Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

September 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Canada with snow and -30 and everything else. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would that work and look? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Walker: Amen. Thanks so much, Dave.

 

Tony Anscombe, ESET

Tony Anscombe, ESET

September 14, 2021

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

There's been a lot of talk about vaccine passports as the numbers of fully vaccinated people have risen in many to most first world countries, and venues from restaurants to giant sports stadiums have started talking about requiring proof of being jabbed as a requirement of admission.

But how is that done efficiently and securely? And how are fraudulent papers identified and rejected?

One of the ways to process people quickly and accurately is using readers and scanners, handheld or as  self-service kiosks. The idea is that you'd have a government-issued vaccine passport that has validated vaccine records, plus some sort of image database that confirms you are who you say you are. You walk up to a scanner, it does its thing, and you're in ... or you're rejected.

The hardware side of this, for kiosk and touchscreen manufacturers, is probably not all that complicated. But the back-end software and database side is hugely complicated.

I had a great discussion with Tony Anscombe, the Chief Security Evangelist for the tech firm ESET. We get into the opportunities and challenges facing any AV/IT company looking at these passport kiosks as an emerging business.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Tony, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what ESET is all about and what also your role as Chief Security Evangelist means? 

Tony Anscombe: So ESET is a longstanding cyber security company. We've been in the industry for 30+ years and we're headquartered in Europe. Many people will know us from years ago as an antivirus company, but today we're very much more than that. 

We have anti-malware products that you and I might use on mobiles or laptops or such, but we also provide threat intelligence and endpoint detection and response systems all the way up through to big enterprises. So tens of thousands of seats, where they're looking at anomalies in traffic patterns and such, and that intelligence is super important in today's environment, especially when you've got so much ransomware attacking companies.

And as an Evangelist, you're preaching to the choir, whether it's people who are CIOs of companies or people who don't know very much about network security, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, a big part of staying safe online, whether you're an enterprise, or whether you're a consumer, is human behavior. Because we all have on occasion, a tendency to look at a link and think it's safe and you click on that link and you're on a phishing page or you're downloading something that you don't want. 

And understanding what causes cybercrime and actually talking to people about how to avoid it and good behavior and the things to look out for is super important. So education is a large piece of cyber security and it's important that people like me and most security companies have somebody like me are out there educating both enterprises and consumers. 

I assume that those other C-level executives, like the CFO, may not know that much about it? It's important to have somebody that can listen to this, not purely talking in acronyms and information that they can't possibly understand, but get enough of it to realize, “I can sign off on this.” 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. It's important that we put it into real speaks, so when you're talking to a CFO about what's going to be the impact on their business if they get a cyber attack. Because that's what they understand, you know, loss of revenue, loss of business, loss of reputation, etc. So actually bring it back to what it might cause to the business and those are important points. No company wants to be attacked and have to make some data breach notification or anything like that.

I was looking forward to chatting because recently I came across information and actually republished a post from another publication about Vaccine Passport kiosk, which is something I hadn't really thought much about. I have not traveled yet, and I work at home so I don't circulate a lot in buildings or anything else where this would be an issue. 

But if we should shift to a world where vaccine passports are used a lot, I assume technology is going to have to be a big part of this because of the pure nature of throughput, that if you're going to process a lot of people and verify whether what they have is real or not, you're going to need machine help because getting humans to do that is just gonna create massive lineups and lots of mistakes.

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and there will be a place for kiosks, but they'll also be a place for handheld scanners and it is probably best to step back one and I’ll explain because some of the people listening may not have a digital vaccine recognition. 

It depends where you are, and what your government is handing out as in way of, “Yes, you've been vaccinated” and how that might actually be read. So in the US, I'm sure everybody has seen in some media stories, the little paper CDC card, and of course how would a kiosk actually validate that's real. It's just a piece of paper. Whereas some governments that have centralized health databases have gone to the other extreme of having QR codes and confirmation of the vaccination digitally, and if you haven't got a smartphone, you can print it out and carry it with you. But I think there's a wide range of different solutions and it's not just the problem of you and me, Dave, going to maybe a concert or a theater or an office, where there's huge throughput through the door. It's also international travel and does a kiosk recognize every different variant of confirmation of vaccination? 

Yeah, and because every jurisdiction seems to be doing it a little bit differently. There are no standards and there's no harmony around what it looks like, what you presented, nothing, right?

Tony Anscombe: Correct, and I'm actually gonna use New York as an example because I think New York has gone through the pain of what I define as three solutions. 

They've gone through having the CDC card, then they've created an app where you can, in effect, upload the card, and it's not much more useful than the card other than it's a digital copy of the card. And then they've recently in the last few weeks adopted the Excelsior app, which is produced by IBM and works on the blockchain. So the actual app itself provides some security about the data that it's holding, but it creates the QR code and it tells you the date of vaccination, the person's date of birth, and who they are. But of course, one thing that's missing from it is actually confirming who they are. 

So it's all very well having a vaccination record, but you also need to confirm the identity of the person that's holding the vaccination record, because if you and I were together and one of us was vaccinated on one of us was not, I could easily install my vaccination confirmation on your phone, because I know you're going to a concert or such and if there's no validation of identification at the point where somebody checks the vaccination, then you'd be traveling unvaccinated on my vaccination record.

So what needs to happen? What would be the baseline of what's required to make this truly work and secure and validate it? 

Tony Anscombe: So for you to be certain that the person coming in, you need to have pre-validated their identity. So either an app needs to have, for example, take your picture and you upload your driver's license or other recognized government-issued identity document, and then it does a facial comparison between the person uploading and, the government approved identity document, and then it goes off to the vaccine database and collects the vaccine record for the person with that identity, either the same date of birth, same name and maybe you've had to provide an email address or a mobile number that you did when you had your vaccination so that it picks up the correct record and then it marries the two together and holds them in some way in the app. 

Now the app should only hold the information it absolutely requires and that is your name, your date of birth, and that your vaccine is valid, and I say that because of course, we will come to a point where like the flu jab, you’d need to have another vaccine because vaccines don't last forever. So at that point, it needs to know that you're within whatever period of time it is that health organizations decide that they're valid for, and then it will create a QR code that's readable by a kiosk or a scanner. So that actually your data is not being shared, but somebody, as you look at a kiosk that it's reading the QR code it knows you have a valid vaccine, and if it's, for example, the company CLEAR that runs airport security, and they do facial recognition. So they take your picture, look at the record that they have on file and match the record to the farm. 

So imagine if you're now turning up to a concert, you go up to the kiosk, you show your QR code, it knows you've got a vaccine and it's checking you are the person that was on the identity document that was uploaded at the time you registered with the kiosk manufacturer.

This sounds very complicated. 

Tony Anscombe: And that is maybe an understatement actually, and from the point of explanation, it is. But now think about this from the consumer side.

I'm at home. I've got my vaccination records, whatever that may look like, whether it's an email, whether it's a piece of paper, a card, or whatever, but my government has decided that they do have a method of having digital vaccine records. So I use my mobile device and I log on to download the app. I validate that I'm the person I am, so here in California for me to get my digital vaccine, where I'm based, I tell it my phone number. I told it the email address I used at the time I had my vaccination. It downloads the QR code, puts it in the app, and then if it's going that extra step, which it doesn't by the way in California, which is a flaw in the entire process here. But if it went the extra step and then ask me to verify my identity, all I'd be doing is taking a picture of my driver's license, looking into the camera on the phone, and it takes that comparison, links my identity to the vaccine record. 

Now, when you go to the concert, you walk up to the kiosk. You look in the camera, you show the QR code, the kiosk gives a green light and off you go. So actually once you've registered, it should be a simplified process. 

If all those records are in place, and they're exportable, you could do something with them? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and that's a good point because now imagine, and this is where I think there needs to be a big piece of standardization. So you've got CLEAR in the US who do airport-style kiosks, creating a system. You've got Excelsior in New York, creating a system. So now all these different companies will require access to the government or state-backed databases. Now, whether that's in Canada, whether that's in Europe, whether that's in the US, or wherever it is, you're going to have the same issue. 

So there needs to be some standardization on the mechanism that the terminal uses to go and gather the vaccine, but also, to a certain degree. I think I would feel more comfortable if, like in Europe, they put their stake in the ground and turn and say we've partnered with this kiosk manufacturer and we're going to make sure this is ultra-secure and work with one vendor. Because that would give me a lot more of a warm feeling that when I walk up to this terminal, there are not 15 different commercial companies that all have different privacy policies, that all have different security systems, all accessing vaccination records just sound a bit of a mess.

Yeah, and what is the risk to a private citizen to all this? 

Tony Anscombe: That's a very interesting point because there's another argument of there's an anti-vaccine passport discussion as well. Yeah, goes along the side of every other anti there is, as there's always a cohort, isn't there? People in everything that decide that they're against things. 

Now, the anti-vaccine passport argument is that it's breaching your privacy because you're disclosing the fact you are vaccinated. Now I'm just going to throw in consideration here that to go to school in Ontario, you have to have a number of vaccines, 3-5, whatever it is, number of vaccines. So therefore if you stand on the street and watch kids that go to school, they're already disclosing that they've had five vaccines or however many it is. So if that's an infringement of somebody's privacy, then surely these kids are having their privacy infringed by going to school. So let's dismiss this infringement of privacy rights because I think that's a red herring. I think that's just somebody who doesn't want to have a digital vaccine record. I think the privacy infringement is somewhat negated, once you look at it with schoolchildren in mind, and in fact, I'm a green card holder in the US and the same goes for green cardholders, by the way, you have to have had five vaccinations. 

I was issued a green card and my arm was very sore the afternoon I had all five, the health authorities in Europe couldn't confirm that I'd had them historically because it was pre-digitalization. It was a very sore afternoon. 

But so now we've got that piece out of the way. Your date of birth is pretty much everywhere, it public record, and your name is a public record. So if the vaccine passport is holding the fact you've had a vaccine, your date of birth, and your name. It doesn't appear to me that it's holding too much data. However, if you then get into when the vaccination was and what type of vaccine was used and you start including other pieces of information, then that's a good question. Now, the only reason I can understand is if you and I were going to a concert in Toronto, I understand the venue wants to know my identity and it wants to know that I've been vaccinated. Do they care what I was vaccinated with? No. Do they care when it was applied? No. All they want to know is that it hasn't expired, which in theory, the vaccine passport is going to do because I've had to register. So therefore my QR code or barcode or whatever it decides to display Would be invalid if I'm past the expiration date. 

Now that's a minimum amount of data. So in theory, that to me is an acceptable risk because my date of birth and name are already in the public domain. And yes, there is a link to that vaccine record, as long as the kiosk render or the app provider is not monitoring my location, and it's not holding any information on me without good reason. So I can understand you might have some phone contact tracing reasons for a period of time. As long as that data is held only for those purposes and deleted when the contact tracing period expires, Then it may collect like a hash to identify me, but it doesn't actually have to identify me, it only has to identify my device in the same way contract tracing systems works. I actually think this could be built very securely. 

I'm up in Canada. So we've got universal health care and everybody who lives in Canada, who's a citizen or proven resident has a health card with a health number. So that's how you are up here, at least where I live, you registered for your vaccination and so on, but in the US, which is, 10x the size, you've got 50 states and you've got HMO's and everything else, and they all, I'm guessing do a little or a lot differently. 

How much of a job would it be to figure out something that would work across state lines?

Tony Anscombe: Firstly, let's congratulate Canada for having a centralized system because although people may look at it and go... 

”It's socialism!” 

Tony Anscombe: Well, it is and it's not. I actually believe it's a human right to have healthcare. That's a very non-American viewpoint. But yeah, I come from Europe where that's pretty much normal as well, but in the US, you have one card that was issued by all states that the CDC vaccination record is the same in every state. The unfortunate part about it is it really is a piece of card. And I'm going to use myself as the example because I have no reason not to share, but when I went for my vaccination, there was a big, long line of people and the healthcare provider in the small rural town where I live, was desperately trying to vaccinate lots of agricultural workers. So it was a lot of pressure on them to get people through the door quickly. 

She handed me my card. It had my vaccination on it and nothing else. She said you can fill in the rest of the details yourself, so my name and my date of birth and the other pieces of information. So already there's flaw number one. 

So there's no traceability of the fact that you even had the vaccine, other than you're saying I've got this piece of paper? 

Tony Anscombe: I'd already registered to have the vaccine. They already had a driver's license number. So there is a state record. But the card I’m holding, I could've put anybody's name on it, but because it's just a piece of paper, unfortunately, you found outside sporting events that have been held by people selling fake cards, because they're very easy to replicate. 

I actually reckon I could probably create one in five minutes with a bit of photoshopping and a bit of paper card in the printer and I'd be away while you were there. Of course, I think, people shouldn't do this. 

It might not be good for the Chief Security Evangelists to do that as a hobby. 

Tony Anscombe: I’m just making that point. I wouldn't do that, but it's wrong for anybody else to do that because actually, you may be risking somebody else's health in doing so. But you've also seen examples of some doctors selling the cards without giving the vaccine. 

Whereas in Canada, you've got this record, and let's call it a Canadian health number, whatever it might be called. The Canadian health number gives you that centralized database. So you're in a much better spot for actually knowing whether somebody had a vaccine or not. Now sure, are there going to be some mistakes in systems and your media might find two or three people in the entire country whose vaccine wasn't recorded correctly or it states they didn't have one and they did have one, they've got proof they had one and, yeah, they'll always be the odd mistake. 

Recognizing that a lot of this verification process as it evolves will be on handheld readers. If it is a kiosk, which is part of my world in digital signage, is there a business opportunity? Is this a high growth potential area or is this something that's being talked about a lot, but probably won't happen because all we just talked about is too complicated?

Tony Anscombe: No, I think this is something that is happening. One thing that grates on me slightly is that the industry seems to be reacting, not being proactive in some of it. So the pandemic hit, and then countries realized they didn't have centralized medical data, and then they realized they need contact tracing type technology. So I understand the pressure on the early parts of the pandemic, were to create technologies that nobody had ever considered. So that is understood. 

But at the same time, I think you're always going to need technology to come out of the other end of this pan day. Of knowing who's vaccinated and where they were vaccinated and whether it's valid for the country you're in. And I say that because there are different approvals on different vaccines in different countries, and they don't recognize some. I'm amazed that actually, we're at the hopefully latter end of this pandemic with this wave of Delta variant, that's going around, hopefully, this puts a stake in the ground and we're going to come out of this particular variant in a much better shape. But you're going to at least a year to 18 months with different variants knocking around, most of the world are still not vaccinated, and people traveling, then you're going to need some sort of kiosk or scanner to verify people's vaccinations in that way. 

So this is an industry, why wasn't this being built this time last year? We knew we were going to need it. So why don't we why a company is only building it now? But that's my gripe as a technologist. 

So if I am a kiosk hardware manufacturer, will the ask be for just a QR code reader or are you going to need a camera that's going to do facial recognition or will the QR code be enough because that was part of what got you to a QR code?

Tony Anscombe: It depends on the scenario where I think you're scanning the person. So if you're at a stadium, I think you're going to need a kiosk that has the camera, because you've got maybe 10,000 people coming through a gate, maybe you've got 10 gates, a thousand people coming through each one and you want to process them quickly. So maybe 15-20 seconds, they're going to look at the camera. They're going to scan the QR code. It's going to be a quick match on their identity. Yes, that's the person who allows them in green, off they go. So in that scenario, I think you need a camera. 

However, when you and I go to our favorite restaurant and the restaurant turns around and says only vaccinated people can come into this restaurant and eat, he's probably going to have a mobile app or with the person on the door, and that mobile app is going to scan your QR code and know it’s valid. Now, for them to actually know that the QR code belongs to you, they're also going to need to ask to see your driver's license and look at the name and date of birth on the driver's license and make sure it matches the QR code.

So I think there's actually a place for different systems in different environments because of the throughput in a restaurant where you've maybe got a hundred people coming through a night. It's fairly easy to do that identity check as well. 

Yeah, but different for a football stadium that has 90,000 seats if they go back to full capacity. 

Tony Anscombe: You mean, they're not at full capacity in Canada? 

No, not where I live at least. I don't think so. 

Tony Anscombe: So you didn't get my British sarcasm in there ‘cause I actually think they shouldn't be at full capacity here in the US. 

I've been to a couple of soccer matches up here, but they were at two-thirds capacity, but I live in a part of the world where I'm blessed that we barely got Covid.

Tony Anscombe: And, I think there are two things that aren't there. There's one of you as the spectator needs to feel comfortable, and I think the extra piece of space makes you feel comfortable. It's not always about the opening up fully, but yes. 

So if I'm looking at doing this. A hardware manufacturer is one thing, you can build it and as long as you've got the ability to drop a different kind of PC on there, whatever horsepower it needs to happen, you can do this. If you're a digital signage software company or a kiosk software company, is this something you should even look at, or is it's just too complicated right now and there are companies much larger and broader that are already light years ahead, like a CLEAR? 

Tony Anscombe: I think there are companies that are light years ahead because they already had, what I define as the security element of creating such a kiosk, because bear in mind, it is taking somebody's picture, it is validating against the vaccination database. You need to make sure all these things are done in a very secure fashion. 

If you were a kiosk manufacturer that I can't think of, maybe you create tourist attraction kiosks that provide information on tourist attractions. If you're in that game and you're now looking at this, I think to do this securely would be a massive challenge and I think you'd be six to nine months behind people that already have this technology, and it will be very difficult for you to do it, or you'd end up putting something on the market that might have vulnerabilities that somebody will exploit, and believe me, they will exploit them if they're there, and then you'll just get a bad rap. So I actually think, unless you're already in the identity verification space or in that medical environment, I think it will be a big challenge. 

Yeah. So almost the last time I was traveling and going out of Amsterdam's airport, they had passport verification with a camera on and the camera would slide down to be level with your face and you would scan your passport thereon, the whole nine yards. So they had a whole orchestrated high throughput kind of system together. So that's the kind of company that would have a leg up on the others, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, and when I come back into the US if I can remember what that was like. Because I haven't traveled like you probably for 18 months, When I come back in, I use a terminal to put my US identity documents, my green card details, it scans them, it takes a picture. It compares the picture and the company that's created those terminals for TSA, they're in a good spot to be able to do something similar for a vaccine record. 

I suppose the other worry that I would have if I was a vendor looking at this, is going to be held up in court, no matter what you develop, there's going to be the anti-vax crowd and privacy crowds, the people who worry about things like computer vision and so on, that they're all going to file lawsuits and drag this whole thing down into the courts for, I don't know, months or years even.

 Is that realistic or you don't think that'll happen? 

Tony Anscombe: I think that's more of a governmental issue, isn't it? The anti-vax is unlikely to turn and say that governments or states shouldn't be doing this type of activity. As a provider of the technology, you're not the one deploying the technology, You're only the one providing it. It's the person who deploys it, then I think could be dragged into the court for actually requiring it.

Right, but you're manufacturing these things somewhat on spec or at least getting ready to spin this up, and then you are sitting on inventory and they can't do anything with it, because it's all held up in courts? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. I agree, and how long ago will these terminals actually be required for, maybe one, two years. I'd like to think we return to full normality at some stage, and maybe that's a long game, maybe it's even three years, but by the time you've created this technology, you've got it to market. I think you're going to be on the backend of that marketplace. I think, all those stadiums and things like that needed it, will already have it.

I'm sure somebody is thinking about this as well. Two years out, they can divert these things into payment terminals for concessions, and so on. 

Tony Anscombe: There's a thought, isn't it? Yeah, I'm sure they could be reused. Maybe they could be turned into voting kiosks?

That's an entirely different discussion, isn't it? 

Tony Anscombe: It is, and we shouldn’t get into it. 

All right, Tony, I appreciate you taking the time with me, this was very interesting. 

