Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
David Labuskes, AVIXA

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)

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

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

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

Yeah, me too. 

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

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

Thank you!

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

September 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

August 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

Where's the company based? 

Chris Riebschlager: The company is based in Kansas City. 

But you have offices elsewhere, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: That is correct. 

Okay, and how big is that team? 

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

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

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

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

And that's how it should happen, right? 

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

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has business shifted in that time?

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

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

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

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

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

Have you seen much take-up on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Yeah and stop thinking about Minority Report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, yeah. 

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

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: That is just an analog. 

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

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

I think it's transparent LED or LED mesh? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's an amazing industry. 

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

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

Yeah, the giant Halo, the Samsung screen. 

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

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

Chris Riebschlager: For sure. 

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

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely. Thank you.

 

 

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

July 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

Can you tell me the background about leftchannel? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alberto Scirocco: Thank you so much for having me.

 

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. 

 

Jay Leedy, Sony

Jay Leedy, Sony

June 16, 2021

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

Sony has been around digital signage for pretty much as long as the industry, but in all my time around this sector I haven't had a particularly strong sense that the company was really serious about digital signage. Until the last year or so.

First, the company attracted Rich Ventura over from NEC, and Ventura is as well-known, knowledgeable and hyper-connected as they come in this business.

A few months later, Jay Leedy left the huge AV integrator Diversified to join Sony, and while he's maybe not quite as connected as Rich, he's still really well known in this sector, and knows his stuff. Locked down for months like most of us, Leedy's spent his first year with Sony building up relationships with the ecosystem and raising awareness that Sony really, truly is in the digital signage business in a serious way.

In our chat, we cover a bunch of things - most notably Sony's own approach to so-called smart displays. While Samsung and LG have proprietary operating systems for their smart screens, and their main competitors use Android, Sony uses Android TV. We get into what that means, in terms of benefits like power and features, and a small number of quirks that owe to its being, at its core, a consumer product.

Leedy's gig, in part, is making the developer system aware that Sony has a "pro mode" for Android TV, and how digital signage software companies that already support Android can add support for Android TV quickly and easily.

We also get into where Leedy is seeing marketplace demand right now, and where the industry is going in terms of emerging technologies.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Leedy, thanks for joining me. You have, in the past year or so, gone from one company to another. What are you doing at Sony? 

Jay Leedy: Hey, Dave. Good to talk to you as well. So when I left Diversified, I had been doing a lot of work in business development for strategic partners, and also working with a lot of the offices globally, driving digital signage solutions through local relationships.

Similar work, as when I moved to Sony. I'm part of an organization that is really part of their factory planning and product roadmap team called HES or Home Entertainment & Sound, which is a funny name for an organization in my focus, which is really exclusively B2B, but it sheds a little light on our strategy and how we're developing our Bravia product, with a lot of efficiencies in manufacturing and kind of common components from our consumer line, we poured it into a discrete line of Bravia products. 

So I do a lot of partnership development, really taking cues from our professional sales organization that Richard Ventura leads, and based on their feedback and voice of customer insights, leverage that into developing solutions or effecting changes to our hardware components that are made to better serve the B2B market, and in cases where we have gaps in capability, build-out partnership ecosystems to serve that. So my focus immediately, since I came on, which has been about eight months, has really been around digital signage and building out a broad partner ecosystem to serve that market.

Yeah, I think it's interesting because I spoke with Richard when he came over to Sony and talked a little bit about his plans and everything else, and I think it's fair to say that Sony in the past decade or so, hasn't been all that present, maybe by design or just circumstance or marketing, I don't know, in the digital signage sector, but I would say in the past year or so, it seems much more a part of it and not might owe to people like you and Rich and others who are known in the ecosystem and have those deep contacts and everything else. 

Has it been work to get the digital signage ecosystem, understanding that, “Hey, Sony is a player on the B2B side, and we are interested in talking to you and we do have products that are very digital signage appropriate”? 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey, and I'll be honest when I saw Sony at the very last DSE, the same year that LG had decided not to attend. It was a bit of a head-scratcher for me too, I was still at Diversified at the time and had not worked with Sony at all in my capacity there but certainly, with Rich Ventura joining and my coming on, roughly six months after he joined, there's been a distinct focus and an investment at the headquarters level to go after this market seriously. 

We've had a Pro Bravia line of products since 2018, but to your earlier point, we have been relatively Invisible to the market so a number of the folks that I reached out to after I joined Sony on the SI and reseller side, comments were, “Where have you guys been? You've got a great brand. You've got great quality. Everybody knows Sony.” But for whatever reason, we had chosen not to really go aggressively after the B2B market and for a number of years, we were really solely focused on consumers.

But as you know, there's a huge opportunity in B2B, and coming on and engaging with partners, helping them understand our current strategy, which is really around an Android TV-based system on a chip, that's been surprisingly and enthusiastically met with a lot of optimism and support in the digital signage partnership community. So I think that's largely because it's not proprietary [latform that needs to be developed there, they can use existing development talent that is already familiar with developing for Android and work with us without having to develop a new skill set or onboard new resources.

Yeah, I think it's interesting because everybody thinks about Samsung as the company that really introduced the idea of “smart signage” with their system on chip displays, going back to 2013 or something. But I pretty strongly believed that Sony actually had a smart TV and a smart digital signage product before Samsung by a year or so, but it was, as we were just talking about not all that heavily marketed and there wasn't a lot of awareness around it, but Sony has been at this for quite some time.

Jay Leedy: We did have a line that I just learned about actually proceeding with our 2018 launch of Pro Bravia that was more of an ODM approach. So because of that, we didn't control the entire solution stack. Now that we do you have that level of control and a strong partnership with Google and the Android team, that combined with inherent components that we've always built into our devices with respect to image processing and high-quality screen components, that's really helped us accelerate, I think.

A lot of it, to your point, is really about getting the word out and talking with our reseller and SI community, as well as the consultant community to help them understand that this is a real line, we're committed, and we're not dipping our toes into proverbial water. Like this is something that we have deep investment in and commitment at the highest levels of the organization to go after. 

You talked about how easy it is to develop for Android since you don't have to have a proprietary operating system, but is there a clear distinction between Android and Android TV, in terms of development? 

Like I've heard some software companies say, “Yeah, the Sony product is great, but it's Android TV. It's not Android as we know it. So it's different. We have to develop differently. There are limitations on what we can do and everything else.” How accurate is that? 

Jay Leedy: It's somewhat accurate. I'd say there are some trade-offs. There are some differences between Android TV and Android, specifically that Android TV was designed for watching TV so some of the capabilities like portrait view, for example, are not native in the application.

There's ways to work around that. There are currently some cash limitations on a per-app basis that we're working to address with Google as well, and there's also I think the impression that our Pro Bravia line is more of a consumer or prosumer approach, and to some degree, that's, I think informed by a lack of understanding that we have developed and enabled what we call “Pro mode” which turns off certain UI UX functionality, menus and exposes IP control and other capabilities that would be expected in a commercial line of product. So engineers that are unfamiliar with that may rightly or wrongly draw the conclusion that we're not built for commercial use.

We are in fact, and because of Android, we can expose IP capabilities that are already native to the solution, the device just has to be configured in a specific way in order to take advantage of that. We've also very quickly, to the credit of our software development team in the San Diego offices at Sony, in partnership with Tokyo have developed a device policy control application that enables deeper system level access and that has been a product of my working directly with that team and them better understanding what the requirements of the market or what the desires of partners are, and what is ultimately going to be really critical in helping us meet the market needs. 

So if I'm understanding that correctly, you may have developers from different companies going, yeah Android TV is just not going to be good enough, but if you can get them on a demo and get a sales engineer explaining what you can do, that changes their minds. 

Jay Leedy: It does, and I think what's important to a growing number of end customers and subsequently the managed service providers and SI that serve them is a need to be able to specify devices that can predictably plug into their existing device management and network topology infrastructure because MDM has grown so rapidly with bring your own device strategies and the need to manage disparate device types. The familiarity with Android has increased rapidly especially, where only three four years ago, Android was really looked at as something that posed potential risk to network administrators. 

Now they only embrace it, because they have the tools and familiarity with those tools as to how to effectively manage devices and also mitigate risk on their networks.

And I think with the new Sony Bravia lines that are out, I was reading an email the other day, I think it's like Android 10, right? 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yep, and with any of the devices that we release with Android TV, we're obligated to support up to three major updates. Ss Google releases new versions of Android, we would be compatible for three major releases so the Android 10 devices that are hitting the market now will be able to support up to Android 13, for example, which I think is really helpful in helping the developer community understand the extent to which we support their efforts as well. 

I think it was the guys over in the Czech Republic, SignageOS guys, who did a review of different smart displays and they took a look at the Sony and said, it was really good in terms of video handling and everything else, because it was a later version of Android versus some of the other ones. Is that something you're hearing? 

Jay Leedy: It is. Yeah, in fact, a couple of our partners, who've done initial assessments using benchmarking criteria and content mix and playlists that they use to benchmark all the various players that they evaluate, and in some cases they're even scorecarding and publicly publishing those results, and our performance based on those assessments has been consistent with purpose-built devices like an Intel NUC or a Mac Mini versus some of the others in the market that don't perform nearly as strongly. So I think that's partly because of the processing power that we have, our dedicated video processors as well. And, also having powerful connectivity handling and, some of the other components that really make these strong performing devices. 

So is there a “but” that comes up still? You know, “These are great, but they don't do this or they don't do that.” 

Jay Leedy: Yeah. We have a couple of limitations. One is that per app cache is currently at a max threshold of 2GB, which for many of the applications does not present a challenge, but when you get into scenarios where you're trying to cache locally assets that are fairly large, that can create a challenge. There's a limitation with native rotation, that when putting it into portrait mode, as we touched on earlier, it natively doesn't support that, but in most of the applications that we're testing, we have an answer for that with HTML and CSS workflows that don’t present any concern and we're actively working to resolve those issues and take that feedback and insight that we get from our partners and our resellers and customers.

And that's really my job is to carry those into our planning and roadmap afterwards. 

Yeah, so much of digital signage now is built up around web-based technologies that in the same way that you can have a responsive webpage that'll go into portrait for a smartphone, I assume the same thing is happening here, right? 

Jay Leedy: That's right. The trend, in general, is towards progressive web apps versus native applications, and better understanding that and helping our development team understand how we can address and create a kind of a fertile platform to be able to accommodate those strategies.

It is part of our focus as well, and that's really why we built this large ecosystem to get as much feedback as we can so that we can remain relevant and proactively drive into the market with the right tools for the community. 

So when I looked at Sony in recent years, if I would go to their booth at something like ISC and ask them about digital signage, they would look around and try to find somebody who knew about it and they drag somebody over and they may, or maybe not know much, and if they did, they would point me in a couple of directions to something called TEOS, which is what I gather is more of an office management collaboration toolset, and then there was some CMS software partnership with a company who I wasn't terribly familiar with so I would walk away from those little drive-by meetings and think, “okay, they're not really active in this”, but that's changed if you're talking to 40-60 different software companies you're trying to build something up? 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yeah, and the change is also in helping our professional sales organization and the product management and sales engineers better understand digital signage as a whole, but also the nuances and specialized differentiation between the different partners.

You're right, we did have limited expertise internally prior to Rich and myself coming on digital signage. We had made some inroads and I think had a strategy that entailed reselling digital signage software. That is really not our focus now. We really want to, at the end of the day, remove obstacles to specification and be able to plug into existing estates seamlessly with NSOC that has already pre-qualified as compatible or in the event that, we uncover an opportunity that doesn't have that compatibility or inherent that we have a process and a program to move quickly and ensure that performance evaluation can take place, both by putting a display in our partner's hands and putting their product in our software engineers hands and doing parallel testing and having a feedback loop that’s ongoing. 

So what are you hearing from the various companies out there? 

And God knows there are many of them that have been developing two different system-on-chip displays for several years now, and I say “they” in a global fashion and I understand, some haven't done that, but many have, where are they going and what are they doing? 

Jay Leedy: You mean in terms of…? 

The development, do you see a shift to smart displays from PCs, and do you see a different direction in terms of how they're developing? Cause I get a sense that the smart companies are understanding that they've got to stop just being this kind of island of activity where it just like digital science, you've got to be integrated. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, you're right about that. I think generally there was a desire by the digital signage software community to consolidate their development resources as much as possible. So not maintaining expertise on a wide range of platforms is desirable. There's also been a shift away from any Chrome OS support and that the logical kind of migration is to support Android, so we're seeing that. 

We're also seeing, in general, a trend towards, using a SOC where possible versus a purpose-built device, both in terms of reducing the cost of hardware, as well as points of failure. But yet you're always going to have scenarios where there is a dedicated playback device may be required, higher-resolution or video walls, but more and more we're seeing a desire to specify and be able to run multiple applications on a single device that in many cases Bravia is built to be able to handle, and that goes beyond digital signage, it edges into typical AV installations and all the device control and integrated solutions in that market as well. 

So there's enough processing power on these two to handle to basically multitask or multithread? 

Jay Leedy: That's right. 

With the different software companies, are you getting any sense that they're coming or they're looking for an alternative to what they've been doing in the past, because some of the big guys, the Samsungs, and LGs of the world, in particular, have started introducing their own software platforms or CMS software?

Jay Leedy: Yeah, I'd say that's correct. There's a desire certainly by the leading software partners to align with manufacturers that are competing with their business, and that's the same with the systems integrators and managed service providers where we don't have a device monitoring network operations kind of service offering.

In some cases, there are manufacturers that have built up those practices and that creates a threat to the highest growth rate part of that industry sector, and it would make logical sense to align with the manufacturer that's staying in their lane, so to speak, and let them grow the business that is most attractive for them to realize returns on.

But the flip side of that argument is that if you are going with a company that has proprietary smart displays and its own CMS, it's kind of a matched set, so to speak, and therefore it simplifies the lives of the integrators. You just know that their displays and the software are already baked in and validated for it so that makes it simple for me. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, I can see that. But I think flexibility is a big part of the need in the market. We're seeing that kind of confirmed with a number of touchpoints through the industry where especially when you're approaching a customer that has a fairly mature strategy and maybe legacy devices that are across a wide global estate that are not all going to be deemed end of life at the same time, they need to be able to have more interoperability and flexibility and also be able to capitalize on trends as they occur, and as relationships evolve and shift over the life of those things 

Does activity and interest in the signage sector differ from what it did 15-16 months ago?

Jay Leedy: That's a great question. I think I just read your Workplaces Reworked white paper yesterday, which was really well done by the way.

And you slept well last night, right? (Laughter) 

Jay Leedy: I did. We are seeing an increased interest in unified communication and hybrid working environments, or I think accelerating the need for physical spaces to be able to have more heads-up displays for situational awareness, all that stuff is driving that.

And I think there are also opportunities because of the way that these spaces are being organized differently to place communication tools where they previously didn't exist, as well as in the cases of huddle rooms and conference room spaces, there's a number of clients that are interested in activating both screens and using them as communication tools more passively when that environment is not being used for its primary purpose. That definitely has been a trend that we've seen, and I would expect to continue to grow. 

Setting workplace aside, are there verticals that seem to be emerging and other ones that are, you would maybe coach a solutions provider or software company to stay away from for now or not bother with? 

Jay Leedy: I think enterprise, education, healthcare, they all seem to be on a more of a growth trajectory. Obviously, QSR, especially for the drive-throughs, has gone through a major transformation, and there's not any in particular that I think I would steer anybody away from, honestly, we've seen investments that have been pretty significant in transportation as the operators of those hubs, in airports and train stations, have taken advantage of the less traffic. Being able to put labor to drive installation and overhauling those environments at a fraction of the cost, because they don't have to work overnight. They can work during the day. 

So there's not anyone in particular that I would say, I would steer away from necessarily where, as far as Sonny's line of product currently, we don't have an outdoor display. That's something that we may choose to bring to market in the future. But as far as working with Sony specifically, obviously, outdoor displays is not something that we would chase but there certainly seems to be plenty of momentum there. 

Yeah, I was walking through ISE a year and a half ago, and one of the things that stuck in my head was, “Dear God, there are a lot of companies selling outdoor kiosks,” and that was in Europe. So imagine North America and Asia and add all that up and holy smokes. 

So there's nobody sitting around going, “if only somebody would come out with an outdoor ready display for my use.” 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yeah. There seems to be plenty of options out there, but plenty of opportunities too as a result. 

Where do you see the digital signage software and technology going in terms of new developments and overarching trends?

Jay Leedy: Like I mentioned earlier with progressive web apps and a trend towards consolidating developer resources on really focusing on a single platform versus having to support a range of them is certainly a trend in broader integration as well. We're seeing that with companies like Mersive and Crestron, who are able to support digital signage playback in traditional AV applications, and I think beyond that, there are more comprehensive strategies evolving in corporate communications and using a range of different screen types from mobile phones to desktop to traditional digital signage as channels to communicate and meet the need of where the audience wants to receive that information in any shape or form across the entire chain.

So when you're working with the 40-50 companies that you're speaking with, what are they asking and why should they be involved with you? 

Jay Leedy: Mainly they're asking whether their existing native Android application can run on our device or whether they have to develop something unique and more often than not the answer is that their APK can be sideloaded onto our device and very little modification to their code is required. 

So a small job versus a six months job? 

Jay Leedy: Exactly, yeah. So that's really attractive, just to have another arrow in the quiver, so to speak and I think they're also looking for more ways to market.

The enthusiasm that we've gotten in general when they learned that Sony is leaning in and getting more serious about the B2B side of the business and digital signage in particular, they're super excited about it because, like many of us, myself included, some of the first electronics that we had relationships with as we were teenagers and young adults were Sony products, and the idea of working with a brand that has so much recognition in the market for quality, as well as so much innovation in various sectors of our business, including our interactive entertainment division and then this PlayStation product that just can't even stay on the shelves that we get a little bit of a Halo effect from that when approaching these various partners there, they're really excited about working with us. 

