Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

David Levin, Four Winds Interactive

September 2, 2020

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

Four Winds Interactive is one of the largest and most well-known pure play digital signage companies in the industry.

But the Denver-based company went a little quiet about 18 months ago, when a venture capital company based in Austin, Texas took on a majority stake.

That perceived quiet spell changed recently when word circulated that Four Winds had itself completed an acquisition - a UK company focused on workplace communications and operations.

News of that deal presented a good reason to get back together on a podcast with David Levin, who started the company and has long been its CEO.

We chatted about several things, including where the company is at, how fully half of its business is now with screens that are employee-facing, and why he and his clients call the work visual communications.

We also get into how the company is weathering the pandemic, with maybe 15% of staff going into the company's two Denver offices, while the rest work from home. Levin goes in, by the way.

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TRANSCRIPT

So David, good to catch up. It's been a long time since we've seen each other. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. It's been way too long. 

It's been my impression and you can correct me, that about a year and a half ago, you weren't acquired, but you got a major investment from a private equity firm. And, since then, you’ve been kind of quiet. I don't see Four Winds Interactive around as much as I used to, but tell me I'm wrong and that you guys are noisy as hell and I'm just missing it.

David Levin: We might've been quiet, from a press standpoint, but we've been very busy. We did do a majority investment from Vista Equity Partners about 18 months ago. And we've been hard at work. I think when we talked maybe three years ago, we were at the early part of our FWI Cloud Initiative, that we are now into end to end on cloud and have had, I don't know how many releases, but a lot. We're extraordinarily proud of where that's turned out and with Vista, we've made a lot of changes operationally that are great. We've changed a lot of things in our go-to-market operation. And, building the foundation for the company for the next phase. 

Now, what drove those changes? Was it because the PE guys or VC guys said you need to make these changes or the cash infusion and support enabled you to make changes that you already had in the works or wanted to do?

David Levin: So one of the things we liked about Vista and the reason we partnered with them is that they invest exclusively in software companies and they are known for studying best practices and figuring out what works best. And that's an evolving process because, as companies try new things that go back into the best practice creation, companies evolve together, but you get the benefit of being able to be a member company of 60 plus software companies and figure out what works best. And for the 14 years prior to that, we had essentially figured everything out on our own. And, I was excited to have those resources available to us. 

So, long story short, we jumped full-on and implemented a lot of the best practices.

What does it mean culturally? As you said, you had 14 years of, pretty much bootstrapping with some angel level private investors, building the company up to where it was at, to then go to having majority owners outside of the company. And now, you're still in charge, but you have masters.

David Levin: Yeah, well, it doesn't feel like that. You know, they are a majority owner, but we still retained a significant stake and we have a meaningful ownership piece in this business. I started and have been the CEO since the start, it will always feel like our organization, regardless of the equity structure and they're very collaborative. So it has felt like a partnership. 

Yeah. One of the things when the announcement happened that you guys had done this deal, I looked at the company and I looked at the portfolio of companies that Vista already had under its wings and thought, this is interesting. There's a whole bunch of companies in there who I could see doing integrations with and getting you into lines of business or opening doors that would be very hard to otherwise open it. Has that played out or was I just imagining things? 

David Levin: The investment thesis wasn't about integration with other portfolio companies. We are what's considered a platform investment for them, which is, they're picking leaders in software industries to go win a category.

And the platform investment is the first company investment in a space. And then, in almost all of their investments, there add on acquisitions to that platform company to help when the market broadens the offering to customers, and the Spark Space acquisition was our first acquisition. That's part of that. So no, it was a platform investment versus something related to integration with the portfolio. 

But when you have kind of sister companies, so to speak, who are doing work, let's say, in the restaurant or hospitality industry, and they have a platform that does whatever it does, it struck me as so many technologies are starting to blend and blur together that there were complimentary technology opportunities here that you could add capabilities to another platform and vice versa and enable integrations. 

David Levin: It's super helpful from an integration standpoint.

So where customers want to, in a simple case, pull data from a US system and that system is part of the Vista portfolio, then it's obviously easy to make a call and get the product teams working together, but that wasn't core to the investment strategy. That's just a helpful benefit. 

Right, and what has it meant for the company in terms of how you operate? You said you made a lot of structural changes and things like that. How has that played out?

David Levin: Yeah, so we've changed our sales territories. We have increased investments, and in marketing, I think, we had launched just prior to the investment, but we've made a significant investment in our customer success organization and our support for customers overall and their renewals and their growth and countless others, but those are the first ones that come to mind. 

One thing that always struck me about Four Winds was that you had a lot of people and you opened a hell of a lot of new accounts, very strong in terms of email marketing and customer acquisition. But then, what comes with opening a lot of accounts is you've got to manage all of those people, and manage all of those accounts, and very small accounts can be needier than whale accounts. Has that changed or have you streamlined and focused more on corporate and enterprise? 

David Levin: Yeah, enterprise across multiple use cases, but definitely enterprise, after adding to the software platform for 14 years and having the luxury of being able to work on some of the more advanced use cases out there, the product was positioned for enterprise and as a larger organization, you need big customers generally to keep growing. So yeah, that's where we're focused. 

So if you have a small account, let's say a, a tribal casino in Missouri that needs 10 screens, would you push them off to a reseller or would you say it's not really what we do anymore? 

David Levin: So, the interesting thing in the casino market is that even smaller casinos are great digital signage customers because they've got far more than 10 screens. We do have some phenomenal partners, ConnectedSign is one of those and we'll work with partners to make sure that they're taken care of. The most important thing is that they're on our platform. so generally, yes. 

Historically you've put a lot of emphasis on vertical markets, and from my perspective at least, you’ve been very smart in terms of not putting all of your eggs in the generalized “trade show” basket, by going to vertical market-specific trade shows that nobody else, who you would consider a competitor was at, like Airport trade shows and Hotel trade shows, and the Hospital trade shows, and so on. 

Have you thinned out the number of verticals that you're after? Cause it seemed to me, when I was looking last week on your website, it seemed to be about corporate and guest experience.

