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

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)

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

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

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

Yeah, me too. 

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

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

Thank you!

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

July 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean: Yeah, definitely true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again for taking some time with me.

Sean: Thanks so much, Dave.

 

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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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.

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.

 

Kym Frank, Geopath

Kym Frank, Geopath

December 2, 2020

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

Measurement in the out of home advertising industry used to be as low tech as people with clickers, parked on roadsides and busily counting the cars going by.

That would give media companies a really basic sense of how many eyeballs MIGHT see a billboard in a given time period.

The out of home industry has long since matured, and a lot of it is now digital ... and much more varied than billboards and transit shelter posters. Measurement has also matured in a big way, and has grown super-sophisticated.

Out of home media is very much a for-profit business, but a key player on the tech measurement side is actually a non-profit ... supported by hundreds of companies in the ecosystem.

Geopath is populated by data scientists and site auditors who do audience location measurement based on a pile of different data sources - the biggest one being aggregated, anonymous data from smartphones.

Geopath's tools, which are used by media owners and brands, help build a current view on the mobility, behaviour and attributes of out of home audiences.

A lot of this stuff is way the hell over my head, but thankfully Geopath's President Kym Frank is very good, and patient, at explaining things to knuckleheads like me.

TRANSCRIPT

So, Kym, for those people who don't know much about Geopath, can you explain what it is and how does it work? 

Kym Frank: Sure. So Geopath is a really unique organization. We've been around since the 1930s, we were formed as a joint initiative between the OAAA, which is the Industry Association for out-of-home advertising, the ANA, which is the Association of National Advertisers and the 4A's, which is the Association for Agencies.

So we have existed since the 1930s with the sole objective of measuring out-of-home, digital out-of-home, and all its formats advertising. We're a nonprofit and we are still to this day, governed collectively by agencies, advertisers, and the media owners themselves. 

So being a nonprofit, I assume you're funded by your members.

Kym Frank: We are. So each of our members pays dues to our organization that supports the development of our measurement system and the maintenance of our measurement system itself. So it's a really great setup, because everybody just pays a fraction of the cost to develop these metrics and then they are able to be, universally used by the entire buying community, across all the different formats that we measure. 

So who would be typical members? 

Kym Frank: So we have a lot of out-of-home members from the big operators, like Clear Channel, Lamar and Outfront, all the way down the line to some small members who have three or four billboards, maybe.

We also have agency members, so big holding company agencies down to independent local specialists. And then we also have some advertiser members as well. In fact, our executive committee has representation from Coca-Cola and representation from Constellation brands, which is the brand that owns the Corona brand, and so we have grown quite a bit. In 2015, when I joined, we had 180 member companies and as of today, we're at approximately 390 members. 

Nice. You've doubled it and then some. I'm sure you tell the board about it, right? 

Kym Frank: I do all the time. 

Is there a for-profit competitor, like a company out there that has data that you would pay for and measurement that you would pay for?

Kym Frank: Sure, so we don't say we have competitors. We say we have “friend predators”. 

Geopath provides currency level measurement, and I would say we probably measure 95% of the industry, but there are other kinds of measurements that are out there. People might want to understand how their campaign performed in terms of conversions, so did our mall ads drive people to make a purchase? So there are a lot of other companies out there that are doing that kind of measurement for sure. 

So that’s more on the analytics side, right? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely, so more custom solutions, things along those lines. There's a lot of technology out there that measures things in different ways, like I know you and I have spoken about facial detection technology, and people who are connecting to the individual devices, so there's a lot of different methodologies out there. 

This will seem like a really obvious question, but I'm going to ask it anyways, cause I'm not very bright. Why do media companies need measurement? 

Kym Frank: That is a good question. So advertisers across channels, this is not an out-of-home problem. Advertisers across channels want to understand, what did my campaign deliver or, on the front end, what should I be buying with my advertising dollars? And how much of it should I be buying? So that they can understand the scale of a campaign that they're purchasing, are they reaching the right people? Are they reaching enough people? How many times are those people being reached by my ads? It's really important to advertisers. 

In the old days on, by old, I mean like 10-20 years ago, even that’s recent, a lot of out-of-home was just measured by gross audience counts, right? Like highway traffic or foot traffic meters, that sort of thing? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So when I joined the organization, the legacy metrics, a lot of that was coming from rubber hoses in the road, like the department of transportation, traffic counts. So nowadays we're able to use things like connected car data and mobile device data, but that was not available.

So yes, they were using manual counts. In fact, if you go way back in time, we used clickers, so people would stand under a billboard with a clicker in their hand and count the number of cars that went by in an hour. 

Yeah. And the same thing in shopping malls, there'd be somebody there with a clipboard just clicking away?

Kym Frank: Yep. 

Amazing. So is good audience measurement something that just validates making immediate investment, or is used to also optimize the investment that you're making, that you've already decided? Like, I'm going to be in this market, I'm going to do these things, but I want to know a hell of a lot more about the audience and then tune the media and tune the campaign so I get more out of it. 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. Optimization is key and it's a lot of what we've been working on since I joined the organization. When I joined, we had the ability to target pretty standard demographics. So I'm interested in reaching women 18 to 34, but since we've updated our measurement system, we now include information across 8,000 different audience types. So you're able to understand which units I should be advertising on. If I want to build a campaign to reach people who are likely to be buying a new car within the next 12 months, it's really changed the way out-of-home is bought more from more as an audience channel than as a patient vehicle.

Now, both are still very important because you want to reach people in the right location, but you also want to make sure you're reaching the right people. 