Yeah I'd be curious about that. When you come to a Sony display if you're looking at it versus some of the other manufacturers out there, I don't know, I'm thinking maybe you're not going to win a deal based on your price versus some other commodity product but if the buying decision is hanging around, at least in part on visual quality, then you're in the hunt. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That's a great point. In terms of color accuracy and acuity and things that are really important to brand marketers, we're absolutely in the hunt, if not first consideration, and I think that also translates to total cost ownership calculations, and some of the kind of quality benchmarks that we hit that are reflected in our warranties. 

The industry experts that have worked with us for a long time and as well as are familiar with a number of other manufacturers gravitate towards us because they know they can, more or less, set it and forget it. They're not going to incur costs that they may have to pass on to their customers for field remediation and things that may have been problematic for them previously. So yeah, that seems to really resonate as well. 

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

Jay Leedy: Absolutely. Dave, great to talk to you again, and I'm glad everything's going well for you.

 

 

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

June 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

May 19, 2021

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

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

Clearly, I needed to speak with this guy.

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you prefer TruLED? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would last what, like 3000 hours, maybe? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the buying audience more mature? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. 

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

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

 

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

May 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's tinted in some ways?

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are suspended particle devices from research frontiers which also take seconds to alter the state. Nothing that we know of is as fast as our technology, which is 60 frames per second, and that allows for video.

And in terms of updating, if there was some sort of an alert for say a gas leak in an airport terminal and your CMS is tied into the alerting system, would it take minutes for that alert to show on your screen, or would it be as instantaneous as it would be on a normal digital sign?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we run with their signage systems. So, they can overrule any content that we’re playing, and they can own their communication tool, obviously.

So it's not going to take, as you were saying where some of these other technologies take several minutes for a new message to build on the screen or whatever. if there's an alert, it's an alert and it happens right away. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, we can install that. We haven't installed that yet, but yeah our technology allows for that. That's like an API integration where they have pre-set images or notifications that they can then push, and when they push something, it will over overwrite or override any other content. 

Okay. So you're in Rotterdam's airport right now. Are you fully in there or do you just have a demo?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we actually have two installations. One is facing Northeast and the other is facing Southeast. 

And that's like one exit away from your offices, right? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. 

And you're also in Amsterdam’s Schiphol? 

Remco Veenbrink: The funny thing is that the Schiphol group actually is the owner of Rotterdam airport.

So it’s a small country and the Schiphol group has several airports, amongst which also JFK Terminal 4 and Brisbane. So yes, we are talking to the Schiphol group, and they're all very eager to come over in two months to see our new installation, a high-resolution installation. So yeah, we have high hopes there.

So if I wanted to see Video Window right now, I would have to go through Rotterdam airport? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. For now, that's true. But we're also talking to a museum in Philadelphia that’s interested. We are discussing some installations with airports in the States. But due to Covid, it’s a bit quiet on that front. 

What's the state of the company right now? You’re obviously a startup. How big are you? How are you funded? 

Remco Veenbrink: Oh, we're bootstrap, self-funded so far and any investors out there can reach out to us. 

We are nine people at this point. As you said, there are two founders, and we have seven software engineers and they're all doing honors programs, and so they're the best of the brightest and we're very happy with our team, but we're looking to expand. 

We to set up shop maybe even the States, we were reached out by several system integrators who would like to represent us in the States and in Canada. Also in the middle East. So it’s starting to move fast now, and that's really great to see because as a startup, you have a dream, you build on it. That's great to see that it’s catching on and South by Southwest also really helped in that sense. We were pitching there. We were second in the future of travel still.

So that was a very nice experience, and we were also actually approached by a American investors. So we are discussing raising money. 

Yeah, there seems to be a fair amount of investor money out there right now. I get phone calls and emails. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, indeed. Yeah, interest is so low that, if you have money you better invest it into something. And yeah, it's a very likable product. It's pretty cool. It has a high wow factor. It serves people, the planet, profit, and it gets noticed. 

That's great. All right, Remco, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, Dave, thank you very much for doing this podcast. 

 

 

 

Larry Zoll, Sensory Interactive

Larry Zoll, Sensory Interactive

April 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

Larry, thanks for joining me. What's your role at Sensory? 

Larry Zoll: I am the Managing Director of Technology & Innovation for Sensory Interactive. 

And what does that involve? 

Larry Zoll: That's a great question. It involves a little bit of everything. We get involved in projects from conceptualization and revenue assessment all the way through content creation and operation of a lot of the projects that we get involved with.

My role really depends on what the scope of the project is. I help our design teams bring what they draw to life, I help our project management teams implement a lot of the technology that we're talking about/that we're implementing, and I am also the main point of contact for most of the vendors that we work with and learning about what's available on the market and what's new coming to the market and how we can best represent our client's interests. 

So you're the poor guy who gets the sales and biz-dev people walking up to you and saying, “Hey, I promised that we could do this. Can we?”

Larry Zoll: Yeah, that's exactly right. “I already told him we could do that. It's doable, right?” 

You're in Boston, but Sensory is in a few cities, I think? 

Larry Zoll: We are in six cities. Our headquarters is in DC. We have offices in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, and Austin. 

Yeah, I had it in my head that Austin was the head office, but it's just an office?

Larry Zoll: It is right now the biggest office, but the headquarters is in DC because that's where Randy is and Randy's our CEO. 

Okay, and how would you broadly describe the company, are you like a solutions provider, would you say you're an integrator? 

Larry Zoll: No, we're not an integrator. We don't sell anything. We are an owner's representative and a trusted advisor to our clients. We work with commercial real estate developers and corporations to help them bring digital experiences to life. 

Randy has trademarked the term, “Dynamic real estate” and that's a large focus of what we're doing. 

Like I said earlier, we really can work from conceptualization and revenue assessment all the way through operations. Our Austin team has a group of architects that do a lot of our design work. We have a full project management team that does construction project management for the projects that we get involved with. The revenue assessment team helps our clients to understand the potential return on investment and internal rate of return that's associated with their projects. Our operations team in Dallas runs a lot of the installs that we end up installing. We have a creative team that can build content as well. 

Okay. So you would have a commercial property company come to you and say, “Hey, I saw this big LED display on the facade of this building downtown, whatever, or I saw it in the lobby of a commercial office tower. We'd like to do that. Please help us.”? 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, exactly, and that can mean a number of different things for a corporate client. That t might just mean that they're looking for somebody to help them boost their brand presence in their building.

But more often than not, we're working with clients who are looking to generate revenue off of their installs. Sometimes that's a big lead. Sometimes it's a network of LCDs. Sometimes the digital experience doesn't necessarily have to have any display technology at all. It could be about analytics and all kinds of other stuff.

Okay. So one of the reasons we're talking is because you sent me an email on my having written several posts recently about anamorphic 3D visuals on LED displays primarily in China, but also in Korea to some extent, and I wrote the other day about one in Indonesia, and there seems to be a lot of buzz and excitement around these displays because it gives you the sense that there's something jumping out of the screen or emerging from a screen, but there's a lot involved in it to get it right, and you were telling me that you have clients who are coming to you saying, “Hey, we saw this, can our LED display board do this?” 

Larry Zoll: Yeah. It's been very interesting because those videos have been circulating foR the past six, nine months or something, and it's very exciting to see, you see these videos from a street corner or from a highway and it looks like a spaceship or the wave is coming to crash down on you, and I think it's very well-crafted content.

But I think there is maybe a misconception that what you're seeing is based on the technology of the display itself and not the content that's created for the display, and that's why I emailed you. It's a conversation I've had a couple of times with clients or prospective clients now about how, what your display is capable of is has nothing to do with not necessarily with the content that goes on it, but you have to think very intentionally about what that content is. 

Yeah. So you don't need a particular type of display. We both go to lots of trade shows when those things were on and they have like glasses-free autostereoscopic, 3D LED, and this was this and that, and you see it and think this is stupid, but somebody’s trying to sell it and it's not about that at all. It's about what you produce. 

Larry Zoll: A hundred percent and just to put a point on that. I did some research on the displays after we had talked and the displays in Korea are the manufacturers that we see out in the marketplace on an everyday basis, there's not one given manufacturer that's creating a piece of hardware that is capable of displaying this content.

A well-planned installation with a capable content management system and capable processing power is going to be able to play this content regardless of who's making the actual display. 

I pay attention to this stuff all day every day, and when I first started seeing these anamorphic displays or anamorphic content pieces, I was thinking this is pretty amazing, and I got a note from somebody else who was a content creator that said, “Yeah it's very cool but what you need to understand is in a lot of cases, the visual effect that you're wowed by is only visible from a very precise angle, and it's usually with those ones that wrap around a corner.” I don't know what the geometric term is, but it's off that angle, right?

Larry Zoll: Yeah. I noticed the same thing. Almost every video, especially if it's the one display in Korea. They're all taken from basically right off of the corner of that display. 

The way the anamorphic content is created is that it's basically a morphed perspective. So since you're morphing the perspective, that morphed perspective is only going to be effective from a very specific point of viewing comb. So if you go out to the far side, either one of the far sides of that display, it's going to look very different than it does from that corner, which is one of the reasons I think the Jakarta display is so interesting because the content on that display is meant to be viewed straight on, which I imagine, it provides a much more consistent view of the content. 

Yeah, just for people who are listening: the Jakarta display is on the side of a building, a commercial building on a busy roadway, although I think every roadway in Jakarta is busy, and the way it was designed to take on the look of the building and the concrete horizontal bands on that building, and then you see from distance, stuff just appearing to emerge out of that building, and you get that dimension and unlike, as you were saying, it's not just from a certain corner, you can see it from a faraway, driving along this roadway. 

Larry Zoll: The whole process is very interesting though. I was talking to the head of our content creation team the other day about this, and it's such a precise process to put these pieces together because of the way you have to morph the perspective on these things, creating it as a is quite an impressive feat.

Is there a toolset for it or is there like an Unreal Engine for this kind of thing? 

Larry Zoll: I don't believe there's a specific toolset. We were talking about it and from what I understand and keep in mind, I'm not a content creator. I'm a general technology guy...

But you know how to talk to the animals... 

Larry Zoll: (Laughter) I do, yeah. But from what I understand, the content can be created with any of the other tools that are used to create content. It's a matter of understanding the process and doing the math to morph the perspective correctly.

Interestingly, I think the term anamorphic’s original definition was surrounded by the aspect ratio of different films, so changing a 16:9 film to a 21:9 film is an example of doing something anamorphic and so using the term for creating this 3D content is somewhat of a new concept. 

Yeah. These are visual tricks that have been around for centuries in a lot of respects. Obviously, there weren't motion graphics in the 1400s, but there were Trompe-l'œil paintings way back then that were effectively doing the same kind of thing, where it creates this idea of dimension. 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, a hundred percent. If you search YouTube for 3D anamorphic before any of the content that we're seeing on the digital displays now, you get a bunch of tutorials about basically how to create a 3D anamorphic effect with paper. So a hundred percent, this has been around for a long time in a variety of formats, and I think this is just the latest iteration of that. 

So if I'm a motion graphic designer and I realize neither of us are, how steep of a learning curve is there to do this stuff well? 

I can't imagine that if I'm used to just creating Ad spots for, I don't know, a JC Pennys or something like that, with price slides in, the photo slides out, all this and that to then have somebody say, “Okay, now do this!” There is like a Mount Everest curve, right? 

Larry Zoll: Again, neither one of us are content creators, so everything might be useless, but from what I have seen, I don't know that it's a huge learning curve. I guess that depends on your skills and your expertise, but it looks like it is largely centered around creating a grid for your piece of content that would represent your display and then creating a secondary grid on which you build that content and then stretching and morphing the two grids so that they match, and that's where the crux of it comes in. 

Now, how do you figure out what the proportions of each of those grids are? I don't know. That's not my area. I don't know what math or what other skills are necessary to figure out what those two grids look like. But I don't believe it's necessarily a huge learning curve, but there's definitely some process there. 

The display layer - as we were saying earlier, there's no specific type of display that supports this, but do things like a pixel pitch or anything else factor in terms of the quality of it, other than just the pure viewing quality as it relates to distance? 

Larry Zoll: I’m sure as with any other display or the content for any display, you need to be cognizant of what you're designing for and who your primary viewing audiences are. When we talk about LEDs, we're very intentional about the pitch that the display is manufactured out of, because we are thinking about who's going to be using that display and where they're going to be standing, or what area they're going to be walking through.

I think as long as your display has been well thought out, I think that the level of thought that goes into anamorphic content would be equal to any other content. 

When I had demos years ago of some of the early glasses-free 3D LCDs that were coming on the market and never really went anywhere, two of the things that I was warned about were: a) the video files are monsters, and b) they take a lot of time to render and some skills around it too to do it well. Is that the case with this or is it just the way you produce it and then it's just a video file like any video file? 

Larry Zoll: It's basically a video file. We have seen internally, we have seen a lot of changes in the way that we create content over the past couple of years. We have our farm of servers that we use for rendering our content, and obviously, the amount of cores you have for processing has a direct effect on how long a piece of content takes to render. 

We, and other content creators that we've been speaking with over the past, I don't know, I'll say 12 to 18 months are really starting to take advantage of some of the tools out there that don't require that sort of rendering time. There are more and more content creators that we're seeing who are taking advantage of things like Unreal Engine and Unity and things like Touch Designer to create content that's immersive and realistic and easily adaptable without a lot of the large rendering times that we see from a lot of the more traditional content creation tools.

So let's talk about - for lack of a better description - the point of these things. 

I've seen a lot of these videos and it's a flying saucer emerging from the corner of a building or a bull jumping out or whatever it may be, and I thought these are really cool, but I'm not sure what the point is, and as a company that works with these real estate companies and they come to you and say, “Hey, we want to do this!” 

What's the process and the needs assessment and the decision-making that you do that would decide whether this makes sense to do? 

Larry Zoll: That's a really interesting question.

I think the point of the ones that you've seen and the ones that I've seen are exactly what we've seen, it’s just getting eyes on these things, and so many of them, I can name at least three or four off the top of my head that have gone viral, that have gotten millions of views on whatever online platform you've seen it on.

What does that do for the display itself or the brand or the owner? It's a great question. I mean I can't think of a single one of them that has a brand associated with them or has a name associated with them. It took me a few minutes of Googling just to figure out where one of the displays in Asia was, and who did the content. So whenever we're talking with clients, especially when we're talking with clients who are looking for revenue-generating displays or revenue-generating projects, we're discussing the entire life cycle with them. 

I mean content is so important and keeping content fresh is so important, but if the goal is to bring recognition or brand presence or something then that needs to be a major part of the conversation throughout the life cycle of the project.

So if you have something like a giant wave splashing against an aquarium-looking LED facade, what's that doing?

Larry Zoll: That's a good question. I don't know if I have a direct answer for you. As I said, there's nothing on that giant waves splashing that tells me where it is or who's sponsoring it, or why I should be paying attention to it. It just looks really cool, and it's great to look really cool. It's important sometimes just to demonstrate what these things are capable of. 

I don't know why it is important if you're in transactional ads or if you're a sponsorship partner. It's hard to say without any sort of messaging on there at all.

So it may be a simple case of this being a somewhat nascent idea at least for LED video boards and the early creators of content are doing stuff that just looks cool, and maybe the next wave is stuff that actually has some brand relevance or some more relevance to the location or whatever. 

Larry Zoll: It could very well be.

It kinda reminds me of the hologram from Back to the Future 2 with the stadium, it's headed in that direction, right? So right now, we have a bunch of people who are creating amazing-looking content that is just amazing-looking content, and maybe the next wave of that is a transactional ad campaign that's taking advantage of those tools to create something that really brings a lot of excitement around a given brand or something like that.

Is there any reason why you could not do this on, let's say a 90-degree corner with a pair of 85-inch LCD displays, would you be able to do the same thing? 

Larry Zoll: That's a good question. I think you might have some trouble because with the LCD you're going to have a bezel there in the middle, which might have an effect on the perspective, and the viewing angle on those 90-degree LCDs is not going to be as good as being around the corner with LEDs.

So I don't know if that would be as effective. If you were going to do it with an LCD, I have to imagine you probably want to go more with the straight-on shot.

And could you do it with projection mapping, if they are edge-blended? 

Larry Zoll: I don't see why not. There's already so much you can do with projection mapping that you can't do with anything else. I don't see why that would present any challenge. 

So for all of the real estate companies who you work with, when you say they're trying to monetize, is it primarily through third-party advertising, or do they quantify their monetization in other ways?

Larry Zoll: When we approach a new client and when we're trying to figure out a plan for new ways for clients to engage in revenue-generating displays, it can really be through any number of different methods. 

It could be a straightforward, transactional advertising agreement where the real estate owner works directly with the media sales company. It could also take the form of partnerships or sponsorships or any number of different agreements, either directly with brands or with media sales agencies or something similar. 

I have heard a number of times from companies that work with real estate firms that they're putting large LED video walls into the lobbies of their buildings or some other public area in a building with a monetization plan, but it doesn't have anything to do with advertising, it has to do with recruiting new tenants and retaining the ones that they already have. Do you hear that? 

Larry Zoll: That's something we come across for sure. Creating amenities is another thing that we're working on actively with a number of our corporate clients, and something that doesn't have to be directly monetized to have value. 

I think that's a part of what's been successful about some of our more corporate work is that we help them create these environments that are exciting and associate a brand with a look and a feel and something dynamic. And I think that in and of itself has a lot of value, not just from an amenity standpoint, but also from a brand-building standpoint. 