David Levin: We've definitely put more focus there, with an overriding theme of enterprise visual communications. Some of our larger customers are retailers and have customer-facing applications. probably go to market perspective, yes, with the caveat that if you've got a lot of screens, you need enterprise-grade visual communication software, where you've got more advanced use cases, we target those.

You said visual communication software. Is digital signage, the term you even use with your customers, are they asking for digital signage or are they asking for visual communications or something else? 

David Levin: They ask for both.

I think cust customers that have been working with us for a long time,tend to use visual communications. And I think the industry is still digital signage and both are great. 

Don't really care, just by, please! (Laughter) 

David Levin: Yeah. 

I'm curious about workplace and enterprise-level workplace, and what's now happening and what's going to happen longed term with, big damn offices that maybe won't be as big as they used to, or at least not as heavily populated as they used to. Is that for some of your clients, as well as yourself to rethink and pivot around the new way that workplaces are gonna operate?

David Levin: Yeah. I think all organizations are going through this question of “what does life looked like post-COVID in the workplace?” It has fundamentally changed and customers are at different levels of bringing people back to work. And, technology is a key part of enabling that and I think there's just this fundamental shift where most organizations have proven you can be very effective at home, so then what's the role of the office? And how many people are coming into the office on any given day, what's a safe number of people to come into the office while we're still in COVID and then how do you use technology to manage that? 

Does it matter to the typical client whether there are 500 people in the office now, or trimmed down to 200 because you still have 200 people who you need to communicate with?

David Levin: Yeah, I think it makes a difference because you've got to communicate, across multiple platforms. So first of all, in workplaces, generally breaking down into three categories, employee communications, which we talk about a lot in the industry, digital workplace, which tends to be more meeting or a management desk management, visitor management, interactive directories, wayfinding, emergency messaging, and then, performance-related, you know KPI boards, manufacturing floors, call centers, Salesforce, etc. 

So in the employee communications realm, you've gotta be multichannel. So for people that aren't in the office, obviously digital signs are very important, but if you're at home, you've got to get communication with people on their personal device. So we've got viewer channels that enable people to do that and other tools to make sure that the communication objectives are met. 

So the viewer channels are effectively desktop screensaver kinds of things, and alerts that'll pop on a screen?

David Levin: Yeah, digital signage content that you can view on your personal device primarily using the browser. 

Now, how do you get workers to use that? Because I'm thinking if I worked at a company, and maybe I'm just a cranky old guy, but I don't think I would want that if I could avoid it.

I don't know that I would use it if there was a way not to use it. 

David Levin: It's funny. A lot of us, when we were working at home, had digital signs running in the background, but you don't have to have a dedicated device for that.

So for example, if you've got your laptop connected to multiple screens, then you can take one screen and make that your sign, or resize a window in the corner. And it's a way to get content throughout the day. And some of our customers who are using the product for sales KPIs, they're used to looking at those boards when they're on the office floor. You know, you want to be able to see how you're performing throughout the day, meet with your peers, and you're just running it in a different format. 

One of the things I've talked a lot about is the whole idea of KPIs on manufacturing floors and elsewhere. And I've wondered how many end-user companies are actually using it yet, and while I've seen no end of chatter about workplace comms and showing KPIs for showing Salesforce, opportunity pipeline, reports, and everything on a screen. They make sense in a white-collar environment, but are you seeing many companies adopting KPI dashboards for production blue-collar areas?

David Levin: We are at the evolution of visual management as part of lean manufacturing and the more screens people end up getting in a venue, then this question of “okay, how do you control the devices and Is there a better way to present the information?” The number of screens that are out there in manufacturing floors on rolling carts may be running an app, a dashboard that wasn't designed to be a digital sign, it's intended for desktop use, but you're running it on a public screen, and you're trying to view it from a long way away. that still exists quite a bit out there. 

So as customers evolve their needs, they find themselves looking for digital signage or edge of visual communications products and have really good visual applications and good device management and everything else that comes along with the solution.

So tell me about the Smart Space acquisition. Was that an acquisition led by Four Winds or by Vista and it's a paper announcement that this was an acquisition by Four Winds? Or is you guys? 

David Levin: No, it was led by Four Winds, but it's a close partnership. We work with the Vista team on the business. So when we started 18 months ago, we mapped out the market, you know, things like where are our largest segments, where the biggest population of our customer base, what are our natural product extensions, where can we bring the most value back to customers and, what does the universe look like?

And that helped create our Corp Dev strategy. And with Smart Space, we were talking to them for a while and I really wanted our first acquisition to be able to bring something more back to our base. Now our base really breaks down pretty evenly between 50% of our customers are using the product for customer-facing applications, and 50% of our customers are using the product for internal and employee communication

You know, it's hard to do one acquisition to cover everybody from the start, so we're looking across the board. You know, workplace is important to us, and then in the workplace, again, those three kinds of segments between employee comms, performance management, and digital workplace.

And then in the digital workplace, If you find yourself with a meeting room signage product, which we have, and customers have been adopting, you're really quickly into meeting room management and desk management. And if you're in meeting room management and desk management, then you really need analysts about the usage of those spaces, you need sensory integration, you need a mobile app for the employee experience, and so that’s why we just felt like it was a good product extension to buy. 

So it was one of those cases of, “Our customers looking for this, we know that we're going to have it. We can either build it or the faster track is to buy it and get a pretty significant number of customers with it?”

David Levin: Yeah, exactly. And you know, if you're involved in real estate or digital workplace for a large enterprise, then usually you're involved with both digital signage and desk and reading room management. So it's a great fit. 

And with the Smart Space deal, will they be rebranded as Four Winds or will it continue to be its own entity? 

David Levin: So Smart Space is becoming part of Four Winds. We're still figuring out the naming of the product. We really like what they've done with the product, but right now, Smart Space is an FWI company and will become part of our overall platform. 

You had European people before, EMEA people before, but this gives you an office, right?

David Levin: It gives us an office and 40 great people, most of who are based in the UK and a really nice center for our operation in Europe. 

Does it play out the way I've heard from other companies in terms of you start with very simple applications with a corporate enterprise, like a meeting room sign and it just cascades out from there because if they're happy that the client asks for more capability, directories analytics, KPI dashboards, and so on?