Tony Anscombe: Oh my pleasure, Dave, anytime.

 

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

August 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did any of that reshape the thinking? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a five-year plan or something?

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

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

The question begs, what are you hearing? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks very much for your time. 

Justin Rankin: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Chris Riegel, Scala

Chris Riegel, Scala

August 18, 2021

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

It's now been five years since Stratacache acquired the CMS software company Scala, which had kind of devolved from the digital signage industry's dominant player to just one of many options.

When Stratacache CEO Chris Riegel did the deal, there were lots of people wondering what might happen. Was he buying the company for its customer base and vast reseller channel, or did he have other plans. In short order, he jokingly made up Trump-style red ball caps that said: "Make Scala Great Again."

Five years later, Scala is a wildly different company and product - with a much smaller reseller channel and an integrated, retail-centric platform that has largely been re-written and re-structured.

Riegel has been a frequent guest of this podcast, and that's because he's wickedly smart, and frank about what's going on in the industry.

We talk about the five-year journey he's had with a renewed Scala, but also got deep into what's happening in the marketplace globally. And we nerd out on the microLED factory he's spinning up in Oregon, and when it will start producing both small and large format display material.

As always, a valuable, insight-filled 30 minutes or so.

Side note - Chris was coughing up a storm during the chat, but he says he's fully vaxxed and it's not THAT. Just a bug and allergies.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Riegel, thank you for joining me. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you for the opportunity. 

So about five years ago now, you bought Scala and at the time there were lots of industry people who were looking at that going, okay, what's going to happen now? Is it going to be absorbed by Stratacache? Is it going to accelerate or what's going to happen?

And you sent me a note the other day, saying, “Hey, we're coming up on five years. It's an interesting story to tell.” So what's the story? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's been a hell of a ride. Probably the best way to say it. So five years ago we decided, there's something here in Scala and something absolutely worth growing and saving. When we stepped into the acquisition, Scala was arguably one of the I think top brands from visibility and great legacy, great history, but had atrophied, to be honest, so we saw what was truly a global footprint and its Scala was really one of the first in the market that had grown out of a global entity and it was a good acquisition for us to be able to buy that asset, bolt the power that we have in the North American markets and in the Indian markets to that Scala infrastructure in Europe, in the Nordics, in the Middle East, in Japan and Australia, and really convert that Scala was the entity that allowed Stratacache to convert from being a pocketed global, to a fully global entity, and now really hitting every country around the world, but principally, 28 offices around the world being able to service those global customers and Scala gave us that global reach. 

Now that was not without some interesting challenges and some interesting discoveries during the path. So it's been quite a ride. 

Yeah. I can remember going to InfoComm back in the late 2000s, I think it was 2007 or something like that, and yeah, Scala was the company in digital signage in terms of visibility and everything on the floor, like they were the monster, and I just slowly over a matter of the next five, six years saw it, as you say, diminished. 

Chris Riegel: And what you have in Scala, and what is amazing about Scala is that there is such tribal knowledge and such capability towards digital visual communication and optimizing that experience for the customer. It's really this amazing retail practice with a skillset I've never seen matched throughout. 

What we did in coming in was really update that, bring that more modern, more current. In some examples, Scala was always principally a Windows platform. Windows is not the same thing it was 20 years ago, so we brought Scala into Linux. We brought Scala from x86 processors into the ARM processor world. We've updated big chunks of the code to modernize and refresh, and then updated a lot of the technical teams within to say, “what do you do for the next 20 years?” And coming in as a change agent, what I saw was the equivalent of the old house with great bones, but needed to be updated and refreshed. Some of that was tech, some of that was people, but to say, what do you do to stabilize and turn around this business and make it valid for the next 20 or 30 years looking forward?

There was too much looking back and too much resting on the laurels. And we're very much about challenging and growing people in technical teams, and how do you make that better and really tackle that problem every day. The beauty and the horror of technology is that yesterday means nothing for tomorrow. You have to go out and hit every single day, focus on where is that market going, how are you evolving that experience? Because the market doesn't stand still. 

One of the things about Scala at the time was, as we were saying, it was a platform that was getting some hair on it, so to speak, and what you had though, was this huge reseller channel, or just like resellers all around the world and you re-positioned things, where you went away somewhat from channels to much more direct sales? 

Chris Riegel: I'd counter that a bit. What Scala had when we did the acquisition, Scala had about 300 resellers around the world. Of those 300, 200 of them or companies that did $5,000 or $10,000 a year, negligible revenue.

What we've done, we continue to have within Scala, a full reseller channel that has grown significantly. What we've done is really focused that to say, “I want fewer and better resellers in that environment.” The crown jewel of Scala is, you have 16,000 customers around the globe as an existing life customer base and some of those customers, you take Citibank as an example, Citibank should not be buying products from Dave's AV Barn in Baltimore, because they have requirements that are much more stringent and much more tiered towards needing direct manufacturer support. 

So in that environment, we've continued to grow that channel. You've seen partnerships like Hakuhodo with Scala and others on the global side. You'll see later this year, two other big announcements of reseller partnerships. So what we've really done is said, it doesn't make sense to have 300+ resellers that you're just a line item on the card. The other part to that is with 300 resellers, you'd see a deal that pops up in Italy and you’d have 10 guys racing each other to the bottom. For us and resellers, the key point is that we want them to be profitable. We want them to have success in having that success, and I'll use Latin America as an example. In Latin America, when we acquired Scala, there was a channel, but it was just a doggy dog environment. The guys were trying to win deals based on pennies. We cleaned that channel up, went from 50 to really 5-6, and deployed a Scala operation center in Mexico city to be able to support the entire region, then work with the partners to bring profitable deals to them and recurring profitable deals so that they have a vested interest.

There are hundreds of guys in the CMS space with very little differentiation, and I'll use an example. One of the partners that we work with in Brazil said, “Hey, I can get a 35% margin on your competitor's product”, and I said, “That's great. What are you selling that product at?” “Oh, $1 a month.” “So 35% of that?” You can't run a business on that. How do you do profitable deals and make sure that channels are profitable and clean that up quickly? 

Is it a challenge when you go around the world with all these different options out there and all these companies going out with, as you say, a buck a month SaaS licensing deals, they'll look at Scala and, I don't know what the number is, but it's going to be higher and they'll say you're too expensive?

Chris Riegel: Quite candidly in those environments, the customers are willing to pay a dollar a month for SaaS and nothing more. There's no revenue there, and I would applaud my valued competitors. We call the gangsters of Gangnam and try to just liquidate the value of software industry-wide, but there is a difference in when you get into the mid-tier and the large-tier enterprise space that we hunt. If you want to pay a buck, go buy somebody else's product. There's no value there. You can't afford to support it, can't afford to provide services on it, and you're going to get exactly what you deserve.

It's funny to watch in these dollar SaaS guys, customers that literally change every year. They'll just go from vendor A to vendor B to vendor C to vendor D, there's no consistency of experience. There's no feature set there and okay, knock yourselves out, but there's no margin and if there's no margin, why take the headache? 

So your lead company, Stratacache tends to focus on banking and QSR more than anything else. Do you get into retail or when that opportunity comes along, you're going to tend to angle the prospect towards Scala? 

Chris Riegel: It depends on the environment. What we have done within Scala is really built a group of people globally that have what I'd call agency-level chops within that retail space. 

So we've got designers, graphic artists. We've got retail practice experts that can go in and really engage a retailer from the Scala's side and help them with the mission of what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish? Not how do I put the screen on the wall at the lowest possible price? That's really further evolved into analytics, into artificial intelligence, where we're able to say, when I take Scala as an example and bolt that to our walk base mobile sensor business when I bolt that to our Artificial intelligence retail tracking business. 

The ability to say, “Hey, you saw this image on a sign. I'm tracking your cart or your basket. I know you're in that area. I know that you saw it. You converted it.” Here's the efficacy based on demographic or time or visit to unique shopper eating customers. You've got to go to that retail practice down to more closing the loop, providing the evidence, the detail around it, because it's such a results-driven business 

Is retail evolving, in terms of what the ask is for a Scala and other companies? 

Chris Riegel: Tremendously.

So I would contrast now with having a little bit of a different view, retail in the west is atrophying at the moment principally, because you have Bezos, that's just out cracking heads left and right. Amazon continues to grow and strengthen amazingly and online grows globally. But what you're starting to see now, and especially if you look at Asia, you're starting to see is the emergence of what we call organized retail.

You take a market like India that has literally 2 million small retail shops, and those are starting to organize into actual retail chains, organized chain-based branded consistency of experience, the way that you see it in the West, the opportunities and where we're seeing ridiculous growth is in India, in China, in Indonesia, Malaysia, in these emerging markets where retail is organizing now and becoming much more structured. And I think, and I say this knock on wood, hopefully, COVID goes away but within 2022, that's probably the first year within the company that we see selling 1 million plus screens players software licenses that's up from 300,000 to 400,000 a year on average. So we're just seeing this aggregation now of critical mass, but that's really being led by the Asian markets 

You would think between India and China and these emerging economies, that those would be the guys more than anyone else who would migrate towards the “a buck a month” kind of SaaS thing? 

Chris Riegel: Yes and no. There's always a cost pressure there, don't get me wrong, but there's also a value in experience, there's a value in being able to deliver that solution. 

The retail systems in many of these countries are just not quite as mature on the IT side and at the infrastructure side. So when you're talking to a retailer in the US, we do a lot of work with Walmart, combined close to 5,000 stores, but then you step into Reliance in India and Reliance is deploying 200,000 plus locations in India in the next 18 months. It's just a different scale and coming into that understanding of scale, yes, numbers are different pricing models to do that, but if I'm up a factor of 40 on the number of stores, you'll still come out on the other end of that. 

Is the feature set in terms of what they want different in these emerging markets like if you're talking to Walmart, that's a very sophisticated retailer. They're probably interested in analytics, probably interested in front-end advisory consulting, creative, all those sorts of things. 

When you're talking about the scale in India, is it just more that they need the core functionality of digital signage software? 

Chris Riegel: What you're seeing is more of a hybrid in India of the on-prem and online kind of merging within those stores.

But you're also seeing, for lack of a better phrase, an absolute hunger, and desire. If you look at some of the large retailers in India and China who have said, “Hey, we're going to be the biggest company in the world.” They have the drive, they spend money. The existing US and western big retailers are still dealing with, “Hey, things are good enough that we don't really have to press and change quite as much”, but you've got a drive in India and China that I think you'll see within the course of the next three years this flip whereas these Eastern markets start to really organize the retail systems, they'll be orders of magnitude bigger than what you see here in the West.

When I look in the West at digital signage in retail, it seems to have gone away from stores that were putting a whole pile of LCDs all over the place to now it seems like they put in one direct view LED feature wall maybe a couple of other signs that checkout, that sort of thing, but that's it. What's happening in these emerging markets, same thing? 

Chris Riegel: In emerging markets, you're usually dealing in a much smaller format. So instead of having the 200,000 square foot supercenter approach, you might have the 2,000 square foot cell phone store or the 2,000 square foot health and beauty store. As those are organizing up, you're seeing that becoming a more multifunction point to say, what is this new hybrid of having a retail store that could be a small corner market bodega, but I could also order a cell phone there, I could order products remotely, I can have it delivered in and you're dealing with a population there that's not nearly as wealthy as you have in the western world, but the ability to say, how can we lower costs? How can we improve capabilities where that retail store might be the real lifeline out to the bigger e-commerce environment? 

I'll use an example with one of the customers that I work with within India. They partnered with Google on a new cell phone. So you have a new Google cell phone that's being introduced to that market, or the cost of the phone is $4. Not $4 a month, not $4 a quarter, but $4. So how do you unleash the power between China and India of two and a half billion people from a retail perspective to streamline that, to bring more and more opportunities to those two and a half billion people of which two billion of them are not particularly wealthy, but still have needs and still can take advantage of these services. 

Is it fair to say they're doing digital posters more than anything else in these kinds of small footprint places? 

Chris Riegel: You're typically seeing a hybrid digital sign interactive kiosk use case from 20-inch to 32-inch. We did the acquisition in China a few years back of what we call now, our Link Tablet series, but those hybrid devices that are multifunction could be a digital sign, could be interactive, can have payment, can have mobile device scan. It's that multi-function Swiss army knife that's extremely popular. 

Through the pandemic, I've been curious ‘cause I get carpet-bombed with PR all the time with companies saying we're going away from interactive touch and so on, it's gotta be contactless that we're gonna use voice, we're gonna use QR code scans, throw the controls of the screen to the phone and so on, and I've always been extremely skeptical of the adoption of that. What have you seen? 

Chris Riegel: You're a hundred percent right. When the pandemic really hit, I've continued to travel pretty much non-stop but I was in Portland, Oregon checking into American airlines and they had 20 check-in kiosks there and they didn't say, we're going to have voice check-in, or we're going to have haptics, so you don't have to touch it or, and have gestural. They just had 98 cents container of Lysol wipes. So once you touch the screen, you sanitize your hands, you move on. 

The haptics, the voice, the mobile there's capabilities with each of them, but the retrofit costs are not trivial, and think of what you've had with gesture-based interaction systems that've been around forever. It's still never really used. It's the magic mirror syndrome. Bad ideas don't go away, they just come back every three years within these things like haptics and others. Can they have a benefit? Sure. Is it going to be broadly used? No, it's still it. 

Before we turned the recording on, we were talking a little bit about where the industry more broadly is at, and I was saying stupid busy and I get a sense from a number of people that they're also stupid busy and you said the same. 

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The markets are quite choppy simply because of shutdowns and customers trying to figure out what the future looks like, but it's incredibly busy.

And as we've seen consolidation, COVID is going to shake a lot of companies out of the space, especially coming from the older, what I call AV sector, that market's compressed dramatically especially in Europe and the Asia Pacific, 

Especially if they add live events as a big part of it. 

Chris Riegel: Even that, or, if you have something that requires your services when people are in the office. If they're not in the office, forget about it.

We've talked with literally dozens and dozens of companies trying to sell or trying to find a new sponsor to be able to survive. So that's going to be rough, but the market as a whole, especially as we're looking at 2022 as is white-hot with projects and opportunities and COVID is putting some chlorine into the digital signage gene pool for sure.

And why is it so hot now? Like one of the things that I've written about and observed is the thing about all the lockdowns and all the changes that were enforced on how people did their everyday tasks and activities were that things changed, and the only way to communicate that was using dry erase marker boards in the lobby of a store, and stuff taped to the doors and the whole bit, and those companies that had digital signage already had a lead. They had something they could use. Is that part of it? 

Chris Riegel: I'll give you a pretty good example. So we do all of the software and systems for McDonald's in the US, several hundred thousand digital mini boards, both indoor and outdoor, and have had the privilege of doing that for the last 13 years. 

In that environment where you deal with product shortages like there's a distribution problem for pork at this distribution plant, there's an opportunity for a delay of this product at another plant. The digital menu boards at drive-through and an indoor can adjust at a moment's notice based on supply chain disruptions. They can change prices based on commodity change. 

The other part that's really coming into our business very heavily in those same use cases is now the labor shortages, “do I go from a complex menu when I have a crew of 14 people to only seven people showed up this morning and I need to simplify that menu because I don't have the ability to deal with the same velocity because I'm crew light at that point.” So you're seeing digital use cases in areas for us, whether it be the mini-board practices in QSR or retail than the ability of digital to adjust on a moment's notice, and where I can take as an example, sensors, and know how many people showed up as crew, how many customers are in that drive-through line? What are my products, supplies looking like? Because I have access to point of sale or product logistics information and change that on a dime. You can really help keep those businesses moving, and within the pandemic, when indoor dining was shut down, the amount of work, and I'd say conservatively today, we have a greater than 50% market share in QSR in the US and about a 40% market share globally. 

The ability to help our customers continue to operate as close to flawlessly as possible through the pandemic has been a really big success across multiple brands, as we've continued to expand the business dramatically.

That's not a trivial thing to do to stitch all those systems together. Do you have to fight against companies to say we're API driven, we can integrate all these systems, we can do that for you versus actually doing it and having the experience? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's kinda funny. We always run into that challenge that we call the “Competitor's Magic Wand” So you go into the presentation and you're competing with little guy XYZ and he says, you know what? I've got 6,000 signs out there, and this is super simple and it's easy and it's not going to cost anything, and it's magic.

And I say, I have three and a half million signs and fleet. I have 1100 people. We run 24/7 operations and it's not easy, it's not simple, and there is no such thing as magic. If you want to buy the magic beans from my competitor, more power to you, but having the experience to say large scale, big customer complex projects. We've earned our place at the table in those discussions to be able to say, “Hey, choose or not choose us, that's your call, but we'll give you a full view of what the reality of this thing is like.” 

In a use case of McDonald's with 400,000+ screens that are under our management, there's something that breaks every day. That's the nature of the beast, but how do you stay ahead of that power curve in the large customers that we work with globally? I had a really fun customer interaction about two months ago. One of our larger retail apparel customers who decided to speak out against the Uyghurs situation in China called and said, “Hey, I have PLA troops in my store telling me to turn off our digital signs. What should we do?” “Do they have guns?” “Yes.” “Then you should turn off your digital signs, and by the way, we told you this would happen, not a political statement, but you were hosting outside of China against our advice. We warned you, now you see what happens.” 

Unfortunately, it's just a diverse and complex world. There are no magic wands, and a lot of customers, we call them “rebound customers”. In our environment, the customer that says, “Hey, I'm going to buy from the competitor that's going to do a dollar a month in SaaS and is making me all of these promises.” We say, okay, cool. Here's our information. Call us back in six months when you see that’s hollow because the amount of work that it takes in any scale retail network to keep this stuff going is not trivial regardless of the technology.

Yeah. I would imagine you see that over and over again, a company X that tried the cheap route and then discovered that wasn't a great idea. Now we're going to actually pay some rules. 

Chris Riegel: My favorite current theme is the customers that say, “It's not that complex. We're going to build it ourselves.” We've done this for 22 years. We have 600 million plus invested in capital and tens of thousands of man-years in development. But if you can put it together in six weeks with your internal teams, good luck.

With Scala and retail, are there retail vertical markets that are more active than others? 

Like I'm thinking that you're talking about the bodegas or equivalent of bodegas in India, and so on. Those are essential services. People need food, they need cigarettes, or just whatever. They don't necessarily need fast fashion.

Chris Riegel: Scala has been really successful both previously and within our stewardship in automotive, in retail apparel, in high-value goods, luxury environments but also in, chain grocery C-store that the depth of that practice, and especially as we brought order to some of the chaos we saw day one the ability to engage those customers that are understanding that digital signage is not just having to put a pretty picture on that screen and it's going to do something. 

“What is it going to do?” “I don't know.” No, this has to have business metrics. Why are you making the investment? What's the return? Define success, and this is a tool you're going in any of those environments and competing for an investment to say, why am I going to spend money on digital signage versus a new retail store, or X or Y or Z? Earn your place at that table. Keep that place at the table by delivering value to a customer. 

I can go into a lottery environment or QSR environment or retail environment, and say, I'm going to give you X lift with Y percent greater margin. I'm going to prove that point and I'm going to give you full access to all the statistics so you can double check my math. If you can find somebody else that can do that, knock yourselves out. But if I can deliver you in a retail or QSR or gaming environment, 1 to 3% lift and a margin lift of 3 to 5%, that's a big number. 

Yeah. So tell me what's going on with the microLED plant that you're retrofitting out in Oregon?

Chris Riegel: It's a pretty wild ride. MicroLED, as a tech, we've been researching it for 5+ years, made the dive into buying the fab two years ago, and have been spending a tremendous amount of time on research and development. MicroLED is an unbelievable dislocator, and when I say dislocator, today if you look at the Asian display cartels, they have been able to control a market, not unlike OPEC, by having a very high cost of entry, having a bunch of barriers around that. The typical government sponsorship to go into that marketplace. 

