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!

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. 

 

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.

 

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.

Jeff Rushton, Media Resources

Jeff Rushton, Media Resources

June 17, 2020

Some LED display manufacturers have made a mark in the digital signage and digital out of home industries by making a lot of noise and having splashy booths at trade shows.

Media Resources has taken a very different approach - plugging along pretty quietly and building up a solid book of business in the US and Canada that's based on its technology and end-to-end experience.

The company has an unlikely home base in leafy, very upscale Oakville, Ontario, which is in the immediate orbit of Toronto. It started many years ago as a pure sign company, and has used decades of experience in all the engineering, paperwork and politicking of putting up billboards as a distinct advantage.

LED is now 60 per cent of what Media Resources does, and that's growing.

I spoke with CEO Jeff Rushton. We get into the state of the business and why he's investing heavily in an automated manufacturing facility in Canada, doing work that's normally offshored to Taiwan or China. Lots of companies do design and final assembly over here, but get components built in Asia. Rushton's will be doing the whole nine yards in Oakville. 

We also talk about SITELINE, which is described as Light Trespass Mitigation technology. What it does is hugely reduce light pollution from roadside billboards - so nearby homes aren't flooded in light and media companies get their new billboards approved by local authorities. 

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Rick Mills, Creative Realities, Inc (CRI)

Rick Mills, Creative Realities, Inc (CRI)

May 13, 2020

Creative Realities is a solutions provider heavily focused on retail, an industry that has been pretty much shuttered in the United States and everywhere other than Sweden because of COVID-19.

These are rough times for store operators for the people who run them, the people who work in them, and the industries that support retail, like digital signage.

While CRI's CEO Rick Mills agrees it's a dark period, he also has a lot of optimism - particularly for the retailers who have the fundamentals to be around when doors are allowed open again, and for service providers who have the tools and know-how to help address what will be new norms.

Mills and I chatted last week about what CRI is doing, as well as about new pandemic-focused tools like thermal sensing screens that his company has started marketing. We spoke, as well, about his company's outlook, including thoughts of acquiring one or several of the companies who are competitors right now, but might not come out of this situation in one piece.

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Stefan Thorarinson, Pristine Screen

Stefan Thorarinson, Pristine Screen

March 18, 2020

At the best of times, using an interactive screen can be a slightly dodgy experience because of the presence of dirt, grime, bacterial build-up and other stuff you really don't even want to think about.

But in this new age we're living in - hopefully temporary, but who knows - touching an interactive surface that's already been used by dozens or scores of others that day could put you in a hospital bed, or coffin.

One of the counter-measures to the risk of transmission of contagions like COVID-19 is the regular cleaning of that screen, not to mention hand-washing or sanitizing after an interactive session.

Given everything that's been going on - and having walked to the self-serve checkout at my local grocery and thought, "Hmmm, how do I do this safely ... " - it's useful to get some insight from a business that's all about clean screens.

Toronto-based Stefan Thorarinson runs North American Ops and Sales for Pristine-Screen, a UK-based company that's specifically in the business of cleaning and protecting digital signage and digital out of home screens.

We chatted about how a global pandemic has raised awareness and attention for keeping screens clean, and what operators should be doing, and not doing.

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Taylor Hunter, Impactrum

Taylor Hunter, Impactrum

February 5, 2020

I love the notion of transparent LED displays - the idea of taking a big surface and making it active, without also creating a big, solid wall that blocks the view in and out.

There are "transparent" LED display products - tech that has matured to a level that they look great from the front, but still tends to look terrible from the back side that's not illuminated.

There is LED on transparent film. LG's looks great, but the pitch is so wide it has limited application. I've seen much finer pitch LED on film from Chinese companies, but like the companies using metal grids, this looks like crap from in behind.

So I was really intrigued when I was made aware of a new company called Impactrum, which is starting to market a truly transparent film on LED that can have as fine a pitch as 6mm, but looks great front and back. And can be used on the OUTSIDE of buildings.

The company is actually a spinout from a decade-old Korean LED maker. I spoke with Impactrum's US-based President, Taylor Hunter.

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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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Stephen Gottlich, Gable

Stephen Gottlich, Gable

November 20, 2019

I have heard some people in this industry starting to describe what they do as visual solutions, as opposed to digital signage. I'm not sure that really fits in all cases, but it certainly does for Gable, a Baltimore-area company that's been doing analog signs of all kinds for four decades. About 10 years ago, Gable added digital display solutions.