David Levin: For sure. In general, the more applications a customer can run on a single platform, the better. And that's where a lot of our growth has come from over the years, as a customer will start in an area that is the most important need at that particular time and then they'll expand and expansion is pretty easy because it's an endpoint on the platform and it's an application that's built on the platform and content that gets managed by the platform and feeds that application, so it's pretty easy to expand and we love the fact that there's so much you can do on the product.

We’d love all these different use cases to get rolled out. And even at a workplace customer, it's interesting, even in a workplace customer, there are these different parts of a workplace which ends up being customers facing, like your lobby experience, your executive briefing centers, your trade show. So, it even finds its way over there, even if it started internally. 

I know this answer, but I'm curious anyway, you've gone into a few verticals as a company and kind of backed off of them because it was just too hard. Is part of the drive around just being corporate and guest experience by and large a way of kind of simplifying things and realizing, “Hey, verticals like retail are really difficult and verticals like hotels”, what you were doing on your own to some degree, let's say five, six, seven years ago.

There's a whole bunch of companies who now say, we do hotels and we're after that market. 

David Levin: Yeah. we haven't limited to workplace and guest experience, and again, some of our larger customers are customer-facing applications in retail environments, and they're extraordinarily successful.

I think where you get into nuances is if you're going to sub-sectors of retail, let's say like a QSR, if you consider that retail and then you're looking at again, the solution overall, and then you're adding self-service kiosks and other parts of the application. If the customer wants all of that and you don't have that, or don't have the experience on that, then you're not going to be as competitive there. And so, it just depends on how much of the solution is more pure visual communications or digital signage in retail, and how much is broadening into other areas of retail, and I think sub-sectors of retail, QSR, grocery, or specialty retail, sometimes it broadens a bit.

Right. You're having real-world experience, well like everybody, with the pandemic in terms of having a pretty significant office. I think the last time I got a count, you guys were up around 350 people, and most of those going into an office in Denver, where are you at now in terms of the number of people coming into the office?

David Levin: Yeah. We've got about 350 people in Denver. There are about 20 people in the office. Well, we have two offices in Denver, so maybe 40 people on any given day in the office and it's purely voluntary. We've got plenty of space, so people that are coming in are well socially distant.

And, we were shut down completely for several months and you know, your work from home experience differs based on what you have going on at home. And so we wanted for people that wanted to get out of the house for whatever reason, to have the ability to come back to the office in a safe way, so we opened it up, but it's a small percentage. I think we all have about 3000 square feet year at the office. 

And coming out of this, do you anticipate that, based on the experience of so many people doing their work from home, when you have the opportunity with your lease, that you'll trim back and this homework will be permanent for some of your staff?

David Levin: I don't know if we'll trim back, but I don't see us acquiring a lot more space because we're going to implement our own desk and room booking system and make everything bookable across the office, so people will use the office, as they need, for activity-based working. They'll book what they need when they need it, and I think there'll be this hybrid model of people working from home and working from the office. And, we'll enable that through the software, and put more investment in collaboration. 

We're seeing our customers do this too. They're just putting more into teams’ rooms and Zoom’s rooms, so when part of your team's in the office and part of the teams out of the office, it's still really easy to get the resources you need to have effective collaboration. 

Are you challenged at all by the Zoom(s) of the world and the big consulting companies like Deloitte(s) and Accenture(s) and ones like that who seem to be getting into this space? 

You have Zoom that has a very elemental digital signage system, but you know, so much of what's being done these days is done over Zoom, that they could start to offer the capabilities that you guys are presenting. 

David Levin: Yeah, so Zoom is very simple, and as you described, it's good and bad. And, to me, the good part about it is that if people start digital signage and do visual communications and they put screens out, and even if they start on zoom, at least they're getting screens out and chances are the more screens that are out the more their sophistication evolves for applications and management, etc. and they will come back to the market most likely and look for an enterprise provider. The bad is, of course, it is free and they get a little bit of the market, but, I think there's probably more good than bad. And with the large consulting companies, I think they're more partners than competitors and we've done some really great projects with most of them. And it's generally part of a big digital transformation scope. And there are some digital signage applications that are part of that scope, and then they're often using a product like ours to execute on that part of the scope. 

Okay. So, they're happy to sell you guys into it as long as they're getting their consulting hours out of it? 

David Levin: Definitely. Nobody wants to build all these applications from scratch, you want to use a platform. 

Oh, I don't know about that. (Laughter)

I get those phone calls and emails almost daily from people saying, “Hey, I'm doing a digital signage startup. Can we get on the phone and talk?” And I'll get on the phone with them and they’ll talk with me, “You would be software platform #487, doing what you just described to me. Please stop now.” It makes them sad, but too bad, I’m saving them a lot of money in the long run. 

You are more a technical CEO than a number of CEOs who I speak with, who come more on the sales side or marketing side, where do you see things going in terms of the way all of this stuff is done? 

We've had some shifts through the years. There's a hell of a lot more adaptation of systems on chip displays, then maybe, some early observers sought there might be, are we getting to a point where devices are nothing more than little edge devices and visual communications, as you call it, is very much a software-driven initiative, and we don't get fixated on the hardware? 

David Levin: Yeah, I think so. From a software perspective, Cloud and IoT have been huge. If you look at a lot of what went into our R&D investment in the last four or five years, it was transforming our own software platforms to take advantage of native clouds and all the technologies around IoT that enable you to manage these remote devices. That just didn't exist when we started 15 years ago and it probably didn't exist five or seven years ago, but we get to take advantage of what the big cloud providers offer and how remote devices are managed in general, for consumers and businesses.

Related to edge devices, it's getting a heck of a lot better. To be able to use edge devices effectively and still have pretty sophisticated applications that run on those, when we went live with cloud, we supported BrightSign, Samsung, and LG, we support those three in addition to our Windows platform. And it's a matter of picking the right device or the right use case. 

Are enterprise customers, the IT teams, less antsy than they used to be about cloud and unfamiliar devices that aren't HP boxes or Dell boxes that they buy by the hundreds or thousands?