You know, if your building has a large LED in the lobby and you're able to sell that to a particular client because they want to make sure that they have space for their brand to be seen outside of 10-30 floors in the building, I think that's absolutely valuable. 

Yeah, I mean Comcast Center is an example of a very large corporation doing that in their lobby for 10+ years now, but I'm sure there are other buildings that have multiple tenants where they're just trying to create an overall buzz about the place and make people think, “Okay, this is a cool building to locate my company in”, or “I want to stay here because these guys have this and other places don't”, and “This is what impresses my clients and my staff.”

Larry Zoll: Sure, absolutely. We’ve done a few of those ourselves. (Laughter)

What do you see as important to still be developed in this wall space. So when I think of it, I think of LEDs still being quite fragile unless you're using these ones with hardened coatings. Is that important if you're putting something in a public space? 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, I think we're in a really interesting time in the narrow pitch industry right now. There are a number of different ways that a lot of the manufacturers are thinking about a) the pitch itself, and b) how to make these displays more viable longer-lasting, and all of that. 

It's really interesting watching the industry develop around that right now. We've gotten to a point where I liken it to the digital camera industry. For a long time, it was all about megapixels, and then at a certain point, everyone realized for the everyday person, there's not a huge difference between 15 megapixels and 20 megapixels, so what else are we going to do? We're going to increase the sensor size and talk more about the color depth and gamut and all of that, and I think we're getting to a very similar spot in the narrow pitch display industry because we've gotten to a point where there are multiple manufacturers out there at this point who have sub-one-millimeter displays.

So what else are you going to do? Everybody knows that those displays are fragile. So we got to figure out a way to make them less fragile. So does that mean there's a glue-onboard display or does that mean a chip-on-board or a flip-chip, there are a million different ways that are being explored across the industry to try and figure out the best way to approach this market that I would say we probably got another 18 to 24 months, at least of seeing things just really taking a lot of different turns until the industry really settles on a consistent path forward.

Yeah, I think we're coming out of the pixel-pitch war so to speak, and everybody for the last five years has marketed on the basis of, our pixel pitch is just that much tighter than the next guys, and I've found it interesting with the manufacturers that are out there microLED that if you look at their product specs, their pixel pitch is like 1.2, 1.6, that sort of thing. 

But what it does, because the light emitters are so small, there's all this black, so they're marketing on the basis of, or at least they should be marketing on the basis of contrast as opposed to pixel-pitch, because who cares about that, it's all about the black. 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, a hundred percent.

In addition to that, we've also been having a lot of conversations recently about pixel density, and why that matters in terms of the number of pixels and how quickly that number changes. In fact, I was talking to a client the other day who was trying to decide between a 1.67 mm display and a 2.5 mm display, and even though to a lot of people that sounds like a very slight difference, when you do the math and dig into it, you're talking about a difference between close to 15,000 pixels per square foot, and 34,000 pixels per square foot.

That's a huge difference. So there are a lot of different factors and when you bring micro-LEDs into the mix that changes, that changes the conversation again. Because obviously, they’re much smaller, so you can fit more in there. But yeah, contrast, pixel-density,  hardening technology, there are so many different ways that the industry is going right now, and it's really fascinating to watch and to stay on top of. 

What about video wall processing? When I was at ISE last year, the last ISE that there was, I bumped into an old industry friend and he was sitting in a booth that was just being built, and I looked over at this display and thought, “Whoa, that looks really good”, and I asked him, what is that, like a 1.5 pitch? and he said, “No, it's a four,” and I said, “really?” And he said, “I work for a video wall processing software and a server company now, and this is what we do.”

It was a bit of a revelation for me and granted that a lot of it goes to just choosing the right source content to begin with, but it really seems like video wall processing is one of those things that's not all that greatly appreciated yet in the industry. 

Larry Zoll: I agree. Processing is important now and it's going to become more and more important in the very near future because of these narrow pitch displays and how much more common they're getting, resolutions explode very quickly. And you need to make sure that the processor and the equipment that you have behind the display that's parsing all of that data, parsing all of that information, is able to provide you with the best possible result because once you get above 4K, I don't think the industry is to a point yet where 8K is anywhere near standard, but once you get up to 4K, it becomes a real challenge to push all those pixels, and if you don't have the right technology behind it to do that it doesn't look good. You gotta make sure that equipment is rock solid. 

Is there a project that Sensory is working on right now that we should be looking out for some time in 2021 that you’re allowed to talk about?

Larry Zoll: That is a good question. We most recently finished advising on the Moynihan Train Hall in New York. We did the digital strategy on that and did a lot of the project management work on the install there, and if you haven't seen it, it's a really great representation of what a digital network can be. 

There's LED, there's LCD, and everything is tied together through transactional media and train schedules and it was a real feat by everyone who was involved in it. It turned out really well.

Yeah, and it'd be pretty wild for somebody who comes through an old Penn station in that basement like thing that's there, and then you go across the street into this Train Hall and think, “Oh my God, this is beautiful!” 

Larry Zoll: It is a gorgeous space. 

Well, I look forward to seeing it, when and if we are ever allowed to travel again.

Larry Zoll: Absolutely. 

All right, Larry, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it. 

Larry Zoll: It was great talking to you, Dave. Thank you.

 

 

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

Sam’s Club, with Wovenmedia

April 14, 2021

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

One of the larger digital signage networks in North American retail has been quietly building upon in Sam's Clubs, the big box warehouse club stores that Walmart runs in competition with Costco.

There are 25,000 or so screens in the stores and the aggregate audience that sees those screens is somewhere between 25 and 30 million people, per month.

The network started with TV walls - with one media playout box pumping a signal to as many as 40 TVs. So that gets the numbers up. But Sams's Club has been adding more screens in the auto service area, at the customer service counter and in food services. It is even testing digital floor projections.

The network exists to boost the shopper experience and support brands that have product in these stores. The operating model is much more about generating ad revenues that cover the operating costs of the network than it is about a new revenue stream for Sam's and Walmart.

Digital signage veteran Mike Hiatt runs the team that operates the in-store media network, and he has a great perspective on what's been done and what to do now. He was with Walmart years and years ago when PRN had CRT TVs hanging from ceilings, in the retail giant's first iteration of in-store digital signage.

Susie Opare-Abetia runs Wovenmedia, the San Francisco digital signage content and solutions company that has been running and growing the Sam's network since 2014.

I had a good chat recently with Susie and Mike about how the network operates, how it's growing and what they have collectively learned about running a big screen network in a cavernous big box store.

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TRANSCRIPT

Thanks for joining me, Mike, I think most people will know what Sam's Club is, but could you give me the Cliffs Notes twenty-five words or less explanation for the people in other parts of the world who don't know? 

Mike Hiatt: Sure. Sam's Club is a member retail organization, similar to Costco, and we're part of the Walmart family of retailers.

So it's a membership-based club big-box membership club? 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, if you've been to Costco, you're very familiar with Sam's Club. We've been competing with them for quite a number of years and there's a lot of subtle differences between the two, but they're both basically member-oriented clubs and member clubs create a unique perspective for retailers and we can talk more about that later if you're interested. 

And you run the media group, Sam's Media group, right? 

Mike Hiatt: I don't run the whole group. The entire group is all monetization, all the monetization tactics for Sam's Club that will include online, mobile as well as in-club. I handle in-club.

So basically in-store media. 

Mike Hiatt: Correct.  

All right, and Susie, your company is providing the software and the content solution and basically the overall solution for a rather large network, right? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: That's correct. So we've been working with Sam's now since 2014 when we did office deployment and so they used our platform, which consisted of all software suites plus a content library to manage all of the screens in the clubs. 

And what's the scale of this network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: It's actually pretty ginormous, you know, roughly about 20,000 screens across the chain, which is about 590 clubs. So you've got about, just North of 40 screens in each club, and that's in the electronics department, and currently in the term battery department. 

So it's like a typical big box going back many years where they have a TV wall full of different flat-panel TVs, all driven by this one or maybe a handful of media players all pretty much playing the same content and you've also got stuff in the battery and tire area, and now you're expanding in other parts of the store? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: Yeah, that's correct. So like you said, the TV wall and electronics, and that's essentially powered by BrightSign meaning the plans connected to a series of amplifiers and then we've got two screens in the tire and battery, ceiling mounted just above the tire and battery services desk, and then we just finished deploying a pilot in 55 clubs. That's super exciting. I'm showing Mike will talk more about it, but that's basically adding screens in the cafe. Six large 75-inch displays in a cafe, displays in membership, and then floor projection technology in the aisle basically. 

And I'm jumping ahead of myself here, but I'm curious about what the floor projections will solve a lot about. 

Mike Hiatt: It's an exciting opportunity for us in terms of looking at it, we've been running one-off tests for quite a while, just looking at technology and how we could maximize the floor and use it, ‘cause it's really just a Greenfield space, right? And Woven came to us with some technology that got me really interested, which was laser projection versus the LCD. 

I had been looking at LCD optical technology, from these projectors for years, and went on to the Path to Purchase Institute and DSC and you'd always see the different projection technologies and I never was interested because I know I couldn't roll it and roll it to the scale that we needed it because I didn't want to have to get people up on ladders every year or less changing out halogen light bulbs, and it just was never practical for us to even consider it.

But then when Woven came back to us and said, “Hey, we've got this new technology we found that some of these new providers, or, some of these providers are now developing, which is the laser technology with no moving parts.” I got really interested, and so we started working that internally at Sam's Club, and we were able to put together this idea, which was, we could throw messages onto the floor and basically not have to compete with product facings and all the other stuff that you had to deal with when I was at Walmart having to deal with monitors on the shelves. You don't have to compete with the merchants, and it's great because your sightline is right there on the floor anyway. So it's not like you don't have to look up 20 feet in the air.

Is it purely for advertising or a kind of in-store promotion? 

Mike Hiatt: We’re using it for both? One is we're putting in some projectors to promote our scan and go product, which is a great mobile product. If you haven't ever used it and if you're a member of Sam's, you should really sign up for that because scan and go is fantastic.

Basically, you can scan your own items when you're in the isles, and then you basically check out by just swiping your credit card that's already in the mobile app, and then you can skip the line, and so we created this fast lane just as mainly a way to promote the idea of scan and go. So we have dedicated a special lane in some of our clubs with the pilot test. There's a lane now, and then above the lane are two projectors that are just showing these really cool arrows using the projectors that kind of show your way out of the club, and it's just a fun way to promote the idea that you really should be using scan and go and skip the line altogether.

And of course, during COVID, this has been a really popular trend. You're not having to deal with going through the checkout line. You just scan yourself out, and you take off. So we are using it for that, and then we've got projectors that we're testing and still in testing mode. But testing that from a monetization standpoint, where we put supplier advertising or advertising products, all endemic on the floor inside what we call the race track or that main thoroughfare of traffic as people move around the club near the product. We want to have it obviously near the product where most displays are. 

You mentioned monetization. I'm curious what the business model is, if you're using in-store promotions, you're doing endemic advertising for brands that sell in the store, and then maybe some third-party advertising. 

You've got potentially a pretty big audience. Is the idea of the screen network for incremental revenues for the company, or is it a cost-recovery model first, and if you make some revenue beyond that, even better? 

Mike Hiatt: That's a great question. It really acts as a way for us to put technology in the club to help the members experience.

Being a member club, club members think of us as a country club for retail. We take care of our members. We want our members to feel valued and we want them to have a good experience when they're in our clubs, even probably more so than say a particular retailer or grocery chain would, and it's because they pay money every year to participate.

And so as they come in, we want to make sure that the technology is helping them, and so as a part of that, the monetization piece, at least when it comes to the in-club area, we want to promote products that they're interested in, and of course, the suppliers want to do that as well. And of course, we want to charge them for that, and that allows us to do the cost recovery. 

We're not focused on maximizing advertising revenue per se. That's not our main objective, even though if it happens, that's great, but that's not why we do it, and that's not the main focus, and so we're really not interested in non-endemic. Sam's Club has traditionally been, we've been focused on endemic advertising only, just because we're not trying to create a media network that spans beyond that.

Okay. So if I am a third-party brand, there'd be no reason why I would ever sell on Sam's Club, you're not really interested in their advertising? 

Mike Hiatt: Not really. There are some opportunities we're talking about, some other tests that we're looking to do, but they're mainly out in the parking lot or out where the fuel screens are, the fuel pumps, but not inside the club.

Susie, how often does content change on the network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: So that's a really good question and it really depends on the channel. So for example, in tires and batteries, it's going to be changing less frequently, and you have the, like you said, seasonal promotions and specials depending on holidays and that kind of stuff, and then you have the menu board, if you will, of services, which is pretty fixed.

In electronics, it’s quite different. The monetization strategy really drives the frequency of updates if you will. In some cases, content’s getting changed on a weekly basis, in some cases, it's, a couple of times a week and in some cases, it's less frequent if it's more like an evergreen sort of seasonal content. But in general, the idea is just to try and keep the programming as fresh as possible in that department. So that, if a member is shopping with Sam, maybe a couple of times a week, they get to see a little bit of variety in that loop. 

Yeah, I would imagine that there's a lot of thinking that has to go around the programming model because of that frequency and also because of sightlines, and I'm really curious to hear from both of you about TV walls and having a generic feed that goes across 40 different TVs and a whole bunch of different manufacturers and do they get fussy or are there any issues around what's on those screens, so that makes one look better than the other or whatever?

Susie Opare-Abetia: That's a really good question. I can talk to the tech piece, basically, what we're doing now with this, we're pretty much wrapped up with a third-generation platform in electronics. So we're delivering everything from delivering HDR, so the highest quality but then the tech is able to downscale that signal so that it was even for a very sort of low-end HD set. So the way the system works, it's pretty much agnostic to what you're feeding it. So we feed it the highest quality and the better sets get a better quality signal. 

But in terms of the actual content, yes it's the same across all the TVs and maybe Mike can talk about how the different manufacturers get their share of time on the network. 

Mike Hiatt: The short answer to your question is yes, they do get fussy. 

I can tell you a lot of stories, but obviously, if you think about it, if you're a TV manufacturer, you want just to talk about your TVs all the time and so there is that fight there. But we believe strongly, the company as a whole believes strongly in a unified vision for the network where we have this one image that's running all the time. So we liked that idea of synchrony and pulling that together that Susie had talked about from a strategic standpoint because we feel like the club looks better versus the more chaotic version where you would have your own thing. 

However, we do make accommodations for top-of-the-line models that they want to show off and get excited about, get people excited about what you'll see, like one-off kind of kiosks set apart from the TV wall and Samsung showing their Samsung content, LG is showing there content and Vizio and so on. So there is some of that there, but the majority of the screens are all playing the same thing, and then as part of our agreement with them is that we are there to support them as suppliers, and so we make sure that their content that they want to run is also part of the programming mix for the TV wall.

So as part of the relationship we have with them as strategic partners, we want to make sure that they're able to promote their TVs, even though there'll be Samsung content on an LG TV and vice versa, we have no problem with that because we want members to be able to compare and contrast TVs anyway and the only way to really do that very well is to be able to look at them, play in the same content. 

Yeah. I could just imagine the conversations standing with a Samsung rep when it's an ad running on an LG TV or vice versa. 

Mike Hiatt: Yes. (Laughter)

Sam's club is a pretty big footprint place with, I don't know, 40-50 foot ceilings and so on and a lot going on. How do you think in terms of sightlines and choices around content and how big a display has to be to suit the environment and the dynamics?

Mike Hiatt: It is a big space. It's really funny, I've always worried “Oh wow, these TV screens are just getting too big”, and when you're seeing them, like down next to you they look gigantic and then you stick them up on a wall and they're like, wait for a second, that's way too small. 

So we live in that world quite a bit at Sam's when it comes to those kinds of things with sightlines. But I will say that the technology is getting there where it's affordable to bring in the big enough screens that we're starting to bridge that gap of where historically the screens were just a little too small and trying to roll that out across thousands of locations, the numbers really add up, and but I think we've turned that corner over the last few years where we can afford those 75-inch screens, which are more than fine when it is, in most situations, what we're trying to do, and in fact, in some cases, we're having to re-sculpt how they fit on the wall because we just don't have that much room to put these big screens. There's only so much real estate on the wall, so that's good. 

That's all been good, and so I feel like we're getting to a happy place if you will, between the size of the screen and the size of the box, if you will.

So you've got 25,000 screens. What's the monthly audience, the aggregate audience?

Mike Hiatt: The audience that comes in is about 25 to 30 million per month that come into the club, and those numbers, COVID is really messed with us a little bit because we've had these giant groups of people come in, and then we've had some real swales like it's really hard to look at comparables over the past year.

And also our curbside pickup has gone way up too. So people that used to come into the club, a lot of them, because they don't want to be in the club due to COVID or other reasons that they're getting, we have a club pickup set up where now we just roll it out to their car, and they buy it online.

Yeah, I suspect there's a whole bunch of businesses that are going to have an asterisk beside 2020 and 2021 in any kind of timelines or story of their business, just saying this happens. So like the anomaly is explainable. 

Mike Hiatt: Yes. Even though I know that our merchants are really struggling because, if you're the person responsible for toilet paper, for example, you had a great March 2020.

There's no way that your March 2021 is going to compete with it, so it's going to be interesting for all of us, as we try to create new baselines and understand, how we're truly growing 

And because you do a card read every time somebody buys something, you know how many people are in the store, right? Or at least how many members, and if you extrapolate that, it's 1.2 people per card or something that you that's how you get to your 25,000?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah. We've also done viewership studies and we're doing some new technologies where we're able to track that more accurately. As far as the individual people that are in the club, you're right, we do have the ticket counts, but depending there are some variables there, you'd have to try to, like you say, model and extrapolate 1.2, for example, And and we do and can do that, but we're actually looking at some other ways to track it more regularly because typically our insights team, they like to keep some of that data close to the vest and not even share it internally.