They work with all kinds of end-users - heavily with retail, but also in other verticals - on visual solutions that cover the full spectrum of options. That might mean a contract that involves a big direct view LED display for a venue, but also the meat and potatoes printed and crafted material that just helps visitors find their way around a venue.

I spoke with Stephen Gottlich, Gable's Senior Vice President of Innovation and Strategy, about what the company is up to, and what the marketplace is looking for and doing.

We also get into what he sees happening more broadly in the marketplace, and what he's seen in numerous technology trips to China.

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Daniel Black, Glass-Media

Daniel Black, Glass-Media

November 13, 2019

Projection on window film is one of those things that I thought had come and gone from digital signage, with too many technical challenges to make the idea really workable.

But projection is having a comeback, and arguably the company doing the most with it for retail and campaign-based marketing is a scrappy little startup in Dallas, called Glass-Media.

I chatted with Daniel Black, who co-founded the company roughly five years ago and is its CEO. The big differences between the first wave of projection in signage, and now, are better technology and smarter vendors.

The film is better. The projectors are brighter. Specialty lenses mean the set-up takes less space. And the big one - laser projectors are supplanting older-style projectors that steadily needed expensive bulbs replaced, and weren't engineered for commercial applications.

The other factor is guys like Black selling this as a solution, with measurables for retailers and brands, as opposed to a technical thing with short term Wow Factor.

If you've been curious about the state of projection in signage, this is a worthwhile listen.

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Trey Courtney, Mood Media

Trey Courtney, Mood Media

November 6, 2019

There's a decent chance that when you walk into a retailer in a developed country, and you hear music or some sort of in-store audio playing, that's Mood Media.

The company is in more than half a million subscriber locations in a 100-plus countries delivering in-store media solutions. While that started with music, it was natural as digital signage technology matured to add on visual messaging.

Now the company has launched something called Mood Harmony, a new platform that grew out of a signage CMS and offers a single user experience to do sound, visuals, social media and even scent marketing off of one platform.

I had a great chat with Trey Courtney, the Global Chief Product Officer for Mood Media, to get the back-story on the company, why it developed Harmony, and how retailers are defining and using technology designed to deliver on customer experience. 

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Maris Ensing, Mad Systems

Maris Ensing, Mad Systems

October 23, 2019

I wouldn't want the job of trying to boil down what Mad Systems does to an elevator pitch, unless it was a very tall building with a very slow elevator.

Based in Orange County, California, Mad Systems is technically an AV system designer and integrator, but these are not the guys you'd hire to put in some video-conferencing gear and some screens in the lobby.

It's not unfair to suggest the Mad in Mad Systems has to do with Maris Ensing and his engineers being a bunch of mad scientists. Go through the company's project portfolio and you find out they've put together a steam-driven aircraft and a 20-foot high tornado.

The company also did a big part of one of my favorite projects - the alumni center at the University of Oregon, which has a set of very tall, but moveable stacked LCD displays.

Ensing and his team have got involved in all kinds of things over 20 years, but in our chat, he talks a lot about a new AV management system the company has built from nothing - called Quicksilver. Among many things, Mad has patent applications underway for a new kind of facial color and pattern recognition system designed to instantly personalize visits to places like museums.

I'll let Ensing explain that and other things. This was one of my easier podcasts. He had a lot to say and there was little room for questions. Enjoy. 

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IV Dickson, SageNet

IV Dickson, SageNet

October 16, 2019

It's now really common that businesses of all sizes and types who decide to deploy some sort of digital signage network look to a solutions provider who will not only help put it in, but help the client go from the idea stage all the way through to ongoing operations.

Effectively, they're outsourcing the whole shooting match to people who know what they're doing. That helps companies stay focused on what they're good at.

Tulsa-based SageNet has been doing outsourced IT work for 20 years, and about two years ago saw enough shaking among its core customers - and had enough requests for help - to branch into digital signage and make it part of a very rich suite of services.

The company brought on IV Dickson, who has been around the signage business forever, to help build out the signage business and function as a subject matter expert in a company that was more conditioned to selling IT network services.

It's worked out, and the company is now mining a lot of new opportunities in verticals like c-stores and QSR.

I had a great chat with IV about SageNet and SageView, what is described as a one-stop shop for everything signage.

We also talk opera. Yeah, opera.

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Matt Schmitt, Reflect

Matt Schmitt, Reflect

October 9, 2019

Reflect is one of the longest running companies in the digital signage sector - operating out of Dallas since 2001. The company built up its CMS software business largely in retail, but in early 2017 did something of a pivot into ad scheduling and targeting.