MicroLED is a different beast. In the intersection that it's coming, between what would be called the epitaxy of world, growing LEDs, and the Silicon world. All of a sudden the cost to pin up a plant is 1/10th to 1/20th of what it was before. So you can have companies that can compete and can build out next-generation displays without having to have government sponsorship. If you look at it, I'm not trying to wave the nationalist economic flag. But if you look at the last two, three generations of the display, whether TFT, LCD, or AMOLED or OLED or other, a lot of that tech is developed in the US and North America, none of it's manufactured here. 

Why? Because we don't have a great industrial policy at the government level to compete. When you look at Korea and China, how the government sponsored the building of those fabs, that's the way that they do it, that's the game. That being said, you're never going to have that happen here.

I thought that was happening in Wisconsin? (Laughter)

Chris Riegel: Yeah. Don't hold your breath on that one. But the central planning model has changed and with microLED, you can bring up a fab at a fraction of the cost, but also then have a product that is less expensive because of the simplicity of a direct view product. So there's some really exciting stuff going on here. 

You're not focused on large formats for microLED. The volume is all in wearables and things like that, right? 

Chris Riegel: There's a big space in large formats. The initial microLED use cases have been small format: wearables, optics, precision optics, things like that, simply because there are some challenges in the technology like mass transfer that had not yet been figured out or distilled that made it really, you can only be cost-competitive in those small environments.

But if I take the equation of a square meter glass, microLED can deliver a square meter of glass at an equivalent resolution to TFT, LCD or O LED for between 50 and 60% of the fab cost of that product. So it can be super competitive, and in our use case, we'll absolutely go for a large format and I want to make sure that our friends at solar are aware of it. 

So at some point, I think you told me before in the past that you thought by the end of the year, you'd be at least doing rapid prototyping. 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, so we're now in the joy of receiving all equipment late, just because of the pandemic and the slower nature of manufacturing and getting anything in. That being said by Q1, we'll be in the prototype stage. What we're doing is putting a lot of focus on, without nerding out on it too deeply, a 300mm epitaxy on Silicon. So today, most LEDs are built on 150mm Sapphire, which has worked for 20 years and is very precise. We're taking the step to go 300mm GAM on Silicon, which is a more complex process, but once you're in the Silicon world, the ability to then scale-out silicon-based emitters directly to bond to see 300mm Silicon wafers, you can start doing some really interesting stuff that breaks the mold. 

I understood most of that, but at that point, the idea is that the way conventional LED is made, it's machines that are picking LEDs or batches of LEDs and placing them on substrate and it just takes a long time and a lot of cost and energy to do that, right? 

Chris Riegel: It does and within the LED industry today, that LED can be grown. that the large format, large emitter, one millimeter plus LED. Those are grown in epitaxy processes that are not particularly clean.

When you get into microLED, we're talking emitters that are 3 microns by 3 microns, 5x5, so you're dealing with super small stuff by an order of magnitude. The LEDs that we're making are smaller than the Coronavirus. So when you deal with making extremely small emitters, the ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I'm able to build-some would call a smart pixel, some would just call it a digital Lego-I'm able to build an emitter directly bonded to a micro IC and build a smart pixel concept.” 

There is some really cool stuff that you can do there. You'll probably see the first mass commercialization of that coming out from Apple with wearables, but the applications around it are myriad and it is hundred percent a game-changer.

Do you see the end product for the digital signage market being the equivalent to a flat panel display, like you'd be selling 85-inch microLED panels, or do you see it as like big ass LED video walls? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, great question. I think our core mission is that I'm not going to fight Xi Jinping to win aisle seven at Costco for the 85-inch $399 television. Chinese can have that market, no question. 

In microLED, if you're getting into large-format sizes, you'll most likely be within the container of tiled panels. So maybe you're at 200mm to 300mm tiles to be able to get to large formats. But within that, I think that the differentiation there between microLED and call it miniLED, 50 mics or up is minimal.

What you're going to find in the greatest benefit of microLED are those environments where using the fact that your emitter is so small, it's not visible to the naked eye. So you can do transparency through window glass. You can bend and curve it. So the curved surfaces, the bend surfaces, the flex surfaces, because the emitters are so small, they're within the bend radiuses of the substrates. There's a lot of really cool stuff you can do where you're not just fighting the low price commoditized markets. I've been to Shenzhen thirty times and there are a hundred thousand companies in Shenzhen. 

Unless you can differentiate yourself from that mass market, you're dead day one. So you have to pick your battles correctly 

So the set of Corning videos that have come out in the past 10 years or so, about a day in glass, where you have all these dynamic visuals are just showing up on countertops and windows and everything else that's what's going to happen with this technology, right?

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The ability to make the display a more natural interface to the consumer, where it doesn't have to be a standalone display device, where it's integrated into third-party devices or features, Corning had great vision. Around that obviously with the goal to sell more glass, but the idea was right.

And now that this is continuing to transition, think of your smart home, think of your smart car, think of your smart whatever, all of that is microprocessor driven in one form or another. So how do you associate displays that are much more natural to the user's experience as opposed to something that's a bulky bolt-on whether that's in a car, on a refrigerator. in a window making that just part of that infrastructure.

All right. Always a pleasure. Thank you for spending some time. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you.

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

August 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

Where's the company based? 

Chris Riebschlager: The company is based in Kansas City. 

But you have offices elsewhere, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: That is correct. 

Okay, and how big is that team? 

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

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

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

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

And that's how it should happen, right? 

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

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has business shifted in that time?

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

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

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

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

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

Have you seen much take-up on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Yeah and stop thinking about Minority Report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, yeah. 

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: That is just an analog. 

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

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

I think it's transparent LED or LED mesh? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's an amazing industry. 

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

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

Yeah, the giant Halo, the Samsung screen. 

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: For sure. 

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

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely. Thank you.

 

 

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

July 14, 2021

The trade organization AVIXA invests a lot of time, resources and dollars into trying to get a handle on what's going on in the audio-visual industry, and regularly publishes reports, briefs and even video explainers for members.

One of the big efforts is an annual industry overview, and the the most recent one provides a picture of industry that got kicked really hard in the shins in 2020 but appears to be coming out of it now.

Sean Wargo, AVIXA’s Senior Director of Market Intelligence, and economic analyst Peter Hansen kindly set some time aside to walk through some of the findings, and drill down a little more specifically into how digital signage was impacted in the last 18 months or so, and how things look going forward. 

The good news is things are already looking up, and the forecast is pretty darn sunny for AV and signage.

The cloud platform I use for recording had a bad hair day, so you will come across a little back and forth about who could hear who, and Peter's audio eventually just disappeared on us from the file, so the episode is about five minutes shorter than normal as we nipped out the dead-silence and stitched it together. Things happen but it is still well worth a listen.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi guys, thanks for joining me. AVIXA does a lot of research about what's going on in the marketplace. You recently pushed out a big one. What's that all about and what did you find? I know that's a big question. 

Sean: Sure Dave, happy to be here. So we do an industry forecasting effort every year, that we refresh every year, we call it our Industry Outlook Trends Analysis (IOTA), Since we're in the tech industry, we have to have acronyms, of course. But the idea is that we're hoping to essentially provide guidance on the size and direction of all things proAV. We've drawn a pretty big definition for what that means, some more IT-sounding technologies are sometimes included. 

Long story short: the idea there is a revenue forecast that companies can use to see where the opportunities lie, challenges, etc. As you can imagine, particularly important as we come out of the pandemic and are looking towards recovery. 

Now, is that something that as an AVIXA member is expected, or is it a bonus part of membership? I don't belong to a whole bunch of industry associations, so I don't know if this is normal or something you just saw a hole and decided it needed to be filled. 

Sean: Yes, in the sense that most trade associations will do some sort of industry forecasting effort. AVIXA, formerly known as InfoComm, had studies that had been done through the years. We decided to do it a few years ago, it was to step up the game a little bit, go a bit deeper, broader with our analysis, and expand upon that forecasting effort. So we have a two-part offering to the marketplace.

There is a lot of that research that we will share with the membership, whether in the form of briefings, webinars, presentations that Peter and I will do out to the membership to help them understand the broader trends. But we also offer it as a paid offering. So dashboards, deep reports, forecasting notes, a whole bunch of additional deliverables that a company can buy into for those that are really needing to immerse themselves in data to make strategic decisions. So a little bit about a little bit of both. 

As somebody who spends all this time looking at this industry and writing about it, one of the challenges I've found is finding useful, relevant, trustworthy information about digital signage in particular, there are endless reports that you can see pop up on Google alerts, but they're all coming out of India, and the handful of what I would call legitimate research companies that are taking a look at this space are also generally looking at other stuff. 

So there's this real sort of absence of focused information about AV and particularly signage, at least it seems that way. 

Sean: Yeah, definitely true.

I think there are a lot of offerings out in the marketplace for market research about any given topic, especially if it has any currency, if there's any buzz happening in the marketplaces about a certain issue, you're going to find a lot of studies that you can subscribe to.

I think we wanted to approach it as an industry kind of insider, having the direct need for the information ourselves, we recognize that there was a gap, as you're noting, for digital signage conference and collaboration, all the bits and parts of the industry just really weren't well captured, measured, forecasted, etc. So it was part of why we stood up for this improved version of forecasts a few years back. 

Also because while you might find say bits of pieces of research on a certain segment. There's not a lot available that tells you the complete package, the complete story of pro AV. We recognize though, as you're noting by the lack of offerings in the marketplace, what that's telling you is there's not a lot of people that know a lot about the business. And so we also wanted to make sure we partnered with a company that has broad subject matter expertise, lots of analysts covering the underlying product categories, to provide that expert analyst commentary and input to crafting a forecast. So methodology and vetting of partners were really important to us as we built this out as well.

What's the important stuff that companies should be paying attention to? 

I get asked every week by somebody, what's the total bullet total addressable market for digital signage or for workplace digital signage or whatever it may be, and I also see endless presentations that assign a value to the overall digital signage marketplace, whether it's North American or global, and I look at this big ass number and think, okay that's an impressive number, but what does that mean and is it meaningful for a company? Or is it just a big number to impress people? 

Sean: That's a great point, and I think, what you're hinting at is that it's a starting point. So what a lot of companies are looking for, let's pick a manufacturer as an example. If you're a display manufacturer, you're wanting to see how big that total addressable market is, so you can calculate things like market share, you can plot your own growth forecast off of it, you can say, all right if the market's growing 80% compound annual growth rate, we're expecting better or worse based upon our specific situation. Maybe we can do better and get to 16 or 20. So it's a starting point. It's a reference point. 

What a lot of companies are looking for is that kind of reference point, whether it's global, to a specific geographic area, to a specific product segment, to a particular market they're serving. They need input and validation or a challenge to inside expectations. So that's what we're hoping and wanting to provide out there is that third-party view of a market situation. Understanding that in some cases that big fat global number that everybody likes to point out may not be useful to a very local company. But it can, when whittled down and segmented via some of the filters, can provide them a TAM number that they hey can then use inputs to craft their own forecast. 

Peter: Everyone disagrees about what a TAM of digital signage exactly means, and that's where we like to help people get dashboard access.

So they can understand, “do I dip my toes into the content side?” You know, the server storage, transmission and that are billions of dollars there. Or, I'm really focused on exclusively the screens along with the infrastructure, mounts, and stands, et cetera.

And so you end up with these different numbers there and to some extent, we try to take a stance and say it's a big market and an AV company, it can be working with all this, but also, we allow and encourage folks to dis-aggregate because we also don't really want them to take a step where if they are doing digital signage, they have to do XYZ. Your business should fill whatever niche it thinks it's best at, and that one number, as you say, can be a little ridiculous just to look at a single number from the perspective of most companies, because no company probably will fit exactly. “I only do North America for all parts, all every single product that goes into that number that is on the headline.” 

It must also be a challenge to draw a distinction around what is digital signage because I have seen no end of product pitches out there that have talked about collaboration displays as being digital signage and vice versa.

How do we wall this off? How do we say what digital signage is and then assign a value or a forecast? 

Sean: Yeah, that's probably the most important step of the process of forecasting is your definition phase. How are you drawing a circle around that particular segment or the industry as a whole and as Peter mentioned we want to make sure that we're including in our definitions a broad enough opportunity set.

Digital signage is a great example because I've seen digital signage forecasts that really are only the displays, and that's it, as if digital signage was only a display on a wall, forget the mount for a second, forget the media servers and AV servers that are feeding the content to it, forget the networking backend that may have to be built out to support the content distribution. So there's an ecosystem there that when we did our definitions phase, we purposely drew our circles a little bit larger, our definition is a bit broader to allow for a company to talk about, you know what, I'm in digital signage, but I'm going to serve this particular segment of it, this particular facet of it and that'll be my opportunity area. 

An example for us in signages, we include a very big number for what we call media servers, and the reason is that as we all know, you put a display. We think of it as the hungry display now needs to be fed, it needs content, and so you need servers to basically aggregate, distribute, optimize that content out. So that's a big area of spend within the signage category as a solution area. Soit's the right question to be asking, as you're looking at numbers is how do they define, and then of course, how do they measure, what assumptions are they making? What inputs do they gather? Those kinds of things to evaluate the research offering.

So we're coming out of... I hope we're coming out of a very rough 17 months or so and COVID-19 obviously had a pretty significant impact. I'm looking at a slide here that said 2020 was $214 billion in revenue for the AV industry globally. What had been the expectation for 2020 prior to the pandemic?

Sean: Sure. I think when we did our forecast in 2020, it was around when we started it in November of 2019 ‘cause that's when you start your forecast process, you gather your input. So right around March, April was the time we're looking at our numbers and saying, okay, here's what we had thought would happen. Now we have the pandemic. What do we think is going to be the impact? As you're sitting in May, which at that point, the assumptions we made is, maybe this is like many other viruses that have hit us where it's one or two waves and then it goes out, and so possibly by the end of 2020, the situation is improving and that there are vaccines being distributed, that most of the waves are done, all that kind of stuff, and we expected a return to business. So we expected 2020 originally to be only about a -8% in terms of revenue decline. In the end, when you look at all the surveys we did through 2022 AV providers, manufacturers, distributors, the final analysis said it was more like -17%. So double the decline that we originally forecast, and that's often what happens is you only know what you know at the time. You tend to be pessimistic or optimistic. I would say we were about the middle of the road. But we ended up providing that down. So the two 14 numbers that you're looking at now is much less than it would have been in normal time, say normal trajectory, but there's an upside to that too.

So because 2020 was worse, we seem to be in that recovery mode meaningfully. Now that. It looks like the trajectory coming out is even steeper. So you have bigger growth percentages in 2021, in 2022, and then it starts to level out by 2023 and 2024. So that we're able to say by 2022, we think a good portion of the globe is starting to look like what it did in 2019 and exceeding those revenue peaks as we come out of this.

Is it deferred spending or that money that didn't get spent in 2020 is lost, and this is a new budget? 

Sean: It's a bit of deferred spend, certainly, but it's also an adaptation. One of the big trends that we've highlighted in our reports is that the pandemic was a disruptor, not just because it shut down industries and economies, but also because it forced us to shift to remote everything, work, play, education, et cetera, and there are some lingering effects. I think we're in an experimentation phase right now where we're trying to see what does return to work look like. How hybrid is it? How virtual, how in person? 

So some of the spendings are an adaptation. It's learning t, and now emphasizing and investing in new ways of interaction, new ways of engaging audiences and workers and students, et cetera. So there's a bit of both, but I would also point to innovation. One of the things that disruption does is you start to think differently about the way you do business, and so new solution areas that we probably haven’t even fully thought of yet that kind of come out of this also is the mother of growth and an investment in our industry. But we look from a macro econ side. So Peter probably has some addition he can add to that in terms of how the economies and industries recovered too. 

One of the things that we cover, we have a strong macro econ section of our reports and one of the primary things that we look at is how is GDP expected to change, recover, et cetera, as we come out of the pandemic. And so, that has looked brighter and brighter. 2021 has a strong GDP estimate for us in many parts of the world. There are some challenging areas but we then benefit from that as that improves, we start to grow and improve as well. So I will look to that economic improvement as a kind of contributor and a driver of pro AV growth too. Not without challenges though.

When you set your filters for zeroing in on information, can you get a sense of the hit that happened overall for global AV in 2020? Can you drill down to the hit on digital signage? 

Peter: Yeah, so digital signage is actually one of the technologies that have been mostly closed to AV overall in the last year and this year, which I don’t think is that surprising. 

We talk about AV and how it pertains to the wider economy, we usually link it kinda at the start of our presentations, reports to GDP because it reflects the economy because AV is an in-person specific technology in general, thinking about live events, sports, museums, but it also has its collaboration side. And digital signage is a minor part of that, so big solutions that are used at stadiums, it’s part of branding in malls, etc. But it’s also part of the communication: a grocery store needs to communicate restrictions to its customers, a fast-casual restaurant has a platform to use maybe for point of purchase assist as well. So it suffered from the lack of in-person activity. But it’s also been supported in some areas because it's such a flexible communication, a distanced, safe way to communicate to clients.

In the last year, it was a little bit over 15% drop and it's recovering quite strongly this year about maybe 10-12% bounce back in 2021. So kind of following the overall industry numbers with those percentages. 

In terms of what's happened in the past year. Obviously, a lot of it's coming back. Some of it's deferred money, some of it is new money, but when you take billions of dollars out of an industry, not everybody's gonna be able to weather the storm and come back. Do you have any sense at all of what the impact was on the numbers of companies and jobs? 

Sean: Yeah. Good question. We did some survey research in 2020 to track this, to see how providers were being impacted along the way, and what we were seeing is, unfortunately, a steady, let's say 1-2%, each week that was saying, I've had to close my doors for good. And so there was real attrition. 

What was the total? It's really hard to tell because of things like stimulus and other modes of say, sustaining your business to where people may have gone into almost a hibernation mode or a sustenance mode just to keep things rolling, but it looked like in terms of attrition of individuals, so laying off riffing roofing employees, it was probably about an 8% decline in staffing over the firms that we're tracking and were surveying throughout the process. So yeah, real impacts to real people and real businesses. 

One of the interesting things that I could see happening was companies, particularly live events companies, who obviously couldn't do concerts or conferences or anything else. Some of them pivoted and started doing some interesting things like virtual audiences in sports arenas and things like that. 

Did you see much of that? And were these things short-term measures or did they turn into industries? 

Sean: Yeah, the jury's a bit out in terms of how much that's going to be a lasting impact, but those kinds of pivots or innovations, creative uses of their skills in technology and services is what allowed live events to not go to zero. So we saw a 60% decline in revenues for live events in 2020, just a dramatic horrific impact on that business. But I think they did shift over to things like content distribution, streaming services, capture, and optimization of content for then later streaming.

As you noted, they did support virtual events. In some cases, event managers would stand up on a store virtual studio and still would use some technology. I know, for example, AVIXA, to support some of our events, we would rent a green room in order to do some footage that we could then port over to put a virtual backdrop and all sorts of stuff for some of our creative presentations. But yeah, I think it's that kind of innovation that helps these businesses to at least persist through the period. If not, in some cases, perhaps shut down temporarily in order to re-emerge as businesses re-emerged. 

Yeah, and some things like those extended reality virtual studios just came out of nowhere, but seemed to be a really hot trend now.

Sean: Yeah, definitely. I'm curious to see how much of that stays because what we've learned is that trade shows don't work virtually. I think we've all tried that and replicated that booth to booth experience, the trade show floor experience just doesn't happen very well on virtual. But a conference track does. So you can really imagine a world where let's say a major trade show could wrap around its edges, some virtual content to hype up the show before it starts, continuing the long tail of content afterward to engage audiences, and so that gives a live events company opportunity on-premise, while the show's going on, but a tale of opportunity around events too, to help capture and read and distribute content.