Yeah, that was going to be my next question and I'll try it anyway. 

Is there any data around the kind of cause and effect, if you put an endemic. Advertising piece up for let's say organic olive oil from Italy or whatever. Can you then look at the selling rates of that olive oil when it's promoted on the screens versus those times when it’s not promoted on the screen and say, okay, it bumped it by 10% or whatever?

Mike Hiatt: Yes, we can do that. We haven't done that as much, mainly because of just the issues that we have with resources. It takes quite a bit of work actually to do those types of reporting, and we spend most of that time on the online side of the business with our resources to do that. So there's been sales in the club, mostly as an awareness-building channel, and that you're reaching members in the club, at that zero moments of purchase.

And that's the kind of way we promote it more than trying to attach it exactly to the point that they had an opportunity to see this spot and then they went and bought the product.

It’s more like new on shelves? 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, exactly. The floor graphics pieces, I think are going to change that formula a bit over time as we learn and figure out exactly what we're looking to do with the floor graphics program. But I can see that be in a place where we would actually create custom reporting based on sales lift or what we call return on ad spends, or ROAS, for the floor graphics because it's very direct or that product is local close to those screens, whereas you remember, in Sam's club, the TV wall, for example, is way up at the front. So as you walk in, you see them but you're not exposed to those messages when you're back there in the freezer, buying frozen chicken. 

So there's a real 50-yard disconnect between the media and the chicken. So trying to connect that dot gets very circumspect, even if you are able to figure out that this individual walked by the TV wall when the frozen chicken ad was running, which is hard enough, and then trying to figure out when they actually made it back to the chicken, pick it up and put it in their cart and then made it around to actually purchase it.

Those are some details that are hard to get your finger on conclusively. 

So if I’m a CPG brand, and I'm launching a new, I don't know, body lotion in a giant bottle, that's going to be deeper into the store. Is it hard to sell them into screen participation or they understand through explanation and maybe intuitively that this is better than people just stumbling across my product, it's better if I make them aware that this is available?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, I think especially when you're launching a new product, we've seen a lot of success that way, where you think about that you're investing in the new product line, you're putting it in a Sam's Club and we don't have nearly the number of SKUs that say a Walmart has, but the SKUs that we do have, do very well from a sales velocity standpoint. And so yeah, a lot of them say, “Wow, okay. So I've got a new SKU inside of Sam's Club. It's a new three-pack,” that kind of thing where it's its own SKU. It's nothing that you can't buy this anywhere else really, and so as you walk in, you want to be able to impact them as best as you can.

We do a lot of that where you'll be driving that new product purchase and it's that zero moments where they're in the club, they're in the buying mode, it's not so much immediate as interruptive, and whether you're trying to read something on the internet or watch a TV show or something like that, we're interrupting you with an ad message. There are no interruptions inside of the Sam's Club because you're actually shopping. That's what you are doing. That is the editorial and the editorial and advertising, it's one and the same if you look at it that way. 

Susie, is Woven media building all of the ads, or are you building the content that's running in between the advertising and the advertising is coming in from agencies or perhaps from Sam's?

Susie Opare-Abetia: So it's essentially Mike's team that works with the suppliers as well as the internal merchandising teams and marketing to produce that content that's advertising or promotional, and then basically what happens is all of the content gets uploaded to our servers and then Mike's programming team is able to essentially combine the ad content, the commercial content with our third-party content, which is a mix of premium content across multiple categories, like sports entertainment, etc.

So that you end up with this really engaging experience that is skillfully crafted so that it's not just ads all the time. You're basically engaging the member, you're driving TV sales, and you're also promoting Sam’s Club and as we discussed, other products in other departments o in the electronics department. 

Did the experience over the last seven years of working on this network reshape some assumptions around what you think people want to see when they're shopping in a Sam's Club versus what they really want to see?

Susie Opare-Abetia: Yeah, so Mike's team actually has done a really good job with some of the studies that they've done to determine what content categories really make sense. For example, we know that, believe it or not, food is a really compelling category and as is obviously sports and movie trailers, video games. So there's definitely been, over the period, more learning about what content captivates which audience and the audience: is it male, is it female, etc. 

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, it really is fascinating. The male/female breakdown, where the males spend a lot more time watching the TV wall in particular. But they also represent a much smaller percentage of the actual members, regular shoppers in the club. So you want to take care of both audiences. But it is fascinating to see and then, of course, one group wants to see sports and skiing and all the different fun stuff, and then the female side is more about travel and food like Susie was saying.

Mike, you have an interesting history, so to speak, in terms of in-store media, in that, you had a first go-around working with Walmart on its in-store digital media network, and then went off and did your own thing, I believe, and then now you're back with Walmart but through Sam's. 

Is there a clear distinction between the way things were done, let's say 10-15 years ago when you were involved with Walmart, and now? 

Mike Hiatt: Oh yeah. When I first got there and inherited the system, we had CRT TV's, like 50 feet up in the air… (Laughter)

This is the old PRN network, right?

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, the old PRN network and we wanted to evolve that, and that was a really fun project for me to get into, and I never had any digital signage experience before that. I had been basically a VP over media direct operations for an ad agency in Salt Lake City and had worked in high tech, like previous to that. But I had some different ideas and some thinking about what we wanted to do and had a good relationship with PRN and we organized a kind of a next-generation network, and we were using satellites at the time. We don't do that anymore. 

There's been a lot of fundamental changes that have allowed us to create a better experience and be better at our digital signage experience in the store environment. 

So yeah, I don't know what you want me to talk about. I could go in any number of directions. What would you be interested in learning more about? 

I’m curious about what you've learned and obviously, it's a lot easier to do now in many respects, and as you say, the sightlines and the display technologies are a lot more visible and compelling than TVs hanging from ceilings.

Mike Hiatt: One of the best things that I've found, and what I learned in my Walmart experience, which was really reassuring to me in this space, is that when done correctly, digital display or retail media actually works, it actually drives purchase. It actually makes the promise hole of what we always try to do in the advertising space, which is influence the purchase, and again, it has to be done correctly, and we were doing that with those endcap screens that we had in the club or in the store on the endcaps, and we definitively over and over again with an early solid methodology were able to show incremental sales lift from those positions and the better the content experience, the more proactive the content was, it was a definite art to design the content that would run on those screens. 

But as we got better and better at that, we saw tremendous gains over our control claw, our controls stores for that product. That's the really encouraging thing is that when done correctly, it absolutely works and if you can get the media source very close to the product. A huge piece of that is making sure that something is working and it's not trying to do too much, so many digital signage deployments are trying to do too much and it makes it too chaotic and you just need to be focused and simple.

So we learned a lot of things doing that whole process that allowed us to actually create a successful network and we're implementing those things today at Sam's Club and the, but the cool thing is over with the last 14 years, has been that we're finally starting to work better across the silos, if you will, because in a large retail organization, you think about any kind of deployment, like what we were doing at Walmart, you have to transcend operations, merchandising, marketing, and IT, and to get all four of those groups together when they all have different EDPs that they report into can be really difficult, and it's been historically a struggle, not only with my experience at Walmart and Sam's, but I think any big retailer. ‘cause when I went off and did my own thing, I was working with other retailers and they were dealing with similar problems, but it's a lot of that trying to get organized across those silos, it makes it very difficult to actually have a successful implementation a a lot of times. 

What compelled you to go work again for a big company as opposed to yourself? 

Mike Hiatt: It's funny. I left and did my own thing and was really enjoying it and was traveling the world and doing exciting stuff and working for a variety of retailers and technology companies, and one of those was Walmart, and so I was going back to help them and work on them, like beyond what I had done when I was there full time, and then also part of that was Sam's Club, which they wanted to redesign their network, and so I got involved in that, and then part of that was better understanding monetization and how we wanted to sell, and so we had a sales team handling the in club stuff and a different sales team handling the online, and so I made the decision, working with my people at Sam's Club, we decided we wanted to combine those two, and so by doing that, and then we reworked the technology side and that's when we brought Woven media in and they weren't selling, they weren't a sales facing organization with suppliers.

And Triad was and Triad was handling the online piece, let's have them handle the in-store piece or the in-club piece, and that started to work really well. I went off to do other things as a consultant and at the time, Roger Berdusco, who was our CEO at Triad reached out to me and convinced me to close my business and come work for him full time. So that's what I did, and yeah, came over and worked for Triad and basically running all the in-club or in-store and retail media-related stuff, while 90% of the rest of the company was focused on the online world, and we did that for several years and then, of course, one thing led to another and Triad ended up being bought by Sam's Club and they brought us all over, and so we were part of WPP and because it’s a long story, I won't get into all the private equity firms and the details associated with that. But at the time that we were, WPP and Sam's Club decided they wanted to bring it in-house, but they didn't want to try to build it from scratch.

They wanted to leverage our expertise, our people and our technology stack, and so we figured out how to put that package set up together and we moved over to Sam's, and so I’m back at the mothership, so to speak. 

Yeah, so you just woke up one day and realized, “Oh, I'm here again?” (Laughter)

Mike Hiatt: Yes.

Susie Opare-Abetia: Thank you! (Laughter)

So Susie and Mike, what are people going to see over the next year or so at Sam's Club that's going to be added to the network? 

Susie Opare-Abetia: Basically if you walk into Sam's club, and I said there are 55 deployed already, but basically over the next couple of years, we're rolling these new channels out across the chain. So we're doing 270 this year, and then next year we're going to finish out the rest. So if you go into Sam's Club, you'll see the cafe area, on both walls of the cafe, you’ll see three 75-inch screens, three of them facing the club and three of them facing into the cafe area, and those a mix of menu boards, as well as sizzle, big wide freezies, and hot dogs and what not to attract people into the cafe.

So a really nice mix of programming, synchronized in some cases across those three screens, and that's essentially replacing the paper signs that you see today in the club. So you'll see those in cafes. You'll also see, as Mike mentioned, the flow graphics projection in the scan and go aisle, and you'll see 75-inch screens in the member services areas. So this is where members go and find out more about travel services or financial services, or, do stuff with the membership, and that already is shown to have really moved the needle in terms of the member experience, the ratings. The screens are driving the ratings of that experience which is great.

And then you'll see, in some small number of clubs, you'll see the racetrack projectors that Mike mentioned in the aisle. Sam’s Club is still testing those and figuring out when they want to roll those out. 

All right. This was super interesting. I appreciate you guys spending some time with me.

Susie Opare-Abetia: Thank you, Dave, this has been great.

Mike Hiatt: Yeah, this has been a lot of fun.

 

Mike Casper, Azumo

Mike Casper, Azumo

April 7, 2021

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

Generally speaking, the sun doesn't play very nicely with LCD displays when they're running outside.

The brightness has to be cranked just to cut through glare, and all kinds of R&D work has to be done to effectively get out all the heat that builds up when a screen runs out in the sun all day.

So what if there was display technology that actually did well in direct sunlight?

There's e-paper, but that tech can't do the full motion or rich colors that are inherent in LCD displays. So how about a display that's reflective like e-paper, but is otherwise a more conventional LCD flat panel? 

That's the premise behind Azumo, a Chicago company that has developed a micro-thin front light for LCDs, taking the place of the backlighting arrays that illuminate millions or billions of TVs and display monitors. By day, in bright light, an Azumo-equipped display doesn't even need a light on, front or back. And at night, that front light illuminates the screen.

Right now, Azumo does smaller displays for industrial and medical uses, and is developing the tech for tablets. But the company is equipping its production lines to do larger displays, with the idea that customers like media companies and QSR chains would take a liking to digital posters and drive-thru order screens that didn't run up big power bills just to be viewable.

I spoke with Azumo CEO Mike Casper.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Mike, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what Azumo is all about? 

Mike Casper: Yeah. Thank you, Dave. So Azumo is a display technology company that is really enabling something we call LCD 2.0, and that effectively is using all the great things about LCD, but it's making it much more energy-efficient, much more effective for all environments and ultimately safer on the eyes as we stare at screens more and more these days. 

David: And how is it different from the LCDs that we all know in traditional consumer or primary commercial displays? 

Mike Casper: Sure. So most LCDs that are out there today, the vast majority of them are transmissive LCDs and so the way that these work is the pixels essentially act like shutters of light, and so they either close or open allowing what's called a backlight to light up the screen and let the light pass through. While these backlights in these older transmissive style LCDs, they only allow about 7% of the light to make its way through those pixels.

So 93% of all this heat and light and really wasted energy generated is stuck behind the LCD and so with this new style, and what we're helping to enable here at Azumo is what's called a reflective LCD. Essentially what the LCD manufacturers have done is put a mirrored surface on the back, so no light can pass through it but what happens instead is that light from the outside or external lighting will reflect off the surface and that's the way that you can see the display. So it's saving 90% energy, much better viewing in bright sunlight and outdoor environments, which is why it's a great application for signage.

David: So it's a little bit like electronic ink in that you're using natural light to illuminate the visual surface. But different in a whole bunch of other ways? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, exactly. You're spot on. So E-paper and electronic ink were some of the first successful versions of reflective displays. Now those just like paper, ePaper paper are more diffuse and it's a lot easier to have light bounce off the surface and so if you've ever read a Kindle or a Kobo or any of these e-reader devices, they're fantastic out in the sun, the battery lasts a really long time. But just the way that those work, they're somewhat limited in color, a lot of them are only black and white or have some muted colors.

But I think more importantly they're pretty limited with how fast they can update themselves and so they can't really do video or some of these other great things that we're used to with LCDs. Reflective LCD on the other hand can help to overcome some of those limitations with ePaper.

David: So all of the compromises that you might have to make with the paper, particularly if you want to do motion media or really rich saturated colors and all that stuff, it's very difficult. But with this, you're effectively using the conventional LCD displays except your lighting from the front to the back, right?

Mike Casper: Exactly. The vast majority of the LCD architecture is essentially the same and so you're able to get high-resolution, full video, refresh rates, all those great things about LCD, it's leveraging almost the exact same manufacturing process so there's a nice, robust supply chain. There's just a lot of great things about reflective LCDs that many people don't know about.

David: So do you manufacture finished displays or is your technology something that goes into the displays that are made by mainstream commercial LCD manufacturers? 

Mike Casper: Good question. At Azumo, we manufacture and design and manufacture what's called the front light component. So we're really the lighting component, the key enabling technology for these higher-resolution reflective LCDs.

Because it's fairly new, what we've done with our supply chain is as we've been working with some of the major LCD manufacturers to package their display with our front light and then we'll sell the whole module to a variety of OEM customers and industrial and medical and other consumer products. However, now that the industry's starting to build and improve upon the reflective LCD and know more about us and the fact that our front light does exist, they're also starting to purchase the front light directly from us, and then they'll create the module and sell it to their customers.

David: What does that front light look like? I'm trying to picture it. 

Mike Casper: The best part is it's invisible. So you almost can't see it.

David: That’s why I can’t picture it. (Laughter)

Mike Casper: That's one of the key features for front lighting. So essentially we're a light guide component and light guides have been around since even when LCDs first started because most light guides are used, as I was describing earlier, for traditional LCDs, you have to light it from the back.

And so most light guides are hidden behind the screen. You don't even see them. They're typically buried within the module and it's very easy to hide them ‘cause you have the LCD on the front. If you try to take that same light guide and put it on the front of a reflective LCD, it has to be completely transparent. So that's why it hasn't really worked using conventional lighting methods in the past and why something like our invisible front light is such a critical component because you want the user to see all the beautiful things apart from the LCD, not any components sitting on top.

David: So is it like LED edge lighting with kind of a sheet or something? 

Mike Casper: Effectively, yeah. So we're using a modified edge lighting approach that is able to get an LED coupled into our material and when I talk about our material, it's about 50 microns thick. So it's about 1/20th of a millimeter, extremely thin. This is why we're able to get that embedded in the top layer of the LCD and the way that our system works, we're still able to capture all that light from the LED, channel it in, and then serve as a light guide that can deliver the light to the front of the reflective LCD when needed. 

David: So why would I want to do that?

Mike Casper: So the biggest reason is really two-fold: 

Power savings is number one. Using reflective LCD with our front light module, can save 80 to 90% power consumption compared to some of the other EMS of technologies like micro-LED or OLED, or compared to even some backlit LCDs. So power savings is number one. You're actually using the light around you when you use a reflective LCD module and especially in the case of signage, oftentimes this is outdoors, you got the bright sun out there, let's use this great light source we have here which is the Sun. Why not just use that to our advantage? So that's the main reason. 

The second being, viewability in all environments. The Sun in that example looks fantastic, the brighter the sun, the brighter the display, and then in the case, if you're viewing it at night or in a darker environment, that's where our front light will turn on and so you get a nice glow on the display without it being distracting to the user. 

David: It seems from what you're telling me, like the application for this in terms of large format displays would be for high brightness outdoor displays. Is that a reasonable assumption? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, I think that's a great application for it.

When you look at what other display technologies are trying to do for high brightness environments there's a lot of challenges, right? You've got to pump a ton of light, whether you're using Emissives, micro-LED, or OLED, you're just pumping so much brightness just to try to beat the sun and it's a lot of wasted energy. So yeah, I think that's a fantastic application right off the bat. 

David: Yeah, I've done some work recently around outdoor displays and talked to a lot of industry people and they're cranking 3500 nits, 5000 nits, that sort of thing and the amount of power has got to drive that, but also for those guys, when you talk to them, they talk about the sun being the enemy. They're doing everything they can to counteract the impact of the sun, whereas it sounds like you're putting these out there and saying, “Bring it on!” 

