Matt Downey, Freshwater Digital

October 17, 2018
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Matt Downey's time in digital signage traces way, way back to the days when Premier Retail Networks was, by far, the big dog in putting screen networks in retail environments.

His time with PRN - working with clients like Walmart - eventually led him into working directly for one of his big grocer clients. Not long after that, he took a leap and started his own company. I'd say it was a big leap, but he started out with a whale client - his current employer.

Many years later, Freshwater Digital is a well established digital signage solutions provider, with double-digit growth every year and a client list that's rich in big companies that's not only local to Grand Rapids, Michigan, but also includes organizations that are much further afield.

Matt and I get into the roots of Freshwater, and lessons learned. We also go pretty deep into a new area he's going after in a big way - e-paper tags and shelf labels.

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Mark Bennett, MicroGigantic

September 26, 2018
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In an industry that has, for years, had people endlessly blabbering away about how Content Is King - my God that's clever! - it's amazing to me how I can count the number of pure-play digital signage creative shops on one hand.

MicroGigantic is one of those rare shops - a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based boutique agency that does visual storytelling for brands - whether that's retail or corporate.

The company's roots are with one of the biggest brands in the Twin Cities - the mass merchandising retailer Target. Mark Bennett managed the Media Production group at Target - and a big part of that was feeding the many screens sprinkled around the huge stores.

It was a great gig, Bennett says, but he got the seven-year itch to go out on his own, and started MicroGigantic knowing there wasn't a lot of competition for what he wanted to do.

His team does retail, but the real growth these days is for work in areas like corporate - with companies looking to make visual statements about what they do, and what they're about.

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Hongwei Liu, Mappedin

September 18, 2018
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Wayfinding is one of those core technologies that make consumer lives better and easier - helping people locate where they want and need to go in places like shopping malls, airports, health care facilities and higher ed campuses.

There are numerous software companies that include wayfinding capabilities in their platforms, but only a handful that have been laser-focused just on delivering that solution. One of the most successful ones is Mappedin.

The company started as a sideline for some students at the University of Waterloo, which most observers would call the top computing school in Canada. Hongwei Liu and his buddies thought they could solve a problem for students finding their way around the sprawling Waterloo campus, and then at a local mall and a casino a couple of hours up the highway.

There was enough there for Liu to quit school in his second year. Just a few years later, he's running a company with 60 employees, some big outside investors, and clients across North America and globally.

I spoke with Liu about Mappedin's roots, what works and doesn't, and how the big moment came when serious research showed good wayfinding can mean millions of dollars in incremental sales for shopping malls and their tenants.

 

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From The Archive: Michael Schneider On Experiential Digital Design

September 12, 2018
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No new podcast this week ... sorry.

I had two postponed interviews last week, combined with a short work week and then me spending two of those four days in a succession of airplanes getting to and from a client. I'm kinda remote now, and so are they.

I have two chats scheduled for Thursday, and more in the hopper. I'm also happy to get suggestions on people/companies I should be making subjects of an episode, so send your suggestions along.

That stated, it's an archive week. Enjoy this podcast chat from late 2016 with Michael Schneider, who was with the experiential design firm ESI Design at the time, but sent me a note last week to say he's joined the NYC office of the big, global architecture and design firm Gensler, as Creative Technology Director – Hardware.

He's left a great firm, but gone to another great one. Smart, soft-spoken guy, involved with some phenomenal projects.

Refik Anadol, On Digital Data Sculptures

August 29, 2018
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If finding a free half-hour to talk is any indication, Refik Anadol is one busy, popular guy right now. That likely owes a lot to the mind-blowing data visualization work he's been doing lately in public spaces.

He's a Turkish-born digital media artist who now has a busy studio in Los Angeles doing what he calls parametric data sculptures for public art spaces.

If you have been in downtown San Francisco, you may have seen a big LED video wall in the lobby of a Salesforce tower that seems to have a corner glass window with live expanding foam - or something. It looks real, but it's just three-dimensional digital art, driven by data.

More recently, he's done several sync'd up visualizations on the LED walls of an expanded section of Charlotte, North Carolina's airport. What's happening on the screens there is all based on real-time data from airport operations. So what you see on the screens is shaped by things like luggage-handling systems.

Kinda crazy.

I caught up with Anadol recently at his LA studio, to get a sense of what he and his team does, and we have a broader discussion about visualized data.

