Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

AVIXA Digital Signage Power Hour – October 2020 Roundtable On QSR & Drive-Thru

October 28, 2020

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

The QSR industry has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, and some operators have fared much better than others for the simple reason that they had drive-thru lanes.

If the business relied on walk-in and dine-in traffic, they were in trouble. But if they had drive-thru lanes with pre-sell and menu displays, they tended to make out OK. What might have been 70% of their business went up past 90%.

Last week I moderated a roundtable panel on digital signage and the QSR business, chatting for  almost an hour with top people from companies active in the space - both vendors and end-users.

The Digital Signage Power Hour was hosted by AVIXA and sponsored by STRATACACHE. I led a discussion with Dan Williams from Stratacache, who worked with McDonald's on its massive digital deployment, Sara Grofscik of Samsung, who runs the QSR business there, Dave Petricig of PingHD, and Todd Hoffman, the digital lead for Krispy Kreme, and the subject of a recent 16:9 podcast.

The session starts with me rattling through some observations, and then we dive in.

AVIXA's Marcella Walsh can be heard at the back-end, answering some listener questions.

You can also watch the webinar online here ...

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No transcript on this one. Too many competing voices!

Joe King, Philips

Joe King, Philips

October 21, 2020

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

Philips has really come on in recent years in the digital signage ecosystem, taking on more and more presence at trade shows and releasing smart display products that my industry contacts have consistently said great things about.

You probably have a consumer product like a shaver or electric toothbrush made by Philips, and assume that the commercial display products come out of that Dutch company. They do … and don’t, and I get into that in a chat with Joe King, a Senior Director with the company, who drives North American sales.

Joe and I talk about where its smart display lineup is at, and its use of Android. We also talk about its own CMS software, which he stresses is NOT intended to compete with commercial software products. It’s meant to service the very basic needs of small businesses.

We talk about market conditions, and how the professional display company has kind of skated through all of this COVID mess … because the desktop monitor side of the business has exploded with Work From Home demands.

We explore the company’s camera-driven access control offer for retail, and who’s buying direct view LED these days.

And finally, we get into what to look for from Philips in the next 12-18 months.

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TRANSCRIPT

Joe King, thanks for joining me. We've met in the past. I know Phillips well, and I think generally a lot of people know Phillips. One of the things that sometimes when I'm introduced to Phillips people, they kind of explained to me the background of the display side of the company. They may have Phillips toothbrushes on all kinds of things at home, but Phillips’s professional display is, as I understand it, the trading name for some other large companies. 

Joe: Yeah. Dave, thank you. Good to be with you by the way, and thank you for having me. Yeah, so we operate as Phillips. We operate under a license from Phillips. We're actually a global company called TPV. It's based out of Taiwan and we operate with a commercial license globally for digital signage, as well as a professional TV. So signage TV, hotel TV, we operate that pretty much around the world.

There are a couple of little pockets that are exceptions, but for the most part, we operate that around the world. So we have the power of TPV behind it and the manufacturing power of TPV behind it, which we're quite happy about. I think most of the industry probably doesn't know the name, but we're the world's largest manufacturer of desktop monitors. We're the world's third-largest manufacturer of televisions. And we like having THEM behind us because it gives us a lot of product development power, and also a lot of manufacturing power when we need it. So, happy you bring that up and thank you for the question. really 

There are some big companies in Taiwan. I've been there two or three times. I was there about a year ago. And, man, I was off to see AUO, but we went right by the TSMC, they're the biggest semiconductor maker in the world and this place was the size of a Ford plant. 

Joe: Yeah. It's nice having that manufacturing power behind us.

Where do you guys sit in terms of market share in North America and in Europe as well? I think in terms of Samsung and LG being top of the pile in North America, but you guys have really come on in the last two or three years. 

Joe: We have and even with COVID, Dave, we've been able to increase our share a little bit. So I think it depends on the day of the week, we are #4-#5. We tend to swap back and forth with another brand there at that level. But certainly, we don't have the market power of a Samsung or even an LG, but, as you say, we're growing certainly in North America and North America is a focus for us now.

We're the number three digital signage player in Europe. Again, behind the two large brands that you mentioned, but there's a real focus with us on North America because we feel like we're now getting our act together, so to speak. We've improved the product line. We've put world-class service in place, something that I think we can differentiate ourselves with, but yeah, we see North America as a real focal point for us. 

You joined or the company joined, what many of the display manufacturers have done in terms of adding systems-on-chip displays to their lineup? And one of the things that I've I've known about Philips is that a lot of the software companies that kind of try the different smart display platforms out there have tended to say that the Phillips’ one is really good, it's very modern Android, powerful, runs like a top and everything else. 

How much of your product line is built around a system-on-chip now? Like the commercial display product line. 

Joe: A lot. In terms of just sheer models, if we were just looking at a percentage of the models, we're probably getting close to 75%. We'll try to offer a model that doesn't have it if we're just trying to hit a price point. But for the most part, especially as you get into the higher ends of the line, almost everything has an Android operating system in it, and we see the business going that way.