David Levin: Yeah, they're embracing with really high-security standards. That was another big part of the investment because it's hard to sell cloud if the security is not there and end-user customers have a really sophisticated way to assess security. So yes, cloud with the security and as far as devices go, there is a movement, of course, to move away from Windows devices and the management that comes along with Windows devices but it also depends on the organization overall. There are some people where they are still heavy Window shops and it's easier for them. And then, there are a lot where if it's more of a, if there's less going on at the endpoint device, it's easier for them to manage overall. 

Do you get a sense from end-users, when they're canvassing the potential vendors/service providers who can help them with their visual communications, that most of the people they have coming in really have their act together in terms of security, or is it a breath of fresh air for guys like you to come in and have sales engineers who can talk about serious security?

David Levin: Yeah, it's a breath of fresh air, but also for us, we got the security department now, led by Maurice, he’s our Chief Security Officer. So the sales team often at a certain part of the sales cycle, or if customers are upgrading their security standards, which happens quite often, then we'll bring in the team members from our security group and they'll take over from there, cause it really is a specialized discipline.

How long have you had that role in place? 

David Levin: Gosh, I think I want to say Maurice joined us four years ago to head up the org, and now there are probably five people in the org, and they work closely with our cloud operations and our legal and compliance team and sales engineering. And, it's been a big part of maturing the organization.

Yeah, I would imagine that there are end-user customers who are somewhat comforted by the fact that you have full-time people just in that case and not saying, “Oh yeah, we pay attention to security.” 

David Levin: Well, they have made it a requirement. When you see some of the security addendums that are attached to contracts, if you don't have a team handling those, there’s just basically no way to comply. 

So, looking ahead, I know this is a weird year. and it's hard to forecast anything, but work goes on, so what will we see out of Four Winds in the next 6 to 12 months? 

David Levin: Yeah. I think in general, what I'm most excited about is that this world is getting more digital and I think, COVID is pushing that even faster because everybody has had to rethink everything they do. 

If it's customer-facing, what's the new customer engagement model? In venues, how do we interact with customers in these venues in a safe way? And how does technology enable that? And digital signage fits in. And if you're in the workplace, it's the same thing related to that to return to work. 

I think that's good for our industry overall. I think we play a key role in that. And, for us, we've got a great roadmap where we've got a couple of big releases coming out before the end of the year on Cloud, we’re excited about the integration with Smart Space. Look for more integrations with that on our platform and also us to take key elements of that, like their mobile and wayfinding and some of the other sensory integration, some of the other attributes, and do other use cases for key markets and, just keep, building the company. We're still got a lot of energy. 

That's good. All right, David. Great to catch up with you. 

David Levin: Thanks, Dave. Appreciate you having me on. Thanks for all you're doing.

 

Stephen Borg, meldCX

Stephen Borg, meldCX

August 12, 2020

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

There are times when I come across an unfamiliar company and it’s clear, really quickly, what they do and offer. But other times, not so much.

When digital signage industry veteran Raffi Vartian joined a company called meldCX a few months ago, my core response was, “OK, that’s great! Glad you’re sorted out. Ummm, who???”

Since that time, he’s walked me through what the Australian-based company, which is now growing its footprint in North America and elsewhere, was all about. If the company has an elevator pitch, it would be useful if the building that elevator’s in has a lot of floors. It gets complicated.

My simpleton explanation is that the company offers a platform as a service that makes it much easier and faster for software vendors, integrators and solutions providers to stick to what they’re good at. The customer worries about the user experience and key functions of an application, which can sit on top of a meldCX technology stack that has already got things like OS compatibility and scalability worked out.

So, when a client asks a vendor for a solution that could be very complicated, a lot of that complication has already been handled via the meldCX platform. So the job can be accelerated and the costs controlled.

I spoke with founder Stephen Borg, who splits his time between Australia and the U.S. He  walked me through the origins of the company, how it works with software vendors and integrators, and related an interesting and different take on using computer vision to keep facilities and devices sanitized in the midst of a pandemic.

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TRANSCRIPT

Stephen, thank you for joining me. you're in Australia, I'm in Nova Scotia. So, I think we're like 14 hours difference in time zones and all that. But, we'll make this work. 

For those who don't know much about meldCX or anything, can you give me the rundown on what the company's about?

Stephen: Yeah. So really, we started meldCX about four years ago and it started as a research project. So I got a team together, internal people, and external partners and customers, and we started it as a reason project and said, what are the common problems in delivering devices to physical space? How can we do this better? 

And what triggered that research was my background in the AOPEN group, the work with Chrome and Fujitsu, we had a common thread of problems and they were just assumptions at the time. But we looked at them and said, okay, what are the things that stop a rollout? Where are the unnecessary costs? What stops it in its second phase? Because we find a lot of customers don't know what they don't know until they get three years into their cycle and find out they hit a brick wall. So what are all those points? Then we researched and built some codebase.

We did that for about two years before we decided to commercialize it. And then we won two or three significant global customers out of that research and decided that meldCX would take its own path, become its own entity, seek its own investment. We commercialized it in the middle of 2019.

And in that short period of time, we have around 80 customers, like enterprise customers across four continents. So it's been a massive take-up, so it's been a very exciting journey.

Now was the research work for AOPEN or for Fujitsu or was it JV or…?

Stephen: Yeah. So I started it as a piece of work that I kicked off with a team looking at what are the common problems. So we looked at Fujitsu data, we looked at AOPEN data. We worked with various customers, we worked with different partners, major providers and it really started as just a bit on a paper.

Then from there, we decided, there is some significant gap here and there are areas that we can help. So, we took that and said, okay, let's do some test cases and initially, it was funded by myself and a team of interested people and we had some great support from AOPEN and the Acer group, around some goodwill, some developers, some research analysts and the like.

I'm just trying to wrap my head around what the outcome or output of this would be. A little bit of what I talked about with Raffi was about the idea of making Chrome devices like the AOPEN Chrome basis more extensible so that they could work with things beyond just plugging into the back of a computer or back of a monitor, that sort of thing that could work with printers, other external devices, that sort of thing.

Is that kind of the gist of it?

Stephen: We found two things, Chrome taught us a lot. Okay. I helped architect the first sort of commercial Chromebox with Google and what we quickly found was there are two distinct development camps and that's across signage, kiosk, and interactive devices. 