Mike Casper: Exactly the brighter the sun, the better. So yeah, I think that you're exactly right, that's the key. All these other display technologies are having to do all these workarounds, even think about micro-LED or LED billboards. They don't even have to be micro-LED, just regular LED billboards that are having to pump fans and other cooling mechanisms just to overcome the heating element of making these so bright during bright environments. The whole point of having LEDs, I thought was to save energy, not consume more. 

So I agree the sun is their enemy but in this case, with a reflective LCD, it actually boosts the performance. 

David: So to use the example of a Phoenix or Las Vegas, if it's outdoor street furniture at a transit shelter, that sort of thing. Through the day if the sun's out and beating down, do you even have lighting on?

Mike Casper: No. In that environment, you wouldn't need to. We could see there would be sensors, maybe some brightness sensors that if it start to get cloudy and whatnot, it could turn the light on, but 80-90% of the time, you would have the sun out, it would be bright enough to see on its own and you wouldn't need any external lighting. 

David: I suspect you've got an engineer or you're an engineer and you've done the mathematical models. I'm curious what kind of money this would save? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, it's quite a bit, especially when you start talking about many of these digital displays that are out there right now, a majority of them are LED billboards.

And today, some of the recent studies that have been done on the standard billboards outdoor for the transportation area are already consuming the same amount of energy as four households in the United States within a year, and so just one LED billboard that's running throughout the bright sun, throughout the night is already consuming a significant amount of energy. With reflective LCD, this could be reduced by 90%. 

David: But you can't replace a LED billboard with a reflective LCD display, can you? 

Mike Casper: Yeah. So what would you end up doing, I think it is very similar to how the LED billboards are built, where the modules are essentially started to daisy chain together to make larger sizes. You can do the same thing with these reflective LCD modules. 

You can have a very nice thin bezel and have say up to 55-inch diagonal displays, just be tiled next to each other until you build up the full size that you need. It’s also another benefit with the Azumo light guide, the front light that we're able to use. Most light guides have a bunch of LEDs along the edge that have hotspots and so this is why most backlit LCDs have to have some sort of a bezel or border to block those hotspots. But because our material is so flexible, we're able to actually bend that all the way behind the display. We are able to get a nice tight radius of about half a millimeter. So our border can be really thin and enables you to tile these close to each other. 

David: So this would be the equivalent of the super-duper-oh-my-god-amazing, add a few more adjectives in there, narrow bezel display? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, exactly. 

David: So they would just be like a hairline and I guess at a distance, you wouldn't even see that, like a billboard? 

Mike Casper: Right. It's all about that viewing distance. But yeah, especially when you're able to get some of these higher resolution LCDs in the tiles themselves, you can start doing just as good dynamic content on both as opposed to an LED billboard as well.

David: So I suspect there are some people listening to this thinking this is interesting, but whenever there's new technology like this, the costs are through the roof and it sounds amazing, but it's not financially feasible to do it. So what are the cost implications of this? 

Mike Casper: Yeah. Good question, and I'd say we're at the forefront of it right now. You're starting to see over the past year or two more and more of LCD manufacturers showcasing these reflective LCDs in larger sizes. So I think Sharp maybe showed a 32-inch or around 30-inch last year. I know JDI has been showing a few examples over the past few years. Same with BOE up to 55-inch, I believe. 

So they're starting to showcase this potential, and with that, I should say is, I think they're also trying to understand the market dynamics and pricing. The good thing is that because it's built on the LCD infrastructure, which has been out there for years and years, fully capitalized equipment, minimal switching costs. So I think they're able to fundamentally keep the prices within an LCD realm, nothing crazy where you've got to go build a whole brand new,OLED fab or anything like that. You can actually use some of the LCD manufacturing capacity that's already out there. 

But then like any new technology, as you said, it's lower volumes to start and how do you price it and extend that out over time? I think that's still to be determined. 

David: So if you're working with a Sharp, NEC or a company like that, are they getting your layer at the original manufacturing line or is it something that they would add after the fact and say, “okay, now it's reflective”?

Mike Casper: Yeah, so what we're doing at Azumo, with our front light technology, we're scaling up our production lines for these larger sizes as we speak, and so everything we've done over the past few years has been on displays ranging from one inch up to about eight inch diagonal. 

Just last year, 2020, we installed some new production equipment that enables us to go up to about 20 inch diagonal, and so in order to get to these larger displays, we're going to be installing some larger equipment to handle these larger panels. So today, our products can be found through the smaller displays and we're working with the LCD manufacturers to be scaling that up in the future, to be able to offer this to the signage industry for these larger panels as well.

David: So it's not a physics challenge or anything else, it's just a matter of having the right equipment to do the larger displays?

Mike Casper: Exactly. 

David: How do you deal with intellectual property? If you're dealing with Chinese manufacturers, there's a bit of a history there. I'm not totally sure how fair it is, I don't know. But there's always some antsiness about working with overseas manufacturers about their intellectual property and what's going to happen. 

Mike Casper: Sure. What we've done at Azuma, wwe're located in the United States as our headquarters, we do have some operations in China.

And most of our core IP elements are actually still produced on equipment here in the United States, fairly close to us too, in suppliers that we use, so we're able to keep it close to the chest, especially those really core IP elements, I think that's always a key strategy for any display technology. But also recognizing that the entire display ecosystem for the most part is in Asia. So, you're going to have to be, as you scale the business or scaling technology, you're going to have to integrate along the chain there, and so finding ways to, from us, just determining at what point we have the production here versus a different location where we're still able to protect and maintain our IP. 

I will say too, it's one of those where we're always constantly innovating as well, and so filing new patents on new technologies as we're developing is another strategy of ours as well.

David: So with those displays that are already out there, you mentioned the smaller ones getting up to as large as 20-inch, but a lot of it's a one-inch, eight-inch, that sort of thing. What are they being used? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, so all of the smaller products, when we first launched a little over three years ago, really the only reflective LCDs in the market at that time or monochrome, for the most part, going after industrial and medical applications, a lot of handheld products that we're using have these smaller displays looking for that power savings, and we're working very closely with Sharp. We're actually one of their value-added partners in their preferred lighting component for their reflective LCDs.

So a lot of these handheld industrial products, medical products, IoT products, are out in the market today using our modules, and what's exciting for us. In the second half of this year, we'll be delivering some tablet products with our technology and reflective LCD embedded as well. So stay tuned for that, but that should be out the second half of this year. 

David: So that would be good for, again for medicine, but also for things like restaurants and so on, outdoor dining patios and people taking orders that way? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, that's another great application.

The particular customer set for this tablet is more in the education space. Children staring at screens all day long, reflective LCD also has the benefit of being a little healthier on the eyes, so you're not blasting light from a backlight or from an OLED screen in your kids' eyes all day long,  

David: I guess it extends the battery life too, right?

Mike Casper: Exactly. 

David: What is the operating life of your technology? Does it have any impact? A normal LCD might be 60,000 hours, does it bring it down to 50 or increase it? 

Mike Casper: Yeah, I think at least in terms of applying it for UV protection, a lot of those other materials and coatings that need to be applied for outdoor signage applications would still be applied here as well.

So being able to get the 5-7+ year lifecycle needed for the UV protection can be incorporated. The LCD side, which I think is very similarly to how these LCDs are being used. Now what you might find actually is, because of many LCD specs that are quoted today for outdoor applications like you said, the 60k hours, that's probably actually more tied to the backlight because the backlight has to be pumped up so bright to fight the sun that it’s probably burning those LEDs out in the backlight. It's not actually the LCD itself, but probably the LEDs. 

So I think you could even extend that because you're not getting, you're not fighting the sun with those. 

David: Again, talking about the sun, some of the issues that have been around with outdoor LCD is obviously glare, but the one that really concerns operators more than anything else is that the displays are going to burn out and they're going to turn black. I think what they call isotropic, is that still a reality or because you're taking daylight heat out of the equation, it’s not really a worry? 

Mike Casper: That's a good question. I think probably the verdict's still out on that, but I would imagine that because the sun reflecting is actually making the screen brighter, I think you'd be avoiding that issue. But that's a good question. I don't know if there's been enough longevity studies with it quite yet in terms of what the long-term implications would be. 

David: How long has the company been around? 

Mike Casper: Azumo started in 2008. So we're coming up here on our 13th, 14th year. 

David: And how did it get started, like what led you down this path? 

Mike Casper: Good question. Bringing out the memory bank here. So we started down a completely different path. We actually started the business with technology around advertising signage in the sports industry specifically.

So we were putting illuminated advertising logos, frozen in the ice of hockey rinks. Imagine all those logos on the ice that are always there and just started blending into the background, we could make them disappear and start glowing, in between whistles. So that was how we started the business and the technology, nowhere near LCD displays, but it helped us really think about different ways of creating really thin lighting.

As you may know, ice for hockey rinks is pretty thin. They're about an inch thick or so, so you've got to have lights that can go really large and really long, but being very thin and invisible, and so over time we adapted that to now provide a front light for these reflective LCDs. 

David: See in Canada, you could also do them in curling sheets.

Mike Casper: Yep, we looked at that as an option. 

David: And then you saw how small the market is? (Laughter)

Mike Casper: Yeah, there were some good advisors and investors early on that suggested we pivot a little bit. 

David: Yeah, just advertising in general, a lot of startups get into that and then they realize, “oh, this is actually hard!”

Mike Casper: Yeah. It's a lot harder than it sounds. 

David: Yeah, the technology is the easy part. It's schmoozing media planner. 

Mike Casper: Exactly. The ecosystem and the industry were just not what we anticipated, and luckily for us, the reflective LCDs had been improving and had a need and so that enabled us to pivot the business and move to what we are today. 

David: So where are you at now in terms of size of the company, number of people, all that sort of stuff?

Mike Casper: Yeah, so we're almost 30 people now. Our headquarters is here in Chicago, in the United States. We've got about 20 different sales rep organizations globally now, both in North America, throughout Asia. 

We are still venture-backed, so we've got a great set of investors that are knowledgeable in the display industry and focus on energy savings, and the last round that we'd closed was our Series B. 

David: Okay, and what are the plans in terms of getting into transitioning or expanding, I guess would be a better way of describing it from what you've been doing to date, to getting into the sort of thing that we've been talking about for digital out of home and QSR drive-through displays, that sort of thing?

Mike Casper: Yeah, and so that's a current growth area for us that we're putting a lot more effort behind. So the new production equipment, as I mentioned, can get up to 20-inch. There are some applications now that we can get into these smaller signage spaces and work closely with our LCD customers on some modules. So we're going to be showcasing some of those here coming up and then really expanding our production capabilities next year and getting on some of this larger equipment, being able to handle these larger panels, larger signage applications grow as well. 

David: Are you feeling the pressure to get on the outdoor stuff?

Just because of the pandemic and how drive-thru has gone from something that a lot of people do to something that in a lot of cases is the only way you can get food from a fast-food joint. 

Mike Casper: Yeah, that's a great example. I think, there's definitely an increased demand and an interest that we're hearing from the LCD customers, because a lot of them already have a lot of those relationships with the out of home, and so we're already hearing it. more of a reverberate through, which is due to the pandemic. 

David: And do you want to be a brand or do you want to be just like a component inside that the manufacturers know about, but the regular digital signage ecosystem and certainly the end-users wouldn't know, wouldn't care? 

Mike Casper: That's a good question. I think, right now our focus is working very closely with the LCD manufacturers and serving them as our customers. In the future, we do see opportunities to partner with them, especially because we live and breathe this low-power reflective LCD, day in and day out, and so we think there are some opportunities to work together to create our own joint modules that are even further optimized, whether that's branded with us or something else, that's still to be determined, but either way, we want to partner with the LCD manufacturers and really drive the technology and performance to serve this market.

David: There are observers in the industry who say that LED is going to completely take over. Between micro-LED and just fine pixel pitch LED, the need for LCD is slipping away and it'll be a niche product. 

I don't totally buy into that, but I can see how things are transitioning. Where's your head at with that? 

Mike Casper: There's obviously a lot of talks, like you said, with micro-LED and while there are great benefits with that technology I will say too, the LCD industry is massive. The ecosystem, the supply chain, there's a lot of vested interest to adapt that technology because it is a great backbone, and so that’s why I think micro LED, it's not going to take over. There's going to be great places for it, absolutely. But LCD is still going to have a predominant position, and that's why we're coining this reflective LCD as LCD 2.0, it's just taking the great things about LCD and adapting it for the world of the future, and I think especially with outdoor, it's a great application for it.

David: Is there a lot of education that you have to do with the display manufacturers or do they get it and by extension, do you think the same thing will have to happen as they adopt it, that they'll have to educate their buyers?

Mike Casper: Yeah, definitely a lot of education, because for those that know a little bit about reflective LCD, you're probably thinking what you saw with transflective LCD years and years ago, right? 

Like the first Game Boy, for those in the audience that played that, or remember that, that had a transflective LCD, which was retty grainy, had pretty bad colors, and so a lot of people I think have that in their head when they hear reflective LCD. “Oh, how great can it be?”

So now that the industry is being able to leverage the Azumo front light, which is this again, transparent portion of it that enables the underlying LCD to have much higher performance, much higher resolution, better colors, et cetera. So there is a re-education about what reflective LCD is now versus what many people may remember it in the past.

David: If you don't know what you're looking at, and you had a reflective LCD and a conventional LCD with the same brightness and basically the same panel, just lit from the front versus the back, would an observer be able to see the difference? 

Mike Casper: So depending on where you are, you'd see a couple of things different.

So obviously in a bright outdoor environment, that would probably be your first obvious difference you'd notice where the reflective LCD looks fantastic, the backlit traditional one is going to have that glare, the contrast is going to get muted because all the blacks look a little grayer and the colors look more washed out, and you're fighting the sun which is going to overpower any backlight. So that'd be the first noticeable difference. 

If you're in a darker room or if you're really close to the display. Again, depending on what the application in the viewing distance looks like, the backlit LCDs at least historically have had a higher resolution and a little bit broader color gamut. Now a lot of that is due to the fact that reflective LCDs are still fairly new but they're increasing that color gamut and the resolution. Some of the latest ones I think are shown by Sharp are close to 300 PPI now. You would notice it today, there's a slight difference. But that’s a question of what's the application: are you watching it on your phone, 18 inches from your face, and you've got the latest and greatest Netflix movie on? Or you're providing information to a user that might be walking by in an outdoor environment?

So there's definitely some room for improvement, but they're making a lot of strides and a lot of sealing room here. 

David: So if I'm to use the time-honored example of Coca-Cola and their particular Pantone red, would you be able to replicate that red? 

Mike Casper: Good question. With working very closely with the LCD manufacturers and tuning their color filters, we can actually put,t in our front light, we can have an RGB LED set that has finely tuned wavelengths, and I'm getting a little technical here, but we can essentially tune the color to match the color filter of the LCD to really boost that color gamut. And so that's where we can start getting towards that Coca-Cola Pantone and really the broader color gamut that's required for signage. 

David: Okay. All right. Really interesting. If people want to know more about this, where do they go? 

Mike Casper: You can visit our website, www.azumotech.com. We're also pretty active on LinkedIn and you can reach out to us at any time. We'd love to chat about your application and really appreciate the time here today.

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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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.

 

Jerome Moeri, Navori

Jerome Moeri, Navori

March 15, 2021

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

Switzerland's Navori is among the most enduring and respected firms on the software side of the digital signage industry - widely used globally and known for being an early adopter of emerging technologies.

I did a podcast session with CEO Jerome Moeri about four years ago, and a new product release coming out of Navori presented a good reason to get back together recently.

The lab side of the business has been working, for several years now, on an AI-based computer vision platform designed to do audience measurement for retail and digital out of home. The product is called Aquaji, and it pairs with Navori's well-established CMS software.

I asked Moeri about the thinking - given there are numerous commercial and open-source computer vision options already on the market. We get into why, what it does, and how it differs with what else is out there.

We also talk about the state of the business and industry on what we all hope is the tail end of COVID. We also hear his expectations that the coming year will see a lot of consolidation of the software ecosystem, through acquisition. Intriguingly, Moeri says Navori will be making a couple of acquisition announcements soon.

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TRANSCRIPT

Welcome, Jerome. It's been a while since we've talked, I looked up and saw that we first did a podcast almost four years ago now, which is amazing how time goes by. How has things been for Navori in the past year? I've spoken with many companies and generally speaking, they've done okay through all this mess. 

Jerome Moeri: Yes, the pandemic was a moment of truth and the travel ban was very difficult for us because we are an international company and our business is based on traveling. So it's been difficult. So we had to refocus on the research and development to end this pandemic with many innovations.

Yeah, I was curious about that. You've had to adapt to selling only online when so much of your work, with your with the guys I know over here in North America, is relationship-based and Jeffrey and Jordan are on planes a lot visiting clients, and now they've had to do everything online. Have you gotten good at that? 

Jerome Moeri: It's been difficult but surprisingly our revenue continued to grow last year in 2020 and North America was not affected at all by the pandemic. It's quite surprising, but this is what happened and the Middle East and Asia also kept the same level of revenues.

In Europe, it's a bit different. We had a slight drop because, in Europe, we were traditionally working on bigger projects, big deployments in retail, and most of the deployments were put on hold. It was a bit more difficult in Europe but North America and the Middle East and Asia are good. So we did not have any impact. 

We've been able to do everything remotely using Teams and I guess it has not been too difficult for us because our company is 20 years old so we have a base of customers and all the recurring orders. But I had a thought of the young entrepreneurs, that puts a lot of effort into creating a company and for them, it's been very difficult because they did not have a strong base of customers to face the pandemic. 

Yeah. I would imagine a lot of your customers are kind of enterprise-level and as I've heard from some other companies, they just carried on knowing that this thing would end and they had the resources and they already had a plan in place.

