Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

October 28, 2020

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

The QSR industry has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, and some operators have fared much better than others for the simple reason that they had drive-thru lanes.

If the business relied on walk-in and dine-in traffic, they were in trouble. But if they had drive-thru lanes with pre-sell and menu displays, they tended to make out OK. What might have been 70% of their business went up past 90%.

Last week I moderated a roundtable panel on digital signage and the QSR business, chatting for  almost an hour with top people from companies active in the space - both vendors and end-users.

The Digital Signage Power Hour was hosted by AVIXA and sponsored by STRATACACHE. I led a discussion with Dan Williams from Stratacache, who worked with McDonald's on its massive digital deployment, Sara Grofscik of Samsung, who runs the QSR business there, Dave Petricig of PingHD, and Todd Hoffman, the digital lead for Krispy Kreme, and the subject of a recent 16:9 podcast.

The session starts with me rattling through some observations, and then we dive in.

AVIXA's Marcella Walsh can be heard at the back-end, answering some listener questions.

You can also watch the webinar online here ...

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No transcript on this one. Too many competing voices!

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

October 14, 2020

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

In the before times, when we did nutty things like fly on planes and walk around in crowds, I went to ISE in Amsterdam, and made a point of stopping by the small stand of a company called Wallboard.

An industry friend had suggested I check them out, so I popped by and had what turned into a lengthy demo. I walked away impressed and amused, thinking, "These guys are mad scientists."

Wallboard is a digital signage content management system like countless other systems on the market. What distinguishes them is a focus on IOT devices and data integration. The demo I had, thinking way back, involved a weigh scale and booze, as part of an access control system for factories.

Booze on your breath, you get pulled off to the side. If you weigh more than you did leaving than when you entered, the system and a screen flags that ... and then security people look in your pockets for stuff they think you might be taking home without permission.

It all speaks to where this whole idea of dynamic digital signage is going.

I spoke with Rod Roberson, the co-CEO of the company, which has a sales and marketing office in Dallas. Most of Wallboard's 40 or so people - the developers and mad scientists - work in an office outside of Budapest, Hungary.

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TRANSCRIPT

Rod, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a background on Wallboard? 

I know you guys, I've seen you at at least one trade show, but I wonder how many people in the general ecosystem know much about you. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. Sure, thanks for having me, Dave. So Wallboard is a Digital Signage CMS software platform. I would say that the platform does most things you would expect from a traditional CMS, managed screens, managed content, but what we really focus on is building a platform that allows our users to really build some advanced content through the use of our content editing tools, our integrations with live data and IOT sensors, and our ability to easily integrate with third party systems so that we can interact with some of the business process workflows that are inherent within those systems.

Company is in Dallas, but there's a big component of it in Hungary, right? 

Rod Roberson: That's correct. So the company was actually started in 2012 by my partner, Robert Simon. He's based near Budapest, Hungary. He started the company back then, spent about three or four years building up the platform, building the development team, and took it to market, in Europe, basically in 2016.

And then we met in 2017. I, at the time, was running the AV division of a family owned company and we were looking to build out a digital signage as a service product offering. And we were really struggling to find the right software partner for that. So met Robert, a lot of the boxes checked and we actually just started as a reseller. Then one thing led to another, he was looking for an investment partner and he hooked up with a few venture capital firms in Europe but I was able to convince them that we would be a better investment partner for him because we were strategic, we were talking to end users on a day to day basis.

And so we formalized that partnership, in 2018 and then that led to him saying, “Hey, I really need a day to day business partner to help me with sales and marketing”, so I joined him full time in 2019, and so sales and marketing really run out of the Dallas office. And then, he's running the tech team outside of Budapest. 

So how much of the company is in Budapest versus Dallas? 

Rod Roberson: I would say we've got probably close to 40 full-time employees. We've got 7 here in the States, so the majority of our company is really full-time developers. We've got 25-27, somewhere in that range of full time developers, that sit there in Hungary. 

What is that, about an eight hours difference? 

Rod Roberson: It's seven hours. 

Okay. So you've got to juggle your days quite a bit. 

Rod Roberson: I do, and it's been an interesting experience in terms of what my days look like now. I'm typically up pretty early and at least part of the internal work day is almost over at about 10 o'clock. But, yeah, it's a different work-life balance than I was used to before. 

Now, what was it that attracted you to this platform versus the 5,000 other ones that are out there?

Rod Roberson: One of the things we were looking for was just the flexibility to own our own backend, and one of the interesting things about Wallboard is that it's a distributed server infrastructure. We've got 40-45 global partners out there. And I would say the majority of them run their own servers so they really control that back end, which was an important piece to us. 

In addition to that, I just really love the flexibility of the system and the ability to do some more advanced things. I do think that, you're right, it's a crowded space when it comes to just traditional digital media playback applications but I think when you start to talk about more advanced things like data integrations, IOT sensor integrations, and the ability to start to create more dynamic content, content that reacts to the environment or reacts to something else that's happening versus just “here's a playlist I'm playing”, that's when I think, the space gets a little less crowded, and you know that originally, what excited me about the Wallboard. 

So when you say a distributed server setup, does that mean if there’s a reseller up here in Canada, you’ll  basically enable them to white label your platform?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. They can white label it and we have got a mix, we've got partners or resellers that completely white label the system, and that's very important to them, so they can do that. We also have ones that say, “Hey, I want to leverage your marketing. I want to leverage the Wallboard knowledge base.” And so they still want to be Wallboard, but they still want control of that server environment. We allow them to do that. And then that allows them to do a lot of administrative things on their end, in terms of customizing the settings, they can customize the security aspects of the system and they can create some custom programming that is very unique to their specific server. 

So if you're doing it that way, are you then selling a site license to these partners, or can you still get Wallboard as a service directly from you or your partners and pay a monthly license per node?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, so to the end-user, it looks about the same. And then most of our partners are selling the same way, which is an end-user license per node like you said. 

From a reseller's perspective, we have partners that say, we don't want to do that, we don't want to manage our own infrastructure. So we have servers in the US and in Europe, where partners, certainly new partners, can come on, test our system, but a few licenses on the system. but I would say our more serious partners end up gravitating toward their server environment.

Would these be your customer base? Would they be a little bit different from the standard customer base of a lot of CMS platforms that go after a small to medium business or they chase a particular vertical but it's a general offer? You're talking a lot about IoT and it sounds like increasingly specific and “complicated applications”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that it's an interesting question. I think that we've got a little bit of a mix of both, we've got the resellers that are very much more traditional AV integrators, they're interested in selling to those small and medium enterprises, they're selling meeting rooms and conference room technology and all that other AV stuff. And they're just bolting on digital signage as an additional offering, but as we get more advanced, we've got different kinds of partners that are into retail technology, and so they are very interested in IoT sensors. Some of our partners are just selling into the corporate environment, not so much. 

The same thing goes for data integration. The partners that we have that are really into the contact center space, they are very focused on that particular part of our platform, so it really runs the gamut in terms of, what is the partner, what's their customer base look like? And that kind of drives, what they're interested in from a platform perspective. 

So let's say five years ago, you pretty much had to go to a somewhat specialized CMS platform that had data modules built-in and had already written connectors. It was its own thing, but data has got fairly accessible now, and being able to take different data feeds from different systems isn't that technically hard in certain respects, but I assume it gets a lot harder when you get into specialized IoT sensors that maybe don't have a whole platform and API behind them.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. So you know, what we've done is, we partnered with a company called Five Stack, and they've got a microcontroller that's a nice little piece of equipment that you can connect to a bunch of different types of sensors into that little microcontroller computer. So digital analog, sensors with various different other communication protocols. So we've written firmware on that microcontroller that can talk to our CMS. 

So at that point, I can take basically any sensor integrated into that microcontroller. And that is that it acts as almost the glue between the sensor itself and our CMS that's triggering content.

If I think back all the way to the before times when you go out and meet people and all that, I went to ISE and got a demo from Robert and walked away from that after 20-25 minutes, kinda amused thinking, “these guys are mad scientists” because they were showing me all these crazy sensor integrations.

Could you describe some of the business applications that you're doing? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think it's early, we're still looking into various different use cases, but I think that one of the demos that you probably saw there in Amsterdam, we've got a partner that doesn't really have a digital signage background at all, he's a security consultant. And he recognized a need in these large factories, in his case, Eastern Europe, but there are large factories where these workers that go in and out of these things and there's a lot of different things that need to occur for them to get through the entry Gates.

So they've got questions that need to be answered, they need to specifically ID themselves, they want to make sure that they're not stealing products and services. And so there needs to be something there in terms of a live security person to check what they want to check, alcohol content, and I don't think it was not in the demo back then, but certainly now we've added a temperature check. Previously there was a need for like seven or eight of these security guards, because you've got 25,000 workers coming in at three different shifts, and we were able to essentially build a complete business process with our software, utilizing all these sensors. You essentially walk up to a kiosk. You step on a scale, you insert your RFID badge into it, you answer a few questions, your blow on the alcohol breathalyzer, you get your temperature taken, and if you're good to go, you're off into the space.

If you're not, there is an alert that gets triggered and now we've got two security guards versus seven. So there's a serious ROI in terms of reducing the labor force needed to get through this process. And then on the back end of that, they weigh you again, such that if you're 10 pounds heavier, they know that something's up.

So I think that's an interesting application. We've got a couple of others, and we're doing some proof of concepts here on the East coast. We've got a major retailer where they've got a 6X1 display. and then, and they are displaying all sorts of various different types of content. The original idea was to have buttons underneath the displays and a physical display so that the visitors could go and say, “I want to look at the Michelin tires”, or “I want to look at the AT&T services that you're offering”, and they would have to touch these buttons. Well, COVID hits, and all of a sudden they're saying, “what can we do to make this more contactless?” So instead of having a physical button there, we placed an IR sensor and we basically tuned that IR sensor, so that it only gets triggered if your finger gets within, two-three centimeters from the sensor itself. So we're able to mimic that button experience with an IR sensor to actually trigger the content. 

So you know, things like that, I think the retail space is really interesting for this IoT sensor application. I think there were some other ones with meeting room signs in the corporate environment that we were tinkering with. So again it’s early, but we're really excited about the things we can do and it's opening up a lot of conversations, you know what I mean? 

There are conversations where people say, can you do this, or this is my business need, what can you do? And that's where the mad scientist comes in and Robert goes back into his work area and comes out with some crazy ideas.

I assume that some of what you described, like the access control and weighing and testing for whether they have alcohol in their breath. Those are systems that if you went to a big multinational company, can't name one, but I can think of a few, they would say, “Sure, we can do that for you”, and it would probably cost $75,000 a unit or more. As you were describing with that company, you can buy sensors for, like they don't cost much at all, do they? 

Rod Roberson: No. It's certainly like buttons, sensors, those things, you're talking dollars, so again, there's some costs in terms of some of that customization, but we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of customer customization we have to do because it's all built on our core platform and we're reducing a lot of the custom coding that has to happen because we built these interfaces so that we can, graphically say, “when this happens, trigger this content or when this happens, trigger that.”

So that's a lot of if/then type stuff isn't in our interface as opposed to actually having to hard code that in a program. 

Yeah, I'm a huge believer in data-driven signage as opposed to scheduling a predetermined long and advanced signage that’s just rolling through stuff. But I assume that it's still a challenge to get, not only partners but particular end-users over the line in terms of understanding that this is possible and it's not crazily complicated and that they could manage it and maintain it on a fairly easy basis? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think you're right. That is a challenge and that's part of our sales process to show these things and show specific use cases. One of the things that we've done post-COVID was, we built this desktop broadcast app so you can, essentially, have some digital signage on your desktop itself, and everyone starts to really get excited about KPI's and all this other stuff. Now we have to get to the data because there's some way for us to get to whatever it is they want to display, but showing how easy it is to manage that data either, I mean, we could do it in a simple Google sheet, it doesn't have to be some massive complex database or Salesforce connector. We can do that too but even starting with baby steps starts to get people to understand what is possible and then that really gets the ball rolling in terms of, “Hey, this would be really cool and would be valuable to communicating this specific type of information, especially to a remote workforce”.

So with the pandemic, one of the things that have come along is using technologies and processes like queue management and trying to enable access control to limit the number of people coming into a facility or an establishment, a bar, whatever it may be. And it seems like all of this kind of really elevates the idea of using sensor-driven, IoT-driven signage. Are you guys seeing an opportunity there? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, absolutely, especially in Europe, there is a very big demand for people counting type solutions where they've got limited capacities and pretty strict rules with respect to how many people can be in a specific physical space, in retail and in restaurants and bars. So, definitely seeing that. 

We've got a couple of different conversations going with that respect, we've got some retail analytics companies that are already in some of these retail spaces with their retail analytics, and they've got the ability to do that “people counting” and so from that perspective, it's just data integration. So they send us the data and we can post how many people are in and count the people coming in and out. We're working on some other different types of technology, not camera related, but utilizing IR sensors to do that person counting function because it's a significantly cheaper option. So yeah, we're working on various different things, definitely seeing a demand for that. 

The other thing we're seeing is a demand for some ability to track and trace, especially in the UK right now, there's some sort of mandate to do that. I think there's a lot of these pubs and restaurants that are doing this by hand where you're walking into a pub or a restaurant and the bouncer’s writing down who the people are coming in. We've developed a really quick and easy solution where they could hit a QR code that takes them into our system on their phone. They submit their information. That then submits it back to the restaurant we were at, and we're not housing any of that data. That's data for the restaurant, but it allows them to conform to the government regulations in an easy way and it's not paper-driven, which seems like a 20 year old technology to me. 

Yeah, I would think, there's going to be some privacy pushback with that, but that's not really our problem, that's up to the government and the venue operators to sort out. You're just enabling it, right? 

Rod Roberson: Correct. 

So one of the interesting things that I saw about your company was an integration you did with HP. Can you describe what that's all about? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, our investment partner, ImageNet, that their core business is selling printers and copiers, and they've got a super-strong relationship with HP. So HP has developed this platform called HP Workpath, and it's essentially a platform that sits in their interface and it allows app developers to develop apps, primarily for printing, scanning, and copying, but we went to their developer conference last year in Barcelona and because that user interface is running on an Android tablet and we've got such deep integration with Android already, we were able to relatively easily port over our code, so that we can run on that HP Workpath and in that base and path environment. 

That tablet right now is a fairly weak piece of hardware, we've actually had to dumb down our platform a little bit, so there are no performance issues because there are all these things that these resellers are thinking to do with terms of data integration and the ability to send messages back to the service company that the printer has an issue with. 

A lot of that stuff is coming, but at this point, it's really more of a screensaver, so when the printer is not in use, it's scrolling through corporate communications type messaging and that sort of thing, and then it just almost acts like a kiosk. So when you touch the screen, our application goes into the background. They're using the printer for whatever they're going to use it for, and then after the 32nd or 62nd timeframe, it goes back to that screensaver mode. 

What are the kinds of things that you'd want to put there? I'm sure it goes beyond “Happy birthday, Becky” and “It's taco Tuesday”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think that some of it is kinda like a reminder to do some of the things that they want to be done, for example, “clean the screen” is a reminder type of a message that we're having, more generic COVID-type messages in terms of just office space, protocol, but then also more like how-tos, right? Certainly, I'm probably going to know how to scan a document that, but maybe there's something more unique in terms of what I want us to want to do, and if I'm able to put a lot of that information in almost like a kiosk type of environment on the screen itself.

Right now we can't do video, but ultimately we can push videos to that so that if I don't know how to do a particular thing or there's a trick, or if there’s an issue with the printer, I can quickly get to that from an informational perspective. 

So because it's an Android tablet device, in some cases, pretty small display, but on other ones, decent Samsung galaxy size displays, the challenge is that the processor doesn't have the horsepower or the version of Android is too old?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. I don't even know what version of Android they’re using, but I think they’re on version 4, and we're up to 11 now, and they've got a new generation that's supposed to be coming soon, I think it was supposed to be coming out this fall but I'm sure that got delayed, so we're thinking sometime in 2021, and it's still early for us on the sales side. With HP, I have weekly meetings with them and it's been surprising to me how excited they are about this because I think it's something unique for them, I think it's something that they can go tell, and if they're in a competitive deal with another manufacturer and with these copiers, it's hard to sometimes differentiate what one can do versus the other you need, if I can do this, it's an icing on the top type of a thing that I can go as a value add to win a deal.

You also see it for your company as a bit of a door opener in that meeting room signs lead to more kinds of digital signage around an office space. This might lead to, “could you also do meeting room science because you also do that directory or other stuff”. 

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And the benefit there is that it's all in one ecosystem, right?

So it's in one system where they can have their signage, their meeting room signs, communication on their printers, directories. It's not five or six different software vendors and systems that they're managing. You can all do that, in a single instance of Wallboard. 

With manufacturing and production facilities, do you see an opportunity with no end of different kinds of equipment that makes stuff for packaged stuff, or whatever that there's an opportunity to apply sensors to those things to show the state of equipment? 