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Pierre Gendron, Stingray Media

August 22, 2018
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tingray Digital Media Group is one the world's biggest providers of multi-platform music services, with 11,000 commercial clients in 156 countries.

The Montreal company's core business is piped-in music channels for commercial and residential, but it also has a growing operation in digital experiences for retail - like flashy screen networks in big Canadian sporting goods stores.

That side of the business is led by Pierre Gendron, a former pro hockey player who found his way into digital signage doing an early version of it for company golf tournaments around Quebec. That company evolved and developed into Groupe Viva, which was then acquired in 2015 by Stingray.

Now part of a much larger organization, Gendron talks in this chat about what Stingray offers and how it intends to grow. One of those ways is through acquisition, and we get into why Stingray recently bought Toronto-based NovraMedia, which gives the company a big national bank customer and a stronger digital signage foothold in English Canada and beyond.

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Kyle Pilot, iGotcha

August 15, 2018
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I was in Montreal recently and had a chance to visit the offices of iGotcha, a digital signage and experiential media solutions company that has very quietly built up a nice book of business since launching in 2005.

Working out of an old warehouse building overlooking the historic Lachine Canal, iGotcha works with everyone from banks and a lottery corporation to Cirque du Soleil.

I caught up with Kyle Pilot, one of the co-founders and the longtime CTO. He now runs the company with business partners Greg Adelstein and Hadrien Bessou.

In this chat, we get into what they do, who they work with, and get on a fairly lengthy riff about the merits of technology like System on Chip displays.

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Nick Fearnley, Signstix

July 11, 2018
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I am guilty of thinking about SignStix as yet another smallish digital signage CMS company scratching out a living with low-cost subscriptions and equally low-cost Android stick players.

Based in Yorkshire, England, SignStix is a lot more than that. The company is indeed small, but doing some stuff that is a little bit mind-blowing. It does digital signage, but for some significant clients it is doing a lot of back-of-the-house data-mining and aggregation for communications that go beyond screens.

What I found really interesting is learning from CEO Nick Fearnley how the company is using the intelligence on system on chip "smart" displays to do things like manage and aggregate geo-fencing data from trucks moving in and out of a retailer's loading docks. It's stuff that would much more normally be done by full PCs, and it is completely counter to the suggestion still out there that these smart displays aren't all that bright.

Fearnley and I chatted at the back of one of the halls at InfoComm, last month in Las Vegas. You'll enjoy the chat, and particularly  his Yorkshire accent.

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Brett Jones, Lightform

June 20, 2018
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One of the most interesting companies I saw recently at InfoComm in Las Vegas was Lightform, a San Francisco start-up that is making the once dark art of projection mapping available to just about everyone.

It wasn't that long ago that projection mapping was all about very ambitious, very complicated, very expensive projects that only a handful of companies had the chops to pull off.

Now we have a company with a $700 device and related software that makes it possible for just about anyone to do small-scale projection mapping on things like a merchandising display or a wedding cake.

Lightform calls this Projected Augmented Reality - the idea that AR is not something that needs to be seen though the lens of a smartphone.

I spoke with CEO and co-founder Brett Jones, and we did our best to describe to listeners what we were seeing as we walked around the booth.

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Arie Stavchansky, Dataclay

May 31, 2018
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Anyone who works with creative teams knows there is no such thing as a content fairy. Video spots don't magically appear in inboxes overnight. Somebody had to design and render that video, and that work, frankly, takes a while.

So it's a little freaky to talk to a company that can do 1,000s of good-looking, customized videos in a matter of hours. But that's what Dataclay is all about.

The little company operating out of Austin, Texas has written the software and services that can mass-produce data-driven videos at pretty much the click of a mouse. And these aren't crappy, simplistic videos no one would want anyway. They come out of Adobe After Effects, full After Effects templates, and a plug-in written by Dataclay.

Imagine a national realtor being able to mass-produce a piece of video for every listing that comes into its databases - photos, details, the whole nine yards. Imagine a theme park spitting out videos instead of 8 by 10s that families can buy when they leave a ride or the park. Imagine a custom highlights video of every runner in a marathon ... kinda like this ...

I spoke with company founder Arie Stavchansky about how the platform he built brings automation and industrial-scale video production to digital signage, advertising and marketing.

