Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

June 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: How was that going so far? 

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

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

Christophe Billaud: Yes, that's true.

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

Christophe Billaud: Thanks a lot, Dave. 

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

June 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

May 19, 2021

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

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

Clearly, I needed to speak with this guy.

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

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

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

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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. 

 

 

 

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

April 28, 2021

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

As vaccination rates climb and we can seriously look at getting back to some normals in our daily lives, there's a lot of discussion happening around what consumers will expect, and accept, in terms of personalized digital marketing.

Things like appointment-based shopping and personalization grew more prevalent because of lockdowns and necessary pivots by brands, and consumers are now somewhat conditioned to services that are more tuned to their needs. 

But at the same time, there are still lots of concerns about things like being tracked in some way by technologies.

We talked about all this on a recent roundtable panel organized by Advocates for Connected Experiences, an umbrella organization that involves numerous industry associations and bodies that touch on advertising, retail, marketing and design.

I moderated the session, and noted how great it was that the gender balance was completely off, with one guy and a bunch of super-smart women.

My panelists included:

  • Kim Sarubbi, who chairs ACE
  • Debbie Haus, Retail Touchpoints
  • Kym Frank, Geopath
  • Cybelle Jones, SEGD
  • Beth Warren, CRI
  • Laura Davis-Taylor, InReality
  • Stephanie Gutnik, Verizon Media

This is a special edition of the podcast.

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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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Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

Renaud Lafrance, Stingray

March 24, 2021

Montreal's Stingray has built up a global business providing curated music channels for consumers on their cable systems and through streaming, and also for retail through in-store radio systems. But the company also has a fast-growing Business division that's focused both on shopper experiences, using digital display, and on shopper behaviours and interests.

Stingray has been most active in Canada, and particularly Quebec, but it is making moves to expand in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

I caught up with Renaud Lafrance, the Chief Revenue Officer for Stingray Business, to get a sense of how his group operates, the product offer and the state of the retail market as we start to come out of this awful pandemic. 

We get into a bunch of things, including how retailer needs have evolved in the past year, and the value of analytics. We also talk about a big sports retailer's flagship, filled with digital, in suburban Montreal.

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

Renaud, thanks for joining me. Let's start by giving you background on what Stingray is all about. I spoke with Pierre from your company about three years ago, but it's certainly time to do an update. 

Renaud Lafrance: Yes, David. First of all, thank you for having me on your podcast. I've read a lot of great things about it.

Let me give you a very brief summary of the Stingray organization: Stingray was founded in 2007. We're a publicly listed company as of 2015, and essentially, we're a business leader in the music and visual media in the world. There are essentially three business units of Stingray: 

#1, Genesis is what we call our broadcast plus streaming app business. This is where you see many cable operators around the world, but let's say in the US operators such as Comcast, in Canada Rogers, and such where you have audio channels. And throughout the years, without many acquisitions, we've added other channels, other solutions, such as Quello, which is the Netflix of concerts and karaoke, we have the largest licensed karaoke catalog in the world, and we have different platforms for the karaoke, not just cable operators, but in the world of OTT (over the top) platforms such as Amazon, they're distributors of our content and Roku, Samsung TV+, which are using our audio and visual channels. Different products like NatureScape is one of them. If you ever have a Samsung TV or an LG, both are partners of ours. This is loaded directly into the smart TVs. So this broadcast/streaming app business is one of our units. 

The second unit is Radio. We have a hundred radio stations, like old-style broadcasting. The third business unit is the discussion today. The one which I take care of is Stingray Business, which is all about in-store media solutions regarding music and digital signage and experience as well as insights. 

You're a Montreal company and I think you got your start on the digital side by acquiring another Montreal company called Groupe VIVA. Is that pretty accurate? 

Renaud Lafrance: Yeah. So since 2007, our Stingray Group Inc, we've done 48 acquisitions into different divisions, but in the distinguished business division, our first foray into digital signage was in 2015. Before that, we had acquired other commercial background music companies, but the digital signage, digital experience portion of the in-store media world started in 2015.

And yes, it was a local Canadian company called Groupe VIVA and then we also acquired another digital signage company called Novara Media out of Toronto, and we also acquired a company in Europe, in Benelux, which had a mix of commercial background music and digital signage, a company called DJ-Matic, and where we have a presence in the Netherlands in both Belgium, and we also acquired last year during the pandemic, our Mexican affiliate Basha, which has many large enterprise brand clients with digital signage rolled out in Mexico. 

So is that kind of a strategy for the executive to grow through, at least in part through acquisition?

Renaud Lafrance: Absolutely. Stingray’s strategy is a growth twofold into user acquisition and also a big push in organic growth as well. The combination of the two. 

So your streaming music business is global on the digital media side, the quasi digital signage side, is that primarily North American and more so than anything so far in Canada?

Renaud Lafrance: So just to give you a little context, we have around 125,000 locations. With one of our solutions or both or more than two in retail locations. So music, signage, business intelligence (what I would call insights) so we have a global footprint. So our strategy was really to become a global player and really take on global enterprise clients.

We have to have a footprint and not just the footprint, feet on the street with a full staff taking care of support, taking care of project management, taking care of curation, taking care of all the integration necessary for both signage and music, commercial music install. So this is why we have an office in Sydney, Australia for the APAC region, with a full team over there. We have the European team, the Mexican team, USA, Canada, and all our different offices have the signage capabilities, embedded with the commercial music to give a full in-store media solution package for our retail, brick and mortar clients in the different verticals that we operate.

But is it fair to say that a lot of your business to date has been in Canada and you're now expanding? 

Renaud Lafrance: When we acquired the company in Europe, they had a certain percentage of revenue coming from signage. Mexico is, I would say 80% digital signage, but it's fair to say that like notable large clients like we have banks in Mexico with a full digital signage rollout, the largest pharmacy chain in Mexico also under digital signage and but of course, still the bulk now is Canada, but very quickly moving on to American brands as well as global enterprise brands for digital signage, as we speak. 

And you did some sort of, I think it was a partnership more than anything else, with a US company called Space Factory, going back two, three months, yeah?

Renaud Lafrance: So the thing with Space Factory is that we started with the partnership with them, they're a veteran crew, a collective in the in-store media world. They'd been operating in the past 30 years in various different businesses that are well-known such as play networks and others. And we just combined our efforts to really launch our conquest of the American market.

As of Jan 1st, we exited our relationship with our partnership with Mood Media, where initially we were exclusive for Canada for commercial music and they were for the US. Now, this is over and one of the reasons why we partnered with Space is to accelerate our penetration in the American market with seasoned veterans. And again, we're always looking at tuck-in acquisitions and major acquisitions in the American market to further consolidate and further grow our in-store media business as well as we built and we're continuing to build a full organic sales team in the US and going after enterprise brands always.

So, I'm an end-user, I'm a large retailer in the US and I'm interested in what Stingray’s Space Factory has to offer. What all is it that you guys do? Do you start right at the consulting idea stage and take it all the way through to ongoing management? Or are there a start point and an endpoint?

Renaud Lafrance: I think with our unique blend of solutions, not just on the business side, but also on the consumer broadcast side, we have a lot of assets and we have a unique position, a combination that we can bring to the marketplace. I'll take Insights as an example.

As we bundle these, the media, music, technology, digital signage experience, Insights. Also, for instance, I'll give you a little more background on the Insights portion. We acquired a company last year called Chatter Research, and they've developed a very clever way to get feedback from retail clients, thus giving very sought-after information on customers. The way this is done in the retail world these days in the past years, often you go and shop or even shop online. You'll sometimes get a request to fill out a survey, go online, fill out a survey. What chatter has done through a proprietary AI engine is really a clever easy way to interact with clients to talk about their experience. We call it a conversation. 

So if you're a purchase or an operator, with a QR code enabled through signage or through different media placements in a retail operation, you have a conversation with an AI text-based on your smartphone. Thus you're answering and the AI will look at 1200 inflection points. So instead of asking you questions, eight or nine questions. It's an open conversation. And then the AI captures this data and there's a dashboard with which retail management can really consult every second of the day, if they want real-time feedback coming in, classifying it and seeing what people really want or what's missing.

So this intelligence is I think, now a vital part of our whole in-store media solution offering and it also makes it another value add and something very distinctive as to bring to the business world. 

Yeah. It sounds like a chatbot, except instead of it being for virtual stores, it’s for bricks-and-mortar stores.

Renaud Lafrance: Yeah, but it's more than a chatbot because it was really built for the whole retail marketplace and there's also a version online for a lot of our retailers that have e-commerce, especially these days in the pandemic. So it's not a chatbot, it's really focused on getting feedback from clients and really capturing all of that and building a dashboard, establishing the NPS (Net Promoter Score) and executives can have deep insight that they would never get with simple eight-question feedback. 

This is very different, it seems from a lot of the retail analytics that has been marketed in the last three or four years.

I think I went to a show a couple of years ago, and the trade show floor was filled with companies selling AI-based, computer-vision based retail analytic, and I've not seen a lot of take-up of that stuff, so going out this way with an opt-in app basically seems very different. 

Renaud Lafrance: It's very different. We've also had our different digital experiences with digital signage solutions using AI with facial recognition and so on, just establish with our clients what's working, what's not working with content, and so on, but this is really smart, simple, and conversational. And there's no app, by the way. It's just, you just look at the QR code, or you can just text the number and you start the conversation via text. 

This has been an interesting 12 months, to say the least, and a difficult time for a lot of retailers unless they sell groceries or they're a big box or they sell liquor.

I'm curious: how the last year has been in terms of what retail needs are, what retail interests are in digital experiences in-store, has it gone quiet on you, or is there still a lot of interest or even perhaps more interest than there was in the past because things are so different now?

Renaud Lafrance: I will give you an answer based on geography because, in all our different countries where we have our retail clients, we have a different mix. For instance, in North America, we were lucky to have a lot of essential business clients, such as supermarkets, drug stores, banks who always stayed open. In other geographies, we have sometimes more of a mix of restaurants, cafes, hospitality, and so on. And whether it's Europe or Canada, the USA, or Mexico, a lot of them were shut down, and are still shut down.

But overall, we were very lucky to have enterprise brand clients and a good concentration in the essentials, and even the QSR clients, kept operating with a drive-thru, curbside pickup. 

The second part of the answer to your question is yes, we are seeing the demand for new things. Signage whether it's signage that will be at the entrance of the store, look at store counts, people counts, like the whole messaging for COVID. Another thing that's happened along the way is on the audio side, the music side, because we have thousands of locations where we can broadcast messages, we've been broadcasting a lot of COVID messaging for our retail clients. Less visual but more audio, so you absolutely reach everyone that's in the store. So COVID messaging, health and safety, whether it's for the employees or for the general consumer walking in the store, that‘s been very popular, and even using our insights solution Chatter, we're getting a lot of new information from clients stating what they need, what they want, what they're looking for and what they'd like to see within the retail experience, the customer experience regarding visual content regarding less touch. 

Are there still budgets out there? There are retailers who are prepared to spend or are they on hold?

Renaud Lafrance: Funny thing is a lot of retailers, and again, if you look at the focus on large global brands, whether to engage with a current vendor and they want to switch because some people in some companies in the industry have been affected, I’m talking about some of the competition, might not have as healthy a balance sheet.

And, it's very interesting to see the number of our fees and then the number of large deals that are currently in negotiation with major iconic brands around the globe that we are currently involved in. So regardless of, let's say 2000-3000 store global chain, won’t name a specific brand, but they are affected in different countries, but they are still looking at modernizing, looking at digital experience within the store, the customer experience. 

We've been saying for many years that maybe the retail footprint will be reduced but the experience will be augmented. So the short answer, David, is that surprisingly does a lot of activity right now. 

That's good. I'm also curious, there's been a lot of things written and a lot of speculation on things like panel discussions and so on about how retail has changed and how selling is moved to the parking lot, to the curbside that there's a big demand for personalization, that there'll be appointment-based shopping and a lot of the way that we do shopping in places other than big-box grocery stores and so on, will change as a result of all this. Are you seeing that at all? 

Renaud Lafrance: I then we are seeing, and if you look at different verticals, I'll use the example of QSR, for instance, with certain QSR, forward-thinking brands, the proliferation of drive-thru, some drive-throughs are now two lanes, three lanes.

As we just mentioned, using a mobile app to pre-order delivery at specific spots within the curbside pickup. You're seeing multiple channels now open up and even in the discussion with someone autonomous cars delivering food, and we were involved with a signage portion within the car and also the feedback insights portion within that a delivery service that will be launched later by a major QSR brand. 

You also mentioned some fully-automated stores coming online. You’ve seen Amazon Grocery, and closer to us, Circle K is also looking at the convenience store automation lab. We've also done a great new concept with a Canadian-based QSR chain called Recipe Unlimited, which holds around 1300 locations spread out over nine brands and they developed a new concept where all their brands can be served with one kitchen, and you pre-order, or you just walk in like a giant vending machine and there's no sit-down, you just pick up in your cubicle, the meal you ordered and you go home with it, but you have access to all the brands within one kitchen instead of going to different restaurants, obviously. 

I'm using the QSR example, and then we could go on to different verticals, we've seen ghost kitchens happening. We've seen many different innovations coming up right now that we want to assist partners with these clients in helping them bring, in the QSR business, as I've stated before, they're also looking at experience: what can we do to have a unique experience? So more investment’s going towards experience and made into new experiences, into new delivery methods instead of a proliferation of a greater number of locations to serve their client base. 

One of your colleagues, Martez sent me a video that showed a new store that you guys have worked on in suburban Montreal and out in Broussard that is a sporting goods store and you guys have done quite a bit of sporting goods stores. Can you tell me about this Sports Expert store and what the thinking was behind it? Because it's pretty ambitious and big. 

Renaud Lafrance: This unique store, I think the square footage is around 65,000 and the owner-operator has currently 10 sporting goods stores under this banner, called Sports Experts, pretty much Dick's Sporting Goods in the US and yeah, we've been partnering with them for a number of years and the specific owner really believed in revamping to create more experiences and made a lot of multimillion-dollar investments within his stores, and specifically this large one where we supported them with unique solutions: LED interactivity, obviously our commercial background music embedded with a special playlist made for them, Chatter’s in there also, and it's really become like a flagship store, iconic store and the ROI is clear. Even if it was a substantial investment for the total store, the total footprint of the store. After it's been open now for a year and a half, sales are better than expected based on the considerable investment you made in that store, not just with our solutions, but with everything put together.

Sporting Goods is an interesting one. There's a rival Canadian chain that has opened a lot of big flagship stores as well and they've been to a point of amusement for me because they seem to want to throw everything, including the kitchen sink into the stores, in terms of visual razzle-dazzle, like there's gesture, there's interactive, there's everything, and I've walked through there and thought, and a lot of times, “I'm not sure why they did this.” 

Are the Sporting Goods retailers getting a little more sophisticated in terms of what they do and why they want to do it and getting past the, just a pure visual excitement thing? 

Renaud Lafrance: I think so. I don't know if you want to mention the banner or not? 

(Laughter) Go right ahead if you want, or I can... Starts with Sport. 

Renaud Lafrance: Oh, yeah. Okay. I'll use the example of the Sports Experts one where you have a refrigeration area as if you were in the Arctic, and you enter and you try some coats on and so it's not just digital experiences and it's unique. 

So that's an example of what's making it different and unique, or you enter an area where there's rain so that you can test the rain gear and the permeability of different coats. And I guess if you look back in the eighties and nineties, the mall was at the centerpiece of social activity for a lot of teenagers and adults. Now we're seeing entertainment come into retail. We're seeing experience. As you were talking about the store near the greater metropolitan area of Montreal on the South shore, they are in an open outside mall. And you're seeing all these developments around entertainment in these openings, again, the pandemic and last year have stopped some of the development, but we all foresee this to continue on the experiential side melting retail, hospitality, entertainment, all in one. 

Yeah. I've been out that way. I don't think the store was open at that point, but certainly, there are some great restaurants right in that immediate area. You've got some premium retailers there, it's not your average shopping mall.

Renaud Lafrance: No, and there are other real estate developments coming up across North America where you'll have concerts, like major hotels set up within the retail shopping area. They become destinations in themselves, maybe a precursor that is the West Edmonton Mall, but we see more and more of this and experiences are becoming very important.

Yeah. It can't be just a destination to go shopping because you can go shopping on your phone or on your desktop. 

Renaud Lafrance: Exactly and I think, with our global footprint, we are very well positioned to really partner with these brands to bring these experiences.

So when you have the first meeting with a chain retailer, it doesn't really matter what they sell, just a chain retailer, and you have that first conversation, what do you ask them? 

Renaud Lafrance: I think we have to understand the brand and what is their story, and what they want to create as a client business experience.

So I think the first part always is really understanding the brand and what the brand means to their client base. That is the first and foremost thing, and then after that, you get into the solution aspect, but that is the key item to really capture and I think a lot of people are skipping that part. And this is where you can come up with enduring solutions, instead of coming up with a lot of hardware where you've seen this many times where things were not well thought out and there is no content, there is no value, but there is some signage, there is some experience, but little value because the content was not really well thought, was a second thought to the whole hardware networking logistical piece of the digital signage operation.

And I think David you've been using examples of sometimes office tower lobbies where you've seen great content. I think the lobby, seating area of Netflix, you're immersed in some of their other shows, in their series. That’s using the complete power of the digital experience and creativity and really do something different. 

Yeah, then you get the flip side where there's an office lobby and they put in a giant LED wall and they don't really seem to know why they did it and they just go out and find some 4K footage and run it on there. I can remember one in Miami that I saw and it was showing scenes from the Miami waterfront and the Miami waterfront was across the street from the buildings, I was like ”if I want to see that I'll go outside.” (Laughter) 

Renaud Lafrance: Exactly, David. If you understand the brand, you understand the story, you can create a unique business experience for the client and I guess content and the way you draw the whole experience out is crucial.

