food programs on TV now where we see the final product and we think, wow, I'd want to eat that. We say to our schools how about you get some of the students to take some nice photos of the food, or actually they're in food technology, let’s have a video of a lasagna being made and put some of that up on the screen. So we try to get them to think slightly differently than just putting a static menu on their screens. 

David: Do students get involved?

Neil Emery: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, and again, that's where we came from. We remember the early days of accessing those screens, putting in the students' work there and seeing how proud they were when it was playing in reception. So there's something we push quite highly and especially an Apple distinguished school. So again, we're historic with Apple, so we have schools that have Apple distinguished status. They would have a group of digital students who would create content on a regular basis before uploading that to us where it's then moderated by someone above them staff-wise before it goes live. It's a great thing to be doing. 

David: It sounds like your platform is largely cloud-based and that you've got a kind of a web player that will work across different types of devices as you were describing. Is that accurate? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, so we are cloud based. We use Microsoft Azure for all our hosting. So that's what we use, and you can have web players as well, but we have pure apps available too. So you go to the Windows app store or the Play store or the Mac App store, and you download our player app and it does that. 

David: So it's a native player for the Apple TV and so on?

Neil Emery: Yeah. So you open it up and you get your regular code that pretty much everybody else does nowadays. 

David: And one of the things that can be a challenge in schools, because IT resources are pretty limited, is how do you manage the devices remotely? 

Neil Emery: We have a player dashboard within Trilby TV, so you can see all your players that are online. We're just bringing out some new player updates as well so you'll be able to set restarts and clear cache and adjust volume and all that sort of stuff. So it can all be very much managed remotely. 

David: I assume one of the benefits and advantages you have over companies who are also in the digital signage space and have software, but don't know the school systems and so on, is you understand how administration works, where budgets come from and budget cycles and all that sort of stuff, does that give you a leg up? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think so. In education not that we are anyway, but you're not going to get rich overnight. They take a long time to trust you.But once they're with you, they're with you for a long time. We're really close to our customers and we want to be close with our customers because we want to make sure that they're using it properly, but of course, all of that experience and all of that knowledge that we now have from those, from Ben's point of view, 30 years, and from my point of view, 15 years, yeah, of course, when we're talking to a potential customer, they understand pretty quickly we know what we're talking about. 

David: I watch the web analytics off of 16:9 and what people are reading and there's always a big thirst out there for open source or free or freemium platforms and there are certainly some tools out there that are free-ish and I'm curious for schools who are on limited budgets, do they go down the path of trying to use open source stuff and, or very low cost stuff, and then realize that we need some hand holding here, it would be great to have some support and they rethink their budgeting and who they should work with? 

Neil Emery: Everyone's different, right? And I think, with IT, that's the buying mechanism for digital signage and education over here. You're always going to get some IT  people who really enjoy coming up with their own stuff and open source.

David: You mean IT people are know-it-alls? (Laughter)

Neil Emery: I didn't say that. Wel, we have to be careful because they buy our product. They are just like that. It's not important, maybe it is a little bit that they know everything about this solution and no one else can get in there and find out because they wouldn't be able to. But actually when they ask themselves about the time it takes to keep an eye on it and monitor it and update it, then it's wasting that time, which is then where we win the battle of, “Neil, this is so easy to use. I can give ownership to others. I can set it up, but actually I can give ownership to others and let them get on with it,” which is what they want in the end. They don't want to be managing what is in essence, a marketing tool, because that's what digital signage is. It's a marketing tool. 

So yeah, budget wise, you might have a USB stick. You might have a laptop. Although that always makes me laugh because the laptop is budget and it'd be better off in the classroom, but that's just my thoughts. We're £1000 for unlimited screens, it's not a huge amount of money for a whole solution that runs your digital signage. But you're dead right. I think some will start off trying to come up with something themselves, but they soon find out that it's causing them a lot more pain than they want it to.

David: So when you say £1000 for an unlimited license that's per school, or is it a school system or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: No, that's our single per school costs. Some of our schools have up to 40 screens, which is where it becomes very financially viable for them. We do have a multi-site license as well. We have some of the big multi academy trusts using TrilbyTV now in the UK, they pay a cost at trust level, which then significantly reduces the per school costs. So under a multi-site license, it's only £500 per school rather than the £1000. 

David: So it's like an enterprise license as opposed to software as a service. You buy at one time, it's perpetual, and then do you pay for support or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: Oh, no. So it’s a yearly subscription which, again, everybody pretty much does that. 

David: Does the demand, and the use differ between what over in Canada, they would call public schools or private schools, but I know I get confused as hell because public schools are private schools in the UK and so on, are there needs and the way they use the system different? 

Neil Emery: Private schools here, obviously that's the schools that parents pay for children to be at school and often boarding. They have so much more resources, obviously, you've got teams of twelve people, whereas in a state school, you might have a team of two people sometimes if we're lucky. So because of that, I think independent private schools are able to shine those screens a lot more. So because of the resource, they're sharing much more rich content. They have time to create that content and make it look good on the screens. They have a strategy in place to do that a lot of the time, whereas your public schools, often because of the lack of resources, are struggling for ideas, but also for people to create the ideas and create the content.

For us, we would see the content being pretty much the same across the school sector. It would change a little bit for colleges and universities. It definitely changes for primary schools, which is, your lower age schools, whereas that's more about sharing and showcasing student work at that lower age group. But I think for us, it's about educating our schools and our colleges right across the board that this is an extension of their website. This is a great marketing tool and they need to be thinking about what content is shown on those screens. 

David: Are you doing much in colleges and universities? 

Neil Emery: Lots in colleges. So we do well in that space, not so much in universities because we'll be very honest about our product and we're not wayfinding them and we're not touch screens. We are just easy-to-upload full screen content, so not so much for universities. We've got a few, but we definitely do well in colleges.

David: Yeah, I guess once you get into the larger footprint, universities with campuses and everything else you need to get into directory systems and everything else that does get more complicated? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, again, we don't want to pretend what we're not, and won't be. So although we have a few colleges, we tend to be in specific places. We're not for bus time tables or things like that. Again, we’re for fullscreen content, marketing specific events to the students. 

David: How big is your company at this point? 

Neil Emery: We're still pretty small, so there's seven of us and we're heading towards eight next year. 

David: And you can do that sort of thing, particularly these days, you can be virtual and you can scale up and scale down as you need, right? 

Neil Emery: Absolutely. We're very lucky we're self-funded. We work extremely hard to make sure that we don't need to go down the route of investment and having a board of people telling us what to do. We want to keep that kind of closeness and that honesty of the company and grow organically. Of course we'd like to grow quicker. But we want to make sure our organic growth is honest towards our customers. So yeah, we're still small, but we've got aspirations to grow in the next five years that's for sure.

David: And what would be your install base, like how would you describe that? Are you in hundreds of schools, thousands of schools? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, we're in hundreds of schools. Currently we've got about 1300 screens live in UK education at the moment. 

David: As you said, you'd love to be able to grow that more.

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely. You know, me and Ben, when we were in Wales six years ago, thinking about where we should take the direction of the company. Because of what we'd seen in education we knew we could become the number one signage company for education because that's what we focus on.

You won't see a dropdown on our website and it says retail and restaurant and this and that and this and that cause that's not honest and that doesn't work for education. So for us, we want to become the number one digital signage platform made, and I always stick to my made, because that's important, made for education.

David: Yeah, it's something that I have coached endless numbers of people around is if you have a digital signage platform, do not go out into the marketplace as a generalist offer, because there are already too many of them. You need to find your niche. You need to find your tribe and say, we're the guys for this and it's what you are doing. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think that's very hard as well, because if you're a new company or again, you've had investment, you're going to have to go after every market. In the US it is probably different, you see people like Rise Vision, there is a huge market in the US than probably more so Canada. So education, you've probably got more options to grow quicker. Here in the UK, although we've still got 35,000 education establishments, it's a long sell. We've customers that can take anywhere up to three months, six months to purchase your product. So there's a lot of time investment in there. 

So, I think it's different potentially in places like the US as I said, where you're trying to mop up as much traffic as possible to grow your businesses as quickly as possible. 

David: I think I know the answer, but I'll ask, have you thought about coming to North America or you've got more than enough to grow in the UK for some time?

Neil Emery: Well, we do have US customers and we do business and education actually, but they tend to again come to us because they liked that easy solution and ease of use. We do have links in the US with distributors, like Exertis, who were distributed in the UK. We have relationships with people like Promethian and Smart knocked on the door a few times and asked us what we're up to, but it's a different setup in the US when it comes to education, and we're aware of that, and the language differ slightly so we're aware of that as well. 

So it's not our focus, but if someone comes along and says, you've got an easy to use platform, can we sign up and use you? We’re like, absolutely, you can! 

David: One thing that's been around for a long time with digital signage and education, particularly on the digital out of home advertising side, is the idea that these screens can pay for themselves if you would just allow advertising on them or at least have the screen sponsored by, I don't know, British Telecom or O2, or something like that, it has not been explored at all? Or is it, would that just be hard “No” from the education people? 

Neil Emery: There's definitely people who are doing it in the commercial space, and now platforms that allow you to, via an app, say I would like my pizza business advertised on there three times a week just directly billed. It's definitely a conversation we've had at directors meetings but it doesn't feel right to us. 

Education is education and if I speak to some of my close head teachers for them, it's about the children and nothing else. So they wouldn't want to have these discussions in the first place. Because it's more about putting up the work of the children that day, make sure they feel proud. It's conversations that have been had, but we would stay away from those conversations fairly quickly. 

David: Yeah, it would be interesting, I think, for things like sponsorships or almost like donations in the same way that maybe a company donates a new playground for a school yard, that sort of thing that you would imagine in areas of the country, maybe up in the north, that don't have the same wealth and resources and everything else that maybe that would be a way to get these systems going? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, potentially. It just gets messy, I think, that's the problem. The focus is making sure that the customer understands what scientists can do first and foremost, and making sure they have a platform that's easy to use so that when we talk to them about what they love about the platform. Going to them to talk about how they might make money from companies advertising on the screens, yeah, it's almost as confusing as just simply trying to get signage running on an interactive screen, which sounds easy, but actually even that is completely a different conversation with schools sometimes 

David: I have to ask about the name. I did look up Trilby and saw that in America, it would be called a Pork Pie hat. Trilby is a hat, right? 

Neil Emery: If we were doing video, Dave, I would have worn my Trilby today. 

There is meaning behind this, and Ben would certainly be able to give you that more. There's an article on the website that explains it as well. But from a simple point of view, Ben's dad, Tony,  bless him, he’s no longer with us, was a Trilby hat wearer, and at our old offices in Birmingham, we had two lines of hats on the walls and he used to pick those between different ones regularly and where those, and it's nice because it's tactile. 

Again, I go to lots of school training and they'll be like, oh, where's your hat because they expect you to wear the hat, and I think senior leadership at schools and colleges like that tactile approach as well. They don't so much like those cleaner techie type names. They like something that feels a bit familiar to them. 

David: All right. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. If people want to look you up, where would they find you online? 

Neil Emery: www.TrilbyTV.co.uk. 

David: Perfect. All right. Thank you very much. 

Neil Emery: Dave. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you!

David Labuskes, AVIXA

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 22, 2021

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

There is a whole pile of back seat driving happening lately in the pro AV and digital signage communities about how to run a trade show in the COVID-19 era, and much of the focus has squarely been on Dave Labuskes, the CEO of AVIXA, which runs InfoComm and co-owns the even larger trade show ISE.

The show is happening in about a month in Orlando, and with other big trade shows saying never mind for 2021, there are endless questions and suggestions about the prospects of the show even happening.

It will, says Labuskes, unless there are measures like government-mandated closures. Given that the show is in Florida, that's probably not going to happen.

Labuskes has done some frank interviews lately that went into deep detail about InfoComm and COVID, and the business. I spoke with Labuskes late last week and did not see the value in rehashing and revisiting a lot of what he said, so in our chat we talk a little about how things will come off and why. But we spend a lot more time on bigger picture stuff about how trade shows fit, and whether a niche industry like digital signage can find a well-defined home and community at big, omni AV shows like Infocomm and ISE.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr Labuskes, thank you for joining me. I wanted to get into a number of things, but I also didn't want to just rehash some recent conversations you had in an hour long interview last week with Tim Albright from AVnation that went into a lot of frank discussion about where InfoComm is at and everything associated with that, but I can’t cCompletely ignore that, and I just wanted to ask, where are things now , has anything changed in the last week since I watched that interview? 

Dave Labuskes: Mr. Haynes, it's good to be here. There have been a couple of other events that have announced cancellations, but there's been nothing that's changed in AVIXA's policy with regards to InfoComm. We still see a runway to a fantastic event with fantastic people conducting fantastic business.

It's been described as being the last trade show standing this fall, but that's not really true. There's all kinds of events going on here, there, and everywhere. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. There's a lot that's described that isn't necessarily really true, David. But yeah there's events and trade shows happening every day, all around the world, and I'm actually a little confused. For an industry that is really based on overcoming challenges and doing the impossible and making things happen that nobody believed could actually happen, there is that sort of a sentiment that trade shows can't take place right now and that just simply is not true. They're taking place every day. 

So I have mixed opinions personally. I was supposed to be doing a mixer down at InfoComm and decided not to do that, and that wasn't really so much about I don't think InfoComm should even happen or anything else, it was just as simply a fact of, I didn't quite see how a cocktail party, where everybody was wearing a mask and being asked to stand six feet apart would work terribly well and the optics were weird. 

It's one of those things where I could see a trade show happening, but I didn't see that happening well, and we don't need to get into all of that. I'm curious more about whether or not you're enjoying all the armchair opinions from people who say what you should be doing, but have never actually run a tradeshow? 

Dave Labuskes: Before I had this job, I was a partner at a large architectural engineering firm, and one of the gentlemen that was on the search committee that was interviewing me for this job, James Ford, owner of Ford AV and I'll never forget where he was sitting in the boardroom, he leaned forward and said, “Dave, you've got a really good gig, like why would you want this job?” And I'm like that's a great question, and I try to answer it, and he's like, “But Dave, here's the thing: You're running one of the largest consulting practices in the world and if you have a management meeting and you decide to go liveleft, then everybody's going to leave that meeting and they're going to go left, and the jobs that you're interviewing for you and your team are going to decide to go left, and then 50,000 people are going to tell you, you should go right!”

I actually celebrate varied opinions. I do think a lot of people express an expertise that is perhaps inflated in their own perception. Trade shows, they're a complicated industry. I've been doing this now for eight years and I have people on my team that have forgotten twice what I'll ever know. The interplay between the various different constraints, the challenges that people throw out there as though they're simple challenges. Yeah, they're a little frustrating, but I signed up for it. Nobody made me do this job. I was forewarned, so maybe I'm the one that has an exaggerated impression of my expertise.

Is part of the problem just simply that it's Florida and Florida is this eternally weird place at the best of times, but it's got a particular problem and people all the way up to the governor of the state who don't seem to recognize that, “Hey, maybe there's a bit of a problem happening here.”?

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. I think I'll be a little more politically correct than that, and it was nice for you to try it, but it isn't my first rodeo here. 

(Laughter) I wasn't trying to bait you. I just think that's a big part of it and the people, the armchair opinion makers who say why don't you just move it or why didn't you just do it in another city? There's a little bit of baggage associated with doing that but just simply speaking, it's a part of the country that has a particular exacerbated problem, but doesn't seem to want to recognize that it has an exacerbated problem.

Dave Labuskes: It all comes from the jurisdictions and it all comes down to point of reference, right? You can also just say, is it the problem that the event is in the United States, right? Because if you look at the United States and compare the United States to other countries, we're not necessarily getting a straight-A report card.

What I have said, and I know we don't want to have the same conversation I've had already with others, is that I don't think the brush that should be used in making that decision is Florida. I think the brush that we should use in painting that picture is Orange County. There's parts of California that may or may not be behaving in the same fashion you or I would do.

So I think you have to look at where are you going to fly into, where you're going to be, where are you going to have dinner, where are you going to sleep? Those types of things, and when you get to that stage orange county this morning had 79.4% of their population over the age 18 having had one shot of the vaccine. They've got a mask order that was issued by the mayor strongly recommending that masks be worn inside any public space. They've got plummeting hospitalization rates, death rates, positivity rates at 12.4%, I believe. 

So, I think, unfortunately the world and this country and all of the states have this polarization thing going on, and yeah, would it be more comfortable for people to attend an event somewhere else that are looking from afar and don't take time to do all that research? Probably. The headline, the abbreviated picture, is challenging, but I do think that there are people that are going to make a decision that attending a trade show weighed against other factors just isn't for them this year, and I think they'd make that decision regardless of where it is. 

Yeah. I guess that's the other thing that you didn't know you were signing up for was having an extensive ability to talk in genealogical terms.

Dave Labuskes: This is a true story, David. Last year, I came home from the office, and at dinner I said to my wife and son I spent an hour today reading a scientific study about the efficacy of washing your hands with cold water versus hot water, and that is not something I ever anticipated taking place in my career, I will admit that. (Laughter)

By the way, it is just as good. You just don't tend to wash them as long because it's less comfortable, but... 

I'm just impressed I was able to say epidemiology. 

Dave Labuskes: Happy with that. These are words that were not part of our vocabulary two years ago, right? 

Just drafting off of some of that: CEDIA which AVIXA has a relationship with because you co-own ISC had their event last week or the week before in Indianapolis and I won't go into how that went business-wise or anything else, but I'm curious if you had AVIXA folks there and did they see how things were done? I know they had signage and kind of cues on whether you are comfortable with people coming close and all that sort of stuff. Did those things work? 

Were there things that you learned from that you can take away and apply to InfoComm? 

Dave Labuskes: First part of the question: No, we didn't have anybody from AVIXA at that event that I'm aware of. Not that I know of, but I'm sure there were people there that were AVIXA members. We do have a close relationship with CEDIA. Obviously we have a partnership over a very large joint venture that owns and operates ISC and ISR and DSS. The show itself is owned by Emerald Expositions, and we have our conversational talking relationship with Emerald as well. In fact I have a call next week with Emerald to talk through lessons learned. 

I was in Louisville, Kentucky a couple of weeks ago at a SISO conference, which is the Society of Independent Show Operators. So it's Emerald, Informa, and mostly the for-profit trade show organizers and AVIXA was invited to attend. The industry of trade show organizers and meeting planners and event planners, we've joined arms and we recognize that this is a problem for all of us that we have to share best practices with, we have to share learnings with, we have to talk about what works and doesn't work.

It's kinda like the AV industry and as I'm learning more about it, the digital signage industry where people compete, but they also have a comradery where a rising tide lifts all ships kind of a thing, and so I think all trade show operators are working through this, associations as well are famously collaborating with regards to sharing information and learning and helping each other. So that's a good part of the pandemic. 

I would imagine one of the things that all these organizations collectively learned, if they didn't already know it, is that the whole virtual trade show thing just really doesn't work. Does it?

Dave Labuskes: It certainly didn't work in v1.0 of 2020. I think v1.5, and we're starting to get closer to 2.0, I think there's hope for it. The best visual I saw over the last 18 months is talking about books versus movies, and you don't convert a book to a movie by putting it on a podium and filming somebody turning the pages. And I think that probably is a closely apt description of what we all did with our first version of the virtual events. But I think you can tell a story, very effectively in print or in film, leveraging and celebrating the differences of the media. 

Where I am at now and where AVIXA is driving towards, and you'll see more developments about this in the next couple months is more about how AVIXA delivers on its mission, leveraging physical  events and digital platforms, and how do they interface and interact with each other? How do they mutually benefit each other? What's good in one, that's not good in the other?

Not a lot of good, special effects when you're reading a book, but a lot of great imagination when you're reading a book. Not a lot of ability to be character development through introspection in a movie, but it's really easy to do that when you're reading.

I think if you look at education, you look at delivery of information from provider to consumer, that can be done pretty effectively digitally. I think about human interaction and the break time during class is almost impossible to create digitally. That doesn't mean it is impossible. So I see a lot of assumptions that we made in order to achieve X, we needed to convene people face-to-face being challenged. But I also think that all of the pundits that got online in March and April of last year and said, this is the end of face-to-face, and we're going to be digital for the rest of our lives, have seen that they were probably not right with that either. 

I think the one thing that I took away, or what I have enjoyed about these virtual events is the ability to attend round tables panels presentations on demand. So I don't need to be somewhere or sit at a certain place, set aside things then at 10:00 AM, I'm going to watch this.

Just the simple fact that I got stuff going on. I can't do this today or right now, that I could click on it and see. Yeah, somebody from Brand X explaining this to me on my terms, and if I'm bored, I just click out, I don't have to stand up and walk out of the room and embarrass the presenter or anything like that. That part I like.

Dave Labuskes: I do too, and that's the irony of it is. If one of the things that all of us like is the absence of time and geography constraints, right? So it doesn't matter if that panel discussions take place in London or Nova Scotia or Orlando, you can still receive the outcome of that panel. 

Why are we saying that they should be organized and delivered between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM Eastern time on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week? That's where I get to this. I think it's more about a digital presence and digital community, a place where people interact when it's appropriate for them to interact, where they can organize their interaction times.

I'm old enough to have been in chat rooms on Prodigy and AOL and you remember you would organize with people like I'm going to be on at eight o'clock tonight for an hour, because you can only afford an hour. Because we were charged by the minute, and then I think that's what we have to recognize. So in that regard, I'm really excited about the fact that I'm not a trade show organizer, instead I’m an association that is committed to an industry and an industry community, and what I can do is build that community both digitally and physically. 

What do you think of the suggestion that the days of the big macro show are cloudy and that regionalized events make more sense, so an InfoComm Southwest, an ISE UK, that sort of thing? And granted that was tried a little bit in the past year, but that was out of necessity as opposed to design. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, I'm intrigued by it. But I think the loudest proponents of it are the attendees, not the exhibitors and the attendees don't pay. Doing ten small shows only costs a little less than doing one big show or less than doing then ten times doing one big show. The cost of doing a show has a fixed amount. Even in the smallest show, you're going to pay an X and then get to the big show, you may only be paying 2X where if you're doing a regional show, like 10 times, you are close to 10X, and your ROI on each of those events is smaller because your audience is small. 