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Matt Gibbs, UPshow

May 16, 2018
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A whole bunch of startups have through the years, tried to crack the restaurant and bar business with a digital out of home advertising model that saw them put in screens and media players, hoping to claw back the costs, and more, through advertising.

And a whole bunch of them - most of them, in fact, have failed. Advertising is hard.

So I was intrigued by a three-year-old Chicago company called UPshow that is doing user-generated content and digital signage in bars, and making a go of it on a subscription basis - with no third-party advertising. At least for now.

The bar owners - from small ones all the way up to chains like TGI Fridays and Hooters - actually pay money month to month for the service. The owner/operators like that UPshow's content is fresh, and human moderated, and that customers are engaged. They also like that it is selling more drinks and specials, and generating return business.

I spoke with Matt Gibbs, the company's CMO, and one of its co-founders.

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Jason Bier, Federation For Internet Alerts

May 2, 2018
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One of the time-honored lines used in digital signage and digital out of home media is how the technology gets the right messages to the right people at the right times.

That's all had to do with marketing and advertising, but a non-profit called the Federation for Internet Alerts has a mission to get crucial alerts in front of the right people at the right times and places to save lives and rescue kids.

Based on years of volunteer work from top coders, pro bono support from agencies and web services, and some grants here and there, the organization is sending critical alerts across North America that warn people about imminent threats like tornadoes, and more insidious threats like bad air.

Almost 1.5 million alerts have been processed since the platform started, and while most of that has been for web and mobile, now the organization is talking to digital out of home media companies about how its alerts could be on big digital screens that are everywhere, and always connected.

I spoke recently with the organizations founder and volunteer CEO, Jason Bier.

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Mark Stross, ANC

April 24, 2018
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ANC got its start about 20 years ago as a rotational signage company that primarily serviced the pro sports business, and through the years, ANC has grown into a big tech services provider that's been putting in the visual systems for many arenas and stadiums.

If you see a big center-hung set of LED boards over an NBA or Division 1 basketball court, or a giant replay board at a ballpark, there's a decent chance ANC is behind it.

More recently the company has found itself getting into digital out of home media, creating the same kinds of visual spectacle you might see in live sports, but instead in public areas or mass transportation hubs. A lot more than a conventional AV systems integrator, ANC is doing a ton of R&D and using product that will do things like light up the whole 360-degree view of an area with sync'd content. You might think, "Well that's not all that new," but ANC's CTO Mark Stross explains why what he's cooked up is different.

I spoke with Stross recently about the idea of taking the spectacle and energy of live events into this new kind of arena of public squares and rail stations, and how he's constantly trying to push possibilities.

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Bruce van Zyl, Sellr/Bev TV

March 21, 2018
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Booze is a complicated thing to buy. All the product categories look pretty much the same, so people revert to price, top of mind awareness or labels and names that catch their eye.

One of the ways to improve that situation is by putting digital right into the aisles of liquor stores, where people poke around trying to figure out what they'll like and should buy. A company up in the north Atlanta tech suburbs, called Sellr, is rolling out BevTV displays in stores, with the aim of helping consumers make more informed choices about buying wine, beer and liquor - and hopefully influence buying decisions.

The company got its start in retail hardware, but has transitioned fully into software and content - building up a massive 165,000 item library of curated information about booze that's tied to universal price codes. They make that interactive content available on commercial-grade tablets they install, on their nickel, at eye-level in participating stores.

I talk in this podcast with company president Bruce van Zyl about BevTV's experiences to date, and its plans to have 1,000 units running by this summer.

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Guy Tonti, Unified Brand

March 11, 2018
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Auto dealerships have always been an environment well suited to digital signage. There are a lot of things to talk about and sell, and a lot of interest and buying comes down to things like the visual and emotional appeal of the vehicles.

Guy Tonti's company, Unified Brand, spends a lot of its time working with dealerships developing what amounts to custom television channels that are tuned to the dealer environment. Based in Phoenix, the company has carved out a nice, steadily growing niche in the sector, bolstered by work it also does with other locations and regional businesses.

The channels, using digital signage tech, are revenue-producing, customer-centric content plays that are used as an alternative to the TVs you'll still find in many, many auto dealer service area lounges. That idea doesn't work all that well, as competitors' ads might run on a broadcast channel, and U.S. politics is getting so polarized just running CNN or Fox News on a waiting room TV may stir up arguments and complaints.