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

Renaud Lafrance: Welcome, David. It's always a pleasure and good luck with your podcast. I think you have a great tool for our digital signage industry. 

Thank you. 

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

Chris Chinnock, 8K Association

March 17, 2021

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

There was a lot of skepticism and debate in the digital signage community when 4K commercial displays started coming on the market, with industry observers openly wondering if visual messaging applications needed that high level of resolution.

Several years later, 4K is perhaps not common, but certainly being used in many projects, and both accepted and supported.

And as 4K bedded in, the industry started seeing some of the bigger display manufacturers showing 8K displays at trade shows, and the debate about the demand and the challenges for super high resolution displays started all over again.

One of the ways an industry builds awareness, acceptance, support and standards for a new technology is to have working groups or organizations of stakeholders. There's an 8K Association now, and the companies that got it going asked display industry veteran Chis Chinnock to step in and run it. An industry observer, writer, analyst and consultant, Chris has been around displays forever and seen the evolution. He understands what the engineers are going on about, but has the skills to explain it in terms mere mortals can understand.

He explained to me where 8K is at on the adoption curve (it's still early) and we get into the implications of 8K on infrastructure. He also explain who will want and use 8K, and why.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining me. Can you tell me what the 8K Association is all about? 

Chris Chinnock: Sure. Thanks for having me on your podcast, appreciate that. 

The 8K Association was formed at CES in 2019, so about a little over two years ago, and it was formed with panel makers and TV makers primarily and that's when 8K TVs were starting to come into the market and we had some initial goals which was to promote those 8K TVs, to develop a certification program for those 8K TVs, to begin gathering 8K content for our member use, and to begin education of the professional community, because we're going to need a full 8K ecosystem from content creation, through distribution and display for this to become mainstream.

Is this the sort of thing that wouldn’t necessarily just happen organically?

Chris Chinnock: It would happen organically. We just wanted to form the organization to try and help facilitate communication and maybe move the ecosystem a little bit faster than it would've done organically. That's all.

And is this something that manufacturers do? I think of some of the other certifications and reference designs out there?

Chris Chinnock: Oh, yeah and there's tons of these organizations out there with different marketing goals or ecosystem development goals, so we're not reading any new ground here. We're, this is a tried and true kind of approach. 

For example, in the 4K transition, the UHD Alliance came up to do a promotion and development of UHD or 4K content, mostly aimed at consumers and then the UHD Forum was originated not long afterwards, which was focused more on trying to educate and develop the 4K ecosystem and the professional community and they developed a bunch of guidelines and whatnot to help broadcasters and filmmakers implement 4K workflows. In many senses, we're following that model and learning from what they did and trying to leverage that going forward. 

Yeah. It's an interesting thing. You have lots of people saying, “8K: is that something we're ever really going to need?” “There's no content for our…” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. These are all the things that were said about 4K and lots of questions as to whether 4K whatever take route at all and it certainly has, is it the same argument or is this a little more nuanced because 8K is like super duper high resolution? 

Chris Chinnock: It is the same argument. We had naysayers six, seven years ago for 4K. We've got naysayers for 8K now. Absolutely, it's a different environment now, but there's also a lot of things that are similar to what was happening in 4K six, seven, eight years for sure. 

With 8K, you're talking about super high resolution. In the context of digital signage, where would 8K be particularly useful and applicable? 

Chris Chinnock: From what I'm gathering, we've actually been poking around in the proAV space, trying to understand what the needs are for 8K, to tell you the truth and what we're learning is the big need is really in distribution and transport. So the canvases are clearly getting bigger and larger in digital signage. An 8K digital signage is not uncommon, I don't think nowadays. But it's not necessarily in a standard 16:9 format. They come in all kinds of aspects, ratios and configurations.

But what we're starting to see is, these big canvases, you want to start with a higher resolution source of master file, so that you can have a piece of that 8K master going out to various parts of this display. So if you letterbox it or clip a PC in there, you want to start with a high resolution piece and not have to do upscaling at the display itself, if you can avoid that, because there are some issues with that.

So the main argument is interesting, with the 8K Association and the website, you even have on the navigation bar, just straight out, “Why 8K” and I go through things and some of those objections, so to speak are: you can't see the resolution, that the human eye can't even raise, can't even resolve 8K now. 

I don't think that's quite accurate, is it? 

Chris Chinnock: No, it's not and people make that argument based on simple acuity, that is the Snellen chart and it's literally based on geometry and that is a big part of vision. There's no doubt about that. But human vision's far more complex. There are higher order things going on, they call it hyper acuity, so that allows you to see, for example, the differences between parallel lines and slightly unparalleled lines. It allows you to see stars in the night sky that simple acuity says you can't see and perhaps more importantly, we form images in the brain, the retina and the eye is part of it, but the brain puts those signals together to create an image. So we sometimes and often do fill in details in our brain to create that image of the world. 

So if you have an 8K image versus a 4K image, it has less artifacts, it has more texture and detail. So it creates a higher sense of realism. It's subtle and the hyper acuity may say you can't see that difference, but all these other factors reinforce that it's more real, it's more present.

Do you have to be within a certain kind of viewing cone or proximity in order to appreciate that difference between 4K and 8K? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, certainly the closer you sit, you will see more detail and sharpness and texture, and that's for sure, because that's part of the simple acuity part. But also remember, we're talking HDR signals for the most part with 8K content now. So it's high dynamic range, it's white color gamut. All these things make a big difference. 

Yeah, if you're using high dynamic range, then you can see an incredible amount of detail that isn't otherwise revealed. 

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. 

From your point of view, are there certain kinds of applications for signage that make more sense than others?

Like from my point of view if it's at a museum or something where you're going to get people who are going to be walking up close, that's when it starts to make some sense. 

I just don't know that anybody's ever going to need a 8K digital menu board in a QSR. 

Chris Chinnock: I agree with that, absolutely and museums are one perfect example. I know I've seen in some trade show demonstrations, they'll have an artifact that can be either a video capture, a 3D video capture of an artifact, or it could be a very high resolution computer generated image. 

But now you can go up to the screen, you can really look at this artifact. You can zoom in on it. You can rotate it and you don't see any discrepancies in that image. You've got lots and lots of resolution to play with here, so it's much closer to lifelike 

In terms of math, what's the difference? And I hope I'm not putting you on the spot here, but just generally the difference between a full HD file and an 8K file, in terms of size and what are the implications in terms of the equipment, graphics cards and everything you need to play it out. 

Chris Chinnock: File size is going to depend on the compression that you use. Maybe a better way to look at it is what's the bandwidth you would need, the uncompressed bandwidth you need for various files.

So I think full HD is somewhere around three gigabits as I recall. But now if you want to do 8K, I think the highest reasonable level that you want to do is 8K at 60 frames per second, 10 bit and now the difference comes with color subsampling. If it's video, you're going to do four to zero color subsampling, that's about 30 gigabits per second. So ten times full HD, right? If you want to do broadcast quality, that's four to two color sampling. That's 40 gigabits. You want to do four-four,-four for high resolution graphics in proAV, 60 gigabits per second.

Woah!

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, so here's the problem: it's a distribution challenge, right? So there are solutions out there. If you want to do proAV, you can use HDMI 2.1. You may have to use two connectors if you want to do four-four,-four. That's a real challenge, just to sync those and it's going to be short distance, right? So your player's gotta be right by, probably a standalone 8K display of some sort. 

The other side of the coin is IP distribution, right? That's a huge trend in the whole proAV space. So there's a lot of solutions that are out there to do that now. A lot of them are focused on one gigabit networks and that's just not gonna cut it for 8K, right? So we're starting to see, there’s at least two organizations that I know about that are trying to develop some standards in this. One is the Software Defined Video Over Ethernet (SDVOE) and that's focused on using a 10 gigabit network to support it.

10 gigabits is okay if you use some kind of a mezzanine codec, like JPEG XS. That's supposed to be a lossless codec that you can compress up to fifteen to one. So you can get all those signals onto a 10 gigabit network easily with JPEG XS and then the other organizations I'm aware of is the AIMS Alliance organization, and they're developing what's called the IPMX standard. What they're doing is borrowing video over IP standard from the SMT organization from broadcast and that standard is called ST2110 and it has all kinds of high-end features in it for broadcast, including redundant distribution. So you have two Ethernet channels So if one fails the other one's always there. It's got high-end timing and grand master clocks. 

We don't need that for proAV for the most part. So the AIMS Alliance is specifically trying to take that broadcast standard, strip out what you don’t need, add in some things that you do need for proAV and develop a new standard.

So if I'm somebody who runs a facility operations for a Fortune 500 company and at their main headquarters office campus, the CEO has bought an 8K TV for his home and says, “I love 8K. I want my whole digital signage network converted over to 8Kx8K displays. It can replace the 4K's or the 2Ks that are hanging up on mounts and all that.”

What are the infrastructure implications if you want to be moving files around on the wide area network and everything else? I suspect you're thinking about even the cabling, certainly have a lot of the hardware that's moving data around everything else. 

Chris Chinnock: Absolutely and that's why you have to have a network that can support this. If your corporate network is based on a one gig ethernet structure, you're going to have to upgrade that. I know some of the new Intel motherboards support both 1 gig and now 2.5 gig ethernet outputs over, I think that's probably over Cat 5 cables and that may be sufficient if you're using a video and can compress that enough to get on a 2.5 gig network. It's pushing it a little bit but it's possible. It, again, depends on the client here, if they're really sensitive to having pixel accurate images or if it just has to look pretty good, I should say really good, but...

If you want to go to a 10 gig network or a 5 gig network, these are all much better because you can use less compression. But they come at a cost: all your network switches and maybe the cabling have to be upgraded to support this as well. 

Yeah.So like a regular Cat 5 may not support it and then you're pulling hundreds of meters of new cabling? 

Chris Chinnock: Potentially. Yeah, absolutely. Or, maybe just go to a fiber network to be future-proofing who knows? 

Wow and so I would imagine some new builds are future-proof like crazy, but there would be probably 90% of the built environment out there would probably need to be tweaked in some way, right?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think so. 

One of the other arguments about 8K is that there's no content available. Is that true?

Chris Chinnock: It is true. There is very limited content out there. The interesting part of that is that actually a lot of content is shot on 8K cameras and there are now 12K cameras out there. Black magic design is a 12K camera. So it's being captured in 8K or higher, but it's not being finished in 8K or distributed in 8K yet. 

Is that because there's no market for it? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, partly. You gotta have a certain critical mass of 8K TVs out there before you start streaming to it and I think streaming is going to be the first way that we see 8K content coming to consumers and you need good codecs out there to distribute it too. 

NHK has been broadcasting 8K content for over two years now but they're broadcasting at 80 to a 100 megabits per second with high compression ratios, and that's just too high. Netflix is 15 to maybe 25 megabits per second, that's where most of the streamers are coming in right now for 4K content. That's where you need to get, maybe you could start at 40 or 50 for a premium 8K streaming service, but you quickly got to get down to that 25 area, I think in my opinion.

Is there a likelihood that there will be more content produced that is in the right format? What changes that?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, I think again, you need that critical mass of TVs out there. You need a cost-effective distribution system and when that arrives, especially with these new codecs that are coming like VDC, I think you'll see major streamers jumping in with an 8K service.

Another argument is that production costs are also high. Is that primarily the costs of cameras that are like Black Magic Design and RED cameras that can shoot in that? Or, are there a whole bunch of things?

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, there's a bunch of things there and those were exactly the same arguments for 4K adoption, six, seven years ago. It's more memory, it's more bandwidth. The camera costs are a little bit higher. The storage costs are a little bit higher. That's all true but I think we're also in a very different era now. So with this pandemic, we've seen a big acceleration of production workflows to the cloud. There's no doubt about that, with all the remote production that had to go on. We're also, I think, going to see an evolution of that. So more and more production will go to the cloud and I think that actually favors 8K production as well, because what we're seeing and a company, FrameIO just demonstrating this, they have a camera to cloud service now. So you can be on set shooting with 8K cameras and as soon as you finish that take, it goes right up to the cloud. The original camera files are in the cloud and then from the cloud, you can do proxy editing proxy color grading. You can do everything and have dailies right back on the set the next morning.

This is going to revolutionize, I think, the way movies and TV shows are produced, 

When you’re talking about compression. I think in terms of compression somewhat clobbering the file, does it have any noticeable impact on quality as opposed to the native file? 

Chris Chinnock: Sure and that just depends on the compression ratio.

JPEG XS up to 15:1, that's supposed to be a lossless thing. So visually lossless, if you're at that kind of compression ratio, but if you get into a distribution, that's called a Mezzanine Kodak. If you get into a distribution Kodak, one goes to consumers, Amazon or Netflix is using, HEVC and is going to be hundreds to one in compression and so you can potentially see our artifacts that way. 

Especially now, when you put us on a very large screen, that's tens of meters wide, you'll definitely see things on that size screen that you wouldn't see on an 80-inch screen.

Is 8K best suited for flat panel displays as opposed to LED? 

Chris Chinnock: Not necessarily. With LED again, because it's a bigger screen, it's less forgiving, because any artifact is just more visible. 

What about the timelines on all this? You mentioned how six, seven years ago that the fuss that was out there was around 4K and nobody's ever going to use it or anything else… What do you see are the timelines to a time when 8K is a shoulder shrug? 

Chris Chinnock: Well, there's a graphic that we one of the market research companies put together that showed that the resolution transitions and now we're talking about displays here. So when a display of a new resolution was introduced to the time it was selling at 50% of retail sales.

So SD to Full HD, Full HD to 4K, and now 4K to 8K, that cycle is seven years and consistently seven years. So you could argue that we're a year, maybe two years into the 8K cycle at this point. The pandemic probably added a year to that. So if in seven years 50% of sales are now 8K TVs, we saw how fast 4K TVs were adopted and how fast 4K streaming came onboard. 

Will history repeat? Probably. 

Is this primarily a consumer driven product or do you envision a lot of commercial adoption of 8K displays? 

Chris Chinnock: I think the push today and certainly the focus of the 8K Association has been on consumer entertainment, production and the entertainment production value chain. But as we have already discussed, there are clear needs in the proAV space here as well, particularly for all these larger canvases for rental and staging, for corporate environments, for pop-up events. We talked about museums, there's medical imaging that's an important area as well, that's coming on board. 

How about 8K VR? That's starting to happen as well. So there are a range of different applications here, including broadcast as well. It's happening in broadcast too. So yeah, it's happening in a lot of different areas, even security cameras. There's 8K security cameras now. 

Is some of that just a function of end users and integrators and everybody else wanting to have the latest and greatest and say, “We're doing 8K, we're doing AI, we're doing machine learning.”? Or, they're just jumping on the latest? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, and I think, that's what companies do, and they always have to make the next product a little bit better than the previous one. So 8K is a natural next step and I'm glad you brought up this idea of AI as well, because that's also very different from where we were during the 4K transition. 

Upscaling in the 8K TV, AI based or machine learning based and neural network based now is a  completely different technology from when we had upscaling and 4K TVs. AI is being used in the encoding space as well to help reduce those bit rates and do seen optimized encoding now. So we're just at the very beginning of this AI capability and the cloud capability. So the combination of these I think is going to be very powerful.

If you're using display technology that has AI based upscaling and it's that good, do you really even need to produce at native 8K or are you in a lot of situations and are going to be just fine with 4K upscaled? 

Chris Chinnock: Yeah, today that's a very acceptable solution. In fact, it has to be the solution because that's what we have out there.

But one of the scenarios that we're trying to standardize in the 8K Association is, we don't really have a good name for this yet, let's call it Smart Streaming just for purposes. But the idea here is that you encourage those 8K camera original files to now be mastered in 8K, so you create a naked finished movie or piece of content. 

You now smartly downscale that to 4K with some metadata about how you did that. You now use conventional encoding techniques, HEVC, or AV1 to distribute that content the way streamers are doing that now and if you have an 8K TV, you can now read this metadata smartly, upscale that back to 8K and theoretically, that gets pretty close to a native 8K distribution scheme in terms of image quality.

If we're talking about four to five to six years before 8K is really settled in, companies that are thinking right now about a refresh of their display technology and the supporting infrastructure for the digital signage network they're running across whatever environment it may be in, do they need to be future-proof now? 

Or they're fine with what they have at the moment and they can just have in their heads that the next refresh cycle, we'll be looking at 8K?

Chris Chinnock: I think it depends on the number of pixels they want to put up there. If it's a big canvas with a fairly tight pixel pitch, which means it's a lot of pixels then absolutely, I would be thinking of a higher network structure for that. If it's a smaller display with a bigger pixel pitch, then maybe you don't necessarily need it. 

And we're talking 8K, but I have seen the stories for 12K and I believe even 16K. Are those things that will exist beyond labs? 

Chris Chinnock: I would not underestimate that capability, yes. I believe that will probably happen and we'll go through this whole cycle again. “No one could see it. We don't need it. It's too expensive.” 

I read something saying 16K is pretty much perfection, that's like 20/20 equivalent, perfect eyesight. You're seeing everything! 

Chris Chinnock: That depends on the screen size. 

Ah, okay. This is all over my head. 

Chris, how did you get involved with the association? 

Chris Chinnock: I was actually asked by the TV manufacturers to help form it. So I said, yes. 

And is this a full-time gig or among the many things you do? 

Chris Chinnock: No, it's one of several things that I do, yeah. 

Just for the listeners, what kind of work do you do? 

Chris Chinnock: I've been in the display industry for close to a thousand years now. (Laughter)

I've done all kinds of things. We published newsletters for quite a while. We did market research reports, consulting services. I've run a bunch of events on this. I do white papers for clients, et cetera, et cetera. So my focus has always been on the cutting edge of display related technology. So 8K is one of them. 