I'm a firm believer and I've been in the hardware business, a long long time. I'll age myself if I say how long, but I really do think that software is going to be the driver of this business going forward, and I think that our Android platform, as you say, it performs very well. We see it in large deployments, where it's accessible. It is an open platform, which we like, and we certainly see our business heading that way. 

Something that you hear from the software companies, as well as integrators and end-users that they like that it's open. And, you know, some of the other guys have their own proprietary operating system working with it, whereas I've heard others say we really like that we can work on just Android and do what we need to do without learning or tweaking something. 

Joe: Right. Well, there's a level of consistency, I guess, would probably be the best way to say that. But yes, we get that feedback a lot and I think one of the things that we've done that might be a little different is we tend to try to stabilize On an Android version. So if we see something that we like, that's very stable, you know, we had Android 4.4.4 in the market for quite a long time. And even though there were a lot of updated versions, we kept saying to the marketplace, “This is stable, why do you want to even think about upgrading firmware and trying to mess things up?”

So we tend to draw a line in the sand, if you will, that a particular Android version and we've been very consistent in that. And I think our software partners like that approach actually. 

And where are you now? I think you're at 7. 

Joe: We actually have some displays with 8. We have two different, I think it's 7.1 in the marketplace as well as an 8 today.

Are there any objections still from end users saying, well, you know, it's a system-on-chip? What if something happens with the panel? I gotta replace the whole panel or it's not as powerful enough or anything like that. 

Joe: Certainly I think we tend to get those questions. I think we've proven with some of the demonstrations and stuff that we've done that certainly, the platform is powerful enough.

I think honestly, Dave, the way to answer that is that we've put a service organization in place that we think is second to none in the industry. So if somebody does need a fast replacement, we have the ability to do that. We offer people a 24-hour turnaround. We certainly understand that if it's a menu board in a quick-serve restaurant and it goes out, it can't be their black for a very long time at all.

So we certainly offer the marketplace, those opportunities for quick replacement and that's one of the reasons we do it. We have a very reliable product. I would put it up against anybody else in the industry, which is why we talk about that quick turnaround service, because we know we're not going to need it very much. 

Have you ever run into a smart display where the smarts have died and the panel had to be pulled down? Cause I ask this question a lot and I've never heard anybody say that's actually happened. 

Joe: No, I haven't. And it's a good question. I think again, we try to separate those two. So, the Android operating system is separate, literally a separate board, if you will, from the display itself so those aren't tied together. Now certainly, if a display goes black, it's going to go black regardless, but I haven't seen them tied together that way and it may be just because of the design of our product. 

Right, but I mean that the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that gets someone out there around system-on-chip displays is if there is a problem with the CPU, which you know, is a separate component from the display components and so on, you can't just open a trap door and snap on out and pop a new one. You got to take the whole thing down. But I've never actually heard anybody say this has happened. 

Joe: I haven't either. I haven't seen it. You could always make the argument, you know, indifference to my friends at BrightSign that you could see the same thing with a player and I think we just like this approach. We think the improved service or the improved performance of the Android operating system is worth the investment. And we don't see a risk. We really don't, and as I said, I think some of the installations we have would certainly support that.

What happens on the install side itself? I have heard some solutions providers say that field servicing drops like a boulder because we don't have all these connectors. 

Joe: Yeah. I think you're right. I think, you know, even from our standpoint, we offer our software partners the opportunity for us to preload the software, you know, we have a high touch warehouse facility where we can do that and make the installation process even easier.

So I think that's one of the things that we offer that may be unique to a system-on-chip product. I will oversimplify, it's not as easy as just hanging it and going, but it certainly can make the installation much easier to do with some of the pre-loading capability that we have.

And from what I've heard is because there aren't any HDMI cables and other cables associated with them, there's nothing to wiggle loose and, cause a truck roll. 

Joe: Yeah, well, I'll share it with you. We review service metrics every month and we know that on average, about 65% of the calls we get into our call center are exactly that, it's what I would call operator error. So, things like the cable has come loose, a power cord has come loose and typically we see, it'll be a little higher, some months, a little lower some months, but typically about 65% of the calls we get, we resolve over the phone and it is cable related. And so I think that's just another argument for having a totally contained system.

Yeah. Remove the points of failure. 

Joe: You got it. Exactly. 

So what is CMND, I assume it’s an acronym for Command? 

Joe: Exactly. So it is our “create and maintain” product, so it is a product that we let people create their own content. And I will say to everybody, we do it at a very elementary level. We don't pretend to be able to do some of the things that some of the other software companies out there can do. This is a way for, if you're an individual restaurant owner, and you own a deli and you want to put something up on a screen, this is a way to make PowerPoint and get it onto a screen fairly easily. It's a way for a school, as an example, if they need to broadcast an emergency message, this is an easy way to have that happen, and then it also gives you controls. 