And where does the data come from? You mentioned geolocation data from mobile phones, but there's a whole mashup of things you use, right?

Kym Frank: We, so we have a data fusion engine is what we call it. We take a number of different kinds of data sets, there's just no silver bullet that does everything, so we combine a number of different data sets for what they are best at. So we are using mobile device data, that's typically data that's captured by apps that people have opted in to have their location tracked on their phones. That's all anonymized and aggregated, so we're not ever following around one unique device or anything along those lines. We get data from connected cars. We have data from Maps, we still do validate against some traffic information and real-time data that's available from other sources.

We're partnered with Claritas, that's survey data for some audience targeting. It's a huge data stack and a lot of modeling that goes on to develop the product that we provide to our members 

Are things like census data also important? 

Kym Frank: Absolutely. In fact, I know that the census has been very troubled, due to COVID. 

And a guy at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Kym Frank: I didn't say that. But yeah, the census has been very challenging, but it's very important, not just for Geopath, but it is something that is utilized across pretty much everyone who does any kind of survey at that population level. So really very important. 

Yeah. I think you've said in the past that the best data that you get, if you had to look at all the different elements, is the mobile data, right?

Kym Frank: Correct. That is the biggest piece of what we built. 

If I have a media network, an out-of-home media network of some kind, and I don't know, let's say I'm in hospital waiting rooms or whatever, if I don't have some degree of measurement, if I've not part of Geopath, If I don't have that kind of data available, will a media planner even look at my network? 

Kym Frank: I think so. I mean, it certainly helps to have data attached to it and it has to be data that the buyer feels comfortable with, but there are certainly strategies that would involve using a network that maybe does not have a level of currency.

The fact that when you're talking about a network along those lines, while they may not have impression and data or reach and frequency data, usually everyone has some kind of first party data. You may know if you're a hospital network, how many patients you have, you may know if you're at a gas station, how many receipts are generated.

So there's always some kind of data available, but certainly currency data and impressions data or reach and frequency data, that's what a buyer's really looking for. 

Yeah. You've mentioned currency data a few times now. Could you explain what that is? Cause I'll be honest, I'm not totally certain what you mean by that.

Kym Frank: So when we say we measure currency, it's really because those are the impressions that are being bought and sold for the channel. Every channel has its own kind of currency. So a lot of it's measured by Nielsen, which you may be familiar with here in the United States measures television, and so then we provide that currency for out-of-home.

And is there a challenge with there being different currencies and having some sort of a common currency? 

Kym Frank: And that's exactly why Geopath was created, it was to provide a common currency across all of the different formats of out-of-home. So prior to the generation of this organization, every different operator had their own sets of numbers and it was impossible for a buyer to put them together. Because we have built such a large database of all of these different operators' inventory, it makes it really much easier for a buyer to go in and say, okay, I bought inventory across 30 different operators, but I know what it delivered collectively because the currency is very common and that's really come a long way, because as we've recently announced, we launched in-venue measurement. So prior to this past year, Geopath was not measuring things like airports and malls and bars and restaurants, but we were able to stand that up and we look forward to our buyers really being able to buy a package of roadside inventory and combine the data with in-malls or in-bars or in-airports and get a comprehensive number.

Yeah. Those are two very different dynamics when you're talking about highway billboards or spectaculars in big cities and then talking about screens and bars and all that, like that must've been quite an exercise to figure out how you equate all these different kinds of mediums in one platform.

Kym Frank: Right and every network is very different, yeah. We have partners who have jukeboxes in bars and then we have partners who have very large screens inside of transit hubs and measuring each one of those is very different. We measure every screen, every spot we audit them all. It's pretty complicated, it's the only thing we do, it's our priority So we want to make sure we're doing it right. 

So when you say it's the only thing you do, it’s like you have a bunch of data scientists working for you? 

Kym Frank: I sure do. 

Those are expensive.

Kym Frank: I have a team of auditors. We really do have two products, right? We audit the inventory, so we have to make sure it's where they say it is, that the signs are the size that's been reported. We measure the angle, the oncoming traffic, whether that's foot traffic or oncoming car traffic, we measure all of the different places where a sign can be seen from, so that's really step number one, so I have a team of auditors also who spend a lot of time looking at inventory and just making sure that it's in the right place.

So we have an audited inventory database that has millions of locations across the country in it and then we measure those units, and that's really the data scientists. 

So if you weren't doing an audit, what's your read on how accurate network representation would be? 

Kym Frank: It really depends on the network. So we just really did a whole re-audit of everything we measure on roadside and back in the day when people would report, which direction their units were facing. For instance, if you think about a billboard on the side of a highway and the highway is, let's say it's 80 East and the unit was on the westbound side, they might say it was a westbound facing unit. But now when we go in, we actually can go into satellite imagery and look at that unit and say, it's not actually perpendicular to the roadway. It's not actually facing that one direction and getting it to the exact degree. And the reason that's important is if you're approaching a unit on a highway, we want to know at what point in time, can you see that unit so that we can accurately measure how many impressions it's delivering. 

Yeah. I'm up in Canada in Nova Scotia, which is just all forests, it’s like Maine or New Hampshire or whatever. And, when we go down to see our daughter, she lives about 40 minutes south of us, and there's a Wendy's billboard that I've seen for the last two or three years and wondered if they're selling this to Wendy's because you can just see the top of it. Because all the trees have grown up at a level and I'm sure if they were looking at that and wondering, why am I paying for this? Because nobody can see this unless they just recognize the colors and go, okay, that's a Wendy's billboard back there somewhere.