Now that's using all the old rules. So if we go back to the last question, if I can segment an audience for an exhibitor and say, I'm going to bring people that have spending authority over half a million dollars that have a project next three months, it's going to require a high-end audio system. That's going to change that algebra, and so I don't think you throw it out the window, but economics has a factor in these things and it's easy to say I would rather go to a small event in Nashville, but the problem is I have to find somebody to pay for it, and even if you say I'm happier to go to a small event in Nashville, I bet you don't want to spend $195 for a ticket to go to that event? 

I get the hunger for it. I get the desire for it, but I don't see a business model around it right now. We've never been successful at small events being profitable. There have been good strategies like, before ISE launched. We did small roadshow events from country to country, it was before my time, but I hear stories from the old timers about the amazing sort of experience of going from hotel room or hotel conference to hotel conference across from Warsaw to Budapest to Rome type thing. And we've done them in advance of launching our Bangkok show. We did it in advance of launching our Mumbai show, but those become feeders to a larger event that has a more sustainable business model. We did a lot of what we used to call round tables, for example, we did the AVIXA round table in Baltimore where you'd have 15, 20, maybe 30 people come to them, and so you were spending a lot of money on an event that served 15, 20 or 30 people, and we just felt like there were better ways of spending the industry's money than that. 

The demise of Digital Signage Expo certainly raised the eyebrows at AVIXA and got you guys thinking, although you've always had digital signage as a component, you've had pavilions for many years, but there was an opportunity and a sense that something needed to fill that void. Granted, it's been refilled to some degree since then, but the show hasn't happened yet so we'll see how that comes off. 

How do you build up the digital signage affinity for InfoComm? Cause I've gone for many years, but I go to have a look at the gear. I'm not a gear head, but I write about it and everything else, but I don't really see it as an end-user show where a big retailer, those kinds of people are going to come to that they maybe they send their gearheads, but more likely it's the integrators that sell into big retail and so on are there are there, so how do you make all that kind of come together over the next couple of years?

Dave Labuskes: Boy, there's so much in that question, David. We should talk more often, I enjoy this.

Yes, it is an unfortunate demise and it didn't get folks in the AVIXA thinking. Yes, we've been looking at the digital signage industry for a long time. I do think it's a community within the larger industry that needs to be celebrated, and that's that other point with regards to small regional shows versus big shows. I think we see lots more shows within shows taking place, and I think that's probably the right solution, and I'm biased. I think AVIXA has the right place to build a home within a home for the digital signage community. 

First of all: there was this interesting dynamic between the association and the show operator, right? From an association perspective AVIXA has been having conversations with DSF, with DS-LATAM, with digital signage of Asia, and the various different entities in Europe. When you move from our association to association, one of the ways I think I actually described it to Rich Ventura, he and I were talking probably years ago and it's like you and I, David, are best friends, but our dads owns the competing gas stations on the corner, and so we can go to school and everything and be friends there but when we came home there's limits. 

That was kinda how I felt like it was and I felt like there's a window there to not have that dynamic. Now, some of that's changed and I respect Questex. I respect Paul and don't know him well, but I know him and I've had conversations with him and he's a smart guy and I believe he's committed to delivering a successful event. I think it's being honest, looking at what does an organization want, what is the community best one? And making honest agreements and commitments to each other, and then keeping them. There are advantages to working together, and I think the end goal is that “home within a home” and “a community within a community.” 

I think the challenge and opportunity for digital signage and InfoComm is the scale of the InfoComm show and the specificity and the heart and relationship with the digital signage community, and I think if we work together, we can build that home within a home. I think it can be more than a guest room. It can be an in-law apartment. It can be a place where it's identified and that's, yeah, I'm disappointed that you're not going to be there, and I know the mixture is just one manifestation of that home within a home, and we look forward to being able to do it in the future. 

Absolutely. One of the logistical problems or mechanical problems, so to speak, with a big show like an InfoComm is: yes, you've created these pavilions through the years of digital signage pavilion and some of the vendors have been in that, designated zone, so to speak, but the biggest players are the display manufacturers, and they've always had their spots, their Primo spots, and they're serving a whole bunch of audiences at InfoComm, not just the digital signage people. So how do you figure out a way to create a show within a show when you've got Sony in the front row, Samsung's got a giant booth in the middle of the hall and so on. You're never going to be able to herd them all into one hall, so to speak? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, so what do you do then? I think what you have to do and we're down to the details of tactics, right? But I think you start to curate attendees' journeys. You use content as the honey to attract and people will come where content is and content can be delivered where people are, and that's the challenge of starting a trade show, but we've done that. We know how to form a trade show and it takes time and it takes continual feeding until it becomes a self-feeding cycle, and then you have to create a journey that is guided a bit so the attendees that are coming from retail or the attendees that are coming from the advertising agencies can get to where they will be able to extract value and some of that will require tour guides, not maps and serendipity, because it's too big to just let somebody lose, but we have that problem now with end users in general at the show, you described as gearheads, but about 40% of the attendees at a typical InfoComm are end user buyers. It's part of what makes that show so valuable to exhibitors. 

A lot of them are brought there by channel members. The consultants are bringing their customers, the integrators are bringing their customers. But a lot of them are brought there by us too, with promoting them and developing conference content that would be of interest to them, creating a nucleus of community. It's all very explicit, but it doesn't happen by chance. There are hosted buyers that are brought in to shows around the world. There are groups that are sponsored. There are other associations that are partnered with. Richard runs our Asian subsidiary. He's a genius at identifying influential associations within the geographies and partnering with them to offer programs. Organizations like the Indian Architects Association are partnered with our InfoComm Mumbai event, and they are holding content conferences for architects in conjunction with our event. All of our channels want architects at it. Those types of strategies are part of the town and the team that works on these.

Last question, looking ahead a few months to ISE and it's hard to do the crystal ball thing, but I gather things are calmer in Spain. I don't hear very many people at all saying, hell no, we're not going to Barcelona or anything else, maybe that'll bubble up, who knows? But is ISC in Barcelona going to be normal-ish?

Dave Labuskes: Yes, I think so. Again, like you said, the crystal balls are not crystal clear and now, after the last series of conversations, I think I'm going to put the crystal ball into the same place where I put “pivot” and “agile” and “unprecedented” but yeah, the biggest indicator that you would have about and event like ISC at this stage five months out is sold show floor space, right? 

I don't think we've even opened registration for attendees yet, and show floor sales are, I think they're probably about 8% off of 2020. I guess there's no such thing as quoting me because we're recording this, but it's within that ballpark of the size of the last event at the Rye, which is, really the last event to compare it to. So if it's 90% of that size, 80% of that size, I think that's, that absolutely fits into your technical definition of normal. 

And there were lots of people who said, because you're going to Barcelona, as awesome a place as it is, it may mean you see a slight drop because people who might go to ISC in Amsterdam, because they can drive there, maybe would not go all the way to Barcelona? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, but there's other people that are going to drive to Barcelona that wouldn't have driven to Amsterdam. And yeah not a hundred percent a repeat audience, but…

Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)

That's those armchair spectators that you talked about earlier, right? We did the homework to make a determination about that, and we love the Rye. We would love to have stayed at the Rye, but the Rye isn’t big enough to hold the show as it was moving forward in the future and it was starting to have a negative impact on attendee experience and you start to have those different factors impact a show and reach the value of the show. 

I'll just be happy if I can find my way around. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, it's a beautiful city. I'll tell you what it's like. It's the opposite of the Rye. It was one of the things I joked with Mike about. Finally I figured out how to get through the Eye without getting lost, and now we've decided to move the show. 

Yeah, me too. 

All right. I appreciate you taking some time with me. I suspect you're a busy fellow these days.

Dave Labuskes: Never too busy for you, sir. Congratulations on your recent deal. I'm really happy for you. 

Thank you!

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

September 15, 2021

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

I've yet to meet Jackie Walker in person, but in our chats over the phone and video, she's quickly impressed me with her knowledge, insights and enthusiasm for digital signage.

Many of the people I've dealt with at big media companies speak an unfamiliar, very buzz-phrasey language that I barely grasp, but Jackie works for one of the biggest - Publicis Sapient - and speaks like normal people. Based in Houston, she's the head of strategy for that giant agency's work in what's called dining and delivery. That puts her front and center in planning out and then executing things like digital menu displays and the overall ordering experience at major QSRs.

Drive-thrus and their digital displays were a big part of how many QSRs got through COVID lockdown periods - when in-store ordering was restricted - and now we're seeing a lot of operators who didn't have drive-thru adding that capability.

Jackie and I had a great chat about the value proposition and ROI model for drive-thru display technology - including mashing up a lot of things like loyalty apps, readers and other technologies to customize or optimize what consumers see when they get in front of screens.

If you sell into or service the QSR space, this is a valuable listen.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Jackie, welcome. We've spoken in the past and know each other a bit. I don't think we've actually met in person, and who does that any more? 

You work for Publicis Sapient, and you've been leading strategy for digital menu boards for a couple of big QSR brands. What does all that entail? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely. Publicis Sapient, for those of your listeners who aren't super familiar with us, we are a digital business transformation firm. So we work with many brands, many QSRs in particular, around how they can use digital to really optimize the way that they are connecting with their customers. It's on a lot of fronts, there's some mobile work, of course, loyalty work, customer relationship marketing, all of these suspects.

But I specifically have really been working very closely on digital menu boards which have been really interesting. The brands that I've been working with and I've now worked with five of the top twenty-five and different categories, right? A couple of the burger brands, a coffee brand, a chicken brand. What's really interesting, I think, for these larger brands is that they're really trying to push the envelope on what they're trying to achieve with their digital menu boards. But nobody has really figured out how to do that yet. So when we go in on the strategy engagements, we're really focused on the customer experience as a lens.

So the team is generally, me, a couple of strategists, a product manager sometimes, and a couple of UX people, so visual designers and user experience folks who can really think about the way you organize an experience for our customer to make it super easy, and we really look at three lenses, right? We look at where the brand is from a brand identity customer experience perspective. So as they think about how to transition from just translating a print menu, which is generally the way that this starts, right? How do you move from translating a print menu to actually thinking about broader digital capabilities? So we try to understand where they are with that. What's their mobile experience? How do they think about this on their digital channels today? 

We think about where they are from a technology standpoint. So that's really interesting work, right? Talking to their restaurant technology groups, sometimes their customer technology groups, trying to understand what they're doing from a loyalty standpoint, where they are with the point of sale capability where they are with their digital menu board vendor. If they're already down a path, so what are the capabilities they have and what do they don't have, and really thinking about those lenses so that we can get to a view on where they go from a user experience standpoint and then also, how do they continue to push the envelope as they build in more and more digital capabilities? 

So you've talked about pushing the envelopes. When digital many boards first started being applied in larger QSR chains, it was all around the operational issues that changes could be made a lot more efficiently and you can do dayparting. I gather what you're saying is the larger brands, at least in their heads, are way beyond that now? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. It's a funny thing, right? I think we're still talking about some of those basics. Everybody thinks of Mcdonald’s as the gold standard, which makes sense. They're the largest, they were the first to scale outdoors. But that's recent, right? So they just finished their rollout in the US at the beginning of 2020. So it's not actually that long ago that some of this hardware was being installed. So I think dayparting is still something that brands are very much thinking about. They're thinking about how to leverage dayparting. So if you look at the McDonald's menu, there are some obvious changes with the dayparts. You look at the background color, for example, breakfast is blue, lunch is yellow, dinner and late-night is black, right? That's the most obvious, but if you squint, you can't really tell the difference between the products that are laid out for lunch, dinner, and late at night. They're doing very subtle things with reorganizing products, but they're not really leaning into that capability yet.

So as brands are starting to think about dayparting, thinking more about. What can you do from a business perspective with that? Can you do promotions that are specific to a time of day, right? Can you have a special late-night menu that has different pricing on some of your most snackable items, as an example, do you play with brand voice? 

So some of these QSR brands really have quite playful brand identities. You think that some of these brands could have a really fun and differentiated late-night experience versus what they're trying to accomplish during lunchtime, that would be consistent with their brand. So still thinking about that, I think now the big thing is loyalty, and so with loyalty and I keep beating the drum on this one, that is really going to fundamentally change the drive-thru experience. Again, McDonald's pushing the envelope here. 

They completed their national loyalty rollout in July, in the US, which is their largest market, and what's sneaky, and I don't know if everyone's recognized it is now in McDonald's app, you can actually set it up so that when you go through the drive-thru, you can pay with your stored credit card via your app. So you go to the window, just you go up to the menu board, just like you normally would, you talk to the crew member, you place your order. You give them this code, and now it's applying loyalty points. It's using any coupons or offers or points redemptions that you've applied but it also does the payment through that mobile interface, which is really interesting. It's subtle but if you think about the experience of a customer, they don't have to go to the pay window anymore at all. You've just really streamline that. You don't have to hand your credit card out through the window. You avoid all of that kind of silliness. So I think that's a really interesting change, and I think other brands are really going to be forced to emulate that, and that's going to be a huge shift. 

Yeah, and that's part of it, right? If you have a lot of active use of your loyalty app, also blends payment in there when they get into the drive-thru lane long before they even get to the presale window, a system like what McDonald's bought with that Israeli company Dynamic Yield is that they pick that stuff up, they know that Jackie's back in and she's got her kids with her maybe or whatever, and when you get to the presale and when you get to the order window, they can dynamically recast that menu to suit your preferences or what they think might be your preferences and how they can upsell you on stuff?

Jackie Walker: That's where it's headed, yeah. So no one is really doing that particularly effectively yet, but that is absolutely where it's headed. The challenge that a lot of these brands are still working on is customer identification, and we've been talking about that for so long, we used to talk about license plate recognition, still talk about Bluetooth. How do you figure out who's in the car? Are you creepy and use cameras? What are you doing? So brands are really still experimenting and figuring out what is the best tech for that. McDonald's right now is just doing a shortcode so the customer still has to do some work, they have to open their app, they have to see that code, they read it to the crew, right? Code is different every time. So you have to actually look to see it, in that transaction, what your code is. 

But certainly even testing Bluetooth, DNKN is interesting. DNKN’s been partnering with a company called Blue Dot not so secretly, which does pretty advanced geolocation. So they're actually using really tight geofencing to trigger customer identification and doing some customer greeting based on that. 

So it would actually say, “Hi Dave, or Hey Jackie”?

Jackie Walker: Exactly, which is, I think still a questionable use case, right? 

Yeah. People will start looking in the rearview mirror and go, “okay, who's following me?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, exactly. My favorite actually is not the “Hi Dave!” at the beginning, but the “Thanks, Dave!” at the end of the transaction like that's been a topic is how do you personalize that screen at the very end of the order confirmation, which is funny because if you actually sit in a drive-thru for a while and watch, which I do, because that's part of my job as the digital menu board super-nerd.  

“Who’s that strange woman standing in the parking lot?” (Laughter) 

Jackie Walker: Oh God, Dave, I have so many funny stories. My husband always makes fun of me. It's like, “Excuse me, there’s a suspicious woman in leggings and a Volvo in the drive-thru!”

It's yeah, it's funny. But you realize that most customers have already driven away by the time that thank you sign presents anything, so they're not seeing that. So if you're investing a bunch of time and energy figuring out how you're personalizing that screen, all you're really doing is creeping everybody out because you're showing the next customer in line, the previous customer's information.

That's an interesting thing, and then Tim Horton's is playing with scanners. So actually installing QR scanning hardware in the drive-thru lane, the customer opens their app, has the QR code open, and scans on the scanner, which I'm intrigued to see how that's going to go. I think there are definitely some pretty strong cons with that in terms of that hardware investment is not going to be small, and then, we've all done grocery checkout, self-checkout, and you try to scan something even in good lighting, that can be quite challenging. So now you have a mobile phone trying to scan in direct sun. I'm predicting, there'll be some challenges with that. 

In Canada with snow and -30 and everything else. 

Jackie Walker: Yep. Sticking your hand out the phone with a big mitten on.

Edmonton in February doing that. I'm not sure it was going to be a big take-up, but you never know. 

Jackie Walker: So I think, brands are, to go back to the original question, what are they doing? There are still a few basics, right? Let's figure out how we're going to identify the customer. Let's build that foundation. It's really about how we're going to use dayparting more effectively really, gets the promise of that, suggestive selling is another area. That's quite interesting. So we've been using those examples in the industry for 10 years. Show ice cream when it's hot out, show hot coffee when it's cold out, but now the technology is definitely there to do much more sophisticated things.

So that's where things like McDonald's dynamic yield do come into play in a big way, is making some suggestions for customers that go well beyond what you could do with rules-based kind of recommendations, and then now it's like let's start using our imagination and getting creative. 

What does personalization look like if you know a customer, do you make it really easy to reorder recent items? That's a great benefit for both the operator and the customer, right? So if you show somebody buys their Whopper Jr., mine is no pickle, no Mayo, with cheese, if you know that I order that every single time you show that on the board and you just say, I want my Whopper Jr. my way, and there's a POS integration for the crew member to hit one button. You just saved a bunch of time, and really provided some additional value for the customer. So I think those types of executions are going to be really interesting.

Certainly in places like Canada, where you have a pretty substantial number of commuters who would go into a Tim Horton's every morning and they're going to order their Double Double or whatever it is, and they're not going to move off of that because that's what gets them on the road. To be able to just know that, okay, Dave's here and he's gotten his Double Double, and there's nothing involved other than payment, or maybe even not that if if you flash your phone right away.

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Yeah, it's really powerful, and it's those moments, I think that are going to be the most interesting or where there's clear value to the customer and there's clear value to the operator, right? Everyone benefits from that kind of investment. 

Is that seamlessness a big part of it where there are different systems and it all just works and it makes your drive-thru experience better?

Jackie Walker: That is I think the kind of gold standard and that's where it's headed. I think it's really interesting, for a long time, brands were buying digital menu boards and it was really, they're buying a piece of hardware, especially outdoor because everybody's really terrified about making this big hardware investment. You really focus on the hardware and then you get some software along for the ride and you hope that the software has the out-of-box capabilities that you need to do what you want to do with it. 

I think now more and more brands are recognizing that that's not really how it's going to work for them. It's really about creating this customized experience that can integrate with their systems. It can integrate with their point of sale. It can integrate with their loyalty program. It can integrate with their master product data. These are really powerful benefits to an integrated system, that is software first and experience first and the hardware is just supporting it. 

I'm curious about drive-thru right now because of COVID. Prior to COVID, the idea of selling drive-thru was that it could do all these things, here's the value proposition, and so on, and it was being marketed that way. 

With COVID and the inability, at least in some jurisdictions, to even go inside to dine and order stuff, if you didn't have to the drive-thru, you were in a world of pain in terms of operating your business. Has that deferred the whole idea, that you could do all these things with it and just made it operational for the moment, or at least in the past year, we needed to put in drive-thru just so we could do transactions and sell food?

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that was a huge benefit for QSR. You think about the drive-thru that was pre-built for COVID, it's the ultimate kind of contactless almost service method. So I think quick-serve has a huge advantage over other types of restaurants, even if you think about fast-casual where some of them may have had drive-thru or curbside pick up, but that was a very small part of their business, whereas quick service has been trying to optimize drive-thru for years and years, and spend a lot of time and energy and money investing in ways to make that channel more seamless.

I wonder what's different now, and exciting is that the emphasis for a long time has been on the operational aspects of drivers. So how do you improve the speed of service and how do you improve order accuracy? Those are the two big things, and how do you drive throughput? Now there's this question and I think loyalty is a big part of the impetus for that. How do you create meaningful customer interaction? So not only how are you getting the customer the food they want, at the speed you want to get it to them and they want it to go. But how do you actually provide some additional value in that interaction and provide a differentiated experience? Which is exciting! 

How would that work and look? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think one of the things that's different about quick-service restaurants is that they still have a very large portion of their customers that are cash customers. You think about Starbucks, they've been extraordinarily successful at getting a ton of customers to just use mobile order pay and it's easy peasy. And then the challenge from an operation standpoint is just how do you get those mobile orders customers served quickly. 

QSRs are going to have a steeper hill to climb with that. They're trying to drive digital adoption. They're trying to drive known customer rates, like what percentage of their customers do they actually know that are registered customers or credit cards that they can attribute to a customer. But that behavior of people is gonna start on mobile ordering everything. So far, there's not really any evidence that there's going to be consistent. Customers like deals and offers that provide a lot of value. But if there's a way that you can hook into deals and offers without the customer actually having to complete the transaction in the mobile app, that's really powerful. Drive-thru is all about impulse. I can just pull in and grab my thing and go, and I don't have to think about it. I don't have to sit here go through the fifteen steps and in a mobile app to order. So I think it's really going to be that balance between bringing forward that enhanced digital capability with loyalty, which includes reordering, personalized offers. It includes all of those things and bringing that to bear in the drive-thru lane itself, and the menu board becomes a very powerful tool in reinforcing those value adds. 

If your customer is asking questions in the drive-thru you're in big trouble, right? So if you have a loyal customer, they don't know that you've registered with them, but you know it's them that's there, or they can't tell that you applied their points the way that they thought the points were going to get applied, to get a free ice cream cone you really create some significant operational challenges. So menu boards, I think, are becoming more and more of a tool to be able to reinforce to customers that you've got their back and things are going to be accurate in the way that they expect them to be. That's super powerful.