I wondered, when I first got walked through what's called Ad Logic, why Reflect was going in that direction, given the addressable market seemed a little limited and companies like Broadsign had a serious head-start on competitors.

Turns out that Reflect was responding to client needs for something that was kinda sorta digital OOH, but was less about agency-driven media scheduling and more about retail and place-based networks that wanted to monetize their screens with endemic advertising. So in a medical office network, they wanted to schedule and runs ads for, say, big pharma and medical device brands.

I spoke with Reflect's president and co-founder Matt Schmitt about his company's journey, and how Reflect has evolved from a software shop to one offering everything from strategy to creative work and media sales.

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Dan Baker, AVI Systems

Dan Baker, AVI Systems

August 28, 2019

 If you are on the solutions side of the digital signage business, you have likely, at some point, had to open up and look over an RFP document from an end-user, quietly praying it won't be too onerous and/or stupid.

A lot of digital signage RFPs still - in 2019 - lead with technology, going on and on and on about specs and requirements, and only making a passing reference to content. Which is nutty, because the screens have only nominal value and impact if the content on them isn't timely, relevant and at least kinda sorta visually interesting.

Dan Baker handles the sales engineering for digital signage at AVI Systems, a big Minneapolis-area integrator. He's seen those kinds of RFPs, and knows through experience there's a better way.

He contacted me, offering to talk about his take, and his company's take, on a methodical process that, at minimum, gets end-users thinking about objectives and the content needed to meet them. Some companies are mandated to do RFPs - it's just how their procurement department rolls - but in a perfect world, end-users are usually better skipping RFPs and working with people who know digital signage.

The right advisors can help them get to the content and technology model that will actually deliver on objectives, and keep them from spending big on tech they need, while largely forgetting what will go on the screens.

 

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Jay Leedy, Diversified

Jay Leedy, Diversified

August 21, 2019

There are a handful of big AV systems integrators in North America genuinely active in digital signage, but I'm feeling pretty comfy saying New Jersey-based Diversified is the most active, experienced and directly knowledgeable about this industry.

The company has built and then managed many of the larger networks out there, including most of the big US banks that the average person could name. While some of the other big AV/IT guys have some dedicated resources, Diversified has a whole and big group pretty much doing nothing but digital signage and digital out of home work. The company also put the time and money into hiring a series of subject matter experts on digital signage - one of them being Jay Leedy, who is now Director of Business Development for what many people in the industry know as Diversified's Digital Media Group, or DMG.

Jay's based down in Atlanta but works with people and companies across the country. In this talk, we get into what DMG is all about, how they plug into this sector, and how they tend to work with clients and partners.

We also talk Adobe - a company more active in signage than many of us probably think - and Google, and the adoption rates out there for smart signage.

 

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Tom Milner, Service And Support

Tom Milner, Service And Support

August 7, 2019

Much of the focus in this industry is on the hardware and software used to put digital signage networks together, and increasingly, mercifully, on content and creative.

Not that much attention gets paid to the service side of the business - installing screens and fixing devices when things go wrong. Even less attention is paid to keeping the hardware clean.

That's what Tom Milner, and his UK-based company Service and Support, are all about, and have been for 10 years. Milner has built up his install and service business in the UK and Ireland, and more recently, built a book of business in North America for something called Pristine Screen, a service company specifically in the business of keeping screens clean, inside and out.

In this talk, we get into the roots of his business, how it has grown, and the decision to get into a spinoff business that's all about keeping screens pristine.

 

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Fab Stanghieri, Cineplex Digital Media

Fab Stanghieri, Cineplex Digital Media

May 22, 2019

Canadians all know Cineplex as the dominant movie theater chain in that country, and the Toronto-based company has also been expanding its reach, in recent years, into other related lines of business.

Cineplex now has entertainment-centric restaurant-bars, is bringing Top Golf into Canada, sells out of home media and runs a thriving digital media group that's doing most aspects of digital signage for major enterprise customers in Canada and beyond those borders.

Fab Stanghieri was a senior real estate guy with Cineplex, charged with building and managing the company's movie house portfolio. He had digital media added to his responsibilities a few years ago, and while it was unfamiliar territory at first, he's embraced digital to a degree that it is now his primary focus in the company.

I was passing through Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and Fab kindly took some time to show me around new office space, which is set up to help ideate, deliver and manage digital signage solutions for Cineplex clients.

 

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