So you have a development camp that looks at quite thick architecture, is very versed in modifying drivers or going deep into windows and modifying it and bastardizing Android, so to speak. You have that sort of skill set and then you have a very dynamic backend, highly functional, web first orientation, and these developers needed to meet in the middle somewhere.

And we discovered the hard way with Chrome because we were trying to bring customers across to this new web-first environment, without the tools or the plumbing to get across. And then conversely, you had some really cool tech coming down the pipe that didn't even consider a physical environment. You know, physical security, reliability, no popups on a screen that people can't touch.

So that was phase one and we ended up enabling some big clients on Chrome, doing some things such as payments, ThinkPad integrations, biometrics integrations, accelerators like Movidius, those types of things, we enabled in Chrome initially.

And then we made a decision to say, okay, what we want to do is take these digital building blocks and if a customer uses them, they should be able to run on any operating system. So now, if a customer has built their app using meldCX tools, that can run on Android, that can run windows, soon Linux, without changing the codebase from Chrome or vice versa.

Would you call this middleware?

Stephen: Yeah. in some ways it's middleware, what we do is quite unique. The middleware covers three stages, that is the original deploy piece. Typically middleware just allows you to build and propagate. What we do is we allow you to either build using it or using our existing modules.

So we have a customer that wanted to add some AI elements to the existing app and didn't have the team to do it, and they just plugged in some of our modules. Or you can run applications side by side and make them talk to each other. So we want it to be really flexible. We didn't want to have to tell people that you must build in the Meld to use Meld. 

That's a big leap and it's something that's a bit of a barrier at the start. So we didn't create or force any customers to go into any proprietary language or tech. You can just add these tools or refer to these tools and create a high-end device, even if you've had no experience building a kiosk per se.

So we let customers take content or apps they’ve created on Adobe or web apps and turn them into devices that can operate online, offline, talk to local peripherals, etc. using our tools and our sort of process. 

I'm thinking about a creative agency that I knew in New York a few years ago that was working with a very large athletic wear company. And I was doing some consulting. These were guys who were very good at creative and very good at interactive user experience and all that sort of stuff. But they were being asked to do everything, coding hardware, sourcing, and putting together the touch screen overlays, the whole nine yards. And I'm thinking about what they were saying, “We're having to do this because our client wants us to do it, but this is not our skillset at all. Please help.”

What would happen if that kind of a company was then told, “We want you to do this interactive user experience, we also want you to do payments off of this, and we also want it to interact with smartphones or that sort of thing.” and they would be deer in the headlights. Is this the sort of thing where if they knew that meldCX exists, they could jack their way into that and it would enable them to produce something that's hardened, secure, and reliable?

Stephen: Yeah, exactly. So we just had a customer roll-out, which was really unique. Contact tracing applications for pubs and clubs and bars, and it was an agency and their integration aspects were quite complex, so we enabled the Chrome device to do Apple Pass and Google Pass so they can send digital tokens or loyalty cards to their customers, tapping as they walk into the establishment, it would contact trace, plus give them points.

Now the agency scoped out a year project. We delivered that in two months on meldCX, right? Because all they needed to do is focus on the UI and we had already done all the certifications, the Apple compliance, the Google compliance, and really, they just used our widgets, got it up and running, and the customer is rolling out now. 

So in that case, not only did we help the initial build process but ongoing, Meld manages the OS. So Meld won't let the OS go past the build. So for example, if it is Chrome, and you've built your app on, v83, it won't allow Chrome to update past v83 until you've told it to update. And if it picks up a critical security patch, it might notify you of the impact of that, and you can test it without having a physical device. You can test it in an emulator. 

In this case, they were using a development team in Melbourne, a development team in India. and they tested virtually using our emulator so they don't even need physical devices. So that's a great example.

I know “middleware” is a very simplified way of trying to describe it, but since I'm a simple person, would I describe this in certain respects as a middleware as a service?

Stephen: Yeah, so we have two essential products or product lines. One is a PaaS (Platform as a Service) product. so that is someone that wants to build their own app. It gives you all the tools. It gives you things like PCI compliance, advanced security, even tokenization of devices, a whole range of builder widgets so you can use those blocks. 

In fact, we've had quite a few, ISVs build their applications or move their applications across Meld, really just reappointed to the Meld resources rather than rebuild anything. And then they can go off and run multiple operating systems. We were dealing with a signage provider (that we’ll announce soon) and I think they had a team of 30 devs and they had seven dedicated to operating systems and after moving across the Meld, now they don't have any dedicated to the operating system, which is a sunk cost, they have them focusing on features. 

So that's one of the things we're providing and we also help them become an enterprise. So now they can use our certifications, our security compliance, our SSO, all those things that corporate entities need as a minimum requirement, they can just utilize what we've already done, right?

I completely get what you're saying. My worry would be that in a hyper-competitive marketplace, like the digital signage software marketplace, many of these companies compete on price. Layering you in adds more cost. 

Although, you've said it removes a lot of costs. Because in this case, this company doesn't need seven guys. or engineers, focused on operating systems, but how do they balance that out? Does it become net savings?

Stephen: Look, there are two aspects. Signage, you're right, it’s very competitive and I wouldn't see, for example, an entry-level signage player, that's playing a web URL, having the need for something like Meld, unless it was their first foray into Chrome and they didn't want to do the development, they just want it to point to us. 

On the signage space, we're working with partners that want to move up the food chain. And what I mean by that is they want to be an enterprise, they want to have multiple touchpoints, within the customer and they potentially want to use other aspects of Meld.

So Meld has its PaaS platform and it does have SaaS modules as well. So we have products such as advanced machine vision. And in Meld, you can schedule machine vision models or AI models. You can schedule content and apps all in the same way and pair them together.

We just worked with a global car company, and they have an app that they spent a lot of money building on, an agency built it and they wanted to add some visual elements...

An agency costing a lot of money???

Stephen: (Laughter) Yeah, and I looked at it and went oh well, but they didn't want to go back to the agency and wanted to use Meld to add some AI elements and what we ended up achieving for them is that we used the cameras within the devices and gave them content sentiment analysis, tokenization of people using it, so if they went into a pop-up that was in a shopping center and then later went into the car dealer, the car dealer wouldn't get any personal details, but they'll see, “Look, this family of four was playing with this car in a shopping center for an hour and they got to this configuration price point.” and that dealer would end up with that profile as they're walking in.