Is there an easily defined, easily sold, and easily acknowledged ROI model now for these drive-thru displays? Because by and large, they are being put in by the local franchise owner, not the head office, so that there's a significant $10-30k infrastructure investment to do this, and local operators are looking at this one and going, “I didn't save for that,” or, “Why would I do this?” or “What am I going to see?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I will say that there does seem to be a pretty big sea change with regard to the franchisee's state of mind when it comes to this investment. I think there's real acceptance and I've worked with a couple of brands now where the initiative is spearheaded at the brand level, right? There's much more power when it comes from the brand and that capability is built centrally. The franchisees are just footing the bill for installation in their individual restaurant or set of restaurants but the franchisees are basically saying, let's go faster. How fast can I get this thing installed? And, they can't go as fast as the franchisees want them to go. 

I think what's interesting with the ROI model, in the early days, the math worked better for indoor because the capital investment indoors is a lot cheaper. There's a little bit of the cost savings of printing and having people up on ladders and the liability that goes along with that, the inflexibility of print. You could make a pretty good case for the return on investment with those indoor boards on cost alone. With drive-thru, your capital investment is quite a bit higher because the hardware has to be much more rugged to be able to withstand that outdoor environment.

I think what is shifting is now the value prop is not just about the cost savings and the increased flexibility. But it's also about the direct upside. So now that you have these additional digital capabilities, how do you actually build a customer's check by adding capabilities that are unique to digital? So getting really strong with the way you're using day partying or really thinking about suggestive selling and how do you do that in a consistent way, which is really driving. How do you encourage customers toward your more premium menu items? And you can get quite sophisticated in the way that you use that channel to build checks.

Is there an acknowledged metric around that? So pulling this out of my head, if you make this investment, it should pay for itself in the first 18 months or the first 26 months or whatever it is? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, the economics depend a little bit on the restaurant, but generally the kind of rule of thumb has been, you're going to get like a 3% to 5% lift just by moving from analog boards to digital because the customer experience is just much better. I think the challenge is that wears off eventually is your customers get used to digital. You don't have that Disney effect on the third visit and fourth visit. But over time, it's all about driving that incrementality and the numbers are hard there, Dave, because a lot of people don't want to share. The brands don't want to share how successful or not successful their suggestive sales capabilities are. But generally speaking, it's all about driving that ticket over time, and then you can do the work back on the break-even time. 

But I think in general, what you said 18 to 24 months is in most cases probably about right. 

And I'm sure as in many things, the other QSR operators, regardless of category or size, pay very close attention to what the giants do, like a McDonald's and if they're doing a full rollout across their whole estate, across the United States, they're not doing that for giggles and they’ve thought this through?

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. With the ROI model, part of it is, what is the direct benefit, from an economic standpoint, but then the other part of it is very much keeping up with the Joneses kind of mentality or keeping up with the McDonalds in this case. How do you actually ensure that you're meeting customer expectations because once customers get used to that slick experience, you pull into a random Taco Bell with a ten-year-old backlit WITH half of them are blown out and they're all scratched up and dingy, customers do notice that stuff? So I think there is a little bit of just leveling up that guest experience and it is going to be contagious. 

All the big brands are really starting to think about how they do this, and I think now with the price of hardware coming down and the big players converting, so McDonald's is already there, RBI is rolling out across Burger King, Popeye's, and Tim Horton's, they're going to be the next big player to reach scale. It's really just a matter of when, and not if everyone's going to go digital on these drivers. 

So let's talk about inside the store. We talked mostly about drive-thru displays, but inside the store, digital menu boards have been around a lot longer, but they're changing too because you're going to see a lot more service ordering and a lot more pickup and you need digital menu boards that have to also function as queue management or notification, right? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think what's happening is there's actually a proliferation of use cases if you want to think about it that way. So the digital menu board at the front counter is really just about providing a menu to customers that are in the restaurant and you're right, it's pretty well understood. I think that's interesting when I talk to customers about drive-thru, they get really excited about its personalization, and the word I always pushed to use is optimization even more than personalization because you get the benefit for unknown guests as well.

But once you get that working like a well-oiled machine, you start to understand customer behavior at the store level, you can actually apply those same principles at the front counter, right? So you're not targeting your messaging to an individual customer because that front counter board is meant to be a one-to-many experience, but you can 100% tailor that experience to the restaurant. So you can curate the menu for the types of purchase behavior that exists in that store or that type of store. So I think the front counter is going to continue to evolve, with regards to that, to become a little bit more curated benefiting from the investment at the drive-thru. 

The kiosk is another huge piece. I laugh and I think we've talked about this before, when COVID started everyone thought, oh my God, it's like the death of kiosks, nobody's ever going to touch it, touch screen ever again. But actually, it's done quite the opposite as we've understood better, that face-to-face is much worse than touching a screen and using some hand sanitizer. But what's interesting is that from a rollout perspective. Brands still think of kiosks as very different from menu boards, which I find fascinating. The way that it ends up shaking out is, brands think about their mobile experience and most brands are furthest along on mobile ordering. Then when they think about kiosks, it's the app, but on a big screen and a lot of brands actually manage it that way. So it's not the in-store tech groups that are managing that kiosk, it's actually the digital groups, the customer experience, technology groups that are delivering them.

And then you have the menu boards and they are very much firmly still in the restaurant technology side of the house. So there are different problems to solve altogether. I think more and more, there's going to be a little bit of consolidation across that. I always encourage customers to think about as you're doing drive-thru, you're building these mechanisms from a backend standpoint to actually deliver curated content and be smart in how you're merchandising product dynamically. There’s absolutely a play for that on front counter boards and a play for that on kiosks, and the kiosk is after all another piece of in-store hardware, and then to your point, Dave, there are these other use cases, right? 

So are brands going to start to put more queue management screens up like McDonald's has, where they have now served these customer numbers and they have the list for in-store and list for mobile. Do they start to do some things with digital displays near pickup areas as more and more customers are starting to use take-out options? I've even heard some thought around, are there going to be digital screens at mobile pickup? I'm still not sold on that one. Like a sign made out of metal does just great for, telling you a customer where they need to park. We'll see who's able to first define a use case that has a clear ROI for putting screens at those parking spots. 

The last thing I wanted to ask about was some fundamentals around digital menu boards. One of the things that I've found through the years and seems to be getting better as people learn is you have these eye charts that they try to cram so much stuff into a single display that you really can't read anything and it's mentally overwhelming, you look at it and go, oh my God, I'll just order the thing that I've got in my head and get the hell out of here. 

Is that sort of thing important? Color choices, font choices, certainly the volume of text, the size or point size, all those things?

Jackie Walker: 100%. Yes, and I think I'm glad you asked this question because this is my favorite question, right? If you look at how most of the brands: McDonald's is a good example, Burger King is a good example. It looks like the problem they've been trying to solve is how do you jam all the shit that you had on six panels print now on to two or three digital screens. Like if you just look at it, you can see that's what they thought they were trying to do. Really the opportunity with digital menu boards is to get more precise about what the content is because you can have advanced analytics, you can link what you display to a customer to a transaction. You can start to have a much better data-driven merchandising strategy. So you can really think about the use case for the drive-thru, which to your point is you have a customer that's freaked out, they're going to be in front of that board for probably 10-15 seconds looking at it at a peak time before they start talking or the crew member starts talking to them. So if you're trying to show them 85 SKUs, there is no way that any human is understanding 85 SKUs in 10-15 seconds. So the opportunity is really about curation, and I think when we approach menu board design, we don't think about it from an old-school menu sings print menu point of view. We think about it from a digital frame of reference. 

How do you guide wayfinding for a customer? How do you establish a kind of system design and a foundation that's going to allow the operator of the brand to substitute products in and out and see how they perform when they're in these different slots? Think about designing a poster, you think about designing a digital framework. I think curation is key. That's that to me really all of these personalization tactics that you talk about, it really comes back to how do I show less stuff that's more meaningful and the tactics are all different ways of getting at that problem. So I think that's what's most exciting about the move to digital menu boards is we can start playing there and as an industry get much smarter about how you actually serve the customer at that moment? How do you show them the least amount of information to get them through success? Either help them get what they wanted to get, they knew they wanted, or inspire them to try something new. Build tickets, improve their level of confidence. These are all the things that become front and center in this new digital menu board experience.

All right. Super interesting. I appreciate you taking the time. 

Jackie Walker: Lots of fun. Dave, always looking forward to talking to you soon and maybe meeting you in person. 

Yes. If we ever travel once again and do things like Trade Shows. 

Jackie Walker: Amen. Thanks so much, Dave.

 

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

August 25, 2021

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

The AT&T Discovery District in downtown Dallas is one of the more ambitious experiential digital projects out there - in the U.S. or globally - with a big reason being the focus from the inception on coming up with something that was more than just the technology circus coming to town.

Telecoms giant AT&T engaged the huge global design firm Gensler to come up with a cohesive, visually exciting design concept for not only its headquarters building in Dallas, but for the area surrounding it - delivering a destination and talking point.

There is a massive LED media wall on the corner of one building, what Gensler calls digital trellises on the urban office campus plaza, and more LED on the walls, support columns and even the ceiling of the head office lobby. That's coupled with synchronized lighting and something that sounds a bit like a show control system.

It's super-impressive, and it cost more than a couple of bucks to build, and to sustain. The first wave of creative includes digital art from some of the top people in the field, from Refik Anadol to Moment Factory.

I had a chance to speak with two of the key people behind the project - Justin Rankin, director of Gensler's Digital Experience Design Studio, and Dana Hamdan, who served as design manager for the project.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, thanks for joining me. The first thing I'd like to do is get a description from you of what the AT&T Discovery District is all about and how Gensler was involved? 

Dana Hamdan: Sure, AT&T Discovery District is actually AT&T HQ in Dallas, which happens to be in an urban setting. Not a lot of corporations are headquartered in business districts, and obviously, because it is in a business district, it makes it accessible to the public, and so to say it in a high level and in some depth way, it is a headquarter that's open to the public and that's been very successful based on the experiences that we've seen in the past a couple of months. 

This district, so to speak, has been open for a year and a half?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, we had substantial completion on the project really in September of last year, and due to various circumstances, obviously it's been a fairly organic process in terms of really opening the district and starting to really activate the space. So really what we've seen is over the last two or three months, it's really come to life in full swing and AT&T has started to really use the space, activate it, promote events, host events, and pop-ups and things like that. So it's been really exciting to see it finally start to take its stride over the past couple of months. 

So if I'm in Fort Worth, I get in my car and I drive into downtown Dallas, find parking somehow and wander over there. What am I going to see? 

Dana Hamdan: Hey, you mentioned parking, one of the things that actually make it successful is, and that builds kind of a duality of the program being an employee headquarter, and open to the public. There is actually a parking lot for the discovery district so hopefully, you'll not have any issues finding parking in that spot.

But basically, the approach to the district is very interesting, and that's gonna take from its name Discovery District. There are some macro-scale indicators for the space, so driving from probably five city blocks away, you will see a mega screen that is on a natural Terminus to one main street, it's called an Akard St. in downtown, and then as you approach the district, the screen will fade away, and from your human-scale perspective, a grove of trees will appear, and then in that grove of trees is camouflaged a nice interactive sculpture that we call The Globe, and but you'll basically see a lot of immersive lighting that will draw you towards the Plaza. So that's just from an approach standpoint of the district. 

So this is a lot of LED displays, but it's also interactive sculptures, it's audio, it's synchronized lighting, all kinds of things. So it's not just like a big display, and “look at the cool stuff we have on this big display”?

Dana Hamdan: Absolutely. So what we did, basically to give the space a headquarter presence, because before it was just disparate buildings and a number of buildings around a Plaza that was not really used. It was very underused. And, after hours it just gets dark and nobody's there because it probably doesn't feel safe.

And so what we did is we knit together a block in the city. We introduced two mega trellises that have media integrated to them to just give a very clear recognizable realm for the Plaza and you get a sense that, “Oh, I'm in one place.” So even though the buildings are not all the same architecture, we tied them with a similar visual, like a consistent cohesive design with these two mega trellises.

And then yes everything is integrated in that kind of is the spirit of the project, and we'll talk a little bit more about it as we go through this. 

Justin Rankin: And with this being AT&T global headquarters, the anchor of the district is the Whitaker tower, which is a 36 story tall building that kind of sits on the Plaza.

So you've got that really like a big landmark. The lobby of that, which we can talk more about, is a really impressive, fully immersive experience. So there's this really nice place, and then, off of Whitaker tower onto commerce street, there's an entry portal there that we call the VIP entry. So you have this really nice flow of, entering off of commerce street coming through that VIP portal into the lobby to a fully immersive experience, and then from the lobby through these really impressive glass windows, you're able to look out onto the Plaza. 

So from the lobby, you can see The Globe and you can see the big lawn area that's in the Plaza. You can see the trellis has lit up. You can see all the food and beverage outlets and all of the people and the energy, and so you naturally find your way exploring out into the Plaza, and then once you're out there, you've got The Globe and the media wall, the lawn, and the restaurants and bars and it really becomes a total experience at the end of the day.

What was the brief from AT&T? What did they say they wanted? 

Dana Hamdan: So it is interesting because I think the nice part about this project is collaborating with AT&T on really formulating what the vision for this project is, and so this kind of morphed over the years, but at the beginning, the most important thing was to give the employees a campus that they're proud of, try to reposition the brand of AT&T would, especially with all the focus on media, and then a third, but probably the most important is to give back to the city because they are in an urban business district setting as well. 

These were the main tasks from the client, which we're very happy to sit in visioning sessions and come up with a concept, and we're very happy with the end result.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, and I would layer may be on top of that, that at a certain point in time, several years ago, there were discussions within AT&T on whether or not to keep their HQ in Dallas or potentially move and relocate their HQ to San Antonio or another city. 

The decision was made to stay in Dallas and then on top of that, coincidentally during that same time period is when AT&T and Time Warner merged and so really overnight AT&T with that merger became officially became the largest media company in the world, taking on Warner Media, HBO, all of their sub-brands, and so really that became a big part of the brief was, “We're the largest media company in the world. We want to give back to our employees. We want to give back to the city of Dallas, so how do we create a destination for all of the above that really is able to solve for all of those different goals?”

That was really a thread throughout the entire strategy, and the design of the immersive experiences, the content, the way that everything is orchestrated was really to put AT&T in that light and help them reposition their brand quite honestly.

Dana Hamdan: It's not easy when you're downtown, it's not easy to have a prominent presence like it's not like you have a campus. “Oh, it's known this is the so and so campus. This is the Apple Park or Menlo Park.” 

It's hard, and it gets lost in the urban fabric, and so this was very important for AT&T to be able to give their campus a presence and for their employees to feel proud about where they work, and so it was just a nice vision and nice commitment from the client and again, I think we were very happy with the end product and we'll talk a little bit more about how we came to make that happen.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, one of the things that makes this so unique is that the campus is completely open and public. So when you look at other Fortune 5, Fortune 10 companies, and you look at their global HQ's, they're locked down, they’re Fort Knox, right? So you don't have a public that can just walk up and come hang out here. It's the total opposite here.

AT&T has really welcomed the city and the community into their space and into these immersive experiences, which is really unique and has been really exciting from Gensler's perspective to partner with AT&T on that and bring that vision to life. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, and it was not easy. When we do projects like that, we usually want to look at precedents, and for this one, there's really not a lot of precedents that you can look at. In fact, in North America, we couldn’t find a prominent campus setting that is open to the public in an urban setting. 

I mean we've been to the major campus. Amazon and Salesforce have some similarities, but not quite fully open like Justin was saying, and the rest are remote and they have their own campuses that have limited accessibility.

Yeah, I think about districts that are in the central parts of the city and they tend to be entertainment districts that are built around sports arenas, or ballparks or things like that, and it's a lot of restaurants and bars and things, but as you say, there aren’t many instances where there's a campus built around or a district built around an office. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, but from our standpoint, we think this is going to be a trendsetter campus for corporations to anchor downtowns and anchor such settings and it really plays the duality of the program. You've got your employees during the day, not just your employees, but employees of the central district with the amenities that are offered, and then gradually towards the end of the day, you see a very seamless transition, and employees are on their way out. They may grab a drink or a good to a happy hour, but you see that transition of user type from your employee to people who actually live downtown and now are utilizing the space as a normal extension, like a third place, what we call a third place, which is, people that who live downtown don't have a lot of space in their units.

So it's good to have the presence of a public space that has all the technology offering of Wi-Fi and is quite enjoyable actually. So it's a really nice 24/7 activation of the space. 

Did the pandemic and the experience of offices locking down and everything else, and that whole idea that, office towers are going to be hollowed out, people are just going to be remote working and there's no need for these big edifices anymore. 

Did any of that reshape the thinking? 

Dana Hamdan: Actually, if I may say, it actually reinforced the thinking because eventually, this conversation is not necessarily about the hybrid mode of work or office, but what we found out is that it actually provided what the pandemic is telling people you need, it provided quite a few different modes of collaboration outdoor that you can sit and collaborate in.

And we've seen that, like Justin was saying, the space organically opened. There was not a big ribbon-cutting event that happened, but people needed a space where they could be outdoors safely, and whether they're working or just enjoying other people's company and we've seen articles in major publications, like Fast Company and others, really dwell on and emphasize the need for outdoor collaboration spaces, and we feel that this came just right in time for the AT&T employees actually. 

So let's talk about what was done and why it was done. When you had the brief when you worked out the big idea, how did the components come together? 

Why did you decide on a big corner-wrapped LED on the side of one of the buildings and displays that lined the interior of the Whitacre building and so on?

Justin Rankin: So early on, I would say as we approached really all of our projects, there was a lot of strategy put into planning and thinking and our teams working together and working with AT&T and other stakeholders to think through different use cases, modes, activation scenarios, the flow of traffic, viewports, viewing angles, et cetera. 

We did a lot of research. We interviewed and spoke with employees. We interviewed and spoke with C-level executives and VIPs and collected all of that thinking to really inform where to invest the energy and concept. And, through that concept, things to help think about what types of platforms make the most sense, so we can get into it in more detail, but when you start to break apart the different digital platforms, whether it's the media wall or The Globe or the trellises or the lobby, what you'll find interesting is that there's a lot of intent put behind the design of those platforms so that those platforms can be leveraged for multiple different scenarios. 

A prime example of that is that The Globe sculpture actually sits on a hydraulic turntable that can rotate 180 degrees. So we have these moments in which we can activate this small intimate grove setting, so maybe it's a singer-songwriter, or it's a DJ, or it's someone reading. You can have a small kind of intimate moment and at the same time, you can rotate the globe, pivoted towards commerce street, which is the main thoroughfare through downtown Dallas, and now you've got a beautiful and interactive backdrop for a marathon or for a holiday parade or for something else.

So for every platform, we've thought through those different scenarios, those were all part of that original strategy and helped us to shape where they should be located, how they should be faced. The media walls specifically, we thought about, as Dana mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, there's this kind of viewport that you have from five or more blocks away and it perfectly frames the shape and the aspect ratio of the media wall. So that was very intentional, but we decided to wrap the corner because now we have this ability to draw people in from the other side of the block or the other side of the Plaza. We can also provide some really cool content and experiences to people that are sitting at Jackson, which is a kind of a casual beer garden. 

Diana, feel free to add to that. But yeah, those were all factors and considerations that led to the final design. 

Dana Hamdan: For sure. But I would say if you're asking us as to why we did what we did, why did we decide that we needed orchestrated platforms?

And really, when we were thinking that, AT&T was really also obviously wanted to make employees proud, but second, they really wanted a shift in their brand and how do they represent their brand? And AT&T is not in the business of selling physical products, they sell an intangible service, and I say that all the time, it doesn't matter if you have an iPhone or Samsung or an LG or Whatever it is, It's actually the service that comes through that makes you enjoy your experience, and so we came with this concept that we have this intangible layer, connecting slick and new and futuristic looking platforms that make them come to life and make them feel connected.

And that's why we have very purposely positioned screens, and then what we wanted to do is tie all that to an invisible thing that you cannot see, right? A content management system that makes these communicate together. It was very important for us that when you step in the district, you feel that you are in a realm, you feel that you feel the power of connection. You can see consistent media messages. You can see something on the media screen and then all of a sudden it loops and it's in ground lights under your feet, and then it loops and it's now above your head, in the ground and the lights that are in the trellises, or when it moves in and activates The Globe. So you see that communication, you see that power of connection between these platforms and it's all powered by AT&T. So that was a play on the brand representation for the client, and it only made sense why they're in that district. 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. It manifests the whole notion of connection, which is that deep kind of core element of AT&T is brand manifest in two ways. 

It manifests quite literally in a physical way as we connect the platforms and connect the spaces, but it also manifests through people, the Globe sculpture prime example. It's an opportunity where we can bring people together into a space, and I will say a safe space where they can be distanced but have a really unique experience and discover an experience that's maybe not inherent or visible as you're walking by. So you see the sculpture, that there's something going on. You may hear something you walk over and you've got people and as you're in the space, you're now controlling the experience together that you're having. So there's definitely multiple elements of that as you navigate through the district, whether it's the globe or whether it's in the lobby or other areas in the. 

Is the project driven by the art or is there also a nod or thinking around the commercial side of this? Because what I've seen are great pieces of content from companies like Moment Factory and so on. I haven't seen on the big media wall or elsewhere, pitches for an AT&T wireless plan or anything like that. 

Dana Hamdan: Yes, this was definitely since day one, this was not meant to be an advertisement platform and it's so funny to hear it, but I like to walk over there incognito and people don't know what role I had and planning and leading this place through success, but I like to hear people say, “oh, this is Times Square, but I actually can sit in and enjoy it.” 

It's not full of advertisements and I'll let Justin speak a little bit more about the strategy behind content but definitely was not meant to monetize the Plaza like that. On the contrary, it was meant to elevate the art and elevate the ambiance setting. 

I don’t want to go behind the scenes but I just wanted to ask, and you may not be able to tell me, but I'm curious because I've seen other projects that have started as art projects and then advertising finds its way into it somehow, was that a debate or AT&T said right from the brief that no this has to be the experience?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, they've taken a pretty hard line from the get-go of maintaining an advertising free space. Now the caveat there obviously is, we're talking about the largest media company in the world, we do have to acknowledge the fact that AT&T is showing content that is running on the media wall that is promoting AT&T’s properties, movies shows, et cetera.