I've been in auto manufacturing plants where there are big bulletin boards filled with printouts of spreadsheets that show the state of different systems and thought, “this is goofy, this is like 1985”, but that's the way they were. And you would think that being able to jack into a piece of equipment that spits out some basic readings on how it's doing, that being able to translate that kind of a sign or apply a sensor to, it would make a world of difference?

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And then making the content more dynamic so it doesn't just go into a Power BI massive dashboard where you've got 8 million pieces of data on one screen, and it's just hard to read. You're pushing the most relevant content to the screen based on whatever it is. So if System ABC is down, that's what's coming onto the screen and it's not one tiny data point, to try to find amongst a million. 

Is it challenging in current environments, because you can't travel really very much at all, except locally, to get the word out about what you guys are all about?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think certainly it's been somewhat challenging. Obviously, we were excited about exhibiting at DSE and all that sort of stuff. We made some real headway at ISE and DSE last year. So certainly from that perspective and just being able to get out and about, it is more challenging, but, with what we do in demoing software, that part, we can do virtually and, a certain part of our day in day out is more partner acquisition, and not always just in use, selling to the end-user. And that certainly has been staying fairly active over the last six months because, there's a cycle to that, people get to get in the system and learn it and test it and that's not always their first priority. And we've been able to make a lot of headway with respect to a lot of different types of partnerships. And not necessarily having to slow down so much, due to COVID, but no question, on the end-user side, and we still need screens to be deployed and turned on for licenses to be ordered and that certainly has been slower. 

Although, we see the activity picking up. We see a lot of people saying, “we want to start these projects early 2021”. So you know, that's good in terms of that activity. It's always going to be, what happens here with COVID is, obviously I can't predict that, but I'm hopeful that, we're in a stronger position or the world is, going into 2021, which will make all these conversations that we're having now come to fruition.

Are there partners who are better suited to what you do? I mean local and regional digital signage solutions providers who've been around digital signage forever, but I'm thinking because of your technical strength in the IoT side of things, that there are maybe integration partners who don't wake up in the morning, thinking purely about digital signage, they’re thinking about other elements, all the way to access control systems and things like that. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right and that's been a struggle for us, finding who is our ideal partner. We can talk to a lot of more traditional AV integration firms, and if digital signage is the fourth or fifth thing that they sell and they're really more focused on, all those other things, Crestron/Extron blah, blah, blah, that's going to be tougher.

I mean, they always love the software, but it's hard for them to focus on, even building a digital signage recurring revenue business, that's just not what they do. They're more transactional in nature and so they're not waking up thinking about that, but there are other partners that are more boutique digital signage, this is what they do. And those are the partners that really understand our systems, understand the value of the time savings related to being able to do some things without having to custom code, and another system and bandaid all that stuff together. Those are the partners, I think they're naturally faster at getting it and starting to scale in terms of ordering licenses. 

Do you see much of an opportunity for just playing plain vanilla digital signage wherein you create some content, find a playlist, you schedule it, send it out and you're done? It strikes me as that's the sort of thing that's so easy these days to do that. I don't know that it's still going to have much relevance. 

Rod Roberson: I agree. I mean that's just going to be a price war at that point. I can argue that our system is elegant and it's an easy way to do that, and we still have customers, that's all they want to do. But it's very difficult to differentiate yourself in that sort of world. 

You mentioned Android, is that the primary platform you're working on for the hardware that you're using? 

Rod Roberson: No. I think that's really driven by our partners. I think we've got a really strong relationship with BrightSign. We're seeing a lot of new partners that are BrightSign-only partners and like our software and like to be able to do that in the BrightSign ecosystem. We've got some use cases that need Windows, but there are also the partners that say, “Hey, I want a cheaper box and, and I'm comfortable with Android and I'm selling to small businesses that don't have the security agitation that sometimes comes with Android.” So it fits for their business model. 

Now BrightSign is a special purpose box, PCs, or they seem to be turning into specialty applications in signage, just because of their costs and everything and the market seems to be moving into dedicated boxes and to systems on chips, where do you see things going?

Rod Roberson: That's a good question. When we built out our system on chip integrations with Samsung and LG, I thought that that's just where the market would go and take off, and we're seeing some of that, but we're still seeing a lot of people still stick to these dedicated boxes. 

I'm not as focused on the hardware. What we want to do is allow our partners and our end users to say, it doesn't matter, choose your hardware, whatever fits your budget and your use case, but run our software on it, and so we're focused on being able to perform on all those various different operating systems and hardware components. 

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

Rod Roberson: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

September 30, 2020

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

The iconic doughnut chain Krispy Kreme has something of a cult status, with people flocking to their stores to get a fresh, warm, melt-in-your-mouth yeast doughnut.

There are Krispy Kreme stands and small shops, but a real Krispy Kreme store - the kind that gets people lining up - has the whole production line in view of customers, and shows the glazed doughnuts coming out of the fryer. It is experiential in its own way.

But the chain, based in North Carolina, wanted to really amplify the brand and experience for its new flagship store in New York, in Times Square. It opened recently, and it may be the most ambitious, experience-driven QSR operation on the planet.

There are giant LED visuals outside, 'cuz its Time Square. But inside, there are stacked video walls for branding and promotion, digital menu displays, interactive tables, and a scheduled projection-mapping show called Doughnut Theater.

I spoke with Todd Hoffman, the digital lead on the 4,500 square foot flagship store.

TRANSCRIPT

Todd. Thanks for joining me. Your company, Krispy Kreme recently launched something in New York City in Times Square. Can you tell me what that experience is all about and why it happened? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. It's an opportunity for an iconic brand to make a big statement out there, Times Square is kind of a crossroads of the world, with a great place to plant a flag, I guess we're in 32 countries with about 1400 shops and and it was time to put a big stick in the ground and say something major for the brand.

We do plan a big rollout starting in 2021, and also we're coming to New York in a big way. So times square just made sense. 

New York is the home of the, not the home, but there's a lot of Dunkin donuts there and a few Tim Hortons. Krispy Kreme wasn't really present in the market? 

Todd Hoffman: We had a shop in Penn station and years ago we had more shops, but we decided strategically that this was where we wanted to expand. And, this year we rolled out four shops, even before Time Square. We've got a couple more coming at the end of the year and then entering into Dwayne Reed, the world to expand our reach even further.

This one in Times Square, it's the whole nine yards where you're doing all the production right there and people can walk in and see what's going on in the whole theater piece of it? 

Todd Hoffman: Absolutely. It’s 4,500 square feet. So it's a big shop for us. We make donuts 24/7. So that's why you have a hot light that's always on top of the roof. 

And these are not regular donuts. These are the “melt in your mouth” ones? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we call them OGs (Original Glazed) but they're yeast doughnuts that take an hour to make from beginning to end, and we have a machine that can do 270 dozens an hour.

So this location is filled with technology, inside and out. You see this big LED screen as you're approaching it. Of course, it's one of the gazillion LED screens in Times Square, but it walked through everything that was done and the thinking behind it? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. Sight lines were huge. We're at 48th & Broadway, and the goal is to be seen from 40th street all the way up to 55th. That's where we have the world's largest hotline on the roof, 15 feet, about 8,000 pounds that will be lit and truly you can see it from an even longer distance. We're using lights that are typically used on airport runways so that's one of the big pieces. We have a wraparound billboard, that's 110x35 feet. And then under that we have a ribbon of LED screens where basically you can see donuts just like they're on their conveyor, scrolling, and we could also put any kind of other messaging.

Trying to hit it hard from a distance. Everything we did, we wanted to stand out of the crowd, everybody wants to stand up the crowd, But, I think, I think we did, especially with something as simple as our big red hotline, just rotating slowly. With the pandemic that became somewhat of a beacon of hope and optimism. I mean, who doesn't like donuts? 

And even the opening of shops throughout the year, while other people might've been closing shops, and contracting, we've gone full speed ahead. 

And I believe this store was originally going to open earlier in the year, but then, New York kind of went into lockdown and that delayed it a little bit?

Todd Hoffman: It did, but, mid-July, you know, we're right in Times Square with 10% of its normal traffic, the decision was made that it was important for us internally, and we felt in New York externally to stay on track and so we opened in September. And, by the time we opened, let's say Times Square was back 30 to 40% of its average traffic, but we still hit our records anyway. Word got out. 

So when you say records, do you mean that in terms of record sales, foot traffic? 

Todd Hoffman: Both. For the opening day, we hit records and then for the opening week, also records. We opened on Tuesday always and then by Saturday, the word had gotten out to the suburbs into New Jersey and we had a big day on Tuesday, but even bigger days on Saturday and then Sunday.

And you kinda need sales records there because the cost of rent in a Times Square area is a couple of bucks? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. 

Not like being out in the suburbs. 

Todd Hoffman: No, and you know, profit is always an incentive, but making a big statement in Times Square that becomes our marker, that we've returned to New York.

We are in Harlem, where in the Bronx. We're down in the Financial district and we're going to open up shops in Brooklyn and the upper West side. 

If you're in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, you’ll have to be artisanal. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Well, we stick to our roots. We did introduce our first, let's say $10 donut, but a big Apple donut, which is our nod to New York, comes in a beautiful box with candy Apple coating. And, it's a donut that we were taking a big risk on, but we've sold hundreds and hundreds on days. You know big risk, beautiful products but it seems to have resonated with locals. We thought tourists would buy it, but there are no tourists.

So locals seem to gravitate. 

Yeah, they take it with them. And while, I guess they're not traveling either and nobody is? 

At some point that'll all change I'm sure. So outside, the big LED displays it's as much a branding statement as it is something that's going to generate foot traffic.

Obviously people are being attracted and when they walk inside, what do they see? 

Todd Hoffman: That's where all of our, I want to say razzle dazzle is, but that's where we've really turned up the heat with digital experiences and in the pandemic where you're not so able to have a full house, or give out samples, or really have the energy that a room full of people have, digital served an even greater purpose.

When you walk in, we've got two video columns facing opposite directions. So you start to see one that's a 53-55 inch screen stacked on each other. So you can see from the door, the pathway leads right to our donut theater, where we make the donuts march down the line. So the pathway was right to the donuts and that's where we took the concept of donut theater and Bravo media, the team, to them, it was obvious that we were on Broadway, we should put out a Broadway show. Initially we were just gonna do some corporate information on the back wall and simple projection, but David really challenged us and we've got four projectors plus a camera that helps us track individual donuts as they march down the line, and that's all, spectacular visuals for people to get their appetite. But, every 12 minutes, we have a show that's about 35 seconds long from the five shows that Bravo created.

And this is on the white tile, subway tile wall beyond the Conveyor that the donuts are moving along, right? And the workers are on the other side of that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we didn't want it to take people's mind away from the donuts, which is why we only show it every 12 minutes and have these very short, spectacular shows, no words. It's really just spectacular entertainment and it has brought lots of energy to the room, to the point where there's a button in the back where you can advance these shows and when we feel a low energy in the room, boom, they kinda fire up one of the “Takeover” and it's projection on the back wall. They mapped to each individual tile, things that I didn't think somebody could do and then based on mapping to the tiles, all the different shows, you feel like, the tiles are coming off, the wall or sprinkles are coming down out of this ceiling, and then, there's another projector that projects onto our Donut glazed waterfall. And normally in our shops, it's about three inches tall here, it's three feet and, just to bring the focus on the original glaze, and then there's one that happens serendipitously where we've got sprinkles on the back wall and it looks beautiful and then one day the team members just started to poke at the sprinkles as they were exploding on the back wall and it looks like they're playing a video game with their hands, and when that takeover comes on, the donut maker stop what they're doing, they turn around and they start popping up a wall.

That has become a really spectacular show that says a lot about, I think the brand, cause we were loose enough to let it go, crazy enough to put all this stuff into our donut theater and then, let our team members, start to really interact with it. 

Is that part of the team member job description that you're required to do this when this particular show comes on or did that just organically happen? 

Todd Hoffman: It organically happened, but now we do require you do it. If you fear the first tone, then, somebody might come off the floor and one of the donut makers in uniform, and they love it and it's as if they're competing, how many sprinkles you're gonna explode in the course of 35 seconds? 

It’s a break in what they're normally doing. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. So that's our lead in, and when we first designed the shop, and being Times Square and being Krispy Kreme, we expected hour long lines, but the pandemic has changed that where we're only at our 25% capacity.

So we have this donut theater that people can see what their appetite, and then at the end of it, they're facing that digital column that kinda shows images of donuts, dozens of donuts, coffee, lattes, trying to help them think about what they're about to order before they hit any one of our five display cases and that's what they're there for. That's where the fun starts, figuring out how to fill the box with your favorite donuts. 

You run all the digital for Krispy Kreme, right? 

Todd Hoffman: I'm the digital lead. My day job is menu boards. That's what I signed up for. And then, what made it the best job in America was being able to do Times Square in the past nine months. Yep. 

When the ideation process was happening for this Times Square store and started floating concepts like the donut theater, I assume you had to sell that up to your managers and the executive team.

Did they go, “Hell yeah!” or did they look at your cross eyed, “You want to do what?” 

Todd Hoffman: I thought when we decided not to put messaging on the back wall, executive leadership would see it as a missed opportunity. But our COO, who really is the one who let Bravo do their stuff, which was a pretty amazing match. When he showed it to the executive team, our Head of operations, our president, they just loved it. 

Krispy Kreme as a whole, it's a very low key brand. We let our product say everything that it needs to say. We don't have an ad budget, we change up the donuts a lot, but it's really word of mouth. So we don't brag and this was a way for us to be on brand, and just entertain and make it a happy place. Where I thought it was crazy, cause I'm new to the brand, I grew up in the Northeast and really was only introduced to it when I started with Krispy Kreme. 

They were true to form, and it went over, I'd say very well across the executive team and they let go and we got to execute it.

Are digital menu boards standard to a Krispy Kreme store? 

Todd Hoffman: They are being introduced in every new store and we're testing in remodels. So eventually all the remodels will have them. The delicate balance is, we don't want people to see technology. The name of the game is, they see what they need to see, they get the information they want. We've met their appetite with some animation, but we really don't want them to feel like they're looking at TV screens, so we've stepped delicately. 

I'd say we have 15 shops that now have digital menu boards and next year we'll do a big expansion, but Times Square was a deviation. It was a project and an aspiration, all its own. 

You talked about rollout. Is this a concept that's going to go elsewhere, like the Times Square donut theatre thing? 

Todd Hoffman: It may, but there may be one other location in the US where we go all in the way we did in New York. You might guess where that is. There are other places where we have a strong presence, England, Australia, Mexico, that may merit this kind of flagship shop. 

Yeah, you could do Lester square if you ever went to Dubai, Tokyo, places like that. I would imagine, you're not saying it, but referencing Las Vegas would be the one that would make the most sense.

Todd Hoffman: Further South, maybe it's Disney territory or such. We’ll see. (Laughter)

The only one I've seen in Las Vegas was in, the one which looks like a castle and all that. 

Todd Hoffman: I think we have a presence out there, but now it's where tourists from around the world congregate, and I was there to have fun family oriented. 

So with your standard, digital menu boards, have you had any sense of what they do? Do they make a difference operationally or in terms of sales or is it just a more efficient way of doing things? 

Todd Hoffman: I'd say the pandemic screwed this up because we can't really comp stores.

We've been opening new shops so that we can comp from the year before. And then the few remodels we did, we only had a couple of months to look at, but we are definitely thinking that it's driving drinks, grabbing beverage attachment, and the goal is maybe a higher average check or more dozens.

But we believe in the concept that it is having impact, and the drive through as well. So definitely, our belief that it's worth the investment is growing, but maybe we need more months and we need more comping to confirm that.

You sent me a list of all the various components involved and there's a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved. How did all this get pulled together? Cause I'm looking at it like a dozen vendors or something like that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. You know, it started with our design team working with an architect, who are the best of the best. They set the stage and put a lot of this activity in there, not knowing how to do it. I don't think they have much experience doing it, but they could envision what could be done with the digital columns or projecting and the donut theater.

They helped us take our icons and then the icons within an iconic brand, the hotline, the donut box, the waterfall, the donut line and build on them to the point where the whole place seemed to be a theater. So they set the stage. Then we had a major creative shop come in, partnered with a technology lead, which was Electro Sonic and they took the first stab at how we fill it in, with kind of interactive tables and projection during the theater and where the menu boards might go and digital columns, but then we took it and we just dished it out to specialists in each area. 

We used Stata Cash for menu boards. I don't think any other company could have done what we did with these menu boards or any other platform. We've got three layers of imagery that's on there. We've got an animation scrolling animation in the middle board. There's three boards together. We've got your basic, DOS connected menu board items. And then every 30 seconds we have these takeovers that wash across the three screens and it took hours and days for us to, I think we pushed their platform, we pushed the media players that we were using. We pushed their creativity, but, in time we were able to kinda get what we wanted because visually it seems simple, but executionally, it was a really big challenge.