So I think there's a number of interesting business models that could come out for a live events company around this kind of audience extension, content extension, content optimization, virtual studio, all that kind of things. It will be interesting to see. 

if you go back 15-16 months to March of last year and started to look at the industry and start to do some of these forecasts. Are there things that you expected to happen that didn't happen and other things that did, that surprised you? 

Sean: Originally, we did not expect the conferencing and collaboration category to boom, quite as much as it ended up. So our original forecast around conference and collaboration, which in all fairness, largely was about conference rooms, auditoriums, in-person kinds of venues for office buildings. So we expected that industry, that market to decline a little bit, let's say a few points, so not bad, and in an environment where most things are, double high or low double-digit declines, conference, and collaboration, that's a pretty strong outcome. 

In the end though, we saw a flood of money going into it consistently through licensing, through kits for remote work support, all that kind of stuff just really made up for it. So the whole support of remote was an even bigger phenomenon than we originally had forecasted, probably partially because we did, as I noted before, we believed that there would be a return to more in-person stuff earlier in the process, late 2020, and by now we'd be pretty much fully back. So that would be one of those things that was a bit more pronounced than we had originally thought, and that's a lot of what it was is not necessarily complete surprises, but more pronounced versions of things than you would've expected originally.

Okay. Thank you very much, guys. Just one last thing for Sean, just very quickly, if I'm listening to this and I want to have a look at the latest report or highlights of the report, where would I find that? 

Sean: Sure. Probably best to reach out to me, at swargo@avixa.org. We have some resources on our website, avixa.org, but starting with me can point you in the right direction probably a bit more efficiently. 

Thanks again for taking some time with me.

Sean: Thanks so much, Dave.

 

John Steinhauer, Barco

John Steinhauer, Barco

June 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's the business argument? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Steinhauer: Thank you, Dave. 

Thank you. I appreciate your time. 

 

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

June 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: How was that going so far? 

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

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

Christophe Billaud: Yes, that's true.

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

Christophe Billaud: Thanks a lot, Dave. 

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

June 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

May 19, 2021

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

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

Clearly, I needed to speak with this guy.

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

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

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

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you prefer TruLED? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would last what, like 3000 hours, maybe? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the buying audience more mature? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. 

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

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

 

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

May 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's tinted in some ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. 

And you're also in Amsterdam’s Schiphol? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

April 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

So basically in-store media. 

Mike Hiatt: Correct.  

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

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

And what's the scale of this network? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susie, how often does content change on the network? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Hiatt: Yes. (Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s more like new on shelves? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the old PRN network, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Hiatt: Yes.

Susie Opare-Abetia: Thank you! (Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marc Van Eekeren, DetaiLED

Marc Van Eekeren, DetaiLED

March 31, 2021

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

The direct view LED market is crowded with companies that are all, for the most part, selling variations on the same things.

Because the technology remains unfamiliar to a lot of integrators, resellers and end-users, many companies have started selling LED bundles with fixed sizes and matched components, as an effort to simplify the products and the proposition.

A U.S. company called DetaiLED Solutions has gone down a different path - focusing mainly on custom solutions that fit the dimensions and contours of a space. They work with mainstream pro AV people, at times, but they also work with architects and firms that specialize in making built spaces visually interesting.

I had a good chat with Marc Van Eekeren, a founding partner and a guy who has been selling LED display solutions for almost 20 years, tracking back to his time with Barco.

We spoke about the company's roots, where it is focused, and cover a lot of the current trends and thinking in LED these days.

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Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

March 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you. 

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

March 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woah!

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

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

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

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

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

What are the infrastructure implications if you want to be moving files around on the wide area network and everything else? I suspect you're thinking about even the cabling, certainly have a lot of the hardware that's moving data around everything else. 

Chris Chinnock: Absolutely and that's why you have to have a network that can support this. If your corporate network is based on a one gig ethernet structure, you're going to have to upgrade that. I know some of the new Intel motherboards support both 1 gig and now 2.5 gig ethernet outputs over, I think that's probably over Cat 5 cables and that may be sufficient if you're using a video and can compress that enough to get on a 2.5 gig network. It's pushing it a little bit but it's possible. It, again, depends on the client here, if they're really sensitive to having pixel accurate images or if it just has to look pretty good, I should say really good, but...

If you want to go to a 10 gig network or a 5 gig network, these are all much better because you can use less compression. But they come at a cost: all your network switches and maybe the cabling have to be upgraded to support this as well. 

Yeah.So like a regular Cat 5 may not support it and then you're pulling hundreds of meters of new cabling? 

Chris Chinnock: Potentially. Yeah, absolutely. Or, maybe just go to a fiber network to be future-proofing who knows? 

Wow and so I would imagine some new builds are future-proof like crazy, but there would be probably 90% of the built environment out there would probably need to be tweaked in some way, right?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think so. 

One of the other arguments about 8K is that there's no content available. Is that true?

Chris Chinnock: It is true. There is very limited content out there. The interesting part of that is that actually a lot of content is shot on 8K cameras and there are now 12K cameras out there. Black magic design is a 12K camera. So it's being captured in 8K or higher, but it's not being finished in 8K or distributed in 8K yet. 

Is that because there's no market for it? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, partly. You gotta have a certain critical mass of 8K TVs out there before you start streaming to it and I think streaming is going to be the first way that we see 8K content coming to consumers and you need good codecs out there to distribute it too. 

NHK has been broadcasting 8K content for over two years now but they're broadcasting at 80 to a 100 megabits per second with high compression ratios, and that's just too high. Netflix is 15 to maybe 25 megabits per second, that's where most of the streamers are coming in right now for 4K content. That's where you need to get, maybe you could start at 40 or 50 for a premium 8K streaming service, but you quickly got to get down to that 25 area, I think in my opinion.

Is there a likelihood that there will be more content produced that is in the right format? What changes that?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think again, you need that critical mass of TVs out there. You need a cost-effective distribution system and when that arrives, especially with these new codecs that are coming like VDC, I think you'll see major streamers jumping in with an 8K service.

Another argument is that production costs are also high. Is that primarily the costs of cameras that are like Black Magic Design and RED cameras that can shoot in that? Or, are there a whole bunch of things?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, there's a bunch of things there and those were exactly the same arguments for 4K adoption, six, seven years ago. It's more memory, it's more bandwidth. The camera costs are a little bit higher. The storage costs are a little bit higher. That's all true but I think we're also in a very different era now. So with this pandemic, we've seen a big acceleration of production workflows to the cloud. There's no doubt about that, with all the remote production that had to go on. We're also, I think, going to see an evolution of that. So more and more production will go to the cloud and I think that actually favors 8K production as well, because what we're seeing and a company, FrameIO just demonstrating this, they have a camera to cloud service now. So you can be on set shooting with 8K cameras and as soon as you finish that take, it goes right up to the cloud. The original camera files are in the cloud and then from the cloud, you can do proxy editing proxy color grading. You can do everything and have dailies right back on the set the next morning.

This is going to revolutionize, I think, the way movies and TV shows are produced, 

When you’re talking about compression. I think in terms of compression somewhat clobbering the file, does it have any noticeable impact on quality as opposed to the native file? 

Chris Chinnock: Sure and that just depends on the compression ratio.

JPEG XS up to 15:1, that's supposed to be a lossless thing. So visually lossless, if you're at that kind of compression ratio, but if you get into a distribution, that's called a Mezzanine Kodak. If you get into a distribution Kodak, one goes to consumers, Amazon or Netflix is using, HEVC and is going to be hundreds to one in compression and so you can potentially see our artifacts that way. 

Especially now, when you put us on a very large screen, that's tens of meters wide, you'll definitely see things on that size screen that you wouldn't see on an 80-inch screen.

Is 8K best suited for flat panel displays as opposed to LED? 

Chris Chinnock: Not necessarily. With LED again, because it's a bigger screen, it's less forgiving, because any artifact is just more visible. 

What about the timelines on all this? You mentioned how six, seven years ago that the fuss that was out there was around 4K and nobody's ever going to use it or anything else… What do you see are the timelines to a time when 8K is a shoulder shrug? 

Chris Chinnock: Well, there's a graphic that we one of the market research companies put together that showed that the resolution transitions and now we're talking about displays here. So when a display of a new resolution was introduced to the time it was selling at 50% of retail sales.

So SD to Full HD, Full HD to 4K, and now 4K to 8K, that cycle is seven years and consistently seven years. So you could argue that we're a year, maybe two years into the 8K cycle at this point. The pandemic probably added a year to that. So if in seven years 50% of sales are now 8K TVs, we saw how fast 4K TVs were adopted and how fast 4K streaming came onboard. 

Will history repeat? Probably. 

Is this primarily a consumer driven product or do you envision a lot of commercial adoption of 8K displays? 

Chris Chinnock: I think the push today and certainly the focus of the 8K Association has been on consumer entertainment, production and the entertainment production value chain. But as we have already discussed, there are clear needs in the proAV space here as well, particularly for all these larger canvases for rental and staging, for corporate environments, for pop-up events. We talked about museums, there's medical imaging that's an important area as well, that's coming on board. 

How about 8K VR? That's starting to happen as well. So there are a range of different applications here, including broadcast as well. It's happening in broadcast too. So yeah, it's happening in a lot of different areas, even security cameras. There's 8K security cameras now. 

Is some of that just a function of end users and integrators and everybody else wanting to have the latest and greatest and say, “We're doing 8K, we're doing AI, we're doing machine learning.”? Or, they're just jumping on the latest? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, and I think, that's what companies do, and they always have to make the next product a little bit better than the previous one. So 8K is a natural next step and I'm glad you brought up this idea of AI as well, because that's also very different from where we were during the 4K transition. 

Upscaling in the 8K TV, AI based or machine learning based and neural network based now is a  completely different technology from when we had upscaling and 4K TVs. AI is being used in the encoding space as well to help reduce those bit rates and do seen optimized encoding now. So we're just at the very beginning of this AI capability and the cloud capability. So the combination of these I think is going to be very powerful.

If you're using display technology that has AI based upscaling and it's that good, do you really even need to produce at native 8K or are you in a lot of situations and are going to be just fine with 4K upscaled? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, today that's a very acceptable solution. In fact, it has to be the solution because that's what we have out there.

But one of the scenarios that we're trying to standardize in the 8K Association is, we don't really have a good name for this yet, let's call it Smart Streaming just for purposes. But the idea here is that you encourage those 8K camera original files to now be mastered in 8K, so you create a naked finished movie or piece of content. 

You now smartly downscale that to 4K with some metadata about how you did that. You now use conventional encoding techniques, HEVC, or AV1 to distribute that content the way streamers are doing that now and if you have an 8K TV, you can now read this metadata smartly, upscale that back to 8K and theoretically, that gets pretty close to a native 8K distribution scheme in terms of image quality.

If we're talking about four to five to six years before 8K is really settled in, companies that are thinking right now about a refresh of their display technology and the supporting infrastructure for the digital signage network they're running across whatever environment it may be in, do they need to be future-proof now? 

Or they're fine with what they have at the moment and they can just have in their heads that the next refresh cycle, we'll be looking at 8K?

Chris Chinnock: I think it depends on the number of pixels they want to put up there. If it's a big canvas with a fairly tight pixel pitch, which means it's a lot of pixels then absolutely, I would be thinking of a higher network structure for that. If it's a smaller display with a bigger pixel pitch, then maybe you don't necessarily need it. 

And we're talking 8K, but I have seen the stories for 12K and I believe even 16K. Are those things that will exist beyond labs? 

Chris Chinnock: I would not underestimate that capability, yes. I believe that will probably happen and we'll go through this whole cycle again. “No one could see it. We don't need it. It's too expensive.” 

I read something saying 16K is pretty much perfection, that's like 20/20 equivalent, perfect eyesight. You're seeing everything! 

Chris Chinnock: That depends on the screen size. 

Ah, okay. This is all over my head. 

Chris, how did you get involved with the association? 

Chris Chinnock: I was actually asked by the TV manufacturers to help form it. So I said, yes. 

And is this a full-time gig or among the many things you do? 

Chris Chinnock: No, it's one of several things that I do, yeah. 

Just for the listeners, what kind of work do you do? 

Chris Chinnock: I've been in the display industry for close to a thousand years now. (Laughter)

I've done all kinds of things. We published newsletters for quite a while. We did market research reports, consulting services. I've run a bunch of events on this. I do white papers for clients, et cetera, et cetera. So my focus has always been on the cutting edge of display related technology. So 8K is one of them. 

I'm also very active in the light field and holographic displays, AR and VR are key areas for me and micro-LED and mini-LED is also an exciting technology for me as well. 

Yeah, and the fun thing is everything you're looking at is ever evolving and always interesting.

Chris Chinnock: That's why this job is fun. I learn something every day, right? 

Yeah. That's the same with me. People ask me, I'm in my early sixties now and people are asking me, “Are you thinking of winding down?” And I say, not really because the stuff I work on is interesting and I follow the stuff that's emerging and that's always fun.

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. I'm with you. 

All right, Chris, I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Chris Chinnock: I appreciate the time. Thanks, Dave.

 

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

February 17, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Gary Mundrake's company, TSItouch, has a tag line that flat out says The World Needs More Touch.

He'd like, of course, to sell the world more touch technology, but there's a larger story about his 10-year-old company's activity in the digital signage and pro AV marketplace. He and his team sell the technology, but they're also evangelists for interactive touch.

The company sells a range of touch technologies that generally get applied as retrofits to commercial displays, making them interactive. When the pandemic really started hitting about a year ago, there was a lot of debate about the future of touch screens. Would people still be willing to use them, if they were a host for contagions?

While there have been reports here and there suggesting the virus can live on a surface for a long time, the prevailing opinion from medical research is that surfaces like touchscreens present far, far less risk than one-to-one interactions with other people.

So getting things done by touchscreen is likely going to be faster, easier, better and safer than dealing one to one at an order counter.

We talk about the touch business in broad strokes, how certain technologies apply, how the past  year has been and how the next months look for TSItouch and the touch ecosystem.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Gary, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what TSItouch is all about? 

Gary Mundrake: Thanks for having me, David. TSItouch primarily manufactures touchscreen and protective solutions for large format displays, as well as a lot of video walls. Obviously there’s some other ancillary things we do, but that's our primary focus., 

avid: Oh so that's why you call yourself touch? 

Gary Mundrake: Make sense when you think about it. 

You have this tagline on LinkedIn and elsewhere that talks about the world needing more touch. What do you mean by that? 

Gary Mundrake: Metaphorically, I guess in the age of COVID, we're all looking for more touch, just human interaction. But purely as a marketing tagline, the world needs more touch. We're trying to promote touch screens, but with a little tongue in cheek, just the world needs more touch in general. 

You have in your product line, a bunch of different kinds, there's PCAP, there's IR and there's I think ShadowSense. Why are there different types of touch overlays and how do they sort themselves and how do you know what to use for what? 

Gary Mundrake: So and we back up a little bit, I say this often I say: touch is a commodity if you think about it in the market space, it's a commoditized product. Where we differentiate is everybody wants that commoditized price, but they all want a custom solution. So when you take and compare responsiveness to features, to aesthetics, to price, you end up in a situation where one size doesn't necessarily fit all well. So while we have a run rate of all those different products, it's really matching the solution to the end customer and that means matching the touch functionality with the display functionality in the environment they plan to use it.

So you have to have that broader selection of solutions. We do a lot of touch, obviously for Samsung, NEC, LG, and those type of display manufacturers and if you look at all of these displays they have, the reason that they have more than one 55-inch display is that they have different markets and are trying to meet with it much like we have more than one type of touch solution for that 55-inch display.  

The theory being is to get the customer what suits their needs best not what we are trying to sell.

When it comes to, the one I'm most familiar with is PCAP, because that's what we use on everything from tablets to smartphones, is that by far the most demanded product? 

Gary Mundrake: In the large format market space, It's really not even close to the demand for IR. The reason for that is IR, relatively speaking is a much lower cost solution and it meets the needs of so many customers. It just meets the bill. 

When touchscreens started coming out, you can thank Steve Jobs for making them ubiquitous to the end-user. When they first started coming out, we had companies that bought touchscreens and we'd say what do you plan on doing with it? They're like, we don't know, but we just want to have a touchscreen. They were willing to buy touchscreens because they were touchscreens, not because they had an application. If you fast forward to where we are now in the market space, people view touchscreens almost like cash registers in retail and digital signage. 

The touchscreen isn't the selling feature, it's the functionality they want. They want that to be almost invisible to the fact that it's there if that makes sense. So it's about performance and cost and application. Other retail environments we operate in, where aesthetics is more important than functionality, and other environments where the price is more important than aesthetics, and then sometimes applications won't work in this environment or that won't work in that environment. 

A good example is, if you're familiar with the LG and Samsung outdoor displays that are getting fairly ubiquitous, they come on a factory-installed protective glass that prevents you from putting PCAP on it. So we use outdoor IP65 rated IR. Most people when they call you their first question is can I get a PCAP on this? Because they think that's what is the right solution? But the reality is it's not because you can't apply a PCAP to that display. So it's constantly tailoring the need but IR is consistently the go-to product for price and functionality.

So with IR, you're not going to get the degree of maybe accuracy and snappiness that you might get off of PCAP, but you can do it at far less cost. Is that a way of describing the trade-off? 

Gary Mundrake: No, the trade-off isn't really accuracy. The accuracy of IR, it’s s actually more accurate than PCAP. If you think about it, PCAP is effectively a grid of invisible wires running through the glass and most manufacturers of PCAP have a set number of wires. So you have X running vertically and X running horizontally. So on a 55-inch, the space in between that wire set is X, when you go to a 98-inch, the space in between that wire set gets much bigger, which results in a loss of fidelity. 

Whereas in IR you're adding more LEDs to the strips to accommodate for the size. So your accuracy stays linear from a 32-inch up to a 32-foot video wall. It's really the aesthetics people like PCAP because it's got that flat front aesthetic. It does give you a little bit smoother perception, but functionality. I think the IR is performing just as well. But aesthetically, it's never going to look as well. 

And with IR, just to describe it, you've got these rails that sit around the perimeter of the display right, and then it's triangulating where your finger is?

Gary Mundrake: That's correct. yeah. So you're essentially blocking light with the IR and those rails, now there are different technologies within IR, some are made better than others and then if you take something like the ShadowSense, which we mentioned earlier, which is almost a hybrid of that IR and some cameras, if you think back to the old day of the optical touch, that's no longer used, but that gives you a little bit more of fidelity and functionality beyond PCAP and IR. 

How do you handle IR outside? I'm looking outside right now, up here in Nova Scotia and we had, I think, 16 inches of snow yesterday and I'm wondering about digital street posters with all that snow sitting in the frame of this thing.

Gary Mundrake: Sure. So we actually deployed about 50 of these to the Nova Scotia ferry system about two years ago. Not Nova Scotia. The other side of Canada, British Columbia.

But that was an issue and a concern they had as well. So when we do outdoor touchscreens, it goes back to that solution that meets your needs, not what we're offering. So if you're in an environment where you're going to see snow load, then we actually integrate a heater system into the IR touchscreen with a thermostat in it. So it melts that snow that accumulates on the shelf. If you're going to be near a very wet environment, like along the coast, then we incorporate stainless steel, even though it's powder-coated it turns out powder coat doesn't really stand up to the abuse of the ocean spray for any little nick. 