Kym Frank: Yeah, we really do take into account exactly how long oncoming traffic and, it gets even more important, Dave is when there's a digital unit that is showing multiple ads. So how many of those ads can someone see as they're approaching the unit becomes a really important part of our measurement system.

So with the audits that you do in the height of a pandemic, how do you do that? Is it all of using satellites, and asking people in local areas to go onsite and take photos? 

Kym Frank: So we do use photo sheets from our members, almost always have photos of their inventory, cause they share them with advertisers after a campaign.

So we take those photos, but then we do use satellite imagery, and there's some really great information in Google maps. Now we can actually pretend we're in a car within Google maps and drive down the road and go, at this point in time, this is when you can start to see that unit, and once the car passes this location, you can no longer see it. So we've been really empowered by Bing and Google, developing these great map technologies. 

We've been on a number of round tables over the last few months for different things. And you've spoken a number of times about how things have been going through COVID-19 and how you measure movement of people and activity in general. And there was certainly a dip, but it seems to me the last time we were talking and from stuff I was looking at, it's come back to really pre-COVID levels of activity. 

Kym Frank: Correct. So when we're talking about the number of people who are leaving their houses on a daily basis, 75 to 76% of people are going out on any given day. Usually that would be closer to the low eighties, so there is a little bit of a depth, and then the miles that people are traveling nationally, we are at 92%, I believe this week versus the week prior to COVID impacting traffic in March. So there's a little bit of a way to go. 

What I think is really interesting about the data is it's a very significant market-by-market and it varies depending upon where a market you are looking at. New York was obviously very severely impacted, but there's places in the country where traffic is actually higher now than it would have been in March. 

And it has that kind of measurement being important for both the media owners and the brands to understand that, yes, you may have this sense that we're in lockdown and nobody's going out or anything else, but here's the data that says otherwise? 

Kym Frank: A hundred percent. So one of the reasons we put the data out and we really thought it was going to be a very temporary situation back in March. 

One of the reasons we put it out was people were saying things like there's no one on the road and we knew that was completely not true. There were people on the road. In fact, there were quite a number of people that were out on the road. So we try to avoid that focus group of one phenomenon where people go, “I was driving yesterday and there seemed to be less cars.” So we put those data out and it's funny cause I was having a conversation with my counterpart at a radio company who said that he's using the Geopath data to combat the same kind of conversations that he was having with advertisers and brands who were saying, “There's nobody on the road, so no one's listening to the radio,” and he said, we go in with the Geopath data and we say, “No, look, there really are people on the road,” so it's been a huge benefit for our channel to have access to those data in near real time.

And I really do have to be thankful to so many people who helped us get that solution up off the ground super fast. We had an entire committee of some of the smartest people in the industry working alongside us. as things were getting really pretty ugly in the country, back in the springtime, who really helped collectively stand up something that was very reliable, very stable, and very fast.

The industry as a whole, you've got a lot of brands, particularly retail brands who have been really struggling and other ones that have done well through all of this, have you seen a shift in buying an investment in media at all? Or is it just sluggish like most things are sluggish these days?

Kym Frank: Yeah, I think every channel has been impacted. Advertisers are more cautious with their dollars right now, so we certainly felt impacted, as a channel, but things are starting to look up for us and I think the same as is true, whether you're looking at television or radio or print, we're all just coming out of this depth now, and then looking forward to next year, we've got some pretty good projections. It looks like out-of-home will bounce back. So I'm really excited about that. 

I still get emails and phone calls from startup companies all the time who want to do or are planning to do, or in an early throws of doing a place-based network in some sort of defined venue, whether it's groceries or I don't know, ski resorts, I'm making stuff up at this point, but, are there pieces of advice that you provide and also, do you have insights on what of those startup networks have a better shot than others?

Kym Frank: So we always suggest, and we're happy to give some advice to folks if they want to give us a ring before they put the screens up and before they put the signage up, to just understand what are the best places, locations, angles to optimize reaching people prior to making the investment. Like we have a lot of information on duration of ads and duration of content and how to optimize that kind of stuff from a mathematical perspective before you make an investment in putting up inventory. 

We can get access to that information because we're measuring so much already. So one of the things we're working on right now is curating norms so that we can understand if you're going to put inventory up in a bar or a restaurant, what kind of impressions can you expect to deliver? So that people can really figure out, okay, before I put the investment down, is this going to be worth it? Am I putting the screens in the right places? Am I running the right kind of ad durations and ad spots? 

I think also to reach out to people who own that kind of inventory and talk to them and ask, “how is your network performing?” before they go in, so I think the out-of-home industry really is a pretty unified industry where everybody recognizes that we can't compete with each other. We need to compete for ad dollars but when we compete with each other, we just don't do as well. So it's an industry where there's lot of people who are very generous with their time and very willing to help.

Yeah and I think that's important because I run into so many early stage business models where it's just all about the venue, and this idea that (let’s say Bars) there's so many liquor brands out there and there's all these craft ones and so on, so there's so much money available for advertising, and then they start this thing up and realize, “oh my God, advertising is actually pretty hard.”

Kym Frank: Right. At the end, making the choice between being a local network versus a national network or somewhere in between, is also something to really think about. 

Are you going to be selling every screen you own to the same advertiser, or are you going to be splitting that up and selling it regionally or locally? Because that has an impact on how you staff your sales team for instance, and how you structure your network.

Yeah. Going back to a mobile location data and the whole fuss about privacy. There was another instance up here in Canada, a couple of weeks ago. The Canada's privacy commissioner went after a big shopping mall operator saying, “You were invading consumer privacy by using anonymous video analytics,” and I went off on that because it said right in their own report that it was anonymous so what was the big deal? 