I'm also very active in the light field and holographic displays, AR and VR are key areas for me and micro-LED and mini-LED is also an exciting technology for me as well. 

Yeah, and the fun thing is everything you're looking at is ever evolving and always interesting.

Chris Chinnock: That's why this job is fun. I learn something every day, right? 

Yeah. That's the same with me. People ask me, I'm in my early sixties now and people are asking me, “Are you thinking of winding down?” And I say, not really because the stuff I work on is interesting and I follow the stuff that's emerging and that's always fun.

Chris Chinnock: Exactly. I'm with you. 

All right, Chris, I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Chris Chinnock: I appreciate the time. Thanks, Dave.

 

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.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

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.

 

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

Gary Mundrake, TSItouch

February 17, 2021

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

Gary Mundrake's company, TSItouch, has a tag line that flat out says The World Needs More Touch.

He'd like, of course, to sell the world more touch technology, but there's a larger story about his 10-year-old company's activity in the digital signage and pro AV marketplace. He and his team sell the technology, but they're also evangelists for interactive touch.

The company sells a range of touch technologies that generally get applied as retrofits to commercial displays, making them interactive. When the pandemic really started hitting about a year ago, there was a lot of debate about the future of touch screens. Would people still be willing to use them, if they were a host for contagions?

While there have been reports here and there suggesting the virus can live on a surface for a long time, the prevailing opinion from medical research is that surfaces like touchscreens present far, far less risk than one-to-one interactions with other people.

So getting things done by touchscreen is likely going to be faster, easier, better and safer than dealing one to one at an order counter.

We talk about the touch business in broad strokes, how certain technologies apply, how the past  year has been and how the next months look for TSItouch and the touch ecosystem.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Gary, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what TSItouch is all about? 

Gary Mundrake: Thanks for having me, David. TSItouch primarily manufactures touchscreen and protective solutions for large format displays, as well as a lot of video walls. Obviously there’s some other ancillary things we do, but that's our primary focus., 

avid: Oh so that's why you call yourself touch? 

Gary Mundrake: Make sense when you think about it. 

You have this tagline on LinkedIn and elsewhere that talks about the world needing more touch. What do you mean by that? 

Gary Mundrake: Metaphorically, I guess in the age of COVID, we're all looking for more touch, just human interaction. But purely as a marketing tagline, the world needs more touch. We're trying to promote touch screens, but with a little tongue in cheek, just the world needs more touch in general. 

You have in your product line, a bunch of different kinds, there's PCAP, there's IR and there's I think ShadowSense. Why are there different types of touch overlays and how do they sort themselves and how do you know what to use for what? 

Gary Mundrake: So and we back up a little bit, I say this often I say: touch is a commodity if you think about it in the market space, it's a commoditized product. Where we differentiate is everybody wants that commoditized price, but they all want a custom solution. So when you take and compare responsiveness to features, to aesthetics, to price, you end up in a situation where one size doesn't necessarily fit all well. So while we have a run rate of all those different products, it's really matching the solution to the end customer and that means matching the touch functionality with the display functionality in the environment they plan to use it.

So you have to have that broader selection of solutions. We do a lot of touch, obviously for Samsung, NEC, LG, and those type of display manufacturers and if you look at all of these displays they have, the reason that they have more than one 55-inch display is that they have different markets and are trying to meet with it much like we have more than one type of touch solution for that 55-inch display.  

The theory being is to get the customer what suits their needs best not what we are trying to sell.

When it comes to, the one I'm most familiar with is PCAP, because that's what we use on everything from tablets to smartphones, is that by far the most demanded product? 

Gary Mundrake: In the large format market space, It's really not even close to the demand for IR. The reason for that is IR, relatively speaking is a much lower cost solution and it meets the needs of so many customers. It just meets the bill. 

When touchscreens started coming out, you can thank Steve Jobs for making them ubiquitous to the end-user. When they first started coming out, we had companies that bought touchscreens and we'd say what do you plan on doing with it? They're like, we don't know, but we just want to have a touchscreen. They were willing to buy touchscreens because they were touchscreens, not because they had an application. If you fast forward to where we are now in the market space, people view touchscreens almost like cash registers in retail and digital signage. 

The touchscreen isn't the selling feature, it's the functionality they want. They want that to be almost invisible to the fact that it's there if that makes sense. So it's about performance and cost and application. Other retail environments we operate in, where aesthetics is more important than functionality, and other environments where the price is more important than aesthetics, and then sometimes applications won't work in this environment or that won't work in that environment. 

A good example is, if you're familiar with the LG and Samsung outdoor displays that are getting fairly ubiquitous, they come on a factory-installed protective glass that prevents you from putting PCAP on it. So we use outdoor IP65 rated IR. Most people when they call you their first question is can I get a PCAP on this? Because they think that's what is the right solution? But the reality is it's not because you can't apply a PCAP to that display. So it's constantly tailoring the need but IR is consistently the go-to product for price and functionality.

So with IR, you're not going to get the degree of maybe accuracy and snappiness that you might get off of PCAP, but you can do it at far less cost. Is that a way of describing the trade-off? 

Gary Mundrake: No, the trade-off isn't really accuracy. The accuracy of IR, it’s s actually more accurate than PCAP. If you think about it, PCAP is effectively a grid of invisible wires running through the glass and most manufacturers of PCAP have a set number of wires. So you have X running vertically and X running horizontally. So on a 55-inch, the space in between that wire set is X, when you go to a 98-inch, the space in between that wire set gets much bigger, which results in a loss of fidelity. 

Whereas in IR you're adding more LEDs to the strips to accommodate for the size. So your accuracy stays linear from a 32-inch up to a 32-foot video wall. It's really the aesthetics people like PCAP because it's got that flat front aesthetic. It does give you a little bit smoother perception, but functionality. I think the IR is performing just as well. But aesthetically, it's never going to look as well. 

And with IR, just to describe it, you've got these rails that sit around the perimeter of the display right, and then it's triangulating where your finger is?

Gary Mundrake: That's correct. yeah. So you're essentially blocking light with the IR and those rails, now there are different technologies within IR, some are made better than others and then if you take something like the ShadowSense, which we mentioned earlier, which is almost a hybrid of that IR and some cameras, if you think back to the old day of the optical touch, that's no longer used, but that gives you a little bit more of fidelity and functionality beyond PCAP and IR. 

How do you handle IR outside? I'm looking outside right now, up here in Nova Scotia and we had, I think, 16 inches of snow yesterday and I'm wondering about digital street posters with all that snow sitting in the frame of this thing.

Gary Mundrake: Sure. So we actually deployed about 50 of these to the Nova Scotia ferry system about two years ago. Not Nova Scotia. The other side of Canada, British Columbia.

But that was an issue and a concern they had as well. So when we do outdoor touchscreens, it goes back to that solution that meets your needs, not what we're offering. So if you're in an environment where you're going to see snow load, then we actually integrate a heater system into the IR touchscreen with a thermostat in it. So it melts that snow that accumulates on the shelf. If you're going to be near a very wet environment, like along the coast, then we incorporate stainless steel, even though it's powder-coated it turns out powder coat doesn't really stand up to the abuse of the ocean spray for any little nick. 

So you can take a standard outdoor display and for a 55-inch, we actually make, I think it's six different products depending on the environment, they all have the exact same functionality per se, to the end-user, but the built processes are different, and the components are different depending on the application. So I think what you’ll see is, our sales team spends very little time selling and very much time consulting. It's understanding what's your application and not just your application, meaning it's retail or it's corporate, but it's the environment that it's going to operate in and all those other factors 

Is your sales team talking directly to end-users, or are you dealing much more with manufacturers and solutions providers?

Gary Mundrake: I would say that it's mostly with the solution providers, the integration companies that are all out there, but for more complicated projects, we end up working directly with the end-users through the resellers.  We actually sell directly to end-users.

Our goal is to sell through the resellers and distribution partners, but we do spend a lot of time visiting with end-users, consulting with them in conjunction with our reseller partners. 

Which makes sense. So we've been going back and forth since COVID hit and talking about the impact this was going to have on the touchscreen business, when it first bubbled up, me not knowing anywhere near as much about the touch industries as you did wonder, what this was going to mean and whether it was the end of touch screens, as we knew it, at least for a while, and that hasn't played out that way at all, has it? 

Gary Mundrake: So it has not. When COVID first hit and became really full-blown, I would say a bit of a pause. I would say that over the past 10-11 months that we've been going into this, it has been a great opportunity for other forms of interactivity to get some press and get out in the public and deal with questions like is voice going to work, is gesture gonna work, will QR codes work? And I think in some instances, there are some companies that have come out and they've done well by COVID, not implying they tried to take advantage of it. But, it gave them an opportunity for their capabilities to get some sunshine and maybe some more serious luck than they would have pre-COVID. But that being said, there's nothing that's been out there, and we look at it I would say daily, that's really come in and said, this is the game-changer.

My argument since we started this company in 2011 has been that way as long as your primary method of interfacing with your cell phone is a touch screen, that's going to be the primary method of interfacing with digital signage. When cell phones start using something else as a primary method of interface, that's when we need to really look and start really doing a shift. 

It's helped as well that the science and the findings that are coming out of all this are evolving and whereas in the early stages, there seemed to be this sense that touching things was dangerous, over time it's evolved to the realization that surfaces are not a particularly efficient carrier or host or whatever you want to call it for COVID that the risk is exponentially higher in talking one-to-one with people, right? 

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. I believe when COVID first started coming out, there was an overabundance of caution and concern and a lot of unknown and certainly, over time, it has become apparent that pathogens can pass on a surface. They always have, and always will be able to, but the probability of someone becoming infected with COVID by touching a surface is very small and the probability of you contacting COVID by touching a touchscreen is even smaller. As an example, I used a few months ago, if you can open up, pick your retail establishment and a person can get in the door. So they opened the door. They pick up products, they pick up merchandise, they pick up food, they go to the counter, they use the restroom. If you can do all those things by your touch screen is where people are going to get infected, it just doesn't make sense. I think that most markets have accepted that fact.

And some markets have made touch as the method to communicate. They went the other way. They said I can clean a touchscreen so if you don't have to talk to the person at the counter, you're not going to get a person to person transmission, because it turns out machines aren't actually breathing, coughing, or sneezing and they're fairly easy to clean, but I can't really wipe down the person at the counter. 

Yeah, I noticed that going back to April or something, there was a demo for a McDonald's in the Netherlands and they had their self-directed, self-guided ordering kiosk in place and that was their primary form of transactions for exactly that reason. McDonald's made the decision that yes, you're going to touch something, but this is way safer than talking to somebody four feet away over an ordering counter and that was my big molar to realize, “now I get why this would make more sense.”

Gary Mundrake: Yeah. Last fall, probably I guess maybe the September, October timeframe. We did, I don't know, maybe 150 screens that went into a hospital network. I don't know West Coast, entirely for visitor check-in because they didn't want visitors coming into the hospital to approach people behind the counter and they did a pretty rapid deployment of a lot of screens into that one hospital network. And by and large, it seems that larger rollout type customers, people that have been doing, I'd almost call them rolling rollouts for years, they just continued through the pandemic. They just kept doing it. Some companies that were starting to do rollouts apart of the pandemic went on pause, and now we're starting to see them reappear and reinitiate, but certainly, it impacted our business. We took about a 30% hit in revenue last year. We did keep our staff, but we took the revenue hit, but we are seeing a continued positive trend. I wouldn't say that we're back to where we were going into this but I do see that sometime April-May, we'll start seeing a real trend toward our revenue returning back to its pre-COVID days. 

Is the business, do you expect it to be the same, or has it evolved in terms of the profile of applications?

Gary Mundrake: So the touch applications haven’t really evolved that much. We, as a company have evolved a little bit. As I said, in the intro, we're primarily manufacturers of touchscreen or protective solutions. So we're seeing more emphasis on protective solutions, but also concurrent with what we've said, okay, what else can we do to bring in revenue?

When you're seeing, revenue declines and that, what else can we do? So we've started doing some kitting for customers. It turns out we sell one component of our solution, most of the time when you're installing a touchscreen, you've got a touch screen display, a player, a mount, and other attributes that go with it. And historically, we build up kits of these and ship them out to the customer. And over the past 8-10 months, we've gotten more into putting this all together. So we'll ship this project for you and we'll ship you out the whole solution to your retail store or to wherever it's going to. So they get one pallet.

 So it's kinda, it's moving away from our core business and I don't want to say that that's what we want to become. But, it offsets some of our costs. That's not a wildly profitable business, but it does offset some costs. So we do those kinds of things. But I think by and large, the market will come back to touch and we'll be doing pretty much what we were doing two years ago, two years from now. 

So I'm curious if you're seeing new kinds of applications. I wonder about things like remote meetings now that we're all trained to and conditioned to doing Zoom calls all day long and team meetings and so on. 

If I was in a Home Depot and I was trying to figure out how the hell to do something with plumbing, which is terrifying for me. If I could talk to a subject matter expert from Kohler, from the floor, I would rather do that than talk to some guy in an orange vest who may or may not know anything about plumbing and it might be just talking out of his butt.

Gary Mundrake: So there's this whole idea of doing things remotely and the example is an interesting one and it puts a lot of flavor and context around that. The issue that I think you run into in that environment is if I go into a retail store and we do a lot of displays for retail stores and some big box stores, people don't necessarily want to communicate with somebody else. That's why they want to use the touch screen. They want to be able to go in and do it at their own pace and browse their own way. 

Like you said, the guy in the orange vest may not know what he's talking about, but the people that are looking for that kind of help, they're probably not going to feel comfortable doing it over the VTC per se, they're going to do it at home before they go shop, before they go into the big box store. If I need to understand how to, I'm trying to think of something, you would go to Home Depot and not know how to do it, so what kind of hinges to put on the cabinet door? 

I think most people have researched online before they went to the store. I don't think they would get to the store and then say, “Oh, I'll go up to this kiosk. I'll hit a button,” and one the backend of that, managing that capacity loading on the back end of it. So you've got rooms full of people sitting there and I also think, by and large, people don't like talking even though we've all become, video calls are ubiquitous right now. I think by and large people don't really like talking through video machines. VTC has been around for years and years and years, right back to the days of the poly-com even the late 80s, early 90s.

So it's been around 30 years and it has a market space, but I believe people don't want to do it as a routine way to communicate. That's just my opinion. I just don't see it. I think the applications for touch that you'll see post COVID are eliminating that check-in person or adding even more density of touch into retail environments, larger box stores where you can go up to the screen and find your own inventory or find your own part. 

Prior to COVID, we were seeing a lot of it going into the dressing rooms with mirror walls. It was a pretty big uptake in that, but I think by and large people don't want to talk to other people via a camera in a public store. To me, it's the idea of using voice to communicate, get rid of your touch screen, and use voice And I always say, imagine being in the airport, you've got 300 check-in kiosks for a United airlines up there in a row. Can you imagine 300 people simultaneously trying to check in each one, yelling at their own machine? 

I say, the world needs more touch, right? We go back to where we started. People like togetherness. They like feeling together. They like feeling involved. You yelling at a machine is not very comforting.

They also like privacy. So people like to be with other people, but they like privacy. People don't want to stand there in front of a TV and talk to this machine, not knowing how loud the modulator is. So the person on the other end hears them while everybody in the store is hearing and going, who’s that tool? It's like the person that's walking around the store, talking on their cell phone, they're yelling into their phone. Now imagine that, on every aisle, a home Depot somebody's yelling, that'd be entertaining for some people. 

I think the application is more of giving people information that helps them make a buying decision on-premise and that's really where I think in the retail sector, it goes and then in more of the services sector, it's a lot of the wayfinding, the guiding, the check-in tasks that you can eliminate a person for without eliminating the experience. So when you're looking at the hospitality and those environments, they want people to have the experience. So if it comes down to just a mechanical transaction, I don't think hospitality will adopt it. But the flip side of that is, prior to COVID, cruise ships were doing a booming business with touchscreens because it was easy for people to get information: Where am I? Where's my restaurant, my bar, my casino, my pool, my room, all those things. And those kinds of things, I think will come back and I think they'll come back even stronger. Because it gives you an opportunity to review, to give someone instant information that you'd know they're looking for.

Yeah. Cruise ships actually might be safer than they used to be. Just because people will be hypersensitive now to washing their hands and doing all those sorts of things. Not that I'd go on one, but they're probably going to be safer. 

Gary Mundrake: Since we do a lot of business with cruise ships, I'm not going to say anything about cruise ships. (Laughter)

I am curious. There's a company up here in Canada that is marketing elevator buttons that are hover based. So you just have to put your finger near the button, you don't have to touch it cause therefore it's safer and I've seen a number of hover based products like that out there where it's a kind gesture and I keep looking at him and thinking 99% of the people are just going to touch it anyways, if they're a quarter inch or way, they're just going to bang it unless you have somebody right there telling them no, don't touch it.

Do you see any potential for these things? 

Gary Mundrake: No. 

Your elevator button example. How many times have you been in an elevator and somebody pushes the button and the little indicator lights up, “Okay. You selected Floor 47” and they push that same button five more times, even though they have a positive reinforcement of a button and have a back lit light, showing them it's been activated, they keep pushing it anyway.

So you're going to hover and it's going to light up and you're going to assume that worked? If you don't trust the touch, you're going to trust the hover? And to why, again, it goes back to the why, if you're in an elevator, you came from somewhere and you're going to somewhere 

You touched 20 other surfaces on the way in and out. 

Gary Mundrake: And really the elevator button that's what's going to get you? 

It's like having the giant steak and stuffed potato, and five gallons of wine and then saying I can’t have that piece of Pecan pie because I got my health to worry about here. 

Sounds like a good night though. 

Gary Mundrake: It does.

I'm curious about the touch industry as a whole. Is there a Holy grail, something that everybody wants to resolve that still needs to be figured out, or is the Touch industry where it needs to be in terms of the technology? 