What I would say though, is the way that has come together, and the intent with that is purely from an entertainment standpoint, right? So these are big motion pictures and shows that people are super interested in and excited about. There are certainly moments of that but to your earlier point, there is no advertising so to speak, sales advertising around products and services. 

There's a really healthy mix, quite honestly, of just beautiful artistic content. You mentioned Moment Factory, they have been an incredible part of the team in many ways, but we've got fifteen or more artists and studios and agencies that have contributed on the content front. And we've worked really closely all along with the creative director on the discovery district on the AT&T side. His name is Roger Ferris and he's always had a really strong vision as having really the whole AT&T executive team on what their vision around content was, and we've helped to thread together a strategy that's really guided that, who we've worked with. It's guided by the type of content. 

The Gensler team has defined the cadence of that content, the programming, and the run of the show. It is 24/7. So there's been a lot of thought put into what's the vibe and what's the energy level at 9:00 AM on a Monday compared to 8:00 PM on a Friday compared to maybe 3:00 PM on a Sunday, and what you notice when you spend a lot of time in the district is that the energy really changes and morphs over time and even, thinking through the night hours and in wanting to be respectful of the fact that this is a district in the middle of a city, there are hotels and there are condos and stuff. We've got this beautiful content that runs through the evening where we take the brightness and the output of that media wall and really tone it down, and put the district in sleep mode, so to speak.

And so we've just been really thoughtful about that, and AT&T has been amazing in really investing in the content and putting an emphasis on creativity and art and finding that balance between the entertainment-type content and then just beautiful works of art. 

We've worked with lots of big artists and have all come together to create this. I think we've got right now over 36 hours of original content that are running at any given point through the district. 

A lot of these things come out of the gate with fantastic content, and then six months later, people started looking around, “I guess we should change this.”

Do you have a five-year plan or something?

Justin Rankin: We do, and the Gensler team continues to engage with AT&T. They also continue to engage, with their own set of artists and contributors, but very much we're on a continual content production kind of cadence and schedules. So there's constantly new content that's being developed and rolled out, tested, revised, et cetera. 

There's also a lot of feedback that's being going from content that's already rolled out. So it's been important at AT&T to really keep an eye on, and what do people think about it? Do people love this? Do they hate it? Is it annoying? Is it too bright? Is it too fast? So I think they're doing a great job of collecting that feedback, using that data to then inform what new content gets produced. 

The question begs, what are you hearing? 

Justin Rankin: So far it's been great, honestly. 

Dana Hamdan: If you use social media and just look up the discovery district, you’ll see. I think this is one where we're really enjoying people's reactions to the district.

But I will say when we've designed these digital platforms, we've designed them with the concept of what Roger Ferris, the creative director of AT&T would call maximum canvas flexibility, and the idea is you can dial in or dial up the media content as much as you want. For example, the lobby has a ceiling that we call the veil because we veiled in the ceiling and it's a layering of polyethylene, a white membrane that is backed by a very tight tightly knit RGB grid that has probably a diffusion layer.

It's a very nice system and it could be just a regular white backlit ceiling that all of a sudden can transform into, I don't know, whales that are swimming in an ocean or whatever it is. So this really, the idea of integrating very seamlessly, integrating the media as architecture and not being an application on a surface really helps with that longevity and being able to activate or not whenever you want. 

Yeah, I think that's the difference between some of the things that I've seen, where a company puts in a huge LED video wall and maybe a couple of other things, but they're just things that are there. There's no continuity and no real thought around the whole experience. It’s just, “Look at this giant thing we put!” 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. The veil is a great example of media architecture at its core. Even the media wall, it's interesting, one of the things that we wanted to do was get creative. The media wall is so large. It's so prominent in the Plaza. It's easy for that to really become an anchor and command all of your attention and there are certainly certain times during the day or the week in which we do that very intentionally, but what we've also done is work hard to create and essentially model and render the exact facade of the building that the media wall is applied to. 

So there are certain times in which that media wall goes into facade mode and it's shockingly accurate and people can walk through the Plaza and really not have any idea that there's an eight-story tall media wall staring right at them. So there's been some thought put into that as well, and just finding ways to tone down the digital when we want other platforms or other spaces to command more of the attention. 

Dana Hamdan: I would say, when we were just drawing concepts for the Plaza, we drove around and studied the side from a contextual standpoint. Every time we drove down that Akard St., we saw that facade and it's natural Terminus, and we are very lucky that it is an equipment building because otherwise, I wouldn't even have suggested blocking all that much facade. We were lucky that this is an equipment building. 

Justin Rankin: People ask that like this media wall is great, but it really sucks for everyone that's working in that building because they've lost any kind of view. So luckily, as Dana said, there's no one, where those windows are that we've covered up, it's all equipment, technical equipment, and things like that.

So we haven't prevented anyone's view into the Plaza or natural light into their workspace, et cetera. Yeah, got really lucky with that being the capability that we had.  

What's involved in the day-to-day management of all this, all the lighting, the synchronized displays, everything else. Is there an AT&T team, or is Gensler doing that? How does all that work?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, really through the project and through the completion of the project, Gensler was really heavily involved in working with AT&T. All the things I mentioned before, the content strategy, cadence programming, et cetera, a lot of the operations and so as we transitioned, everything was installed, it was done, commissioned, ready to roll, we started to work closely with AT&T to help them to build their own operations team, and so they actually now have a dedicated team who is at the helm of this ship and operating the content management system, operating all the platforms, doing things like maintenance and support, all of that.

So yeah, dedicated staff now. They're fully running on their own and our involvement at this point and as we move forward is, as I was mentioning before, continuing to help them to ideate concepts and produce new content and keep the big idea going. 

How many people do they have working on this full-time?

Justin Rankin: There's a team of 5-10 that fluctuates. Everyone kind of has some different roles, some dedicated purely to tech, some dedicated purely to CMS, some dedicated more to the creative side. So yeah, nice healthy team. 

Dana Hamdan: I don't know that we know the extent of property management either, because obviously, it's a big district to take care of. 

Justin Rankin: For sure. You've got loss prevention, security, events. There's all kinds of teams that are really tapped into what's going on in the district on any given day. But from a technology and kind of creative standpoint, there’s definitely a dedicated team focused on it.

What's been the response from the mayor and the people who run Dallas? 

Dana Hamdan: In downtown Dallas, we have an organization called downtown Dallas, Inc that really started a few years ago and came in with initiatives to bring life back and entice people to live downtown and enjoy downtown and open businesses downtown, and I guess the reaction of this organization is pretty much consistent with businesses around the downtown. 

I don't know that I have heard directly from the mayor, but we've heard very positive reactions from neighboring businesses in downtown Dallas, and neighboring hotels. As a matter of fact, we've seen businesses starting to open around the district and benefiting from the presence of the district and driving more business down there. So all but positive so far.

Justin Rankin: Oh, you think about it. There are two major hotels right across the street and half of their rooms look into this beautiful Plaza, and so without going into detail on that, you can just imagine, the more kind of premium view and amenity that has now been offered to those guests of the hotel. 

I've actually stayed in both hotels and have talked to some of the staff there and they go on and on about it and what their guests are saying and how positive it is. 

Dana Hamdan: And throughout the process of design and envisioning this, it was a very rigorous approval process from neighboring communities and from the city. We had to go through many hearings to just get community consent on what's being planned. So this was a very inclusive process. 

All right. That was super interesting. One of these days, I'll be able to travel again and come down and have a look at it.

Dana Hamdan: We can't wait to have you there. 

Thanks very much for your time. 

Justin Rankin: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Doug Lusted, AdStash

Doug Lusted, AdStash

August 11, 2021

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

Much has changed through the years in digital signage and digital out of home, but one thing that's been pretty constant is how small businesses like the technology when they find out about it ... but don't want to pay for it.

Doug Lusted has seen and heard that for many years, having founded a Canadian startup that was doing proximity marketing and venue analytics almost a decade ago.

He gradually, with his team, started pulling together the idea and eventually the platform for AdStash - a service that enables small business operators and service providers who target that sector to get digital signage in place, and make money from the screens, instead of paying monthly bills for them.

The core premise of AdStash is small to medium-sized businesses - from one-offs to groups of venues - can tap into advertising dollars from a dozen supply-side ad exchanges and generate incremental revenue. They don't pay any recurring subscription fees, and the only upfront cost is an $80 Raspberry Pi media player.

Based in suburban Toronto, but virtual in most respects, the company is investor-backed and already has a footprint of some 70,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada.

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TRANSCRIPT

Doug, thank you for joining me. We've known each other a little bit for quite some time now, and I would say your company has been on a bit of a journey because when I first ran into it, I believe you were doing proximity marketing, right? 

Doug Lusted: That's right, and we're still doing that. That was our first product and we're heading out to our second one now.

And that was called, Linkett, wasn't it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so to clear it up because branding is often a question. The company name is Weston Expressions. Our first product was Linkett, which is an audience measurement platform that still operates today, and then our second product is AdStash, which we'll get into.

With the first product, what was that all about? That was NFC-based, right? 

Doug Lusted: It started out to be NFC. We were trying to track engagement and impressions, but ultimately that morphed into WiFi. So it's predominantly a WiFi tracking platform today. 

Because every smartphone has WiFi probably turned on or at least available, and not everybody was equipped with NFC and not everybody had it activated, right?

Doug Lusted:  You got it. 

So this was just a better way to go, and now you've launched AdStash. Can you tell me and the listeners what that's all about? 

Doug Lusted: So what AdStash does is provide digital signage networks the technology they need to go programmatic with no monthly fees, and so on a deeper level what that really means is that the core technology we've built is an API that connects your digital signs to multiple programmatic ad exchanges at once. So it saves you all that integration time and money. 

And if you become an AdStash customer, what are you getting and what are you using? 

Doug Lusted: It depends on your network. We're pretty flexible. We've got a bunch of different pieces to the puzzle. 

But basically, an API connection that lists you on all the major SSPs or most of them. Now, if you need a media player, we can provide you that. If you need a content management system, we have a free one. Those are typically used by our smaller networks. And the enterprise users generally stick to the API because they've got all of that in place already. 

Okay, so if I'm already on Brand X CMS, there are hundreds of them. You don't need to back out of that and use your CMS platform or anything like that. The CMS is meant more as something that enables it for smaller businesses?

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes what happens is we'll have a customer who's growing their network, and they realize, I can use this CMS that doesn't have any monthly fees. I'm going to switch to that now while I'm deploying. But yeah we can integrate with any CMS. It's a fairly straightforward open API.

I guess it becomes a delicate dance of working with other CMS companies, because if they're hearing that, you don't need to use a commercial or fee-based one, you can just use ours for free they may be thinking, “I don't want to work with you.” 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. It's a good point, and to add a little more color to that, it's a very light, basic CMS, right? We can show videos on full screen, maybe a traditional L-bracket, but that's it. 

It's very light, more kind of aimed towards small and medium-sized businesses. If you're a large enterprise digital signage network that needs some bells and whistles, sticking to your current partner is probably the best bet and we're pretty open about it. 

Is that intentional or is that more a function of, “if I want it to have something that was a lot more robust, that there's a whole bunch more time and dollars that I need to put into it to get to that point”? 

Doug Lusted: So we found that most of our early adopters were small and medium-sized businesses that weren't too picky on what's going on the screen? So it would be hard to give out a content management system that's free that has all the bells and whistles as I said, so I think it was intentional. It's just like a backup plan. 

One thing we noticed in this industry is that there's a massive amount of supply in the market that is just a mom-and-pop shop with the TV turned off. So we're just trying to make it as simple as possible, like “Hey, here's this box. There are no monthly fees, plug it in and you're ready to go.” 

And if they opted for this, let's say I have a nail salon in a strip mall because every strip mall has a nail salon and they want to do this. How does it work? What do they get out of it? How do they use it? 

And in terms of what they get out of it, what kind of revenues would they see? Is it something that just is going to just pay for the TV in a lot of respects? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, sometimes. So basically if you use our full tech stack, you get the media player, plug it in just to HDMI and power, and then WiFi or Ethernet and then a free content management system that's cloud-based, the nail salon often puts up their own content on the screen, hours of operation, promotions, that good stuff, totally self-serve, and then we, just like almost any programmatic platform, we aim for a 30% fill rate with third-party ads that we're getting from our programmatic partners. 

Given the infancy and where we are with programmatic, some months we hit 30%, some months, we don't, depending on a whole bunch of variables. But the idea is that I think for a small mom and pop nail salon if you look at our data over the past 24 months, minus the closures, due to the pandemic, the average locations making about $50 to $70 a month in revenue that they wouldn't have gotten elsewhere.

And for a lot of businesses, that would be like, you know, who cares? But is that a meaningful number to these people? 

Doug Lusted: It is, and especially with COVID impacting a lot of the revenues of these businesses, they're hungry to figure out any way they can earn a couple extra bucks, and most of our clients aren't necessarily one-offs, they own 10 stores, they own 50 stores, and so when you start scaling it, it becomes a nice little incremental piece of business that doesn't require much work. 

One of the big challenges that I've seen through the years with these kinds of initiatives is, working with small to medium businesses is not terribly efficient. You've got to sell them one by one. You don't just go in and get an enterprise deal for a thousand locations or anything else. 

How do you deal with that side of it and how do you sell it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it's a great point. So in the very early days, our Guinea pigs, we were going door to door on these businesses directly. But now I would say 99% of our business is through the digital signage channels so digital signage distributors, smaller and medium place-based digital networks looking to go programmatic, and if you look at the adoption curve, it's similar to any company, start with the little guys and you start climbing up the chain. So we've taken that route and we're working on the channel right now. 

So using the example of the nail salon again, how would they find you then? Would it be through like a Synnex or Ingram Micro or something like that? I can’t imagine a nail salon knowing what Synnex is. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. So we do inbound marketing, right? So they'll probably find us online. But like I said, it's a small portion of our business, but they'd be able to find it through any of our paid campaigns, whether it be through Google ads, Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, etc. Word of mouth is probably our biggest channel, right? 

Somebody starts making money they didn't before and they want to tell their friends, they want to move it to the other properties they own. So organic's been a big one for the smaller customers. 

Yeah, and if they need it, you provide an $80 media player. So I guess if they make $50 to $70 a month, they pay for that thing pretty quickly. What is that? Is that a little Raspberry Pi or...? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is a Raspberry Pi with our firmware on it. It's got a couple of extra little components to it, like just some USB antennas and things of that nature, but under the hood, it's a Raspberry Pi. 

The analytical side of the business that you started with, is that bundled with this, and would a small business need it/use it? 

Doug Lusted: It is bundled with it, but it's generally hidden from the small businesses.

The reason why we need it is that we need to know what traffic is in front of the screen when ads play so that we know how much to bill these programmatic partners, everything's impression. 

Would a nail salon really need a big data platform to understand its user’s behaviors? Probably not. So we hide it, but it is built in there so that we can gauge traffic levels for our advertisers. 

So if I am the nail salon and I opt in, what am I using to update content and manage the thing? 

Doug Lusted: In terms of our content management system, they're logging in and uploading their own creative. We don't provide a designer tool or any type of creative tool ourselves. They just upload whatever they have. 

Okay, and they do it off the desktop or can they do it off mobile? 

Doug Lusted: They can do it on desktop or mobile. 

Specific app or is it just the web version of the website?

Doug Lusted: We have a specific app as well. So on mobile, we have an AdStash app. You can download and manage your digital signage network just through your phone if you'd like. 

I've always been curious about the mindset particularly of the small to the medium business world. By far, the most active blog post on 16:9 is one that lists all of the free software options out there.

Do you find that generally for small to medium businesses, digital signage is not a major core initiative of what they're doing, it's just something that maybe they can use, that there's a real resistance there to spending any monthly fees? 

Doug Lusted: I think so. We often A/B test this ourselves to test what is the bigger value prop, the ability to make money on programmatic ads or save money on subscriptions? It's really a mix of both, but the smaller players for sure are interested in anything that isn't going to be recurring, and we also have a lot of requests from the digital signage groups that they outsource this to. 

Like I said, our average user has got about a hundred screens. So this is generally something they've outsourced, they've told their digital signage partner, “Hey, you've heard of this free AdStash thing, check it out!”

Okay, and what's your installed base right now? 

Doug Lusted: So across North America, we have 70,000 screens. The US is a lot more dominant than Canada. We've seen some pretty exponential growth there. But in Canada, we've got about 6,000 screens and then the rest of the US.

Okay, and what do you figure you have to be at in terms of footprint to get something akin to critical mass? Or does it not really matter as much when it's programmatic? 

Doug Lusted: It doesn't matter as much when it's programmatic, and I think that's one of the huge attractions to it, especially for the medium size players.

If I've got a hundred screens, maybe 50 in Toronto, 50 in Montreal, that's not really big enough to attract a national campaign, but programmatically, by nature is grouping everybody together to try and attract a national campaign. So I think that's a really big thing. 

Most typically for these small business screen networks, it's hyper-local advertising. It's like the local injury accident lawyers and mortgage brokers and that sort of thing. What kind of advertising are you seeing on the screen? 

Doug Lusted: So given that we only do programmatic advertising, most I would say is national. Now we do have some local, right? The Calgary Stampede brought in a lot of local ads, even though like DoorDash will do a national campaign, they'll have custom creative or calls to action based on each local community. But for the most part, at least for now, we're seeing a majority of it nationally. 

And with the analytics that you're able to generate, what do you see or what are you learning about sites? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so traffic data is the most important for sure. Impressions or visits, right? Unique visits, dwell time and frequency are the big three per location. 

It's really interesting to see the dwell times. That's what I'm interested in because, during the pandemic, medical was really one of the only things that were open, and you can see our dwell time doubled so the average person sees twice as many ads. What does that mean? How is that going to affect things? 

So the most important thing right now is traffic. A lot of these exchanges, like HiveStack or BroadSign, have geofencing technology, so they can gather demographics on their own. We have that capability, but most of the time the exchanges say, “Hey, we got that covered.” 

With the rise through the years of computer vision for doing on-premise venue analytics, once in a while, something bubbles up and people get all freaked out about the idea that there's a camera looking at me. 

We've seen that a few times in Canada and it comes up elsewhere. What's the situation with your users when it comes to WiFi. Do they care? Are they alarmed in any way? Like they seem to be well on the camera side? 

Doug Lusted: Some of our bigger customers are, but we've been pretty proactive in being GDPR compliant. So from a consumer perspective, they don't see anything. They don't see a camera being pointed at them. There's a little box behind the TV that no one sees. So we don't really get any questions on the consumer side. 

From the actual kind of business side, yeah, just, are we GDPR compliant? Are we collecting any personally identifiable information, which we're not. 

Where are your servers? We get asked those questions a lot, but after they read through what we're doing with the data and they realize it's very anonymous, high-level traffic counting. We've never had any problems with it, and in fact, It's helped us in a lot of deals. Like we're an airport, and as I said before, we're in medical clinics where you can't put a camera. So we carved out a nice little segment of the market, where we seem to be dominating that market share, at least in Canada, just because of those regulations around those venues. 

Is it easier to compete with some of the other kinds of focused networks out there? Through the years, I've seen bar networks and hair salon networks and nail salon networks, and everything else. Because you're broadly based, you're not saying, “We're the guys for this.” Is it easier to sell into a broader diversity of businesses? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is. But it's also a little confusing because any other place-based digital network, in some sense, if they're on programmatic and not going through us, they're competitors. But on the other side, they're also prospects. So if it gets very confusing, okay, who's a competitor and who's a prospect who should we target? And there's a lot of his “frenemies” in space, and it's getting even more complicated as more and more programmatic platforms come into play.

When your resellers and channel are meeting with a company that has a hundred screens across a network, do they even get into what programmatic is and how it works or do they just say, put this in, we will sell the ads for you and it’ll start showing up within three, four weeks and you should see a check of $50 to $70. 

But I'm guessing they don't really want to understand, is this a demand side platform or supply side or any of that stuff? You're just basically saying it's like Google Adsense, it will just show up. 

Doug Lusted: Exactly. They don't get into all the nitty gritties.

You go into a nail salon and try to explain what a supply side platform and demand side platform are, it's probably not going to work out. 

It's getting more and more confusing as more and more are popping up. But yeah, it's basically, “Hey, we're going to install this new box to your TV, ads are going to show up hopefully and make some revenue”, and another thing is like a lot of our channel partners, they're selling ads directly themselves, not programmatic, just traditional direct sales. So a lot of the time, it's not just us who's responsible for revenue. We're just adding the icing on the cake. 

Okay. So that would be like the guy in your part of the world around Toronto, who's got some medical clinics and he's using your platform, but he would have direct sales as well that he could go to a medical equipment supplier or whatever, and say, “do you want to advertise on these?”

Doug Lusted: Exactly. So our agreement, with our customers, is that we have the exclusive rights over programmatic sales. 

We're going to connect you to all of the SSPs that we're partnered with and we're going to handle that relationship for you. That's the value we bring, but we're not shutting down your existing line of revenue when it comes to traditional sales.

And that's why you're talking about like a 30% fill rate that there should be this broad understanding that, “Hey guys, this isn't your sole answer if you're an ad network, this is part of your answer.” 

Doug Lusted: Exactly, and I think that's where we're at in the programmatic industry is this strange hybrid model, where we're putting a bed on and focusing on that or predicting that more of it will shift the programmatic as adoption increases across the industry. But right now, yeah, this isn't your only source of ad revenue. 

So I'm HiveStack and I'm working with you guys. What visibility do I have? Like what do I see when I'm trying to place an ad of some kind or drive a campaign across your screens? 

Doug Lusted: We try to be as transparent as possible. What you'll see is an address obviously, of where the screen is located, their analytics will tell you the type of audience that's in there. We'll provide you with the traffic counts that are in there. We even require our users, when they install a device to take a picture of the screen, so that you can actually see what the screen looks like and that it exists, and then you'll just obviously see the playback reporting o how many times did your ad play there and whatnot.