So it can, again, I'll use those schools as an example if there's an emergency message that needed to be broadcast, it can be done from a central location and get to every product. We also utilize it, just like some of the other manufacturers, in very large installations. You can turn them all on with a button click, you can turn them all off with a button click. So just creating software and being able to control the systems as well. And, that's why we call it Command. 

So you're not trying to sell against your software partners or anything?

Joe: No way, as I said, we don't pretend to be that good. We're not in the software business. We're a hardware company, but as I said earlier, I think the software is the key going forward. So we want to make our product as seamless as it possibly can be for our software partners.

We're not trying to take their place. 

What I've seen with some of the display guys is a move to create a kind of foundational software that's a device management and control as you describe it that you could then port a web application onto, and maybe if you've got a special purpose thing where you really don't need all of the bells and whistles and capabilities of the CMS, you can just use command or CMND as the kind of the baseline platform.

Is that accurate? 

Joe: Yeah, I think that's a fair portrayal. As I said, it’s meant to be kind of elementary. And, look, there are people out there that do the software side really really well. And even the control functionality they do, better than we do. So, this is meant to be a very basic product.

You know, the great thing about it is, it's free. We don't charge for it. That's a little bit different than some of our competitors. But again, we're not charging for it because it is a very basic system. 

And these are end-users, buyers who are otherwise just not gonna get a CMS anyways unless they get something free or one of the freemium ones out there? 

Joe: Exactly. 

So, I think two or three years ago, I went to a lot of trade shows. That's more accurately say I used to go to a lot of trade shows and I can recall, let's say about three years ago, going to ISE and seeing a direct-view LED in the Phillips booth for the first time. 

So you guys have gotten into that. How do you differentiate your product in a very crowded field? 

Joe: Yeah, great question. The last time you and I actually spoke to each other and recorded anything was Infocom a year ago about LED and so, of course, COVID has impacted it. We have sold some units, I'm happy to say, and some of them are going on now, but I think that the big differentiator for us, as I talked a year ago, is kits. So we tend to put LED together and a pre-configured kit, you know, we've been very successful with video walls doing the same thing, so it comes together with the display, it comes together with a mouse and it comes together with all the processing equipment you need, the cables. And so we tend to believe in these kits and that's where our success has been in North America. A similar thing in Europe, we've seen, people are going to want custom screens and we'll certainly give them the opportunity to do that. But for us, the success really is those kits. I think the first three installations where you've done or in the process of doing in the US have all been kits versus custom.

I've heard that a lot and the prevailing opinion seems to be that you have specialty LED companies who understand everything about very large installations, big canvases, weird shapes, and everything else, but you've got this whole big second tier of integrators and solutions writers who don't work with LED very often and they don't necessarily understand it or get it, and don't have the cycles to just become experts on this, so a kit is something they can wrap their heads around. 

Joe: Yeah, I think so. And I think that where we're looking at selling this and where we've been successful is mostly in the corporate market. and also some of the consumer markets. We have a couple of partners that are really quite strong in the consumer market and some of these LED kits that we have worked really well are home theaters and that's where we've had some of our success. 

And on the corporate side, is it primarily conference rooms and control rooms, that kind of thing? 

Joe: Not conference rooms, more lobbies. In fact, the first installation we did was a corporate lobby, even in COVID, it's still something that proceeded and was installed. So, yeah, we are seeing more lobbies than conference rooms. 

Yeah. More broadly with digital signage in general, what are those vertical markets that seem to be working right now, even amidst all of this nuttiness? 

Joe: I think we've all been really surprised. I think we all expected that retail would get impacted and retail has been impacted, but I think we've all certainly been surprised at how well, certainly quick-serve restaurants, pizza, you know, the brick and mortar, home improvement, you know, large chain stores have done.

We're seeing a lot of activity in drug stores as an example. So it's really surprised me how well that retail itself has maintained. Certainly, we've seen a huge increase in education. I think a lot of those early dollars went to Chromebooks and laptops and everything else for students, but we're really seeing now an increase in some of the displays that are used for education, as kids do end up back in the classroom. 

Well, you know, all those places have a lot of change going on and, it's not, “This is what we're doing for the next three months, It can change in an hour.” 

Joe: Yeah, exactly, and I think we've seen some of that and certainly if you look at corporate as an example, I think in the US there's really a tendency to step back, about going back to work if you will, where I think in some other parts of the world, we've seen people go back to work a little more quickly.

Certainly, we've seen that in Europe. We've seen people go back into offices a little more quickly, you know, just a personal observation, I think we need to do that here. I think people need to get back into some kind of a normal routine and I think the office can be part of that. And I certainly hope that we're doing that as we get into 2021.

Yeah, I do wonder about this whole shift to work from home, how that will play out. I think it works very well for some people. I've been doing it forever, so I'm used to it, but I think there's a whole bunch of people who do their best work when they're in a collaborative environment and they can share.