So you can take a standard outdoor display and for a 55-inch, we actually make, I think it's six different products depending on the environment, they all have the exact same functionality per se, to the end-user, but the built processes are different, and the components are different depending on the application. So I think what you’ll see is, our sales team spends very little time selling and very much time consulting. It's understanding what's your application and not just your application, meaning it's retail or it's corporate, but it's the environment that it's going to operate in and all those other factors 

Is your sales team talking directly to end-users, or are you dealing much more with manufacturers and solutions providers?

Gary Mundrake: I would say that it's mostly with the solution providers, the integration companies that are all out there, but for more complicated projects, we end up working directly with the end-users through the resellers.  We actually sell directly to end-users.

Our goal is to sell through the resellers and distribution partners, but we do spend a lot of time visiting with end-users, consulting with them in conjunction with our reseller partners. 

Which makes sense. So we've been going back and forth since COVID hit and talking about the impact this was going to have on the touchscreen business, when it first bubbled up, me not knowing anywhere near as much about the touch industries as you did wonder, what this was going to mean and whether it was the end of touch screens, as we knew it, at least for a while, and that hasn't played out that way at all, has it? 

Gary Mundrake: So it has not. When COVID first hit and became really full-blown, I would say a bit of a pause. I would say that over the past 10-11 months that we've been going into this, it has been a great opportunity for other forms of interactivity to get some press and get out in the public and deal with questions like is voice going to work, is gesture gonna work, will QR codes work? And I think in some instances, there are some companies that have come out and they've done well by COVID, not implying they tried to take advantage of it. But, it gave them an opportunity for their capabilities to get some sunshine and maybe some more serious luck than they would have pre-COVID. But that being said, there's nothing that's been out there, and we look at it I would say daily, that's really come in and said, this is the game-changer.

My argument since we started this company in 2011 has been that way as long as your primary method of interfacing with your cell phone is a touch screen, that's going to be the primary method of interfacing with digital signage. When cell phones start using something else as a primary method of interface, that's when we need to really look and start really doing a shift. 

It's helped as well that the science and the findings that are coming out of all this are evolving and whereas in the early stages, there seemed to be this sense that touching things was dangerous, over time it's evolved to the realization that surfaces are not a particularly efficient carrier or host or whatever you want to call it for COVID that the risk is exponentially higher in talking one-to-one with people, right? 

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. I believe when COVID first started coming out, there was an overabundance of caution and concern and a lot of unknown and certainly, over time, it has become apparent that pathogens can pass on a surface. They always have, and always will be able to, but the probability of someone becoming infected with COVID by touching a surface is very small and the probability of you contacting COVID by touching a touchscreen is even smaller. As an example, I used a few months ago, if you can open up, pick your retail establishment and a person can get in the door. So they opened the door. They pick up products, they pick up merchandise, they pick up food, they go to the counter, they use the restroom. If you can do all those things by your touch screen is where people are going to get infected, it just doesn't make sense. I think that most markets have accepted that fact.

And some markets have made touch as the method to communicate. They went the other way. They said I can clean a touchscreen so if you don't have to talk to the person at the counter, you're not going to get a person to person transmission, because it turns out machines aren't actually breathing, coughing, or sneezing and they're fairly easy to clean, but I can't really wipe down the person at the counter. 

Yeah, I noticed that going back to April or something, there was a demo for a McDonald's in the Netherlands and they had their self-directed, self-guided ordering kiosk in place and that was their primary form of transactions for exactly that reason. McDonald's made the decision that yes, you're going to touch something, but this is way safer than talking to somebody four feet away over an ordering counter and that was my big molar to realize, “now I get why this would make more sense.”

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. Last fall, probably I guess maybe the September, October timeframe. We did, I don't know, maybe 150 screens that went into a hospital network. I don't know West Coast, entirely for visitor check-in because they didn't want visitors coming into the hospital to approach people behind the counter and they did a pretty rapid deployment of a lot of screens into that one hospital network. And by and large, it seems that larger rollout type customers, people that have been doing, I'd almost call them rolling rollouts for years, they just continued through the pandemic. They just kept doing it. Some companies that were starting to do rollouts apart of the pandemic went on pause, and now we're starting to see them reappear and reinitiate, but certainly, it impacted our business. We took about a 30% hit in revenue last year. We did keep our staff, but we took the revenue hit, but we are seeing a continued positive trend. I wouldn't say that we're back to where we were going into this but I do see that sometime April-May, we'll start seeing a real trend toward our revenue returning back to its pre-COVID days. 

Is the business, do you expect it to be the same, or has it evolved in terms of the profile of applications?

Gary Mundrake: So the touch applications haven’t really evolved that much. We, as a company have evolved a little bit. As I said, in the intro, we're primarily manufacturers of touchscreen or protective solutions. So we're seeing more emphasis on protective solutions, but also concurrent with what we've said, okay, what else can we do to bring in revenue?

When you're seeing, revenue declines and that, what else can we do? So we've started doing some kitting for customers. It turns out we sell one component of our solution, most of the time when you're installing a touchscreen, you've got a touch screen display, a player, a mount, and other attributes that go with it. And historically, we build up kits of these and ship them out to the customer. And over the past 8-10 months, we've gotten more into putting this all together. So we'll ship this project for you and we'll ship you out the whole solution to your retail store or to wherever it's going to. So they get one pallet.

 So it's kinda, it's moving away from our core business and I don't want to say that that's what we want to become. But, it offsets some of our costs. That's not a wildly profitable business, but it does offset some costs. So we do those kinds of things. But I think by and large, the market will come back to touch and we'll be doing pretty much what we were doing two years ago, two years from now. 

So I'm curious if you're seeing new kinds of applications. I wonder about things like remote meetings now that we're all trained to and conditioned to doing Zoom calls all day long and team meetings and so on. 

If I was in a Home Depot and I was trying to figure out how the hell to do something with plumbing, which is terrifying for me. If I could talk to a subject matter expert from Kohler, from the floor, I would rather do that than talk to some guy in an orange vest who may or may not know anything about plumbing and it might be just talking out of his butt.

Gary Mundrake: So there's this whole idea of doing things remotely and the example is an interesting one and it puts a lot of flavor and context around that. The issue that I think you run into in that environment is if I go into a retail store and we do a lot of displays for retail stores and some big box stores, people don't necessarily want to communicate with somebody else. That's why they want to use the touch screen. They want to be able to go in and do it at their own pace and browse their own way. 

Like you said, the guy in the orange vest may not know what he's talking about, but the people that are looking for that kind of help, they're probably not going to feel comfortable doing it over the VTC per se, they're going to do it at home before they go shop, before they go into the big box store. If I need to understand how to, I'm trying to think of something, you would go to Home Depot and not know how to do it, so what kind of hinges to put on the cabinet door? 

I think most people have researched online before they went to the store. I don't think they would get to the store and then say, “Oh, I'll go up to this kiosk. I'll hit a button,” and one the backend of that, managing that capacity loading on the back end of it. So you've got rooms full of people sitting there and I also think, by and large, people don't like talking even though we've all become, video calls are ubiquitous right now. I think by and large people don't really like talking through video machines. VTC has been around for years and years and years, right back to the days of the poly-com even the late 80s, early 90s.

So it's been around 30 years and it has a market space, but I believe people don't want to do it as a routine way to communicate. That's just my opinion. I just don't see it. I think the applications for touch that you'll see post COVID are eliminating that check-in person or adding even more density of touch into retail environments, larger box stores where you can go up to the screen and find your own inventory or find your own part. 

Prior to COVID, we were seeing a lot of it going into the dressing rooms with mirror walls. It was a pretty big uptake in that, but I think by and large people don't want to talk to other people via a camera in a public store. To me, it's the idea of using voice to communicate, get rid of your touch screen, and use voice And I always say, imagine being in the airport, you've got 300 check-in kiosks for a United airlines up there in a row. Can you imagine 300 people simultaneously trying to check in each one, yelling at their own machine? 

I say, the world needs more touch, right? We go back to where we started. People like togetherness. They like feeling together. They like feeling involved. You yelling at a machine is not very comforting.

They also like privacy. So people like to be with other people, but they like privacy. People don't want to stand there in front of a TV and talk to this machine, not knowing how loud the modulator is. So the person on the other end hears them while everybody in the store is hearing and going, who’s that tool? It's like the person that's walking around the store, talking on their cell phone, they're yelling into their phone. Now imagine that, on every aisle, a home Depot somebody's yelling, that'd be entertaining for some people. 

I think the application is more of giving people information that helps them make a buying decision on-premise and that's really where I think in the retail sector, it goes and then in more of the services sector, it's a lot of the wayfinding, the guiding, the check-in tasks that you can eliminate a person for without eliminating the experience. So when you're looking at the hospitality and those environments, they want people to have the experience. So if it comes down to just a mechanical transaction, I don't think hospitality will adopt it. But the flip side of that is, prior to COVID, cruise ships were doing a booming business with touchscreens because it was easy for people to get information: Where am I? Where's my restaurant, my bar, my casino, my pool, my room, all those things. And those kinds of things, I think will come back and I think they'll come back even stronger. Because it gives you an opportunity to review, to give someone instant information that you'd know they're looking for.

Yeah. Cruise ships actually might be safer than they used to be. Just because people will be hypersensitive now to washing their hands and doing all those sorts of things. Not that I'd go on one, but they're probably going to be safer. 

Gary Mundrake: Since we do a lot of business with cruise ships, I'm not going to say anything about cruise ships. (Laughter)

I am curious. There's a company up here in Canada that is marketing elevator buttons that are hover based. So you just have to put your finger near the button, you don't have to touch it cause therefore it's safer and I've seen a number of hover based products like that out there where it's a kind gesture and I keep looking at him and thinking 99% of the people are just going to touch it anyways, if they're a quarter inch or way, they're just going to bang it unless you have somebody right there telling them no, don't touch it.

Do you see any potential for these things? 

Gary Mundrake: No. 

Your elevator button example. How many times have you been in an elevator and somebody pushes the button and the little indicator lights up, “Okay. You selected Floor 47” and they push that same button five more times, even though they have a positive reinforcement of a button and have a back lit light, showing them it's been activated, they keep pushing it anyway.

So you're going to hover and it's going to light up and you're going to assume that worked? If you don't trust the touch, you're going to trust the hover? And to why, again, it goes back to the why, if you're in an elevator, you came from somewhere and you're going to somewhere 

You touched 20 other surfaces on the way in and out. 

Gary Mundrake: And really the elevator button that's what's going to get you? 

It's like having the giant steak and stuffed potato, and five gallons of wine and then saying I can’t have that piece of Pecan pie because I got my health to worry about here. 

Sounds like a good night though. 

Gary Mundrake: It does.

I'm curious about the touch industry as a whole. Is there a Holy grail, something that everybody wants to resolve that still needs to be figured out, or is the Touch industry where it needs to be in terms of the technology? 

Like it does what it needs to do and the big challenges are the normal stuff, like getting costs down, making it more efficient, making it snappier, or whatever?

Gary Mundrake: I think by and large, and I say this right now, and tomorrow I could be made a fool of, but I think the state of the art, it's pretty much there for what you're asking for to do. The real advances, I believe in touch are going to be in the PCAP market that we talked about earlier. If you think about your typical cell phone, that's going to say a 3.5 inch screen or whatever, so the manufacturers spend millions of dollars marrying that perfectly design touchscreen to that perfectly designed device and the interface is perfect all the time and they make millions and millions of them. Whereas we're taking a touchscreen that's made in the thousands and marrying it up to displays that many have never been married to a touch screen and maybe we're only doing it in the hundreds. 

So there's a little bit of finesse involved in adding that PCAP touch to that display and I think the real advancement will be refining that to make that less cumbersome so you don't run into issues with responsiveness in the light because you have a poorly matched solution and it removes that finesse. Now the flip side of that is as long as it requires finesse, it makes it harder for other people to mimic us. But I think that's where the real advance is, it's making that PCAP a more stable product for easier integration. 

And then ultimately of course, like everything, we get asked all the time, “if I buy a million, are they free?” Everybody wants the price to go down. Actually, that's what I tell people. I tell people frequently, even if you buy a million of these, they're never going to get it for free. Some people believe that. Yesterday, in a discussion with somebody, they said what's the price for 500? I said this is the price for 500. And they said, what's the price for 5,000? And I said, really seriously, it is not going to get free. Even if I quote you a million of them. But somehow people have that in their minds. I'm just going to keep buying it, asking for more and more until it gets to free, but it's just not going to go there.

The price will continue to decline. Obviously we've had some impact on the US with tariffs, for products coming out of Asia. Fortunately, we bring products in and out of multiple countries. We don't get hit on every product with that but I think some refinement of the PCAP technology and the price point coming down will only further saturate the market space with the products of touch.

All right. That was great. Thank you very much, Gary, for spending some time with me. I appreciate it. 

Gary Mundrake: Dave. Thanks for having us And please don't forget: the world needs even more touch. 

 

Travis Peterson, Snap Install

Travis Peterson, Snap Install

February 10, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Companies that specialize in deploying digital signage networks don't always get the kind of respect they deserve in this industry. 

They can get called "hang and bang" guys, when in reality the job is complicated as hell. Getting digital signage networks properly installed and running across hundreds or even thousands of locations involves a LOT of project management and coordination, and a lot of vetting and training to ensure the techs who show up know the work, what to do and how to behave.

Travis Peterson started Snap Install about 10 years ago, having learned his installation chops working in home AV systems. Those can be fun jobs - putting slick audio and video systems in the homes of stinkin' rich people - but to scale an installation business, you need high volume commercial work.

Based in Minneapolis, Snap Install now has a big core staff and hundreds of trusted contractors around the US and Canada, who take on high volume digital signage deployments in venues like restaurants, retail and health care.

We had a great chat about the challenges he always faces, and the bigger ones presented in the past year. We also get into where Snap starts and stops, and why his team does the stuff they're good at, and leaves things they probably could do to their partners.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Travis, thanks for joining me. Can you tell me, because maybe not everybody knows what Snap Install is all about? 

Travis Peterson: Yeah, thanks for having me, Dave. Snap Install. we're a nationwide service provider. We're located out of Maple Grove, Minnesota. For those of you not familiar with Minnesota, it started in the twin cities area, and we are a nationwide service provider of skilled labor. So in other words, we're brokers of services. 

We have 54 employees at our corporate office and then 700+ contractors across the country that worked for us directly. Businesses and manufacturers hire Snap to provide installation service solutions really from coast to coast, so our job is: we represent our clients in a professional manner and follow up on the design scope of work to get the job done. Now that job could be a thousand plus site rollout across the country or one service call in a rural area. 

David: Are you focused just on digital signage or is it one of many things that you do?

Travis Peterson: Digital signage is the primary focus and represents the majority of our business. But we also have two other verticals that are defined. One is the healthcare industry and then another one is the relocation of executives across the country, their residential homes actually.

David: Oh, really? Interesting. So what do you do with that? 

Travis Peterson:  It's actually one of the main reasons the company got started. I was fresh out of college. In my second job, I was working for a company back just over 10 years ago and that company had a similar business model, but it was B2C compared to our business model B2B, and back then you go to Amazon, you could throw a TV in your cart and you could have added installation to it. The company I was working for, we would send the technician out to the home. 

And I started a B2B platform there and worked with some relocation companies, and executives moving across, they got expensive equipment. We would dismount their equipment, movers pack it up, ship to the new house and then we'd reinstall it. As that company as much as I loved working there and really got my first taste of a small business, it's where I became addicted to the small business platform. I realized that as it became unethical, I had two choices. One: go to sell insurance like my dad and possibly golf, probably a lot more and have a lot more freedom and residual income coming in or start a business. And I decided to start a business and I went to one of our biggest clients at the time, as that business was falling apart and said, “Hey, if I started a company, would you follow me and be my first customer?”

And he said, absolutely. We had a good working relationship. He knew that the company wasn't doing well and he asked me two questions. I'm 26 years old at this time. And he said, “Do you have any money, Travis?” And I think I might've had about $5,000 to my name and I said no, and he said, “do you have a business plan?”

In my head, I was saying, what the hell is a business plan? I said, no. He said hop on a plane and fly out to Philly, let's talk. Did that and we put together Snap Install and the focus was primarily three things? We call them our three pillars. Our people, what I'm most proud of is our culture. Our partners, which are all of our customers, and then our technicians across the country.

And with that focus on those three pillars, we've really over the last, it'll be 10 years here in September. We've seen success. And as I was stating the primary focus, the reason we started was the relocation and that's what his business, his other business does is they help relocate executives and we do that AV work for them. So as we succeeded with that, we branched off over the last 10 years into the healthcare facilities, into the digital signage world. 

David: Yeah, I would imagine when you looked at digital signage and thought, “okay, the  one and two gig things with the executives is interesting, but if we want to scale, we've got to find something that offers scale and signage does that.”

Travis Peterson: You nailed it. The onesie twosies are great, but when you get the thousand site rollouts, that's really our bread and butter and it's really where the company grew. 

David: When companies describe themselves as service providers, I always push back on them and say, where do you start and where do you stop? What's the range of services and what's the stuff you don't do? 

Travis Peterson: I think that's a great question and I think that question is just as important as what you do. One thing we are not is we don't provide system consulting or design. We don't provide any hardware or software and we also don't run a knocking system for system monitoring.

Plenty of other companies do all that stuff and we don't, and we're also the type of service provider that some others aren't out there. We know when to say no. We know when to say that either when our partner isn't going to set us up for success or when it's just not in our specialty. Think high-level integrations.

We have boots on the ground across the country. We have high-level technicians and we also just have warm bodies that sometimes just need to show up and swap out an HDMI or turn off a PC player to get a backup and running and all those skill sets. We aren't the type of company that's going to say, “Yes, we can do that.” We make sure that we can define it and follow through on the scope of work and then get the deliverables back to our customer and represent them in a professional manner as well. 

David: There are some of your competitors who seem to be focused on specific areas. I don't rattle them off cause you don't need to know that or listeners don't need to know that, but maybe they are heavy on C-stores or maybe they're heavy on QSR. Do you have a vertical that you tend to focus on or is it more just what do you need to do and let's talk? 

Travis Peterson: So our goal is to provide solutions to our partners and we're a vendor-neutral company.

We have partners ranging from that focus on healthcare, that focus on QSR, that focus on kiosks, and what we try to do is really embed ourselves with our partners and make sure that we understand what their goals are and that we can deliver on the scope of work. So when we say “our focus”, we're in all of those.

But our focus isn't on a specific vertical within digital signage. Our focus is on our partners and making sure that we can deliver on their needs and they range in so many different ways. If you asked me where the majority of our work comes in the digital signage, I'd say it'd be through healthcare and QSRs 

David: Healthcare would be interesting right now. I'm guessing you haven't done a lot in the last 10 months? 

Travis Peterson: For some, yes. And for some, no. It's changed, COVID has changed the way we've had to do business and as many people listening can probably attest to. For one, on the healthcare side is the clinics. What we've seen a big increase in is them utilizing digital signage more to educate their customers: A, for social distancing, maybe. B, for not having to while they're sitting in the waiting room, it's limited usage in the waiting room or whatnot. They're utilizing a lot of those things then all the way back to the doctor's office. Putting signs up in the office. So while they're waiting for the doctor, it's there too. So for some customers, you're absolutely right.

We've seen a huge decline and then other businesses actually boomed since Q2. 

David: Okay. So yeah, you wouldn't be going into primary care facilities like a hospital or something like that, but tons of clinics are still seeing patients and they need to communicate with? 

Travis Peterson: Yeah, and now we have some of our customers, they're even working on medical carts that offer the vaccine that we're helping integrate and deploy at hospitals too.

David: How would that work? 

Travis Peterson: So the card is designed in different ways to ensure that it holds the vaccine and then it monitors, without getting into too many details, it's providing care for the customers as they come through with minimal contact, for the actual nurses or practitioners to the clients.