So, kudos to those guys for sticking in there and giving us the vision that we wanted with the menu boards. 

And Strata Cash at least would drive through with some of their clients, they're doing things like AI driven, suggestive selling and menu optimization. Are you guys looking at that or doing it? 

Todd Hoffman: We will be. They are our shop of record, so that's the platform we're going forward with. You know, a lot based on how they presented, we looked at nine different options for menu boards this year, Strata Cash came out on top, partly due to our aspirations with drive-thru. We think we can make more money through drive-thru or have a greater impact digitally through drive-thru.

Then we can go inside the shop. So their expertise in that area and ability to personalize. Everybody had some angle on personalized when they're pitching us, reading license plates, geo-fencing, what have you, but, I'd say Strata Cash their work from McDonald's and others, gives the comfort level that they were the ones to go with for the long haul.

So we've probably done a few shops with them, including Times Square. 

I suspect there's a few vendors who come in and say, “yeah, we can do all that”, but when you push them on it, that has to do with whether they've actually ever done it, it's a different story. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there are some great outfits out there. The surprise to me, I don't know if you stay on a screen on a radio call, it's one of the few times where I thought the best of class was going to be out of our budget. And then when we looked at it, they were right there. So they were affordable and impressive, and continue to impress, but this isn't an ad for Strata Cash.

Yeah, they've done well. The idea of this store, obviously I haven't been there in six or seven months. I wonder about the sensory overload element of it. You've got audio, you've got the theater, you've got the LED displays. You've got all this stuff going on. Is there a balance you have to achieve so that it doesn't become overpowering to people when they walk in there?

Or do you just see and know, “That’s okay, I'm going into an attraction.” 

Todd Hoffman: It sounds like you were listening in on our meetings because of some of our great concerns leading up to opening. We had to get the sound levelled for background music and then, with the donut theater, the light, there's a light show and sound had to rise, but it couldn't rise so far that people couldn't talk so there's a lot of nuances, a lot of, I'd say over the next month, we're going to be doing some fine tuning, but I'm happy to say when we opened, we were pretty close to, in our mind perfect on the balance, bu, getting team member input, getting guests input is critical.

So when we're fine tuned in 30 days, we'll be able to do our best to make it work, but I don't think there's a feeling that we're over the top, yeah. 

Well, you are in Times Square, where everything else is. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there's a lot of leeway and so the only place we shouted was outside, that's where it's fair game.

And if you do shout, you know, you don't get heard. So we've tried to whisper with things like the hotline, going back in time, it looks like it's been there since the 1950s, even though we just fired it up last Tuesday, 

What's been the response of people coming in? 

Todd Hoffman: I have been there for the last 10 days and I would stop people in Times Square when I saw them sitting at a table, enjoying the donuts and they say they've been waiting for Krispy Kreme to arrive. We got a thousand pieces of media before we even opened, billions of impressions, so there was a lot of buildup, and a lot of anticipation and everybody I talked to, which are several dozens, seemed to be happy with what they saw.

Well, if they've ever had a Krispy Kreme donut, of course they're happy.

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. And it all comes down to this silly little, original glazed donut that's still warm in your hands. Once you've had one, you can't forget it. 

So before we returned to New York, you could get them in Penn station, but they weren't as fresh as they are when we're making them in a shop. 

They'd been shipped in from somewhere else. It's just different when it comes off that line. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, and they're always made fresh daily, but when it's in the fryer and then through the glaze only seconds ago, it's quite a treat.  

Technology is being applied in some retail environments to manage access control and capacity control.

I'm guessing you didn't have to really do that because you were already in a situation where you needed to have bouncers or some mechanism to limit how many people are in the store at a given time? 

Todd Hoffman: There are adjustments we did make for the pandemic. We have virtual queuing so you can make reservations in advance, and again, we didn't know how chaotic the lines would be going up Broadway and down 40th street. And that has helped a lot with the flow.

Mobile order pickup, that's been huge. We have a window on the street, a take-out window or and that's where you pick up your mobile order, and more than double of what we do in an average shop in terms of percentages are done through mobile order. And I'd say that's how we were able to hit our records. We can only have a certain amount of traffic inside the shop. Then when we have this walk up window, we're selling OGs and coffee, but also, picking those delivering mobile loaders, so that was a great add to what we've done. And line queuing inside, there's a lot of subtle technologies that we have used to do line management and we'll continue to optimize. 

Is there dispatch and recognition on that? Like Order #1-5 or Customer #1-5, you can come in now. 

Is that just done by text messaging or are you doing anything on screens?

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, it is. There's push messaging that'll tell you where you are in line and then tell you're third in line and then tell you how long until you need to be at the front door. 

The virtual queuing is definitely a work in progress. The company we went with hadn't done anything quite so complex or customized. I'd say the team that worked on that, which wasn't me, has done a great job of making it work to our needs. That has helped people in line who have been waiting for minutes, if not hours, there doesn't seem to be this issue of somebody walking up right to the door who had a reservation.

And we opened on a Tuesday but our reservations were booked till Saturday. That gives a hint that we were in for a pretty busy week. 

Wow. So last question. Engagement and experience are terms that get tossed around a lot and kind of lose their value in certain respects. How do you define “experience” when it comes to this place?

Todd Hoffman: So much of what our marketing team does - they almost police us - to make sure we're on brand. So we had to be on brand, color wise and with messaging, and yet we wanted to really push the envelope and make a huge statement and have people feel like they were coming to a flagship shop, especially anticipating international travelers who are our lifelong fans when they know there's a Krispy Kreme in Times Square, just like there's an M&M store or what have you, they're going to want to go and our experience, not just buying donuts, like getting to the donut cake and being in the room has to feel like you've arrived somewhere. 

And, I think we have. Our general contractor had a great line in that he doesn't think there'll be another shop like this for a few years, that has put so much into it, that has tried so hard to please its fans, its customers as we have and we've got pretty three racks worth of technology. Technologically wise, he had not handled anything that was this complex, but also, in the front of house with customers, he just felt like there was so much to see and do while you're in the shop, and he's done a lot of stores in Times Square, but he said we had hit it out of the park. So anecdotally, with just from word of mouth or reactions, we think we've done it. 

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

 

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

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

September 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

September 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

Which is orange? 

Erica: That's correct. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know what those are. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amahl Hazelton, Moment Factory

Amahl Hazelton, Moment Factory

September 9, 2020

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

Montreal's Moment Factory has done many of the most visually interesting digital experiences you'll see these days - from airports and big shopping malls to ancient churches, old forts and forests.

As with just about every company out there, COVID-19 has impacted what Moment Factory does - but in this chat with Amahl Hazelton, you'll hear how the company has been successfully working its way through the pandemic, keeping a crew that's now north of 400 people busy on new and running projects.

Hazelton does strategy and development at the company, and has been a point person on many of Moment's projects in public and urban spaces. We get into the big demand that's coming in from outdoor attractions to create memorable digital experiences in outside spaces that can be made workable and safe, even when social distancing is required.

We talk about how and why big visual projects come together, their goals and how success is measured.

We also talk about how the pandemic has reinforced some lifestyle and operating changes that were already coming together for Moment - like a big deployment that would normally have as many 30 staffers on the ground, for weeks, in another city - instead having three. Web cams and effective ongoing collaboration filled the gap, and it seems to work.

There's a really short list of companies, globally, that do end-to-end iconic experiential media and events, and Moment is by far the largest of them - and by most measures the best.

Have a listen.

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TRANSCRIPT

Amahl, thank you for joining me. It's been a while since we've seen each other in person. It's been a while since I've seen most people in person. I know a ton about Moment Factory. I've been to your studios and everything up in beautiful Montreal. I miss Montreal, but I'm not traveling anytime soon, but for those who don't know much about the company, can you explain what Moment Factory is all about and what your role is there?

Amahl: Sure. So we're a pretty unique multimedia studio, doing entertainment and placemaking, and we've grown over the past decade from about 25 to 425+ staff with really almost equally divided between technical design system architecture and motion design, content creation, art direction, of what we see on signature multimedia features be they for live rock shows and things like that, which is probably around 10% of our business and has been impacted by COVID, but is still in the pipeline for when things come back to live venues. And then the rest of about 90% of our work is in these permanent placemaking projects, what we've called over the years, “destinations”. 

Your company has done a number of really iconic projects. Are there ones you can rattle off that people can go, “Oh yeah. I saw that.” 

Amahl: Sure. I think a lot of people have been through some of the world's major airports and they've seen what we've done in LAX back in 2013. I know they've seen it on your blog Sixteen:Nine. More recently numerous collaborations with Changi airport, which has consistently ranked number one in the world, and it's always trying to set a new standard with their various terminals as they bring them online, as well as the various spaces that surround the airport. So they've been quite innovative in building entire attractions and almost theme parks around the airport so that people have things to do, from the local community and also travelers who are coming in and out and using the airport as a hub.

So there's a lot of interesting stuff that's been there and not just entertainment. There have been some interesting pain points solved by those destinations, dealing with long waiting lines, creating entertainment, and diversion around the checking lines, for example, through security in the case of Changi. And I think they're pretty proud about that now, as they've got folks coming in and out on a limited basis, but they have a lot more gates and checks and people can be entertained and informed as they move through those zones compared to other places where, really, there's no digital option to communicate or to keep people distracted while they're waiting.

So that's been an interesting model that a lot of airports and other transportation hubs have been reaching out to us about. We're currently working on some projects people love seeing, and a lot of people will see them once things pick up again in travel, working with the busiest train station in North America, as well as the busiest in the world. I won't name them, but it's not hard to find. And those are all working on similar principles, wanting to do something special, communicate the destination and keep people engaged, especially since as many of the listeners will know, our airports, and there's a lot of planes coming in and out, but over 50% of the revenues of better-run airports is from their retail, food and beverage layer, which means that they're almost more shopping centers than they are airports.

And then people will have seen, as recently as last year, work that we did in live events with Ed Sheeran's world tour, with Red Hot Chili Peppers with that pretty incredible kinetic chandelier, that would have been developed by Tate towers. And then, importantly, a lot of innovation around interactive experiences, what we call augmented games, augmented sports, where we're dealing with mixed reality. And we're starting to create interactive installations that play with actual, real audiovisual installed platforms as well as various ways. Yeah. That people can participate in and contribute to an onsite experience via connected devices, like their phones and things like that.

Crazy stuff where we're mapping skateboard parks, while people do skateboard championships and they can send emojis out onto the field, around the skateboarders and things like that. 

When you're doing big public spaces, like the unnamed rail hubs, I've been involved with clients who have just flat out said, we want eye candy, we want the wow factor. We want something that makes people go, “Oh, wow”. But I would imagine given the amount of capital investment and the amount of investment in good creative and everything else that these clients want to do more than just have something that looks pretty, do they clearly define their purpose, what they want out of it?

And how do you work with them when it comes to the temptation to try to monetize what’s up on these with these big visuals because sometimes if you monetize them, it turns into advertising and it just loses the whole impact. 

Amahl: Monetizing is much more complex than that actually for a lot of these destinations. Some, which have been used to having digital signage, do negotiate some kind of concession for advertising and getting on their platforms, but most of them actually have higher priorities, that are worth a lot more money to them.

And, and I would summarize that in one word, the visitor, the thing that all of these destinations want is a footfall and eyeballs. So they want to be reputationally the most competitive destination in their space. So they don't want to be the 5th most popular shopping mall in their city, they don't want to be the 8th top airport in the world. or the 10th theme park. They want to be number one. And that means being top of mind. And today being top of mind means that you've got a lot of buzz and you've got a lot of photogenic content circulating on the internet and you are right eye candy plays into that.

But the strategy and the objectives are much higher than that. We want, we need, and we depend on visitors and, and there's a big role that Iconic Media features with meaningful content strategies, especially interactive ones can draw visitorship and when we're talking with these destinations, I can summarize it usually in five main objectives.

They want to be top of mind, but they don’t want to just be famous with nobody coming on the site, so there has to be some kind of call to action. And after being number one reputationally, number two is that they want more visitors. They want them, number three, to stay longer on the site, to longer dwell times. They want people to engage more, traditionally a lot of these destinations had no clue who was coming in and out and had no direct relationship with them, but with today's ecosystem of digital devices and content and sharing, now we can know who those people are. Destinations can know who they are, and have a relationship before, during, and after they arrive on the site.

And, what's key to all of that is what is the onsite experience so that they come, they've got something to look forward to and something to engage with and that's been our only focus for the entire 20 years that Moment Factory has been around, we're going to celebrate 20 years in January, and as you know, none of our productions with the hundreds and hundreds of productions that we've done, not a single one, is actually delivered on a traditional 16:9 screen of a mobile phone or a TV in your basement cinema, or in a theater. It's all out there in the real world, which is why our slogan, our credo is, “We do it in public” because we use all these same skill sets from cinema and video game, TV stage production, all the traditional AV formats, but we only do it in public.

How many of your clients, I don't need a number, but I'm curious how often do you have clients who come to you with a very clear idea of what they want and how it will play out versus those who have an aspiration and you guys tease it out and create something? 

Amahl: I would say it's usually aspirational. It really depends on where the project comes from. If a project is coming through an end-user, it's often aspirational. They know what they want to achieve, but they're not sure how to get there. They have a sense of confidence in the fact that we come with so much experience and expertise, and we do a lot of R&D and innovation so we're ahead of the curve. Often a lot of this stuff that we do has never been seen before, and then we move on and keep innovating and do something new for the next client. 

And that those three things bring people in there's already a well-established design process then people may be coming in and saying, we are architects, we’ve designed a building, but we know that we've got a lobby and an amphitheater and things like that, and we would like to work with you, Moment Factory to see what we can conceive of that. 

For those spaces right now, I would say the trends of what we're seeing, and the outreach that we're receiving, which is tremendous, really has to do with, all the disruption attached to code. So, spaces destinations of all kinds, regional, rural, urban, interior, exterior, have been reaching out and saying, either in the case of rural zones, we've got more visitors than ever, “What can we offer them? We would like to do something like the Lumina Night Walk that you've created.”

Could you describe that? Just so people understand it. 

Amahl: Sure. I think you might have a couple on your blog, but essentially... 

Yeah, I don't have any readers. 

Amahl: (Laughter) I don't think that's true. You certainly have me and a lot of my colleagues, but, the Lumina is essentially like a walk in a natural or heritage environment.

So say, a nature park or a heritage fort, for example, and it essentially consists of 7-10 exterior stations, where people can get tickets. They're always in a nighttime environment because they're outside and it takes about 40 minutes to walk through this series of experiences, which usually have a narrative around them based on the local identity, that place, its stories, its people, its myths, and legends.

And, those have been already inherently COVID compliant as I call it. So you had specific departure times when you bought a ticket, so you're leaving at 9:20, you arrive in your group and you move straight into the experience as a group, and the experiences are permeable, so you can come in and out of them, at your rhythm.

And people have a lot of space on these walks to move around each other without coming into contact and have a tremendous family experience which, you know, there's a dearth of that. And, if there are connected objects, which in some cases, there are things that they can touch, those are easily sterilizable.

So interestingly, we've seen not only that, we've actually opened a brand new production that was procured entirely during COVID. We opened Alt Lumina, which is our first European Lumina Night Walk, we actually opened it just four weeks ago in Lije, which is in the French Alps. We're working on a number of other ones and we've opened almost all of the Lumina Night Walks, which are now 12 around the world.

So we started with a couple of them in Quebec and then have them also in Japan, in Singapore, in Western and Eastern Canada, in Toronto zoo, and now Europe and some on the working table in the United States and elsewhere. So not only have some of those opened and been created during COVID, we're receiving a lot of demand for those and have actually accelerated the opening of some which were only winter ones. So we had some winter Lumina Night Walks that asked us to come in and get them going for the summer season so that they could take advantage of the appetite of people to have something safe to enjoy with their families during this time where they're mostly locked down. 

Are these Moment Factory owned entities or joint ventures, or do you execute these for clients? 

Amahl: These are partnerships, each one with each destination. There's a lot of different profiles. If we look at the types of places that Luminas are going into, they're going into, like I mentioned, nature parks, heritage parks, but they're also becoming part of an added value ecosystem for adventure tourism operators. So you might have a zip line and you're bound to close down as things get dark, but you've got this entire territory, that you're all set up in and you've got operations set up, but you want to do something at night and maybe it's a partnership between them and their local municipality, or County to actually drive tourism in those areas, but yeah, we always do it in partnership. 

There's a certain cost investment between the Moment Factory and the destination, and then, because it is a partnership, Moment Factory, and the destination has a share in the tickets and sales on a long term basis.

And we provide all the support to make sure that the environment isn't neglected, but is maintained in tiptop shape, and it’s fully operational every day, every night that it's open. 

So that's outside, but how do you manage things for inside jobs? (Laughter) That sounds like the wrong term. 