Joe: Yeah. I'll share just a quick side note, I mean, I'm like you. I've worked from home for forever, I have a great setup. I can do it, but there are people in my group who, once we made the announcement that we would open the office back up, they couldn't wait to get back there, you know, social distancing and everything else that we planned for.

They still just felt that they were more productive in the office. And we have some that aren't and that's perfectly fine. We've given them that opportunity, but to your point, some of those people, whether they be supply chain-related or product development related, who just feel like they're a whole lot more productive in the office where they have the tools they need and I think a lot of companies are going to see that same thing. 

I certainly think that technology is going to have to help there and hopefully, digital signage can be part of that, whether it's collaborative displays, being able to Zoom effectively if you will but I think technology can help there. And I think that's part of why we're seeing corporate, maybe not as respond as quickly, is because they're still trying to figure that out. 

Going back to retail, Philips introduced something called “People Count” like two-three months ago or maybe more. Can you explain what that is? 

Joe: Sure. So it's a product that we in collaboration with a camera manufacturer, and then there's some software that we actually developed that works with our Android product. But it's basically a way to count people as they come into a retail establishment and then it's up to that retail establishment to tell the system how many people it can allow. So it counts them going in and it counts them going out so that if you can only have a hundred people in your store at one time, it will literally put the red light up, and tell people to wait and that it's not safe to enter yet. And then when somebody does exit, it'll give them a green light, and depending on how large that display is, it gives them a chance to tell people, a mask is required. You can't come in without a mask. It gives them a chance to tell them some of the things they're doing to keep their area clean.

And so it was very well received. I think it's been more well-received in Europe. I think in the US it's been almost on a state by state basis, as to how locked down those States still are. Certainly in California, it's been a very effective product. You know, in some other parts of the country, it's been really effective.

And then frankly, and honestly we've seen some areas of the country that just say, well, we're not going to worry about monitoring people coming. To be honest, it's been kind of hit and miss depending on where you are in the country. 

Yeah, I think I have heard it more broadly that in Europe, the idea of retail access controls as more demand and more take-up because there are pretty stiff fines associated with having too many people in the store. And I guess city bylaw enforcement officers in different jurisdictions who are pretty happy to write tickets on that. Cause they're incentive based on what they do, whereas as you say, it's state by state in the US. 

I live in a part of Canada where we've seen very few cases, but I've seen none of this stuff and it's still, teenagers acting as bouncers, you know, to get into a home Depot or something like that. So I think it kind of depends on where you are. 

Joe: Exactly. Where I live locally and I live in Tennessee, when it first started, there were people standing in front of the grocery store chain.

I go to counting people as they went in and counting people as they went out and they're all using walkie talkies, and now there's none of that going on, you know? And so I think they've just made a corporate decision that we don't need to spend that money, to try to monitor who's coming in and out whether they have a mask on or not.

And where again, I think there are some areas of the country where they're really still trying to do that and that's where we've seen success with that product. 

Have you had to work with some of these resellers and buyers who say, “guys, this isn't a product just for the moment. You can sweat this asset post-COVID”, presumably there is a post-COVID, have you had to do that? 

Joe: It's been one of the selling points we've had to make to everybody that's purchased it. I think that's been the capital outlay. We had one large retailer that bought it for right at a hundred locations and one of their biggest questions was what do I do with it when I no longer have to count people? And so I think that was where we came back and said to them, well, here's what you can do with it. We put them in touch with another software partner. Thankfully, this particular client is a digital signage user anyway, but I think that we've had that question from almost everybody: what do I do after, and is this investment that I'm making now going to be something I can recoup even down the line? And so, yeah, we've linked them up with software companies to try to maximize that.

I think there's a little bit of gateway drug stuff going on there where this is something that can get a retailer or another kind of a business that takes a lot of public foot traffic in, and get them understanding what you can do with digital signage and kind of migrate out from there.

You could imagine once you start using cameras and sensors and things like that, you can start to understand how the store works and where people go and how that changes by time of day, all that stuff. 

Joe: Right. Exactly. 

So there's a lot of talk in the cheap seats where I spent a lot of my time, that LCD is a product that's going to go away and we're all going to shift to direct-view LED and to micro-LED. Is that something that Phillips largely sees is happening or is there always a role for LCD because I kind of think there is when I really think about it. 

Joe: I think we've been talking about the demise of LCD for years, right? And I just don't see it. I think there are two totally different products, and I think that there's always going to be an application for LCDs. 

Do I think that eventually some of the video wall applications that we do today with LCD will end up being direct-view LED? I think, yeah, that's a possibility, but I still think even as fast as the cost is coming down, I still think there's going to be an opportunity. There are just things that we can do with LCD that you struggle to do with direct-view LED and a lot of that is just based on the economics and how much money people have to spend. 