When it comes to mobile location data, have you had to tread carefully around using that and how you present it, or do people just take it as a matter of course? 

Kym Frank: Yeah. So there's two things in that question, right? There's the “what are you doing and are you doing it responsibly?” And then there's the “are you speaking about it responsibly?” 

And I know I sound like a total broken record about that because I get concerned when people say they're doing things to sound super sophisticated and tech savvy, and then they get you in trouble because you're talking about what you're doing in a way that's just not responsible. So when we built our system, we built it in such a way that it was as responsible as humanly possible so much so that we probably went to the extreme because it's so important that our currency not step over line. 

We built it deliberately to not cross over any lines, but then when we speak about it, it's again like a broken record, you’ll almost always hear me say, it's aggregated and anonymized. In fact, I think the vast bulk of our members probably say it’s aggregated and anonymized multiple times per day, because it's now been so drilled into us that we are in the public space and we want to make sure that people know we're not doing anything that people should be concerned about.

Is it a case where you see less of a focus from consumers because they've already made that bargain, so to speak, if they're going to use Uber or something else that absolutely requires location for it to work effectively that, “Okay, we've signed off on that. We're okay with that,” versus camera's on and the out-of-home display and they're saying, we didn't sign off on that, so that's terrible but the anonymized data that comes off of a phone, we're okay with that. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. Online has been doing it for so long and people are so used to it. 

“I was shopping for shoes and then the pair of shoes I looked at has now been following me around my browser for a week.” 

I think people just accept that's the case. The camera thing, I know you and I've had this conversation a multitude of times. We do not really use any kind of camera technology. If we have a member who has cameras installed, we will take their data as a calibration point, but we don't actively use that ourselves, but it just makes me laugh that people get upset by facial detection technology, because everybody had VHS tapes with cameras running in every location across America and no one ever really got upset about it, but suddenly there's a technology that actually makes it more responsible because you're not recording people as they're shopping and for some reason that makes people upset. 

Do you not use the computer vision stuff more so because it's an analytical tool as opposed to an audience measurement tool?

Kym Frank: For us, it's just not scalable. We measure millions of locations across the country, and some of those locations don't even have electricity running to them, and some of those locations, that's not allowed and it's just not a scalable technology if you're measuring millions of locations. 

Are there mountains, so to speak that you're still trying to climb in terms of amassing more data and developing even deeper insights? 

Kym Frank: Certainly. The conversation about recency, so how recent do the data need to be, and at what cadence does it need to be reported? So those are conversations that are more business implications than data implications, that we're having with our membership, because out-of-home is typically still bought in four-week cycles, so do we need daily data?

And a lot of this has gotten escalated by the increasing footprint of programmatic buying that's happening in our channel. So it's pushing us forward, certainly COVID has pushed us forward from an evolutionary standpoint on data, because everybody wants to know what's going on with COVID last week, not three months ago. So that is certainly on the forefront for us. And then, I think as a channel, less of a Geopath issue, but more of a channel is demonstrating the true value that out-of-home can bring to an advertiser or a brand, how we can drive increases in purchase and how we can drive foot traffic?

And again, I say that's not a Geopath problem. We don't really do attribution or campaign effectiveness and to say it's an out-of-home problem is not true either. It's just a media problem because every channel needs to find ways to demonstrate its value and I think it's hard for everyone, how do you demonstrate that somebody listened to a radio ad and then made a purchase? So connecting those dots, it's a media challenge. 

Do you see a time when there'll be a demand to have real time data being used for out-of-home? 

Kym Frank: I think near real-time certainly. I don't know that we need to know what happened an hour ago, but certainly we would like to know as recently as possible. Right now, there's just data costs associated with processing that level of data so we have to make an assessment on the return on investment in investing in that level of data for everyone who's using the data. Is it worth it to invest in storing, processing and accessing that level of data? I don't think we're quite there yet. 

So last question, what should we be seeing out of Geopath in the next year? 

Kym Frank: So Geopath is in a pretty big R&D phase right now with our Insights committee, really trying to answer the questions that we were just discussing. So what levers do we need to pull for the next five years, to fuel the next five years of growth for out-of-home?

So we're having those conversations now, I think we're going to continue to grow our membership. We have a constant stream of new networks coming online. In-venue, we are doing doctor's offices now, we're doing grocery stores. So I think the other interesting thing that's happening right now is the question of what constitutes an out-of-home network?

So that line is very much blurring for us. We're seeing a lot of wrapped cars. We're seeing stuff that used to be shopper marketing type networks, now coming over to the out-of-home side. And then there's also what typically would have been considered television, but a television in a location like a bar or a restaurant and we're starting to measure those now too. 

So what constitutes out-of-home, is I think the big question. 

So is that media owners, for people who do things like shopper marketing and so on, following the money? 

Kym Frank: I think following the money, but also following the data. Because we have the ability to measure those networks, it's like the best of both worlds for them, right? Maybe they weren't being considered for an out-of-home buy in the past because they were shopper marketing, but now they can also put metrics behind what they're providing on the shopper marketing side. 

All right, Kym, thank you very much. That was great.

Kym Frank: Thank you so much. I'm really honored to be a part of this. 

Honored. Wow. 

Kym Frank: Yeah. 

You obviously lead a sheltered life. 

Kym Frank: Well, recently for sure. (Laughter)

Peiman Hosseini, Bodle Technologies

Peiman Hosseini, Bodle Technologies

July 29, 2020

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

 

Reflective display technology has been around for 20 years or more, heavily led by E-Ink.