Like it does what it needs to do and the big challenges are the normal stuff, like getting costs down, making it more efficient, making it snappier, or whatever?

Gary Mundrake: I think by and large, and I say this right now, and tomorrow I could be made a fool of, but I think the state of the art, it's pretty much there for what you're asking for to do. The real advances, I believe in touch are going to be in the PCAP market that we talked about earlier. If you think about your typical cell phone, that's going to say a 3.5 inch screen or whatever, so the manufacturers spend millions of dollars marrying that perfectly design touchscreen to that perfectly designed device and the interface is perfect all the time and they make millions and millions of them. Whereas we're taking a touchscreen that's made in the thousands and marrying it up to displays that many have never been married to a touch screen and maybe we're only doing it in the hundreds. 

So there's a little bit of finesse involved in adding that PCAP touch to that display and I think the real advancement will be refining that to make that less cumbersome so you don't run into issues with responsiveness in the light because you have a poorly matched solution and it removes that finesse. Now the flip side of that is as long as it requires finesse, it makes it harder for other people to mimic us. But I think that's where the real advance is, it's making that PCAP a more stable product for easier integration. 

And then ultimately of course, like everything, we get asked all the time, “if I buy a million, are they free?” Everybody wants the price to go down. Actually, that's what I tell people. I tell people frequently, even if you buy a million of these, they're never going to get it for free. Some people believe that. Yesterday, in a discussion with somebody, they said what's the price for 500? I said this is the price for 500. And they said, what's the price for 5,000? And I said, really seriously, it is not going to get free. Even if I quote you a million of them. But somehow people have that in their minds. I'm just going to keep buying it, asking for more and more until it gets to free, but it's just not going to go there.

The price will continue to decline. Obviously we've had some impact on the US with tariffs, for products coming out of Asia. Fortunately, we bring products in and out of multiple countries. We don't get hit on every product with that but I think some refinement of the PCAP technology and the price point coming down will only further saturate the market space with the products of touch.

All right. That was great. Thank you very much, Gary, for spending some time with me. I appreciate it. 

Gary Mundrake: Dave. Thanks for having us And please don't forget: the world needs even more touch. 

 

Travis Peterson, Snap Install

Travis Peterson, Snap Install

February 10, 2021

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

Companies that specialize in deploying digital signage networks don't always get the kind of respect they deserve in this industry. 

They can get called "hang and bang" guys, when in reality the job is complicated as hell. Getting digital signage networks properly installed and running across hundreds or even thousands of locations involves a LOT of project management and coordination, and a lot of vetting and training to ensure the techs who show up know the work, what to do and how to behave.

Travis Peterson started Snap Install about 10 years ago, having learned his installation chops working in home AV systems. Those can be fun jobs - putting slick audio and video systems in the homes of stinkin' rich people - but to scale an installation business, you need high volume commercial work.

Based in Minneapolis, Snap Install now has a big core staff and hundreds of trusted contractors around the US and Canada, who take on high volume digital signage deployments in venues like restaurants, retail and health care.

We had a great chat about the challenges he always faces, and the bigger ones presented in the past year. We also get into where Snap starts and stops, and why his team does the stuff they're good at, and leaves things they probably could do to their partners.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Travis, thanks for joining me. Can you tell me, because maybe not everybody knows what Snap Install is all about? 

Travis Peterson: Yeah, thanks for having me, Dave. Snap Install. we're a nationwide service provider. We're located out of Maple Grove, Minnesota. For those of you not familiar with Minnesota, it started in the twin cities area, and we are a nationwide service provider of skilled labor. So in other words, we're brokers of services. 

We have 54 employees at our corporate office and then 700+ contractors across the country that worked for us directly. Businesses and manufacturers hire Snap to provide installation service solutions really from coast to coast, so our job is: we represent our clients in a professional manner and follow up on the design scope of work to get the job done. Now that job could be a thousand plus site rollout across the country or one service call in a rural area. 

David: Are you focused just on digital signage or is it one of many things that you do?

Travis Peterson: Digital signage is the primary focus and represents the majority of our business. But we also have two other verticals that are defined. One is the healthcare industry and then another one is the relocation of executives across the country, their residential homes actually.

David: Oh, really? Interesting. So what do you do with that? 

Travis Peterson:  It's actually one of the main reasons the company got started. I was fresh out of college. In my second job, I was working for a company back just over 10 years ago and that company had a similar business model, but it was B2C compared to our business model B2B, and back then you go to Amazon, you could throw a TV in your cart and you could have added installation to it. The company I was working for, we would send the technician out to the home. 

And I started a B2B platform there and worked with some relocation companies, and executives moving across, they got expensive equipment. We would dismount their equipment, movers pack it up, ship to the new house and then we'd reinstall it. As that company as much as I loved working there and really got my first taste of a small business, it's where I became addicted to the small business platform. I realized that as it became unethical, I had two choices. One: go to sell insurance like my dad and possibly golf, probably a lot more and have a lot more freedom and residual income coming in or start a business. And I decided to start a business and I went to one of our biggest clients at the time, as that business was falling apart and said, “Hey, if I started a company, would you follow me and be my first customer?”

And he said, absolutely. We had a good working relationship. He knew that the company wasn't doing well and he asked me two questions. I'm 26 years old at this time. And he said, “Do you have any money, Travis?” And I think I might've had about $5,000 to my name and I said no, and he said, “do you have a business plan?”

In my head, I was saying, what the hell is a business plan? I said, no. He said hop on a plane and fly out to Philly, let's talk. Did that and we put together Snap Install and the focus was primarily three things? We call them our three pillars. Our people, what I'm most proud of is our culture. Our partners, which are all of our customers, and then our technicians across the country.

And with that focus on those three pillars, we've really over the last, it'll be 10 years here in September. We've seen success. And as I was stating the primary focus, the reason we started was the relocation and that's what his business, his other business does is they help relocate executives and we do that AV work for them. So as we succeeded with that, we branched off over the last 10 years into the healthcare facilities, into the digital signage world. 

David: Yeah, I would imagine when you looked at digital signage and thought, “okay, the  one and two gig things with the executives is interesting, but if we want to scale, we've got to find something that offers scale and signage does that.”

Travis Peterson: You nailed it. The onesie twosies are great, but when you get the thousand site rollouts, that's really our bread and butter and it's really where the company grew. 

David: When companies describe themselves as service providers, I always push back on them and say, where do you start and where do you stop? What's the range of services and what's the stuff you don't do? 

Travis Peterson: I think that's a great question and I think that question is just as important as what you do. One thing we are not is we don't provide system consulting or design. We don't provide any hardware or software and we also don't run a knocking system for system monitoring.

Plenty of other companies do all that stuff and we don't, and we're also the type of service provider that some others aren't out there. We know when to say no. We know when to say that either when our partner isn't going to set us up for success or when it's just not in our specialty. Think high-level integrations.

We have boots on the ground across the country. We have high-level technicians and we also just have warm bodies that sometimes just need to show up and swap out an HDMI or turn off a PC player to get a backup and running and all those skill sets. We aren't the type of company that's going to say, “Yes, we can do that.” We make sure that we can define it and follow through on the scope of work and then get the deliverables back to our customer and represent them in a professional manner as well. 

David: There are some of your competitors who seem to be focused on specific areas. I don't rattle them off cause you don't need to know that or listeners don't need to know that, but maybe they are heavy on C-stores or maybe they're heavy on QSR. Do you have a vertical that you tend to focus on or is it more just what do you need to do and let's talk? 

Travis Peterson: So our goal is to provide solutions to our partners and we're a vendor-neutral company.

We have partners ranging from that focus on healthcare, that focus on QSR, that focus on kiosks, and what we try to do is really embed ourselves with our partners and make sure that we understand what their goals are and that we can deliver on the scope of work. So when we say “our focus”, we're in all of those.

But our focus isn't on a specific vertical within digital signage. Our focus is on our partners and making sure that we can deliver on their needs and they range in so many different ways. If you asked me where the majority of our work comes in the digital signage, I'd say it'd be through healthcare and QSRs 

David: Healthcare would be interesting right now. I'm guessing you haven't done a lot in the last 10 months? 

Travis Peterson: For some, yes. And for some, no. It's changed, COVID has changed the way we've had to do business and as many people listening can probably attest to. For one, on the healthcare side is the clinics. What we've seen a big increase in is them utilizing digital signage more to educate their customers: A, for social distancing, maybe. B, for not having to while they're sitting in the waiting room, it's limited usage in the waiting room or whatnot. They're utilizing a lot of those things then all the way back to the doctor's office. Putting signs up in the office. So while they're waiting for the doctor, it's there too. So for some customers, you're absolutely right.

We've seen a huge decline and then other businesses actually boomed since Q2. 

David: Okay. So yeah, you wouldn't be going into primary care facilities like a hospital or something like that, but tons of clinics are still seeing patients and they need to communicate with? 

Travis Peterson: Yeah, and now we have some of our customers, they're even working on medical carts that offer the vaccine that we're helping integrate and deploy at hospitals too.

David: How would that work? 

Travis Peterson: So the card is designed in different ways to ensure that it holds the vaccine and then it monitors, without getting into too many details, it's providing care for the customers as they come through with minimal contact, for the actual nurses or practitioners to the clients.

David: Now you said that you don't have a knock, you don't do recurring managed services and things like that. Is that a headcount choice or complication choice, or is it that you don't want to compete with your partner? 

Travis Peterson: More the latter. As being vendor-neutral, it's also very important that we aren't competing with our customers as well.

We are about 98% labor and that 2% falls into on-site materials that we sometimes are forced to provide. But some of the recurring services that we have started dabbling into that have worked well for both our partners and ourselves is preventative maintenance type work, we call them health checks.

You go out and you do a thousand site rollouts. That equipment needs to continue to function and function properly. And us providing maintenance on that regularly, where we show up just to check it and provide the right deliverables back to our customers. So they have that peace of mind as they charge their customers to ensure it's actually working is good too and a lot of companies are being audited on that type of stuff too lately. So we can help them be proactive on that and make sure we get ahead of the game instead of them having to pay maybe for a 90 minute response time when they call us and it's a fire truck having a roar out there as quick as possible to get a PC back up and running.

We've seen some value in that. And also with COVID, a lot of systems are collecting dust over the last nine months and those systems are going to need to be powered back on and up and running here soon. And we've seen a majority of our partners already proactively planning to get us out there and get those up and running.

So it really depends on the retail store or the location, allowing us to come in and do that. But we've seen a big uptick in that as of late. 

David: When you describe partners, would they most typically be like CMS software companies or are they manufacturers as well? 

Travis Peterson: A wide variety of all of them, some resellers as well. 

David: And so for a reseller or a kind of a local solutions provider, if they get a big gig, they just know that they couldn't possibly do a four-state rollout or a nationwide rollout?

Travis Peterson: Exactly. Or sometimes they might just want boots on the ground. It might be an integrator, and they're trying to do a very large project in a state that they aren't located in, and they're going to fly out one specialist, but then they want eight of our techs to show up and run wires, mount screens, check and actions and they're the guide on-site, where they direct other people around. 

David: Digital signage is one of those things that goes from very simple stuff, like you could get a gig in a workplace where you're putting in meeting room displays or video conferencing displays, that kind of thing, but it can go all the way to the other end where you have a 300 foot LED video canopy.

Do you cover the whole waterfront or is there a sweet spot for what you do? 

Travis Peterson: That's a great question. And it ties back to my point of us being willing and able to say no when we need to. If we can generate a scope of work that can be consistent from coast to coast, that's where we succeed.

And that scope of work needs to be done from any tech across the country. And as you can imagine, when you're dealing with 700 plus technicians, their skill sets have a wide variety of range. So some of those high-end projects, we absolutely do those. Sometimes it's only in specific Metro areas. We work with our partners, but getting back to figuring out what the partner needs and the systems they're trying to put together and have assembled, that's where we come back working with them and say, we can do this, or unfortunately we aren't the right partner for this, but if you can send your people out to do this portion, we're happy to do the mounting and other things along those lines to make sure that we're meeting each other's needs.

But it does tie back to that say no when you need to say no, because, in our industry, it's funny, you think you'd be in a good spot as a business when your competitors don't do a good job. But unfortunately for us, it's completely the opposite. There have been some companies, service providers throughout the years in this industry that have really put a bad name on the nationwide service provider.

And that doesn't help us. That actually hurts us when our partners, as we're trying to sell to them, they already lost that trust as a small business. For me, every client we get, we have to work so hard to get it. So it's so important to keep those. And from their perspective, when you hire a nationwide service provider and they worked so hard to sell that deal, and then their nationwide service provider screws it up, it's going to be a pretty hard sell for us to get that trust back from them and tell them that we're different than what they've already experienced.

David: How important is aftercare because, in the olden times when I used to travel, I would go through airports and mass transit, terminals, and all that sort of thing. And I would see video walls and they were badly in native calibration and had been left way too long. But I get a sense that in a lot of cases you have customers who, or somebody has the customers who put these things in, and then they forget about them or they're there, but they don't worry about the colors drifting and all that sort of stuff. 

Travis Peterson: It happens all the time. I've even been in airports where we've performed installations, say at a quick-service restaurant, I've actually gone back there and fixed some cable management ‘cause I walked by and was like, “God, we've done that.” But when you're at a retail store or anything, you have so many employees going around and things get touched, cable management falls because someone was messing with stuff and the calibrations off, cause it's been two years. So you nailed it on the head.

It's a service we provide and we feel the ROI is there, but some people don't budget for it. And when they don't budget for it, it's hard to justify adding that cost because it isn't always cheap either. But the value is there and there's nothing worse from my perspective when you walk into a restaurant and three screens are working, one's off, or the cable management hanging, and I know I'm going to be biased and nitpicky when I see something small or maybe the average consumer might not be. But that value is there from our end.

David: Even my local bank, outside of Halifax, I go in there, there's almost always one of the screens out and I've got to a point where I know the manager and I'll walk in and go, “that one's out again”, and we've actually gone behind the counter and monkeyed around to try to get things going again, even though he doesn't know who the service provider is, I know who it is, but I'm not going to call them or anything else.

But like you say, you get nitpicky and you want to see it working properly. 

Travis Peterson: Yeah. If you ever know it's Snap, you better call me Dave. Cause we'll get on and fix it. 

David: You're probably not allowed in Canada right now. 

Travis Peterson: It's true. We do have technicians in major Metro areas though.

David: Oh, there you go. Aren't there tougher environments than other ones to do, like what are the hardest venues to do installs in? 

Travis Peterson: Pre COVID or post-COVID? (Laughter)

David: Let's talk both.

Travis Peterson: Pre COVID, I think airports always take the cake. It's just, you gotta go through more security. You got a lot of people walking around there for it all the time. Also overnight work, after hours. So we are structured in-house at our corporate office, we have full-time nighttime employees that are doing the project management because we have enough work where we do a lot of overnight work, but that's where it's tough. So we have different tiers of our technicians. We have primaries, tier one, tier two, tier three. And our primaries, they're our bread and butter guys.

They're from across the country. They live in a brief Snap Install. When we have nighttime work and we need to utilize them for that, then during the daytime, which is still a high priority of work, we gotta bring in the other crews and make sure that they're up to speed with handling that higher workload that was there for the primaries that are covering the nighttime or vice versa. So it's a challenge for us logistically in making sure no matter when the work comes across or where it is, we're providing that high level of service that we promised to our customers. But as far as physical locations, I would always, I think put airports at the top, but we do a lot of work in airports because when you walk through airports, there's a lot of screens everywhere. There's a lot of business to be had. 

David: So I've written about this, that it's a bit of a blessing in disguise. If there's anything good that comes out of COVID and there's not very much at all is that a lot of projects that would normally have to be done overnight and normally done if they're done through the day with a whole bunch of hoarding and a whole bunch of disruption, those venues are mothballed right now and you can go in and start and stop a project, just work in the daytime for a week and you're done without ever having to be there at midnight. 

Travis Peterson: It has been the one blessing that COVID has provided us is fewer consumers walking around and more daytime work. But the other problem that comes with that is a lot of people just cut their budgets immediately and said no more technology, digital signage spending.

I always see not a lot of our partners take some hits there too. So as great as it is, we would take pre-COVID any day over post-COVID in regards to the number of projects that were being awarded. But a challenge for COVID too is with us is I had to take my network team and I actually add two people to it. And our network team is really the team that drives the compliance and relationships with our contractor’s and it became a full-time job for two employees just to manage the different state regulations, county regulations for our techs because we felt the need for communication needed to be at an all-time high for our network. But also we felt the need to educate them and make sure they were aware really from Q2 all the way to now, is we were trying to stay ahead of the game and let the technicians know that safety is number one and what their state was regulated on, what they could and couldn't do and make sure in some cases we were considered, I'm missing the word right now, but a needed service, where if a cop pulled some of our techs over, which was happening, we had a sheet that could provide them that they were essential workers, and it was needed. And we were providing that documentation because we were essential workers, we were in healthcare. We were doing the type of work that the States checked off and said, “You're good to go.” 

So that became a full-time job and that became a challenge. And we were seeing us spending resources and money on things we never had to in the past and it was good. And as much as COVID has hurt many across the country and many businesses, I look at it as a blessing in disguise.

In one way, if you look back a year from now, the Q1 of 2020, Snap was firing on all cylinders. We were chasing our tail in many ways and then COVID hit and it really slowed our business down, about 70% for a little bit. But it allowed me to take a step back and work with my leadership team and take one step back to take two steps forward.

And we didn't let anyone go due to COVID. But now, since then we've brought on 14 new hires and our complete company is restructured in a way that we're built for growth. And I strongly believe that if that never happened, I wouldn't be in the spot where I'm at as growing through some of those challenges.

And then also our company. I think we'd still be chasing our tails in a lot of ways, instead of being prepared for what's ahead now which we feel 2021 in digital signage is going to come back and it's going to come back roaring and we're excited about it. 