They did that and a lot of that was prebuilt with those tools in Meld. They just used those tools and ran it side by side with the application, and that was a six-week process. So they're the type of customers or partners we're using where they're taking it to that next step.

And also, even some small signage providers when they go enterprise now with all the security requirements like SSO, data restriction compliance, GDPR, all of that's really overwhelming for them. So we take care of that. 

As long as they stick to the guidelines we set in place, they can be compliant too, and they can really pump above their way.

Is one of those guidelines is that you have to use Chrome devices or is that just one of the ways you can do this?

Stephen: No. So, we use our Chrome and Windows. So one of the guidelines is, for example, the hardware. We're hardware agnostic as well so as long as the hardware has some security components like it has a TPM or we can access the firmware to create, assign digital devices, we allow it into our network. So we won't allow a customer to say add an Android device because that can't be secured. 

We are PCI level One, so the highest PCI standards. So we will ensure that the devices meet that standard if they want to be able to use any of those certificates, if that makes sense. 

Yeah. Google made a big splash about four or five years ago, about entering the digital signage market. And at that point, there were a number of Chrome devices and there was a feeling, and I was among them and I thought, okay, this could be a big deal, but then it never really went too far. There's only a handful of companies that are using Chrome, Chromeboxes and other devices, but for the most part, the world has moved on and Android came back and Android is getting a lot more serious and there are lots of special-purpose devices, set-top box kinds of devices that are being used. 

I think it's interesting that you started down the path of Chrome, but I suspect it's going to be important to communicate, at least in the context of the digital signage ecosystem that this is not just a pure Chrome play and they don't have to go down that path.

Stephen: Yeah, that's correct. And look, we love working with Chrome. I think it's come a long way. And, one of the reasons why I think adoption wasn't so rapid in this space is what I explained earlier. You have a lot of people who are used to hacking an operating system and bending it the way they want it to bend, but then you tend to compromise security, you compromise feature updates. There's a lot of compromises when you're doing that. So what we tried to do is take the Chrome methodology, make Chrome more adaptable to this market. 

We're doing offline content, talking to peripherals, running multiple apps at the same time. So I haven't come across anything of light that we can't do in Chrome that you can do in other operating systems. I think Chrome forces you to be compliant, to maintain security standards, and there are not that many players that have the skills to work within that compliance framework. 

So initially we made that easier and now we use that same compliance framework, which is the class-leading for an operating system, across the other operating systems. We've worked very closely with Microsoft to control updates, and we're about to release some dedicated Android devices that are secure, have digital certificates back and forth, and can only play up that generated from Meld. 

So even if it's your own APK, if it wasn't generated from Meld, it won't have authority. So it's super secure. You can still update the Chrome browser within Android, independently of Android, so it's very flexible but maintains that security first principle.

You mentioned machine vision and I believe the product is called Viana. You're bringing computer vision at least in the context of digital signage, into a pretty crowded marketplace in terms of a number of companies that are selling variations on video analytics for audience measurement and so on.

What's the distinction about Viana that sets you apart from the other guys?

Stephen: Sure. So Viana actually didn't start with a sort of visual analytics, in the way we see it in Signage. It started on some really deep learning projects. One, which you can look up, it's called Project Sally, where for our post postal services in Australia, we did handwriting recognition and package recognition to be able to sort parcels at a kiosk device.

You can go up to this kiosk, drop your handwritten parcel on the plateau and it will detect if it needs a customs declaration, pre-fill most of it, dimensions, calculate the cost and everything else. 

So that was quite deep learning because if anyone tried to scan my handwriting, you’d need a really decent model. 

For mine, it's not going to work.

Stephen: (Laughter) So we did that, and we got our synthetic data set generating 14 million impressions a week or variations of handwritings, and we started saying, okay, how do we do things a little bit differently around visual analytics? How do you go beyond just saying, okay, this is how many females or males of this age have walked past this screen? You know, how do we take it to the next level? 

It’s kind of I've been there, done that thing.

Stephen: Exactly, right? And we're not going to engage in something that's highly saturated unless we can add some differentiation.

So we sat down and worked through it and said, okay, what are we trying to actually get here? So we're not just trying to get the number of eyeballs, but what we're trying to get is the amount of attention time, we're trying to get the content sentiment to understand the content sentiment and how that relates to other systems, other processes or advertised media. 

So we not only built our own custom model that looks at content sentiment analysis but applies various metrics and various sorts of triggers and integrations that make it really easy to do more. And then we took it a step further and all the training models are based on synthetics.

So we haven't gone out there and pointed a camera at the public and started training. You know, you have a natural bias doing that. So what we've done is all our computers, all our training data is synthetically generated. It doesn't have the ability to even understand race, let alone be skewed to race but it does understand things like age, gender, beard, glasses, brands of clothing they might be wearing, are they wearing a hat in a hat store? It gets really detailed and we can pick up quite a comprehensive profile of that person that is entering your establishment, and you can start drilling in and say, okay, I want to understand more. I'm thinking of bringing game caps into my store, how many people were in caps of this type, and you can really start drilling down and understanding that level of detail.

And one of the modules that have come out of Viana is at the moment called Sami?

Stephen: Yup. In fact, we started this project prior to COVID. 

It's an interesting story. I was sitting in one of our offices, and being from Melbourne, I was there quite late and the cleaners came in. And they came in, checked in, sat at the conference table, cleaned that table. They were there for two hours, emptied the bin, and left. And I'm thinking, this has to be a better way to understand what's being cleaned, what's being done, how do we go away from this clipboard on the side of a wall saying this has been cleaned and we don't know if it's been done?

So we started that project and we got the provisional patent for it and then COVID hit and we said, okay, this is ideal for COVID. What it essentially does is that it can plug into any camera system, or digital camera system or you can use it with a USB camera if you choose to, and it looks at hand emotion, distances, body distances from objects. And what it starts to do is, for example, if you have a conference room, you can highlight a table or highlight those areas, it will start self-learning the digital structure or framework of that room and it'll start monitoring touchpoints.