Amahl: Well, actually it's very similar. It's interesting, there are some projects like you covered the Continuum project that we did for Canada 150. That was very interesting because that was, essentially, a takeover of a half-finished subway train station downtown. 

And, we often get questions about how finished space needs to be to host a multimedia experience, and it really doesn't have to be. This was essentially a dusty construction site, and it's the same as a lot of these spaces that are being abandoned by retailers as they start to lose tenants inside shopping malls and stuff like that, they're basically rough shells and there's a lot you can do with a black box like that. You've got controlled light, you can create a really incredible experience. And if you look at the outcomes from that, I mentioned, we've been receiving a lot of calls to act essentially as an “emergency doctor” during this COVID time, and they're saying, “We're a shopping mall, and our tenants are closing and people are coming in on a mission. They'd come in the front door, they go to one store, they pick one thing up and they get out. And, our footfall has just dropped off the charts. And we've got an increasing number of square footage that we don't know what to do with, how can we bring visitors back so that all of our existing retailers benefit, and do that in a safe way?”

And Continuum was actually almost an indoor model of a Lumina type experience, multiple stations, and things like that. And we now have this toolkit essentially of tried and true different installations that we've done, and if you look at some of the metrics of those backends, it’s very interesting to these destinations that are trying to attract visitors and repeat visitorship is Continuum, for example, had 320,000 people download tickets over nine weeks. So that's barely two months. And if you put that in perspective, that's pretty comparable to the annual visitorship in Ottawa of the national museums. So if you're looking at, Museum of Science and Technology or Aviation or any of those, in nine weeks, this one humble multimedia installation attracted pretty equivalent tourism and footfall and ticket sales.

So in the current environment, the real critical issue for all these destinations is that we need people and there are things that can be set up and installed in three, four weeks. A typical Lumina is taking nine months to a year, three to four quarters to get it designed and implemented, but downtown, if you look at what's happening right now, everybody's in the regions. So the regions are doing really well, compared even to previous pre-COVID times, but they would like to capture and benefit on a sustained basis from that visitorship. 

So they want those people to come back, even when things settle down and they're looking to expand their offer, so “Hey, we're out here in the countryside. There's not a lot to see and do, so what can we do?” And Lumina offers a very interesting solution for that. But in the cities, that's where you're seeing community suffering. Tourism is destroyed, visitorship to traditional culture and retail destinations are destroyed and they're very much looking for options, and these, sort of, pop-up experiences that multimedia can offer, and you don't need to rebuild your entire architecture to do something special. You can take it over, you can transform it with projectors and audio and special effects and things like that and get a tremendous number of people, and it goes viral and it looks photogenic. These are very interesting solutions to developers, to cities, to business districts, and things like that right now. 

Drafting off of the whole business of COVID and the nervousness about being around other people and the nervousness, right or wrong, around touching things, I think we're all now conditioned to sanitizing. And when we touch anything, has that been forced to change in terms of how you do some of your interactive things? 

Amahl: Not so much for us. Interestingly, we never jumped on the wave of joystick-controlled or VR goggle oriented experiences, both of which are pretty individual, and we are creating collective experiences and the R&D that I mentioned, and we spend a couple million a year at least on R&D really allows us to stay ahead of the curve in terms of using technologies that don't require touch. So it's something that we can look back 10 years and see some of the things that we were doing with interactive facades that were using the connect Kinect.

In fact, it was interesting when they discontinued Kinect. With, when Microsoft discontinued the original just last year, the big news around that is what are the Moment Factories of the world going to do? Moment Factory used that to create the nine-inch nails lights in the sky tour that was so famous.

What are we going to do without connecting now? There are new generations of that coming online from Microsoft and other technologies that we hacked, like the LIDAR, in autonomous cars, right? So very high response rate, very accurate, and we can use that to create massive experiences that are large scale, tracking a lot of people quite accurately and, and all of that is enabling more and more experiences. 

The other trend of course, that I don't need to mention is the personal device. We're carrying around incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology that are essentially not only objects of our attention, they're actually extensions of our body in some way. And so we can use them by how we blow into them, how we look at them, how we move them, and that can become our personal controller or means of contributing to the environment that surrounds us.

Does traditional digital signage, and by traditional I mean, 69 screens or LED displays that are feature walls or whatever, do they have a role in what you do or are they kind of complimentary? Are they integral?  

Amahl: Well, it's interesting. I've been doing a lot of calls with various stakeholders in the real estate development industry and almost categorically, they've been coming back this summer and saying it's not just a nice to have, we consider it a must-have to have digital media and especially some kind of interactive digital media in our destination. It's not optional anymore.

Now how to do it and what it does, is a deeper question. There's a real desire to have it easy to use, so the 16:9 is people's first reflex, but things don't need to be, you know, a boring rectangle, no offense intended with your brand, but the...

I'm a boring guy. I'm fine.  (Laughter) 

Amahl: No, It's the opposite. 

But yeah, we're breaking out of that box and everybody is, you're seeing it all over the world that the traditional pixel space has been exploded.

And so if you're coming into a more celebrated commercial office towers and things like that, they can't afford not to distinguish themselves, they can't afford to have a space that doesn't allow, perhaps the nature of their "tech tenants" to be expressed or their upstart, their startups, or their innovative companies that they want to attract as tenants, which are the growth ones, right? And if you're an office builder, then you're going to be after the best growth tenants that you can find, and that is invariably in some kind of technology and innovation. 

Yeah, I wondered if those commercial property developers were going to pivot away from those kinds of "highly visible visual experiences" in their lobbies and all that because of COVID and the whole work-from-home phenomenon, and would they now be competing just on cost-per-square-foot for leasing, but it sounds like if they want to stand out and stay competitive, they still have to do this? 

Amahl: Well, it's a lot about what we call place branding and competitive identity. If you're going to have your destination compete against these other ones, what are you going to do to stand out? Because the dollar figure per square foot is really a race to the bottom. The location has always been a part of it, but experience too, and I think you've seen some of my presentations or keynotes, and I talked about ROI, but there's also ROE, the return on emotion.

And that ROE is a much bigger conversation now than when I first said it 8-10 years ago. It's return on the emotion, return on experience, return on entertainment, return on education, where people want to actually have a meaningful takeaway and not just an entertainment experience with their space and these developers.

You gotta think that as they start scratching their head about what is the stimulus to have people continue to choose to come to work in an office? Well, if you've got a boring concrete block box, a lot of the developers are saying, what if we got that's going to entice people out of their basements, where they're perfectly safe and happy doing their Zoom calls if our office building has nothing interesting and no way of communicating or expressing itself back and forth with the public that we're trying to attract into it? 

Before I hit the start recording button, we were talking a little bit about a project, at least part of the team was working on, without going into what that project was, what I found was interesting is the technical challenges of doing a live installation in the midst of a pandemic and how so much of the team that would normally be on site was working remotely and you were using things like webcams to put content on the big displays or whatever. Can you relay a little bit of that?

Amahl: Yeah, obviously we've all been grappling with the limitations to travel internally within countries, but, externally as well, trying to cross borders and we've got a massive project, it's no secret, with the AT&T's headquarters in downtown Dallas and a huge ecosystem of exterior and interior LEDs and content coming from the many incredible studios that AT&T purchased when they purchased Time Warner.

And, we've been refining this remote integration ability, where we would usually have 30 people on site for a month, so a lot of people, a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of per diem, we can now do an integration like that with 3 people for six weeks and that's possible because we've always been particularly good at collaborating with local partners. So wherever we go around the world, we're looking for local partners in the cities, in the regions that we're conceiving these installations, who can actually support the clients and support us in implementing, delivering those. And there are fantastic partners on that Dallas team, the great in-house team with AT&T, against the architect who oversaw it. And that's a continuing trend. So we're just deepening those networks of collaborators in the integrator, in the manufacturing sector, and refining our processes to be able to do things wherever it is in the world using remote access points and high bandwidth connections.

So you see this as, or the company sees this as, something that you can do a lot going forward, or is this kind of a “hack” that's getting you through? 

Amahl: No, it's something that we could do a tremendous amount of, and it's actually kept us being extremely productive, even as all of those 425 staff that we have have been working from home.

We were up and running in about three days to work from home. And then one of the first things that we started undertaking was okay, how can we actually do real jobs, not collaborate on design, but actually produce them and integrate them and operate and maintain them moving forward. And we've got that riddle pretty much solved. 

If we're doing site visits, even for projects that are under development already, existing environments, we can actually do a lot of that with a good webcam or an iPad from the client-side and they can give us the tour of the space, and we look at it and start talking about the possibilities without needing to fly all the way to China or to Australia to do that.

Yeah, and I would imagine that this is good news in terms of staff morale and everything else, because going to, let's say Dallas for a week is okay. You can hang out and go to a few restaurants and things like that, but if you're there for five or six weeks, that gets old really quick. And if you could just do most of this work and be home with your family and your friends, you're going to be a lot happier. 

Amahl: It's interesting because it was a pre-COVID initiative that we'd already started working on. How can we reduce the time in airplanes and hotels for our staff, which was an exciting thing when we were in our teenage years as a company, the phone rang, we loved jumping on a plane to go to Dubai and Europe, and Asia. 

And we still do a lot of our work if you look at the breakdown, we do about 30% of our work in Asia, 30% in the States, 30% in Europe, and under 5% per year, traditionally in Canada, but that's changing as well because as we've matured, we've started not just answering the phone, but building our relationships in these territories so closer within the United States, within Canada, starting to settle down and allow our staff to have lifestyles where they can start families of their own and spend more time with them and not be on a plane here and there. So, in Canada, we've had a lot of fun and have some very exciting projects in development coming online in Canada and the United States.

Good. This just flew by, so the last question, I'm curious because your job is public spaces, right? That’s your charge? 

Amahl: Yeah. Although it's more transversal now since over the past three to four months, but traditionally, yes, growing that whole permanent project space, which we described originally as public spaces, now more recently as cities. And that's divided into a number of segments that have their own critical mass theme parks, the Luminas and Night Walk experiences that I described, and then these big urban development projects are pretty equally distributed. 

So you get an inbound, you do a phone call or a Zoom call or whatever it may be, to talk to the potential customer for the first time. What's that first question, other than how much of a budget you have? 

Amahl: What do we ask them? 

Yeah. 

Amahl: It's interesting. The first question I ask usually is, alright, this phone call was very exciting. We're now three years later and looking back and your project, whatever it is, we don't have any idea yet what it's going to be, but you're looking back and it was a huge success, and you're tapping yourself on the back and saying, man, was it a good idea that I called those guys? What is your success criteria? What happened that you're thinking, man, did I ever do it right? 

And starting with that question of putting people in the future, looking back, and saying, boy, this is what I achieved, that puts everything in perspective, and allows us to have a conversation about what objectives they're trying to attain long before we get to what are the real creative directions that can be applied to it, to reaching your challenges. So you want more visitorship now in four weeks and six weeks, eight weeks in your space? There's a tremendous amount that we could do by Christmas.

You've got a Christmas holiday where things start reopening for COVID, for example, and now it's February of next year and you're looking back and you say, wow, I saved the holidays from the COVID Grinch. And there's just so much that can be done to bring people together safely, with joy and not just as spectators, but as participants in experiences, which is what they're hungry for. 

People don't just want to watch more Netflix, which they can do in their basement, but they actually want to contribute. They want to be a part of something and interactive multimedia installations can really unlock that for people and it can be done right now. But, it takes picking up the phone and saying, “what can we do?”

That's great insight. Thank you. 

Amahl: Yeah, well, real pleasure talking with you, Dave.

 

David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

September 2, 2020

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

Four Winds Interactive is one of the largest and most well-known pure play digital signage companies in the industry.

But the Denver-based company went a little quiet about 18 months ago, when a venture capital company based in Austin, Texas took on a majority stake.

That perceived quiet spell changed recently when word circulated that Four Winds had itself completed an acquisition - a UK company focused on workplace communications and operations.

News of that deal presented a good reason to get back together on a podcast with David Levin, who started the company and has long been its CEO.

We chatted about several things, including where the company is at, how fully half of its business is now with screens that are employee-facing, and why he and his clients call the work visual communications.

We also get into how the company is weathering the pandemic, with maybe 15% of staff going into the company's two Denver offices, while the rest work from home. Levin goes in, by the way.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

So David, good to catch up. It's been a long time since we've seen each other. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. It's been way too long. 

It's been my impression and you can correct me, that about a year and a half ago, you weren't acquired, but you got a major investment from a private equity firm. And, since then, you’ve been kind of quiet. I don't see Four Winds Interactive around as much as I used to, but tell me I'm wrong and that you guys are noisy as hell and I'm just missing it.

David Levin: We might've been quiet, from a press standpoint, but we've been very busy. We did do a majority investment from Vista Equity Partners about 18 months ago. And we've been hard at work. I think when we talked maybe three years ago, we were at the early part of our FWI Cloud Initiative, that we are now into end to end on cloud and have had, I don't know how many releases, but a lot. We're extraordinarily proud of where that's turned out and with Vista, we've made a lot of changes operationally that are great. We've changed a lot of things in our go-to-market operation. And, building the foundation for the company for the next phase. 

Now, what drove those changes? Was it because the PE guys or VC guys said you need to make these changes or the cash infusion and support enabled you to make changes that you already had in the works or wanted to do?

David Levin: So one of the things we liked about Vista and the reason we partnered with them is that they invest exclusively in software companies and they are known for studying best practices and figuring out what works best. And that's an evolving process because, as companies try new things that go back into the best practice creation, companies evolve together, but you get the benefit of being able to be a member company of 60 plus software companies and figure out what works best. And for the 14 years prior to that, we had essentially figured everything out on our own. And, I was excited to have those resources available to us. 

So, long story short, we jumped full-on and implemented a lot of the best practices.

What does it mean culturally? As you said, you had 14 years of, pretty much bootstrapping with some angel level private investors, building the company up to where it was at, to then go to having majority owners outside of the company. And now, you're still in charge, but you have masters.

David Levin: Yeah, well, it doesn't feel like that. You know, they are a majority owner, but we still retained a significant stake and we have a meaningful ownership piece in this business. I started and have been the CEO since the start, it will always feel like our organization, regardless of the equity structure and they're very collaborative. So it has felt like a partnership. 

Yeah. One of the things when the announcement happened that you guys had done this deal, I looked at the company and I looked at the portfolio of companies that Vista already had under its wings and thought, this is interesting. There's a whole bunch of companies in there who I could see doing integrations with and getting you into lines of business or opening doors that would be very hard to otherwise open it. Has that played out or was I just imagining things? 

David Levin: The investment thesis wasn't about integration with other portfolio companies. We are what's considered a platform investment for them, which is, they're picking leaders in software industries to go win a category.

And the platform investment is the first company investment in a space. And then, in almost all of their investments, there add on acquisitions to that platform company to help when the market broadens the offering to customers, and the Spark Space acquisition was our first acquisition. That's part of that. So no, it was a platform investment versus something related to integration with the portfolio. 

But when you have kind of sister companies, so to speak, who are doing work, let's say, in the restaurant or hospitality industry, and they have a platform that does whatever it does, it struck me as so many technologies are starting to blend and blur together that there were complimentary technology opportunities here that you could add capabilities to another platform and vice versa and enable integrations. 

David Levin: It's super helpful from an integration standpoint.

So where customers want to, in a simple case, pull data from a US system and that system is part of the Vista portfolio, then it's obviously easy to make a call and get the product teams working together, but that wasn't core to the investment strategy. That's just a helpful benefit. 

Right, and what has it meant for the company in terms of how you operate? You said you made a lot of structural changes and things like that. How has that played out?

David Levin: Yeah, so we've changed our sales territories. We have increased investments, and in marketing, I think, we had launched just prior to the investment, but we've made a significant investment in our customer success organization and our support for customers overall and their renewals and their growth and countless others, but those are the first ones that come to mind. 

One thing that always struck me about Four Winds was that you had a lot of people and you opened a hell of a lot of new accounts, very strong in terms of email marketing and customer acquisition. But then, what comes with opening a lot of accounts is you've got to manage all of those people, and manage all of those accounts, and very small accounts can be needier than whale accounts. Has that changed or have you streamlined and focused more on corporate and enterprise? 

David Levin: Yeah, enterprise across multiple use cases, but definitely enterprise, after adding to the software platform for 14 years and having the luxury of being able to work on some of the more advanced use cases out there, the product was positioned for enterprise and as a larger organization, you need big customers generally to keep growing. So yeah, that's where we're focused. 

So if you have a small account, let's say a, a tribal casino in Missouri that needs 10 screens, would you push them off to a reseller or would you say it's not really what we do anymore? 

David Levin: So, the interesting thing in the casino market is that even smaller casinos are great digital signage customers because they've got far more than 10 screens. We do have some phenomenal partners, ConnectedSign is one of those and we'll work with partners to make sure that they're taken care of. The most important thing is that they're on our platform. so generally, yes. 