A start-up that comes out of the R&D labs of Oxford University in England - called Bodle Technologies - is just beginning to make the shift from development to commercialization on a display product that is kinda sorta like E-Ink, but done differently.

Bodle takes the same basic approach of reflecting light from other sources - like sunlight or room lighting - to show images, instead of using back or direct lighting like LCDs or LEDs. Unlike E-Ink, Bodle's tech is not based on using electricity to move microcapsules of ink around a display. It's done differently, using layers.

I spoke with co-founder and CEO Peiman Hosseini, who in our discussion does a nice job of explaining the technology and how it works. The end result is a display surface that supports precise colors and can do full-motion video.

One of the things I found interesting in our chat is how manufacturing can be done using legacy technologies, like the equipment used to make read/write DVDs. So the speed to market and costs are not the same as having to fund and build brand new manufacturing capability.

Electronic Shelf Labels are the initial target market for Bodle, but the company also sees a future in larger public information displays, where access to power is problematic.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

So Peiman, pleasure to meet you virtually at least. We've not met in person and I'm almost completely unfamiliar with Bodle Technologies. So the best way to start is, can you give me a rundown of what your company does and how they got started?

Peiman: Yeah, sure. So Bodle really started as a spinoff at the University of Oxford in the UK. While I was doing my postdoctoral research there at the Materials department, we found this interesting optical effect, which in short is essentially a way to generate color using interference. You can think of it a little like the butterfly wings, where wings don't really have those gorgeous colors, it’s really the structure and really the way light interacts with the structure that generates its color. So what we found out was that we could create gorgeous colors and use a much simpler way, so much more straightforward technique to deposit the spin using vacuum techniques. And then between these sort of different layers, we would add a special material that's known as a phase change material. 

The interesting part about this material is that it can change its optical properties, and it can modulate the light that's reflected off the surface. So, essentially, we generate a technology that can be applied to a surface and then zap it with some energy, you know, an electrical pulse essentially, and the optical appearance of that surface will change. So, that was the whole idea behind this paper. And we published it in 2014. It was a very interesting and non-trivial optical effect that we discovered and once we published the paper, we immediately thought what we can do with it, you know, what would be something you could do with this technology? And that essentially led to a Bodle. 

We found that Bodle about a year after the paper was published. So, end of 2015, early 2016. And then the company slowly grew over time. We raised quite a few million pounds from the UK Oxford VC area, and we just reached a point where we essentially are starting to move away from an R&D type of project into a genuine company, looking at products and looking at customers, looking essentially at what we can do with this new technology.

And you recently took over as CEO, right, you had been one of the co-founders and Chief Technology Officer?

Peiman: Exactly. So, as I said, I was one of the founders and the founding CTO, and I have been the CTO for four and a half years essentially. And more recently, we had reorganization of the company tackling the COVID issue and so on. So essentially, I moved to a CEO position now, and I’m looking forward to making a more commercial effort towards the company.

I am definitely not an alumnus of Oxford University - they probably wouldn't even let me on the campus - but I understand the base idea of what you're describing. How would you distinguish this from what I'm more familiar with, which would be E-ink or electronic ink?

Peiman: Yeah. So, in e-ink technology, you have these particular ink balls, if you want to call it that, which probably move around into this special medium. And so essentially the technology is about applying an electric field, moving these balls in and out of the vision of the reader and generating color. It's very, very good technology for black and white. I own a Kindle, you know, it has been extremely successful in creating this sort of reflective display ecosystem. So the Kindle being the best, I would say, example out there. And really what they're doing with their technologies is moving these inks, these little balls of things around and it has some some pros and some cons. So you know, there are some good things about it and some bad things about it like every technology. 

What we are doing is very different. Our technology doesn't really move anything anywhere. So we essentially have, as I said, this sort of special material that really can change the optical appearance of a surface. So instead of having a surface that you're generating by moving around these ink, you are changing the color of the actual surface by changing its optical properties. So it's a way that we also use to generate colors. You know, if you, for example, are thinking about having a nice beautiful red, what you would do with e-ink is you are essentially working on your inks, you're creating a new type of red ink, and then you use ink to kind of generate the color and then you apply your electric fields to that ink moving up and down. So what we do is very, very different because in essence, all our pixels and all our corals are the same. The real difference between them is just the thicknesses of the layers that we put on top of each other, so if we have a slightly thicker or slightly thinner layer, we can generate, say, a blue collar or a red collar. 

So essentially making the whole thing gets a little bit simpler in a way that the structure itself is always the same. And really, the differences between these colors are the various thicknesses of the layer. And that's only possible because we are, as I said, working with interference of light. So the materials that we are using don't really have any special color. So if you take these materials, and you look at them in the bulk form, they're either gray or transparent, and don't really look like anything. But if you put them in a certain layer on top of each other with very specific thicknesses, then they become red or a very gorgeous yellow or very gorgeous blue and so on. So that's, I think, it's a very different technology but the idea in the end is the same.

Is it ink-based as well?

Peiman: No, it's not. We call it a Solid State Reflective Display, because the materials that are involved are kind of solid and sturdy materials.

And the market for this appears to be similar to what e-ink could be going after. What I saw on your website was electronic shelf labels, public information displays, the back-faces potentially on personal devices, that sort of thing but again it’s a different way of doing it, right?