So I might say, “After each conference, I want an SMS to go to X person to go clean it.” So what would happen is once that person goes, who gets an SMS (or Messenger or any type of message), walks into the room, accept it, and the camera where she looked for the hand motions that it's been cleaned and it will show the hotspot areas that people were engaged with prior to cleaning.

So you can really take any inanimate object and point these cameras towards it and set a threshold. You might say, after three interactions or people standing nearby, we want this cleaned and you can even set a range for hands or range for airborne, it is if someone's coughed in that area. You might want to set a meter range around that individual going in, and not only it will encourage you to clean, but it will record a complete digital manifest of that. So you'll get that pop-up, you'll engage with it, you'll clean it.

It will monitor all the hand motions. We don't keep any details of faces. We've done a lot of training on what a cleaning motion is, and it will send you an image of the hotspot areas, and if you've cleaned those hotspot areas, it'll send you a notification saying you're done and it will keep a central digital manifest of it all.

So I think that's interesting for the business environment but I would imagine where it could get really interesting would be in things like food processing environments, where they're worried about Listeria outbreaks and everything else, where you've got to have cleaning compliance versus the boardroom table.

Yes. It should be clean, but it's probably not the end of the world. If it wasn't.

Stephen: That's right. We're getting companies coming to us in all sorts of spaces around this. Food preparation areas, pharmaceuticals. We have an interesting one right now, a very, large spectacles retailer and what they're doing right now because of the COVID situation is every hour, they have two people in-store, retail associates, cleaning every single spectacle in the place. So they're using us to have focus areas. So the cleaning can be more frequent, but less broad. 

And in fact, you can have triggers so you can even use it on any kiosk, doesn't matter what operating system, what OS. We have a module that sits on the kiosk and can monitor touches and it doesn't require a camera and it will send you information saying this kiosk has hit a threshold.

We're working with an airport right now, and the first thing it would do is if that kiosk hit a threshold, it will shut down that kiosk and encourage you to go to the next chaos until someone can clean it and as you go into that cleaning mode, it will show you the impressions and all the hotspots where most of the touches were.

And if you're using a virtual eraser, it will not let you finish that process until you've rubbed all of it out and it will even ask you to say, please clean the PIN pad, please clean this and that, as a digital checklist. And that's rolling out this month as well. That's part of the Sami suite, 

So, if I'm charged with cleaning these things (and please God, I don't want that job) but, you would see a screen that has what amounts to a heat map on it that's visualizing what in particular needs to be cleaned, and as you wipe that down, the heat map colors are changing or the heat map is going away and it's going back to the normal screen. Is that a good way of describing it?

Stephen: That's correct. And the main point is the digital manifest, so the person that's cleaning it will have to be standing right in front of it. They'll click on their phone, they could have got a message of some sort, and then it will go into that mode, and you can associate that person with that compliant cleaning regime.

The first thing it would do is make you clean the whole surface and then it would make you focus on areas and have that sort of visualization so that way you can have a deeper clean and there’s some AI behind it, how many touches or how long the engagement is versus how much you have to clean up for based on the type of solution.

So if it's Clorox, it might say, this is how long you need to do it. Customers can vary that in the dashboard. So they can say, it's this many impressions or I want this clean for X minutes. I want us to not allow customers to use it, and we've just had a customer that wanted to add facemask to that, so it stops the kiosk for anyone signing into that kiosk or using that kiosk unless they have a mask. They just added two Meld modules together and created that scenario.

Yeah. I worry about a lot of these companies that are coming out with hardware products that are squarely focused on dealing with pandemic issues right now, because it's going to take longer than most people expect, but this problem will go away and I wonder if these products will be relevant at that point, versus what you're describing, which is great in the current, health safety environment, but it's going to work for a whole bunch of other reasons down the road in a whole bunch of other different scenarios.

Stephen: Exactly. So we originally started these concepts because a lot of customers use our touch screen for food or food ordering. Coli is very stubborn and it stays on surfaces for a long time, so we originally started this for things such as Listeria, Coli and general cleanliness and bacteria. 

And we're very lucky to have one of our large teams, or actually I opened at the time in Taiwan because they see a lot of work around this space and Taiwan seems to be leading the world around this space. They seem to be the best in the best state for COVID.

So we've got a lot of feedback from them on this, and having a purely hardware solution to solve this problem which may or may not be a short term, but it really needs to be multi-use and have a broader purpose than just this, and really that's what we're focused on.

It's good housekeeping. It's allowing you to create a digital manifest and to make sure it's actually done because we actually did a research piece before we started. We're working with a very large building management company, so they own buildings in the city, and then they go lease them back out and manage the buildings. And they didn't actually know, compliance. The only method of compliance they had was when the cleanup badged in and badged out, that was it. They didn't know if anything was done, which could be dangerous, in this environment. And also, just generally, you want to know if you're paying for that cleaning service that it's actually being done.

Yeah. Where's the company at, in terms of, working its way into the marketplace? You've hired Raffi Vartian. I believe you have a guy down in Dallas or Austin. Where are you at and how do companies engage with you? 

Are you working through a channel, is it a direct connection? How do people find meldCX and get the conversation going?

Stephen: Yeah. So we started off, in Australia. so we've got quite a big Australia team and some resources in the Asia Pacific region. We decided to kick off the US because, one, we have quite a few customers that are in flight, so you'll see, by the end of this year, them going live with some significant rollouts.

So we hired two people initially, that is, Edward Doan, he’s actually ex Chrome, he was part of the core Chrome team and led parts of that team. And he's come across to lead the meldCX business in the US and Raffi Vartian. And we tend to look at it in an interesting way, in that, if the project is unique and we believe that projects can come down the pipe and can be used by our partners, we will engage the customer directly for a period of time. 

So for example, in the first version of Sami, we worked closely with our customers who allowed us into their environments and create training data and do that type of thing, and then we'll make that sort of publicly available and work with partners to deliver to those clients. 

So we are a partner-centric business. We tend to use ISDs and SIs of all types. We do work with some agencies, and some consultancy firms as well but we do have some multinational, bleeding-edge type use cases that we will engage indirectly and then make those facilities or even sometimes the sample code available to our partners so they can go and modify it and do it for their customers.