Historically you've put a lot of emphasis on vertical markets, and from my perspective at least, you’ve been very smart in terms of not putting all of your eggs in the generalized “trade show” basket, by going to vertical market-specific trade shows that nobody else, who you would consider a competitor was at, like Airport trade shows and Hotel trade shows, and the Hospital trade shows, and so on. 

Have you thinned out the number of verticals that you're after? Cause it seemed to me, when I was looking last week on your website, it seemed to be about corporate and guest experience.

David Levin: We've definitely put more focus there, with an overriding theme of enterprise visual communications. Some of our larger customers are retailers and have customer-facing applications. probably go to market perspective, yes, with the caveat that if you've got a lot of screens, you need enterprise-grade visual communication software, where you've got more advanced use cases, we target those.

You said visual communication software. Is digital signage, the term you even use with your customers, are they asking for digital signage or are they asking for visual communications or something else? 

David Levin: They ask for both.

I think cust customers that have been working with us for a long time,tend to use visual communications. And I think the industry is still digital signage and both are great. 

Don't really care, just by, please! (Laughter) 

David Levin: Yeah. 

I'm curious about workplace and enterprise-level workplace, and what's now happening and what's going to happen longed term with, big damn offices that maybe won't be as big as they used to, or at least not as heavily populated as they used to. Is that for some of your clients, as well as yourself to rethink and pivot around the new way that workplaces are gonna operate?

David Levin: Yeah. I think all organizations are going through this question of “what does life looked like post-COVID in the workplace?” It has fundamentally changed and customers are at different levels of bringing people back to work. And, technology is a key part of enabling that and I think there's just this fundamental shift where most organizations have proven you can be very effective at home, so then what's the role of the office? And how many people are coming into the office on any given day, what's a safe number of people to come into the office while we're still in COVID and then how do you use technology to manage that? 

Does it matter to the typical client whether there are 500 people in the office now, or trimmed down to 200 because you still have 200 people who you need to communicate with?

David Levin: Yeah, I think it makes a difference because you've got to communicate, across multiple platforms. So first of all, in workplaces, generally breaking down into three categories, employee communications, which we talk about a lot in the industry, digital workplace, which tends to be more meeting or a management desk management, visitor management, interactive directories, wayfinding, emergency messaging, and then, performance-related, you know KPI boards, manufacturing floors, call centers, Salesforce, etc. 

So in the employee communications realm, you've gotta be multichannel. So for people that aren't in the office, obviously digital signs are very important, but if you're at home, you've got to get communication with people on their personal device. So we've got viewer channels that enable people to do that and other tools to make sure that the communication objectives are met. 

So the viewer channels are effectively desktop screensaver kinds of things, and alerts that'll pop on a screen?

David Levin: Yeah, digital signage content that you can view on your personal device primarily using the browser. 

Now, how do you get workers to use that? Because I'm thinking if I worked at a company, and maybe I'm just a cranky old guy, but I don't think I would want that if I could avoid it.

I don't know that I would use it if there was a way not to use it. 

David Levin: It's funny. A lot of us, when we were working at home, had digital signs running in the background, but you don't have to have a dedicated device for that.

So for example, if you've got your laptop connected to multiple screens, then you can take one screen and make that your sign, or resize a window in the corner. And it's a way to get content throughout the day. And some of our customers who are using the product for sales KPIs, they're used to looking at those boards when they're on the office floor. You know, you want to be able to see how you're performing throughout the day, meet with your peers, and you're just running it in a different format. 

One of the things I've talked a lot about is the whole idea of KPIs on manufacturing floors and elsewhere. And I've wondered how many end-user companies are actually using it yet, and while I've seen no end of chatter about workplace comms and showing KPIs for showing Salesforce, opportunity pipeline, reports, and everything on a screen. They make sense in a white-collar environment, but are you seeing many companies adopting KPI dashboards for production blue-collar areas?

David Levin: We are at the evolution of visual management as part of lean manufacturing and the more screens people end up getting in a venue, then this question of “okay, how do you control the devices and Is there a better way to present the information?” The number of screens that are out there in manufacturing floors on rolling carts may be running an app, a dashboard that wasn't designed to be a digital sign, it's intended for desktop use, but you're running it on a public screen, and you're trying to view it from a long way away. that still exists quite a bit out there. 

So as customers evolve their needs, they find themselves looking for digital signage or edge of visual communications products and have really good visual applications and good device management and everything else that comes along with the solution.

So tell me about the Smart Space acquisition. Was that an acquisition led by Four Winds or by Vista and it's a paper announcement that this was an acquisition by Four Winds? Or is you guys? 

David Levin: No, it was led by Four Winds, but it's a close partnership. We work with the Vista team on the business. So when we started 18 months ago, we mapped out the market, you know, things like where are our largest segments, where the biggest population of our customer base, what are our natural product extensions, where can we bring the most value back to customers and, what does the universe look like?

And that helped create our Corp Dev strategy. And with Smart Space, we were talking to them for a while and I really wanted our first acquisition to be able to bring something more back to our base. Now our base really breaks down pretty evenly between 50% of our customers are using the product for customer-facing applications, and 50% of our customers are using the product for internal and employee communication

You know, it's hard to do one acquisition to cover everybody from the start, so we're looking across the board. You know, workplace is important to us, and then in the workplace, again, those three kinds of segments between employee comms, performance management, and digital workplace.

And then in the digital workplace, If you find yourself with a meeting room signage product, which we have, and customers have been adopting, you're really quickly into meeting room management and desk management. And if you're in meeting room management and desk management, then you really need analysts about the usage of those spaces, you need sensory integration, you need a mobile app for the employee experience, and so that’s why we just felt like it was a good product extension to buy. 

So it was one of those cases of, “Our customers looking for this, we know that we're going to have it. We can either build it or the faster track is to buy it and get a pretty significant number of customers with it?”

David Levin: Yeah, exactly. And you know, if you're involved in real estate or digital workplace for a large enterprise, then usually you're involved with both digital signage and desk and reading room management. So it's a great fit. 

And with the Smart Space deal, will they be rebranded as Four Winds or will it continue to be its own entity? 

David Levin: So Smart Space is becoming part of Four Winds. We're still figuring out the naming of the product. We really like what they've done with the product, but right now, Smart Space is an FWI company and will become part of our overall platform. 

You had European people before, EMEA people before, but this gives you an office, right?

David Levin: It gives us an office and 40 great people, most of who are based in the UK and a really nice center for our operation in Europe. 

Does it play out the way I've heard from other companies in terms of you start with very simple applications with a corporate enterprise, like a meeting room sign and it just cascades out from there because if they're happy that the client asks for more capability, directories analytics, KPI dashboards, and so on?

David Levin: For sure. In general, the more applications a customer can run on a single platform, the better. And that's where a lot of our growth has come from over the years, as a customer will start in an area that is the most important need at that particular time and then they'll expand and expansion is pretty easy because it's an endpoint on the platform and it's an application that's built on the platform and content that gets managed by the platform and feeds that application, so it's pretty easy to expand and we love the fact that there's so much you can do on the product.

We’d love all these different use cases to get rolled out. And even at a workplace customer, it's interesting, even in a workplace customer, there are these different parts of a workplace which ends up being customers facing, like your lobby experience, your executive briefing centers, your trade show. So, it even finds its way over there, even if it started internally. 

I know this answer, but I'm curious anyway, you've gone into a few verticals as a company and kind of backed off of them because it was just too hard. Is part of the drive around just being corporate and guest experience by and large a way of kind of simplifying things and realizing, “Hey, verticals like retail are really difficult and verticals like hotels”, what you were doing on your own to some degree, let's say five, six, seven years ago.

There's a whole bunch of companies who now say, we do hotels and we're after that market. 

David Levin: Yeah. we haven't limited to workplace and guest experience, and again, some of our larger customers are customer-facing applications in retail environments, and they're extraordinarily successful.

I think where you get into nuances is if you're going to sub-sectors of retail, let's say like a QSR, if you consider that retail and then you're looking at again, the solution overall, and then you're adding self-service kiosks and other parts of the application. If the customer wants all of that and you don't have that, or don't have the experience on that, then you're not going to be as competitive there. And so, it just depends on how much of the solution is more pure visual communications or digital signage in retail, and how much is broadening into other areas of retail, and I think sub-sectors of retail, QSR, grocery, or specialty retail, sometimes it broadens a bit.

Right. You're having real-world experience, well like everybody, with the pandemic in terms of having a pretty significant office. I think the last time I got a count, you guys were up around 350 people, and most of those going into an office in Denver, where are you at now in terms of the number of people coming into the office?

David Levin: Yeah. We've got about 350 people in Denver. There are about 20 people in the office. Well, we have two offices in Denver, so maybe 40 people on any given day in the office and it's purely voluntary. We've got plenty of space, so people that are coming in are well socially distant.

And, we were shut down completely for several months and you know, your work from home experience differs based on what you have going on at home. And so we wanted for people that wanted to get out of the house for whatever reason, to have the ability to come back to the office in a safe way, so we opened it up, but it's a small percentage. I think we all have about 3000 square feet year at the office. 

And coming out of this, do you anticipate that, based on the experience of so many people doing their work from home, when you have the opportunity with your lease, that you'll trim back and this homework will be permanent for some of your staff?

David Levin: I don't know if we'll trim back, but I don't see us acquiring a lot more space because we're going to implement our own desk and room booking system and make everything bookable across the office, so people will use the office, as they need, for activity-based working. They'll book what they need when they need it, and I think there'll be this hybrid model of people working from home and working from the office. And, we'll enable that through the software, and put more investment in collaboration. 

We're seeing our customers do this too. They're just putting more into teams’ rooms and Zoom’s rooms, so when part of your team's in the office and part of the teams out of the office, it's still really easy to get the resources you need to have effective collaboration. 

Are you challenged at all by the Zoom(s) of the world and the big consulting companies like Deloitte(s) and Accenture(s) and ones like that who seem to be getting into this space? 

You have Zoom that has a very elemental digital signage system, but you know, so much of what's being done these days is done over Zoom, that they could start to offer the capabilities that you guys are presenting. 

David Levin: Yeah, so Zoom is very simple, and as you described, it's good and bad. And, to me, the good part about it is that if people start digital signage and do visual communications and they put screens out, and even if they start on zoom, at least they're getting screens out and chances are the more screens that are out the more their sophistication evolves for applications and management, etc. and they will come back to the market most likely and look for an enterprise provider. The bad is, of course, it is free and they get a little bit of the market, but, I think there's probably more good than bad. And with the large consulting companies, I think they're more partners than competitors and we've done some really great projects with most of them. And it's generally part of a big digital transformation scope. And there are some digital signage applications that are part of that scope, and then they're often using a product like ours to execute on that part of the scope. 

Okay. So, they're happy to sell you guys into it as long as they're getting their consulting hours out of it? 

David Levin: Definitely. Nobody wants to build all these applications from scratch, you want to use a platform. 

Oh, I don't know about that. (Laughter)

I get those phone calls and emails almost daily from people saying, “Hey, I'm doing a digital signage startup. Can we get on the phone and talk?” And I'll get on the phone with them and they’ll talk with me, “You would be software platform #487, doing what you just described to me. Please stop now.” It makes them sad, but too bad, I’m saving them a lot of money in the long run. 

You are more a technical CEO than a number of CEOs who I speak with, who come more on the sales side or marketing side, where do you see things going in terms of the way all of this stuff is done? 

We've had some shifts through the years. There's a hell of a lot more adaptation of systems on chip displays, then maybe, some early observers sought there might be, are we getting to a point where devices are nothing more than little edge devices and visual communications, as you call it, is very much a software-driven initiative, and we don't get fixated on the hardware? 

David Levin: Yeah, I think so. From a software perspective, Cloud and IoT have been huge. If you look at a lot of what went into our R&D investment in the last four or five years, it was transforming our own software platforms to take advantage of native clouds and all the technologies around IoT that enable you to manage these remote devices. That just didn't exist when we started 15 years ago and it probably didn't exist five or seven years ago, but we get to take advantage of what the big cloud providers offer and how remote devices are managed in general, for consumers and businesses.

Related to edge devices, it's getting a heck of a lot better. To be able to use edge devices effectively and still have pretty sophisticated applications that run on those, when we went live with cloud, we supported BrightSign, Samsung, and LG, we support those three in addition to our Windows platform. And it's a matter of picking the right device or the right use case. 

Are enterprise customers, the IT teams, less antsy than they used to be about cloud and unfamiliar devices that aren't HP boxes or Dell boxes that they buy by the hundreds or thousands?

David Levin: Yeah, they're embracing with really high-security standards. That was another big part of the investment because it's hard to sell cloud if the security is not there and end-user customers have a really sophisticated way to assess security. So yes, cloud with the security and as far as devices go, there is a movement, of course, to move away from Windows devices and the management that comes along with Windows devices but it also depends on the organization overall. There are some people where they are still heavy Window shops and it's easier for them. And then, there are a lot where if it's more of a, if there's less going on at the endpoint device, it's easier for them to manage overall. 

Do you get a sense from end-users, when they're canvassing the potential vendors/service providers who can help them with their visual communications, that most of the people they have coming in really have their act together in terms of security, or is it a breath of fresh air for guys like you to come in and have sales engineers who can talk about serious security?

David Levin: Yeah, it's a breath of fresh air, but also for us, we got the security department now, led by Maurice, he’s our Chief Security Officer. So the sales team often at a certain part of the sales cycle, or if customers are upgrading their security standards, which happens quite often, then we'll bring in the team members from our security group and they'll take over from there, cause it really is a specialized discipline.

How long have you had that role in place? 

David Levin: Gosh, I think I want to say Maurice joined us four years ago to head up the org, and now there are probably five people in the org, and they work closely with our cloud operations and our legal and compliance team and sales engineering. And, it's been a big part of maturing the organization.

Yeah, I would imagine that there are end-user customers who are somewhat comforted by the fact that you have full-time people just in that case and not saying, “Oh yeah, we pay attention to security.” 

David Levin: Well, they have made it a requirement. When you see some of the security addendums that are attached to contracts, if you don't have a team handling those, there’s just basically no way to comply. 

So, looking ahead, I know this is a weird year. and it's hard to forecast anything, but work goes on, so what will we see out of Four Winds in the next 6 to 12 months? 

David Levin: Yeah. I think in general, what I'm most excited about is that this world is getting more digital and I think, COVID is pushing that even faster because everybody has had to rethink everything they do. 

If it's customer-facing, what's the new customer engagement model? In venues, how do we interact with customers in these venues in a safe way? And how does technology enable that? And digital signage fits in. And if you're in the workplace, it's the same thing related to that to return to work. 

I think that's good for our industry overall. I think we play a key role in that. And, for us, we've got a great roadmap where we've got a couple of big releases coming out before the end of the year on Cloud, we’re excited about the integration with Smart Space. Look for more integrations with that on our platform and also us to take key elements of that, like their mobile and wayfinding and some of the other sensory integration, some of the other attributes, and do other use cases for key markets and, just keep, building the company. We're still got a lot of energy. 

That's good. All right, David. Great to catch up with you. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. Appreciate you having me on. Thanks for all you're doing.

 

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

August 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy: Yeah. Fair enough. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? (Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh God. 2020 guys. (Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

So what's transforming in a retail bank? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bobby Marhamat, Raydiant

Bobby Marhamat, Raydiant

August 19, 2020

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

A seemingly oversaturated ecosystem has not stopped more and more companies from entering the digital signage market with their own software solutions.

I get lots of email pitches from companies, and admittedly, I do a mental sort, with a bucket for no-hopers, and a different one for those I find interesting in some way. Raydiant is a VC-funded start-up in Silicon Valley that's interesting to me for a few reasons.

Their CEO came from the executive team of Revel Systems, one of the upstarts that has changed the look of point of sale systems in small retail. Think of iPads, card taps and digital signatures instead of those big,  old-school POS machines that ate counters.

I was also intrigued by the company's partnerships, which go off the normal, well-traveled path, and instead feature integrations with companies that do things like restaurant menu management, KPI data screens and video conferencing.

I also thought these guys are doing a better marketing and messaging job than a lot of software companies, who are often just re-telling versions of the same old stories. The industry and its customers don't need another "What is Digital Signage?" page.

Raydiant produces a lot of content, including podcasts that are more than just the sales guy talking to the product manager.

Bobby Marhamat, who joined Raydiant about a year ago, joined me for a good chat.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Bobby, thanks for joining me. I know very little about Raydiant and I gather it's a reasonably new company in the digital signage ecosystem. Could you give me the background on the company? 

And it would be really helpful to explain what sets you guys apart from the many other companies who are doing digital signage software.

Bobby: Absolutely. First of all, thanks for having me. Just to give you a quick glimpse into what Raydiant is and what we're up to. I've been personally a part of the company for the last year, leading the company, prior to this. The company has been around for about two and a half years and in the last year, we've really done a couple of different things. 