And I'm assuming the analytics side of that is increasingly important, even if it isn't to the venue, it is to the programmatic side? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think, anybody who's been in this industry for a while understands that that's one of the biggest bottlenecks of programmatic right now. There's not a clear winner of measurement. There are a whole bunch of different vendors, and we ourselves, as the digital signage industry are confused about it, which then makes it almost impossible for these programmatic exchanges to wrap their heads around it, or come up with any standards.

And I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, and one of the reasons why is, I think that we need to understand that there's going to need to be different methodologies and technologies to measure outdoor screens versus indoor screens. These are two very different things, I don't think one solution is going to be able to cover both. So we need to really think, how are we going to frame this, how are we going to put standards around it and take the time to educate these ad exchanges on how it's gonna work? 

Do you get pushback at all from, let's say some of the larger, more established to programmatic platforms saying, I don't know who you are, you're not big enough for me or anything else, or do they all look at this as more inventory and it's properly described and the analytics are available and so on. So, it doesn't bother me that it's a nail salon and it's not a major international airport?

Doug Lusted: So in the early days, we got pushback from programmatic exchanges because we didn't have that many screens, and it's that chicken and egg problem. So we went out and started building our supply base, and I would say now, we're one of the bigger players with 70,000 screens.

So they look at it and say, not necessarily, this is more screens, cause that's not always how they think, but they say, Hey, this more audience profiles. This is more traffic for us. 

And I assume all of your venues are data tagged every which way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So not only just what type of venue it's in and where it's located, but what size is the screen, what things are around it, there's a lot of data that's associated with it, and thankfully we are not tasked with having to have a UI for that, that the advertiser has to see, that's basically our programmatic partners job and that's not an easy one. 

Going back to the nail salon thing, I signed up for it and I'm running a set of nail salons, which is about as bizarre a thought as I can come up with. Who would do the data tagging for that? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we do all of that. So once you install the device, you do take a picture of your screen once it's done. We have a list of venues that you can select from a dropdown that is in accordance with the IAB standards. They just find and select a nail salon, which is one of them, and that's basically it. We do everything from there, everything is pretty much automated, 

So it's a free service. The obvious next question coming out of that is how do you make money? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So we take a commission only on the programmatic revenue that we bring to the table, that flows through our pipes. The commission depends on volume and how many screens you have, but that's how we make our money.

I think I saw the baseline was like 30%, and it scales down from there with the larger jobs? 

Doug Lusted: It does scale down, yeah. Sometimes it'll actually scale up depending if you're missing core components of technology.

So someone may say, “Hey I don't have this feature in the CMS, can you build it or can I have it?” And they'll say, yeah, but if you don't want to pay for the custom dev time, then the way we'll make our money back on that is maybe 35%. 

Even in that case, it wouldn't be fee-based, it would be built around the commission?

Doug Lusted: We're pretty flexible. Most of our customers have come to us because they don't want to pay fees. So it ultimately ends up being a commission, whether we like it or not. 

Is that just a concession to the realities of working with a small to the medium business world is that they would like to have this, they just don't want to pay for it. So let's work with them as opposed to just saying, “We won't work with you, goodbye!”

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think that's the whole notion of AdStash, and one of our big hypotheses is building this business as there are so many screens that are not being added to programmatic exchanges because they can't afford the technology that's required to do so. 

So whoever activates, all of those screens are going to own a huge portion of the supply in the market, and nobody's pulled up their sleeves and gone after that segment of the market because nobody wants to pay for anything. 

So was AdStash something, going back to 2013-2014, that you were thinking about, or is it just through the years you came to this realization, having worked with a lot of end-users that there's a hole in the market for this, we can build it and get there before somebody else does?

Doug Lusted: It was a bit of both. So when we were really focused on analytics back in 2014, we weren't thinking about it, but we heard rumblings of programmatic and we always thought to ourselves, audience measurement is great, but it's hard to tie return on investment to, especially if you're talking to a digital signage network, like, “why should I invest in in analytics, if I can't guarantee I'm going to get more ads?”

So we always thought, in the online world, advertisers demand it, and then so when we heard of programmatic coming down and we're like, wow, our data is actually going to be very valuable here and mandatory. So this is a good space for us to get into, and then we were just really early adopters of it, we started working with Campsite right when they started in Toronto and Montreal and it just escalated and we rode the wave. 

And how many programmatic platforms are you integrated with now? 

Doug Lusted: So right now we're live on 12. We've got a few contracts signed we're just finishing up integrations with, but as of today, we're on the 12th.

I'm not as close to programmatic as a lot of people seem to think I am. Twelve is what, like half of them out there, or my impression is 12 is like 1% of them. 

Doug Lusted: So it's a little complicated. There are SSPs and DSPs. The DSPs, yeah, there are 80 of them out there, but not all of them are doing digital out-of-home advertising, only a small fraction of them are.

What we're doing is aggregating all of the SSPs into one link, the supply side, the supply-side ones that actually do digital out of home. There are tons of supply-side platforms out there that you can join your website, but for digital out-of-home, there aren't that many out there yet. So I would say, of the active ones right now, we have a large majority of them. 

Tell me about the business. You founded it. Is it completely bootstrapped, self-funded or have you been involved with private equity or VC companies? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we're VC-backed. So in 20014 ish, when we were just doing the analytics, we raised a small seed round, and we went through an accelerator in Silicon valley called 500 Startups, and then when we launched AdStash, we raised a second round of funding, a bigger round of funding to help push this product. 

Where are you at in terms of the size of the company? 

Doug Lusted: So right now, we're at 13 and growing. It's been unique for us during the pandemic, we’ve done fully virtual and we were hiring during the pandemic too. So it's been interesting to have a team with some members you've never met before. We were surprised to figure out that some of our employees are like 6’4”. We had no idea they were like these big people, so it's been a unique experience, but a majority of our team is software developers. 

We're not a heavily focused sales and marketing organization because that's what our programmatic partners do for us. They're doing all the sales. So of that 13, the majority of them are software developers.

And we were talking before we turned on the recorder that you moved from downtown Toronto to the burbs. Based on the last year and a half, are you concluding that, hey, we don't really need a physical office or any of those things? Maybe we have a kind of virtual rented office and a mailbox kind of thing and it'll do because so many tech companies have gone that way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. Speaking on behalf of our company, I don't think we need an office. We like to do monthly hangouts where we'll all meet somewhere. Just rent an office for a day and talk strategy and whatnot. But when it comes to the day-to-day operations, we don't need an office. Again, software developers, most of the time, are locked away coding, they don't really need an office. 

They don’t want to talk to other humans anyways. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, as long as they have a kitchen nearby, things are good. So for us, we'll keep doing the virtual way.

That being said, it has presented interesting scenarios in terms of culture. It's very hard to build a company culture virtually, there's only so many things you do. So that's why we really like to implement at least monthly hangouts where the whole team comes together in person and does something to try and build that culture.

That is what's probably important to keeping virtual employees nowadays, because if they can get a new job without having to move and just simply saying yes, you gotta build that company culture to want to entice them to come work for you every day. 

Yeah. It would be pretty easy to leave if you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the people you're working with. You don’t know how tall they are. (Laughter)

This has been great. Just a quick question. If people want to know more, where do they find AdStash? I'm guessing, it's AdStash.com. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. AdStash.com. Best way to get us. 

All right. Thanks a bunch. 

Doug Lusted: Thanks, I really appreciate you having us on.

 

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

August 4, 2021

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

There have been numerous traditional sign companies that have, through the years, developed a sense of their ground shifting, and responded by adding a digital component to their business. A lot of the time, it hasn't worked out so hot, because it's just too far outside what a company knows and does. But sometimes it works, as is the case with Dimensional Innovations.

The Kansas City company nicely straddles physical and digital components to jobs, bolstering the idea that having both skillsets, and mindsets, under the same roof is going to work better than sub-contracting.

DI, for short, does projects all over the U.S., in particular, and while it has some especially active vertical markets, its work serves all kinds of different use-cases. DI does a lot of pro and college sports venue work, but it also does experiences for museums, hospitals and retail.

I had an interesting chat with Chris Riebschlager, who runs the company's software efforts.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining me. Can you tell me what your company does? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely. So Dimensional Innovations started in the late 90s as a signage company, making just traditional signs, and in the time between the late 90s and now, the company has grown to include custom fabrication of all kinds and in the last six and seven years, we've added a really big technology practice to that. 

So in addition to building and fabricating and designing spaces, also activating those spaces with interesting technology, that's hopefully beautiful and useful and makes spaces better. 

Where's the company based? 

Chris Riebschlager: The company is based in Kansas City. 

But you have offices elsewhere, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we have folks that live and work in LA, Atlanta, Minneapolis, a few in Colorado. So yeah, we got a presence all over the United States.

All right, and are those offices or are those like home offices and that the big epicenter is Kansas City? 

Chris Riebschlager: The epicenter is certainly in Kansas City. The other offices are focused a lot on project management and sales for the projects that we are working on and supporting in those locations, but yeah, the heart of it's here in KC.

It’s interesting. There's been a number of traditional print companies that have taken a look at the digital signage space and tried to get in it and for the most part, have not been very successful because it's just too different from what they normally do. What's been the difference with you? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think the way we approach spaces, I think lends well to activating those spaces with both digital signage and more immersive tech installations.

I think when we approach a new project, it's really about getting inside the head of the person that is in that space. Why they're there, what they're doing there, what's important to them, what's in the front of their mind when they're in a space like that? So we had been satisfying those needs with built environmental stuff and I think it's a natural pivot to then say, what technology could help this person accomplish what they need to accomplish or make this space better or make a bad experience much better. 

So you're already fabricating physical materials to make a space interesting, and digital allows you to introduce a different kind of material and make it active and so on, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely, and I think part of what makes us special is that we are doing this from both sides, right? Both the fabricated and design side, but also the tech side. So I think if you can have that happening on one team, I think the end product always ends up better because, when I have to sit down at the table with a person who's going to build the thing, they understand what I needed to do, I understand what they needed to do, and I think that hand in hand tight integration just makes for better stuff. 

And you run the software team. Am I getting that right? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is correct. 

Okay, and how big is that team? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have six developers right now. We also have a 3D team that kind of has branched off from my software dev team. They focus on 3D modeling and animating, and also some of the game engine development stuff that we've been getting into with Unreal. 

Oh, cool, and if you had to guess, I realize you're not the COO or anything, but you have some sense of what the split is of your business, between analog stuff and digital stuff, is it like 60:40 and has it evolved? 

Chris Riebschlager: I’d probably flip that split, so maybe a 40% and then 60% goes to the physical build-out. 

The blend there is kind of fuzzy. It's not all one or the other, usually in client engagement, there's a big fabricated, a big build-out that we're injecting technology into so that the borders between those two are pretty fuzzy.

And that's how it should happen, right? 

Cause God knows I've been involved in projects or being exposed to projects where it's all about the digital side of it, and they get fixated on that without thinking about the whole experience and the whole look and feel of it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely.

Ideally, I don't want a person walking into a space that we made and seeing a hard delineation between what is a physical built-out piece, and what's a digital add-on to that space. They should all feel very cohesive and family together in a way that makes sense holistically, and we're not picking apart digital activation and physical activation.

And I guess it's helpful that because your company comes out of the physical background that you're not having to rely on third-party fabrication companies to build that side of it. You can control the whole bill of materials, so to speak. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely, and that's huge, especially when we're trying to make something that no one's ever seen before. You really need that tight integration between the physical engineering team and the software engineering team, because silly things like mounting a camera, having access to that camera, and knowing where cables need to run, etc. The tighter integration you can get between the person building the thing and the person who knows where those wires need to run, that's only going to end in better projects. 

Yeah. You start embedding display technology into a physical enclosure. If you have no experience around that, you don't know about things like ventilation and then you have big problems. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, and at this point, we've run into all of those things. We've had all the problems. So at this point, we've hit our stride and now we have solved all those ones and do not worry about them anymore. 

Yeah, which is very helpful, I'm sure. One of the things that were intriguing to me is with a lot of companies I talked to, they sorta have a defined vertical or maybe one or two verticals and that, like they're active in hotels or they're active in retail, whatever it may be, and I look at your kind of portfolio of projects and it's like all over the place. 

You're doing sports stadiums, you're doing work for college athletic teams, but you are also doing work for children's hospitals and museums. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. We do have some verticals that we do specialize in. Stadiums being a big one, college athletics, being a big one, children's hospitals and zoos being another. 

Also, there are corporate environments like corporate headquarters. We do a lot of client experience centers, just the big immersive environments that usually are attached to a corporate headquarters where they can tour clients through and show their product offerings in a compelling and interesting way.

We're hopefully coming out of a pretty rough year and a half in terms of what's been going on and things like particularly the sports industry kind of being “on hold” as well as some college athletics, but the workplace has bubbled up. 

Has business shifted in that time?

Chris Riebschlager: I wouldn't say shifted. The last year forced us to reevaluate some of the things we were doing and the things we were adding to spaces and being a little bit more mindful of, as things opened back up, how are people going to want to interact with things in a space? Are they going to want to touch things? Are we going to need to figure out ways for people to interact without physically engaging with this stuff? 

I don't think our core business changed at all, but the last year was a really interesting opportunity to reevaluate how these interactions work in these spaces. 

Yeah. You have a product or service or something called DIVE, which is Dimensional Innovations Virtual Experiences. What is that all about and how has it resonated with the people you're talking to? 

Chris Riebschlager: So the genesis of that was, early in 2020, we were starting - before COVID hit - we had planned a lot of client experience on our work with a few clients where we were going to install a bunch of new spaces that would serve in that client experience center capacity, where we're touring clients through and showing off-in an immersive environment type of way-product offerings, and since that was now off the table for 2020, we had to pivot into, okay, how do we provide that same experience and have that same docent or client-led multi-person experience, but in a way that isn't going to require someone to fly to a place and go into a building that is going to be closed for an indefinite amount of time.

So we started messing around with some video conferencing technology and experimenting with ways to take that same content that we had running in a theater or large screen experience in the space and how to use that same content, those same ideas, that same spirit, and put it into an experience where a docent kit can invite a dozen or more people to a website where we're all seeing each other in video and they're able to tour people through these immersive environments, show content and throw up polls and questions, and different points of engagement there. So the same things that would be happening in that space, just distributed to everyone's devices, wherever they are. 

Have you seen much take-up on that?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. I think as people got burned out on Zoom, mid-2020, people were looking at and going, okay, this is fine. The utility of it is there, it's great. But there's gotta be something more we can do with this technology. 

Like, if we can get everyone live audio and video between a bunch of people, there's gotta be more engaging things we can do with that. So I think as people started to push those edges, that was really appealing to people to be able to have what we had in DIVE, which is a way to craft a more immersive environment for those people to be in and have a little bit more interesting points of engagement than just sharing your screen and have a routine when looking at a PowerPoint or whatever.

It seems a little bit like the virtual trade shows that of course came up like crazy in the past year and a half. How does it differ from that? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think the main focus of DIVE is really just that custom content. The framework is Zoom-like. We have a video and audio connection. That's the solved problem.

The more interesting thing in new client engagement with DIVE is, what are we going to do now that we have basically the entire web stack and everything you can do on a website, everything you can do with live audio and video, what are we going to do content-wise, in a compelling way to show, offer, to communicate the message that we want to communicate?

And now that we're seeing physical trade shows and people are getting on airplanes and flying to go see clients and go to experience centers and do that sort of thing. Does your company see DIVE as something that was an interim measure and you put it back in the closet or has it got long-term legs?

Chris Riebschlager: I think it has long-term legs. I think there are ways that it could be a supplement to what we're already doing in the built-out space, we’ve thought of incorporating it, even in a client experience center, where we have a bunch of people we've invited into the space, they're still maybe subject matter experts or people that we'd want to bring into this experience that couldn't fly in, or we want them there every day. We could use the same technology to put that person up on his screen. So we can say, “Now we're going to talk to Todd about X YZ, and now Todd's in that space. He's thousands of miles away, but now he's in this environment with us.” 

So I think there are ways we could incorporate that same tech to enhance and supplement the stuff that we're doing in the building.

I obviously follow a lot of what goes on in digital signage and innovations and new ideas and so on, and what I saw in the past year and a half, is some great stuff, but also a number of times where it really seemed like companies were just trying to find something that they could get attention for and that they could sell at a time when their traditional products were not really moving. And I would see efforts to do gesture-based interaction, like touchless displays and QR codes, and I was looking at something on LinkedIn yesterday that was like a live person on camera with her being replicated as an avatar, and I looked at it and thought why are they doing that? I don't want to see something that looks like something out of a Japanese anime cartoon. If this person looks presentable, put her on the screen. 

So what has worked and what do you see as being effective and what is just eye candy that gets a client excited for 10 minutes?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. So early in 2020, we'd decided to pivot on some of our touch activations. We obviously wanted to find a non-touch way to do those. So we did dive into the whole process of moving the interface to the user’s phone methods, like just hitting a website via QR code on the display, and that I think is going to be something that now that we have that kind of locked and loaded, something that we can add as a value-add to existing projects.

So in the future, if people aren't going to be a little bit more cautious about what they touch in public space, that's always going to be an option. I don't think touch is going away certainly. I think that's going to be. always in the mix, but now that we were forced to solve that problem at the moment, I think that's going to be a really great way to value-add the work that we do moving forward.

I think your creative designers probably found that there are certain applications and in situations where that works well and others where it doesn't because I've seen pitches for stuff where just for us to snap a QR code and launch the controls on your phone and stand right in front of the display and do all that and I'm just thinking, just touch the damn display and use hand sanitizer after it's going to be a lot easier. So where does it best work? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think it's really contextual to the project. So with something that's really content-heavy, where we need a lot of information from the user to present back to them, something that they want.

For example, we do a lot of work with athletic departments where they want a way for everyone to see every athlete that had attended that school, and that usually involves some texts century and text century is usually best done with a keyboard or onscreen keyboard, and with that level of interaction, yes, you can offload that to a phone, but there's a point where you get diminishing returns with that. Getting someone to take out their phone, scan a code, and then go to the site, that's asking a lot of a person in a space like that where they really aren't in that mode of paying that much attention. So for that, I think for the foreseeable future, I think we're gonna keep moving the UI to the user's device as an option but I think a lot of that is just going to still happen on screen, but there's a lot of interactions that we do that are a lot lighter touch. So motion-driven interactives where we're using a connector or a camera to find human bodies in the space and the interaction is just driven by their emotion. I think for that level of thing, that's largely unchanged. 

And there's no learning curve? It's just triggering something because it's picking up that there's something there. 

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly.

Is the learning curve important? Cause I think I've said this a number of times on different podcasts. I call a lot of these gesture-based systems that you see in public spaces like malls and transit stations and so on, I call them stupid people tricks because you're asking people to do things that are except for the extroverts, it's embarrassing and it takes awhile and may not work, and there's a subset of people-mostly kids-who would find that exciting, but most adults would go, “No, I'm not doing that.”

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. As you said, kids get it immediately. There's no learning curve with kids with these motion-based interactions. They mess around with it until they just get it, and then they're off to the races. 

So there are well-established UI patterns with everything else that we interact with in a given day, like the phone, the computer, we all get how that stuff works. When we're presenting something entirely new to people, I think to get them over that learning curve and to get them over that curve quickly, I think it's just a matter of making it as simple as possible. 

Like with Kinect-based installations, I hate introducing the idea of menus there, because we're thinking in terms of a mouse and a cursor. I think we need to take that off the table when we're talking about gestures. You're not there to point and select things. Let's think about different ways that you can use your body as this user interface that isn't just trying to copy-paste a mouse interaction or a keyboard interaction. 

Yeah and stop thinking about Minority Report.

Chris Riebschlager: Oh my gosh, Minority Report ruined my life when that came, out because that was the expectation. Just make it look like it was in the movie, right? 

No, and you don't want that by the way. 

Chris Riebschlager: It looks cool but in practice, it just leads to tears. 

On the company website, you’ve got a pretty robust resource section and blog posts and so on, and you've written a couple of pieces around generative art. What does that mean to you and how is it applied? 

Chris Riebschlager: So art is something that's really important to me, and it's one of the things that I'm just not very good at. Like I cannot draw to save my life, but I can program. I can write really decent software and I've found a way to create art that's interesting to me by using the tools, the software, and the frameworks that people smarter than me have created. 

So generative art, I think is a really interesting way to explore ways of art-making that are a collaborative practice between you and a computer. It's like, I'm setting up some rules about what I want to happen. I set the computer to go follow those rules and make something interesting and present it back to me, and maybe I like it, maybe I don't, but that back and forth between the computer and me, is just a really interesting art making practice to me. 

In the context of installations in corporate buildings, public buildings, airports, and so on, how is it applied and what do you need to think about? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think there's a lot of things to consider. In past projects, I think a lot of the creative direction comes from existing artwork in this space. So we did some work with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and they had already been working with an artist in the Netherlands, I believe and his work was just in the primary colors, blue, yellow, and red. So we knew we had a palette to work with. There is a lot of previous work already installed in the space so what we added to that space was just an interactive version of what was already happening there. So it was a familiar as well which was already existing there. But I think that's the primary consideration. What makes sense in that space? What other artwork does this need to live with? 

But also I think an interesting way to approach this is what other inputs do we have available? If it's a lobby, do we have the motion of people? Do we have traffic data or weather data, or any interesting data from the country that we're working with that could be incorporated into this piece, that could present some meaningful message through the work? I think there are so many fun opportunities there to incorporate live data in and present that back to people in a beautiful and compelling way. 

When I have conversations about data visualizations or generative art, I ask the question and I'll ask it again, does it matter, when you talk about data inputs, does it matter that the viewers understand that this is why this is changing because the weather has changed or the winds stronger or whatever it may be, or does it just need to be visually pleasing?

Chris Riebschlager: It really depends on the client's expectation there. To me, you take work like a Refik Anadol, right? His work is ostensibly data-driven. If I look at one of his pieces, I have no idea what data is being presented to me and what it actually means. It looks amazing, but I have no idea. I mean he could just tell me that it’s data-driven and I just have to take his word on it. 