Jerome Moeri: Yeah. We also had to open an online store and start selling online for the entry-level products and we have set up we had to set up full logistics, to take into account this pandemic 

I've heard that from other companies where they've had to kind of branch into things they wouldn't normally do or don't really want to do, but you have to adjust.

Jerome Moeri: Yeah. We had to do it in such a way that we can still continue and not change our business models, and remain consistent working with partners. The development was a bit sophisticated, but we've been able to to to complete this development. 

Has customer needs changed over the past year, are they asking for different kinds of things?

 

Jerome Moeri: Yeah when the pandemic last year came up, we were in the middle of  research and development projects based on computer vision. So we had to stop everything and release a product that is a computer vision system that is integrated into our digital signage and it's managing how many people can enter and how long they would wait if they have to wait to get in the store and we've been able to also to detect whether they are wearing a mask or not. And we did that to help our customers, especially retail in Europe because they needed a solution to open their stores while following the regulation from COVID and so we released an add-on called, “Access Control” which was dedicated to this type of use and it did help a lot our customers in Europe. 

I've seen a lot of reports around access control systems and thermal readers and things that will meet the people coming in and out of a retail environment or another environment and I've been very curious about how much actual take-up there's been of that. I think it's quite interesting, but because I'm cocooned, so to speak where I live and I'm not traveling and seeing this stuff, I've not read a lot of indication that there's been much take-up in retail, but are you seeing it happen?  

Jerome Moeri: Yes. It's very important in banks, in department stores where you have multiple entries. A human being cannot count and check how many people are in when you have multiple entries, for instance, and only the computer and the software can do that.

It has not been deployed so massively, to be frank, but for downtown department stores or banks, or flagships, it's being used intensively and it was just a solution we tried to bring on the market and to help our customers. 

You've just released a new product that you were referencing earlier with computer vision, it's called Aquaji? 

Jerome Moeri: Yeah, so access control was a digital signage product. So it was related to our digital signage product so a maximum of users may take profit of it and it's because when the pandemic happened, I assigned 50% of our R&D team on computer vision starting in 2017 and we have made some prototypes and investigations and also market insights because we thought it was a market that was related to the digital signage or to the OOH and at the same time, it was different in the sense that it's pure AI.

And we found this potential market interesting. This market would be worth, according to the insights we get, more than $1B within five years, just the software for artificial intelligence in retail. 

Now the whole idea of audience measurement using computer vision and AI has been around for 15+ years, there's a number of pretty well-established vendors out there doing it, and we've even seen some of the display manufacturers like NEC, in particular, coming up with their own version of it. And there are open source libraries that have computer vision, open-source code, all that sort of thing.

So I'm curious, why did you see the need to develop your own when there was a lot of it out there? 

Jerome Moeri: So first because such companies do not have digital CMS software in digital signage and the connection between both systems is very interesting because the content is on the digital signage end, we thought we had to make these developments and to release a new range of products.

The second point is that this is true, that you have a lot of open source code, viable from the web, with some models enabling you to do some computer vision. When we did research and development, we found out that most of these companies have a level of accuracy at about 40% and this technology is consisting, mostly of counting bodies, not detecting people. So if you have someone passing by multiple times when you have employees, it's just the body and the censors are doing a great job in counting bodies but the computer vision is not needed to count bodies or shapes. What we have developed is we created our own engine, just like we did in digital signage and what makes our system special is that we can combine and create multiple models. So we create models and we combine models to reach a degree of accuracy beyond 90%. This is the first differentiator. 

The second differentiator is that because we can identify people when someone is passing by multiple times, we catch only one person, and because we identify people, we can say how long they waited in line and how long they stayed in the store. 

And for the OOH industry, we have also developed a technology which is detecting the field of vision of the people passing by and we can determine, whether they had an object within their field of vision. It can be a product for the retail application, or it can be an advertising panel for OOH, for instance. And we can say if they had the object within the field of vision, and if they looked at the object, or if they interacted with the object and for how long. And so these are the main differentiators. And the reason why we've been able to achieve this is that the engine was created by us.

We used to collaborate with university researchers, and we also made our own models and we made an assembly of multiple models. So this is why we can reach a degree of accuracy of 90%. 

Does the platform only work with Navori's CMS? 

Jerome Moeri: Yes, absolutely. 

Okay, and how does it run? Is it running off of the same device that's being used for the media playout or do you need a separate device?

Jerome Moeri: We need a separate device, like a PC for the moment, but in June we'll be releasing a small device that would deliver digital signage, a media player plus computer vision, including the camera. 

Okay, so an all-in-one thing. 

Jerome Moeri: Yes and it will be far cheaper than the PC solution and it will be all in one.

The reason why digital signage and computer vision are interesting is that within the digital signage system, for each impression of an ad, we have the ideal audience demographics, how long they stay, what is the opportunity to see, conversions and stuff like this?

So it's a plug-and-play solution that doesn't need to play with API and to create complex and sophisticated systems. The second reason is that digital signage can play some content and choose content according to what the camera can see. So we can reverse the model and adjust the content according to the audience. And again, this is plug-and-play.

I have always been curious about the idea of audience measurement-triggered content, so a male 40 to 60 walks in front of the screen, serve content that's contextual to that person. 

It's always been interesting, but I've wondered how often it's used and how much of a demand is there from brands and from retailers to do that because it could get complicated in terms of the scheduling and planning for that, right? 

Jerome Moeri: No, you just set conditions and within a few clicks, anyone can do it from the UI and it's always good to adjust. With the content triggering, you have two ways. You may adjust the content on the fly, and you may trigger it. I agree that for the triggering, it's a bit special or figuring is more for emergencies, but I just think the content on the fly is something fully automated and it's very easy to do. 

And do your customers have their heads around that? They understand the possibilities ‘cause I can see them going, “That's interesting, but that sounds awfully complicated, maybe we'll do that later.” 

Jerome Moeri: I think it might take several years to make people use this type of solution, but the product is available now, so it's still a product for pioneers. And you should also consider programmatic systems.

I’d like to connect Aquaji with a programmatic system so we can deliver some very detailed and accurate statistics on the audience so the cost per impression may rise because of the qualification of the audience. And at that level, we can also measure the level of interest of a given content, because we can compare one content to another, to find out which one is more efficient than the other.

Yeah, that to me is the kind of the secret sauce of these computer vision platforms that I don't think gets enough attention is the idea that you can take a look at dwell times and attention levels, piece by piece, and adjust the content accordingly instead of just shoveling it out there and hoping people notice.

Jerome Moeri: Yes. Precisely. 

Do you offer some sort of a dashboard that your customers can then use to see what's going on and understand it? Because if it's just log files and it's just a bunch of numbers. 

Jerome Moeri: Yes, we have beautiful dashboards within the Aquaji user interface and that's not made much for scientists, but it's more for marketing people and advertising people, so it’s for everyone. 

We tried to simplify as much as possible. But at the same time, we also have an API for data scientists that may retrieve information of cross-analysis with other business intelligence systems. 

Do you see this product working more in the digital out-of-home sector or do you see retail being the big take up?

Jerome Moeri: We've addressed both markets, but I think OOH might have maybe 30% this year and 70% for retail. This is originally a marketing product, enabling people to move better about their customers, the traffic, their activities, and the customer experience and most of the features are marketing oriented. 

Have you found your company being drawn more and more into the digital OOH side of things, just because of contracts that have come up? 

Jerome Moeri: Yeah, contracts/opportunities. I think digital out of home is a very interesting market, especially from the backend, because it's quite complex, you have to create rules and you have a lot of algorithms.

From our standpoint, the requirements are quite busy because it’s full-screen content, you usually don't have dynamic contextual content on the screen, no automation, and stuff like that. It's a market that is very interesting from the backend. We are clearly a contender on OOH. There is an incumbent company, which we appreciate a lot by the way and we try to make a difference with this integrated computer vision solution and we think it would be successful. 

We will start the test of Aquaji next week at Istanbul Airport. It's a bigger deployment. They have, I think a thousand displays, it's a combination of LED displays and system on chip displays and they will make some tests with the content automation. So according to the audience, we might adjust the content on the fly.

In the past, when companies have looked at using computer vision hardware and software, they have often tended to just do a sample of locations and extrapolate data based on that sample, just because the hardware and the software costs to do it across all of the display is just cost-prohibitive. 

I'm assuming that's changing and when it comes to things like Istanbul airport, maybe you're not at every screen with a computer vision node, but you can deploy them more broadly.

Jerome Moeri: Yeah. We will release our own hardware and we have simplified the process in such a way that this technology becomes scalable and deployable. Because all the analysis is done on and the numbers are important, but they are less important than the comparison over time, especially in marketing, but also in OOH, because you have to find out the trend.

If you are a restaurant, you need to make sure that your customer has not waited more than 10 minutes in a waiting line, for instance, you need to limit how long people stay there in the store based on demographic, age, gender, and stuff like this because it reflects the attractiveness of your store, its assortment, layout and things like this. 

You have to measure how many people are in store and it's also very important for retail and we created a product that is doing these types of measurements and can adjust the signage at the same time and I think the cost of Aquaji won't be so different from digital signage after two years. Today it's 30% more expensive than digital signage, but within two years, I can tell you, it will be exactly the same price. So twice the price of digital signage to be clear. 

So with scale, that'll come down. 

Jerome Moeri: Yeah. We'll develop a small device, plug-and-play, and what is also interesting with Aquaji is that we can plug the system into an IP camera. So any camera pre-installed, we can use the video feed to make the analysis. So we don't need a physical camera next to it or something, to make the analysis. We can plug our system into the security cameras because you already have security cameras to feed them data for inbound people, outbound people, queuing and so we can use these cameras, so it would be a facilitator, the deployments. 

How much pushback do you get from venues when you start talking about using their security cameras? 

The whole idea of computer vision, particularly in North America, gets people all excited about an invasion of privacy, which usually is completely wrongheaded, but nonetheless, they're excited about it. So how do you work around the privacy issue? 

Jerome Moeri: The degree of intrusion of Aquaji is far much lower than a traditional CCTV that retail companies have been using for the last 30 years because we don't store biometrics. We don't store data that are related to individuals. We aggregate on the fly information and so it's very close to the sensor.

I remember you had a case in Canada, you had the case with Fairview, I think because this company was storing the biometrics on the backend, on the server for analysis. We don't do that. We don't store biometrics at all and we are compliant with GDPR. It depends on the regulation, whether you film inside or outside, but we are fully compliant with GDPR.

So privacy is really a concern for us. This is also why we don't process the kids under 18 years old. We don't track the races and we have a fully encrypted process and we don't store anything that is personal, whether biometrics or images or stuff like this. So I don't think this system is so intrusive. This is for Europe and Canada, with the GDRP. We developed the software with about 50 features. The user can adjust the features of the software to be compliant with local regulations because GDPR might change from one Euro country to another.

Then you have the United States, except one of two States, there is no regulation, so it means that the customer can store with Aquaji, the biometrics on the central database and share this information with business intelligence and other marketing material. So, It really depends on the country. We can do everything, but in some countries like Canada and Europe, the user has to restrict the software in such a way that it is compliant. 

So you run a company, between yourself and your R& D people who are usually pretty early on emerging technology trends. You guys were early adopters of system-on-chip, you were early adopters of Android. 

What are the trends you're seeing out there that you think are going to get attention and traction within the digital signage ecosystem? 

Jerome Moeri: I think the digital signage industry is pretty much stabilized now, the software, the display, and software targeting the low-hanging fruits so they deliver a commoditized software and they try to approach the market whether directly or indirectly. And then you have professional software like Navori and at Navori, I would say in the United States, for instance, about 40% of the top digital signage operators are using the Navori OEM and the scale is greater than it used to be a five-years back. And the way I see how the industry would evolve is that these digital signage operators would become stronger, they are doing a lot of acquisitions, including internationally, and these big operators would continue to grow and for the proficient digital signage network, they require sophistication, they require the support of multiple display brands and operating systems and they want to do everything. So, for the top part of the market, we would continue to get stronger. 

We will also do some acquisitions, some acquisitions would be announced very soon and so there will be some kind of consolidation for the bigger digital signage operators and for the rest of the market it will be taken care of by display vendors and probably the software for all the basic use cases.

Yeah, you've had Samsung and LG out there for a while now with their own CMS software. and Samsung in particular has really started to aggressively market MagicInfo in a way that they didn't do for a very long time. You see the big display guys doing that more and more? 

Jerome Moeri: Oh yeah, you can tell how good the software is in its ability to incorporate artificial intelligence in its coming technologies.

It's interesting when you're talking about Navori doing acquisitions. I was curious about that because I get a lot of phone calls and emails from venture capital firms and independent investors who are saying, “Hey, we're interested in acquiring companies, who are out there. Can you help us with that?”

And it seems like there's a lot of activity around that right now. I don't know whether they're looking for distressed companies or they just see an opportunity to grow. 

Jerome Moeri: Yeah, from the software standpoint, you have a lot of national companies, a company that is leading or a number two for a given territory like Germany or Italy, Spain, and these companies, they have a problem because their market is not large enough and they have some market share, but it's not enough to finance the research and development. And these types of companies are typically the best company to acquire and these are our target companies. 

So who are you buying?

Jerome Moeri: I can't tell you today that if you are patient enough, I’ll tell you when it will happen. 

I'll find out when everybody else does, right? 

Jerome Moeri: Nope. You would find out earlier, two days before. 

Alright, Jerome. It was great to catch up with you.

Jerome Moeri: Thank you very much, Dave. I wish you a great day. 

Thank you. Take care. 

Bill Robertson, NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance

Bill Robertson, NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance

March 10, 2021

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

Suppose something bad happens - like a tsunami or a gas leak - and the alert messaging comes up on TVs and digital signage screens in English text. That's great, except if much of the viewing audience consists of first-generation immigrants who barely speak or read English.

It's pretty much the problem, right now, with public alert systems, and a volunteer organization called the NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance is trying to fix that. Called NVISA for short, the body has come up with a way to add universal graphic elements to emergency alerts.

Called Visually Integrated Display Symbology (or VIDS), the system can be adopted across a wide range of communications platforms, notably digital signage.

In this podcast, I speak with alliance member Bill Robertson about the thinking behind these graphical alerts. We also get into detail of how digital signage network operators and solutions providers can plug into the system and put it to work.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Bill, thank you for joining me. What is the NextGen Video Information Systems Alliance and why did you form it? 

Bill Robertson: The NVISA, as we call it is a group of like-minded initially technology companies that had different pieces of technology that were primarily focused at the upcoming ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard. We had different elements that we could use or leverage and many of us that formed the NVISA were members of the ATSC, what was referred to as the “I Team”, implementation team, where we talked about this and helped present some of the elements that are the standards that embodied in ATSC 3.0. We saw more opportunity in getting together and not just being standards based and focused on those particular things, but how could we leverage this? What could we do together as a group, again, of like-minded individuals to be able to represent these things.

And some of it too is not necessarily having to wait until people adopt that new standard, but what could we do today? What could be leveraged with even today's technology? So the initial start was some technology companies, but more broadcasters and other people have joined the Alliance to help modulator what's going on, what and how it could fit, what other things we could do.

So it's been a nice thing about this next gen video thing does not necessarily say that it's gotta be the next in this type of standards implementation, but what else could we do to improve the whole idea of information? 

Okay. So I was interested in this because I got a press release talking about how your organization had put together a series of recommendations for symbols to use for alerts, correct?

Bill Robertson: Yeah, and that was actually our first product in Working Group 1. I was a chairman of that particular group and what we focused on is a recognition that there are things in the broadcast groups in North America, primarily the United States and Canada, where there are members of the community, emergency managers, females on the United States side, whether Canada on the Canadian side, that issue alert information and the alerts can go out over radio, in audio broadcast and they can also go over television. People have seen these in the United States, they're usually accompanied with different tones to get your attention, to make sure you understand, “Hey, this is an alert. This is information.” 

Well, the interesting thing about those is they're represented in, if it's a television thing, there's an oral component and a visual component. We've got text crawl, we've got audio that's associated with it. The trick is that those particular things have never been really associated with something that wasn't texts that had to be read. Or it might be a full screen display that takes over the primary programming and displays what the event is about. But we've seen more of a situation where if we could represent those with a graphical element, we could do a couple of more things. Number one, you're not reliant on them being able to read the particular alert, what it is. That seems a little strange, only in the fact that if English or French may not be your native language, let's say we needed to represent something to a Spanish community, to a Slavic community, whatever it might be, that if we can use symbols that are more generally understood to represent a particular event that's happening at that time, we think that is a better way to help communicate. 

So it's not just saying, you have to have the text and you have to have a crawl representation or you have to have a full screen slate, but many times, when you see this, if you see a lot of other symbols, like Stop signs’ got a standard shape for them and people will know what they mean, others signs, things like that represent information that can be conveyed without having to do any kind of motion, without having to display anything else. If we can put that symbol up there, we can definitely communicate. 

There must have been a lot of debate around the symbols?

Bill Robertson: There's some interesting things around that. There actually was a good body of work that was already done. So we leveraged a lot of that and some of these are ISO standards. There's actually an ISO standard on different societies; it's actually referred to as societal security emergency management guidelines for color coded alerts. In that standard they represent, okay, “here's a color code” and we adopted that into our recommended practice. One thing I should point out too is NVISA's not a standards group. We are coming together as a coalition of people and we're publishing these kinds of work as a recommended practice. So it's an idea that, here's some things that we've put together as like-minded individuals and we think has roots not only in this particular part of the industry, but in many other things, again, wherever there's visual displays and digital signage is the perfect example. Hundreds of thousands of these displays all over the place that could take advantage of a similar kind of thing. And by us mapping these things or looking at these symbols and bringing that together, it really helps. 