Intensely local digital signage is an interesting departure for Tonti, who joined and then bought the company after years working with networking giant Cisco, where he was director of worldwide practices for emerging technologies.

Tonti and I caught up in Phoenix, spending time talking about Unified Brand and touching a little bit on his brush with fame, when he was a four-day champ on Jeopardy. He can't be THAT bright, because hey, he's in digital signage.

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Bryan Crotaz, Silver Curve

February 28, 2018
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The top prize at the Digital Signage Awards that were announced and handed out recently in Amsterdam was a project to modernize the display system at the cradle of cricket - Lord's Cricket Ground in London.

The project was pulled together by a small London consultancy called Silver Curve, which is run by one of the brightest minds in digital signage, Bryan Crotaz.

Bryan had been telling me about the project for more than a year, but he was only recently in a position to make some noise about it.

In our conversation, we talk about the effort to modernize and greatly simplify the display control system on the ancient grounds, and how he used very technologies like HTML5 and Raspberry Pi to make it all happen.

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Joaquim Lopes Jr., 4YouSee

February 21, 2018
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I have traded emails with Joaquim Lopes for at least couple of years now, and he has been telling me about his company 4YouSee and its efforts providing software and services to the Latin American digital signage market.

He was at Integrated Systems Europe in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, and when we finally met in person, I suggested we grab a quiet spot and do a podcast chat.

The company is based in Brazil but also does work in other countries. We had a good chat about the marketplace, and his company's products and services, including an interesting creative tool.

I picked up a whopper of a bug at or after ISE, so my voice on this intro probably sounds a bit rough. My edit guy is also on holiday, so I am hacking this episode together myself. Back to more polished work next time.

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Jaffer Haider, Poster My Wall

February 7, 2018
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There's no question that making a proper investment in creative is essential to successful digital signage networks, but there's also no question that a lot of small businesses don't have the budget for full motion graphic design work, or wouldn't even know who to ask to do that work.

A few companies have popped up in recent years offering versions of template tools that allow small business people to produce videos for their signs without having any motion graphic design skills. It's fair to say none of them have really caught fire, though at least one is still around. Sixteen:Nine readers may remember my own crack at this, called Spotomate.

PosterMyWall is a Silicon Valley company that has, for several years now, offered online tools that let people build the creative files to make print posters, and digital versions for big social media channels like Facebook.

Now the company has taken the same toolset and made it possible for users to build simple but polished videos from templates, and download them for all of $15. I got the rundown on the product, which was introduced a few weeks ago, from Jaffer Haider, the company's CEO.

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Jason Barak, D3

January 31, 2018
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16:9 just released a Special Report called The Total Guide To Fine Pitch LED. It’s a big, 70 page look at the display technology, coming at it from all kinds of angles.

The free report (you can download it here) came together, in part, because of sponsors - like the major one, custom LED design firm D3. They not only contributed to the report, but two of their main guys went along with me when I went to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China in November to get a deep look into the companies and technologies.

They go over there a lot, and knew who I should talk to and what I should see. To their everlasting credit, the tour was in no way about them. George Pappas and Jason Barak just wanted to ensure I got a good look, and that I made the most of my limited time over there. Shenzhen is vast and bewildering, so that help was incredibly valuable. Stupid me thought I could get 4 or 5 meetings in per day, but I had no idea about Shenzhen traffic or the sheer geographic scale of the place.

Jason runs the business development, client-facing side of D3, and in the wake of the report coming out, I wanted to catch back up with him to talk about what’s going on in fine pitch LED, which is a LOT.

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Lisa Moore and Hugh Turvey, OOHscreen

January 24, 2018
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Hospital and clinic rooms are rarely places people like hanging around, and digital signage has long been seen as a way to distract and entertain patients, and their family or friends.

A London-based solutions provider called OOHScreen has a very different take on what digital signage should look like and do in those places. Instead of ads for cold remedies and wireless providers, they work with health care trusts in the U.K. to put in screens that are focused on beautiful visuals that ease anxiety and take peoples' minds off why they're even in those waiting rooms. At an oncology clinic that has the set-up, 98% of patients strongly agreed that the screens improved the waiting area environment.

The company's principals used their backgrounds in art and communications to come up with a turnkey service that puts the screens in place, and keeps them fresh with things like custom-developed visuals shot in the surrounding countryside.

I spoke with Hugh Turvey and Lisa Moore about what they do, and why it works.

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