Yeah. I know the Charlotte airport, for instance, he uses things like baggage handling data and things like that on this giant display. But I think like a fraction, 1% of the people walking by would know that's why it's doing what it's doing.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, and that could be a pre-rendered video and no one would ever know. But I think there are ways of incorporating those ideas into meaningful representations of that data. So the ways we've done that in the past are we did a lobby screen in Atlanta that was right next to a transit stop for a train and the idea was we have the actual transit information for that stop, like the next train arriving in five minutes on the screen. So that's one layer of this piece, but the bigger portion of the screen is given up to this flock of birds, and they're very calm and very chill when there's not a train arriving. And then as the train is approaching, they get more active. There's more happening on screen. 

So we have the literal data that you need and also some supplemental, beautiful, interesting thing to show that is connected to that day. To me personally, drawing a clear connection between what's happening on screen and the data we're trying to represent is very important to me.

Yeah. It reminds me of an ad on just like a digital poster in a subway platform, I think in Stockholm or something like that, and they did this very clever thing where you would have a model in the poster and as a subway train approached, her hair started to fall back and then, when the subway was coming into the station, she was in a wind tunnel and then she calmed down. I thought that's very clever. That's driven by data and triggers and everything else, and it's not quite generative art, but it's the same kind of thing. There's a relationship between what's happening and what you see.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, yeah. 

For the company, what are some projects that people who are listening to this would be familiar with?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, my gosh, locally here in Kansas City, we have a project that when people ask me where I work, I always say do you know the big books in the library garage downtown? We made those. So it's a parking structure next to the library downtown in Kansas City that we did and it's basically to make it look like a huge bookshelf and it's a really cool landmark here in Kansas City. 

Is that an analog thing or is there a digital thing? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is just an analog. 

Okay, and in terms of digital ones, I think he did something with a big torch or something in a stadium? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we did. We just installed what is the largest 3D printed structure in North America, certainly, and I think the world for the Las Vegas Raiders. So we created the Al Davis Memorial torch, which they had in Oakland at a small, maybe 15-foot tall torch, and we wanted to create just a huge monument in the new stadium to that. So through our L Sam large-scale additive manufacturing machine, which is essentially just a carwash size 3D printer, we created a huge torch sculpture. I think it's 90 feet tall and has eliminated LED structure in the center to represent the flame, and it's just a remarkable, amazing piece that made the news. 

I think it's transparent LED or LED mesh? 

Chris Riebschlager: I don't think it's a LED mesh. It's LED in that metal structure that they basically made a flame form that goes in the torch and then eliminated that from within. 

Have you done any big corporate lobbies and things like that with giant video walls where you're developing content for them?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, absolutely. A couple that comes to mind and we just did one last year for State Farm in their headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. Overall, I think it's a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot space that is like a monument, a museum to  State Farm history, which has a century-long history, a lot of artifacts, a lot of video and audio content. It's a really amazing space. We recreated the office of the original founders, and then created an interactive where you can explore around the space and find out like, this is the pen that was actually used to sign the initial corporate contract or whatever, and as part of that, there's also an immersive theater in the center that lets you play different videos that kind of unpack the history of State Farm.

Yeah, and that's a company like Geico, that's trying quite hard with its marketing and everything to not be just boring insurance company? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. Insurance can be a pretty dry topic, but we tried to make it as interesting as possible. 

My son is in insurance. (Laughter) We can talk a lot about it but I don't want to get him in trouble. 

Chris Riebschlager: It’s a very fascinating and very important industry.

It's an amazing industry. 

With the company right now, what are some projects that over the next 6 to 12 months we should be looking for that you’re allowed to talk about? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have a lot of activities going on at the new SoFi stadium in Los Angeles, which is going to be the new home of the Rams and Chargers. So if you haven't seen images of that stadium, it is absolutely bananas. It's got what is the biggest Oculus LED screen? 

Yeah, the giant Halo, the Samsung screen. 

Chris Riebschlager: This is absolutely massive, and it's an amazing space to have the opportunity to install some work in. So we have some work for different brand activations in that space. So one of the big ones is the YouTube theater, which is a performance venue, as far as the stadium that we did a large LED wall on the outside of that theater and also a YouTube icon, a structural YouTube icon in the Plaza in front of the theater that we have the LED screen in that is going to function as a magic mirror. It’s just fun, interesting, “look at me, I'm up there” and look at all kinds of crazy things, but also show off a YouTube content creator stuff and highlighting the content creators. 

I'm sure the people in LA are excited about the concept of actually going to a football game that has the full capacity as we get healthy. 

Chris Riebschlager: For sure. 

All right, Chris, thank you so much for taking some time with me today. I really appreciate it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely. Thank you.

 

 

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

July 21, 2021

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

While the people who wake up in the morning thinking about digital signage fully understand and appreciate the value and importance of great, effective creative, there are lots of end-users who don't quite get that part of it - and still think of display projects as AV technology exercises.

It's particularly true with large format display jobs - which are being green-lighted all the time based on lots of discussion around pixel pitch, scale and cost, but almost none about what will be on the display.

Alberto Scirocco is the Founder and Creative Director of the motion and design studio leftchannel, which is technically based in Ohio, but is largely virtual. His office, for example, is on the Italian Riviera. Poor fella.

I had a chat with Scirocco about the Wild West nature of the business, when it comes to design. We had a great conversation about  what makes displays interesting and engaging, and how the good ones have a function.

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TRANSCRIPT

Alberto, thanks for joining me. You’re off in Italy!

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that's right. I am in Italy right now. 

Can you tell me the background about leftchannel? 

Alberto Scirocco: We started leftchannel about 20 years ago and at the beginning, we just started as a motion design studio, so a more traditional format at the time. Did a lot of advertising, music videos, film titles, and a lot of our gigs were really artistic execution, and then, in the course of time, through the years, we've become more and more involved in actually crafting some of the messages that we're animating and putting in motion, and it's been an interesting road, and of course, markets change in a lot of different ways and technologies have changed in lots of different ways, and one of the things that have been interesting for us has been adapting to all the new stuff and we have an experimental nature.

I come from industrial design and fine art, and so I'm always gonna have this foot in both camps of being engineer minded, but also have a real passion for really expressive artistic work, and in the last several years, we have been being more and more focused on really trying to apply strategy to design and making sure that we were doing stuff that's useful and not just pretty.

This would be more motion, graphic design than video editing? 

Alberto Scirocco: Correct. We end up having to do a lot of production, but generally, our focus is design, and so when we do production it is because it's part of a piece that we'll have design and animation within it. 

I'm guessing if you've been at this for 20 years, that the demand to do things on screens has grown quite a bit because 20 years ago, digital signage was one of those things where you had to explain what it was. Now, there are so many screens out there and there are so many large format displays where it moves away from just being messaging to experientially engaging stuff where you really have to think about the creative. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. I think that's part of what motivated this conversation is exactly the fact that, as you mentioned, signage used to have a very practical, very pragmatic mindset, you think about billboards and advertising and there's a very clear function of what those things are for. For a while now, screens have appeared in a lot of different places and it's bringing a lot more functions to the table, a lot more opportunities of what screens can do and some of them are really quite powerful, and so yeah, the demand has grown quite a bit. The nature of the request has grown quite a bit, because like you said, I think when I first started there were jumbotrons, and you were doing pixel animation, stuff that looked like 80s video games on this gigantic screen. So they were very delineated into what they were trying to do. 

But now it's wide open. You have art installations, you have places that completely define placemaking, completely defined by the screen and the experiences inside. So, it's a pretty exciting time. I have to say for this type of work. 

You're doing in Italy. leftchannel, I believe is based in Ohio, but you're virtual and you work around the globe, right? 

Alberto Scirocco: That's exactly right. We have people from all over and also when we were very much in Ohio, we still didn't work in our geographical area. So we’ve always done national, international work just because the nature of the work is unique, and so it's attracting people from all over. 

In the context of digital signage and large format display, what are some of your projects that people listening might be familiar with?

Alberto Scirocco: I think there were a couple of Times Square videos that are likely to have seen something we did for Disney and Exotica which were very visible and that stuff folds down that category of the more traditional type of work that you would think, but it's very noticeable, it's really big and flashy and you're really competing for eyes, but it was really fun, project because of the fact of combining animation, obviously they're very illustrative look and then very graphic components and having to support Exotica and the product and advertising. So we love things like that, briefs like this, where there's lots of complicated stuff that need to come together. That's stuff that we get really excited about. 

Have you done much in the way of permanent installations, like the creative for permanent ones? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, there's actually a couple of large corporate pieces we have done for companies, which is also a very exciting and interesting field for us.

Once again, we tend to get involved in a lot of different things, but there was a common thread and the common thread is trying to build something that does something. I know that it doesn't seem like much, but it was actually the real thought behind it. We really love work that has a functional quality and sometimes even artistic pieces have a very functional quality, right? I refer frequently to the Samsung screen in Korea, which I'm sure you're familiar with, and it's interesting because some of that work obviously feels very artistic, but it has a great effect on that area. It defines that place completely. 

So there is a function to it and the function is not always directly advertising, which is actually one of the issues that I have sometimes in industry is how to directly focus on advertising. A lot of this signage is missing some of your opportunity, but yeah, we've done some large installations on corporate buildings. And like I said, that's also a very interesting field sometimes because you're trying to create something that is doing something for the audience, and so it's entertaining and interesting, it defines space, it does something for people passing by. It's still telling a story of a company and there's lots of different ways that you can do that. Sometimes it's a very explicit story, but sometimes it's just a complete composition of impressions as well. 

If I look on your portfolio page on the experiential side, I see did the Sheraton Dallas and Verizon stores and things like that. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah. So it's a very broad spectrum.

The Sheraton was a very fun project. We're still engaged in the project, we visit to refresh their content from time to time. Very interesting placement of these two structures that are wrapped with screens because being on the doorway, they have this almost like arch triumph feel, right, where they are greeting people on the way in but they're also are still addressing all the people on the inside, from the bar and restaurant inside the lobby. And so they have a dual function, so it's really interesting to create work that has that impactful effect on people that come in. But it also has an ambient peaceful environment feeling for the people that are on the inside. So yeah, that's been an extremely fun project.

We're actually rolling out a couple of new modules for that in the next couple of months. 

Your managing director, Candy, I was trading emails with her and she was saying how experiential is in something of a Wild West phase. What do you guys mean by that? 

Alberto Scirocco: If you think about advertising, in its infancy, there was a lot of defining what advertising could do and then if you fast forward all the way to today, there is a science to advertising. There's a lot of things that are just so clearly defined to the point that, unfortunately, there are also expectations on both ends, right? You just know how certain things are gonna look and sound, but it's because there's clarity of how people react to things and what works.

And in truth, there's always creative space in every place. But when something gets very refined and it's not in infancy anymore after a while, there's just a little bit less space. But digital signage is really in a sense in its infancy, there are still firsts that are coming out. And people are going at it in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they're going at it a little backward. So there's a lot of people that, for example, will look at a space and they'll say, we need a screen there, and that seems to make sense, because they're looking at in terms of hardware, “let's put an opportunity there” but obviously, the screen is just an opportunity. It's just an empty potential, and when people walk by a screen, they don't see a screen, they just see what's on the screen, and so it's odd how a lot of these installations are basically being done that way, without a real strategy of the necessary hat are we trying to do with this space, what do we want people to see? And then sourcing the technology that supports it. 

I know there are really a lot of situations where people are saying we're going to put something there and somebody will figure out what goes on. 

Yeah I've heard stories. I remember a friend of mine, who's a creative director for a digital shop in the Toronto area saying he got a call one day from an AV integrator who had put up a big LCD video wall somewhere, and the guy was asking, “Do you have any content we could put on this thing because we're lighting it up today?” Michael, my friend, was on the other end of the phone, just looking at the phone call going, “What the hell?” 

Alberto Scirocco: That actually happens a lot. You mentioned that and I know it seems crazy and I think to most people listening to this, it might seem like a very odd thing, but it actually happens so much that people contact us and ask us for blank content to have for those situations, just generic stuff to fill screens. So it's a little bit crazy, right? If you imagine that movie theaters did that, they just put up screens and, speaking of that, I tend to make this kind of comment, when's the last time you told somebody to go down to the theater to have a great new projector? 

People are very unaware of the technology and technology is transparent to the user. At the same time, I get it because I understand how people, especially coming for real estate, feel like if we had something here, they didn't want to lose that potential, and because, as I said, this is a little bit far west, because it is a little bit lost. Right now you can go to a number of people to have a conversation about creating an experience. You could be talking to an architect and that kind of makes sense. You could be talking to a company like us, a video company, you can be talking to a hardware manufacturer, you can talk to an integrator. So there are lots of different people you could be interfacing with and obviously, they're all coming from a different position.

You go to Best Buy to buy a TV, you walk out with a TV. There is an understanding that there's content out there you're going to see. Similarly, with subscriptions, the content is a given, and so with the same mindset, you go out, you buy a gigantic screen, maybe it's just an ultra-widescreen, and all of a sudden there's really nothing for that thing out there. That has to be made by somebody, and for us, sometimes that's amusing and entertaining because somebody hands you a very weird form, and then we suddenly have to figure out, who's here, what is the story, what kind of mindset there and how long ago as well, like we have to visit in reverse trying to figure out what we can make with space, and t, that can be fun for designers, but as you can imagine there was an opportunity in kind of planning things if possible.

You mentioned being somebody who has an affinity for things that have a function to them, do big experiential/engaging displays need to have a point, or is it enough to be wow factor/eye candy? 

Alberto Scirocco: I don't know that I can make such a blank statement. In my opinion, there's always a point, that is the point. I’m in Italy right now, which is where I'm from. There's a lot of art, a lot of public art. There's also a lot of decorated places. So most buildings are decorated, most gates are decorated. You just grew up with this idea that wherever you lay your eyes, there's going to be something pretty. Somebody is taking the time to decorate it, and but there's also a lot of functional spaces out there, especially modern spaces that tend to be very functional.

There's just a certain sense of what a strip mall looks like, and it's a very undecorated place, right? There are a lot of very pragmatic places. Certainly, something that is just pretty and the spectacle can really do quite a bit for space and that's a function, making something beautiful is definitely a function. So when I say function, I don't mean that automatically it is creating schedules or whatever, but the point that I make is that, if you are trying to make a place interesting, then maybe advertising is not the right thing to do with that space.

And for example, there's actually an airport that I won't mention. They went through a

very large renovation and part of the renovation, they put these two gigantic screens and all to do is show advertising and it's almost like an intentionally designed strategy to make people ignore the two biggest screens on earth because when you think about it, I don't know, there's a bigger softball than people in the airport. People are just bored and pretty much everything you're doing, the airport is waiting. So you're waiting in line, then you go wait in another line, and if you have nobody in line, you are just simply waiting, and so it'd be pretty easy to entertain those people, but that's the one thing that we have gotten really good at doing is not looking at advertising, and a hundred percent of retiring programming is really not a good use of that space, and so then it's a whole lot of people that are wasting a lot of opportunities. 

Is there a monetization model for this sort of thing where it is experiential as visually interesting, but you're doing something that's going to pay for this what is still pretty expensive tech? 

Alberto Scirocco: I think there are lots of them, I think there are lots of different ones. If you have a mall and more people are coming, that has value, and so there’s a monetization for the children area in the mall clearly iins the fact that you're creating traffic, you're attracting people who can spend time. So there's really a lot of monetization strategies and for a lot of different situations, and that's what I mean by function. Those are those situations where you can have that conversation and say, what is it that we want in this case?

I think sometimes people fall into that trap of directly monetizing something and then say we're just going to sell space. But that's not automatically something that is going to work. So sometimes you have to be a little bit more strategic about really what do we want out of this space and how is that going to be functional for us? And sometimes, traffic, the quality of the experience of the viewer. You think about theme parks and theme parks are money machines in a lot of different forms, right? People pay at the door to get in and everything in there is expensive, and then they're just gigantic shops but people are enjoying themselves. And so that's the point. You're trading something for something you've giving the audience, and you're charging them for it, and I think everybody's very comfortable with that. We all don't mind paying for it. That's a good win-win, consumers are comfortable with it.  So I think if you make a space worth people's times and people having a good experience then they're okay rewarding you, by spending their money on your experience as the product you offer.

So I think that's really what it comes down to. You're trying to make sure that it's a dialogue between two groups, and so you want to give the audience something that fits with their story. So where they are, where they're trying to do in this specific place, that makes sense for where they are and people are rewarding you.

So when you engage with a new customer or maybe re-engage with an existing one, what's the process? How do you sit down and set the intention for the project? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that's a varied answer because the customers are coming from lots of different places, and so sometimes you have people that come to the table with nothing. They just know that for example, I have a property and they want to embellish it or they want to create something that will give a sense of value or sometime they'll have a property and the city is asking them to invest in art and that's it, and they have to invest some percentage. So there are lots of different agendas, but you also have marketing teams and insights who have a very clear sense of what they're trying to do.

And it varies quite a bit, so it depends on really what people bring to the table. So when people have no real idea what they're trying to do, we try to take a really broad approach and explore the opprtunity, understand the space, understand the audience of the center, who could be there, who is there, what will be good for them? It's essentially a design thinking exercise, as you can imagine, it's just really clearly understanding who we are on our end and meaning us as the client, and so understanding, what they offer, what they can do that is positive and obviously, what they have to gain and then the same, do the same thing for the audience and then try to draw vectors, trying to understand really what's a place where both groups can overlap in a natural way and it translates into the design.

When you’re producing content for a client, how does the conversation go when you're talking about the sustainability, the shelf life of the piece? Because I've seen lots of work that looks fantastic, but it's there too long. It becomes stale dated. 

Alberto Scirocco: That's right, and that also changes greatly because it changes, based on how frequently people go to a place.

Going back to the example of theme parks, sometimes some of those experiences stay for a really long time, because you're not just going there every day, and so you might experience it twice in the arch of seven-eight years, and so it doesn't quite get old. But you put something in front of a mass transit terminal, like a subway and the same people now are going over twice a day or two, four times a day, every day, and now it's quite different, and again that's what really comes down to what we're talking about. So really understand the situation, understand the use. And then of course there's always the component of finance. What makes sense financially? 

So if the frequency is important, then you have to be creative about creating content that has an ability to change frequently, and as you said, that really is an application of the space or the use. They're all different. But that's something that definitely figures. We definitely try to be really focused on that as well. How frequently refreshes, how refreshes are going to come together and, is there going to be a need for drastically changing the content, because maybe it is like an array of different pieces, or is there a story that gets to be evolved? We have some corporate clients where we're busily redoing or modifying the piece every couple of years and which is a fairly long period of time, but it is an evolution of the same story. So it still satisfies the original brief has just new content, new footage, new design/ 

One of the workarounds for the cost of content and the challenge of keeping it refreshed is doing visualized data. There are several pieces out there in the world at airports, in public buildings, and so on. I'm a fan of the set-and-forget types that it's very efficient and everything else, but I'm starting to wonder more and more about its effectiveness because I just wrote about one at the Sydney Australia Convention Center yesterday, it's a 96-meter long display, and it'almost looks like a blue screen of death, but it's not obviously. Code running across the screen. It looks visually interesting. But I wonder sometimes when people are looking at this, do they know what they're looking at? And does it matter whether they know what they're looking at?

Alberto Scirocco: But, it's funny to some degree it doesn’t. Some of those pieces, they're really much more akin to art and video generative, something that is generative work that is generated by data. In the end, it's really more for our satisfaction to know that it’s generated by data, but it's a very plastic piece. It looks like what it looks like and if it's beautiful and it's interesting to see, then it's something you can watch for a period of time, it's like watching a waterfall. You can pretty much watch it endlessly because it's just naturally interesting, and so if you're able to recreate that natural sense of something that has just enough evolution, enough variety, but some qualities that are attractive, so that piece can stand forever, and then when it was generated by data or not, but it's irrelevant, and it's very transparent tp most users, it becomes really cool for designers. 

People get really excited sometimes, but it does but is they are really visible. I don't know if you're an audiophile, but I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to this stuff and I love audio stuff, and sometimes you're looking at an amplifier and that its distortion is so low and but in the end, you're not really hearing that. You just know it, so it becomes an intellectual appreciation that your body really just ignores.

Is it a little bit like buying a car in the old days, everybody would open the hood and look at the engine and all that, and now I suspect 99% of people never even flip the lid open ‘cause they don't know what they're looking at and who cares? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. It just knowledge. It's nice to know about the product. It's nice to know what's happening behind it, but it doesn't necessarily affect your experience of it, but it's interesting. 

It's interesting work and it's cool that work is out there. It's cool that people have found a way to in some way, intellectually you can compare the fact that something moves very naturally, but is still generated by data and so you can say the way that the flow of data kinda ends up being similar to a form of chaos controlled chaos, which is similar to nature. This stuff is all really interesting in theory. In the end, if the piece is beautiful, then it's beautiful to look at, and then at the same time, as you said, it could also be puzzling but then, a lot of abstract work is, so I think there's a lot of good in that.

And as it's right application, like you mentioned, the airport is a good place for a piece of art, especially a piece of art that is constantly evolving. You have the perfect audience, in that case, to sit down and contemplate something that is just transforming, I think that's really a good application.

You mentioned the Samsung board in Seoul’s Gangnam area. There's been a lot of stuff on LinkedIn and I guess more broadly on social media about these anamorphic displays. Are you seeing a lot of demand for that from inbound customers? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, we are. There's definitely conversations that come about it and all these things, it's always funny.

We were very experimental at the beginning of our careers as a motion design studio. I was very interested in really doing things just to see what you could do with the media, and it wasn't like a desire to be different. It was just like curiosity about what the software and the medium could do, because it was new.