Another ISO standard for graphical symbols for public information, again, most of these, by the way, tie with hazardous waste or potential electrocution, you've seen some of these things as you approach a building many times, those kinds of things, but there's another group that's called the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS goes by the acronym, NAPSG and they've done quite a bit that goes beyond just electrical symbols or gas, chlorine gas, natural gas, those kinds of symbols that you would put up as warnings to the general public. But they've done things to incorporate elements like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. 

And so we leveraged a lot of the work that was done and didn't just say, “okay, we're going to take this symbol.” Now some of the symbols, I will tell you, are a little complex if you start to squeeze them down onto a small display size, but they do a pretty good job of conveying the information. A tornado looks like a tornado, the symbol is pretty well described. There's other things too, where a flash flood looks like a house with waves so you know there's things going on. 

What we had to do was they didn't cover a lot of the event codes that are used in public alerting. So we had to either craft a couple of things around it, or reference them in a slightly different way. There's things that can be communicated to the public that are just simply information, for example, a school closing would be an information. It doesn't have to have a sign that might jump at you and scare you into action, but it's an informational type of thing. Maybe an exclamation mark or maybe we did a little cloud symbol with an ellipse to say, “Hey, there's information here, and pay attention to it.”

One of the important things that we did was not just about the symbols, but was also in adapting these ISO standards for people that are colorblind and to reference the symbol with the particular essence of the alert, “is this a really traumatic type of event?” For example, a tornado is a pretty substantive short fuse, quick action type of thing. Your life, limb, property are in potential danger. So we escalated some of these alerts to be represented not only by the symbol, but we added something to the symbol where we did a double underline and that was again to reference this, if I just put up the same symbol, for example, flash flood and flood watch look like the exact same symbol, but by adding a color border around them, we can represent them differently. So red with a double underlined says, “Hey, pay attention” More information to exchange and reference things. “Hey, this is an important thing.” “It's red.” “It's got this.” 

We also looked at the idea of contrast so that if the font was done in a proper way, and it had a certain speed to it, things like that, but it would be enough contrast. So people that had again, either colorblindness, maybe in the red, green spectrum or other things like that would still be able to at least read the text or be able to discern the difference because the double underline is different than a single underline or no underline. And that's again, the basis of what we did.

Yes, there was some debate, there was a lot of stuff, but I think we centered on some really good elements that we came up with to really represent what we were trying to go after. 

Yeah, I think there are three tiers of alerts. Is that accurate? 

Bill Robertson: We actually have five groups and that doesn't mean that the symbols change but group one, which is the most important one, for example, I use a tornado warning, something that has a substantial impact and again, a short fuse, it's a very timely thing you needed to take notice very quickly. In group one and group two, we use the same symbols. We use the same color background, but we have a unique thing that we set. One of them is an example. If you were to tune into your TV set and you happened to be watching while the alert is being sent, the typical scenario is that the alert pops up there, maybe we can put the symbol up there too, the alert scrolls by, and then it's over. It's done. You switch back to regular programming. 

The trick there is that the alert is still active. The alert hasn't gone away. The fact that you're still in a danger situation is still there. It just so happens that it just doesn't show up on the TV screen. So what we've done is set up a situation where the symbol would pop up and then the crawl or the text information would be displayed associated with that. Now, when I talk about a crawl, typically on television, you're familiar with these things, ticker-tape crawls, we went across that kind of stuff. Again, if that symbol pops up with it, you've got some association. If it goes away or let's say you tune in after it's already displayed, you don't know you're under an alert.

So we have a scenario that says: Group one has the symbol and the text displayed together. Group two uses the symbol, but no text. The nice thing about that is, for example, you might have a, let's say a tornado warning for an hour. You're in an active storm cell area. You've got a tornado warning and it's active for an hour. So now I can pop up the thing with the texts, say you're under a tornado warning, but then I can leave the symbol on the screen. It's not really blocking a lot of other information and programming is still up, but I've got persistence in that group too, that says I can leave the symbol up for the duration of the alert, not meaning I know how long the crawl is, but the duration of the alert says, what does the emergency management group say the duration of this event is, and keep it up for that period of time. So we've got like a watermark. So it's using the same symbol, it's in the same position and everything.

And so when when the crawl goes away or that information goes away, that symbol can persist. Now, this has deeper meaning in the future, that might be a clickable type of link. So here's an example:say the alerts have already been broadcast, the alert, the audio, everything has already gone. I tune in 10 minutes later. I see the screen. It's got that little icon up there. I wonder what that's about. I don't have to go search someplace else. It could be a clickable link. So on my smart TV or my display or whatever device I happen to be viewing this particular content on. I could click on that and it would take me to a page or to an area where I could find out more information about what that event is, what's going on, do I need to be prepared for what's happening? 

So that persistence in those really severe alert things really helps us set a standard and I say that loosely in a standard body type of thing, but in a way of representing important information and giving guidance on how it could be used to form a sense of iconography that people could use in the rest of their display technology.

So what would happen if this wasn't done, or I guess because this is just brand new, what's happening right now in terms of alerts. Is it just a problem that a lot of it's in text and it's just an English? 

Bill Robertson: Yeah. You're going right down that path. The situation that we have, and obviously I'll speak a little bit more to the United States because of the EAS system in the United States, the primary alerts are done in English. That's it, that's the kind of the native thing it's done in English even if it's a Spanish station. The worst case scenario is it could be a Spanish radio station and you’re still going to get the alerts in English. And that's not very good for that audience. 

So in the same context you would have English text information on a Spanish channel, so if you're looking at a video display and all of the programming, all the advertisement, everything else is all in Spanish, you've got your target market. All of a sudden, I pop up in emergency information, which emergency managers are really seeking to communicate to as many people as they possibly can. I want you to get this information out. It needs to disseminate to as many people as possible. 

And so if you just typically look at the normal things, there's no sign, there's no icon. You're going to get an English text crawl. You're going to get English audio over a Spanish station. That's not very good in really trying to communicate what's going on and to whom they can really discern that information and take action on it. The idea of this alerting is to be able to know whether you need to take action and what type of action you need to take. Typically that's described in these alerts, that's an important situation. 

So the idea is if we can take this stuff forward and people start to adopt this “VIDS” idea or this visual information display symbology. That's how we've coined the term VIDS to represent and do a better job of leveraging the stuff we've already vetted out. We vetted out the icons we've done the colors. We've done a lot of other things. It doesn't mean people couldn't modify that if they want it to, if there's something that they want to present a slightly differently, perhaps for a station ID type thing, but it's really to help bring this together. Bring this symbol that is universal. If there's no language issue with presenting the symbol and therefore it can be more easily discerned by people that don't have that native language skill or a may not be able to read the text, may have a visual impairment about reading it, or don't have the language skills because it's done only in one particular language.

And I assume it's important to have everybody on the same page in terms of the symbology use, because if you have five ways of showing a condition, you're just causing people to look at it twice and go, “okay, what does this mean?” 

Bill Robertson: Exactly and that's why, again, what we did is, we didn't invent that. It wasn't an idea. In fact we loathed the idea of trying to build graphic symbols because a lot of the stuff was already done. It’s “can we leverage them?” 

And by leveraging the stuff that's already out there and doing a little bit of improvement in what we think is by adding the double underline, so you can differentiate both the elevation of the alert, because again, the symbols could be the same in a flash flood and a watch, which isn't as meaningful or impactful if it was a flash flood warning that, that's the next step up. 

So that actually by the way, ties back into the group. So group one is the event codes or the event information is displayed with a symbol. Group two is the symbol-only to persist for those really important alerts. And then we go into group three, which has a yellow color again, focusing on what we should do for cautions or warnings and types of things. It uses a single underline under the symbol, again, to differentiate it, so we know where we are with the symbol, and represent that in terms of, “Hey, this is something of importance. It's not as critical as a red alert, but you've got a yellow alert.” So again, that color coding, we think is important. There's blue that we do with some symbols and most of the blues are done as informational types of things. Again, it's not a critical life/limb/property type of event, but it's something that's informational. Again, school closings or a road closure someplace because of Some kind of construction thing or accident even as it may be. 

And then the final one, is group five is a green background, no underline under the symbol. And that's really, again, a level of information, but they're typically for tests. So this is just, you could in essence, ignore it. “Don't worry, it’s green. Everything's okay. We're fine.” It's just up there to help say, okay, I can't read the text, but I understand this is just a simple message. No action necessary. 

So I'm an end-user with a digital signage network of some kind, let's say on a university campus, or I'm a digital signage software vendor, or a subscription content service as well.

How do I use this? How do I plug into it? What are the implications of operating it? 

Bill Robertson: We've had a couple of companies already implement VIDS in their character generation devices. One of our partner companies in NVISA has done this and we actually have some examples of what this looks like, which I can send you the YouTube video links I think would be very nice because again, when people see it, in a classic sense, a picture tells a thousand words and so they can see it and they get a better understanding of what these different types of things look like.

But for the content providers and especially the digital signage network, we would love to see them adopt this similar thing. And there's a couple of things around it, but again, the symbols are there. We have them available in JPEG and SVG format so they can grab the symbols. We've gotten the table already built for what event codes they're associated with. So we've done a lot of the groundwork. All we need is more people to gather the information that we've already provided and adopted into their product. 

The one thing that they will need in that environment and we've seen a lot more of this, and this is coming from my work, let me say my day job at digital alert systems,is we build the devices that listen for the event codes, that listen for the emergency managers and even in some respects the emergency managers use our equipment to generate the alerts that go out over the air, over the internet. And when we receive those, we can pass that information into the signage systems, into the character generators, into those things. So in other words, for the most part, they're doing their normal thing. They're showing and displaying the content that is already set up for that sign. if it's a map in a mall, if it's a menu in a restaurant type of thing, whatever it may be, they're doing their normal work. We can send them a message over IP that just says, “Hey, if this display is in this location, given some geo coordinates about where it might be, then here is the alert that you're currently under.” And Dave, part of the stuff that I look at around this is there's an idea that in college campuses and facilities, enterprise facilities that have a lot of signage around in their particular campus areas, they live in what I call a hyper bubble.

So it's a hyper-local bubble there. They're sitting here and they get information and they exchange it inside the building or inside the campus. There's not a lot of recognition of events that might be going outside that could impact them. Again, there's a lot more of these and we've been doing a lot of work in my day job about facility managers and other things about adopting this type of technology, because if I'm in that environment and what's really good, is these signage elements have a great way to communicate. It's fast, it's a great way to communicate, you can get very impactful messages, and when I say impactful, I'm talking about again, just because I get an alert, what I want to do is know, okay, I'm under an alert, but what should I do? If it's a gas leak, is it chlorine gas or is it natural gas? What should I do? 

Those things all come into play about information that you can exchange about these. Plume maps, there's a whole range of different things.

If we can then pierce that hyper-local bubble and bring in information. So for example, a campus is part of a city, part of a County, part of a state, and there may be events that are happening across that entire environment that they need to know what to do and if we can bring that information in and transfer it into those signage components and it's in a form that’s not only well known or is going to hopefully become more well-known in the typical broadcast community and cable casting community, then these people will recognize, “Oh, okay. I see it. I've got an alert information and I can display it.”

That's using an interim box of some kind that's sniffing for all that stuff. What happens right now, if I'm in a jurisdiction where there's an Amber alert, or if there is some other kind of public safety alert, that's pushed out to smartphones and to broadcasters and so on? 

Are they also using some sort of an interim device or is it just sniffing like a data cell or getting something triggered out to it that causes a message to pop? 

Bill Robertson: There's a couple of different things because, in the United States and Canada, the United States has what's called FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they have a server that is called IPAWS which stands for Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS) and it uses a technology that's called CAP (Common Alert Protocol). Again, we're talking about the government, so there's going to be acronyms. 

There's a similar type of thing that is run by a private company in Canada, and that entire methodology of alerts go through those kinds of clearing houses. Now the important thing too, is not every alert goes into those servers. In a local thing, let's go with some Teton County, for example and I want to generate an alert, it might just go out over the air and the sheriff there generates the alert. It goes out over the air. It never goes and sees IPAWS. So you can have some local ones and if you're not watching for those, you may miss them, but there is this idea of these integrated servers in Canada and in the United States. 

The problem is those devices or those servers serve a ton of information because there's a lot of agencies that are on them. What you need to do is to act correctly and so at every television station, every radio station, every cable head-in, there is this intermediate box that its job is to listen and monitor those things and it's also set up with a set of filters. So it's looking, saying, “okay, I've got all of this information, but is it important to me?”

Number one, does it rise to the level that I've set? I'm not going to get every alert and broadcast it, then you end up with a really bad situation of just constantly crying Wolf and no one pays attention to it. So the idea is to have a device, an intermediate device that monitors this feed, these feeds, and it says, “okay, is it for my area? Does it rise to the occasion that I need to pay attention to it?” And if it does, I basically need to decode that and turn it into text and audio because many times, for example, the ones in Canada, they don't come with audio. We actually use a text to speech engine to create that, and cause it to create the audio for the particular message. 

So the nice thing about that is: that capability that idea of having this intermediate device is to monitor, to look and to format it, so that the downstream devices, the character generators, the digital signage content only have to react to what we say is important because you preset it for what values you want and it has all of the information necessary for that. Here's the text, here's the audio, play this, represent it this way. 

So in a lot of circumstances in the digital signage world I would say 80, 90% of the networks that are out there are running as software as a service. So the end users may be using a service that is used by hundreds of other companies.

Does the central digital signage software CMS company need to have one, a listening device for all of its networks or one for each of its networks, or how would that technically work? 

Bill Robertson: There's a couple of different ways to do it and it's not dissimilar to the way that a lot of cable and even some broadcast companies have done central casting. So they've got remote locations, transmitters set up in one city, but they're actually being fed content from another remote city. 

Depending on the level of engagement, and the reason I say that level of engagement is in the United States, the FCC says that you have to have very specific standards. In other words, there's a requirement that says you must monitor off air signals and you must monitor the FEMA iPAWS feed. Again, that's under the purview of the FCC, for example, or in Canada, the equivalent situation where you are required to do that. In an area it's not a requirement, you can phase yourself into that and that way, if the central CMS system has the capability of discerning, “If I send it to five areas.” And in Canada there are SGC or special geographic codes in the United States. It's they're called FIPs codes, very similar to ZIP codes so that you've got an area that is defined.

If I send 10 different area codes, let's just use that as the idea. If I send 10 different area codes to the CMS, then the digital signage content management system is able to say, “This is an alert for this area code and I can send the alert information only to those receiving points.” So if I have the capability of breaking up my content or the alert going into those receive points, then you can do it in a central point because I can assemble it back to that central point, I can send information out and it's a great way to do it. It really is going to be dependent on kind of the design typology and how much addressability that CMS provides for different locations. 

All right. So if I am, again, an end-user or a digital signage solutions provider of some kind. I've read about this, I've listened to this podcast, and they're interested, what do they do? 

Bill Robertson: One thing that they could do right now is they can download the VIDS document the recommended practices from the NVISA website that's www.nvisa.org and so  if you go to the nvisa.org website, you can download this recommended practices and the symbology. Once they take a look at that and understand what we're talking about in the context of the symbols and things like that, we can make available the symbol set, we've got that available for them, and we can talk to them more about specifics on integration and then some of the other companies that they can talk to about how they would be able to assimilate that information, get it into their displays, where does the information come from? How was it received? What protocols are used? And that kind of stuff. So we can take them through a number of different things, but I really would encourage them to take a look at our recommended practices.

One of the things that we did in the practice document is make sure that it wasn't based on things like scan lines or pixels but really is a ratio, it's a relationship because if it's a 16:9 display, or if we rotate it for a vertical presentation where it's 9:16 or something else we want to be able to have the the icons and these text types of elements in the same relative position. Again, if it's a smaller screen, I'm not giving you fixed sizes for the number of pixels, there's a ratio of banner height to symbol height and that's an important distinction too, so that we can be very flexible in whatever format the display might be.

All right. That was terrific. Very interesting stuff. Thank you so much for spending some time with me, Bill. 

Bill Robertson: Dave. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. 

Again, if they just visit the www.visa.org website, take a look at the documentation, give us a shout, let us know if we can help!

 

Matthew Rubin, Futuresource Consulting

Matthew Rubin, Futuresource Consulting

March 3, 2021

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

Matthew Rubin and the other analysts at the UK-based research firm Futuresource Consulting spend much of their time looking at the electronics industry - both the consumer and commercial sides.

Rubin is a senior analyst with the firm and puts a lot of his working focus on the pro AV and digital signage market. His point of view is behind research reports that look at what is happening in the marketplace, and also forecasts what is expected to happen in the coming months and years.

We had a great chat talking about where signage and pro AV are at, a year into the pandemic and a year into the brakes being slammed on a lot of planned work.

We get into many things, including the states of direct view LED and LCD, and we also talk broadly about how businesses are doing, and when a turnaround is expected.

TRANSCRIPT

Matthew, thank you for joining me. Can you explain what Futuresource is all about and your methodology to some degree? Like, how do you guys do your research? 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, of course, so first of all it's best to explain that I'm a Senior Analyst at Futuresource covering the professional displays categories. So that's looking at LED, projection, a lot of work early on LCD and then obviously interactive now, and Futuresource tracks the whole technological scene. I work on the B2B side so very much within displays, but we have a team that focuses on the education sector and we do a lot of work on professional audio as well.