David: Your business is one that relies heavily on human factors. You've got your 60 or so full-time employees, but I think you said 700 contractors or something like that. That's a lot of personalities scattered across the country and you have to stay on top of them all. You have to rely on them showing up, and then you've got by extension, and I remember this from my own time being VP Ops of a company and running another company that you could have the install techs there, but you're still on the phone yelling at an electrician who was supposed to be there at 11 and it was 12:30 and so how do you get past all that and have you learned a way to do it?

Travis Peterson: Lots of gray hairs and probably die at a young age. (Laughter)

No, you know what, our whole business is built of relationships and we don't have a product that flies off the walls that we can box up and ship out to our customers. Our product is technicians, it's humans and humans make mistakes. I make mistakes every day.

And that's okay. One thing with our customers, it's a sales pitch. We don't lie to our prospects. We tell them, “Hey, there's going to be days that you don't like us, cause we're going to mess up,” and that's okay because what we can promise you is every time we mess up, we're going to do the right thing. And we're going to figure out a solution to have you have a happy customer. But I'd be lying if I said there weren't days I wanted to pull my hair out. One of the most frustrating parts about this business model is our 50+ employees in-house, we could work our asses off, check every box, make sure everything's perfect, and that technician who we've maybe never physically met that we're sending out to a site failed us, and sometimes that's on us because we don't do our checks and balances, but sometimes it might just because he or she's having a bad day. So things we do to prevent that is: in the last five years, we've completely invested into our network team that builds the relationships, holds our tech compliant, insurance all the county, whatever it may be.

And then also we have reviews with them and they know how they're graded. So our technology and other investment, we've made every tech out in the field has an app on their phone. It's the Snap app and that's where they do all their work. It's where they accept their jobs, where we can see when they're completed with the job, all the deliverables come through, but then they also know their rating on a job and some businesses out there have some prospects or even clients to this day, they ask us, “Hey, your competitors say they have W2 technicians across the country, you guys have subs, why are they better or why are you better than them?” And I dunno if it's about who's better or not, but I'm a strong believer that the contractor model if used appropriately and is accountable, is stronger than the W2 model in some ways.

And I tie that all back to competition with the W2 employee. They might get complacent. They might not care as much. They might call in sick or do something elsewhere with subcontractors, you actually have that competition level and if you're transparent with them and show them that other people in their areas are knocking on the door, looking for that work, it doesn't mean that we make them compete with each other and hold it there to their throat every day. We actually are all about building relationships. Long-term, we don't just throw it out to a marketplace and cross our fingers. Our techs work directly with us and we build those loyal relationships. But that competition aspect is, you scratch our back, we'll scratch yours. But at the same time, I need you to keep up that accountability because I hold myself accountable and I expect you to hold yourself accountable. As we're paying you for this work. 

David: There are some, I'm aware of at least two matchmaker services out there, that kind of dating services for AV techs. You put in a need and different techs in that region can respond to it and bid on the deal. Are they competition or is that really a onesy twosy thing that you don't tend to play in very often? 

Travis Peterson: Onesy twosy thing that we don't play in at all. Our value add, some of our technicians, they work for our competitors as well. And we're okay with that. We're transparent and saying, that's fine as long as when you're doing our work, you're putting our work first and actually it's a two-way street. A lot of them come back and say, gosh, we wish you had this work because you treat us way better because you pay us quicker because you do this, and this.

And with the onesy twosy company is that is our value add is really the project management feature we offer in house with those 50 plus employees. If you call Snap as a client of ours, you're calling the same person and they know exactly what job that you're talking about. They can connect you with the right person. They can provide the tier one or tier two support service they need to, and that pays dividends for our customers because there's nothing worse than getting a call from your customer saying, “Hey, the TV just fell,” or “Hey, this didn't happen” instead of a call from us being proactive and saying, “Hey, this happened. If you want to reach out to your customer, that's fine but here's what we're doing about it to make it right and here's how we're going to make sure your customer has a smile on their face at the end” 

David: Are the jobs getting more complicated because you now have a lot of direct view LED and a whole range of new products. In many cases, the cabinets have different shapes. The mounting systems are different. There's very little in the way of universal standards or anything else. So you go into a job and the techs have to crack the manual and everything. All of a sudden, look at the back and go, okay, this is yet a new wrinkle that we haven't seen before.

Travis Peterson: They're definitely getting more complicated and a real man read manuals is what we tell our kids.

There are lots of techs out there that will say, “I got this, I don't need to look at a manual as anyone that's an expert in their field.” But it's become clear as the complications get thrown, our way is we have to make sure the documentation is there. We have to make sure the expectations are the same from what we think our customers expect to what they actually expect of us and lay that out and in our technology having checkpoints. So as a technician goes through the job, that person has to actually check off the things they're doing to ensure that we're following it step by step. Because if you do the wild west, so you just say, hang it up there and let's just hope it's right.

That's not going to work. There are steps you have to follow and we work with our partners to make sure that it's laid out and very clear so that it can be followed with a scope of work.

David: Last question: is there a piece of advice that you provide to your partners and if you're exposed directly to your end-user customers, you try to get across to them to smooth out the job?

Travis Peterson: Yes. Some of them let us be more involved than others, but for us, it's communication and getting us involved as quickly as possible. Not to give advice and tell you what's right or wrong, but we've seen a lot of things. We've been in business for almost 10 years now. It's not our first rodeo. We do this all day, every day. And what some customers might not realize is checking those boxes and having the checks and balances prior to deployment is so important. And in the end, it saves them a lot of money and we don't do it to rattle their cage and cause more issues. We do it to make sure we're being proactive before that deployment starts so they can save money in the end and we can avoid fewer trips.

David: Do you have to try to convince them of the value of a preliminary site survey? 

Travis Peterson: I think it depends on the stage of the relationship we're out with our customers for those the ones that we've been working with for a long time, they see the value, maybe they didn't at first and then we had to sell it to them and show them why now they know it's there, but it is something that can be challenging at times where that customer doesn't want to pay that small fee for the survey upfront and we allow them not to, but in the end, they paid triple what it would've cost because if they avoided a couple of things that they could have covered. 

David: Yeah. They think it's a cash grab until I find out actually, no, we should have done it.

Travis Peterson: Exactly and it's definitely not a cash grab for us. It's more of a break-even to cover our asses on some other things going forward. 

David: All right, Travis, I appreciate you taking some time with me. 

Travis Peterson: I appreciate that. 

David: Thank you.

 

Gary Feather, NanoLumens

Gary Feather, NanoLumens

February 3, 2021

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

I'm just coming off a bunch of research and writing about direct view LED, so it would be reasonable to think I know my stuff.

But this is technology that's evolving rapidly, and when you get into the weeds, there's still a whole bunch to learn and understand about LED.

Gary Feather is the CTO at the Atlanta-based LED display manufacturer NanoLumens, which has been an innovator for many years in the large format display space. We've gone back and forth through the years, by email, discussing advances. He offered to put his headset on and have a podcast chat about some of the emerging and changing technologies he's seeing.

We go into several things, most notably the rationale and use of displays that have engineered coatings that protect the screens from day to day abuse, whether that's accidental or intended. 

Gary has an electrical engineering degree, so acronyms and technical terms roll off his tongue like snarky remarks do with me. The result is a discussion that's maybe a little more technical than normal. But if you are into direct view LED, you'll learn some good stuff over the 30 or so minutes.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Gary, thanks for joining me. I just recently finished a big report on Direct View LEDs. So I think of myself as something of a Mr. Smarty Pants about this stuff, but you sent me an email while you're rattled through a whole bunch of things that are happening in the space, and then I thought to myself, oh I really don't know much about this industry at all. The more you learn the less, so one of the things you talked about it, and first of all, let me back up here and just explain who you are and what you do with NanoLumens. 

Gary Feather: Sure. I'm Gary Feather, the Chief Technology Officer at NanoLumens. I've been with NanoLumens for seven years. I left Sharp corporation in the LCD business to get there, and we really had a great opportunity to see the evolution of LED display from discrete devices, SMT devices, and now the new evolutions we're seeing in the market.

So one of the areas when I was over in China, about three years ago, I saw the first iterations of LED Display modules that had some sort of an epoxy coating on them, which is since being described in ways like an adhesive onboard or glue onboard. You're suggesting, or at least your email was suggesting that we're going to be seeing a much more of a shift to that sort of thing.

Gary Feather: The industry is looking for wider application of LED displays and with that comes durability and reliability requirements. A surface that is coated is going to be dramatically more durable than one that has physical soldered devices. So generally the surfaces become an important aspect for both installations, as well as utilization of the display in active environments.

Now, the idea with coating these things is because they're there, the LED chips are soldered on that they can easily be bumped off and they can be extraordinarily difficult to repair. I've seen lots of LED displays wherein the corners a few of the LED chips have been flaked off and other ones have been scraped off.

So this certainly protects it. The concern that was being raised, at least in the early days of it was the image quality is not as good and there were worries about how the heat got out. Has all that stuff been resolved? 

Gary Feather: Like any problem you're trying to solve, you mitigate certain aspects to make them viable.

Let's go way back to the LCD panels space. When LCDs first came out, the reflectivity of the screen was a problem. And so we used what was calLED the triacetate cellulose film on the surface so that it looked more anti-reflective. So surfaces have been an issue we've been addressing in the display industry really since the beginning of the industry.

Now we have a really exciting space to work in. We have a surface that we engineer with the materials we choose, Silicons through all varieties of epoxy materials of which then the processing allows a surface treatment to be customized to that, which optimizes the application of the display. So I would suggest while it's not part of the display, it has the capability to greatly enhance display performance now and dramatically improve over time in the future. 

Is there any issue with the coating trapping the heat at all or does it go at the back? 

Gary Feather: Certainly the coating is an insulator.

The management of heat and thermal calculations allow different approaches to get the heat out of the devices. Heat is a product of the efficacy of the LED, How many Candelas you get per watt, and then the brightness of the display is your Candelas per meter square. 

So depending on how bright you want the display and what the efficacy of the device is and what the physical size of the device is, management of heat then use those three parameters. That's an interesting aspect as we look at smaller LED dye, going from a standard size to the mini-LED to the micro-LED, the challenges of getting the heat properly out of that device to keep the junction temperatures in the range to ensure the reliability of the dye itself under operation. 

The other worry I've heard or at least had raised was the whole idea that because these are module tiles that you put on a kitchen or bathroom wall or whatever that if it's coated, you can't just replace an individual dead LED dye, you've got to replace the whole module. Is that genuinely an issue or a bit of a red herring? 

Gary Feather: Most anything can be repaired. The question is trying to monetize the value of that. So do you have an LCD or an OLED television? 

I do. 

Gary Feather: And how often have you repaired that?

Let me count: zero. 

Gary Feather: Okay, so we know where we want to go, and so the red herring maybe is to live in a world where we repair things as a starting point. So we design it to be repaired. We design it to be disassembLED and we design it to then be worked on. That generally adds dramatic cost to a product. So as the maturation of the systems reach the levels that we know they will hit, a philosophy of repair has to be disregarded and you have to look at the fact that solutions will last for the life of the product and meet the customer's requirements. 

I don't want to downplay this as an issue. I just want to say we know the destination and we know we've moved magnitudes on that from the past where people were repairing things daily to monthly to yearly, and now sometimes never repaired at all. And these transitions we're talking about, they are critical to building a sustainable competitive market where LED if you will, Inorganic LED is able to rival any of the other display technologies that are out there. 

So when I first started seeing these glue onboard or hardened LED modules and cabinets, I thought, okay, this is the way the industry is going to go, and I've been watching it for three years now and I've seen a number of smaller to midsize Chinese manufacturers come out with products, but I haven't seen any of the major manufacturers come out with anything with the arguable exception of the microLEDish products from the big guys like Sony and Samsung and LG that have some sort of coating on it, but there doesn't seem to be much in the middle, is that going to change? 

Gary Feather: So you're saying other than the leaders in the market with regard to a vision for the future, putting coatings on their boards so that they meet these requirements you haven't seen the other smaller companies, which aren't major players doing it?

I think you've answered your question. 

What I mean though, is I have seen four super-premium products, like Samsung's The Wall, Sony's Crystal LED, and LG’s Magnit, they have some sort of coating. I've seen from Cedar and CreateLEDs and companies like that, they have coated products, but I don't think I've seen stuff from Absen and Yuna Lumen and Layrd and some of those companies who are pretty big players.

Gary Feather: Well, YunaLumen showed at ISE a year and a half ago or so roughly, the coated boards. Everyone has initiated an effort. They have to decide why they are doing it, what purpose are they adding, what benefit do they add to the display and why is this better than the other solution?

So let's take a few other areas of why. If I want to wipe down a surface and in today's environment, wiping down surfaces may be an important aspect, I have to have a surface that's solid, that allows me to wipe it down. So now you see displays, LED displays for indoor that have IP5X and 6X ratings on the front. That would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago. So inherently we've increased the moisture capabilities of these displays. In addition to the fact that we've allowed you to have a surface that is cleanable, and that may be for dust and dirt, but it also may be for germicidal purposes and others related to our current environment with regard to the pandemic.

So I think you see a lot of emphases too, as to the durability, you can hit it with a hammer. Not hard, but you can hit it with a hammer. You can try to pick off a part, but you can't. But now, more importantly, you're able to wipe down the surface and moisture condensation. Somebody accidentally splashing something on the display isn't going to have a negative effect because there are no open electrical circuits on the face of the display anymore. So these number of forcing functions will drive to the right solution. 

Let's talk a little bit about that surface though, so you talked about: It's an engineered surface and on the early CLEDis product or Sony micro-LED, in 2017, if you looked at it off, you could see dimples in the process they use to coat it. That was what they were using at that time. But the idea was you, if you realize you can have a shiny surface or a gloss surface, you can have a matte surface and these have been demonstrated at shows or you could have an engineered surface because within an epoxy material, over Silicon, which is much softer, but with an epoxy material, I can then go back and re-engineer that surface to accomplish a number of things with regard to the viewing and potentially optical effects of that surface to optimize the operation of the device. So I think the coding in general and the terminology used of glue onboard is probably not a good descriptor, but an engineered coated surface has a significant potential to change the way that adds value to the LED display.

Yeah, the whole description of glue on board just seems to cheapen the product in a way. 

Gary Feather: I would agree with that, Yes.

It sounds like a hack and I know that's not really the case. So is the whole idea of an engineered coating to be table stakes moving forward, like if you're going to have a large format display you really should have that?

Gary Feather: Only in particular configurations. Outdoor displays, which still use coat. SMT devices and discrete LEDs, because they're adequate for and allow the performance and durability for the environments. There isn't a good reason to coat that display because the characteristics we're talking about achieving aren't necessarily even used in that application.

They may have louvers for coating, to cover the sun. They have their own maintenance approach that they take to those displays. So I think you focus on mostly indoor display applications and those in which are in close proximity to people and/or in atrium areas where you're going to have weather conditions resulting in condensation and others and you want to build a more robust indoor solution for an atrium class area.

NanoLumens did this gorgeous long LED video wall on a walkway at Charlotte North Carolina's International Airport, and that's going back two-three years now, I assume that doesn't have a coating on it, but that would be a good example of something that would benefit from that because of all the people walking along with the roller bags and everything?

Gary Feather: Absolutely and that falls into that category of durability, and you want to be integrated with the display as some people have put films on the surface of the displays to result in that. It's literally a peel and sticks either by the tile or by the display, and that tends not to be, when it's not integrated, not to be a good solution for the durability, reliability that we talked about.

Yeah. I've seen some of that. It didn't look very good. So tell me about Flip chips and SMT. 

Gary Feather: As you know, we're probably in what I call the fourth generation for LED exploitation into digital signage and as you highlighted early with the Magnit projects and others with LG, we have commercially moved into a space where LED inorganic devices for displays actually will move into the classic space we see with LCD type solutions in OLED.

The transition though is, we started with all these monochromatic LED almost tubes at one point and in the first generation and all of us saw lots of signs that were either the yellowish colored signs or whitish colored signs that were monochromatic and then moved to the discreet LEDs in a triad position and that's your generation too. And it's a great solution mixing the colors with RGB and then that migrated to a more svelte designed with SMT, sticking them all in a flat package and soldering them down to the board. 

In all those cases, you are taking a dye, putting it in a package, testing it and statistically picking out the good from the bad, throwing away the bad ones after it was finished and determining what is then good for the next level of assembly. So you can see we're integrating things a little bit more each step. Now from SMT, we've got a two-step we're going to do here. SMT parts, if I don't have high confidence in pre-testing my flip-chip parts, then I can mount the flip-chip devices into an SMT package and have an RGB LED in an array to make a pixel in a package, and then I can pre-test it. 

Now, the reason somebody does that is if there are particular constraints with regard to the Chroma or the Luma, that is the exact wavelength and the exact brightness of the device, and you stick them down there without pretesting, the likelihood you'll get the performance you want is very small. So by pre-testing parts then you know that they're in the band you want, and what's typically calLED binning in our industry, and you can assure that when you put the whole display together, all the individual elements meet the requirements you have for a particular wavelength, a plus or minus so many nanometers and then a particular brightness or elimination from that device. So with that in mind, you can't jump all the way in. Now, if you can pretest in a flip-chip configuration the devices in what's classically now calLED a cartridge, then I'm able to check the devices before I mount them and then put them down. 

So here's where we need to realize that magic just occurred in the system. When we talk about a chip much like your home phone going from wired to your cellular phone being wireless, the golden copper wire bonds are going to disappear in the flip-chip. Now, the reason I care about that is because the number one reliability problem I have is associated with the metalization and the wire bonding, so I lose the wire bonding. I lose the epoxy. I lost all the assembly issues that made SMT dye mount wire bonds may be less reliable. And I moved to effectively weld two-terminal devices down at a surface, with no wire bonds and no chance of breakage. So a dramatic shift in that area, it means I might be able to pre-test the part, I put the part down by welding it, put it in an SMT package and I build something that's pretty much going to endure any kind of environment. 