Peiman: Yeah, it's a different way of doing it. So, if you think about the first e-ink Kindle, the first product came out in 2007 together with the very first iPhone and and really you know, as of today you can buy these products and they evolved over time, but still there is really a need for in the market for something that is a little bit more than just reading books. Because, you know, black and white works well for books but you want to read, say a magazine or you want to be able to surf the web, or read your emails, and do all sorts of things on a reflective type of display. So everyone who's working on reflective displays is really trying to expand that market beyond just reading books. 

You know, everybody wants to get into the next generation products. And e-ink has been around for a very long time and there's still trying and still making progress today. We are a very new technology and a very new concept, but we are able to do the same. And, as I said there are some fundamental differences between the two technologies but I think everybody agrees that if you can generate color, if you can have a display that is reflective, that can switch with video rate characteristics, then there is a huge market. 

I think it's estimated that the current market is somewhere around just shy of a billion dollar. But if you add these abilities like color and the video rate, the market jumps up to $5 billion in a few years. And I think that's kind of easy to understand because you think about when you go to a store and buy the next generation Kindle or whatever that can show you different colors, it’s video capable and still you don't have to charge it every day. I think it could be something that people want to buy and that's really what our company enables.

I don't want to make this about e-ink versus your technology at all, but it's what I'm familiar with and what listeners are probably most familiar with, but with e-ink, they went from monochrome to starting to support a base number of colors, very limited range and then I have seen demos, I believe that SID display week of e-ink doing video or a very variation on video, kind of low frame rate, low resolution motion.

You've mentioned video, what is your technology capable of doing, kind of doing something that equates to an LCD at, you know, 30 frames a second or 60 frames a second?

Peiman: Yeah, so the technology that we're developing essentially has an incredibly quick transition. So one of the strengths of the technology is that, because it's a solid material that is transitioning between different phases, you're not really moving anything around. So the speed at which you can refresh the pixel is extremely fast, so video rate is definitely something that you can do. Obviously, as for every bi-stable display technology, and for those of you guys who don't know what bi-stable means, it means that if I unplug the display, the last picture that I was showing will stay there, so our Technology is just like that, like bi-stable. Something that's bi-stable naturally will consume more power if you're trying to refresh the image, because obviously just from a physics point of view, you don't need to apply energy for the image to stay there, you will need to apply a little bit more energy when you want to change it. Obviously if you want to show videos and you want to show continuous videos, the power consumption will go up. 

But the idea is not just about showing videos, because everybody thinks you want to watch YouTube videos, and you want to watch it continuously. Sure, that’s one application but another one is simply user interface responsiveness. So if you have something that you're scrolling, for example, you want to see a nice and fluid type of scrolling movement. If you're opening your emails, you want to see something that opens up without flashing your eyes with some picture or without you really noticing that it’s refreshing. 

So that is also something that you can achieve with a video capable technology. And that's something that generates other market opportunities on handheld devices that is just beyond just a YouTube video that you want to watch. So, you know, what we think is that video is important for videos, obviously. And it's also important to enable other types of devices and applications, but otherwise, they are simply not there today. So you don't have a sort of reflective type of display when you have a nice and smooth scrolling, for example, and that's partially because of video issues with these technologies.

Yeah, certainly when I've seen electronic ink displays and when you see whatever the image or the text be refreshed, it kind of goes haywire for a split second at least, the screen goes kinda crazy, and then it locks into the next visual. And you're saying that doesn't happen?

Peiman: No, with our technology that doesn't happen. That's because we use techniques like random access capability, which means you can address one pixel without having to worry about affecting the neighboring pixels.

With that sort of capability, you don't have the flashing behavior that you have with electronic papers type of applications. But, you know, it's really about the application. If you just want to read a book, if you're sort of flipping the page and it has to flash for half a second, that’s normal. But if you want to do more things and you want to do next generation things, then that might be an issue.

 

One of the things that struck me as quite interesting were some of the visuals on your website, one in particular for, I guess, a commuter rail service or something where you had real-time train information and station information on glass. 

You know, I've written a little bit about companies that are doing mesh-LED displays that would overlay glass, or LED and film that would apply to glass or be inside of glass, but it tends to be low resolution, not the sort of thing that's readable and would be able to give you arrivals and departures times and that sort of thing. This looks like, you know, a fully readable application, that could update pretty much on the fly. Could you describe what that's all about?

Peiman: Yeah, so that's why when we were trying to develop the technology, we were also thinking about what will be a nice application for this specific pros of our technology and one thing is because our pixels are so thin in our backlinks and the electronics that go behind these pixels. It's so simple, you can apply those sorts of displays on pretty much any substance. And you know, every display is either made of glass right or you build the display on top of glass. And this sort of reflective appearance, capability to show information in public spaces in businesses anywhere really, it's one of the things that is appealing.

You can think of even having it in your bathroom mirrors, right? In the morning while you're brushing your teeth, it shows you the weather, and it shows your list of places you have to be that day. But you could technically do these things with today's technology, right? You can put some OLEDs on top, you can put some micro-LEDs but, as you said, it's just that feeling of something that's emitting light in your face, it's not what we think would be interesting from a customer experience point of view. 

What we consider interesting is, you want to have an environment within your home where you interact with surfaces that appear natural. So you will have something that is not trying to grab your attention constantly, something that almost fades away around your house and your environment. And if you want to interact with it, you can, and it would almost look like a moving magazine, kinda right out of a Harry Potter movie. Something moves and it can give you information, but it's not bright. And every time you pass next to it, it just shines out, so someone goes, “Oh, what’s this?” and you go, “Oh, it’s the Thermostat”.

So from that point of view, having a reflective technology that can be applied to any surface, that can be applied around your home on anything, it can be appliances, can be anything really. That's what we think of display-anywhere type of application, that I think, has a lot of interesting features and a lot of design concepts that go with it. That you can’t really do today, you can’t really do these sorts of things today. You need a new technology which is why we founded Bodle.