David: Now you said that you don't have a knock, you don't do recurring managed services and things like that. Is that a headcount choice or complication choice, or is it that you don't want to compete with your partner? 

Travis Peterson: More the latter. As being vendor-neutral, it's also very important that we aren't competing with our customers as well.

We are about 98% labor and that 2% falls into on-site materials that we sometimes are forced to provide. But some of the recurring services that we have started dabbling into that have worked well for both our partners and ourselves is preventative maintenance type work, we call them health checks.

You go out and you do a thousand site rollouts. That equipment needs to continue to function and function properly. And us providing maintenance on that regularly, where we show up just to check it and provide the right deliverables back to our customers. So they have that peace of mind as they charge their customers to ensure it's actually working is good too and a lot of companies are being audited on that type of stuff too lately. So we can help them be proactive on that and make sure we get ahead of the game instead of them having to pay maybe for a 90 minute response time when they call us and it's a fire truck having a roar out there as quick as possible to get a PC back up and running.

We've seen some value in that. And also with COVID, a lot of systems are collecting dust over the last nine months and those systems are going to need to be powered back on and up and running here soon. And we've seen a majority of our partners already proactively planning to get us out there and get those up and running.

So it really depends on the retail store or the location, allowing us to come in and do that. But we've seen a big uptick in that as of late. 

David: When you describe partners, would they most typically be like CMS software companies or are they manufacturers as well? 

Travis Peterson: A wide variety of all of them, some resellers as well. 

David: And so for a reseller or a kind of a local solutions provider, if they get a big gig, they just know that they couldn't possibly do a four-state rollout or a nationwide rollout?

Travis Peterson: Exactly. Or sometimes they might just want boots on the ground. It might be an integrator, and they're trying to do a very large project in a state that they aren't located in, and they're going to fly out one specialist, but then they want eight of our techs to show up and run wires, mount screens, check and actions and they're the guide on-site, where they direct other people around. 

David: Digital signage is one of those things that goes from very simple stuff, like you could get a gig in a workplace where you're putting in meeting room displays or video conferencing displays, that kind of thing, but it can go all the way to the other end where you have a 300 foot LED video canopy.

Do you cover the whole waterfront or is there a sweet spot for what you do? 

Travis Peterson: That's a great question. And it ties back to my point of us being willing and able to say no when we need to. If we can generate a scope of work that can be consistent from coast to coast, that's where we succeed.

And that scope of work needs to be done from any tech across the country. And as you can imagine, when you're dealing with 700 plus technicians, their skill sets have a wide variety of range. So some of those high-end projects, we absolutely do those. Sometimes it's only in specific Metro areas. We work with our partners, but getting back to figuring out what the partner needs and the systems they're trying to put together and have assembled, that's where we come back working with them and say, we can do this, or unfortunately we aren't the right partner for this, but if you can send your people out to do this portion, we're happy to do the mounting and other things along those lines to make sure that we're meeting each other's needs.

But it does tie back to that say no when you need to say no, because, in our industry, it's funny, you think you'd be in a good spot as a business when your competitors don't do a good job. But unfortunately for us, it's completely the opposite. There have been some companies, service providers throughout the years in this industry that have really put a bad name on the nationwide service provider.

And that doesn't help us. That actually hurts us when our partners, as we're trying to sell to them, they already lost that trust as a small business. For me, every client we get, we have to work so hard to get it. So it's so important to keep those. And from their perspective, when you hire a nationwide service provider and they worked so hard to sell that deal, and then their nationwide service provider screws it up, it's going to be a pretty hard sell for us to get that trust back from them and tell them that we're different than what they've already experienced.

David: How important is aftercare because, in the olden times when I used to travel, I would go through airports and mass transit, terminals, and all that sort of thing. And I would see video walls and they were badly in native calibration and had been left way too long. But I get a sense that in a lot of cases you have customers who, or somebody has the customers who put these things in, and then they forget about them or they're there, but they don't worry about the colors drifting and all that sort of stuff. 

Travis Peterson: It happens all the time. I've even been in airports where we've performed installations, say at a quick-service restaurant, I've actually gone back there and fixed some cable management ‘cause I walked by and was like, “God, we've done that.” But when you're at a retail store or anything, you have so many employees going around and things get touched, cable management falls because someone was messing with stuff and the calibrations off, cause it's been two years. So you nailed it on the head.

It's a service we provide and we feel the ROI is there, but some people don't budget for it. And when they don't budget for it, it's hard to justify adding that cost because it isn't always cheap either. But the value is there and there's nothing worse from my perspective when you walk into a restaurant and three screens are working, one's off, or the cable management hanging, and I know I'm going to be biased and nitpicky when I see something small or maybe the average consumer might not be. But that value is there from our end.

David: Even my local bank, outside of Halifax, I go in there, there's almost always one of the screens out and I've got to a point where I know the manager and I'll walk in and go, “that one's out again”, and we've actually gone behind the counter and monkeyed around to try to get things going again, even though he doesn't know who the service provider is, I know who it is, but I'm not going to call them or anything else.

But like you say, you get nitpicky and you want to see it working properly. 

Travis Peterson: Yeah. If you ever know it's Snap, you better call me Dave. Cause we'll get on and fix it. 

David: You're probably not allowed in Canada right now. 

Travis Peterson: It's true. We do have technicians in major Metro areas though.

David: Oh, there you go. Aren't there tougher environments than other ones to do, like what are the hardest venues to do installs in? 

Travis Peterson: Pre COVID or post-COVID? (Laughter)

David: Let's talk both.

Travis Peterson: Pre COVID, I think airports always take the cake. It's just, you gotta go through more security. You got a lot of people walking around there for it all the time. Also overnight work, after hours. So we are structured in-house at our corporate office, we have full-time nighttime employees that are doing the project management because we have enough work where we do a lot of overnight work, but that's where it's tough. So we have different tiers of our technicians. We have primaries, tier one, tier two, tier three. And our primaries, they're our bread and butter guys.

They're from across the country. They live in a brief Snap Install. When we have nighttime work and we need to utilize them for that, then during the daytime, which is still a high priority of work, we gotta bring in the other crews and make sure that they're up to speed with handling that higher workload that was there for the primaries that are covering the nighttime or vice versa. So it's a challenge for us logistically in making sure no matter when the work comes across or where it is, we're providing that high level of service that we promised to our customers. But as far as physical locations, I would always, I think put airports at the top, but we do a lot of work in airports because when you walk through airports, there's a lot of screens everywhere. There's a lot of business to be had. 

David: So I've written about this, that it's a bit of a blessing in disguise. If there's anything good that comes out of COVID and there's not very much at all is that a lot of projects that would normally have to be done overnight and normally done if they're done through the day with a whole bunch of hoarding and a whole bunch of disruption, those venues are mothballed right now and you can go in and start and stop a project, just work in the daytime for a week and you're done without ever having to be there at midnight. 

Travis Peterson: It has been the one blessing that COVID has provided us is fewer consumers walking around and more daytime work. But the other problem that comes with that is a lot of people just cut their budgets immediately and said no more technology, digital signage spending.

I always see not a lot of our partners take some hits there too. So as great as it is, we would take pre-COVID any day over post-COVID in regards to the number of projects that were being awarded. But a challenge for COVID too is with us is I had to take my network team and I actually add two people to it. And our network team is really the team that drives the compliance and relationships with our contractor’s and it became a full-time job for two employees just to manage the different state regulations, county regulations for our techs because we felt the need for communication needed to be at an all-time high for our network. But also we felt the need to educate them and make sure they were aware really from Q2 all the way to now, is we were trying to stay ahead of the game and let the technicians know that safety is number one and what their state was regulated on, what they could and couldn't do and make sure in some cases we were considered, I'm missing the word right now, but a needed service, where if a cop pulled some of our techs over, which was happening, we had a sheet that could provide them that they were essential workers, and it was needed. And we were providing that documentation because we were essential workers, we were in healthcare. We were doing the type of work that the States checked off and said, “You're good to go.” 

So that became a full-time job and that became a challenge. And we were seeing us spending resources and money on things we never had to in the past and it was good. And as much as COVID has hurt many across the country and many businesses, I look at it as a blessing in disguise.

In one way, if you look back a year from now, the Q1 of 2020, Snap was firing on all cylinders. We were chasing our tail in many ways and then COVID hit and it really slowed our business down, about 70% for a little bit. But it allowed me to take a step back and work with my leadership team and take one step back to take two steps forward.

And we didn't let anyone go due to COVID. But now, since then we've brought on 14 new hires and our complete company is restructured in a way that we're built for growth. And I strongly believe that if that never happened, I wouldn't be in the spot where I'm at as growing through some of those challenges.

And then also our company. I think we'd still be chasing our tails in a lot of ways, instead of being prepared for what's ahead now which we feel 2021 in digital signage is going to come back and it's going to come back roaring and we're excited about it. 

David: Your business is one that relies heavily on human factors. You've got your 60 or so full-time employees, but I think you said 700 contractors or something like that. That's a lot of personalities scattered across the country and you have to stay on top of them all. You have to rely on them showing up, and then you've got by extension, and I remember this from my own time being VP Ops of a company and running another company that you could have the install techs there, but you're still on the phone yelling at an electrician who was supposed to be there at 11 and it was 12:30 and so how do you get past all that and have you learned a way to do it?

Travis Peterson: Lots of gray hairs and probably die at a young age. (Laughter)

No, you know what, our whole business is built of relationships and we don't have a product that flies off the walls that we can box up and ship out to our customers. Our product is technicians, it's humans and humans make mistakes. I make mistakes every day.

And that's okay. One thing with our customers, it's a sales pitch. We don't lie to our prospects. We tell them, “Hey, there's going to be days that you don't like us, cause we're going to mess up,” and that's okay because what we can promise you is every time we mess up, we're going to do the right thing. And we're going to figure out a solution to have you have a happy customer. But I'd be lying if I said there weren't days I wanted to pull my hair out. One of the most frustrating parts about this business model is our 50+ employees in-house, we could work our asses off, check every box, make sure everything's perfect, and that technician who we've maybe never physically met that we're sending out to a site failed us, and sometimes that's on us because we don't do our checks and balances, but sometimes it might just because he or she's having a bad day. So things we do to prevent that is: in the last five years, we've completely invested into our network team that builds the relationships, holds our tech compliant, insurance all the county, whatever it may be.

And then also we have reviews with them and they know how they're graded. So our technology and other investment, we've made every tech out in the field has an app on their phone. It's the Snap app and that's where they do all their work. It's where they accept their jobs, where we can see when they're completed with the job, all the deliverables come through, but then they also know their rating on a job and some businesses out there have some prospects or even clients to this day, they ask us, “Hey, your competitors say they have W2 technicians across the country, you guys have subs, why are they better or why are you better than them?” And I dunno if it's about who's better or not, but I'm a strong believer that the contractor model if used appropriately and is accountable, is stronger than the W2 model in some ways.

And I tie that all back to competition with the W2 employee. They might get complacent. They might not care as much. They might call in sick or do something elsewhere with subcontractors, you actually have that competition level and if you're transparent with them and show them that other people in their areas are knocking on the door, looking for that work, it doesn't mean that we make them compete with each other and hold it there to their throat every day. We actually are all about building relationships. Long-term, we don't just throw it out to a marketplace and cross our fingers. Our techs work directly with us and we build those loyal relationships. But that competition aspect is, you scratch our back, we'll scratch yours. But at the same time, I need you to keep up that accountability because I hold myself accountable and I expect you to hold yourself accountable. As we're paying you for this work. 

David: There are some, I'm aware of at least two matchmaker services out there, that kind of dating services for AV techs. You put in a need and different techs in that region can respond to it and bid on the deal. Are they competition or is that really a onesy twosy thing that you don't tend to play in very often? 

Travis Peterson: Onesy twosy thing that we don't play in at all. Our value add, some of our technicians, they work for our competitors as well. And we're okay with that. We're transparent and saying, that's fine as long as when you're doing our work, you're putting our work first and actually it's a two-way street. A lot of them come back and say, gosh, we wish you had this work because you treat us way better because you pay us quicker because you do this, and this.

And with the onesy twosy company is that is our value add is really the project management feature we offer in house with those 50 plus employees. If you call Snap as a client of ours, you're calling the same person and they know exactly what job that you're talking about. They can connect you with the right person. They can provide the tier one or tier two support service they need to, and that pays dividends for our customers because there's nothing worse than getting a call from your customer saying, “Hey, the TV just fell,” or “Hey, this didn't happen” instead of a call from us being proactive and saying, “Hey, this happened. If you want to reach out to your customer, that's fine but here's what we're doing about it to make it right and here's how we're going to make sure your customer has a smile on their face at the end” 

David: Are the jobs getting more complicated because you now have a lot of direct view LED and a whole range of new products. In many cases, the cabinets have different shapes. The mounting systems are different. There's very little in the way of universal standards or anything else. So you go into a job and the techs have to crack the manual and everything. All of a sudden, look at the back and go, okay, this is yet a new wrinkle that we haven't seen before.

Travis Peterson: They're definitely getting more complicated and a real man read manuals is what we tell our kids.

There are lots of techs out there that will say, “I got this, I don't need to look at a manual as anyone that's an expert in their field.” But it's become clear as the complications get thrown, our way is we have to make sure the documentation is there. We have to make sure the expectations are the same from what we think our customers expect to what they actually expect of us and lay that out and in our technology having checkpoints. So as a technician goes through the job, that person has to actually check off the things they're doing to ensure that we're following it step by step. Because if you do the wild west, so you just say, hang it up there and let's just hope it's right.

That's not going to work. There are steps you have to follow and we work with our partners to make sure that it's laid out and very clear so that it can be followed with a scope of work.

David: Last question: is there a piece of advice that you provide to your partners and if you're exposed directly to your end-user customers, you try to get across to them to smooth out the job?

Travis Peterson: Yes. Some of them let us be more involved than others, but for us, it's communication and getting us involved as quickly as possible. Not to give advice and tell you what's right or wrong, but we've seen a lot of things. We've been in business for almost 10 years now. It's not our first rodeo. We do this all day, every day. And what some customers might not realize is checking those boxes and having the checks and balances prior to deployment is so important. And in the end, it saves them a lot of money and we don't do it to rattle their cage and cause more issues. We do it to make sure we're being proactive before that deployment starts so they can save money in the end and we can avoid fewer trips.

David: Do you have to try to convince them of the value of a preliminary site survey? 

Travis Peterson: I think it depends on the stage of the relationship we're out with our customers for those the ones that we've been working with for a long time, they see the value, maybe they didn't at first and then we had to sell it to them and show them why now they know it's there, but it is something that can be challenging at times where that customer doesn't want to pay that small fee for the survey upfront and we allow them not to, but in the end, they paid triple what it would've cost because if they avoided a couple of things that they could have covered. 

David: Yeah. They think it's a cash grab until I find out actually, no, we should have done it.

Travis Peterson: Exactly and it's definitely not a cash grab for us. It's more of a break-even to cover our asses on some other things going forward. 

David: All right, Travis, I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Travis Peterson: I appreciate that. 

David: Thank you.

 

Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

January 20, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

When I got into digital signage 20+ years ago, and for many years after that, PCs dominated the media player side of the business.

The big questions were around whether to use Windows or Linux, and products were differentiated on things like size and ruggedization.

That's changed in the last few years, with more and more digital signage networks going in that used low-cost embedded players in smart displays, or worked off special purpose media players or adapted set-top boxes.

That's shifted the ground for Seneca, an upstate New York specialty computer company that's been in the game for decades. Seneca is part of the Denver-based AV/IT distribution giant Arrow.

There's no doubt fewer digital signage networks now run on PCs, particularly when there's only simple messaging like menu boards. But demands have also changed, and a lot of networks that are based around messaging are driven by real-time data and analytics that need serious computing at the edge.

Kevin Cosbey has also been in the industry for a bunch of years, and the last several have been with Seneca, where he leads business development in the digital signage sector.

We had a great chat about where PCs fit right now in the industry, and we get into how and why Seneca has put resources into developing supporting software that makes commissioning PCs way easier, and gives partners new and better remote management tools.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Mr. Cosbey, we've known each other for a very long time, but for those people who don't know Seneca and to a larger extent, Arrow, can you say what that's all about and what you guys do? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Dave. Thanks for taking some time out of your day today. I really appreciate the opportunity.

So Seneca has been a 30 plus year organization that has its roots in traditional technology distribution, and over the course of those 30 years, six years ago, Arrow Electronics actually acquired us, and since then we've been part of the Arrow family as it worked. Ultimately, for those that are familiar with Arrow, a lot of people might just have the normal idea that Arrow's a big IT distribution company, but we fall under the services group. So our focus still is around services as it relates to digital signage services, as it's around technology to build a real solution and not just focus on speeds and feeds of hardware. So Arrow is a big massive company but the nice thing is: Seneca still runs through our veins.

And the company's based in Syracuse still, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep. The majority of our engineering group is in Syracuse, support’s in Syracuse, and we've got a light manufacturing facility still in Syracuse and a large manufacturing facility in Phoenix. 

Okay, and Arrow's based in Denver, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: You got it.

So when I look at the Seneca website, I see that you guys are into broadcast surveillance and digital signage being the key solution you talk about. What percentage roughly, I don't need the exact number of the work that Seneca does is around signage?

Kevin Cosbey: It's about 50%. 

Oh, okay, so that's a big part of your business. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep, absolutely. 

And how has that shifted through the years? 

Kevin Cosbey: When we first started getting into, what I like to consider niche computing, we were really that digital signage OEM focused company. And then through the years, through those 10 or so years we've really focused and dialed into niche computing, that created the new division of the security group. And they've been growing through the years as well. 

So we used to be like a hundred percent ish, on the niche computing focus in digital signage and over the years, security and surveillance has grown substantially. 

Okay. And with signage itself, I've been doing this for 20 plus years now, and when I got into it and for the first many years, it was all about what kind of PC to use and that's what people used and the debates were around do I use Windows or do I use Linux? And the PCs are being marketed and sold as much on form factor and processing power as really anything else, and a lot has changed since then. And I'm curious how it is with the business in that, you know you talked about a niche, how do you make the argument now of using a PC versus using a system on chip smart display versus using a set top box or an HDMI stick, whatever it may be. 

Who's still using PCs, and am I wrong in thinking it's a niche and It's used more than I think? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. Glad you asked it. So it's a lot to unpack with that question cause you know, similar to you, I've been in space for 15 years. I've seen a lot of interesting changes in the industry as a whole, way back when everything was PC, and it's not to say we were just thinking the industry is going to stay running Intel based platforms forever. We saw that higher performance chip sets are coming out from different chip set manufacturers and here we are today with a variety of capable chipsets that can produce and run 1080p or 4k content on a display.

There's a lot of differences in our industry however, where not everyone just needs to have a 1080p fullscreen content running 365 days a year. There's more to it, there's more stuff that's happening at the edge today than there was 10 years ago and that's what we're keeping up with.

Now, I do want to back up a little bit though and say the PC used to be pretty much the media player way back, and now we're seeing ourselves and I use this analogy a lot. I don't mean it that we were the best out there, but we were like the iPhone. We were the first to market as a media player. And then you started to see Android phones and you started to see all these other bits and pieces. Now, the nice thing is all of these other bits and pieces that are getting added to the marketplace, they validate our industry as a whole. So when we have SOC out there that is grabbing market share and when we have other purpose built devices that are grabbing market share, it's increasing our entire industry value. 

So yeah, we don't have a hundred percent of the pie anymore, but as that pie expands, we continue to have significant market share and that's really what we're after. We're not going after some folks that may consider SOC to be perfect for what they need and ironically, actually many instances where SOC is running, we're actually the primary media player and SOC is used as the redundancy, which I love that partnership. That's a really good useful way to have technology ensuring redundancy in high impact environments and really important environments.