So is the Flip chip and SMT, is this what's more commonly broadly known as a chip on board? 

Gary Feather: I think as you wrote an excellent piece the terminology has been used differently by everybody and I just cannot claim that you and I have the same terminology, but let's take this slowly.

If the die is pre-packaged effectively into a format where it's bumped and ready to be mounted on a surface, that is flipped chip by definition, forget where it's going, but you're going to flip-chip the part. Now we've been flip chipping semiconductor dyes since the 80s. We bump them in a process, they have little bumps on them. Then we actually flip them upside down rather than wire bonding and reflow the whole device. I ran a facility in Texas instruments that did that very function. So the technology isn't new, but the issue being, you remove wire bonds, which is good. Now, how do I want to do that?

As I said before, put them all in one package, just in one package and test it or put it on the whole board. If I put it on the whole board and let's say a typical board size is something like 150x337 millimeters. So I might break that down into a couple of chunks but I'll have 5,000 pixels on any one board. If I can't pre-test stuff, it would be hard to put down 5,000 at one time. So I flipped a chip a package and I tested them, but if I can pre-test them now I put them directly on the board and these are the options that we have today in the world today that go onto a polyamide board material.

So you're mounting it right onto what you would classically call a PCB or a printed circuit board and that's good actually down to pixel pitches, probably around six-tenths to four-tenths where you can literally flip chip and then COB. So flip-chip, don't put them in an SMT package, flip chip put them right on the surface of the board. And when you do that, you get a C of RGB LEDs, besides C of RGB LEDs that are welded in place, not wire-bonded. Most of the early Sony solutions there, their particular displays were wire-bonded. So by removing that variable now, and you can pre-test the devices.

Now you can put down more than three at a time and get them right. You may be able to put 3000 down and get them right. So the shift from the flip-chip is a methodology. COB is an implementation. You can see OB dye or you can see OB flip-chip. I strongly suggest you see the flip-chip. 

Okay. So what does all this mean in terms of manufacturing and for the end-users? 

Gary Feather: As we look at the application of the move towards flip-chip and the move towards COB, let's talk about flip chip first. A packaging company that sells LEDs taped in the reel, so you might put 2,500 on a reel will have classically bought a package from a packaging maker, they would have purchased the dye on a wafer from a wafer manufacturer, and then they would have wire bond machines and they would have sealant stations to put an array of these down, put the dye in the package with epoxy, bond the wires out and fill it up with material. So you can see in the supply chain, you have wafer manufacturers, you have package manufacturers, you have packaging companies that put them on a reel and then they send it to a company that does the SMT process. So that would be basically the standard process today. So there's another two step process for this: the company that's selling the taped devices with the LEDs on them wants a better device at a lower cost and by putting a flip chip into the package, as opposed to die, he can increase the reliability, the durability, if he's able to pretest that he can improve his yield and subsequently, he can still sell a package, but it's a flip-chip package as opposed to dye mounted package. So he can win on that. Now, when he does that, what he realizes is he can vertically integrate backward and try to pick up some of what's going on in the dye, cause he needs to know more about that function.

And when he does that, he forms relationships with these LED manual factors and the companies building the flip chip devices. Then what immediately happens the company doing the flip-chip devices realizes why don't they just build the whole solution? Because why are they shipping things off to somebody to put it in this classic package?

So from that perspective, the company building the LED might get absorbed quite a bit because he's been taken over by the guy making the die. So that's one area. 

The other area is your SMT company. So while they need to put parts on the back, if the front is COB, they really have no idea how to do any of that, they no longer can take flip-chip devices, put them on a board because it's not an SMT part anymore and build an array of those nd then reflow all those devices as appropriate and then coat those devices. So companies in the supply chain that classically did one side did the other side and then shipped it off to the company are now in a situation where they have to consider, they have to go somewhere else to have that work done. They don't have that tool and equipment. 

So the supply chain is evolving and streamlining as well? 

Gary Feather: Right and what you'd expect, and let's move all the way down to let's say LCD TVs, the glass is built with the switch, the optical light switch in it as part of making the solution by a company like Sharp or a company like Samsung or others, OLED fits in the same category. So as you can integrate more of these pieces together, certainly the overall output is improved in yield, the costs go down, the automation increases and subsequently it allows you to build a different model for that. So many people that were doing Parts of this job got absorbed into the totally more integrated solution.

In this case, eventually a CPB based solution with inorganic devices placed in a more effective way on a large area board with results that give you the display performance you're looking for, that will result in a large area displays built that a factory, completely not tiLED in the 110, 120, 130 inch range with inorganic LEDs that you buy much like you buy an LCD or an OLED TV today is just bigger than those tech technologies can support and are not tiLED anymore, but completely finished and a finished product at home. And that's what you're seeing with the solutions from the big people, as you highlighted before Samsung and LG. 

Does all this make it easier for a company to spin itself up as an LED display manufacturer when they're not really manufacturing, they're just saying they're a manufacturer? 

Gary Feather: I list in our internal strategic competitive list 30 key companies that I think are integrated manufacturers. There are about 140 that are out there. So indeed today in LED-based displays, there are many people that are brokering talent from other people to provide solutions to customers and adding very little value to the actual solution. So in one way, it does allow that. On the other way, these companies may decide they want to be vertically integrated all the way to the customers. And so they may not open that up. So we have yet to see how that actually works as they fail. There are factories that are doing many LEDs today and some microLED capabilities, but the new factories built, we're in the 50 to 70,000 square feet, and they allow processing of a lot of materials. So I assume any serious customers will be considered until those factories are full. 

Let's talk about costs that have been coming down through the years. And I assume that's a function of buyer volume and manufacturing advances and everything else is this whole kind of shift going to also lower costs?

Gary Feather: Absolutely. The integration of these functions will lower costs. Part of the cost is yield. If the yield increases, that's immediate money into your pocket, but let's look at the whole solution. We talk about how we have the LEDs certainly, and we have drivers for the LEDs that support that and then the controlling system that goes with that. The automation of these systems from this, these are mostly now today, pulse width modulation non-persistent displays that are constant current devices. So that's what we build. So basically we build a light bulb that goes on and off fast enough so you see the mixing of the RGB the way you'd like.

As we look at the drivers, what's happened with the drivers is they used to be inaccurate and imprecise. And they were almost like analog, even though they're digital from device to device based on lead length drive, performance, voltage, and many other noise factors. So today, if you look at the newest release devices from the leaders in the industry, we have now integrated solutions in drivers that are so much more advanced. So what used to be in a single, it would take, say 64 packages are now in a single package associated with performance. So as you would guess, the cost has dropped as the level of integration has gone up much the same way with Silicon devices. So one of the big cost drivers in this is driver technology and driver technology continues to advance at a level that's quite phenomenal is the ability to control the LED and controlling the LED is absolutely the critical part of being able to create incredible images with LED technology. There's nothing like the speed, the performance, the color of an LED, and with the right driver in an amazing world opens up what people can do with these devices to give the user a perception that you otherwise never felt.

Yeah, in doing the recent report I did on LED, I got the sense that the marketplace is shifting from being fixated with pixel pitch, and who's got the finest pixel pitch displays and so on to a more mature market that understands visual quality is everything and you need to have a great control system, great drivers and everything else.

Gary Feather: That's absolutely true. Also, let's go back, this is the need, The need of the display initially was a sign and the sign basically is communicating fairly bold things in very large spaces, but the market shifted starting in 2014 to video displays. So what we're trying to do is replace and or meet the kind of performance with an OLED device.

They realize it's all about what the user perceives and having worked with creatives In the Hollywood structure with regard to images and within the whole physical sciences, the best stories are told in the dark. So the black are so important for you to feel the life-like nature of an image and we are just now addressing contrast ratios that begin to be a priority to realize very little reflected light of the display results in our blacks because we're off, obviously when we're black, we're not like an LCD trying to hold back the light, so more like an OLED. But once the black is attained and reflected light is mitigated and the contrast ratio. it's higher, the image comes alive. 

So that's one factor. The other is a bit depth. As you go down for the brightness, the eye becomes so much more capable to see the black areas and you've got to make sure you don't stair step that, that it's a nice blend because that's what reality is. As you look at things and the result is it's the second area bit depth is accurate and precise. This resulted in images that do appear lifelike and there are about four other parameters, but those two I think is what really brings an image to life and allows for a story well told. 

This is all pretty technical for a lot of people. If I'm a reseller or particularly if I'm an end-user, how valuable is it to understand and get into the technical weeds on this stuff? Or is this something they don't really need to know? 

Gary Feather: I don't think they need to know it at all. In all honesty, not for any reason other than seeing is believing and you want simple messages to people about simple things. As I said, we're going wireless with the way we connect devices, that's a big deal. We're trying to emulate a lead contrast ratio, that's a big deal. We moved to the control set. You get the right color in the right spaces. No fake colors along the way in color matching across the whole CIE space that you've covered. That's a big deal. People can get that right color, reliable, durable, and looks real. That's probably the message. 

The details of that are having the marketing spend to give that information to people. So they get it in a way that's valuable to their customers because when you're done, you want to look at it and be wowed with what and that's the only thing the customer sees. All the technology you and I are talking about is effectively what is behind the product to assure that's attainable 

From my perspective, I think it's always good, particularly if you're making a six-figure decision to have at least a decent understanding of what's under the hood matters.

Gary Feather: Right and I think we can put together information for people to ask the right questions to basically audit what they're getting to make sure they're not buying last year, the year before last solutions, which will be limiting and they're moving into the solutions that are not limiting going forward.

All right, Gary, that was terrific. I think we should do this again sometime. Very insightful. 

Gary Feather: It's an interesting market and you're going to see, I think about a hundred million in flip chips this year at retail and probably as much as 500 million in 2022. So this shift is occurring pretty fast in a $6 to $7 billion industry.

So I think that elements an important takeaway. Building durable products for long life, that's a great takeaway. And I think maybe the most important element is that LED now we'll begin to stand side by side in a larger format for what we've seen in the past with LCD and OLED. 

Okay, Gary. Thank you.

Gary Feather: Thank you, Dave. Appreciate it.

 

 

ACE Roundtable: The Tech That Worked In 2020, And Going Forward

ACE Roundtable: The Tech That Worked In 2020, And Going Forward

January 27, 2021

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

Just before Christmas, I moderated an Advocates for Connected Experiences roundtable that tossed around thoughts on what technologies were used to get us all through 2020, focusing on what really worked, and will continue to work into 2021.

It was a video discussion on Zoom, but it translates nicely to audio. I had technical issues with the planned podcast for this week, but this is a worthwhile, albeit last-minute stand-in.

The first voice you hear is Kim Sarubbi, one of the founders of Advocates of Connected Experiences, or ACE.

Also on the discussion, Joe' Lloyd from AVIXA, Kym Frank from Geopath, Beth Warren from CRI and the DSF, Cybelle Jones from SEGD, Bryan Meszaros from OpenEye Global, Asif Kahn from the Location-Based Marketing Association, and myself.

This podcast is produced with the kind, ongoing support of ScreenFeed, the digital signage content store. Get awesome-looking, engaging and automated subscription content for your screens.

 

Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

Kevin Cosbey, Seneca/Arrow

January 20, 2021

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

When I got into digital signage 20+ years ago, and for many years after that, PCs dominated the media player side of the business.

The big questions were around whether to use Windows or Linux, and products were differentiated on things like size and ruggedization.

That's changed in the last few years, with more and more digital signage networks going in that used low-cost embedded players in smart displays, or worked off special purpose media players or adapted set-top boxes.

That's shifted the ground for Seneca, an upstate New York specialty computer company that's been in the game for decades. Seneca is part of the Denver-based AV/IT distribution giant Arrow.

There's no doubt fewer digital signage networks now run on PCs, particularly when there's only simple messaging like menu boards. But demands have also changed, and a lot of networks that are based around messaging are driven by real-time data and analytics that need serious computing at the edge.

Kevin Cosbey has also been in the industry for a bunch of years, and the last several have been with Seneca, where he leads business development in the digital signage sector.

We had a great chat about where PCs fit right now in the industry, and we get into how and why Seneca has put resources into developing supporting software that makes commissioning PCs way easier, and gives partners new and better remote management tools.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Mr. Cosbey, we've known each other for a very long time, but for those people who don't know Seneca and to a larger extent, Arrow, can you say what that's all about and what you guys do? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Dave. Thanks for taking some time out of your day today. I really appreciate the opportunity.

So Seneca has been a 30 plus year organization that has its roots in traditional technology distribution, and over the course of those 30 years, six years ago, Arrow Electronics actually acquired us, and since then we've been part of the Arrow family as it worked. Ultimately, for those that are familiar with Arrow, a lot of people might just have the normal idea that Arrow's a big IT distribution company, but we fall under the services group. So our focus still is around services as it relates to digital signage services, as it's around technology to build a real solution and not just focus on speeds and feeds of hardware. So Arrow is a big massive company but the nice thing is: Seneca still runs through our veins.

And the company's based in Syracuse still, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep. The majority of our engineering group is in Syracuse, support’s in Syracuse, and we've got a light manufacturing facility still in Syracuse and a large manufacturing facility in Phoenix. 

Okay, and Arrow's based in Denver, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: You got it.

So when I look at the Seneca website, I see that you guys are into broadcast surveillance and digital signage being the key solution you talk about. What percentage roughly, I don't need the exact number of the work that Seneca does is around signage?

Kevin Cosbey: It's about 50%. 

Oh, okay, so that's a big part of your business. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep, absolutely. 

And how has that shifted through the years? 

Kevin Cosbey: When we first started getting into, what I like to consider niche computing, we were really that digital signage OEM focused company. And then through the years, through those 10 or so years we've really focused and dialed into niche computing, that created the new division of the security group. And they've been growing through the years as well. 

So we used to be like a hundred percent ish, on the niche computing focus in digital signage and over the years, security and surveillance has grown substantially. 

Okay. And with signage itself, I've been doing this for 20 plus years now, and when I got into it and for the first many years, it was all about what kind of PC to use and that's what people used and the debates were around do I use Windows or do I use Linux? And the PCs are being marketed and sold as much on form factor and processing power as really anything else, and a lot has changed since then. And I'm curious how it is with the business in that, you know you talked about a niche, how do you make the argument now of using a PC versus using a system on chip smart display versus using a set top box or an HDMI stick, whatever it may be. 

Who's still using PCs, and am I wrong in thinking it's a niche and It's used more than I think? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. Glad you asked it. So it's a lot to unpack with that question cause you know, similar to you, I've been in space for 15 years. I've seen a lot of interesting changes in the industry as a whole, way back when everything was PC, and it's not to say we were just thinking the industry is going to stay running Intel based platforms forever. We saw that higher performance chip sets are coming out from different chip set manufacturers and here we are today with a variety of capable chipsets that can produce and run 1080p or 4k content on a display.

There's a lot of differences in our industry however, where not everyone just needs to have a 1080p fullscreen content running 365 days a year. There's more to it, there's more stuff that's happening at the edge today than there was 10 years ago and that's what we're keeping up with.

Now, I do want to back up a little bit though and say the PC used to be pretty much the media player way back, and now we're seeing ourselves and I use this analogy a lot. I don't mean it that we were the best out there, but we were like the iPhone. We were the first to market as a media player. And then you started to see Android phones and you started to see all these other bits and pieces. Now, the nice thing is all of these other bits and pieces that are getting added to the marketplace, they validate our industry as a whole. So when we have SOC out there that is grabbing market share and when we have other purpose built devices that are grabbing market share, it's increasing our entire industry value. 

So yeah, we don't have a hundred percent of the pie anymore, but as that pie expands, we continue to have significant market share and that's really what we're after. We're not going after some folks that may consider SOC to be perfect for what they need and ironically, actually many instances where SOC is running, we're actually the primary media player and SOC is used as the redundancy, which I love that partnership. That's a really good useful way to have technology ensuring redundancy in high impact environments and really important environments.

Yeah, I've heard that in a few cases for kind of mission-critical displays like Airport displays and so on where the smart side of the display is the fail over but the big video wall or whatever is handled by a much beefier industrial grade box. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yup. And then just another aspect of your space, despite the entrance of other folks in the industry that are producing media player type solutions or media streaming devices, year over year we've had consistent growth.

There's a lot of massive enterprise networks out there that will usually only consider using a Wintel based platform and that's just based on the way their corporate structure works, the way their staff works, the way their entire organization functions on a global perspective. 

And in a lot of those cases, when you have an IT team with a bunch of Dr. Nos who only say no, we only use a PC or whatever, are they not also quite often saying, and we only use Lenovo, or we only use this brand name or that brand name, there are our kind of base contractor vendor for PCs? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. And historically, prior to Seneca being part of that Arrow family, we used to just have the Seneca stuff, and now that we're part of the Arrow family, we are an HP OEM, Lenovo OEM, Dell OEM. So we can still wrap all of the goodness of Seneca, which is, building systems specifically for an enterprise level opportunity and adding all of the functionality to that device. So when someone hits that power button, it runs the exact experience they want it to run. So reducing that setup time significantly at the end user destination. 

Yeah. Let's talk about that. I've been out to the Seneca facility in Syracuse a couple of times when I used to live much closer than I do now and that was one of the big things is when you're buying your PCs, your media players, whatever you want to call them servers. It's not like buying something off the shelf at a Best Buy or at a big box from a computer manufacturer. It's commercial or industrial grade. There's a lot more going on.

Can you lay out what you guys do that would differentiate it from a manufacturer that's not going out to thousands of units a day? 

Kevin Cosbey: Absolutely. So you've just hit on one major key point is that we're not producing thousands of devices and then figuring out how to sell it. We have two major channels, two major go to market strategies.