Yeah, I remember, several years ago, Corning put out a couple of videos, I believe they were called “A Day in Glass” or something like that.

Peiman: Those are the best demos I've ever seen. That's essentially what we are like.

So if you've seen those videos, this is the sort of thing that would apply to that?

Peiman: Yeah, exactly. That's the sort of application we have in mind for this technology.

Okay. In my world of digital signage technology, one of the use cases you mentioned is public information display, how do you see your technology being used?

Peiman: So, I think there are a few examples today, where you have some public information displays that essentially need to change almost daily, right? And you want to show some kind of information with it. Just because of the environment, say you are outside, and you are somewhere Sunny, like California, you cannot really use normal display technology. I mean, you could and there are people who have done it and it essentially has a liquid crystal display, a gigantic crystal display, with essentially a fridge, that’s cooling it all the time and even consuming power and all that. So that's possible, but the idea is, you can just have something smaller, you can have something that's not constantly consuming power, that you can still read very well outside, almost like you would while reading a piece of paper that can be refreshed remotely. 

I can't remember who told me this, but there are places like in Australia where if you want to change the bus, they have a bus timetable around the country, for which every bus stand there, you got to spend $25 to change because someone has to go there and open that thing, put the new one in and so on. And, you can only do that so many times, right? So if you had a sort of technology that allows you to interact with the public more efficiently, in a better way, in all sense, then I think that would be beneficial for everyone, you know, the public, the company who makes it, the company who manages it, so everybody would kind of benefit. That’s really our vision. 

As for every display technology, you want to start with a sort of relatively small display, right? Because it's easier to make. For a startup such as ours, having some handheld device, an ESL device, those things are smaller and easier to make technically. But then eventually as you're scaling up, and your equipment gets bigger, and the kind of capital you have at your disposal gets bigger, then you can address these other markets and signage, I think is a very nice example, and something that we could also do. That's, you know, down into the future.

One of the things in the use case you're describing with transit information displays is when it's being done with e-ink and the limited number of applications today in London, Australia, Slovenia and a few other places, is they are solar powered. Is your technology able to do what it needs to do, just based on a solar collector on a transit post?

Peiman: Yeah, absolutely. The technology's no power. So all you need is a source of a few volts for some time just to refresh the display, so that will be absolutely fine. And yeah, I think you're right, if there are places where getting a display to fully connect to the mains is an issue and ESL is another good example. So you know, when you have an electronic shelf edge and you might have 10,000 in a large store, so you cannot plug them all at one main line, just the whole logistics would be a nightmare. So all of those are actually battery powered. So you have to have a technology that is Bistable, so it consumes energy only when you're changing the picture. And it doesn't consume a lot of power. So you can essentially leave it on for a few years out of a couple batteries. And that's the sort of thing our technology can do.

And in order to drive information to the screen, what would be used and how is it connected? 

You know, in my world of LCDs and LEDs and so on, there's a separate computing device or an embedded computing device and it's got a signal cable that's plugging in and driving the display, how would it work here?

Peiman: It will be similar. So you know, with displays usually what they have is that some electronics are on glass, some electronics are on a chip that’s bonded to the glass, and then there is a little component outside that which manages all of those things. So ours wouldn't be much different. It would be maybe slightly better sort of versions, more adapted, sort of designed for our particular technology, but in the end it would be just like every other technology.

One of the challenges that I've seen through the years with e-ink, is they come up with something new, they add color, they add bass motion, that sort of thing. And when I start asking about the cost of these things, they tend to dance around that or they will tell me a price and they'll say, “Whoa, that's not very competitive, and why wouldn't I just use more contemporary or conventional technology for this?” 

Where are you at with that? And how do you get over it? You're at a startup level, I assume you don't have the economies of scale yet.

Peiman: No, that's true. So one of the strengths of our technology is that we essentially have reinvented an old technology. So if you have ever owned or used rewritable DVDs or Blu Ray, essentially the technology that was in these devices, these optical media is very similar to what we are using in our display. So materials, there's sort of active materials, the phase change materials were essentially invented for that application, and it used to be a big business. But nowadays, obviously, nobody uses DVDs and Blu Rays anymore, certainly not the rewritable ones. So those companies have acquired a lot of know-how and a lot of equipment to do those things and now they're sort of simply not using them. There are very few players now that can do these sorts of media. So what we think we can do is essentially take these know-how and take these lines that were used for this old technology and just use it for different applications. So instead of making rewritable discs, we will make displays with them. And essentially, that's one of the, I think, key advantages. 

We don't need to invent new processes, we don't need to invent new types of equipment that do these things, because every time you do that, obviously you have yield issues every time you have to understand how to fabricate something from scratch, but we're not doing any of them. What we are doing is just simply taking all this knowledge that was long gone with all the patterns that have expired, and really thinking about doing something completely different that makes it in a way, inexpensive to manufacture. Also that’s why in a relatively short amount of time, we made a lot of progress, because we were able to take knowledge from these people and companies that really can't wait for something new. 

So that's what we believe and we run manufacturing analysis, we run a lot of cost estimates and all that, how our technology is gonna compare to other technologies. And we believe we can be a lot cheaper than what's out there simply because it's a simple, and well known manufacturing technique, just for a new application.

Okay, so when you have a scale opportunity like electronic shelf labels (ESLs), one of the challenges that I've certainly heard is retailers love these things, but when they have to put $4,000 or $10,000 into an individual store, they look at the price of the individual tags and multiply that by 4,000 or 10,000 and have a heart attack, and so it doesn't go forward. 