Yeah, I've heard that in a few cases for kind of mission-critical displays like Airport displays and so on where the smart side of the display is the fail over but the big video wall or whatever is handled by a much beefier industrial grade box. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yup. And then just another aspect of your space, despite the entrance of other folks in the industry that are producing media player type solutions or media streaming devices, year over year we've had consistent growth.

There's a lot of massive enterprise networks out there that will usually only consider using a Wintel based platform and that's just based on the way their corporate structure works, the way their staff works, the way their entire organization functions on a global perspective. 

And in a lot of those cases, when you have an IT team with a bunch of Dr. Nos who only say no, we only use a PC or whatever, are they not also quite often saying, and we only use Lenovo, or we only use this brand name or that brand name, there are our kind of base contractor vendor for PCs? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. And historically, prior to Seneca being part of that Arrow family, we used to just have the Seneca stuff, and now that we're part of the Arrow family, we are an HP OEM, Lenovo OEM, Dell OEM. So we can still wrap all of the goodness of Seneca, which is, building systems specifically for an enterprise level opportunity and adding all of the functionality to that device. So when someone hits that power button, it runs the exact experience they want it to run. So reducing that setup time significantly at the end user destination. 

Yeah. Let's talk about that. I've been out to the Seneca facility in Syracuse a couple of times when I used to live much closer than I do now and that was one of the big things is when you're buying your PCs, your media players, whatever you want to call them servers. It's not like buying something off the shelf at a Best Buy or at a big box from a computer manufacturer. It's commercial or industrial grade. There's a lot more going on.

Can you lay out what you guys do that would differentiate it from a manufacturer that's not going out to thousands of units a day? 

Kevin Cosbey: Absolutely. So you've just hit on one major key point is that we're not producing thousands of devices and then figuring out how to sell it. We have two major channels, two major go to market strategies.

One is our OEM space and we are an OEM equipment manufacturer, or contract manufacturer for a lot of software companies out there that want absolutely nothing to do with hardware. So we bear that burden on their behalf. We grab their IP, their brand, their software, and we build it into our systems, our reference design systems, and we manage logistics. We manage just in time inventory so they can focus on software. We focus on hardware and that end user/end customer gets a device, a purpose-built device that is branded as that experience now. 

I was just going to say, I remember several years ago when Intel came up with its Nuc which was a nice little tiny box, but it looked very much like a consumer grade plastic box that would be perfectly fine on a credenza in a home or something like that. But then Seneca came out with its own version of the Nuc and it was the same reference design, but it was industrial grade. It was fabulous. It was made for business use, it was ruggedized to actually work out in the field for more than a week or something.

Is that kind of how you guys approach this, in that ”we do computing, but this is thought through in terms of what the use cases are”? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's exactly right. You sold it better than I could have Dave. But yeah, that's exactly right. We've become, over the few decades that we focused on niche computing, experts at taking off the shelf technology and designing it in a very purpose-built manner. So yes, Intel is a great partner of ours. We use a lot of their technology in a lot of our stuff, but we've recognized that Intel is for mass consumption on a lot of their platforms and digital signage isn't really looking for just a mass consumption solution. They're looking for something that's a little bit taken a step further and thermal design is important. Power supply embedded in the system is important. Output is important from an HDMI perspective or display port, whatever that case is. And that's the stuff we take from the Intel board itself and we'll grab USB hatters off of it to increase the IO on our chassis. We'll do all these creative things to take what exists from a global consumption perspective and take it to that next level to ensure it's perfect for what the industry needs, not just that customer/ 

The rise of things like audience measurement technologies, computer vision, that sort of thing and demand for more computing at the edge of a network, at the device that may be pushing content to the screen but that device is also being asked to do computer vision tasks of some kind and so on, has that helped the sales effort as well, in terms of you can maybe do that with a smart display or maybe possibly, probably not with a set top box kind of device, but you can buy a small form factor, industrial grade PC that you can tool up with on i5 or an i7 or whatever and it can do multiple things off of the same unit? 

Kevin Cosbey: Spot on again, Dave, you're crushing it out there on the hardware side. Exactly. To your point, we're starting to see and have really for the past few years that there's a shift from our perspective where not everything has to be computed in the cloud and a lot of stuff needs to happen at the edge, and as that edge becomes more in demand from a computing perspective, from a headroom perspective and future-proofing perspective, that's where we're starting to see folks that used to be on an i3 actually start looking at an i5 and i7, and of course you've got Moore's law, right? Where the computing capabilities at the edge just become more powerful as the years in technologies increase.

So even some folks that we were able to get away with, if they're doing 4k at the edge and running some other computer, maybe they used to be on an i5 and now five years later, we're actually seeing that to keep up with that same demand an i3 is going to be appropriate. So it's both ends of the spectrum.

And then as you get into the larger stuff where it's like a Time square video wall, that's our hardware throughout the partner, Diversified. And that was built specifically with really crazy computers in mind and crazy videos in mind. And that's very, purpose-built high compute power is required for that type of solution.

Yeah. You guys have servers that drive any number of very large seriously large pixel displays, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, like the Orlando airport that is like a mile or so of continuous displays that is using our hardware for hardware synchronization and hardware synchronization, again, getting that compute down to the edge instead of constantly relying on the cloud, you're not going to experience latency. You're not going to experience any major issues at the edge. It is as full-proof as it can possibly get. 

And at the edge, the demand, and really the rise of dynamic signage, this idea that what you're gonna see is based on what other business systems are telling you is that sort of decisioning that maybe you could do it in the cloud, but really it needs to be at the edge at the individual devices too, to work best? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, and just having that latency no longer a concern, so if you're doing drive through type menu boarding solution, and you want to do as much analytics as you possibly can to design content around certain environmental information, it's best to keep that computing at the edge, because there will be no latency going up to the cloud computing and then coming back down to the device.

So having those decisions made at the edge is far more powerful than having to send everything up to the cloud. The same reason that, a Tesla car, the amount of computing that is done inside of the car is substantially more than probably people think. 

So you guys have started marketing something called Maestro, can you tell me what that is and where that came from?

Kevin Cosbey:  Yeah, absolutely. So we recognized that out of our OEM group, a lot of the OEM folks have started to sell to a broader group of people, the channel. And over the years we started seeing that, all right, now we have these five-six media players, and we've got these 28 software partners, and I'm not going to do the competition here, but it comes up with a ridiculous amount of combinations of hardware to software. 

And now we've got to have all of our partners telling us, “Hey, Kevin, I really want to have an HDN with a BroadSign app”. Okay, now we've got to put in that information and then we build to order and send that out.

Instead of having all of these different SKUs and part numbers in a very complex and convoluted way, we grabbed all of our software partners. So that's Broadsign, Navori, SignageLive, Appspace, Ping HD, Acquire Digital, and then on the analytics side, we've got Ad Mobilize, Visibility and we've bundled them into a single platform called Maestro. And that comes on all of our media players as a simple, easy to use out of box software tool. So it just helps people automatically optimize the operating system for a digital signage environment. The next step is you just click on BroadSign, for example, if that's your CMS, it auto installs all of the BroadSign programs that are required to run on that system.

It changes anything that BroadSign needs to the operating system. So everything is taken care of. And then of course, if you want to add Ad Mobilize to that platform, you click on add, Ad Mobilize, it installs it, and now you have a very simple point and click setup process and a BroadSign and Ad Mobilize player right out of the box.

And what led to that? 

Kevin Cosbey: It really was just mostly confusion. We had a database of all of these part numbers, all of this stuff, and we realized we need to get everything together in an effort to be more aggressive in our channel space. So we've got a lot of really good channel customers, but we need to make their install process as easy as we could possibly make it, reducing their time at the install. So we've partnered up with the same folks that they're partnered up with to make their lives as easy as we could possibly make it. 

So one of the features and benefits, I'm just looking at the webpage here is you talk about saving hundreds of keystrokes. How is that? Just because of all the monkey business to get multiple systems working? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. So you've got Microsoft Windows, which is a wonderful operating system. I can't say anything negative about it. But ultimately it's built for mass consumption. So again, how do we take something that's built for the entire world to use from an operating system level and make it perfect for signage?

Usually when somebody gets a media player that's running on a Windows environment, they've got to go through and they've got to do certain things to the operating system. They've got to do this to the graphics card, through the drivers. They've got to do this and X, Y, and Z. Well, instead of having the installer do those things to suppress errors, so you're not going to have errors on that top layer of content, which I'm sure we've all seen out, out in the wild. 

This Maestro platform that the minute you boot it up, when it goes into the operating system, it auto goes through all of this stuff so that technician doesn't have to do anything. And then it goes through a reboot when it pops up that second time, then you're installing BroadSign. Broad sign has certain things that need to be done, certain hooks into the operating system that need to be done with a mouse and keyboard. We've just done it by just clicking BroadSign and installing it goes through that whole process. So we've scripted the whole process. So yeah, maybe a hundred clicks isn't the same for installing Ping HD or it's only 50 clicks for BroadSign, but it hovers around a hundred clicks that we've actually gone through the setup and jotted down how many clicks we're saving folks on average.

So in essence it's removing what can be a giant pain in the ass? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's it, yeah. We'll change that to the marketing slogan. (Laughter) 

There's something to be said sometimes for plain language. 

What's been the response from your ecosystem? 

Kevin Cosbey: Really happy. It's been this thing in my head for a while and there's risk involved when you're doing it. Paradigm shift within the organization and our engineering group got behind it, all of these folks got behind it into this. How do we make the channel so much easier? And we've gotten incredible feedback from our partners that we didn't think we were going to get. And it's just been like, I don’t know, heartwarming a bit that we're hearing such good feedback, like “You guys have thought of everything.” Wow. All right. That's pretty cool. That's good to hear. It's been really good. 

And was that all done in house or did you have to find a third party to do some of this stuff? Because you're mostly gear guys and not software guys.

Kevin Cosbey: We’re mostly speeds and feeds dudes, but ultimately we've got pretty good software engineering prowess when it comes to an operating system level stuff.

We've been building operating systems because we build hardware. We've been doing it for decades. Now,  if someone said, “Hey, Kevin, can you build me a CMS?” No, that's not our game. That's not our software expertise, but absolutely OS level stuff, that's our area of expertise.

Before I hit the start button here, we were also talking about something that was introduced earlier and you said it's going to spin up a lot more in 2021 called X-Connect?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that's right. We've had a platform called X-Connect in our security and surveillance group for about five years, so it's been developed as a very mature platform and it allows people to, from a simple dashboard, see all of their network, video recorders, right in the security and surveillance group. And it would allow them to see all their IP cameras. So from one dashboard, they can see everything and they can manage those devices.

Of course, that bright light went off in our group saying, “Hey, guys we see a pretty big need for this in the digital signage world.” That the difference is now that instead of it residing on a massive beefy high performance server, we needed to figure out how we take all of that incredible goodness in seeing what's going on in the server environment and bring it down to an itty bitty little media player that is sometimes running a little Intel Celeron chips up, and of course we can't impact content. Content is the number one thing that has to be running on these devices and if we have any impact on that, then we're just going against the grain. 

So it took the engineering group quite a while, but they were able to successfully deploy this X-Connect platform, which allows monitoring and management and the management is the big key function here. Anybody can send out a monitoring platform to see green lights and red lights. But if you want to actually reduce your truck rolls, you've gotta be able to remotely manage these devices. So what this system allows us to do is it sends out remote commands down to devices. Of course, simple reboot commands, that's all table stakes, but now we're at a level where I'll use an example, we've got a customer where they were complaining that out in the wild, it was in a retail environment for whatever reason, people were somehow bumping into the power button and it would somehow get that graceful reboot going well.

We went to the engineering group and with the customer working with us, they were like, “can't we just get rid of the power button?” Yeah, technically we could. So through the X-Connect platform, thousands of devices out in the field didn't require a truck roll and remotely, we disabled the power button on the system. So now technically the only way to reboot it is remotely through our system, which our partner and managed service provider is providing all those services. So a really cool application.

 Yeah. I get a sense, through the years, when it comes to truck rolls, there are times when something catastrophic has happened and you absolutely need a technician there, but there's one hell of a lot of truck rolls that are just about a cable that's come loose or power button turned off or something, right?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. I was just on a call before chatting with you, Dave, where one of the big topics of that discussion was it's the unknowns that are going to kill a network and truck rolls are the big unknown. So if we can mitigate that and bring it down to a manageable level where it can be understood almost as how many truck rolls do you think are going to happen for a network. And then on the back end, a managed service provider or an integrator or whoever it is on the X-Connect platform can resolve stuff remotely and allows organizations to scale their network a lot faster than they otherwise would.

So with your CMS partners, a lot of those guys, like the Novari's and so on, they have device management of some kind that's built into their software front end. Is what you bring with X-Connect supplementary or is there an API, does it replace what they have, how does all that work? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, it's intended to be the single pane of glass for an organization, and it does have an open API framework. The nice thing about the X-Connect platform is if organizations need to ingest other information, then we can ingest that information into X-Connect.

So for example, Novari, they've got a great platform that can see a lot of what's going on in the device. But because we're the hardware manufacturer, we can just see more of the technology layer of the technology stack. So in addition to what's going on with Novari, we can potentially ingest information from an IP camera, we can ingest information through HDMI CEC, we can ingest information through an SOC platform like magic info. So the idea here is that X-Connect has the capability of becoming that single pane of glass, to manage and monitor, not just the immediate player, but the entire stack. 

This is a little bit like what BrightSign is doing in terms of they've got boxes and then they've got a device management platform as well that kind of removes the need for the CMS provider or the solutions provider to develop their own thing. Is it a bit like that? 

Kevin Cosbey: I mean in the rudimentary sense of monitoring and managing, yes.

In the higher level, more in depth perspective, our design and I'm no expert on the BrightSign platform, but our design is not very proprietary in that it is an open API framework and we can add on a host of other devices, if you want to add on perhaps a Lenovo device, no problem. HP devices, no issue, Dell devices, all good. So it's a little bit more open and you can manage an entire network of stuff and not just to the Seneca media player. So we're looking to go after, how do we help manage the entire infrastructure? Not just one piece of the puzzle. 

And it doesn't have to be x86 based? 

Kevin Cosbey: Written out, x86 based for basically monitoring the device itself, but then the device itself becomes its own gateway and it allows to see other stuff on that same network. 

Which is why you could see a Samsung smart display for instance. 

I'm curious, are you seeing other kinds of companies that are digital signage pure play companies or really even AV integrators or like that, just different kinds of organizations. I'm thinking like access control companies and other ones that in the past year have seen the need to be able to push information to larger screens. Are you starting to see non-traditional players come at you?

Kevin Cosbey: Honestly on the PC side of the house, not really, no. We're seeing a little bit more where our traditional competition from 10 years ago is not consistently our competition as much as new entrants have become a competition. 

By new entrants, you mean like the smart display and set top boxes and so on? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, exactly. But from a traditional x86 based system Wintel based platforms and this is just a gut reaction based on the industry, Seneca has focused so heavily in the digital signage space that I believe we've become strong leaders in the PC based digital signage media play world.

Yeah, certainly there's three or four other companies that are selling into the same ecosystem, but in their case, it usually seems to be, “and we also do digital signage or this is among the things that we do” versus you guys, you're saying it's 50% of your business and you've got full-time people who that's all they do

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. We've got an engineering group that's what they've been doing for 10 plus years. 

All right. So what might we see from Seneca/Arrow in the context of signage in the next 12 months? 

Kevin Cosbey: I'd say you're going to see a lot of us, virtually of course, this year we're really excited about the Maestro platform and the X-Connect platform.

It puts us into a very serious solution offering for digital signage, just as we've been talking through this and you just mentioned a lot of folks have historically provided a small PC and we've done that for years. But now we're taking that next level. We always took that next level from a hardware side to making it a little bit more purpose-built and now we're starting to really dissect the whole process.

So we're dissecting what our channel folks are doing, what are integrators doing, what do managed service providers do, what is the digital out of home space doing and how do we solve some of those industry problems? With technology and then of course, we've got a big Arrow behind us that we're happy to be a part of.

So we offer Arrow Credit and financing to support really massive projects or projects that are just $10,000. We've gotten very creative in grabbing some of those Arrow pieces that historically we didn't have the capability of offering because of size. 

Yeah. I assume that if you had a very happy moment where you had an end user come to you and say “really interested in this, but here's the deal I need 40,000 units by the start of June” Old Seneca would probably say no versus now, you could actually say and I don't know if you could do that kind of number, but you could do a big number without people having a heart attack.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. I'll still fall out of my chair, but I'll get back in the chair pretty quickly, whereas before I'd be left on the ground.

But you'd be lying on the ground with a smile on your face.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah and the other cool thing with Arrow capital too, is we've partnered with our software partners. So we support the project with that end customer. So if it's, I don't know, Staples that wants to do a 2000 unit deployment, we will support the entire financial burden of that project and then let's say a software company, X is working it with us.

Arrow capital will pay that software company for those three years of contracted services on day one. So now we've got a solution that allows our partnerships to be a little bit more financially stable as well. 

All right. Kevin, thank you for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Cosbey: Thank you, Dave. Happy new year and really looking forward to seeing you and everybody in the industry one day, maybe this year. 

Yeah, one day. I think it might not be until the fall, but fingers crossed. 

Kevin Cosbey: Fingers crossed, yeah. 

All right. Stay safe. 

Kevin Cosbey: Thanks Dave. You do the same.

 

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour - Roundtable - Commercial Real Estate

December 9, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I have been working with both AVIXA and invidis for most of the year on a series of monthly roundtables, called Digital Signage Power Hours.

They’ve all been great, but the one we did recently on experiential media in real estate was particularly good … because of the people who kindly provided their time.

We had David Niles, who created and still works on the Comcast Experience, one of the earliest and still one of the best projects out there involving LED in real estate.  

We also had Amahl Hazelton, one of the big thinkers at the famed experiential creative agency Moment Factory. Cybelle Jones, CEO of SEGD, was on, as was Jeremy Koleib, whose Consumer Experience Group works with property companies on big LED projects. And we had Emily Webster, the Senior VP of Creative at New York’s ESI Design, which is behind some of the best experiential real estate you’ll see in real estate.

We could have chatted for hours, but we had 50 minutes. Listen, learn and hopefully enjoy.

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David Niles, Niles Creative Group

David Niles, Niles Creative Group

November 11, 2020

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED - DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

In a technology landscape where even last year's big thing tends to get old quickly, it's pretty amazing that the lobby-filled LED installation at the Comcast tower in Philadelphia remains one of the best visual experience projects out there ... more than 12 years after it was first lit up.

If the project is unfamiliar, imagine walking into a very large corporate office tower lobby, admiring the wood walls that line it, and then seeing those walls are active, and that there are little visual stories being told.

The project went live when few people even in this industry knew all that much about direct view LED, doing a 4mm wall years ahead of when AV people started thinking and marketing in terms of pixel pitch.

I spoke with David Niles, whose little company did the original job and continues to work on it, through a recent LED upgrade.

We get into his long background, starting in architecture and early computer graphics, and evolving into pioneering work with HDTV, again years ahead of when people were using terms like 1080P.

We also talk about some of the other work done by his team.

I spoke with Niles last week as he puffed a morning cigar in his central Florida backyard. I was staring out at my Nova Scotia backyard, wondering when predicted snow flurries were going to blow in.

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TRANSCRIPT

David, we'll get into the Comcast experience, but that's not the only work you've done through the years. Can you tell me about your company and what you do? 