One is our OEM space and we are an OEM equipment manufacturer, or contract manufacturer for a lot of software companies out there that want absolutely nothing to do with hardware. So we bear that burden on their behalf. We grab their IP, their brand, their software, and we build it into our systems, our reference design systems, and we manage logistics. We manage just in time inventory so they can focus on software. We focus on hardware and that end user/end customer gets a device, a purpose-built device that is branded as that experience now. 

I was just going to say, I remember several years ago when Intel came up with its Nuc which was a nice little tiny box, but it looked very much like a consumer grade plastic box that would be perfectly fine on a credenza in a home or something like that. But then Seneca came out with its own version of the Nuc and it was the same reference design, but it was industrial grade. It was fabulous. It was made for business use, it was ruggedized to actually work out in the field for more than a week or something.

Is that kind of how you guys approach this, in that ”we do computing, but this is thought through in terms of what the use cases are”? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's exactly right. You sold it better than I could have Dave. But yeah, that's exactly right. We've become, over the few decades that we focused on niche computing, experts at taking off the shelf technology and designing it in a very purpose-built manner. So yes, Intel is a great partner of ours. We use a lot of their technology in a lot of our stuff, but we've recognized that Intel is for mass consumption on a lot of their platforms and digital signage isn't really looking for just a mass consumption solution. They're looking for something that's a little bit taken a step further and thermal design is important. Power supply embedded in the system is important. Output is important from an HDMI perspective or display port, whatever that case is. And that's the stuff we take from the Intel board itself and we'll grab USB hatters off of it to increase the IO on our chassis. We'll do all these creative things to take what exists from a global consumption perspective and take it to that next level to ensure it's perfect for what the industry needs, not just that customer/ 

The rise of things like audience measurement technologies, computer vision, that sort of thing and demand for more computing at the edge of a network, at the device that may be pushing content to the screen but that device is also being asked to do computer vision tasks of some kind and so on, has that helped the sales effort as well, in terms of you can maybe do that with a smart display or maybe possibly, probably not with a set top box kind of device, but you can buy a small form factor, industrial grade PC that you can tool up with on i5 or an i7 or whatever and it can do multiple things off of the same unit? 

Kevin Cosbey: Spot on again, Dave, you're crushing it out there on the hardware side. Exactly. To your point, we're starting to see and have really for the past few years that there's a shift from our perspective where not everything has to be computed in the cloud and a lot of stuff needs to happen at the edge, and as that edge becomes more in demand from a computing perspective, from a headroom perspective and future-proofing perspective, that's where we're starting to see folks that used to be on an i3 actually start looking at an i5 and i7, and of course you've got Moore's law, right? Where the computing capabilities at the edge just become more powerful as the years in technologies increase.

So even some folks that we were able to get away with, if they're doing 4k at the edge and running some other computer, maybe they used to be on an i5 and now five years later, we're actually seeing that to keep up with that same demand an i3 is going to be appropriate. So it's both ends of the spectrum.

And then as you get into the larger stuff where it's like a Time square video wall, that's our hardware throughout the partner, Diversified. And that was built specifically with really crazy computers in mind and crazy videos in mind. And that's very, purpose-built high compute power is required for that type of solution.

Yeah. You guys have servers that drive any number of very large seriously large pixel displays, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, like the Orlando airport that is like a mile or so of continuous displays that is using our hardware for hardware synchronization and hardware synchronization, again, getting that compute down to the edge instead of constantly relying on the cloud, you're not going to experience latency. You're not going to experience any major issues at the edge. It is as full-proof as it can possibly get. 

And at the edge, the demand, and really the rise of dynamic signage, this idea that what you're gonna see is based on what other business systems are telling you is that sort of decisioning that maybe you could do it in the cloud, but really it needs to be at the edge at the individual devices too, to work best? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, and just having that latency no longer a concern, so if you're doing drive through type menu boarding solution, and you want to do as much analytics as you possibly can to design content around certain environmental information, it's best to keep that computing at the edge, because there will be no latency going up to the cloud computing and then coming back down to the device.

So having those decisions made at the edge is far more powerful than having to send everything up to the cloud. The same reason that, a Tesla car, the amount of computing that is done inside of the car is substantially more than probably people think. 

So you guys have started marketing something called Maestro, can you tell me what that is and where that came from?

Kevin Cosbey:  Yeah, absolutely. So we recognized that out of our OEM group, a lot of the OEM folks have started to sell to a broader group of people, the channel. And over the years we started seeing that, all right, now we have these five-six media players, and we've got these 28 software partners, and I'm not going to do the competition here, but it comes up with a ridiculous amount of combinations of hardware to software. 

And now we've got to have all of our partners telling us, “Hey, Kevin, I really want to have an HDN with a BroadSign app”. Okay, now we've got to put in that information and then we build to order and send that out.

Instead of having all of these different SKUs and part numbers in a very complex and convoluted way, we grabbed all of our software partners. So that's Broadsign, Navori, SignageLive, Appspace, Ping HD, Acquire Digital, and then on the analytics side, we've got Ad Mobilize, Visibility and we've bundled them into a single platform called Maestro. And that comes on all of our media players as a simple, easy to use out of box software tool. So it just helps people automatically optimize the operating system for a digital signage environment. The next step is you just click on BroadSign, for example, if that's your CMS, it auto installs all of the BroadSign programs that are required to run on that system.

It changes anything that BroadSign needs to the operating system. So everything is taken care of. And then of course, if you want to add Ad Mobilize to that platform, you click on add, Ad Mobilize, it installs it, and now you have a very simple point and click setup process and a BroadSign and Ad Mobilize player right out of the box.

And what led to that? 

Kevin Cosbey: It really was just mostly confusion. We had a database of all of these part numbers, all of this stuff, and we realized we need to get everything together in an effort to be more aggressive in our channel space. So we've got a lot of really good channel customers, but we need to make their install process as easy as we could possibly make it, reducing their time at the install. So we've partnered up with the same folks that they're partnered up with to make their lives as easy as we could possibly make it. 

So one of the features and benefits, I'm just looking at the webpage here is you talk about saving hundreds of keystrokes. How is that? Just because of all the monkey business to get multiple systems working? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. So you've got Microsoft Windows, which is a wonderful operating system. I can't say anything negative about it. But ultimately it's built for mass consumption. So again, how do we take something that's built for the entire world to use from an operating system level and make it perfect for signage?

Usually when somebody gets a media player that's running on a Windows environment, they've got to go through and they've got to do certain things to the operating system. They've got to do this to the graphics card, through the drivers. They've got to do this and X, Y, and Z. Well, instead of having the installer do those things to suppress errors, so you're not going to have errors on that top layer of content, which I'm sure we've all seen out, out in the wild. 

This Maestro platform that the minute you boot it up, when it goes into the operating system, it auto goes through all of this stuff so that technician doesn't have to do anything. And then it goes through a reboot when it pops up that second time, then you're installing BroadSign. Broad sign has certain things that need to be done, certain hooks into the operating system that need to be done with a mouse and keyboard. We've just done it by just clicking BroadSign and installing it goes through that whole process. So we've scripted the whole process. So yeah, maybe a hundred clicks isn't the same for installing Ping HD or it's only 50 clicks for BroadSign, but it hovers around a hundred clicks that we've actually gone through the setup and jotted down how many clicks we're saving folks on average.

So in essence it's removing what can be a giant pain in the ass? 

Kevin Cosbey: That's it, yeah. We'll change that to the marketing slogan. (Laughter) 

There's something to be said sometimes for plain language. 

What's been the response from your ecosystem? 

Kevin Cosbey: Really happy. It's been this thing in my head for a while and there's risk involved when you're doing it. Paradigm shift within the organization and our engineering group got behind it, all of these folks got behind it into this. How do we make the channel so much easier? And we've gotten incredible feedback from our partners that we didn't think we were going to get. And it's just been like, I don’t know, heartwarming a bit that we're hearing such good feedback, like “You guys have thought of everything.” Wow. All right. That's pretty cool. That's good to hear. It's been really good. 

And was that all done in house or did you have to find a third party to do some of this stuff? Because you're mostly gear guys and not software guys.

Kevin Cosbey: We’re mostly speeds and feeds dudes, but ultimately we've got pretty good software engineering prowess when it comes to an operating system level stuff.

We've been building operating systems because we build hardware. We've been doing it for decades. Now,  if someone said, “Hey, Kevin, can you build me a CMS?” No, that's not our game. That's not our software expertise, but absolutely OS level stuff, that's our area of expertise.

Before I hit the start button here, we were also talking about something that was introduced earlier and you said it's going to spin up a lot more in 2021 called X-Connect?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that's right. We've had a platform called X-Connect in our security and surveillance group for about five years, so it's been developed as a very mature platform and it allows people to, from a simple dashboard, see all of their network, video recorders, right in the security and surveillance group. And it would allow them to see all their IP cameras. So from one dashboard, they can see everything and they can manage those devices.

Of course, that bright light went off in our group saying, “Hey, guys we see a pretty big need for this in the digital signage world.” That the difference is now that instead of it residing on a massive beefy high performance server, we needed to figure out how we take all of that incredible goodness in seeing what's going on in the server environment and bring it down to an itty bitty little media player that is sometimes running a little Intel Celeron chips up, and of course we can't impact content. Content is the number one thing that has to be running on these devices and if we have any impact on that, then we're just going against the grain. 

So it took the engineering group quite a while, but they were able to successfully deploy this X-Connect platform, which allows monitoring and management and the management is the big key function here. Anybody can send out a monitoring platform to see green lights and red lights. But if you want to actually reduce your truck rolls, you've gotta be able to remotely manage these devices. So what this system allows us to do is it sends out remote commands down to devices. Of course, simple reboot commands, that's all table stakes, but now we're at a level where I'll use an example, we've got a customer where they were complaining that out in the wild, it was in a retail environment for whatever reason, people were somehow bumping into the power button and it would somehow get that graceful reboot going well.

We went to the engineering group and with the customer working with us, they were like, “can't we just get rid of the power button?” Yeah, technically we could. So through the X-Connect platform, thousands of devices out in the field didn't require a truck roll and remotely, we disabled the power button on the system. So now technically the only way to reboot it is remotely through our system, which our partner and managed service provider is providing all those services. So a really cool application.

 Yeah. I get a sense, through the years, when it comes to truck rolls, there are times when something catastrophic has happened and you absolutely need a technician there, but there's one hell of a lot of truck rolls that are just about a cable that's come loose or power button turned off or something, right?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. I was just on a call before chatting with you, Dave, where one of the big topics of that discussion was it's the unknowns that are going to kill a network and truck rolls are the big unknown. So if we can mitigate that and bring it down to a manageable level where it can be understood almost as how many truck rolls do you think are going to happen for a network. And then on the back end, a managed service provider or an integrator or whoever it is on the X-Connect platform can resolve stuff remotely and allows organizations to scale their network a lot faster than they otherwise would.

So with your CMS partners, a lot of those guys, like the Novari's and so on, they have device management of some kind that's built into their software front end. Is what you bring with X-Connect supplementary or is there an API, does it replace what they have, how does all that work? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, it's intended to be the single pane of glass for an organization, and it does have an open API framework. The nice thing about the X-Connect platform is if organizations need to ingest other information, then we can ingest that information into X-Connect.

So for example, Novari, they've got a great platform that can see a lot of what's going on in the device. But because we're the hardware manufacturer, we can just see more of the technology layer of the technology stack. So in addition to what's going on with Novari, we can potentially ingest information from an IP camera, we can ingest information through HDMI CEC, we can ingest information through an SOC platform like magic info. So the idea here is that X-Connect has the capability of becoming that single pane of glass, to manage and monitor, not just the immediate player, but the entire stack. 

This is a little bit like what BrightSign is doing in terms of they've got boxes and then they've got a device management platform as well that kind of removes the need for the CMS provider or the solutions provider to develop their own thing. Is it a bit like that? 

Kevin Cosbey: I mean in the rudimentary sense of monitoring and managing, yes.

In the higher level, more in depth perspective, our design and I'm no expert on the BrightSign platform, but our design is not very proprietary in that it is an open API framework and we can add on a host of other devices, if you want to add on perhaps a Lenovo device, no problem. HP devices, no issue, Dell devices, all good. So it's a little bit more open and you can manage an entire network of stuff and not just to the Seneca media player. So we're looking to go after, how do we help manage the entire infrastructure? Not just one piece of the puzzle. 

And it doesn't have to be x86 based? 

Kevin Cosbey: Written out, x86 based for basically monitoring the device itself, but then the device itself becomes its own gateway and it allows to see other stuff on that same network. 

Which is why you could see a Samsung smart display for instance. 

I'm curious, are you seeing other kinds of companies that are digital signage pure play companies or really even AV integrators or like that, just different kinds of organizations. I'm thinking like access control companies and other ones that in the past year have seen the need to be able to push information to larger screens. Are you starting to see non-traditional players come at you?

Kevin Cosbey: Honestly on the PC side of the house, not really, no. We're seeing a little bit more where our traditional competition from 10 years ago is not consistently our competition as much as new entrants have become a competition. 

By new entrants, you mean like the smart display and set top boxes and so on? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, exactly. But from a traditional x86 based system Wintel based platforms and this is just a gut reaction based on the industry, Seneca has focused so heavily in the digital signage space that I believe we've become strong leaders in the PC based digital signage media play world.

Yeah, certainly there's three or four other companies that are selling into the same ecosystem, but in their case, it usually seems to be, “and we also do digital signage or this is among the things that we do” versus you guys, you're saying it's 50% of your business and you've got full-time people who that's all they do

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. We've got an engineering group that's what they've been doing for 10 plus years. 

All right. So what might we see from Seneca/Arrow in the context of signage in the next 12 months? 

Kevin Cosbey: I'd say you're going to see a lot of us, virtually of course, this year we're really excited about the Maestro platform and the X-Connect platform.

It puts us into a very serious solution offering for digital signage, just as we've been talking through this and you just mentioned a lot of folks have historically provided a small PC and we've done that for years. But now we're taking that next level. We always took that next level from a hardware side to making it a little bit more purpose-built and now we're starting to really dissect the whole process.

So we're dissecting what our channel folks are doing, what are integrators doing, what do managed service providers do, what is the digital out of home space doing and how do we solve some of those industry problems? With technology and then of course, we've got a big Arrow behind us that we're happy to be a part of.

So we offer Arrow Credit and financing to support really massive projects or projects that are just $10,000. We've gotten very creative in grabbing some of those Arrow pieces that historically we didn't have the capability of offering because of size. 

Yeah. I assume that if you had a very happy moment where you had an end user come to you and say “really interested in this, but here's the deal I need 40,000 units by the start of June” Old Seneca would probably say no versus now, you could actually say and I don't know if you could do that kind of number, but you could do a big number without people having a heart attack.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. I'll still fall out of my chair, but I'll get back in the chair pretty quickly, whereas before I'd be left on the ground.

But you'd be lying on the ground with a smile on your face.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah and the other cool thing with Arrow capital too, is we've partnered with our software partners. So we support the project with that end customer. So if it's, I don't know, Staples that wants to do a 2000 unit deployment, we will support the entire financial burden of that project and then let's say a software company, X is working it with us.

Arrow capital will pay that software company for those three years of contracted services on day one. So now we've got a solution that allows our partnerships to be a little bit more financially stable as well. 

All right. Kevin, thank you for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Cosbey: Thank you, Dave. Happy new year and really looking forward to seeing you and everybody in the industry one day, maybe this year. 

Yeah, one day. I think it might not be until the fall, but fingers crossed. 

Kevin Cosbey: Fingers crossed, yeah. 

All right. Stay safe. 

Kevin Cosbey: Thanks Dave. You do the same.

 

Sam Ward, Soofa

Sam Ward, Soofa

January 13, 2021

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

There are several media companies – from giants to start-ups – offering smart city display solutions, which are, effectively, outdoor totem displays that run local information, backed by advertising.

But there’s only one – Boston-based Soofa – that actively markets a product that runs entirely off solar power and uses e-paper as the display canvas.

The company grew out of MIT, and had its start with a bench unit that allowed people to sit and relax in parks and public squares, while they charged their phones at the Soofa unit.

Soofa evolved into public displays, with large-format e-paper screens on totems  (think very large Kindles) and management software that allows cities to inform and guide city residents and visitors.

Unlike many of the smart city projects out there that seem to be smart mainly as a way to win a digital out of home advertising concession, the local governments that tend to opt in with Soofa are more interested in distributing information and fostering community.

They’re also attracted to Soofa because the hardware and install costs of a Soofa display are a fraction of the cost of a typical full-color, daylight-readable outdoor LCD display, and all the related hardware and construction work needed to put one in.

I had a great chat with Sam Ward, who is in charge of building up the roster of cities and companies working with Soofa.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Sam, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what Soofa is all about and what your role there is? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. Soofa was founded out of the MIT Media Lab, here in Cambridge, back in 2014. We're a female founded team and our hub is in Cambridge, but the team is distributed across the country these days. We create the Soofa Sign, which is a solar powered digital sign that is found around the country. Right now we're in Boston, Atlanta and Western Massachusetts. 

My role at Soofa, I'm the director of growth. So I manage all things related to bringing on new partners through building our community of city users, as well as our advertisers, and then discovering new ways to introduce people to Soofa and the brand. 

So if you go to the city of, I don't know, Columbus, Ohio (I'm pulling locations out of my ass) but what is the pitch? 

Sam Ward: So for the city, the pitch for a Soofa sign is really a smart city kiosk or signage that helps build their communication with constituents.

It's a real-time platform, a CMS they can use to upload content and link real-time hyper-local content on the digital screens, which we can install with them throughout the city. They're all solar powered, super easy to install. It only actually takes 30 minutes to install a Soofa sign. And then after that we work with them to make sure there's great content on there for the community, whether that's real-time transit, health updates, which have been very relevant this year.