Are you suggesting that your method and manufacturing would make that much more feasible and they'd be able to see the ROI quicker?

Peiman: Yeah, and I think that's the main problem. I think the problem is that people cannot see what's their return, right? If they spend that money, what exactly is the return you're going to get in terms of these investments? 

One problem is an accounting problem. So as they're spending money, they're thinking, “okay, this thing is essentially gonna replace labels, so I'm gonna save some money”. The guy who goes around and changes these labels, for sure, but then it's still a lot of money they have to spend. So what we think we can do, which is more than simply showing a price, is also adding the colors and video capabilities to these products that can essentially add more branding and merchandising type of sort of play to ESL. So it's not just about showing a price, it's not just about saving money on replacing labels, it’s now a way for you to be able to sell more Pepsi or something or sell more things because now you can play with colors, effects and have it say, “Look, today this costs less than yesterday!” So this is the sort of idea. I think you can then change a little bit of the business model that today's just thinking labels and add ways for them to get a return on investment directly from their customers. 

But there is a big but. If you only can show a limited amount of colors and you can only show a limited amount of functionality, then they cannot really do that. Which is why we think adding color, adding the customization features is so important. As I said, you can change these colors by just changing thicknesses, right? So we can make a display for a certain retailer and then make a completely different one for different retailers, and that doesn't double our investment. That's a slight rise if you want. So that kind of customization is interesting to these people in this ecosystem. Because they can do more and they can see how this becomes more than just labels.

Can you do specific Pantone colors? Everybody talks about Coca Cola Red and how Coca Cola would not accept another red, it has to be there red.

Peiman: Yeah, you can do that. You can very, very precisely hit a certain color that you like, for whatever reason, which is what we are pitching to people essentially. That's one of the things that we think is very interesting, being able to match your brand color.

You mentioned early on that you're in this transitional phase coming out of R&D into commercialization, where's that at and when would somebody be able to buy a Bodle Technologies product or is it more that they would license the technology?

Peiman: So, we essentially have started operations in Taiwan where they are taking whatever we develop in Oxford, and then just make it manufacturable, so instead of making a few samples per month, we can make hundreds and so on. And it's just the beginning of our scale-up operation. And the goal is to, you know, within 18 months to get to a proper pilot manufacturing, have our partners and get to the product, where we are going to launch our very first product, which is going to be on ESL and start getting to the market with this differentiated product. 

From there, the idea for the company is to essentially slowly move into more complex products and eventually sort of the holy grail of every reflective display player is an e-reader that can show colors, videos, and so on. That's why we found Bodle, to get into e-readers, but we saw that there is this more short term opportunity in ESL, and that's where we want to hit first.

That's very, very interesting. Thank you so much for spending some time with me.

Peiman: No problem. Thank you so much for inviting me and I hope we can talk sometime in the future, and I'll tell you all about Bodle and how we sold.

Keep me posted. And to find your company, it's bodletechnologies.com?

Peiman: Yes. So bodletechnologies.com and you'll find all about it.

Perfect. Alright, thanks again.

Peiman: Thank you so much.

Florian Rotberg, Stefan Schieger - Invidis Consulting

Florian Rotberg, Stefan Schieger - Invidis Consulting

April 29, 2020

Florian Rotberg and Stefan Schieker of Munich's Invidis Consulting have been active in the digital signage market since 2006, mainly focused on Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Their work spans everything from straight-up consulting for vendors and end-users to organizing and running industry conferences in Europe and globally.

That puts them in steady touch with a lot of people, and gives them a solid perspective on what's going on and what's changing.

One of the things Invidis has been doing in presentations is a regular look at the impacts and implications on vertical markets of COVID-19, and what that means for digital signage companies.

We talk about that in this new podcast, as well as dig into some suddenly red-hot marketplace requirements like sidewalk displays and access control technologies. 

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Sean Wargo, AVIXA

Sean Wargo, AVIXA

April 8, 2020

AVIXA, the trade association for the pro AV industry, has started doing a weekly impact survey with members in North America and internationally - as a way of understanding how hard the pandemic is hitting business, and the collective point of view on what is happening, and will happen.

As you might imagine, things don't look so hot. Sales are down, and revenues with them. Jobs are being furloughed or ended. And even businesses that would, in theory, be rocking - like video conferencing - are struggling with supply chain issues.

But it's not all doom and gloom, and even in rough times, good things can happen.

Sean Wargo, AVIXA's Senior Director of Market Intelligence, runs the impact surveys. He was kind enough to take some time the other day to walk through what he is hearing, and also what AVIXA is doing with and for its members.

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Joe’ Lloyd, NanoLumens

Joe’ Lloyd, NanoLumens

July 31, 2019

I sometimes get white papers and research that a vendor hopes I report on or talk about, and then decide against it because the information is hopelessly skewed in favor of that vendor.

It's a bit like those recipe pamphlets that suggest you don't just add a cup of this, it has to be specifically the vendor's "this."

That's not the case with an interesting total cost of ownership report that looks at the perceptions and attributes of LED vs LCD video walls. The report was put together by the Atlanta LED manufacturer NanoLumens, but you'd barely know Nano made the big effort to put this together.

It's an interesting read, and a free download - albeit with the understanding the company wants to capture who all is grabbing it.

I spoke with Joe' Lloyd, NanoLumens' Global VP of Marketing and Business Development, who put the survey together and got it out the door. We get into the why of the survey, and what turned up in results from more than 400 respondents.

 

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