David Niles: If I would start backward, what we do today is, I make large scale multimedia experiences. Mostly for, I guess you would call it public art spaces and buildings, sometimes residences, all over the world. And that's what I do today, where I started is, it's a long list and I'll try and go through it quickly. I really started out in architecture. As a kid, I was fascinated with building and really enamored with architecture. I thought it was extremely novel. I was 10-12 years old, reading all Franklin Wrights books and studying his plans. By the time I was 12 or 13, I taught myself how to be a draftsman and I could draft, and eventually went out in my early career, designing and building outdoor cafes, stores, interiors in New York City. But I was always frustrated with this idea that as novel as I thought architecture was, it was turning into this sort of commodity for run of the mill things and I believe that the future of dynamic art is really in that thing called television. So very early on, I was fascinated with the idea of television and the medium of video and in the early part of my career I was involved with video art, very early pioneers of video art and in New York City where we would run out in porter back and we would shoot all kinds of things that we thought were for art. 

Parallel to that was involved with music and music recording and engineering, sort of altogether and theater to some extent, live theater, and that eventually melded into me getting more and more involved with the medium of video and television, summarily rejecting the idea of broadcast television. It was terrible, those television shows had terrible graphics, horrible lighting, and all this other stuff. 

One day I was sitting in a loft with some friends of mine and we're looking at this video, art that we were making and other than the three or four people in this room, looking at some protracted very boring thing that we shot and realized that we really weren't doing anything and that maybe, being popular and television needed change, needed revolution.

So I decided at that moment that it was more important to get involved with the idea of changing television and bringing art to the popular medium, rather than narrowcasting in this, three or four guys in a room, looking at video feedback on a monitor and thinking it’s wonderful. So I started to get more involved with the idea of taking what was then non-broadcast equipment and seeing if I could adapt this into making a more popular video with it and I was about 18 or 19 years old, I met up with an investor, who lived in France, who felt my ideas for creating a revolutionary mobile unit, that would permit us to go out and shoot and create on the spot more organically, without all of the baggage of what broadcast television was, at least in those days, if you wanted to go out and shoot outside, you were talking about a 50-foot trailer with 25 guys with screwdrivers, cameras that weigh 400 pounds.

He put up the money to invest in making a video mobile unit that would permit us to do that and it was a long story, but eventually, that mobile unit ended up in France and he invited me over to shoot a jousting competition in Carcassonne and this mobile unit that I built, it's a one-man show. This is one guy that had one, two-inch machine and three IVC 300 cameras. These were semi-professional, well they were professional cameras, but they were not high-end RCA, Marconi cameras. This sort of almost looked like a bread truck, it was a small van that housed all of this stuff.

And I basically went to France to shoot this jousting competition and ended up staying in France and convincing this investor to let me take it apart and rebuild it and make it better and this is years before there was any sort of private television or private videotape production in France. It only stayed on television and we pioneered the idea of creating broadcast facilities in France, to supply the French channels and eventually American and basically world channels for sporting events. 

Years later, I was able to buy out the original investor, because business was very slow for the first five or six years and set up my first company in France, where we ended up building that first original mobile unit, but ended up building nine more and became the premier facility in Europe for HBO, ABC, CBS, French television, German television, English television, in high-end video production.

That was France. Of course, pioneering, I was always pushing the envelope of never being satisfied with the state of the art of the existing equipment. It was too heavy. It was too complicated. It wasn't innovative enough. So I have an engineering side where I would go back and look at this hardware that existed at the time and modify it, adapt it, and create these sort of revolutionary for their time outside broadcast vehicles and studios, and somewhere in the early 80s, I had a reputation for being a hardware pioneer and Sony & RCA were constantly throwing new ideas at me and new products that they were developing.

Sony came along and they said, “We have something we want to show you, David” and I said, “what would that be?” 

“Something called high definition television,” and they took me into a room and they showed me the very first prototype for high-def TV and a transfer of this high-def TV that was made to the 35-millimeter film and I looked at it and it blew me away. “Holy mackerel!”

Now, this was a frustration that we'd had in Europe for something that Americans wouldn't understand is that if you produced a 65-pallet television on videotape, the French channels would not accept it. They would not accept videotape. They would only accept 35-millimeter film. So everything that we produce, whether it be a TV commercial, or anything else, or even a commercial for the cinemas, because in France, they put commercials in cinema, we would have to convert our videotape to film, and the only way to do it in the 70s was to do an elaborate kinescope process that Technicolor had developed. 

So we would have to produce absolutely perfect 65-pallet television and then take it through this kinescope process to create, well, 35-millimeter film that looked pretty good, but of course, it's limited in resolution and contrast ratio, but it looked pretty good, so we were constantly trying to get the best we could possibly get. So when I saw HDTV for the first time, looking at a video picture with a better than thousand line resolution and a contrast ratio that was amazing, I was blown away and I said, I've got to do that. So I spent several years negotiating with the NHK in Japan and Sony to allow me to buy the equipment to launch HDTV, which is what we did eventually. In France, we opened up the first studios in the world that actually produced HDTV, not necessarily for broadcast, but for transferring to 35-millimeter film, because we looked at it as either a new medium or a medium that would compete with 35 millimeter, which is the beginning of the HDTV revolution.

Our studios in France were very successful and we produced the first commercials in HDTV, the first movies in HDTV behind and a lot of our customers were calling from America, New York. And I said, “Wow, I need to expand my company,” to open up a New York office, which is what we did in 1987. We opened up 1125 Productions in New York, which was a fully equipped HDTV studio and production facility in New York City. It was an enormous financial investment but parallel, if you look at the history of HDTV, HDTV in 1987 was a very disputed medium as the American broadcasters really didn't want to know about it. The cinema community, of course, said you're not going to replace anything, you're not going to replace this beautiful film with the electronic medium. So it was a very challenging, uphill battle. 

It's a very long protracted story so I'll try and make it shorter. 1125 Productions was mostly a a very sophisticated post-production studio that we had on Fifth Avenue with mobile units. Eventually, I needed to start to produce HDTV programming on my own to start to fill the void as we needed a studio, and we eventually took over the Ed Sullivan Theater, where we built HDTV studios in New York and that's my television career. 

There's a lot involved, though I'd say it's a long story after that, but you know my roots and storytelling, show-business, theater, music,etc. everything else lends itself to, again, going back to this idea of these enormous pictures and these enormous experiential things that we could do with HDTV, that we really couldn’t do with it any other video mediums. 

So in the Sullivan theater, we built a 60-foot screen, and did perhaps through the photorealistic projection and we opened up a Broadway show called, “Dream Time” that ran for 145 performances and the big feature of the dream time, aside from being successful, was that it had fully integrated photo-realistic HDTV imagery that was projected with live actors, and you couldn't tell the difference between the live actors and the projection. It was actually a really cool show. 

What year was that? 

David Niles: That's 1992. And still, if you Google, “Dream time”, you'll see that there's even a Wikipedia page that some people put on, I had nothing to do with it, that talks about it. 

We eventually then sold The Ed Sullivan theater to CBS to do the Letterman show. I opened up studios around the corner in the studio 54 building and continued doing HDTV and other stuff and then got involved with Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, again, in the form of HDTV, but, more so with Radio City Music and their desire to expand the holiday show, which is the most important product that they're doing there, into bringing a LED screen at that time, one largest in the world that covered the whole back of the stage to be able to embellish the Radio City Music Christmas show, which we did. 

We put the screen up and we created an entire animated and coordinated sync to the background for their holiday show with great success and that brings us to where Comcast came into all of this. 

Yeah. I was going to say there's a lot of connective tissue here that I wasn't really aware of. 

David Niles: Yeah, it was interesting. Comcast, the backstory for Comcast is Comcast, at that time, in 2000, was basically a lot of administrative offices spread, pretty much in separate office buildings all over Philadelphia and Comcast became the major tenant for a spec building that was being proposed by a company called Liberty Property Trust. Liberty Property Trust are real estate developers in the Philadelphia area and my original contact was with the real estate developer that came to me and, I guess it was 2000, 1999, and they had this idea to do this spec 53-story office building in Philadelphia, and they wanted to create a sales center to pitch either anchor tenants or many tenants for their revolutionary new thousand-foot tall building and they found me and they came in and they saw what we could do, and I came up with an idea for creating a sales floor with a lot of virtual things and a lot of features that were like this experience that as soon as you walked off the elevator and it was one long interesting almost theme park ride to sell you on the idea of moving into this building, and the main feature of this thing was a room you ended up in that I designed, it was in the shape of an oval and you would sit in this room and it looked like you were in this oval-shaped room and in front of you was a 16-foot wide by 10-foot tall granite wall and this Brent wall was actually one of the materials of the spec building that Stern had designed, that Liberty Property Trust wanted to build, and the lights would dim automatically and it would go into this 10 minutes show that we produced, that would start out making you believe this is going to be a sales pitch for a building - it's going to have 25 elevators and it's made of granite and it's got 4,000 off spaces, and all of a sudden, you're now going through this 10-minute thing about falling in love with Philadelphia with shots of Philadelphia and interviews with JL and other key people and the architect, about the wonderfulness of being in Philadelphia and why you needed to be in this building. It was a very compelling, absolutely beautiful film.

And at the end of the film, it goes back to this granite wall and this granite wall slides away physically. And it reveals real windows that are actually looking out onto the site for which this building is going to be built and long story short, the lead tenant for this building became Comcast. Comcast decided at that moment, they wanted to unify all of their 5,000 workers into this new building and that this was going to be their new headquarters, and eventually, as they started to build the building, Brian Roberts, who's the CEO of Comcast had made frequent trips to Japan, he’s a very innovative guy, absolutely really smart. 

He decided that this lobby, that Stern had designed, this huge lobby and all of these wood panels. He wanted something that was going to make his 5,000 employees inspired and feel good about moving into this new building. The developer that developed the building, wanted to at the same time, create an instant destination for this new tallest building in Philadelphia and basically, I had just finished doing Radio City and they'd heard about it and they. invited me to pitch them my ideas for what to do in there. And our pitch was that we wanted to do something that was unexpected and we created a whole bunch of animatics and things, and we said if you put screens up in the lobby, you can do time and temperature and because Comcast is basically a cable TV operation, we're going to put up thousand channels. Things that would be typical, but it looked fine and then I said, wait a minute, let's talk about the unexpected, what don't we expect to see? And we incorporate something that is ever-changing and inspiring without interfering with what I consider to be private time of the public. 

Private time of the public means that, when you come through the front door of Comcast and you're walking towards the elevator, you can't do things that are too intrusive, that are screaming at you, not audio-wise, but screaming at you for your attention.

For the Comcast side, it was doing something that would be more a gift to the city. Something that was more socially redeeming without being video art, video art in a negative sense and it had some meaning. For the Liberty Property Trust side, it was their subway station name, that's underneath the Comcast building and there were another 10,000 people that come through that lobby every day, so how can we create a meaningful destination for these people coming up the staircase that allows them to enjoy something and then not feel as though they're missing something if they walk away from? 

So we created this idea of one doing the unexpected and two, using theatrical things because people relate to people, where we take ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that are like fun things to watch and from that, we created this whole plethora of things that could happen up there. And then Comcast came back and they said, “David, these ideas are great. This is wonderful. We love it. But how do you create hundreds of hours, thousands of hours of original programming, because we don't want to be constantly producing for this thing cause it's very expensive, and keep it fresh?” 

So, I went back and designed what we called a content delivery system, which is the system for which we actually get this content up onto the screen that is ever-changing, that's able to create its own content, by connecting pieces of pre-recorded content together in a logical fashion, not random so that it stays fresh. And Brian Robert said, “Okay, David, you can do this, but you've got to guarantee me that I will have two years worth of content that's going to remain valid and appear to be new all the time, without creating hundreds of thousands of hours.” 

Remember that basically scenarios in the Comcast center last about a minute, there's a minute and then it'll go back to being this wood wall, disappearing and then coming back. We rotated about 1200 pieces of content every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That's a quantity of content that's impossible. I mean broadcast stations don't even do this. 

This was like in the mid to late 2000s and nobody was talking about direct-view LEDs other than people with jumbotrons.

David Niles: Oh, that was the first challenge. In the mid two thousand, you were looking at LED screens that were 6 millimeters, 8 millimeter, 10 millimeter, jumbotron, so it was first because I needed this to be photorealistic, you had to believe that what you were looking at was actually real, that was part of the magic of it. So I had a longstanding relationship with Barco broadcast from my television days because they make a lot of broadcast products and Barco was doing LED, but LED in 6 millimeter and 8 millimeter. And I went back to Barco and with Barco engineers, we developed the idea of doing a 4 millimeter pixel pitch wall, which for 2006 was revolutionary.

We did tests, we set up eight screens in studios in New York, did subjective tests, objective tests. Again, there were other competing companies that wanted to build this screen, Mitsubishi wanted to build this screen, Daktronics wanted to build this screen, and we eventually ended up developing this with Barco.

Comcast eventually was convinced that Barco was the way to go, and we ended up doing the first NX4, a huge screen. It's 80 feet and it's up to almost 6 million pixels, 6,000 pixels wide. This was revolutionary for its time and then, of course, a content delivery system to be able to deliver to this. There were no servers that would do anything, no pipeline that would do anything larger than HDTV 1920x1080, and we're trying to feed something that's 2000 pixels wide by 10,000 pixels across. That's not going to happen. 

So we ended up designing and building a content delivery system that was capable of doing that. But again, Brian Roberts and Comcast came back to me and they said, “Listen, this is the front face of our building. This is our image. This has to be mission-critical.” And of course, I go back to my days in television, where there's no such thing as something going wrong, you don't do a live downhill skiing event from Switzerland, it's feeding 20 million television sets. There's no such thing as “Oops, the camera doesn't work.” That doesn't happen. I mean it does, you just don't see it. So in designing the content delivery system, we designed several levels of redundancy, such that, in the event of any failure behind the scenes, it would automatically switch over and change so that the problem would remain invisible on the screen.

And in the first eight years of operation, the screen was never turned off. It never ever went down. After eight years of operation, a couple of years ago, it was the end of life for the NX4s so we actually changed all of that, but basically, the new installation, the new content delivery system, and the new screen is based on the same original design. So what levels of redundancy we had built-in, you can't see the problem if there's a problem and eventually, it's a lot of hardware, things do go wrong, but you just can't see them. 

How does Comcast know this is working? How do they measure that this is having the desired impact? 

David Niles: That's a really great question, because Brian Roberts was constantly analyzing and he's very analytic, and even when we were proposing the ideas, we had the meetings in Comcast where he invited 50 people that worked in the building to come up and I made a miniature model of a lobby where we projected story worlds, started animatics and things and scenarios that we were developing and we actually had focus groups come in and vote on paper and tell us what they liked and didn't like, what they thought and even before we actually started shooting, we were having results in 97% off the Richter scale. 

When it finally opened, one of the first things that began to show, other than people that loved the original Comcast experience, was the holiday show. Brian wanted desperately to have, aside from what the wall does every day, during the holiday seasons to run a special holiday show, and the first year that we did the holiday show, within several days of this thing opening, it went viral and the holiday show is a 15 minute or 18 minutes show that ran every hour, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock, eight or nine times a day in the lobby of this office building. And within several days after opening, every show was jam-packed. You could not get into the lobby of the building. The lobby would hold on a couple of thousand people. It was an enormous success and you have to imagine, this is a building lobby, there are no chairs in it, there's no place to sit down. All you can do is stand on this couch on this granite floor and people from all over would come running in on the hour to see this spectacle, and now the holiday show is in its 12th year and because they eventually put in counters and analytics to see how many people came in when they come in, we've had millions, that's plural, millions of visitors. The hardest thing in the world in show business is a free attraction. That's the hardest thing to actually promote, ‘cause I've done, Broadway shows, et cetera. Once people have bought a ticket, they're bought halfway into something, but when you do something for nothing, when it's free, when it’s open to the public, it's the most discerning audience. It's the hardest audience and the success has been phenomenal.

And even though it's part of the design of the wall, we don't do any advertising for Comcast on it. There's almost no branding whatsoever, but this idea of doing a gift to the city, the public relations response to this wall has been extraordinary. And people don't like cable companies, even if you go online and you look up Comcast, you'll see, blogs opened up a little bit of the, we hate Comcast, we don't like the bandwidth, it's screwed me out of this, but that thing that's in the lobby, it's genius. 

Now I don't want to paint you as a one-trick pony because I know you've done other work. What are some of the other projects that your team has worked on lately? 

David Niles: Another one also for Stern, who is the architect of Comcast, we, of course, did the George W. Bush library, which is an interesting 360-degree video experience. It's in the central part of the library complex called Freedom Hall, which is this very tall, huge square room where people gather, after they pass security to go into the library, they gather in this room before they're actually admitted into the library section and as they gather in this room, they're basically looking at what's a drawn level, which is doors and paneling and stuff. But, at about 12 feet high, it turns into what looks like a hand-painted mural that goes 360 degrees around them up to a skylight area. And as they're standing in there, this hand-painted mural, when enough people gather, all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Images of sand dunes and tumbleweeds and a desert landscape, Texas landscape looks hand-painted, and all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Tumbleweeds start to move around. Surround sound, original orchestra track begins to play and this goes into an eight-minute presentation about the office of the presidency, what the office of the presidency actually means. and it's about the fact that our presidents come from the people of the land, to become president and it's done in a way where we're looking at again, it's a very big challenge to shoot these time-lapse images of the American landscape, the textures of the American landscape in 360 degrees, photorealistic above your head and it's a very inspiring thing. People, all of a sudden start pointing, looking. The end of that experience is that the screen explodes into thousands of images, in what looks like, almost passport photos of all kinds of Americans, young, old Americans from a hundred years ago, colors, all races, all this and that. And it turns into this enormous mosaic of these pictures of Americans and some of these pictures are larger than others. And those pictures that are larger than others are actually what looked like passport photos of everybody that's standing in that audience and somebody will notice it and they start pointing and it's like popcorn going off in a popcorn pot. They all start and it's basically, they're incorporated basically thousands of pictures and the pictures begin to dissolve off leaving. Today it would be 40-44 pictures that are up there that are left up there that are 44 presidents, so it's a very inspiring thing. It's about the office of the presidency. It's not necessarily about a particular president. 

But that's a big one. In Washington, DC, we have the Media Arch at the City Center, which is an Archway. There are no two of my installations that are identical. There are similarities to Comcast in so much as it's got rotating entertainment, it's ever-changing, it draws quite a large crowd. 

Other installations we've done pretty much all over America and in Europe and in China, they're all different, but they're very large installations and also some very small ones. What we love to do is challenge ourselves. We constantly deal with clients that are saying, “This is what we want to accomplish. How do we accomplish it?” And what I mean by accomplish is, like in the Comcast experience, Brian Roberts wanted to have his employees feel connected to this building and inspired. At the same time, Liberty Property Trust wanted to create a destination. We love a challenge. The Bush library was another challenge. It was, not to make something specific that is, for Bush, the president, ‘cause that's where the library is here for, this was an overture to the idea of the office of the presidency. In California and in other places, it's people telling us specific goals that they have to see what we can come up with to create something that fills those particularly, sometimes commercial, sometimes not commercial and we love that idea of the challenge.

And again, we've done dozens of tiny lobbies. We have one that we're about to install in New York City, which is a ceiling in a very important office building, but it's very small. The lobby is only 18 feet wide and it's about 80 feet long and we're putting a ceiling in there. The lobby's beautifully been re-redesigned, and here we're creating a virtual ceiling that is an experience that works from the front door you walk into, down this 60-foot lobby that has a reward to it being there without interfering with the architectural design of the lobby, it's complementary. It blends in, it doesn't look like, “Oh, let's put a screen up there and we'll put a lava lamp on it or something. 

All right, David, this was terrific. We could talk for hours. I want to thank you for spending some time with me. It was really interesting. 

David Niles: Thank you so much for the questions, they are really good.

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