So we did a video of photo parallax, which is a very trite technique today, but, in 2004, it wasn't, it was very new and we put it out there and it was a video for a DJ and it was the first video of MTV put on their online presence, and for a couple of years, it was a daily email of somebody asking us to repeat that and then years later, we did something else which was visit combining cell animation with 2d work, with digital work and trying to make, so another thing that also became very popular eventually, and then for a couple of years, it was everybody asking for the same thing, and so that's how it works. 

Somebody puts a waterfall in the lobby, everybody wants a waterfall in the lobby, and their first waterfall is super cool, it's a really cool idea and it's great. The 40th that’s out there, It's still cool, but it's not necessary. What basically ends up happening is that you, as an artist, find yourself getting constantly typecast, and when you're concentrating to break that typecast because what you are trying to say to people is, “I can do a lot of different things, and that was an idea, and I have more ideas”, but it's easy to shop for a thing that you see then for ones you don't see, and so I think that's what happens.  

That screen you mentioned, it’s very successful, it's very smart. It's also very simple, and it's really good, you know what I mean? It's just a beautiful, fun thing and I love to see it and that's what you want it to be. You want it to be something that you just said, I'd love to go see that in person, and so now everybody's thinking, “oh, that's it, that's the solution!” 

But you'll have to break it to them thatthe visual effect really only works from a very specific angle.

Alberto Scirocco: I know. Here is this massive thing that's visible for a really large surface, but it really only works for one slice of that. But when you are in that slice, it is pretty cool but it's a very good solution, and I think it's a great thing and that's what we were saying earlier about what you brought up about the wild west. It is wide open right now because when we do something that is going to be on a curved surface and everybody's going to be really stoked about that, and then there's going to be something else because there is a lot of space for exploration which, as I said, that's what's attracting us a lot, it's another opportunity to try stuff and do new things.

All right, Alberto. That was a great conversation. Just one quick, last question. If people want to know more about your company, where do they find you online? 

Alberto Scirocco: leftchannel.com. I know we went real deep on that one, but we have lots of work on Vimeo and work and other channels as well. But yeah, people come and check us out. 

All right. I appreciate you giving me some of your time. 

Alberto Scirocco: Thank you so much for having me.

 

David Weinfeld, Screenverse

David Weinfeld, Screenverse

July 13, 2021

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

Advertising is hard - and a lot of companies, from startups to majors, have found out the expensive way that creating and running a screen network that's funded through booked ad spots is no walk in the park.

There are lots of programmatic advertising options out there to make access to brand advertising easier for network operators, but a start-up called Screenverse is going down a different path - basically saying to a lot of companies that have screens: "You focus on what you're truly good at, and we'll take over the ad sales and management of your network."

So in the same way that some solutions providers are the outsourced digital signage operating units for companies like QSR chains, Screenverse is doing the sales and related work for companies that happen to have a screen network as part of much larger businesses.

A great example would be TouchTunes, which has 1,000s of digital jukeboxes in bars, with screens on them that support booked advertising. Screenverse now runs and sells the ad display side of the business, so TouchTunes can focus on what it is super-good at - music content curation, licensing and overall ops.

The company was started by a couple of guys I have known for a long time in this industry - David Weinfeld and Adam Malone. While less than two years old, started just in time for a pandemic and nuclear winter for out of home advertising, Screenverse is making money and recently announced a quasi acquisition deal to bring on the sales experience and business ties of The Danaher Group, a boutique media sales run by Sue Danaher, who many industry people will know from her days running the DPAA.

David and I go back to the days when we were consulting partners on The Preset Group. It was terrific to catch up, and get a better understanding of how his company fills what is a pretty obvious need in the market for companies that want to monetize the screens in their network, but struggle (or would struggle) trying to run ad sales and media operations within the walls of a company that otherwise knows very little about advertising.

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TRANSCRIPT

David, thank you for joining me. It's been a while since we've caught up. The first thing I wanted to ask is what you've been up to? Cause we've known each other for more than a dozen years and you've done a few things lately and then got into starting Screenverse. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, absolutely.

So prior to starting Screenverse, I had been working in different startups, largely in the digital, out-of-home, and digital signage space. Most immediately, I was at Vistar Media leading their global supply-side sales team, and that was an incredible experience, really being able to see across the whole of the landscape, building out their enterprise software business that included their ad server and player software and building that out and enterprise relationships with companies like Top Golf, RedBox, etc.

But even as I was doing that and playing on a lot of the experience that I had in the industry, even dating back to our days at the Preset group, understanding that there continued to be this prevalence of networks that at their core weren't media businesses, and so they might've had thousands of screens in grocery or Walmart stores or in office buildings, but really weren't in a position to maximize the revenue that they could generate. 

They were seeing success by connecting to an exchange like Vistar, but I just saw so much more potential in the way in which they could monetize those assets, and as I started seeing that, I really got the idea for this vision of the business, Screenverse, playing on my time, working with you at the Preset group, consulting to major display manufacturers like Samsung and LG and others, but then really looking at the networks that I most enjoyed working with were networks that were just entirely new to the media side of the business, and as you and I both know, and most people listening to the podcast, there are so many stories that we can tell of the digital out-of-home networks that have come and gone. The skeletons of past networks that otherwise you would've thought, there's a foundation for success here, and sometimes it's the expectation of, if you build it, they will come, and the advertiser is just going to knock on our door, and what I've since learned is that's obviously not the case, and programmatic, there does open that door to a degree and create some of that opportunity, but really Screenverses exist to really blast that door wide open on behalf of our network partners, and so when I left Vistar pre-COVID, it was with a very clear vision of the business that I wanted to start.

I was lucky enough to found the business with another great industry professional in Adam Malone, a friend who I've known for over 10 years, and in doing so, we built up a company whose entire focus is on ad management and monetization for digital screen networks and really taking networks like Pursuant Health and there are 4,600 screens in Walmart stores nationwide. Our partners at Corner Media, Touch Tunes, Touch Source, Paramount, Smartify, Spin, and others, and really being able to best package and position their inventory, no matter however a brand or agency wants to transact against it, whether that be through a direct IO or by way of a programmatic channel.

If you had to do your elevator pitch, the 25 words or less of what all that you do, what would you say? 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, I would say that we turn our network operators' side business, which is bringing third-party advertising through their screens, to our main business.

So that includes everything from ad operations, media packaging, CPM management, optimization of deal flow and management of their inventory, both through the direct and programmatic channels, in such a way that's going to maximize the revenue that they see from agencies, brands, and demand-side platforms. There are some analogous companies in the digital space. Some of those companies are Inc.’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies in 2019. There’s a comany by the name of Freestar, who I really admire the way that they've grown and built their business. 

Cafe Media, Adpushup, are all examples of companies that exist to really demystify for publishers and companies, how to maximize their revenue generation and take advantage of existing technology. So we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're most certainly not trying to be a supply-side platform. But our goal is to be the best possible service layer, leveraging technologies like a Vistar or Place Exchange and others, and being able to build lightweight technology on top of that, whose entire purpose is to realize greater revenue and greater efficiencies in the sales and ad management process. 

So you've got companies who have screens associated with their business, for whatever reason, like during waiting rooms or in Touch Tunes that have digital jukeboxes that also have screens that you can sell ads on, but it's not their core business so effectively they can outsource all of that to you, to people who understand the game, understand the process and everything else, instead of trying to understand that internally and be a skunkworks and a business that spends 98% of its time on other matters, right?

David Weinfeld: That's exactly right, and what I've seen historically is that it's very hard for those types of businesses to hire really strong and capable media salespeople, and for good reason, because they're not media businesses, and so they ultimately are challenged from the outset, whereas it's much better and actually a lot less costly and creates a lot more opportunity and potential against their inventory to bring in a company like Screenverse where that's our entire focus.

I really like to think about companies and their capabilities. What can you be the best in the world? What is your superpower? Well, our superpower is monetizing digital screens in the physical world, and so if we have companies like Touch Tunes who are incredible in building out distributor relationships and building out the largest footprint of digital jukeboxes in the US and globally, or a company like Pursuant Health, who has kiosks in every single Walmart store nationwide for blood pressure, BMI assessments, and other major health assessments. That's what they're best at in the world, so let us manage the media business and the media side, and especially as programmatic becomes an increasingly important part of the digital out-of-home landscape, understanding the nuances of that channel and how best to navigate different SSPs and DSPs, agencies and the way in which they're transacting, whether direct or programmatic becomes really important. And it ensures that their inventory is getting in front of the right buyers and that they're seeing the greatest value from their inventory and by packaging partners together, we're able to create some really unique audience segments, such that, by itself, a network might not have the scale to get the attention of a major brand, like Starbucks or Unilever, but together complemented with other assets and other inventory, it tells a complete story.

So a digital out-of-home network, in something like let's say waiting rooms or whatever, they could do direct sales themselves, but they're going to have to hire people to do that. They could get a rep shop, but they rep all kinds of things that might not even be digital, or they could think that they could just use programmatic, but the reality is programmatic isn't going to fill their inventory. 

So you need to have this hybrid and you either do it internally, or you go to somebody like your company, right? 

David Weinfeld: That's exactly right, and there are a lot of companies who really media or being ad supported is their core focus. So you have companies like Doctor's offices, patient points, or you have companies in gyms, Zoom media, right? Those are not our target partners because they already have in-house sales teams and the entire business is built on how do I monetize those assets? But we really look at companies that otherwise might be in similar environments. 

So we have a partner in a company called Touch Source that is one of the largest providers of office building directories and screens and major healthcare offices to the tune of 10,000 screens nationwide, whose superpower is building out these great solutions and interactive experiences and managing tenant databases and directory user experiences, but there is an advertising opportunity there, and one that in order for them to hire an in-house sales team and think through all the nuances of how they marry that against their existing business, is we formed a partnership with Touch Source, such that we can really manage and own that and act as a consultative partner, and we certainly work together to strategically think about which screens within their overall portfolio of 10,000 make the most sense to bring third-party advertising to, and we're not recommending or saying that, “Hey, our expectation is to light up advertising on all 10,000” but we are in the process and we're at a hundred buildings today, but our expectation is to be in the not too distant future at a thousand buildings, where you're talking about is a network that has multi-million dollar media sales potential in a post-COVID environment, and one that otherwise would have struggled to access those dollars, even by just connecting to programmatic pipes like a Vistar Media or Place Exchange. 

You still need people, even though it's technology-based and there are automated workflows, you still need people to manage these systems and there are still relationships at the core of the transactions that happen, and so that's really what we say, there's an opportunity to connect to an exchange and gather low-level dollars but you understand CPM, you understand the dynamics of the demand and supply within the ecosystem and what the competitive landscape looks like, and all of a sudden we became not just a cost center to our business, but we realized success in partnership with our network operators, such that it hopefully is an easy decision for them to work with us. 

Yeah, it's been interesting to listen to this because I admittedly didn't fully understand what Screenverse did, but now I do, and one of the reasons I understand it is I've lived it. Years and years ago, I started a network in the pedestrian corridor system underneath downtown Toronto. There's like miles and miles of walkways with retail down there and everything, and hundreds of thousands of people. Great media environment, in a lot of ways, but this is 2003-2004, and people didn't get it. So I needed professional salespeople to do that for me, and I tried doing partnerships with companies who were already digital out-of-home, and while they understood the pattern and everything else, they just weren't fully invested in it because they had their own product to sell, and at the end of a meeting, they went, “Oh, by the way, we have this thing too. I'm not quite sure what it is, but are you interested? No? Okay. Bye.” 

It just didn't work. You need somebody who's focused. 

David Weinfeld: Absolutely. It's really where opportunity meets execution.

And the understanding and we're entering an environment and thanks to programmatic, and I really, especially the more time that I've spent on the demand side, I have a much greater appreciation for the work that Michael Provenzano and the earliest employees at Vistar did, and frankly, building out the programmatic market.

But now that they have, and now that it's much more robust and it's still in its early innings, there is an opportunity for networks like that to get access to dollars that they otherwise would have been challenged to, but to do it entirely on your own and not understand the advanced capabilities or options that are available to you, it is essentially leaving dollars on the table and programmatic is all about minimizing loss and maximizing gain, and so if you can be in a position where you can bring in the right partner, and again, we're a partner. We don't physically own any screens. We haven't invested capital in building out screens. So we don't have any interests that could otherwise be muddied by bringing on additional networks.

We curate the partners that we work with. We say more “No” than we do “Yes”, and it's really important that we think about how they fit within our portfolio, not just in the near term, but in the longterm and how our sales team, frankly, can be successful on their behalf because the last thing I would ever want to do is set unrealistic expectations, which I think can very easily happen, not just in this industry, but really any media space of well, I have this many millions of impressions that equates to this media value so I should generate a million dollars a month and that's nice on paper, and it's nice when you build out projections, but the reality tells a very different story.

And one of the things that, myself, Adam, our team prides herself on as being very open and transparent with our partners and setting very clear expectations of this is what we believe your network is worth, this is what we believe that we can deliver in terms of value. Our hopes far exceed those numbers, but we also don't want to go into a relationship where the numbers far outweigh what we think the market can bear. We do have very high hopes, or as optimistic as I think anyone in this space around where digital out-of-home can grow and what it can become in the media mix. But the reality is that programmatic is still a small part of digital out-of-home spending, it's around 5-6% of our overall spending, and thanks to COVID in industry and out-of-home in the US that was approaching $9 billion, got knocked down to between $6-7 billion and is fighting its way back. But I've long believed that in order to unlock the greater demand and revenue that should be coming into out-of-home in general, it's going to be by way of digital buyers. It's going to be by way of buyers who understand that, layering in contextually relevant digital playspace like with a partner of ours, the bulletin who was in a high rise, residential apartment buildings in major cities in the US, layering that with targeted campaigns, it's hard to beat for a D2C brand like a GoPro or Hell Fresh, or Uber eats, but right now they're not really thinking about that within their total strategy. That of course incorporates Facebook and Google and Instagram and connected TV, and so if we can get any access to those budgets, we should become a much more important, incredible part of the total media landscape.

Is there a distinction between endemic and non-endemic advertising at this point or is it all just like data flags? 

David Weinfeld: We really think about it on a network by network and kind of category of venues standpoint. So with the network, like Touch Tunes and, by way of our acquisition of the Danaher group and bringing on incredible talent in the form of Susan Danaher, former DPAA President, CRO at Ad Space (now Lightbox), SVP at Viacom, Victor Germaine, who was a VP at Screen Vision and major sales leader at GSTV and bringing those individuals into our business, but their specialization and where they really focus their energy were on vice categories naturally like beer and alcohol, who were endemic brands through the bar and restaurant category, just as much as you might say for an office building network. That would be B2B financial services or a retail-based network. Endemic brands are much more CPG-focused, but we do see also across all categories because we see a lot of otherwise non-endemic spend from insurance companies and others that you might not immediately connect with a bar and restaurant environment, but who make a ton of sense, just the nature of the audience. 

So it really depends upon the brand and agency and what their objectives are. If their objective is to really be where the product is sold, well that's why we do a lot of business with Anheuser-Busch and Heineken. But if you're also thinking about a brand that has a relationship by category adjacency, or just reaching that audience. So think about any of the brands like Uber, Lyft advertising in a bar or restaurant, or a brand like a USAA advertising in a Walmart location, the product itself isn't sold there, but certainly, the constituency that they're looking to reach, that they target by way of other channels are very present in those environments, and so we have a mix, but it really speaks to how we position different networks, and the reality is when you undertake a business like Screenverse, you end up having networks across a variety of categories. It's our responsibility and job then to figure out how best to package and curate that, not just for ourselves, but for the market et all. 

So we're not just going to an agency and presenting a disparate menu of offerings but we understand their client mix. We understand the way in which they buy and what their objective is. So we might just say, “Hey, for the types of brands that you represent, and the fact that you're looking to reach a millennial audience, then you're best suited reaching them in bars and restaurants or reaching them in high rise apartment buildings in cities like Chicago, New York, and DC” versus a brand like USAA, that's looking to reach a much broader population across the entire country, and that's where you start pushing them into inventory, like in Walmarts or grocery stores or convenience stores where they can segment potentially against an older demographic or certainly a broader segment of the overall population.

So if I did a spreadsheet exercise of costs of taking ad sales and media operations, in-house versus outsourcing to Screenverse, how is that going to look? 

Is it going to be more costly to do it internally or more costly to do it through you guys? 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, so we actually, in many cases do this modeling with our partners and it's definitely more costly internally to make that happen. But the other aspect is even if the model shows that it might be less costly, by way of, “if I hire three people, I can build up this sales organization”, you have to look at it and say, what is the success you're going to yield? And that to me is even more important than just doing your cost exercise and saying, all right, I'm going to need two senior sellers and an ad operations person to build up any type of sales business unit, but that alone isn't really going to be successful and do those individual sellers. It's not an easy thing to find people that know the digital out-of-home space and know how best to navigate out-of-home agencies and digital agencies, and are they going to be equipped to really tell a story that's large enough to get your network noticed, but that's also why we look to have our model based on success, such that we're not a hard and fast cost against the business at the outset, but we see success when our partnerships see success. So ours is really a percentage of revenue-based model, such that it's not, you need to make this large upfront investment. We actually believe as much as you do in the potential of this, and we're going to invest a lot of time and energy upfront to get our team trained upon the inventory, to package the inventory, to leverage our relationships across the industry to tell your story and activate you on programmatic platforms if you haven't done so, help you build out those integrations, if you don't yet have them.

And so there's a lot of nuances in that, but I would look really to what's the totality of success that a network could realize trying to go it on their own versus trying to partner with a company like Screenverse, and what we found with a lot of those partners is it becomes a very large challenge to try to do it on their own. And I give everyone the absolute best of lock-in and I support any network that wants to build out their own sales team and thinks that if it's core to your business and you can be the best in the world at selling your inventory, then you absolutely should be the ones to do it. But if it's something you're trying to do on the side, and it's really not part of your brand value, it's not part of your overall culture, overall story, I've seen that very hard and it feels like an extra appendage that doesn't necessarily fit within a company. What we can do is say, we're going to be here and consult you. You don't need to worry about becoming experts in this because guess what? We're thinking about this day in and day out, hour after hour, and we're going to meet with you regularly. We're going to provide you with updates. We're going to demystify the industry in a way that I'm hopeful that, even if we have a network relationship where after two or three years they go, you know what, you've helped us so much, we've actually now had the confidence and belief that we can do this in house, I still see that as a successful outcome because we delivered on the promise of helping them grow their business. I, of course, would love to be with our partners for 10+ years and really build out the highest level of success. But if they decide to bring that in-house, after we've helped them level up their understanding and connections with them, that's successful. 

Yeah. Everything you said is so spot on and I wanted to say something about cultural fit and you did, just cause I have seen that as well, where you see a media operation bolted onto the side of a very traditional company and I've watched it play out and it almost never works just because, as one person described it, we’re the land of misfit toys, you just don't fit! 

David Weinfeld: What's funny too, and I look at it this way and I wake up every day energized by trying to change this mindset. But even if you look at out-of-home overall, so out-of-home is a marginalized part of the media industry. Overall, it really occupies sub 5% of total media spend. When you look across all channels, then within out-of-home, digital out-of-home is the minority of revenue. That's certainly changing and shifting in the US and other parts of the world. But then within digital out-of-home, digital place-based, this is very much the marginalized aspect then is looked at as a subcategory, knowing that digital billboards take up a lion's share of dollars.

And so I wake up every single day excited because I'm in the area that is that diamond in the rough that has the greatest potential that is maybe being undervalued and underutilized, but it's growing, and it's in an area that I do believe in its efficacy and value, and there are so many studies and so many data points that I know you've read, and the readers of your blog that you published, that people have talked about on this podcast of the efficacy of marrying digital out-of-home with mobile, with social, with connected TV. I just believe in my heart of hearts and I know it's taken longer in many cases than a lot of people have expected. But I so directly believe that once more people start seeing those studies and realizing the results for themselves and leading into space and thanks to programmatic and DSPs, like the Tradedesk and Verizon media and EMOBI and Adelphic and others leaning in and ushering those digital buyers that have access to larger budgets into our space. That's really what's going to drive a sea change and that's what I wake up each and every day, knowing, we're nowhere near where we need to be or where we can be even as a company or as an industry overall. But boy, if I can be part in any way, shape, or form of ushering that forward for my team, my partners, the industry overall, that's what drives me because I look at it as if we can bring more revenue to our company that otherwise looked at advertising as this headache, or this is a tough thing to manage. 

But all of a sudden, by working with us, they're seeing seven figures of revenue and they're much confident with understanding, right? It can be hard when you look at programmatic and you see peaks and valleys of revenue and disparate spending come through, and it can be very confusing. But once you have someone that can walk you through the dynamics of how people are going in and spending and how we build deeper relationships with them and what's happening indirectly. Now all of a sudden you're part of a business that, maybe you're not driving the car, but you're a much more confident passenger. And when you're a much more competent passenger, the great news there is you're much more willing to then make investments and build out your network and build out your infrastructure, and ultimately that benefits the networks, it benefits the advertisers, it benefits the SSPs. It benefits the DSPs. And that's what really drove me to start this business and why, when I was at a company in this space, like Vistar that was innovating and driving change and was very successful, that I just felt this push, that there was an opportunity for someone with my background and experience and with Adam and now bringing on Susan Danaher and Victor Germaine and our larger team and the expertise that each of them brings to the table, we have the opportunity to really build a company that has staying power that can ultimately bring an enormous amount of value and also create some efficiencies for SSPs or create efficiencies for networks that they otherwise might have been challenged to find on their own. 

Are you bootstrapped? 

David Weinfeld: So we've raised a small friends and family pre-seed round of just around $400,000, but actually we'd been profitable in 2020.

We officially incorporated the business at the end of April 2020. We were profitable in 2020, we're profitable today and, we're thinking about it what does raising funding against this business look like? And we look at it, not as a requirement, but as a mechanism to accelerate growth. You know the most important pillars of our business are great people and great network partners. 