One is, really we did a rebrand from the name Mira to Raydiant, and a part of that also is that although we're digital signage platform and advancing the digital signage side, we noticed that the companies that we work with want something a lot bigger, and that is really creating, phenomenal experiences in brick and mortar locations. So for the last year, we've been focused kind of talking to these customers and figuring out what that means and how we can create experiences on our platform. 

And the part that's really, I'd say, relevant to the brick and mortar operator and what we've started to build is tying in these different things that happen in different locations. So whether you're a retailer or restauranteur. And maybe as a restauranteur, you want your point of sale system to talk to your digital signage, you want certain music to play at a certain hour, you want certain promos to be on the screens. We basically enable all of that and then put all of that together to really create a phenomenal experience for your customer and what that does, of course in turn is, it creates more loyalty with your customers. It increases your revenue. And you're able to use that to be able to create this experience that people will remember as they leave your location. So in a nutshell, that's what we do. 

Okay. How would you describe the breadth of the solutions and product offer?

Bobby: I'd say, we have eighteen different industries that we work in right now but we're really focused on the six or seven industries that most of our customers sit in. We're a very customer-centric company and of those six or seven industries, we really try to bring in best of breed solutions that tie into our platform and what our customers demand and what they want in their locations.

It’s primarily contact management software? 

Bobby: Primarily, but tied into other things, like music, videos, all these other elements in the store.

And a lot of companies are saying, “We can do soup to nuts for you. We can do front end consulting. We can take you all the way through to deployment, ongoing management, and so on.”

Would you describe yourself as turnkey or are you more focused on the software and the experiential side? 

Bobby: Our goal is to be a turnkey through software, right? To be as turnkey as possible. And actually, I was trying to explain this to my six year old the other day. The same way he gets iPhones now, so my whole thing was the same way that you receive your iPhone, you can download five or six or ten apps and create that personal experience on your phone. We'd like to think of ourselves as the same. You unwrap our hardware, you tie it into your TV, and you can look at the different solutions that you can tie together on our platform, to be able to create that experience that you're looking for.

So very turnkey, but using software to make it very simple. So SMB customers can configure things out, tie things in quickly. Cause, they're focused on a lot of other things in their business. So creating that enterprise experience that you can create in larger stores and making it simple enough for an SMB customer to be able to deploy. 

When the company started, was the mission and charter the same as it is now, or has it pivoted?

Bobby: No, it's expanded. From the time that we started, it was to create one very easy to use digital signage platform, simple to deploy in a few minutes so you can go on your way to put messaging on a screen and that's it transformed into.

And since we've been listening to our customers, that's transformed into how do you take that a step farther? And you take that a step farther by what we call creating an experience platform. And that's why we're focused on that.  

I would assume that your customers have also told you that, “Guys, we must have been visited by 30 companies selling software that's easy to use, friendly, all those sorts of things.” So I suspect when you came into the business, you looked at it and looked at the competition and said to yourself, we need to do a better job of differentiating ourselves. 

Bobby: Absolutely. One of the things that’s really interesting is that when the company started, a lot of people asked me when I got involved, whether I think it was good and what did I think that we have to do differently to be able to listen to our customers? 

And the part that I think we did really well is we built a very strong product and had great support. We have the highest NPS. If you look at the G2Crowd and Capterra, as far as product standpoint goes in the cloud in the cloud segment.

But the thing that was missing or the thing that we needed to transform the company into is more of listening to what our customers’ needs are as far as being able to differentiate themselves, comparable to their competition. And that's a lot of what inspired us to transform our platform to be able to create a lot of stuff for them. 

Bouncing around your website, It looks like a lot of the focus, particularly in terms of your marketing and case studies, and “thought leadership” is around retail. Has that always been the case or is that because you as the CEO come out of retail in your past life with a point of sale system?

Bobby: No, our largest base of customers are in the retail segment. Our second largest set is in the restaurant segment. And with that, we're trying to make sure we give them the tools to be able to thrive. And, I'd say third and fourth industries for us are our banking and real estate, and we're trying to also focus on those as well, but you're right to note that because our largest customers and segment of customers are really retail and restaurants, our content and what we've been able to provide in a lot of our marketing has been centered on that.

Because you came from a point of sale, from Revel Systems. Did you have, what you would consider, a better sense of how retailers operate and what they really need versus what software developers think retailers need? 

Bobby: Absolutely. You know, a lot of people ask me, you got out of the brick and mortar with, basically exiting the Revel business, so why'd you get back into it? And I really fundamentally love the brick and mortar world. I love restaurants and retail for better or worse. I know right now we're going through tough times across the board for those segments. But, if we can be helpful in creating solutions, that's what makes me happy and content. And that's a large portion of what got me back into making sure that I stay within the industry and can continue to be helpful. 

Those two industries in particular are distressed right now. I wouldn't say they all are, but you would imagine a hell of a lot of them are because of the pandemic and lockdown capacity controls and everything else.

How do you sell into them right now when they're just trying to hang on by their fingernails?

Bobby: Yeah, so the beginning of when we went into the pandemic, a large portion of what we tried to do was that we tried to help these segments figure out what to do with their digital signage, to be able to continue to attract customers, educate customers, and basically put in use cases that help them use their digital signage to continue on and carry on with their business.

I'd say, fast forward to now where these businesses have been going through the pandemic for a few months, how we really capture and talk to them is we really look at the use cases that can be relevant to them. These days, to give an example, we have an outdoor package that helps restaurateurs really put menus on the screen, put messaging on a screen, tie it into a mobile phone so that people can get the menu, and be able to order at table and stuff like that. So we're really focused on what solutions we can push out there to be helpful to our customers and this pandemic has been tough for us, tough for them in the sense of that we had to pivot in our marketing and our messaging and how we go to market to be able to help them, and that's been hard for us as well. 

I have found since COVID-19 really broke out that a number of companies have introduced very specific technologies that they have packaged up as solutions to the problem facing retail and small business in general. And, I've sat on a number of podcasts and Zoom calls and everything else and presentation. My concern about these things are that they are just things in a lot of ways. There's a thermal screener, there are hybrid screens and hand sanitizers, hand sanitizing dispenser, and so on. 

And I just wonder if the retail market is really interested in buying a “thing” or do they want to talk to somebody who can provide a solution and maybe the solution is something that already exists, just like software and a screen that's as you say, putting the menu up on a screen so that you don't have to print menus or you don't have to wipe down plastic menus and assure people that they're wiped down. 

Bobby: Yeah, we were actually just talking about this in the morning with one of our customers and they were asking us, what technologies do they buy during this time to piece together the curbside stuff and all the other stuff that they're dealing with. 

And what we start with always is we tell them to start from the beginning. Who is your customer? What are you trying to do? What's the long term strategy? Putting all that together. Then we either come out with, here are the solutions that you want to tie in, whether they're with Raydiant or other solutions that you can tie into Raydiant, or, honestly, in some cases, we're not going to be the right fit for you for the next six months or a year as you rebuild and do that. And then we can be helpful at that point. 

So we take a more consultative approach and help figure out, who's your customer, what are you actually trying to achieve? And then piece together technology. Because one of the biggest things that we always say is, just turning on technology to turn on technology and tying in different technology pieces together where you' don't have a strategy, you don't know who you're actually trying to attract what your customer is. With those fundamentals you're not doing yourself or your business any good. 

You mentioned earlier the value of having integration with other applications, again, coming out of point of sale and kind of with Revel, they turned the whole idea of point of sale on its head by going from big iron, big bulky machines to using iPads and things like that.

And, part of the answer I suspect with Revel was, we are were in a world now where we can easily integrate with different systems and inventory management systems and everything else. 

It’s the same sort of thing applied here. If you're going to be relevant in the B2B market for retail and restaurants and so on, you need to be able to easily tie in with other systems.

Bobby: Yeah. A big part of the strategy at Revel was, point of sale is the central nervous system of a location, but what happens outside of that is all these other dispersed technologies that you're trying to use and trying to manage. And so a large portion of our success there is, listening to our customers and them saying, “Hey, I'm using these five solutions in my store, none of which talk to each other, but I'm using them to try to get 1% out of each of them so I can advance my business.” 

And part of our success was tying those together and really making that a cohesive system for them, whether it was tying in like a loyalty partner, gift card partner, and all that good stuff into one platform that talks to each other. 

Part of our success at Raydiant is very similar in the sense that, right now, when you walk into a location, whether you walk into a location or whether you want to walk into a location, that experience from the beginning is important and how those things talk to each other is important. As an example, there are lots of cases wherein the restaurant world, in particular, I run out of something on my POS and a simple thing of that not transferring over to the digital signage board, where that item gets listed off the menu and it's still on the digital signage board and customers come up and ask me about that. That's a simple thing, right? 

But tying those two things together, it makes it a lot better of an experience. I can push out promos a lot easier. I can do things a lot easier when these things are talking to each other. And so that's a large part of what we've seen our customers have success with.

You're working with some things like a menu system to simplify that process. Was it a case of those companies coming to you? I'm thinking of Trabon Menu Net, did they come to you or did you see this as a need to integrate with that sort of thing?

Bobby: I can tell you it was mutual. A large portion of our larger customers were using the Trabon system and in using the Trabon system, there were also adopting Raydiant. And, we came together as two companies and said, oh, we have this many mutual customers and to give you a little bit of a glimpse of what Trabon does, Trabon is the largest print manufacturer of menus in the US for enterprise customers. And, they're in mid-market and SMB as well, but they really focus on enterprise at a high level. And the biggest part of that is now, as we may make any sort of, menu changes or we make any sort of planogram changes, or we make any sort of print, design changes, we can push that out on digital signage and it could be better for our customers, better for the environment, better for all that. So we came together and created this combined solution. 

You still have to compliment that with their solution. You still have to compliment print with digital but it's more cost-effective for their customers. It's a better experience for their end-users and ties in together really well. 

You have since then, or maybe concurrently integrated with a number of other, different kinds of systems. I've written in the past about postering my wall and done a podcast with them, so it's content templates, but you're now integrated with like Blue Jeans for video conferencing and a company called Hoopla, can you tell me about that? 

Bobby: Absolutely. So Hoopla is actually very interesting. We have a new virtual room product that we just launched about a month ago and that virtual room product ties in videoconferencing content and services on top of that. And when I say services, it's music and other services that are tied in into one platform. And one of the biggest asks from our customers was, “Hey, we have the video conferencing, we have the whiteboarding, we have the content all in one place. What's missing is if I could go and put KPIs for my sales team on the screen as well as I'm having that video conference, or if I could go put company KPIs on the bottom of the screen for all my team to know”, and especially relevant during these days of the pandemic where people are working from home, it's been very relevant.

So tying that in together. So we went out to search and realized that Hoopla is the best of breed product out in the space. And so in having a talk with their management team decided that the two companies come together and what's happened out of that also has been a lot of other use cases that have come from that. We are working on tying in other solutions for the office environment, which only happened because we went into the pandemic. Otherwise, our focus has always been kind of brick and mortar, but what we created for the brick and mortar side has been very relevant to the office side, and integration with Hoopla completely sets that productivity tool. 

So what's the primary thrust behind virtual rooms? 

Bobby: So what happened initially though, I'll start from the beginning is initially we had brick and mortar operators come to us and say, “Hey, listen, I own a hardware store, and in the middle of my lumber aisle, I want to put a virtual agent type setup where customer can walk up and hit a button and they can interact with someone sitting in my corner office that knows all about lumber, and can basically be the expert there because I can’t have a lumber expert at every store. 

So, given that, that's what initially sparked our virtual room product. Being able to go on and have on-demand video tied into the content. So if I say, “Hey, go to aisle six and get that lumber.” I can also put some specifics about that lumber on the screen as well as I'm interacting with that customer, and I can also tie in a QR code on the bottom of that if they want to, scan that and learn more about that lumber or purchase on their phone or whatever the case may be. 

So that was the initial, I want to call it “burst” of our virtual room product. Again, what's transformed into these days of, going into COVID and the pandemic has been offices saying, “Hey, my team is not remote and I want to mimic that same, in-office experience, even though we can't be in the office.” 

So our virtual room product is a perpetual video product that's always on. And with that, we've created an office product tied into Hoopla where you can be in different rooms and interact with different people as if you're in the office. You can get content pushed back and forth. You can double click on someone and go have a personal meeting and then come back into the main room as if you're in the office and all that tied in together to productivity and motivation, stats and KPIs that Hoopla provides on top of that.

So at that point, you're starting to compete with the Zoom companies of the world that have quasi digital signage products as well, right? 

Bobby: Zoom is actually a partner. We haven't put this on the site, so you're hearing this first, but we started with Blue Jeans and Zoom is now a partner as well.

So no, we're not trying to be a video conferencing player by any means. We're actually trying to embed video conferencing into our product and I know zoom also has a very light digital signage product. But the virtual room product essentially works completely different where you have content on the screen and you can basically slice up the screen in different zones. So, content on the screen together with video conferencing. I can do news flashes and push out information to my team, talk about happy hours if I wanted to. So putting that all together is basically your productive tool for the remote world. 

And your platform is built around something called a Screen Ray, which by the looks of it is a Linux-based PC stick, is that right? 

Bobby: You're correct. Yep. Absolutely. 

Those things have been around for a number of years. I've always been intrigued by them. I know a few companies that use them, but I've always worried that they're kind of cheap and dirty and will last and everything else, but I've seen enough companies using them that they seem to be happy with them. 

How much of a journey was it to come across something that you guys could put out there and say, okay, this is the mothership and this is what we're going to use?

Bobby: Yeah, our hardware is only the enabler to our software really and yet a good number of companies use the Intel sticks. We're actually in the works of creating our own proprietary sticks that still use Intel’s processing and all that good stuff, but it's more proprietary so we can control a little bit more of it. We can have that built-in and all that good stuff. We are envisioning and we are in the build mode of getting that out to the market. But, the Intel Sticks have been very reliable, and a lot of what our secret sauce happens in the cloud, in our software. So the hardware is really the enabler and it's been very consistent for our customers.

Now for companies such as yours, I would say broadly, those who are chasing retail in particular, small to medium business retail, and other similar kinds of businesses that get public foot traffic, they tend to be SaaS companies that are at a certain price to an end, it’s sometimes referred to as the race to the bottom or commodity pricing.

I looked at your pricing and it's not like that at all. If anything, it's up. I would say it's on the high side. And I'm curious about that, how that resonates with people. And my gut tells me it's probably not a problem. 

Bobby: It's not a problem for the customers that really truly believe in building experiences in their location. If you simply want to put a picture on a screen or put a flyer on the screen or whatever the case is, there's a lot of solutions out there that you can go get that are gonna be cheaper than ours. But we want to work with customers to create experiences and our platform for creating that experience is actually relatively very affordable, but our focus is really those customers that understand that experiences are paramount to having longevity in retail and restaurants and all the brick and mortar type industries. 

One of the other things that struck me in banging around the site was you have a lot of content on there. A lot of self-generated content. You have your own podcasts, a presentation. I listened briefly to one of them, so you're spending the money on content and effective marketing, is that just how it works when you're out in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, that it's part of that DNA that's what you do? 

Bobby: I think it's a part of the DNA of what I believe in, which is being very helpful to your customers and I think that'll payback and help us grow as a company, and so a large portion of what we do is exactly what you said. And even during the pandemic days, we took more of a focus on that, accelerated a lot of the content we pushed out there, accelerated a lot of the interviews that we're doing for the podcast. to be able to give relevant information back to our customers. We think that's going to pay dividends back. 

How do you get known? 

Bobby: That's tough, right? It's tough especially because we rebranded again about a year ago, but a large portion of our business, at this point at least, I would say is through referrals. So us pushing out the content, us pushing gaps, and being helpful in the space has paid dividends in the sense that we're getting customers to come to us. We're getting customers to buy from us. We're getting customers to talk to other customers about it. 

And that is one of those things that day in and day out, we're focused on continuing to do, to be able to build more of that brand because there's of course legacy providers in the space that are well-known brand names. You know, no one gets fired by bringing on a well-known legacy provider but what you don't get is you don't get the innovation. You don't get things working as fast as we do. And so we're really focused on building the brand focused on what our customers want.

I'm curious, about a year ago when you were looking at joining the company, I suspect you would have either not known very much about digital signage or maybe you did, but did you look at the marketplace and wonder, okay, this is awfully crowded. There's a lot of people saying essentially the same thing, do I want to get involved in this? 

I always wonder how much of a struggle it is for startups to cut through. 

Bobby: Yeah, that's a great question. So a year ago, to answer your question, I did not know almost anything about digital signage. I was very new to the industry. But as I looked at the industry, you're right, there are a lot of companies providing digital signage solutions, but as you think deeper, taking my experience from the Revel days and hearing what I heard with restaurants and retail specifically, and doing a good amount of research.