But we have a B2C side, so really focusing on the whole range of consumer electronics but also, entertainment and how people are engaging with that across the spectrum and I think it's all really intertwined. So it gives us this really great opportunity to see the whole spectrum across the B2C and the B2B landscape. But yeah, so we, in terms of methodology, it depends on the product category, but on the display side, is a really good example: we've really perfected and spent a lot of time developing, over about two decades, particularly on projection, tracking service and that's really a vendor-led service where we get direct data feeds from about 90% plus of the spectrum of all the vendors, and they give us their volumes, down to a module level and we correlate that, really dig into some deep analysis around it and provide really detailed data back to everyone in the ecosystem, not just the vendors but all throughout the supply chain. 

So that can be used as tracking very down into specific segmentation levels but also trend analysis, really what's driving the market. We also do a lot of forecasting, so looking out to about five years, we've got to understand what's happening in the industry, where it's going and you achieve that, not just by speaking to the vendors, right through the ecosystem, including end-users. We really need to understand who is using the technology and what they're using it for and what we think they're going to use it for in the future as well, which is really vital.

That's one of our best-developed services and we have that across display categories, but we also do a lot of consulting work as well. A lot of our clients come to us and ask for us to really find out something very particular and an answer to that and that utilizes a lot of our existing data, but we also have great connections across the B2B side technology landscape. So we're able to get so much knowledge together from our network, from our data, and our own knowledge from working in the industry for a couple of decades now. So we're able to offer a very broad spectrum of services there. 

It must take quite a bit of work to win the trust of the different manufacturers, because you're, as you described, asking them to send a data feed of sales volumes and everything else, so you must have some pretty significant NDAs or other kinds of agreements. 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, absolutely, and that's a testament really to the way that Futuresource has been around for quite a while and the kind of level of trust and accuracy we've managed to maintain, like I said before, over a couple of decades. 

The projector service, I think is our oldest, about 20 years and it's so deeply ingrained in so many of our partners now that it's really a key part of the process and actually, we're trying to replicate that now with an LED tracking service, which is so much in demand and I know a topic you spend a lot of time looking at as well. But it's a different world and it's speaking to a completely different ecosystem, especially in China. 

So we're seeing again from having to build that trust and from the ground up there, and it's a slow process and absolutely it's something you can't rush.

Yeah. It must be particularly hard with Chinese companies just because of the way they operate and the government funding and behind a lot of them. 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, generally speaking, they're not used to that kind of methodology in terms of sharing that level of data with third parties effectively. Some have experience with it, especially those that already have operations or have purchased foreign businesses that use that kind of methodology and so have shared that around their businesses and up to the parent company. That helps certainly a lot, but generally speaking, yeah, it's certainly more difficult than internationally outside of China. 

Yeah. So a company like Leyard that bought Planar, they would have been exposed to how all this works and be perhaps a little more comfortable with it.

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the big LED vendors from China have, as I said, made a few purchases recently and I think they're still in that process of sharing those kinds of methodologies and that kind of data throughout the company, but it's happening quite quickly. I think they are becoming much more comfortable with that level of sharing and confidence, particularly in a brand like a Futuresource, where we have that relationship elsewhere, but it needs to be developed with them. 

How much of a problem, if it's a problem at all, are all of the full research companies coming out of somewhere in Pune, India primarily who clog up the news releases every day with forecasts for digital signage that appears to be pretty much nonsensical. Do you compete with them or is that stuff just out there and it grabs the flotsam? 

Matthew Rubin: It's hard to say, isn't it? I think so much of the research industry is built around trust and brands, as in research brands that you're comfortable with and you're aware of, and those are the ones you really end up paying a lot of attention to.

I think it's something that's similar to what you'll get across the internet. There's massive information out there and if you already know your stuff, you'll go straight to certain sources and you're a great example. You will filter out the kind of information that you're getting and what you're willing to share with your readers and your listeners, and I think it's the same across the spectrum, I think of course, you are going to get quite a lot of information out there from any research house that can churn out content, but you pay attention to maybe a much smaller percentage of that.

That might actually know the industry? 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah. Yeah. That certainly helps, doesn’t it? 

What a concept.

So in terms of the industry, one of the reports that you guys put out in the last three, four months, maybe more recent than that even, was megatrends in the context of digital signage and pro-AV, what's happening out there? 

Matthew Rubin: I think. First of all, you've got to really recap what's happened in 2020, and you've got to recognize the difficulties, I think, live events in particular and digital signage faced. Without these kinds of live events driving the market, you have this real dip in demand, right? And it's put a lot of businesses in a very difficult position and similarly, with digital signage, why will end-users or advertising companies, why will you invest in these kinds of displays that really have been growing up until 2020, these eye-catching LEDs or high brightness projection, really impressive displays that you see in big cities around the world.

Why are you going to invest in that when you simply don't have the eyeballs on the screen, on the high street? You're not going to invest in that? 2020 as a whole, mostly speaking outside of China and outside of APAC has been a massive struggle and undoubted struggle and you don't have the basic drivers behind creating some real investment there undoubtedly but saying that there have actually been some really interesting and cool positive stories out there. An area that we track very closely, slightly in the left-field of what we're talking about is interactive displays and we actually have another tracking service on that here at Futuresource, but there has been a huge amount of demand for that kind of technology, particularly in the education vertical, where there's been such a drive to invest in, their need to help children learn remotely in a hybrid fashion, more interactively.

So many of them have laptops in schools and there's a huge drive behind investing in that and in some cases, it's a realization of how far behind certain countries are progressing on the technology side. A great example of that is actually in Germany and there's a lot of investment behind digital pockets there and there's a great hope that will speed things up very quickly. But as a general concept, while most of the display industry has been in decline, that's actually been growing very strongly in China and outside of China. So that's a real positive story and even within the projection, an area that is probably on a bit of a long-term decline slowly and really struggled during 2020, but even within there, there are pockets like ultra-mobile projectors.

And that's partly driven obviously by consumers sitting at home and wanting that cinema experience. But also people wanting mobile office spaces, really looking ahead how are people going to use the office space? What kind of displays do they need in them? How much space you need between employees. It's really a question. This can be very difficult to answer until we know a lot more about the virus and the antiviruses and how that looks going forward. But mobile projectors are a cheap and easy way to have that kind of flexibility there. 

But that's us thinking more about what has happened and moving forward. I think a really interesting theme that we're trying to build upon is this idea behind merged displays and by that, we don't mean literally merging displays into one device, but situations, applications where you want to utilize LED, LCD and projection. I think a really great example of that is within the retail vertical. Again, another area that's really struggled during 2020 without people on the high street typically and in Europe and the US. But again, there's going to be this huge need to encourage shoppers back out onto the high street and that is around this idea of maybe every store, instead of having hundreds, thousands of stores do cover the broadest area, you're moving to an idea where almost every store is a flagship store. That means fewer stores, admittedly and that obviously is a necessity due to the high growth of online shopping anyways. It's pretty much an unsustainable business plan in the long term. But when you start thinking about every store becoming this flagship store, you have a great need to really integrate displays and audio as well within that in some cases, but really invest in creating this experiential shopping experience.

So it's not just a basic transaction, but it's an opportunity to really build on the brand and brand awareness and really draw people back out of their homes, which is something that is really going to be an area of retailers need to focus on. 

Yeah, certainly there've been all kinds of forecasts and prognostications that the way that consumers shop has been changed forever. They've developed new habits like buy online/pick up in-store, buy online/do curbside pickup, all those sorts of things, but we're still at a time when there's lots of talk about that, as opposed to we're still in the pandemic, so we don't really know yet how consumers are going to behave after all this has done, will they just go back to how they did things before, or are the forecast right that this is how people are going to shop now. They want to just roll up and have somebody bring what they bought out to their car and hand it over. 

Matthew Rubin: You're right, there is a consensus that these things are here to stay. Online shopping is going to dominate to a much greater extent than it was before.

And in all honesty, it's hard to say. That is obviously based on the fact that was an existing trend moving pretty much in one direction. It's pretty easy enough to assume that is going to therefore be ingrained more heavily in the way that consumers act. But another way, the way that we look at this and try to understand where things are heading is that you can pretty much put most countries on a chart in terms of how far online shopping penetration has already reached before this, obviously 2020 is a bit of a misnomer, but how far that had already reached in terms of multi-channel click and collect or all of these things you mentioned that the kind of modern way of shopping and actually the UK is funny enough, one of the most advanced in that area and it's pretty easy to assume that other countries, as they are clearly going on that similar trajectory, you can almost plot where they are more likely it ended up.

There are some slight variances around that, of course, in terms of literally just geography what's possible in, in more dense cities and countries compared to a place like the US where you have these very high pockets of populations and then fast spread out areas. But even then you get this whole area of drones flying products around, which isn't possible in much of the UK.

But really I think you can pretty much plot a lot of countries along this line. So you can see the future or at least the near future for a great many of them and certainly here in the UK, it was already very heavily ingrained: online shopping, as I said, click and collect multichannel and the way that people interact with retailer is far beyond that idea of just seeing an advert, maybe on TV, and just going in-store. There are a great many touchpoints and I think part of that and the way that the thinking is evolving is that stores are a hugely important part of that but not so simple in terms of just going there to buy something. It's something, almost part of a marketing budget where there's a great opportunity to invest in the brand, in helping people remember that brand and what it stands for and technology plays a huge role in building that.

How closely do B2B and B2C trends kind of correlate? In other words, if we're seeing a big spike with purchases of 4K LCD TVs, does that trend seem to track as well on the B2B side for commercial displays? 

Matthew Rubin: I think it inevitably does, but for different reasons, and that really ends up just being that the manufacturers put a lot of investment behind the latest and greatest to be that 4K and even that, it's hard to argue has been pulled literally by consumers, it's mostly been pushed by manufacturers. But because so much investment goes into the production line, it makes so much sense to move everything over and move everything in that way B2B, maybe where you would only need 1080p and realistically that is, is all you'd ever need. It still makes financial sense to move almost all production over if not all to 4K. 

So it does have an absolutely direct effect on it. Similarly, with projection, you get some similar trends and desires around laser technology and much higher brightness that the consumers are demanding and that's actually really helped on the B2B side and the wider applications you can use there and actually, that flows backward and forwards, particularly on the projection side, but in terms of display panels, I think it's really just almost, I don't want to say forced on B2B, but it just makes efficient sense to follow the B2C side.

Yeah. I was curious about that. If. Product development is by and large driven by the B2C side just because of volume and everything else. I have heard, I haven't had this confirmed, but heard that much of the Genesis of smart commercial displays, the ones with embedded systems on chips had to do with just having a whole bunch of available SOC processors and what are we going to do with them, “let's make commercial displays smart displays.” 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, I'm not sure about that one in particular. But, I suppose it's one of those very particular to LCD. If you look at LED and what's going on there, that's another one to closely watch in terms of what is really driving it. You have the likes of Samsung who are a very consumer or they do a huge amount of business on the B2B side, but they're hugely focused on consumers as well and they see a huge future for microLED in the living room and the investment that they're pouring in there will absolutely flow and help the B2B side and what they're going to do there and what they're capable of because there are still big leaps and bounds to be made in manufacturing processes. 

So that's a much earlier stage, but possibly a much clearer example of how the B2B and B2C sides interact and it all comes down to investment, doesn't it? And who's drawing the investment, is it the masses of consumers and will they demand enough of that product versus commercial entities? 

Where are we in terms of the shift from LCD to LED? You had companies talking about this being something that was going to happen over five years or so that LCD video walls would go away replaced by LED video walls, but I keep hearing the price delta is still pretty substantial between LED and LCD. 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, you are right. A thing we like to talk about a lot is moving towards price parity but in a literal sense, it doesn't really mean that they are going to reach the exact same price or at least not in the near term. It's more than in terms of consideration for a business, it’s within the realms of possibility to consider LED instead of LCD in many years. Whereas before the price of LED was way too much and way out there and there are some other considerations as well around your ability which has generally been solved now, but the price Delta was huge. Whereas now we are actually entering phases where LED can be chosen above LCD and it makes business sense and sometimes that's to do with the longevity of the device. It can be to do with the flexibility that LED offers that LCD might not be able to, but absolutely we're certainly not at the point where they are, and I just don't expect it in the next year or two for sure, where one is exactly comparable in terms of price to the other. But again, it also depends on what you're doing with it. As I mentioned, if you really want a custom display, LEDs are your only choice. If it's a very bespoke setting, you could go down the route of projectors, but that has its own difficulties.

And equally, as you scale up to very large displays, it's about willingness to accept a bezel maybe if you're building up a big LCD display, which you wouldn't have on LED and you don't have the same exponential cost as you go up in size there, there are huge differences and even then moving on from there, when you have to think about geographically, it's simply a much cheaper product in China because there's just so much of the supply chain there and a lot of government support behind manufacturing. So yeah, it's an even easier choice in China, which is really well. We're seeing a huge uptake in LED often or the expense of LCD. 

Is the sense in the industry, in the display industry that LED will largely shift apart from outdoors stuff from the conventional manufacturing, the SMD surface mounted devices to microLEDor perhaps miniLED, but more likely microLED, is that where it's going?

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, I think it's inevitable that this is where the money is flowing into microLED and really that's what everyone wants and it's a desire at least to make it compete more effectively with LCD in terms of the density and just image quality, which is really impressive now.

But this is also the idea behind mass transfer technology and that's really where we’re expecting to see a bigger flip in terms of pricing of technology of LED and when it really becomes feasible on a mass scale as compared to LCD and that is across consumers as well as B2B.

But there are still a few of these leaps that need to be made and realistically not expected in the next two or three years. You reach out to vendors and you hear sometimes quite wildly different expectations in terms of timelines in terms of what's going on there. So I think there are still some technological leaps that need to be made in terms of processes and manufacturing. But the end goal is the same, really it's almost matching LCD's curve and maturity, but it is a bit more premature at that stage. 

So I gather the big challenges are still getting the manufacturing times down using techniques like mass transferring all the LED dye, but directly tied to that is raising the quality controls level so that the number of flaws, when you mass transfer those LED dye is absolutely minimized otherwise what they call the yield becomes a problem, right? 

Matthew Rubin: Yeah, and I think the yield and a lot of issues around just generally durability around LED was a theme and an issue over the last few years, but very much less so now. From what we understand, I mean, it's a moving scale, isn't it? It's much better than it was, but it's still obviously room to go. But a lot of that investment is really trying to build up this next generation of plants and how they manufacture LED displays and I think that yields have been progressively improving at such a rate that is not as much of a priority as it perhaps was in the last few years. 

The other megatrend that was identified by Futuresource, well one of them anyway, had to do with AV over IP. What does that all encompass?

Matthew Rubin: Well, it's not my personal field that I spend a huge amount of time on. We have a team that's literally dedicated to AV over IP and the benefits that it brings in a range of spectrums, but it's still quite a field that's in early development, I suppose. In some cases, again, it's a field of educating the users around the benefits of using AV over IP and a whole range of fields and applications.

And I think, and again, it's not an area that I focus on too much. But it's certainly an area of a lot of growth opportunities but one of the barriers is just understanding the technology and understanding the leap forward, almost in how you transfer that data.

We, of course, can't really envision when things get back to normal because of vaccine rates and variants and everything else, but I've spoken with a number of companies that are saying, “We're starting to see things turn, we're expecting by Q2 or maybe Q3 business will get back to what we would perceive to be normal.” 

At a macro level, understanding that everything is in flux, does Futuresource have a point of view as to when the digital signage and AV industry will start to come back to normal? 

Matthew Rubin: Again people like the term, what is the new normal? And we're all hoping it goes back to at least something that we understand and resembles from previous experiences and like I said, it's easy to say things at a macro level, but I think even again, it goes back to this idea of geographically there are hugely different experiences of what's happened with COVID in Asia and China, compared to the US and the UK is another example that is hit very hard.

And what's interesting is actually, we've just finished our Q4 2020 data submissions in processing there and there are some bright spots and we're already seeing a relatively strong LCD market in particular and as I said before, a lot of that is propped up by interactive. It's not digital signage, so we say that's certainly still really struggling and it’s all tied around this idea of when can people go out in groups and do the things that they used to do and generally speaking, we think around the middle of the year, we should start seeing a lot more activity around that. But again, all of that ties back to every country is able to get the vaccine out at different rates. 

In the UK, it looks like we're pretty much ahead of the curve, which makes it a nice change. So it's easy to say around here, the second half of the year, we would expect a very much improved market for digital signage and the AV market and that also encompasses events that we expect and hope to be able to go ahead, but again, take a step back though it's unlikely to be much international travel in particular. That's really hard to predict, much later we think in 2021 with a lot of red flags countries is how the UK government has termed it, but countries that we don't expect that travel we allowed until they have reached a certain level of vaccination and that's going to be true of so many places and without travel, without tourism, without that kind of investment, so much hinges on that as well. 

Even with live events as well, how can you expect artists to go from one place to another or sports teams and so it's all really very much interconnected. So, at a very high macro level, absolutely middle of the year, we would start to see some real positivity there. But in terms of really hitting recovery levels, we're probably talking around Q4 at the earliest to hit some of the real peaks and that's of course true. We are expecting a really big, notable bounce back in demand. We do think there's a lot of pent-up demand, a lot of businesses that have kept devices going for longer to avoid that kind of initial investment of refreshing technology and that's totally understandable. Why would you invest at this point, a very high-risk stage, for many businesses. 

But we expect a big flow of investment within certain verticals. Obviously, there are some verticals that are probably going to struggle for the whole of 2021 and it won't be real until 2022 that you see a real rebound there, but there  are a lot of enterprises in a lot of signage areas where we'd expect to see a fair bounce back, particularly in the second half.

All right, Matthew, thank you for spending some time with me. I appreciate it. 

Matthew Rubin: Anytime. It's been a real pleasure and it's always great to talk about these high-level themes that are going on, and we have so many detailed conversations with so many partners. It's good to talk about what does that all mean and where is it going? And a timeline like this, it's all very unpredictable, which makes it more engaging. 

All right. Thank you.

 

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