You know, Dave, I don't see a school system putting in direct-view LEDs, at least before I end up retiring. I think that's a number of years away before that becomes a cost-effective solution for them and that's where some of the large screen stuff that we have and our competitors have, you know, really works in some of those verticals. You know, will you see it in transportation more quickly? Probably. When you're looking at what belt is my luggage on, does that turn into direct-view? Yeah, I think that probably is some of the first things that will happen to replace a traditional video wall. But yeah, I don't see it being that quick. 

Yeah. I mean, the minute you get into utilizing what's possible with a 4K display, uou just can't do that even on a micro-LED display, you know, to have fine characters and fine detail and all that. It's just not the same thing.

Joe: Well, and you also just look at the content. I think a lot of it is content dependable, you know?

So if you look at moving video, I think it lends itself to either format. But if you're looking at static content, think about a menu board in a quick-serve restaurant, I don't think that that is really going to be a direct-view LED Canada for the foreseeable future, just because I think it works just fine on LCD and it's much more affordable. 

So the last question: in this weird world that we live in, I wonder how this has had an impact on things like roadmaps and product releases and all that. What should we be expecting to see from Phillips over the next 12 to 18 months? 

Joe: Yeah. I guess we're fortunate because Dave, we are part of a large global company that is kind of diversified if you will. Our desktop monitor business has been off the charts as you can imagine. And I think in a lot of ways that's enabled it to support some of the development and some of the things we're doing in digital signage where some of the other companies may have had to look at scaling back a little bit.

So we're proceeding. We're going to produce in the fourth quarter of this year. Sometimes people look at us and say, what the heck are you doing? But we're going to introduce collaborative displays for corporate offices. We're going to introduce touch displays for education that are upgraded with some great systems behind them. We're going to introduce professional signage TV. We see that as an expanding market for us and others. It's basically a very cost-effective digital signage product that also has a TV tuner in it. So it's really made for use in a corporate environment. You know, we talked about conference rooms earlier. This is a really perfect product for that conference room, because it is a TV which also has Chromecast built into it. It gives you that seamless connectivity. And then it also gives you that CMND software, and the ability to control. If you've got multiple screens in a facility, it gives you a chance to control that as well, but it really is a cost-effective product. And we liked the fact, I think the big differentiator there is Chromecast and the ability to connect things, similarly, our education product will give you the ability to connect up 64 devices to it. So if you're a teacher and you have students with Chromebooks, Think about the ability to have, one of your students throw something up on the display instead of the teacher always having to control that and being the one doing that. So we like the flexibility that it gives us. 

That would terrify me if I taught a bunch of 17-year-old boys. (Laughter)

Joe: Yeah, it probably would, but, to get back to the premise of your question to your question. I was on a call this morning and we were talking about 2022 and we're in full planning mode. We were firm believers going in and my Marketing Manager would back me up on this, that we haven't really slowed down because we feel like if you start cutting and slashing, it's going to be a little more difficult to respond and maintain. Thank goodness, we haven't had to furlough anybody.

We haven't laid anybody off. We've maintained everybody, even in a market that we all know is down. And I think part of that will give us success, whether it's Q1 or Q2, whenever we see ourselves coming out of this. I think that puts us in a position and our company's a firm believer in this, that it puts us in a position where we can have more success coming out of this.

All right. That was terrific. I enjoyed our chat. 

Joe: Yeah, David's good to talk to you again. 

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

Rod Roberson, Wallboard

October 14, 2020

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

In the before times, when we did nutty things like fly on planes and walk around in crowds, I went to ISE in Amsterdam, and made a point of stopping by the small stand of a company called Wallboard.

An industry friend had suggested I check them out, so I popped by and had what turned into a lengthy demo. I walked away impressed and amused, thinking, "These guys are mad scientists."

Wallboard is a digital signage content management system like countless other systems on the market. What distinguishes them is a focus on IOT devices and data integration. The demo I had, thinking way back, involved a weigh scale and booze, as part of an access control system for factories.

Booze on your breath, you get pulled off to the side. If you weigh more than you did leaving than when you entered, the system and a screen flags that ... and then security people look in your pockets for stuff they think you might be taking home without permission.

It all speaks to where this whole idea of dynamic digital signage is going.

I spoke with Rod Roberson, the co-CEO of the company, which has a sales and marketing office in Dallas. Most of Wallboard's 40 or so people - the developers and mad scientists - work in an office outside of Budapest, Hungary.

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TRANSCRIPT

Rod, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a background on Wallboard? 

I know you guys, I've seen you at at least one trade show, but I wonder how many people in the general ecosystem know much about you. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. Sure, thanks for having me, Dave. So Wallboard is a Digital Signage CMS software platform. I would say that the platform does most things you would expect from a traditional CMS, managed screens, managed content, but what we really focus on is building a platform that allows our users to really build some advanced content through the use of our content editing tools, our integrations with live data and IOT sensors, and our ability to easily integrate with third party systems so that we can interact with some of the business process workflows that are inherent within those systems.

Company is in Dallas, but there's a big component of it in Hungary, right? 