And I actually, before I even, took the role here, I did speak to 50 customers that are using digital signage. Not all were Raydiant customers, but all across the board. And then talking to them, I heard the same common theme: there are solutions out there, but there is no one solution that brings everything together into one experience.

And that's when the “aha!” moment went off in my head and I thought, if we can create this really phenomenal experience and do it at a very low cost and be able to help these brick and mortar operators, basically create the same shine that they can do online. You know, you can go online and create websites and social and all that good stuff, why can't we create the same thing in store? And so that's what intrigued me with joining the company. 

How much coaching do you have to do to your customers? Because there are lots of people who make investments in technology, and then, it just kinda sits there. And I've been involved in this for a long time and I don't know how many retail environments I've walked into and looked at the screen and I thought, “oh dear God, why did they bother?” And yes, you have all these templates from PosterMyWall, and access to other content, but do they use it? And how do you get them to use it?

Bobby: That's a great question as well. You know, on the backend, we can see how often these screens are being updated and it’s not like all businesses don't have to always update screens, but we can see that and our customer success team actually takes this up very seriously in the sense of reaching out and saying, “Hey, can I help you create maybe a summer special?” or whatever the case may be depending on the business.

So that's one of the areas that we do focus a lot of our time on. We do have integration with PosterMyWall, which is great. They have 150,000+ templates, a lot of templates to choose from, but the content is the hardest part of digital signage. And that's the part that either you have a full department doing it, or you have one or two people focused on it or to your point, you never get to it and you just have that one thing that you put up there when you first started the business and you're never updating. 

So we make it our problem to be able to, again, reach out and make sure that they always update content if they want to and make it very relevant to the messaging they want to push out to their customers.

You're in the land of venture capitalists, and I know that you're VC funded. You had a 7 million round last fall. Is it easier because you're out there to tap into VC funding or is it actually harder because there's a lot of competition? 

Bobby: It's a lot harder. And digital signage is not sexy to investors.

We are fortunate in that what we're creating is an experience platform. We are attracting investors that we typically wouldn't if we were just focused on a digital signage segment if that was our only kind of focus area. So it is harder in the Valley, especially because there are so many pitches going on with so many companies, like you said, in the digital signage space, particularly, but with what we're doing, we're actually in the next few months are going to go talk to new investors about our next round of funding. And I think they're going to be impressed with what's happened to the business and continue to grow. 

With COVID-19 being a bit of a wildcard in terms of how long this is going to last, and certainly creating a lot of trepidation for business operators, where do you think you're at in six months to a year?

Bobby: I could tell you, just very candidly, pre-pandemic, we were growing at 200% to our numbers. During the pandemic, we’re right on par witH 100-110% to our numbers. So we slowed down for sure, but we have not gotten to a place where we think that Anything is detrimental to our business. We continue to work with our customers, continue to provide value there, and kind of taking it day by day, to be very honest with you, as things change where we're trying to be very helpful. 

Yeah. I've certainly heard from a number of software companies, if they operate on a software as a surface basis, they've had N number of small businesses, small restaurants, and so on and saying, “Hey guys, we're not open. We need to trim back our costs. Anyway we just skip paying our subscription until we actually need it?”

How have you handled that?

Bobby: Yeah, there's been a percentage of our business that's gone through that, especially in areas where they're completely closed or continue to be closed or opened back up and then got closed again. So I'd say some percentage of our business has paused but at a high level, there are other ways to use this where signage should be very helpful. Like in your windows signage is one way, outdoor signage is another, so there are multiple ways depending on the business to be able to still provide a lot of value with digital signage and we help our customers to fire that out. If they are at a place where they need to pause, we, of course, allow them to do that.

Okay. All right. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. Just one final question. If people want to know more, where do they go online? 

Bobby: Oh, sure. they can come to raydiant.com. And I always say this and people say, why are you giving out your email? But you know, if anyone ever wants to contact me, I’m at bobby@raydiant.com, and I’m always happy to provide any information that I can.

Okay, great. Thanks again.

DCBolt, IMERZA - Water Street Tampa

DCBolt, IMERZA - Water Street Tampa

July 22, 2020

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

 

Real estate developers have long used scale models, drawings and photo-realistic visuals to help market their projects, but a massive new urban development in downtown Tampa kicks things up several notches to help lease everything from condos to office space.

 

The marketing center for the Water Street development is selling a $3.5 billion project that covers 56 acres of prime West Coast Florida property. When prospective buyers walk in, the lights come up on a presentation that blends projection mapping, visualized, real-time data and interactive digital signage.

 

The centerpiece is an elevated table that has some 450 3-D printed scale-model building, very specifically illuminated by a halo of a dozen laser projectors.

 

Instead of sales people walking clients through the space, and then heading to a meeting room to talk details, a custom iPad app controls what people see on the model - all drawn from real-time data sets.

 

I spent time recently speaking with Devin and Caitlin Wambolt, the D and C (I assume) in DCBOLT, the solutions provider that did the projection mapping. They were joined by Dorian Vee of IMERZA, which developed the custom program, sitting on top of 3D gaming technology.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

All right, so I have three of you on a podcast. I don't think I've done that in the past. We've got folks from DCBolt and Dorian from IMERZA. 

DCBolt’s Caitlin and Devin, can you tell me a bit about the company background and how you got to where you are now in terms of what you're doing?

Caitlin: Sure thing. So back in 2012, we started DCBolt, Devin and I were actually in Chicago. We were both going to 3D animation school, 3D animators nerds met in the classroom. From that point, we did our first project, we started DCBolt but our first project which was a nightclub in Chicago, where we designed a custom projection map stage, we did custom LED all throughout the nightclub. And from that point on, we were like, we're hooked. 

Projection mapping was our baby. And we started getting into more of the custom content aspects of immersive design. Then we slowly found ourselves in Orlando, which is currently where we're based, where we're working with the parts  doing a lot of custom animation, immersive media, things like that. And the rest is history.

Devin: Yeah, and this is Devin from DCBolt. Just to piggyback on that a little bit. My personal history and experience and background leading up to the 3D animation school was working for and with a couple of really key large AV integrators up in the Northeast region. So I essentially was getting my schooling on the world of AV and how systems worked, how to design them on a hardware level, the infrastructure requirements, how to run large projects. 

At the same time, I was using that knowledge and experience to pay for the schooling needed to do the graphic element, learn the programs, learn the 3D world. And then around 2010-2011 is when projection mapping just started on the radar of people who were kind of familiar with both worlds of how projectors work, how to use them, and also how to make some custom graphics. We were able to start connecting dots and we started seeing some really really cool and interesting, one of a kind projects cropping up on the internet and YouTube. And I had actually just moved to Chicago, freshly in, I don't know, my second apartment, maybe I had a bunch of boxes leftover. 

And I was either going to have to break the boxes down, throw them out, or I had just seen this really, really cool. It was actually a facade of a cityscape, projected onto these boxes. I forget exactly what the advertisement was, but it was an advertisement for something. And I remember being very wowed and in awe of this amazing video that I just witnessed on YouTube. And this is back before we had advertisements. This is back in the day and, and so I took the boxes that I had in my living room and I stacked them up in my apartment and I covered them in white paper. And I made my very first attempt at 3D projection mapping just using Photoshop and a projector that I happen to have leftover from a project. One thing led to another and before we knew it...

Caitlin: We were creating content for those boxes.

Devin: Yeah, we were using that project. I brought that project to the school and we started using it for all the different students to make content for. It was just a fun new thing, a new medium that people hadn't experienced yet. So one thing led to another, we ended up doing a couple nightclubs, made a bunch of videos and then eventually made our way down to Florida to help work on Harry Potter World.

Okay, yeah, that technical background is really important. I have run into motion graphic designers who have found their way into digital signage-ish projects, and they're obviously very good at the creative side of things, but they were just completely lost in the woods, when it came to some of the technical things, and particularly going back 9-10 years to the early days of projection mapping, it was really super complicated then.

If you didn't know what you're doing, you'd be total deer in the headlights.

Devin: Yeah, a lot of it was trial and error, and there weren't a lot of tutorials or people out there to reach out to for help. 

Caitlin: No Point cloud.

Devin: But that was the fun of it, really, you know, it was raw. And, you know, shortly thereafter, more and more software started becoming available to help with mesh warping and alignment tools and different things like that, which essentially evolved to the point where we were able to do something like we did in Tampa Bay with Dorian and his team. So the brief answer to your question as a background, DCBolt, we really found ourselves in the niche where we speak the language and can really speak to and understand all of the things that a content media team needs to know in order to do their jobs. But we also speak the language and understand all the variables and different aspects involved with the infrastructure that comes along with making these systems. 

A lot of people go and do a show or go and do an event and it has to be up and running for 6-12 hours and then they can break it down. When we design a system, we want it to be running 6-12 hours a day for up to 10 years. So there's a lot of different variables and redundancies and different things that we take into account as far as what brands that we choose to use and what kind of equipment we use, what's doing the video processing, the routing, the power backups, remote control, all of that comes into play. And then we can also relate all of those technical details to immediate team or to someone like Dorian’s team who has an amazing team of programmers, and they know everything they need to know about the video game world and we were able to converse with them and go back and forth and figure out the common ground of how to make get them what they need to get us what we need, so we can project on this city.

Right, and I would imagine that while you could probably get some gigs here and there in Chicago. If you want steady work with substantial budgets, you really ought to be in a place like Orlando or maybe Las Vegas, something like that, where these are the kinds of shows that as you said, may run for 10 years as opposed to one night for a brand launch or something.

Devin: Definitely and never to take away from those. There's just as much work and effort and talent for creating those productions. You know, it's just from our niche standpoint, we really specialize in installations that are meant to be permanently installed, at least or semi-permanently installed and used on a regular basis. We go for bulletproof design. So that's kind of where we set ourselves apart from most other companies that are similar to us.

Caitlin: We have the experience of the live show world, but we definitely prefer the permanent installation world.

Devin: The integration world, yeah.

So, Dorian tell me about your company.

Dorian: Hi, I'm Dorian Vee. I'm the co-founder and CTO of IMERZA, an experiential software company with primary focuses in the real estate and real estate development world. And our roots actually grew out of an architecture firm. In addition to a merger, we also have a design firm that's based in Sarasota, Florida. That's been around 30+ years and does a wide range of work from master planning through complex urban mixed use stuff. 

And what happened was, a little shy of 10 years ago, we started to look towards interactive, real time 3D tech to really change the decision making process internally. And so we started writing our own software on top of game engines to go through any level of decision you can think of whether it's entitlements and approval decisions or finished selections and things like that. And then we started pulling in all sorts of different data and being able to visualize data in these yet to be physically built environments in the game engine. And what happened was our clients started dragging their potential buyers into our office and ultimately selling million-dollar residences out of our work room, which is, as you can imagine, by no means a residential sales center. 

And it happened enough times that we realize there's obviously something there for sales and marketing. And we set out to build out this platform for both real estate developers but also real estate marketing. And actually, Devin and I met several years ago through a mutual friend in Boston. And he introduced me to Devin and we had in mind, for one of our architecture projects, this badass projection maps experience for this interior courtyard of this building. And we brought Devin down to consult on it and see how we could do it. Unfortunately, the Client ultimately wound up not doing it. But what was interesting on the Tampa project, Devin was approached by strategic property partners to consult. 

And at the same time, they had approached us for our experiential tech to help them through development decisions. And then when the RFP finally went out, we realized Devin was consulting on it and gave him a call and said, why don't we team up for this? This is just a slam dunk. If we mix what you're doing with what we're doing, it'll be something that's never been done before.

All right. So you guys have referenced the Tampa project, so can you give me information on what that was all about? It's up and running now, correct?

Dorian: That is correct. The Tampa project is a marketing center. It is the marketing center for a multibillion dollar real estate development in downtown Tampa, Florida. The development itself consists of about 56 acres of privately owned real estate downtown. And the company that's doing it is Strategic Property Partners, for which one of the major partners is Jeff Vinik, who is the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their marketing team has seen some cool projection map city stuff done in other cities worldwide. 

They had this idea and they said, “Hey, we want to do something similar to that, but wouldn't it be cool if we could actually just show all of these data sets in real time, whether that be market data, real estate market data, whether that be demographic data, or even traffic data, things like that.” And  nothing like that had been done before in a projection mapping scenario. These were things that we were doing with our technology, just on the game engine side of things. And they wanted to make this the centerpiece of their marketing center. So the concept was that we would 3D print a 16-foot diameter scale model of downtown Tampa, put in all of the buildings they're currently designing, build it modularly so that as their second and third phases get designed, we could then easily replace those buildings. But then projection maps all of this information and data and color and content onto that scale model, while at the same time showing related content on the surrounding video walls to that scale model. 

Devin: Yeah, we did about a three month discovery process with SPP directly just to help define an eyesight and determine what is the map boundary going to be, what section of Tampa is going to be, even just to determine whether it was going to be a square versus a circle, you know, how large is this model going to be in the physical room. And then we worked with them and the architects to work backwards from the physical restrictions of the size and height of the ceilings in the room to essentially design a system and find all the proper lensing that we knew would be able to cover this entire model and all of its intricate little surfaces from 360 degrees. 

Because their goal was to have people to walk all the way around this model, mitigating as much shadow casting as possible. So we went through a three month process discovery for that, and essentially determined the best approach and the most efficient approach for covering the surfaces from all the different angles with the least amount of projectors needed, but enough to give us the level of detail that we needed, while also doing the best to mitigate as many shadows as possible.

Caitlin: Right and it's a fine level of detail.

Devin: A very fine balance between the number of projectors, distance of image throws, lensing selections, and then how we kind of use the mapping software to merge that entire world together from the game engine, which Dorian's team worked on. And then we actually developed some custom bits of software to make the game engine talk directly through the projector mapping software. 

Dorian: One of the other interesting things was that most projection mapped experiences, at least that I've seen, are meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 10 feet away. Whereas this is a table that you sometimes upwards a room full of 50 people are surrounding and are directly on top of and looking at and because of that it had to be a very, very fine detail of these models.

Caitlin: That dual construction of this is really fascinating to me as well because obviously this is a development where things are changing, there are phases that are already on the docket. We're talking about lots of changes. So down to the building, the individual building construction, that was a huge criterion for the client and down to the table being modular. So everything is really designed with room for growth, with room for those changes that we foresee.

Devin: Ties right back into us. We really like doing projects that have a 5-10 year shelf life and we enjoy the challenges that are brought forth by making sure we're designing with the future in mind. As the city evolves and develops physically, you look out the window, you see a new building, well, we are prepared with IMERZA to completely update everything both digitally and physically when it comes to the scale model as well.

Dorian: Yeah, and that's one of the super cool things about real time rendering, and what really gets me excited about it is if this were to be done, with traditional offline rendering and traditional media capabilities, that would have meant, if one of those buildings gets redesigned, which will inevitably happen, all of that content would have had to have been re-rendered. And then, you know, of course paid for and that would have gotten just extremely pricey. And being able to do this and push through all of this content, in real time at runtime was just such an enormous cost savings to the client then what other traditional media companies were proposing.

So when I've seen scale models of new developments, and admittedly I have not had a lot of cause to see many of them, but in my travels, I have bumped into them. They would most typically just be described as a scale model of a set of buildings that may be nested in a larger urban area. 

And you can look at it from different angles and see the ones that are colored differently. And the other ones are kind of beige or whatever so you know these are the new buildings. With the property developers who said that's not enough, we need to do more than this to actively sell, is it about sizzle?

Dorian: It's about telling a story and showing data and showing how Tampa as a city is growing and the movements of people and where Millennials are settling, how the nearby buildings are performing over time both from a rent perspective, but also like an occupancy perspective. 

One of the things that I found pretty interesting and that was a total surprise to me on the data side of things is once we started pulling in these data feeds, and we could then visualize them in a 3D form, not in you know, tabular, Excel sheets and that sort of thing, you start to see things that you wouldn't necessarily have expected, like, naturally, I would have expected that the buildings along the waterfront would have had a higher rent growth year over year. But then when we visualize it on the table, you could see that it actually it's the buildings that are in the downtown core that are actually having higher rent growth. And that's something that you absolutely couldn't do with the traditional scale model. And that was critical for them to be able to get the high priced rents they're looking for.

So when you're doing a sales presentation, in a more typical marketing center, you would take the prospective tenants into this area and show them the scale model and show them some elevations and everything else and then go to a meeting room and then run the Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks that show all the different data components that you want to pitch versus this where, I guess, you could do the whole meeting just around the scale model, right?

Devin: One of the really great benefits of having the entire model and basically the entire section of the city that's being discussed in this gaming environment as well is that this is as close as we can get to an actual hologram going on and in front of them. 

We've also been able to cater very special presentations in different storytelling modes depending on who the viewer is. So if it's a sales meeting versus if there's someone who maybe is interested in buying a condo or something at this top level of the new edition building, versus someone who owns the stadium right there and they want to see... 