Okay, so to find you guys, is it meldCX.com?

Stephen: Yup. meldCX.com.

Perfect. All right, Steven, thank you so much for taking some time with me from all the way over there in Australia.

Stephen: Yeah, thanks for your time. 

Advocates For Connected Experiences: Industry Panel - Re-opening For Business

Advocates For Connected Experiences: Industry Panel - Re-opening For Business

June 10, 2020

This is a special version of the 16:9 podcast - the audio from a recent online call put on by the new Advocates For Connected Experiences, focused on the challenges of getting people back to work, and what that means for connected experiences and technology.

The chat, done on a Zoom video call, features senior folks from several organizations, talking about what's changed, what's going on now, and how technologies are being applied. I was the moderator.

On the call, you'll hear from:
- Kim Sarubbi, ACE
- Joe' Lloyd, AVIXA
- Trent Oliver, Themed Entertainment Association
- Debbie Hauss, Retail Touchpoints
- Cybelle Jones, SEGD
- Bryan Meszaros, SEGD
- Kym Frank, Geopath
- David Drain, ICX Association
- Beth Warren from CRI

I didn't have time to buff this up with the audio leveled, etc, etc, so you may have to monkey with your volume controls. But it is a good chat that's well worth a listen. 

Warning - it is 60 minutes or so, but you can always listen to half and come back to it later.

 

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Paul Harris, Aurora Multimedia

Paul Harris, Aurora Multimedia

May 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a wave of new or re-marketed products intended to address one of the many new problems businesses face in re-opening and bring people through their doors each day.

My email inbox is filled each morning with pitches from Chinese manufacturers selling screens that also have sanitizer dispensers, and smartphone-sized gadgets, with cameras, that do quick body temperature scans that are intended to flag people who may be running fevers, and therefore may be carriers of the coronavirus.

A lot of these products look, and are, the same, and it would be impossible to keep up with all the options and sellers. But I was intrigued by a New Jersey AV tech company, Aurora Multimedia, that came out recently with a solution that seems a bit more substantial. It was designed from the start to integrate and work with other building systems, as well as offer alternative uses beyond this pandemic.

Aurora has versions of a temperature check screen that are as large as 21.5-inches, and they have the company's versatile control system in behind it.

I spoke with Paul Harris, Aurora's CEO, about the thinking behind the product, and how it is turning out to be something of a saviour for some AV reseller partners who were struggling to stay relevant with their pre-pandemic products and services.

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2019 DSF Coffee And Controversy

2019 DSF Coffee And Controversy

October 30, 2019

A couple of weeks back I was in New York for the annual Digital Signage Federation Coffee and Controversy event, which I moderated.

I was able to grab audio last year and post as a podcast, and this year we managed the same. The audio is OK, at best, but you should be able to hear just fine.

Your big challenge will be discerning who is saying what, because the session was me and five great panelists, all with terrific insights and experience.

The topic was privacy and proof, as it relates to tech being used for retail and advertising insights. The speakers were:
- Dylan Gilbert, Policy Fellow at DC-based PublicKnowledge
- Laura Davis-Taylor, the Co-Founder of Atlanta's HighStreet Collective & LivingRetailLab
- Kym Frank, President of New York-based Geopath
- Amy Avery, Chief Intelligence Officer at New York agency Droga5
- Jeremy Bergstein, CEO of New York agency The Science Project

By all accounts it was a great session that could have gone another hour or more. The DSF is working on video clips, as well, which will be available to its membership.

Please note it is double the length of a "normal" 16:9 podcast.

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Neeraj Pendse, Elo

Neeraj Pendse, Elo

April 30, 2019

Elo has been doing touchscreens for 40 years - way, way before marketers started cooking up phrases like customer engagement technology. Over that time, the company has shipped more than 25 million units.

So Elo knows touch, and interactive.

Based in Silicon Valley, the company has in the last few years made a pretty big push into digital signage with everything from countertop displays to big 70-inch touchscreens that look like giant tablets.

I spoke recently with Neeraj Pendse, the company's VP Product Management. His responsibilities include Elo’s large format and signage products, the EloView service, and the commercial Android roadmap and devices. We get into a lot of things - including what works and doesn't in interactive design, how Elo differs from touch overlay companies, and why a touchscreen manufacturer developed and now markets device management software.

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2018 DSF Coffee and Controversy, in NYC

2018 DSF Coffee and Controversy, in NYC

November 7, 2018

I was in New York last week for the Digital Signage Federation's annual Coffee and Controversy breakfast event - a panel discussion that each year brings together some of the most influential leaders in the digital signage industry.

I'm on the DSF board and my fellow board members drafted me to run the panel - with Chris Riegel of STRATACACHE, Jeff Hastings of Brightsign and Beth Warren of Creative Realities.

There's only so much controversy you can whip up around digital signage, but I tried ... and if anyone in this industry was going to stir up some shit, it was Chris. He didn't disappoint, nor did Jeff or Beth.

The women who ran the AV for the event very kindly generated an audio recording for me. This is about twice the length of a normal 16:9 podcast, but if you didn't have the chance, time or budget to get to New York last week, you can have a listen to what was said.

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Hacking Dangers In Digital Signage, with Gary Feather, CTO, Nanolumens

Hacking Dangers In Digital Signage, with Gary Feather, CTO, Nanolumens

August 2, 2017

I’m changing up the podcast a little bit this week.

I have my own rule that I want to talk to a bunch of other companies first before I talk to one a second time.

I’ve also made this podcast about people and not issues.

But this week I am talking to Gary Feather, CTO of the display company NanoLumens, even though I spoke with his boss Rick Cope last summer.

Here’s why. Feather is running a webinar next week on security, and the steps he thinks any substantial digital signage operator out there should be taking to ensure their screens and systems are not compromised by hackers.

The risk is not just about keeping some teenagers from getting naughty movies up on the screens in a store, though that’s definitely not good. It’s also about ensuring the connected media players driving screens are not the side door access into private and mission critical systems within businesses. Target’s big hack three years ago came in through the HVAC systems.

It’s an important subject, and we spend this podcast previewing a little of what he plans to talk about August 8th.

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