Rod Roberson: That's correct. So the company was actually started in 2012 by my partner, Robert Simon. He's based near Budapest, Hungary. He started the company back then, spent about three or four years building up the platform, building the development team, and took it to market, in Europe, basically in 2016.

And then we met in 2017. I, at the time, was running the AV division of a family owned company and we were looking to build out a digital signage as a service product offering. And we were really struggling to find the right software partner for that. So met Robert, a lot of the boxes checked and we actually just started as a reseller. Then one thing led to another, he was looking for an investment partner and he hooked up with a few venture capital firms in Europe but I was able to convince them that we would be a better investment partner for him because we were strategic, we were talking to end users on a day to day basis.

And so we formalized that partnership, in 2018 and then that led to him saying, “Hey, I really need a day to day business partner to help me with sales and marketing”, so I joined him full time in 2019, and so sales and marketing really run out of the Dallas office. And then, he's running the tech team outside of Budapest. 

So how much of the company is in Budapest versus Dallas? 

Rod Roberson: I would say we've got probably close to 40 full-time employees. We've got 7 here in the States, so the majority of our company is really full-time developers. We've got 25-27, somewhere in that range of full time developers, that sit there in Hungary. 

What is that, about an eight hours difference? 

Rod Roberson: It's seven hours. 

Okay. So you've got to juggle your days quite a bit. 

Rod Roberson: I do, and it's been an interesting experience in terms of what my days look like now. I'm typically up pretty early and at least part of the internal work day is almost over at about 10 o'clock. But, yeah, it's a different work-life balance than I was used to before. 

Now, what was it that attracted you to this platform versus the 5,000 other ones that are out there?

Rod Roberson: One of the things we were looking for was just the flexibility to own our own backend, and one of the interesting things about Wallboard is that it's a distributed server infrastructure. We've got 40-45 global partners out there. And I would say the majority of them run their own servers so they really control that back end, which was an important piece to us. 

In addition to that, I just really love the flexibility of the system and the ability to do some more advanced things. I do think that, you're right, it's a crowded space when it comes to just traditional digital media playback applications but I think when you start to talk about more advanced things like data integrations, IOT sensor integrations, and the ability to start to create more dynamic content, content that reacts to the environment or reacts to something else that's happening versus just “here's a playlist I'm playing”, that's when I think, the space gets a little less crowded, and you know that originally, what excited me about the Wallboard. 

So when you say a distributed server setup, does that mean if there’s a reseller up here in Canada, you’ll  basically enable them to white label your platform?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. They can white label it and we have got a mix, we've got partners or resellers that completely white label the system, and that's very important to them, so they can do that. We also have ones that say, “Hey, I want to leverage your marketing. I want to leverage the Wallboard knowledge base.” And so they still want to be Wallboard, but they still want control of that server environment. We allow them to do that. And then that allows them to do a lot of administrative things on their end, in terms of customizing the settings, they can customize the security aspects of the system and they can create some custom programming that is very unique to their specific server. 

So if you're doing it that way, are you then selling a site license to these partners, or can you still get Wallboard as a service directly from you or your partners and pay a monthly license per node?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, so to the end-user, it looks about the same. And then most of our partners are selling the same way, which is an end-user license per node like you said. 

From a reseller's perspective, we have partners that say, we don't want to do that, we don't want to manage our own infrastructure. So we have servers in the US and in Europe, where partners, certainly new partners, can come on, test our system, but a few licenses on the system. but I would say our more serious partners end up gravitating toward their server environment.

Would these be your customer base? Would they be a little bit different from the standard customer base of a lot of CMS platforms that go after a small to medium business or they chase a particular vertical but it's a general offer? You're talking a lot about IoT and it sounds like increasingly specific and “complicated applications”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that it's an interesting question. I think that we've got a little bit of a mix of both, we've got the resellers that are very much more traditional AV integrators, they're interested in selling to those small and medium enterprises, they're selling meeting rooms and conference room technology and all that other AV stuff. And they're just bolting on digital signage as an additional offering, but as we get more advanced, we've got different kinds of partners that are into retail technology, and so they are very interested in IoT sensors. Some of our partners are just selling into the corporate environment, not so much. 

The same thing goes for data integration. The partners that we have that are really into the contact center space, they are very focused on that particular part of our platform, so it really runs the gamut in terms of, what is the partner, what's their customer base look like? And that kind of drives, what they're interested in from a platform perspective. 

So let's say five years ago, you pretty much had to go to a somewhat specialized CMS platform that had data modules built-in and had already written connectors. It was its own thing, but data has got fairly accessible now, and being able to take different data feeds from different systems isn't that technically hard in certain respects, but I assume it gets a lot harder when you get into specialized IoT sensors that maybe don't have a whole platform and API behind them.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. So you know, what we've done is, we partnered with a company called Five Stack, and they've got a microcontroller that's a nice little piece of equipment that you can connect to a bunch of different types of sensors into that little microcontroller computer. So digital analog, sensors with various different other communication protocols. So we've written firmware on that microcontroller that can talk to our CMS. 