You know, Coca Cola comes in and they want to know, how is my branding going to look in the city? Well, you know, the immersive platform, we can upload a Coca Cola logo, and then they can visualize it on the model in front of them and all the renderings everything happens in real time. And you know, so depending on who the viewer is, we have many different modes that the presenter can go through to tell the story and they also have the ability to kind of shoot from the head. If something comes up, they can point at a building on a map and it will highlight directly on the model in front of them. They can drop the viewers almost anywhere and show them the view at certain times of a day and stuff that you just couldn't do in any other kind of working environment.

Caitlin: Right. Isolating floor levels too, and giving them that first person perspective of what it's going to be like to live in this building or what they're going to see. It’s huge and it makes for a really compelling sales tool. 

Dorian: Yeah, and we have just been talking about the super cool part, which is the scale model but as part of the overall deliverable, there are also two touchscreens kiosks that users could navigate this future version of Tampa themselves also in the room, but yeah, just like Devin and Caitlin were saying, it's an incredibly flexible tool for storytelling. 

They do have different teams. They've got a commercial team, that's all they care about, and their focus is commercial leasing. And then they have different real estate agencies that are interested in selling different residences. And then they've got a whole advertising team because obviously the stadium is right there. And we wrote a system that allows them to basically take a package of assets of billboards of digital signage, actual video mp4 files, and drop that into the content management system. And what it will do is, it will automatically ingest all of those assets and apply them to what Devin had mentioned, every specific billboard where it's supposed to go and suck in all of those video assets and do it all on the fly.

And it is controlled just off a tablet?

Dorian: It is off of a custom iPad controller that was written for the project.

So who manages the day-to-day? Obviously, you've mapped the data tables and everything, so that's okay. But as you described, you want to put in assets from Coca Cola or whatever, is that a managed service that you guys or one of your companies does or are the people at the real estate company doing that?

Dorian: We built a whole content management system that they can themselves upload new content to, they can create their own tours where they can say, I want to play this content then I want to see this on the table and I want to see these videos on the screens. So they can arrange all of that themselves. We haven't quite turned that over to them yet. We're still the gatekeepers on it for the first few months. But once everything's totally solidified, we'll turn that over to them and they will be running it on their own.

Devin: And on the systems side we've also built in a bunch of presets on the programming of the actual infrastructure so they can choose lighting presets, audio presets, there's some lighting under the table, they have control of so they can really choose and set select any specific presets they want. That ties back into the video game engine, so when they choose one thing, everything in the room is going to react to it. The lights go down, the sound comes on, the AV system itself integrates seamlessly with it.

Dorian: Yeah, for instance when they are talking about the parks and nearby parks, the soft under lighting glow of the table can turn green and you can hear birds chirping in the audio. It's very subtle, but definitely very effective things, creating that overall immersion and experience.

So how does your client measure that this is working and that the investment in time and money that they put into this is doing a better job?

Dorian: When you see 50 people enter the room and the system is off, everyone comes in, they all surround it. They're all milling about. Everyone's seen the scale model before and then the sales director hits the on button and the lights go dark and that system goes on. And 50 people at once go “whoa!” and start whipping out their phones. It was a pretty good proof of concept for them.

Yeah, sure, but there's a CFO in that company who's going to be saying, okay, that's all very nice, I'm glad people are excited, but is this selling more real estate for me?

Dorian: Yeah, I mean that is something that will get uncovered over time. Obviously, tools like this are going to be required in the near future. That's exactly why IMERZA as a company was created. The need to explain projects more in depth and the time of just being able to sell off a plan is gone. People expect to be able to experience the future and this project is on a whole nother level.

Now six months ago, pre-pandemic, people would have looked at this and said, “okay, this is the future, this is how commercial real estate is going to be sold”, but then pandemic hit and huge swathes of the population started working from home and companies started announcing we're just going to let people work from home forever now and commercial property groups started thinking, “Oh dear god, our leasing rates are going to drop to the floor.” So how does this fit into the “new normal”?

Dorian: Yeah, there's a lot of that going on and it's been pretty interesting on the real estate market to see how the pandemic has affected it. Interestingly, the housing markets actually picked up traction, at least in Florida. With the commercial leasing side really, it's not so much that anything has slowed down, they're just rethinking how you design your elevators and how you design the communal areas. 

We have not seen from our side any bit of slowdown really even on the investment side. Since COVID hit, we've landed six new projects and surprisingly, we totally expected it to slow down but if anything it's picked up. It was absolutely unfortunate for the SPP guys that the month after this amazing marketing center opened, COVID hit and they had to shut it down but they are open again and they're starting to give presentations again. Fortunately, because a lot of these tools were written in software, they could, during that couple months period where they were down, they could give remote presentations to people that couldn't be there in the marketing center. They could still see the content. They just couldn't see it in person.

Go ahead, Caitlin.

Caitlin: I was just gonna say yeah, if nothing else, this pandemic has just given so many people all the time they needed to be more creative and more expressive and creating more immersive experiences that will really sell the idea so I feel like, just like IMERZA, DCBolt really hasn't slowed down and now we're seeing even more interest because people have more time to really put more thought into solutions like these. So just piggybacking off of what Dorian said, I think, yeah, if nothing else, the time has been really helpful for a lot of companies to think up more creative solutions.

Devin: To be completely honest. Having the little break in time actually gave us the time we needed to get a breather. We were pedal to the metal to get the Tampa project done on the timeline we had and so we feel so blessed that we actually had it done and launched before the timeline.

Dorian: Which was a ridiculous timeline by the way. (Laughter)

Devin: I forget the total number of 3D printers but at one point, we had over two hundred 3D printers going at the same time for different locations across the country.

Caitlin: But it was worth it.

Devin: Yeah, it's been a nice breath of fresh air for us. We certainly have many things coming out of this and it doesn't feel like it slowed down, but I'm scared to think of how fast we'd be going right now without the COVID pumping up the brakes. 

I'm just looking for the silver lining but I feel like everything's gonna pick back up. I don't think that this is going to be a permanent new world that we're living in and people are always going to want to continue to develop real estate and come up with new marketing centers and new ways of conveying new ideas. 

Just by that short pre-COVID one month that we had, we saw so many people get excited in ways that they haven't been excited before about real estate and visualizing data even. A lot of times these are boring conversations that people have in conference rooms looking at spreadsheets, and now they're standing around them actually getting excited about a boring topic like restaurant revenues and things like that, that normally people don't care to even discuss but now they can visualize it. They can say, “Oh, that's where my friend lives down that street. There's a great restaurant. There’s a new footpath there” and it's kind of literally stepping outside of the box gaining a new perspective on, in this case, the entire city, and all the people who are city planning, making big decisions, it gives them the opportunity to look at it from a different perspective, literally walk all the way around it if they want to, and discuss it with everybody in the same room. And I don't think that the value in that is ever gonna go away.

Dorian: I think another and it's not related to COVID but more so than the Tampa project, we pushed a lot of technological limits. And there was an enormous amount of innovation that happened on this project both from just the the projection mapping point of view and pushing all of this real time content at the pixel density that we were doing that to just how do you get multiple real time computers with high end GPUs in their frame locked running at 90 frames a second and all of this sort of stuff. 

So there was a heck of a lot of innovation that happened, that, that we can carry through into new projects. And what I do find interesting and some of the conversations that we're having with companies is, you know, just these types of experiences are ones that can be enjoyed by people that are standing 5-6 feet apart and shared, immersive experiences. So I do think we'll actually see a bit more of this type of content, whether it's projected onto a table or outward onto the walls or something like that. These types of experiences, I think, we're gonna see more of them.

Alright guys, thank you very much for your time. I'm sorry to cut you off there but we try to keep it to 30-35 minutes and I'm sure we could have talked for three hours.

Michael Schneider, Gensler (from InfoComm Connected 2020)

Michael Schneider, Gensler (from InfoComm Connected 2020)

July 8, 2020

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

I was kinda sorta off last week and did not record a new interview, but I have this audio track from a recent online event that's well worth sharing.

The pandemic shifted InfoComm 2020 from Las Vegas to online last month, and one of many educational sessions held at InfoComm Connected was about experiential design.

I was the host, and my guest was Michael Schneider of the giant global design firm Gensler. I've known Michael for a few years, first at ESI Design and now at the New York City offices of Gensler, where he runs the Media Architecture team.

The session was called Designing Contact-Free Building Experiences, and was a chat about how the global health care crisis is forcing a re-think of using and navigating public and commercial building spaces.

Where much of the experience in big buildings lately has been about Wow Factor, health safety and utility are now in the mix.

The session was a video call, with a chat recorded ahead of time and then live Q&A. About 20 minutes in, you will hear the tech jump in with a few questions.

I'll have a fresh podcast, with transcription, next week.

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Advocates For Connected Experiences: Industry Panel - Re-opening For Business

Advocates For Connected Experiences: Industry Panel - Re-opening For Business

June 10, 2020

This is a special version of the 16:9 podcast - the audio from a recent online call put on by the new Advocates For Connected Experiences, focused on the challenges of getting people back to work, and what that means for connected experiences and technology.

The chat, done on a Zoom video call, features senior folks from several organizations, talking about what's changed, what's going on now, and how technologies are being applied. I was the moderator.

On the call, you'll hear from:
- Kim Sarubbi, ACE
- Joe' Lloyd, AVIXA
- Trent Oliver, Themed Entertainment Association
- Debbie Hauss, Retail Touchpoints
- Cybelle Jones, SEGD
- Bryan Meszaros, SEGD
- Kym Frank, Geopath
- David Drain, ICX Association
- Beth Warren from CRI

I didn't have time to buff this up with the audio leveled, etc, etc, so you may have to monkey with your volume controls. But it is a good chat that's well worth a listen. 

Warning - it is 60 minutes or so, but you can always listen to half and come back to it later.

 

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Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

March 25, 2020

ScreenCloud has been around for five years now - a pure software startup that aimed to bring web technology fully into digital signage.

Now the London-based company has roughly 100 staffers in the UK, US and Thailand, and is evolving from having an SMB focus into servicing enterprise business.

I've spoken to co-founder Mark McDermott in the past for this podcast, but I wanted to catch up for a couple of reasons.

First, I wanted to know why such a relatively young platform was completely re-architected recently.

But I also wanted to dig into some thoughts from Mark I saw online about workplace communications and digital signage more generally, in a time when a pandemic has left on-premises screens unseen, and many to most workers doing their jobs at home.

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Tina Williams, Greater Toronto Airports Authority

Tina Williams, Greater Toronto Airports Authority

March 11, 2020

Airports are very different places from when I started my working life, and technology has done a lot to not only change travel experiences, but also help monetize what are, often, very busy public places.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority runs that city's Pearson Airport. It is the busiest airport in Canada, with some 50 million passengers going through the two terminals each year.

Tina Williams runs the media and partnerships programs at Pearson, which is increasingly using technology for everything from fixed, standardized ad positions to very customized, elaborate brand activations that mix mediums. In one case, an automaker's brand messaging starts with projection mapping and video walls in the parking garage and extends all the way to a micro showroom across from the airport's busiest gate.

I've known Tina for a bunch of years, extending back to when she did similar work at Canada's busiest shopping mall. We spoke last week at an airport that, at times, has felt like a second home for me.

We grabbed a room at an Air Canada lounge, which is why it's got a bit of an echo.

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George Clopp, RMG Networks

George Clopp, RMG Networks

February 19, 2020

RMG Networks has been doing workplace communications and employee engagement since the days the Dallas company was known as Symon Communications.

There have been some interesting twists and turns in the story of RMG - like a curious spell as a digital out of home media company that ALSO did the legacy Symon stuff. But the management team is now squarely focused on the high opportunity workplace vertical.

I had a great chat with George Clopp, the Chief Technology Officer for RMG, about where the company is at, the evolution of its Korbyt CMS, and how what it does differs in the marketplace.

Among the particularly interesting things - content decisions that are determined and automated, using machine learning, or AI. Have a listen.

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David Nussbaum, PORTL

David Nussbaum, PORTL

January 29, 2020

David Nussbaum has years invested in the whole idea of creating what are called holograms - but aren't - for high profile concerts and other events.

If you remember seeing video of the Coachella festival a few years ago, and rapper Tupac “coming back to life” to perform, that was done, and many similar events that followed, using a very old visual trick called Pepper’s Ghost.

Nussbaum was part of the company that bought the patents right after the Tupac event, and he had a hand in nearly all the holograms that came after it for the next few years. Nussbaum then went on his own, creating a company that does that same sort of thing, but in a very different way, and a very different business model and proposition.

He took transparent LCD display technology most commonly used for grocery fridge marketing, and tweaked the hell out of it to create more, better light and visuals.

The result is a company called PORTL and product he calls Holoportl, which does what he calls single passenger holoportation.

That sounds way too Star Trek-y for me, but in simple terms, his company has developed a process to capture people on camera and show them in lifelike size on one of his closet-like display display units.

The idea is that someone - let's say a politician - could make a personal appearance, talk and field questions, without going there.

There are a bunch of potential applications for this sort of thing, and while this is not pure digital signage, one of these units could absolutely find a home in a flagship store.

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Vernon Freedlander, Bannister Lake

Vernon Freedlander, Bannister Lake

January 22, 2020

Dynamic data has grown into a buzz phrase in the digital signage industry, with lots of talk about how the ability to automate and visualize data results in relevant, always updated and fresh content on screens.

It's relatively new to many companies in this industry, but for a few, it's old hat.

A little company in the Canadian tech hotbed of Kitchener-Waterloo has been doing dynamic data for a quarter-century. Bannister Lake's roots are in dynamic graphics for broadcasters, and that's still a big business. But the company also does dynamic data for digital signage, and is growing that side of the business.

If you watched any of the big matches at the US Open tennis tournament last fall in New York, you saw an amazing set of LED displays at the venue showing graphics and stats. That was Bannister Lake under the content hood.

I spoke with industry veteran Vern Freedlander, who's now a part of the Bannister Lake team.

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Jim Stoklosa, Adobe

Jim Stoklosa, Adobe

January 15, 2020

Some very big technology companies have come into the digital signage business through the years, and with the exception of the display guys, most have either exited or their efforts kinda petered out.

Every so often I stumble across something that suggests Cisco is still in signage, but I don't see it.

It would be reasonable to have read news that Adobe had debuted a digital signage CMS, and thought, "Well, I've seen this movie already …" But it hasn't played out that way, and Adobe has for the last 4-5 years been steadily building out Screens - a content management system that grows out of its mature, widely used Adobe Experience Manager platform.

The initial target has been creatives and content managers at companies and agencies that already widely use Adobe products. If they were already developing and pushing content to web and mobile screens, why not also enable in-venue screens?

Now Adobe is kinda sorta coming out of stealth mode and thinking about a broader opportunity, providing an omni-channel CMS for mid-sized to large companies, and their creatives.

I spoke with digital signage industry veteran Jim Stoklosa, who is in charge of AEM Screens.

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David Title, Bravo Media

David Title, Bravo Media

December 18, 2019

Experiential is a huge buzzword these days in the digital signage world, and it tends to get pretty loosely applied to all kinds of things.

I've seen projects and read PR pieces describing the work as being experiential, and thought, "Ok, in what way?"

A creative company down in the Chelsea district has been doing experiential media for years, and from the moment the elevator opens up into the offices of Bravo Media, you're into experience. There are projections all over the walls and off-the-wall gadgets like vintage slot machines retrofitted to shoot selfies.

I was in New York last week and had a great chat with David Title, the Chief Engagement Officer at Bravo, about what the company does, and how he defines engagement and experience.

This is the last podcast until the new year, as people should have better things to do around the holidays. There are some 180 back episodes to listen to, if you did need something to pass time or fall asleep. 

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Lee Horgan, Uniguest

Lee Horgan, Uniguest

December 11, 2019

More and more companies involved on the sell and service side of digital signage seem to be picking out business verticals and getting very focused on them.

It's a tactic that can work very well if that company already has a big history and footprint in a vertical, and that's certainly the case with Uniguest.

The company built up its business by putting in and managing business centers in hotels - those dedicated rooms or stations where guests can do things like print off a boarding pass or presentation deck. The technology company started getting asked by major clients about whether it also offered digital signage solutions, and like any cagey tech vendor, it said "Of Course!"

But the software Uniguest initially developed in-house wasn't all that good, and the management team decided the smarter and easier path was to acquire a company that already had a solid platform, long history and great people.

Uniguest bought the UK company Onelan, and then followed it up by acquiring a second UK software company Tripleplay. I didn't even know, until I had a tour last week of Uniguest's Center of Excellence in Nashville, that they'd also acquired a Pittsburgh company, TouchTown.

I had a great chat with Lee Horgan, the Chief Revenue Officer, about how Uniguest is building up a vertical solution that starts in hotel lobbies and extends all the way into guest rooms.

We also get into how Uniguest sees a big future providing very similar solutions in the senior living industry, where higher-end residences are looking and feeling more and more like very nice extended-stay hotels. 

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