So the deal you did with Danaher Group, it's probably more like a joint venture sort of thing in a lot of ways? Because obviously, you couldn't buy them out in the traditional sense of a private equity deal or something. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah. So I would definitely categorize it as more of an acquihire, and so really being able to bring those individuals in-house. Thanks to our growth and thanks to the revenue that we build, our equity has value. So there are definitely mechanisms within our partnership that involve that, and so that the Danaher group team that's now joined with Screenverse can participate in the success and growth, and that's really ultimately how we were able to put that together, and it was on the back of getting to know Sue for many years in this industry and really aligning on the vision.

I had such admiration for the business she had built at the Danaher group and the importance of the relationship that she and Victor and their operations lead, Taylor had with touch tunes so much so that they were truly an extension of that company, and I said that's so much in line with the vision that we have for the partnerships that we form on the supply side at Screenverse, and we would love to bring your leadership, your knowledge, your experience into our business, and oh, by the way, we get an incredible network in the form of Touch Tunes, and we can just have that part of our overall growth and at a time where bars and restaurants have been challenged in light of COVID.

But now that we're starting to come out and restrictions have all but been eased across the entire US, Los Angeles and California were the final metropolitan areas that had any restrictions on bars that have since been lifted and really say, “Hey, bars and restaurants are hopping right now”, and so if I'm going to double down on any piece of inventory, it's going to be in that segment. And if I'm going to double down on talent, it's going to be with people like Sue Danna, her Victor Germaine, and Taylor, and that team and their knowledge and so much of what they bring into our business is fueling growth, not just against Touch Tunes, but against all of our partners, and as we bring on additional sales directors, as we bring on additional operations, team members, it's really all geared toward how do we maximize success for the network partners that we work with and how do we ultimately build campaigns that are going to drive tangible results for those brands, such that they continue to invest, not just in us, but in digital out-of-home and digital place-based in general

All right, David, that was terrific. We could have talked a lot longer, but I'm afraid we gotta wrap this up. Great to catch up with you. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, it was absolutely great to catch up with you, Dave. You're someone who I have absolutely, in the past, love working with, who I have such great respect for in this industry.

Thank you for having me on the podcast and really look forward to being able to continue having these conversations and sharing the growth story of Screenverse with you and your audience.

John Steinhauer, Barco

John Steinhauer, Barco

June 30, 2021

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

Technology advances have made it feasible and relatively easy to fill large spaces, inside or outside, with big digital visuals that fill a defined space like a building lobby or other physical structure - with the idea of creating experiences that are memorable and have some sort of desired impact.

It's being done with large format LED video walls, with projection mapping and still, in some cases, with skinny bezel LCD.

Barco is in an interesting position because the company does all three, and has done so for many years. One of the first high-profile examples of what's been coined "techorating" (not my favorite phrase, but I get it) was the Comcast headquarters tower in Philly, which filled the entire back wall of its vast lobby with LED. That project was done, more than a dozen years ago, using fine pitch Barco LED product, and the experience is now a tourist attraction.

I spoke with John Steinhauer, VP of Entertainment for Barco in the Americas, about the whole notion of incorporating large format digital into the original design or renovations for large spaces - from building lobbies to airports and attractions. We talk about the business model and recommended approaches.

We also get into his experience in the past year. He started his new role - driving business for things like entertainment attractions, sports venues, live event and cinema - just as COVID hit, and all those activities dried up.

They're coming back, he says, in a BIG way. 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

John, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what your role is at Barco? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, of course. First, Dave, thanks for having me. I really appreciate spending some time with you today. I am the Vice President of Entertainment for the Americas at Barco and I came to this position at an interesting time, almost the first days of the pandemic.

Timing is everything they say, and I like to tell people that my first year has been an eventful year, but certainly, there've been no events and that was a challenge. But it did put us in a position to really look at our organization, look at our strategy or go to market, fortify our strengths and address our weaknesses. So it's really been a great first year and reflecting on it now and we’re getting prepared for the big recovery, is what this is all about currently, and I think we are. 

VP Entertainment sound like something teenage kids would love to have for their dad? What does it encompass? 

John Steinhauer: I think eventually it will encompass some free tickets to shows. I know that you're right, Dave, my kids said, wow, that's a great job. What are the perks? 

Yeah, but I'll define what entertainment is at Barco. It is our live events business, our rental and staging business, our proAV business, and our cinema business. There's also a group that does high-end residential and simulation, which is a really interesting business for us with flight simulators and things like that, a lot of government contracts. So we really have a wide expansive portfolio that addresses a lot of very different applications.

As you said, just as you got started, I'm sure one of your first charges was to identify what the opportunity pipeline looks like and everything else, and then a pandemic hit and most of your markets dried up. 

John Steinhauer: Exactly. There were really spots of innovation along the way to where I was really impressed by the live events industry and their resiliency and their creativity and how nimble they are, just by virtue of what they do. They build these elaborate systems and solutions for one night and they tear them down and take them somewhere else the next day. It's just who they are in terms of being nimble and things like using LED for XR stages, it became something really interesting, and a lot of people started driving a new form of production, you know camera production in front of the LED. So things like that came out, and other trends are really blossoming now around immersive museums, for example.

So I think this is an industry that has a lot of resolve and it's going to take much more than a pandemic to bring it down. I'll tell you, I've been really impressed by the caliber of the partners we have and their strength and keeping a positive attitude, and really looking for ways to drive forward. If an industry ever deserved a comeback as this one does, it's going to be epic. I tell people that a lot, and when everybody hits the road at the same time, which every artist is hoping to do, it's going to be the recovery of a lifetime, I think, and we're really looking forward to it. 

Why do you describe it that way? Are you hearing that sort of thing that there's going to be this tidal wave of live events and installations and everything else? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, everything from residencies in Las Vegas being announced, to the first shows putting dates out now. We do think there'll be a little latency around the sales side of the business because so much equipment has been dormant for so long, and it's finally going to be back at work. So it's not a statement on sales as much as it is on activity levels that will eventually become, I think, a boom all the way around. 

You talked about the pause that COVID has created, and I've certainly spoken with a number of companies who said they use the past 15-16 months to examine what they do, their processes and their products and the whole nine yards. 

I would imagine the same thing as applied here, that a lot of the people who are in the various facets of the entertainment industry, see the time to re-examine how they do things and maybe stop the momentum that kind of saw them doing things a certain way because they'd always done it that way.

John Steinhauer: Yeah, definitely, and for us at Barco, we've had a history of being somewhat of a siloed company and difficult to do business with at times, and we had a chance to really reflect during this pause to just figure out culturally, what needed to change in how we went to the market and how we work together internally and just making it an easier experience to do business with us.

I think when things light up, the community is really going to feel that. I know that during the downs. They're feeling it, we're staying connected. We have furloughed employees, like most of our customers have too. We're bringing back people. We're actually investing in hiring now, too. I think the future looks bright. We're guilty of investing ahead of revenue a little bit because we know it's a safe bet. This is an industry we know a lot about. We consider ourselves members of the community and not just vendors to the community. So we're reading the tea leaves and getting ready for what we think is going to be an explosive rebound. 

Barco is in an interesting position because when we talk about some of these large-format displays that you see in live events and museums and buildings and everything else, they're LED, they're fine-pitch LED, but you can do fine-pitch LED, but you can also do projection and you can also do a narrow-bezel LCD.

You've got the UniSee product, which genuinely has narrow bezels, unlike sometimes I see the product literature, I think that's not terribly narrow, but you're calling it invisible. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah. We have a broad portfolio and you're right, and UniSee is definitely a big part of that portfolio.

An LED is the first thing people think of when they think of wow factor in large format. But when you add in projection as you said, things like projection mapping are really experiencing a resurgence now, because not only are businesses trying to bring their employees back to their offices but the cities and municipalities are trying to get people out of their homes again.

We're doing some incredibly creative outdoor mapping On bridges, landmark buildings, and cathedrals, and it's a global trend that is really exciting for us because we have a lot of horsepowers when it comes to those super high lumen projectors. 

And the other big shift there is that it's a lot easier to do.

I wrote a book, like a coffee table book, about projection mapping, 10 years ago, and at that time, it was just starting to emerge, but it was incredibly complicated to do, just the alignment and everything else, and now it's almost widgetized software. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, and it's crazy flexible too.

If you look at this trend of the Van Gogh exhibits, that's going around the world, really taking traction here in the US too in multiple cities. They're re-purposing real estate, and sometimes warehouses and old buildings and building a museum and so think about that, the complexities of mapping, where you have to place the projectors. You're just going into an environment that is unknown sometimes and very different at times, and trying to position everything to get it just right, and that series has been incredibly successful for us, and we have a line of projectors that fits the bill perfectly, and it's one of those situations, it was something in our portfolio that wasn't the rocket ship. 

It was the G-60 that I'm referring to, and this particular application put it on the map to the point where it's a supply chain issue now, and that's another podcast talking about the supply chain challenges currently, but it's interesting too when these things hit, you're not really sure what's going to emerge as the solution for the future. You have to ride with the industry, I think and follow the community, especially the creative side of the business. If you ever put a product out in the market, tell them this is what it does. It won't succeed. They'll tell you what it will do and you'll work with them to make sure it does. 

Yeah, I was gonna say that I did an interview the other day where I was the person being interviewed and we're talking about trends and everything else and I said, one of the big mistakes I see over and over again regardless of the size of the project is people go in thinking about how they're going to apply a particular type of technology instead of, looking at the scenario, the environment, the circumstances, the dynamics of it and everything else, and then figuring out okay, if we're going to do something here, what would be the technology that would work best? 

But, you see over and over again, people saying, “I'm going to put in a big LED video wall”, or “I'm going to put in a fine bezel or a narrow bezel LCD video wall here”, and they don't really know why. They haven't really thought about the content yet, but they’re going to do it. 

John Steinhauer: Exactly, and I think one of the strengths of our portfolio, in just that situation, we've been doing this during the downturn with the re-educating ourselves teams and training them, is that we're not selling tiles. We're listening to what the application is, what the experience needs to be, and then fitting a solution into that, and one of the nice things about the entertainment businesses is that we do get to speak directly with the creative decision-makers and the folks that are doing the design early enough, where we can have those kinds of conversations. We're not just responding to RFPs and things like that. 

Yeah. One of the things that have also impressed me lately is when you have jobs that mash-up different technologies. So instead of it just being a LED video wall, that's part of it, but there's also projection and they're reactive with each other and they're synced. That to me is really exciting ‘cause you're doing the walls, you're doing the ceiling, you're doing the floors, potentially. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, and that's we're going to get to this “techorating” idea, and it's interesting because that term is old, it's I think it dates back to ‘08-’07, maybe even earlier.

That term used to mean something, and I think now it means something very different, but it's what you just described. It's the overall experience, and there can be a number of ways you get there and it's not necessarily a wow factor lobby at a casino, it can be eBay's headquarters in California, it can be any corporate customer. 

I know you have a digital signage background, a lot of signage, essentially pushes information to your people, and that plus an information and an entertainment component to that, and an immersive environment that draws people to the environment, whether it's bringing employees back or bringing people out of their homes into a city street, this application is different than the original, the original “techorating” trend. 

Yeah, techorating is one of those terms that makes me cringe a little bit, but not as much as phygital. That one, just nails on a chalkboard, but I get it, I understand the concept around it. 

What are you actually seeing out there? I think of techorating, going back to the Comcast Tower, which is actually a Barco installation going back a dozen years, maybe even more, where they filled a whole wall with LEDs that picked up the look and the look of the side wood walls, and all of a sudden stuff appears on it. Are we seeing much more of that? I get the sense that it's happening, but we're all in our little bunkers here, so I don't see it in person anymore.

John Steinhauer: Yeah, exactly, and that's the whole point, right? I think what employers are trying to do is creating that pull back to the office instead of just saying, okay, here's how it is, you have to come back to work. Cause we know how that's going out there, people are getting comfortable in a new workplace and some roles will be distributed and remote, and we're even going through this at Barco. Some roles really require you to be in the office. 

With the whole techorating, I think it's interesting because at one point, it was all flash and no one's ever seen it before, and I always go back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, that's the first time I really experienced it. Super cool. But this is more, I think a lighthouse rediscovery of that. The concept's there, but it's really safely drawing ships back to shore, bringing the employees back into their workplaces, and depending on budgets, it can be very elaborate, it can be the kinds of things you saw in that lobby at the Cosmopolitan, or it can be just more technology than usual in different places, like not just in the experience center up on the top floor, but throughout the organization, multi-purpose rooms will have more technology in them in different types of content.

I think this is also a great opportunity for our content providers. Companies who do this where, you know, before putting up displays in a break room or something was all about new policies, new hires, the temperature of the stock ticker, whatever. Now, employers want to create content that's compelling and creative in those spaces.

Are you working directly or through some of the AV consultants that work with Barco, are you talking to people who design physical spaces and to engineers and to architects? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, architects, meeting planners, all the above, consultants, everything you mentioned, Dave, that is the community. That's really driving this because, unline pre-pandemic, where we were and before trends like this, it was very much established, “This is what you do. The briefing center is on the top floor. This is what resides in this room, this room, and this room.”

Now companies are taking a fresh approach and they need guidance. They need expertise, and they're calling in these creative content companies to help. 

And is that part of the secret sauce, not making this an AV or IT project? It has to be something like from the very first meeting, the site survey, the walk-through, the whole bit where you've got to have the creative people, you've got to have the architect. You've got to have all the different parties that are going to touch on this to really make it work. Because if you just put in a screen and then say, now we need something on it, that's not going to work! 

John Steinhauer: Exactly, and it is that immersive experience approach to these environments that weren’t there before.

What's the business argument? 

John Steinhauer: I think the business argument mostly right now is bringing those folks back into the office, and having a compelling reason to get them out of their space. If we had a video for this podcast, I could show you that I have a very carefully curated environment in my home office but I started in the video conferencing world. We were trying to get HD out at Lifesize early days, and I learned that early on. There are a lot of colors in my office, Placed in the right places. Most people don't do that, and I'm sure you've experienced this because everyone has. You've seen everything in the background.

You've seen spouses walking by, you've seen dogs and cats and landscapers wailing into the un-muted microphones outside the windows. 

In Canada, we have members of parliament who stripped down in the middle of conference calls.  

John Steinhauer: I've seen that viral clip, yes. (Laughter)

So I think what employers need is that environment where people say, okay I want to come back, and not only that, I want to be proud of the company I work for.

I work for a great organization. This is a cool job, and I love going to work every day, and the 30-40 minute commute is worth it because I have great bandwidth, I have amazing facilities, all those things, and this is just a part of that puzzle, bringing those employees back, I think.

Is that being driven by the employers? I mean, If you're the anchor tenant in an office tower of some kind or big house office block, that's one thing, but in a lot of cases, you have office towers where they might have 20 different tenants, and I've heard a number of times that commercial property owners are “techorating” their lobbies and other spaces because, A) it attracts tenants and B) it hangs on all the ones they have.

John Steinhauer: Exactly. Yeah, I think you've totally seen it in those types of spaces and other kinds of perks. We just built a new space in California, I was there earlier this week. We have a little health club in there, a little gym, all those amenities, to attract your folks back in.

Does it have to be on a grand scale, or are you seeing stuff that fits the size and maybe in a less vast space, you can also do something compelling? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, it totally fits the size, and again, I'll mention my trip to California this week. We have a lot of LEDs in our office. We don't have big voltage ceilings. We don't have a big grand lobby, but they're placed properly where it makes the space seem bigger, it really does, but it doesn't overpower the space. 

We had a really good design consultation upfront on how to utilize the space appropriately because you're right too, you can totally overpower an environment. There can be heat dissipation issues that you don't anticipate and you can turn your office into a tanning salon after a while if you have too many LEDs on them. 

Yeah, and I think that gets lost sometimes, in that everybody understandably because these are six-figure, potentially seven-figure projects. There's a lot of money involved and the buyers are looking at the visual quality of the displays, obviously, but maybe they're not thinking so much about things like heat generation, power consumption, weight, all those sorts of things. 

John Steinhauer: Absolutely. Yeah, and those are important considerations, and that's why it really comes down to that team of consultants upfront. Everyone from the consultant themselves to the meeting space, the real estate, this is a team sell. We used to call it, I came from Whitlock before I joined Barco. So we were a large systems integrator, and we used to call it the Team bus. 

We put everybody on the Team bus to go to that meeting because we have to consider all those things before anybody sends out a quote or starts thinking about how they're going to put this together. All those considerations have to be taken into account. 

Is that going to be problematic going forward because people are going to be more reticent to travel. Even if they're vaccinated, they just say, you know what, I haven't traveled in a year and a half, I don't need to as much, or do you think it'll just shift back to on-site meetings because if you want to do this you gotta be there? 

John Steinhauer: I think hybrid is here to stay. I'll be honest with you as someone who walks the walk, right? Last week I was in Atlanta for a live event, and it was spectacular. It was an opportunity to shake hands, see old friends, and have corridor conversations between the sessions, and I flew home thinking, this is the greatest thing, I missed it so much, this is the only way to go. And the following day I had to part two of that session, which was a virtual session. Big WebEx, a hundred people at it, instead of the smaller group based on COVID guidelines of how many you can have in the office in Atlanta. 

So when I flew back here to Phoenix and I hosted that one, I just experienced all the benefits of reaching that many more people all at one time. The interactive chat boards we had, and we had production value on one side, and it was the best one to punch ever. I left there thinking, what we need to do as an organization is we have to figure it out to do both at once, right? We have to have that virtual aspect to go along with the live aspect so we can stream out to more people, we’re looking into doing that with our next event, and I think that's going to carry over into live entertainment too, where these concerts, some cities are going to have restrictions on capacity, how many people can be in the arena and there's going to need to be that live stream that goes out.

But there has to be value wrapped around it, incentive like a backstage meet and greet on video, question and answer for the artists after or before the show. All these pieces that first of all, make it something that you can charge for but also make it accessible to more people. So I think hybrid, overall, it's not a trend at all. It's something that's here to stay. 

We've talked about office lobbies, building lobbies, that sort of thing, and you also mentioned museums and extended reality for production sets and so on. What kind of applications are you seeing out there?

John Steinhauer: The most established application is the Van Gogh tour that's on right now, and that's projection mapping on a large scale. So about 70 to 100 projectors in each location, just a lot of expertise in the mapping side of it. It's just incredible. 

I have not been to one yet. I've been invited to an opening and in London in a few weeks, when I go over there with some customers, hopefully, guidelines permitting and that one’s called The Impressionists, so it’s a different group of artists. But that is quite established. The XR stage stuff, the shooting in front of the video wall is also in the trend stage right now. We speak to a lot of people that are really active in that space and they believe that's here to stay too, but in a more of a hybrid: some location shooting, which is very expensive and some studio shooting around the LED wall.

We play a big role in that with our image processing and it's an important sector for us. We feel as though there might be a shift from this pop-up experience out there. There was a need in the community, rose to the occasion, and created these studios and warehouses and all different kinds of locations. We think that trends are going to continue into the actual film studios and the Universals and the Sonys of the world too and that they'd have their own facilities over time. But right now it is in that trend phase, where it's all being outsourced to out of necessity. 

Was that purely triggered by COVID or were some production companies starting to do that anyway?

John Steinhauer: They were starting to do that and they were on the bleeding edge, when this happened, it became more viable.

What about other places like attractions and sports and entertainment venues? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, sports, in particular, has always been good for us. If you're a hockey fan, you're Canadian, so please tell me you're a hockey fan. 

I have to say it quietly, or I'll lose my passport, but I'm more into Premier League Football. 

John Steinhauer: Okay. Fair enough. You know the playoffs are going on right now. The Canadiens are making it to the Stanley cup. The team they beat, Las Vegas Knights are a customer of ours, and if you watch the openings and I love the difference between the arenas, right? Because Canada has a very limited capacity for the crowd, it is very obvious, and then when you go to Vegas, it's a full house. The Canadian venue doesn't have the same amount of technology built into it, and it's pretty obvious when you watch on TV, but when you watch the Knights, well, it's Vegas too.

But man, do they put on a show, and part of their show is our ice mapping. So the ice show you see at the beginning with all the player’s names and the flags when the anthems are being sung, that's all our technology up in the rafters and we've had a lot of reference sites where we're doing that in the NHL, a lot of new franchises or some anyway, coming into the league that we're working with. My New York Islanders. I’m a born and raised Long Islander. Hopefully, we'll win tonight and advance. But they're building a new arena in Belmont, New York, which is right by the horse racetrack, and we're working with them on design and things now, too. So yeah, in the sports arenas, mapping is a very good business for us. 

These are all-immersive, somewhat specialized things, but there's a long tail in all these kinds of facilities, particularly when you get to sports and entertainment venues where they're putting LED all over the damn place, is it inherent that you have to sell across the whole venue? 

Like you can do the LED ribbon boards, you could do the scoreboard, you could do the big, fine pitch displays on the concourse and the whole bed, or can you just do the projection mapping? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, this is where our great partners come into play, and I'll speak about Whitlock, which is no longer around, the expertise that we brought to the table was... 

They’re part of AVI-SPL, in case anybody's wondering, they didn't just die. 

John Steinhauer: No, they didn't die. I exited before that piece of the puzzle came together. So I've never been a part of that team, but yeah, it turned into the big mega guys in the industry and they are very skilled at putting together applications like this, everything from scoreboards and things that you mentioned that we don't do. They have access to that technology, all the audio, which is, a huge part of the venues. They do all that kind of stuff too. 

So I'm an architect listening to this, or I'm a designer or end-user potentially, how does one engage with Barco? Is it through your partners or is it direct? How does all that work? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, it's through our partners, and through our sales team here in the Americas. But the best way I would say, because I want to have something concrete to say here at the end, in terms of contacting us, is to contact me, you can contact me directly and I can steer you into any direction you need.

John.Steinhauer@Barco.com, and I'd be happy to help anyone who needs more information. 

Perfect. That's a great way to end it. 

John Steinhauer: Thank you, Dave. 

Thank you. I appreciate your time. 

 

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.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

 

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. 

 

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