So at that point, I can take basically any sensor integrated into that microcontroller. And that is that it acts as almost the glue between the sensor itself and our CMS that's triggering content.

If I think back all the way to the before times when you go out and meet people and all that, I went to ISE and got a demo from Robert and walked away from that after 20-25 minutes, kinda amused thinking, “these guys are mad scientists” because they were showing me all these crazy sensor integrations.

Could you describe some of the business applications that you're doing? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think it's early, we're still looking into various different use cases, but I think that one of the demos that you probably saw there in Amsterdam, we've got a partner that doesn't really have a digital signage background at all, he's a security consultant. And he recognized a need in these large factories, in his case, Eastern Europe, but there are large factories where these workers that go in and out of these things and there's a lot of different things that need to occur for them to get through the entry Gates.

So they've got questions that need to be answered, they need to specifically ID themselves, they want to make sure that they're not stealing products and services. And so there needs to be something there in terms of a live security person to check what they want to check, alcohol content, and I don't think it was not in the demo back then, but certainly now we've added a temperature check. Previously there was a need for like seven or eight of these security guards, because you've got 25,000 workers coming in at three different shifts, and we were able to essentially build a complete business process with our software, utilizing all these sensors. You essentially walk up to a kiosk. You step on a scale, you insert your RFID badge into it, you answer a few questions, your blow on the alcohol breathalyzer, you get your temperature taken, and if you're good to go, you're off into the space.

If you're not, there is an alert that gets triggered and now we've got two security guards versus seven. So there's a serious ROI in terms of reducing the labor force needed to get through this process. And then on the back end of that, they weigh you again, such that if you're 10 pounds heavier, they know that something's up.

So I think that's an interesting application. We've got a couple of others, and we're doing some proof of concepts here on the East coast. We've got a major retailer where they've got a 6X1 display. and then, and they are displaying all sorts of various different types of content. The original idea was to have buttons underneath the displays and a physical display so that the visitors could go and say, “I want to look at the Michelin tires”, or “I want to look at the AT&T services that you're offering”, and they would have to touch these buttons. Well, COVID hits, and all of a sudden they're saying, “what can we do to make this more contactless?” So instead of having a physical button there, we placed an IR sensor and we basically tuned that IR sensor, so that it only gets triggered if your finger gets within, two-three centimeters from the sensor itself. So we're able to mimic that button experience with an IR sensor to actually trigger the content. 

So you know, things like that, I think the retail space is really interesting for this IoT sensor application. I think there were some other ones with meeting room signs in the corporate environment that we were tinkering with. So again it’s early, but we're really excited about the things we can do and it's opening up a lot of conversations, you know what I mean? 

There are conversations where people say, can you do this, or this is my business need, what can you do? And that's where the mad scientist comes in and Robert goes back into his work area and comes out with some crazy ideas.

I assume that some of what you described, like the access control and weighing and testing for whether they have alcohol in their breath. Those are systems that if you went to a big multinational company, can't name one, but I can think of a few, they would say, “Sure, we can do that for you”, and it would probably cost $75,000 a unit or more. As you were describing with that company, you can buy sensors for, like they don't cost much at all, do they? 

Rod Roberson: No. It's certainly like buttons, sensors, those things, you're talking dollars, so again, there's some costs in terms of some of that customization, but we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of customer customization we have to do because it's all built on our core platform and we're reducing a lot of the custom coding that has to happen because we built these interfaces so that we can, graphically say, “when this happens, trigger this content or when this happens, trigger that.”

So that's a lot of if/then type stuff isn't in our interface as opposed to actually having to hard code that in a program. 

Yeah, I'm a huge believer in data-driven signage as opposed to scheduling a predetermined long and advanced signage that’s just rolling through stuff. But I assume that it's still a challenge to get, not only partners but particular end-users over the line in terms of understanding that this is possible and it's not crazily complicated and that they could manage it and maintain it on a fairly easy basis? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think you're right. That is a challenge and that's part of our sales process to show these things and show specific use cases. One of the things that we've done post-COVID was, we built this desktop broadcast app so you can, essentially, have some digital signage on your desktop itself, and everyone starts to really get excited about KPI's and all this other stuff. Now we have to get to the data because there's some way for us to get to whatever it is they want to display, but showing how easy it is to manage that data either, I mean, we could do it in a simple Google sheet, it doesn't have to be some massive complex database or Salesforce connector. We can do that too but even starting with baby steps starts to get people to understand what is possible and then that really gets the ball rolling in terms of, “Hey, this would be really cool and would be valuable to communicating this specific type of information, especially to a remote workforce”.

So with the pandemic, one of the things that have come along is using technologies and processes like queue management and trying to enable access control to limit the number of people coming into a facility or an establishment, a bar, whatever it may be. And it seems like all of this kind of really elevates the idea of using sensor-driven, IoT-driven signage. Are you guys seeing an opportunity there? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, absolutely, especially in Europe, there is a very big demand for people counting type solutions where they've got limited capacities and pretty strict rules with respect to how many people can be in a specific physical space, in retail and in restaurants and bars. So, definitely seeing that. 