And then also we're able to share interesting pedestrian data insights with the city, so they can start measuring the usage of whatever is near the signs that they install, which has been really valuable. Again, especially this year. 

And how do you do the pedestrian insights? 

Sam Ward: So the pedestrian insights are generated from a sensor, which is placed in all of our signs. And a little bit of fun background about the company. We actually started back in 2014, where we developed a solar powered Charging Bench which also provided those pedestrian insights. So that was something that our founder, Sandra managed to get President Obama to sit on one with her on the White House lawn.

So that really kicked off that product. But the sensor we brought from the Bench to the signs because the city had great use for that and it also serves our advertisers as well as a measurement tool. But basically how it works is that it's able to track WiFi that smartphones admit and then every sign is calibrated, so that gives us a real time measurement of the wifi signals that it is picking up within a radius of the screen. 

So this is anonymized and it's not using a camera or anything? 

Sam Ward: Correct. No camera. It's totally anonymized. So we're very cognizant of the city's needs and the public's needs for privacy around that sort of thing.

So there's a few companies out there like display manufacturers, specialty display companies, and smart cities companies that have totem style displays, full color LCD outdoor rated and everything else that they sell into cities and into media companies to some degree, the distinction with what you guys do is that you're using e-paper, correct?

Sam Ward: That's right. 

And that effectively means you've got a very large Kindle that you're parking out on a sidewalk or a public walkway of some kind? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, that's right. So it's a 42 inch screen. We sometimes jokingly say it's the largest Kindle you'll ever see. Obviously it is able to withstand weather, the outdoors elements and the solar powered. I think like some of the main differences between Soofa and those other products are, yes, we use e-paper and we're solar powered and, we're solar because at the end of the day, our mission of the company is to be smart, social and sustainable. So there's no electricity needed, obviously no need to rip up a sidewalk to install the sign. Like I said, it only takes 30 minutes and four bolts to install. So cities really like that. It makes the unit economics very favorable. It's pretty inexpensive to produce compared to some of those flashy competitors with the bright LCD screens, and the signs can be moved really easily too. So cities love that because if there's construction, it's super easy to just place the Soofa sign somewhere else in the meantime. 

And with the electronic paper, that is what allows us to keep that power consumption much lower than a typical digital screen, but also at the same time, it's a higher resolution. It looks better. There's no glare. So it's really worked out for the product to have that electronic ink screen.

How do you deal with it at night? 

Sam Ward: We do have light bars that are part of the sign. So the screens are illuminated depending on the time of year, about 16 hours per day, and the light bar comes on at sunset. And then the signs go to sleep at night, so between again, depending on the year, but between around 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, the signs will go to sleep.

Could you do a 24/7 if you needed to with the solar charging that you have? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, I think we could, if we needed to. We'd probably have to do a few backup battery swaps but I don't think it's something we'd want to do, full time, all signs, 24 hours a day with the current solar power and capabilities that we have now. Also with our pedestrian measurement, there's not a lot of people walking by in the very early hours of the morning, so we made the call to let the signs go to sleep at night. 

Yeah. I was mostly curious because if you were doing things like showing transit times, and so on, obviously the buses are still running at midnight. 

Sam Ward: Yeah, that is very true. If there was, for example, a public emergency, we can make special calls for one-offs, if we need to leave the signs running for longer. 

I have this sort of mixed opinion of the whole smart cities display movement, because I've seen a number of media companies produce display totems that are clearly just digital ad posters with some sort of smart city veneer to them that says, “Hey this is smart and this is special and you should have this too”, but those things would not exist were it not for the fact that they're there to sell advertising. 

Is what you do different? 

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely and I think that's a really interesting question because we really believe that if you're creating some sort of smart kiosk that is touting itself as innovative for the city, for the constituents, it really should be. And if it is effective in that way, it's going to be a win for everyone, for the city, for the actual people walking by, and also for the advertisers that are on the screen. 

Because if you can create a habit of people, knowing that they can come to that kiosk or in our case, the Soofa signs to find relevant real-time information, transit, weather events, city communication, then they're going to pay more attention to that device as they go about their daily journey and for Soofa, we actually used to have a different screen layout, which maybe was more in that world of, “we have a platform” and most of it was advertising. And we had a lot of long discussions about the product and ultimately changed our screen to have what we call the newsfeed or engagement layout that we currently run, which features a prominent advertisement, but also has a lot of local relevant content on the screen at all times. So it's able to serve everyone's needs while being the best version of itself for the pedestrian. 

Yeah, from what I've seen in some of the images, it feels like a newspaper if you remember those things.

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. The electronic ink is certainly helping there, especially when you see one in person, it really is. Electronic ink is a little bit uncanny cause we're not used to seeing it on that scale. So it's really pretty eye-catching in person and yeah, it does look a lot like a newspaper when it refreshes.

It has a really interesting electronic paper, it has an interesting way that it refreshes the screen. It almost looks like an Etch-a-Sketch or like almost, I don't want to say glitch really, cause it's not a negative thing, but it refreshes in this really interesting way that still creates that movement that's eye-catching while still looking like paper. So it's really interesting in person. 

Yeah. It freaks out for a split second and then it comes back.

Sam Ward: Yup. Exactly. 

I've been intrigued by that. Does it matter to brand advertisers that you're primarily dealing in monochrome? Will they place ads when they know it's only in black and white?

Sam Ward: Yeah we've found that people have a normal amount of, I guess confusion or maybe hesitation that you would have with any sort of unique media placement. It's not a straightforward color bus shelter, or billboard. There's definitely a level of education involved when you're creating a product that's unfamiliar to an advertiser, but that's also a benefit because it's unfamiliar to the pedestrian as well, and in that way it's eye catching and harder to ignore. And then also with the monochrome, we're able to put signs in great locations because as we abide by different city laws that are created to stop distracted driving, right? 

Our signs for pedestrians are pedestrian centric. We don't measure car impressions. We're able to place the signs in better locations because of that. And then also again, with the higher quality screen display that you get with electronic ink a lot of advertisers love that, especially for really crisp, like vector images or photography looks really amazing on the signs. And then finally with the monochrome, the signs are informational. It's almost like native advertising to that neighborhood. If you're gonna advertise on, let's say like the Somerville, Massachusetts Soofa signs, that people are going to have a certain level of authenticity and trust already built in by advertising on the Soofa sign screen in the Soofa sign screen format, cause they're just used to seeing good, interesting local information already in that place. 

So through those, things were able to bring people around on the monochrome, but we also do sell a static platform branding of the sign themselves. So if we have an advertiser, who's like “My brand is green. I really need green.” We can do different products where they can wrap the signs with their brand and then also do digital ads that are maybe more informational at the same time. So you still get that branding punch but with the real time screen content. 

E-Ink, in particular, does have some versions of its product that supports color. Have you gone down that path? 

Sam Ward: Yeah. That's definitely something that we keep an eye on. We work really closely with E-ink, the company itself, which is also a company that was founded out of MIT.

And they've come by, we've seen the color screens. Right now, they are not quite stable enough for outdoor use, at least not in the exact way that we would use them with a Soofa sign. But I do believe that at some point, within the next few years, we'll definitely have a version of the Soofa sign, which has some color capabilities on the screen.

And for managers and for things like the local news feeds and so on, do you provide the software for that and the service to feed that stuff in, or just a CMS platform and then your clients use it from there? 

Sam Ward: We do, we've built our own CMS in-house here, so that's how we run the ads on the screens. That's how we are able to deliver the advertisements on a CPM basis first off for the advertisers. We're able to actually deliver based on how many people are walking by and pace towards a goal throughout the end of the month, which our advertisers love. And then in terms of our city clients, we build custom APIs depending on what they want on their screens. 

Obviously we can connect with the big companies, to show what's local, what's happening. We pull from, I think we use Google news as our API and we pull relevant news content that has the name of that neighborhood in the titles of the articles. So different things like that, depending on what we want to show in that particular neighborhood where we always try to make the content on the sign as relevant as possible for where it's showing up. 

Can you describe a good representative deployment that you have out there with a city?

Sam Ward: Yeah, I think one of my favorites, and I think one of the most impactful deployments is the one that we did recently was in the city of Revere this past summer and their main reason for wanting to bring Soofa signs to their community was for communications around COVID and also bilingual communications, which is really important.

So for them, when we launched the sign. We launched and then I think I saw content coming in from them this morning. They're really good about keeping it up to date. But they launched and had a pretty big pool of content regarding health updates testing in all different types of languages which was great, and then that was paired with real time transit data since we were putting the signs around some highly trafficked transit locations. 

Also we've been running polls which have been very great for engaging the community in a way that's really simple for pedestrians to engage with their signs, which is why you can ask a poll question. Sometimes we work with the city to choose something that they're curious about, like what would you like to see brought to Revere, for example and then people can actually text in their answers to that poll question. So that's when all the pieces of the screen are working in harmony like that's when you get a really great experience for everyone, for the city, for the pedestrian, and also for the advertiser who may want to reach that particular neighborhood.

They're not interactive screens, “directly interactive”, they're interactive because they can then do something else using their phone or whatever, right? 

Sam Ward: That's correct, yes. They are not touchscreen. Although people try to touch them a lot because they're used to the Kindle. 

Yeah. I guess virtually every screen you see out there, you now assume you can touch it and do something with it and it's not always the case. 

Sam Ward: Yeah. We've always had interactivity. It’s how you can be on your phone and interact with the polling questions. We have this texting interactivity, which has been really successful for getting more pedestrians engaged, but we also have a self service platform called Soofa Talk, which is mostly used for local businesses who want to post Soofa signs in their community and we have self-service plans. They can pay for a monthly plan and then post the signs, but community members and community groups can also sign up and post the Soofa signs in their neighborhood for free, so we've always had that functionality to involve the community more.

If they're open and want to create content. I think it's good to have both options, which is, if you just want to engage with the sign, you can quickly text and answer into the poll. You don't need to sign up for anything, but if you want to have a longer-term engagement, maybe you have a community group that throws free local events, you can sign up for Soofa Talk and actually post to the signs yourself as well. 

Do you find when you're talking to different municipal governments, that you have more success with those who are motivated to find new ways to disseminate community information versus those municipal governments who are motivated by finding incremental advertising revenue through media concessions?

Sam Ward: Yeah, that's a good question. We definitely have found the most success with governments that are looking for a communications device or that want to use the sign for wayfinding because they can brand the vinyl on the sign as well. So that has been a big value add for them, but I would say the rev share isn't totally off the table though. That's definitely something that people care about and is part of the process of selling signs into a city because we do rev shares with our city partners as well. 

But I think in order of importance, it really is the communications piece that comes before that with a Soofa instead of your traditional out of home platform.

And if it's a smart city kiosk kind of display, like the ones that are on the streets of New York. I'm blanking on the name of the company, but those things are expensive and then you've got all the infrastructure costs too, as you said earlier to trench and get power out to wherever the display is going to be and do all those other things.

 

How do costs compare between the two? 

 

Sam Ward: We are significantly less expensive for cities to install and start using their Soofa signs. That was a big part of developing the product itself. That was always a really big consideration in building something that is flexible and movable, solar power, and easy to install.

I don't have the exact number on hand, but compared to some of our competitors, we are 1/10th of the cost of that piece of technology. 

And do you have customers who go down your path primarily on a cost basis and they see what they're doing as making a reasonable compromise, or do they look at what they want to do and realize, “Hey, e-paper, monochrome doesn't really matter. It does the job that we want it to do.” 

Sam Ward: It's more of the latter. I think cost is always a consideration, but I think a lot of our city clients, they're using Soofa as a completely different tool. It's not really an out-of-home platform for them. That's a nice value add, like “Oh, local businesses can advertise here. Regional businesses will get a rev share.” But at the end of the day, they're trying to buy a communications platform, a way-finding tool, a pedestrian data tool. It hits all those marks for them, and then at the end of the day, you'll also get a rev share. So that's nice too. 

When you sign up with Soofa, are you getting the software and support and everything else in like a one-time buy or do you buy the hardware and then you pay a monthly fee to have it supported? 

 

Sam Ward: So for cities, we have different types of ways of working depending on what the needs of the city are. I'd say the most traditional is co-investing in a sign, paying some part of the upfront cost but then using the rev share to either pay off the rest of the sign, or maybe, we have different situations with different cities. 

In some cases, the signs we actually install without costs if it's in an area where we know there's going to be a lot of advertising interests, we can make the argument with the rev share, we'll pay for the sign itself. Or sometimes we enter into neighborhoods with a sponsor who is wrapping the signs in their brand, really cares about that neighborhood and is sponsoring the signs to bring them there so that the city doesn't have to pay any fees at all.

And then support and maintenance is ongoing for the city again, different plans, but most of the time that is at no cost to the city itself. 

Okay, so you're flexible and adapt according to the opportunity and the circumstances. 

Sam Ward: Yeah, it really depends on where the city is, what the advertising and revenue opportunity is, but we all figure out what works for every city. We always want to help people bring Soofa signs to their communities in any way that we can. So it's definitely case by case.

Do you find you're getting inbound or do you have to go out and evangelize to generate interest in the Soofa? 

Sam Ward: I think a little bit of both. For cities, our branding is really strong from those bench days. The team definitely did a lot of events early on and also got a lot of press back in 2014-2015, when we launched the bench product and I'm a big proponent of top of funnel and brand advertising, obviously, and that's worked really well for us, building that brand early on. So we see a lot of inbound interest from cities. We also have benches all over the world, so people see the benches and get curious about what Soofa is and discover the signs themselves.

But we also have a city growth team who are constantly reaching out to new cities who we think would be a great fit or could see a benefit from any of the different values that the signs bring. So that's on the city side. 

With new advertisers, I'd say it's definitely a lot more outbound as we try to grow the Soofa brand just in the out of home space. We definitely came into the market more as a smart city tool. We're very familiar with that side of things. But now we're really working hard to grow our brand in the out of home space and make more connections there too. 

 

I assume that there's a lot of value in expanding the time to develop really great creative that looks good in black and white, because you could imagine all kinds of creative that somebody just tries to save a file as black and white and it looks like crap versus I always think of this company in Slovenia called Visionect. It’s a great little company, but they're fabulous at designing for that medium, like th all their little displays look great in black and white. 

 

Sam Ward: Yeah, there's definitely a technique to it, and we provide design services to all of our clients as part of our campaigns, because that's great to have, and I think it makes the campaigns better. I think it makes the creative look better.

 

A lot of the time it's as simple as keeping the messaging straightforward. I always say to think about the context and keep it authentic for who you're trying to reach, which neighborhoods you're in. If you can like calling out the actual neighborhood that you're in or the city that you're in making the message relevant, but then also using high contrast, vector images, very simple language, keeping things big and bold. So your typical, out of home best practices just with that extra element of let's make sure this looks amazing in black and white as well. 

 

We've talked a lot about cities, but do you sell into other verticals like campus and workplace?

Sam Ward:  We focused mainly on cities and we also work with private commercial real estate as well. So for example, for anyone who's familiar with the Boston area, we work very closely with WS Development who developed the Seaport area in Boston. So we have different relationships but mainly across cities and then private landowners.

I know we've had conversations with colleges in the past but that hasn't been a main focus of the product, at least not up to date. 

Okay. So for something like the Seaport development, you've got a property developer owner who wants to have signs that kind of guide people, provide wayfinding, provide information on what's going on in this development?

Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. It's a huge tenant support for them. So, the wayfinding is more about, “Oh, here's a directory of all of these amazing stores that are in the area” and these real estate areas that are developing across cities, they're really trying to build their own brand, like building the brand of the Seaport in Boston, like they have their own events, they're always trying to get more people to the area to support their tenants. So Soofa signs work really well in that capacity. 

Do you have a handle on the content that really seems to hit with people? 

Sam Ward: I always say when I'm onboarding a new advertiser, I say to keep things contextual, authentic and relatable really for the people that are walking by. Our signs are pedestrian centric, they are part of the fabric of the neighborhood, we call them the neighborhood News feeds, so that's always the best practice for advertisers with Soofa signs. 

And we know this because obviously we have measurement capabilities with different campaigns, whether people have texts and calls to action, QR codes, or if we're doing something more advanced, like a study using mobile data and some other partners.

And then we also do a lot of field testing for our clients. We'll actually send someone from our team out into the neighborhood to interview passers-by about what they think about an ad and people love things that are contextual to that neighborhood, that makes sense for them, that have useful relevant information. So it's really all about that neighborhood authenticity, at least with Soofa sign content, but I think you'd get pretty similar feedback on any sort of out-of-home platform. People want to see stuff that's relevant to them. 

Yeah, and just shoveling News feeds that you can see in a thousand other places, it doesn't make a lot of sense but being hyper-local does. 

Sam Ward: Exactly. We had someone who was doing some brand work with us and he said something that stuck out to me and he was like with Soofa signs, they don't want to see The New York times, they want to see like the Summerville Daily or whatever the Gazette is of that particular small neighborhood, that's really what they're there for.

So what might we see out of the Soofa in 2021? 

Sam Ward: We have a lot of aggressive plans for expansion with our city growth team. We're always talking to a number of new cities across the country.

We have a pretty heavy focus on the east coast right now, but we also have a rep working in California and I believe as of this morning, we have a new rep who's going to be working out of Austin, Texas, which is really exciting. So really trying to expand the network across the country which will be amazing, both from a city perspective, really building up the community. It'll allow us to develop new products with all of these new cities who have Soofa signs in their neighborhoods, and then also for our advertisers we've traditionally worked with. A lot of regional brands or national brands that have a very hyper-local campaign or focus in one of our current networks. But once we're national, it will enable us to really work with more national brands who want to speak in a hyper-local way, but have a national media strategy.

So that'll be pretty exciting as well. 

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

Sam Ward: Yeah, thanks so much. This was a lot of fun.

 

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