We've got a couple of different conversations going with that respect, we've got some retail analytics companies that are already in some of these retail spaces with their retail analytics, and they've got the ability to do that “people counting” and so from that perspective, it's just data integration. So they send us the data and we can post how many people are in and count the people coming in and out. We're working on some other different types of technology, not camera related, but utilizing IR sensors to do that person counting function because it's a significantly cheaper option. So yeah, we're working on various different things, definitely seeing a demand for that. 

The other thing we're seeing is a demand for some ability to track and trace, especially in the UK right now, there's some sort of mandate to do that. I think there's a lot of these pubs and restaurants that are doing this by hand where you're walking into a pub or a restaurant and the bouncer’s writing down who the people are coming in. We've developed a really quick and easy solution where they could hit a QR code that takes them into our system on their phone. They submit their information. That then submits it back to the restaurant we were at, and we're not housing any of that data. That's data for the restaurant, but it allows them to conform to the government regulations in an easy way and it's not paper-driven, which seems like a 20 year old technology to me. 

Yeah, I would think, there's going to be some privacy pushback with that, but that's not really our problem, that's up to the government and the venue operators to sort out. You're just enabling it, right? 

Rod Roberson: Correct. 

So one of the interesting things that I saw about your company was an integration you did with HP. Can you describe what that's all about? 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, our investment partner, ImageNet, that their core business is selling printers and copiers, and they've got a super-strong relationship with HP. So HP has developed this platform called HP Workpath, and it's essentially a platform that sits in their interface and it allows app developers to develop apps, primarily for printing, scanning, and copying, but we went to their developer conference last year in Barcelona and because that user interface is running on an Android tablet and we've got such deep integration with Android already, we were able to relatively easily port over our code, so that we can run on that HP Workpath and in that base and path environment. 

That tablet right now is a fairly weak piece of hardware, we've actually had to dumb down our platform a little bit, so there are no performance issues because there are all these things that these resellers are thinking to do with terms of data integration and the ability to send messages back to the service company that the printer has an issue with. 

A lot of that stuff is coming, but at this point, it's really more of a screensaver, so when the printer is not in use, it's scrolling through corporate communications type messaging and that sort of thing, and then it just almost acts like a kiosk. So when you touch the screen, our application goes into the background. They're using the printer for whatever they're going to use it for, and then after the 32nd or 62nd timeframe, it goes back to that screensaver mode. 

What are the kinds of things that you'd want to put there? I'm sure it goes beyond “Happy birthday, Becky” and “It's taco Tuesday”.

Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think that some of it is kinda like a reminder to do some of the things that they want to be done, for example, “clean the screen” is a reminder type of a message that we're having, more generic COVID-type messages in terms of just office space, protocol, but then also more like how-tos, right? Certainly, I'm probably going to know how to scan a document that, but maybe there's something more unique in terms of what I want us to want to do, and if I'm able to put a lot of that information in almost like a kiosk type of environment on the screen itself.

Right now we can't do video, but ultimately we can push videos to that so that if I don't know how to do a particular thing or there's a trick, or if there’s an issue with the printer, I can quickly get to that from an informational perspective. 

So because it's an Android tablet device, in some cases, pretty small display, but on other ones, decent Samsung galaxy size displays, the challenge is that the processor doesn't have the horsepower or the version of Android is too old?

Rod Roberson: That's correct. I don't even know what version of Android they’re using, but I think they’re on version 4, and we're up to 11 now, and they've got a new generation that's supposed to be coming soon, I think it was supposed to be coming out this fall but I'm sure that got delayed, so we're thinking sometime in 2021, and it's still early for us on the sales side. With HP, I have weekly meetings with them and it's been surprising to me how excited they are about this because I think it's something unique for them, I think it's something that they can go tell, and if they're in a competitive deal with another manufacturer and with these copiers, it's hard to sometimes differentiate what one can do versus the other you need, if I can do this, it's an icing on the top type of a thing that I can go as a value add to win a deal.

You also see it for your company as a bit of a door opener in that meeting room signs lead to more kinds of digital signage around an office space. This might lead to, “could you also do meeting room science because you also do that directory or other stuff”. 

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And the benefit there is that it's all in one ecosystem, right?

So it's in one system where they can have their signage, their meeting room signs, communication on their printers, directories. It's not five or six different software vendors and systems that they're managing. You can all do that, in a single instance of Wallboard. 

With manufacturing and production facilities, do you see an opportunity with no end of different kinds of equipment that makes stuff for packaged stuff, or whatever that there's an opportunity to apply sensors to those things to show the state of equipment? 

I've been in auto manufacturing plants where there are big bulletin boards filled with printouts of spreadsheets that show the state of different systems and thought, “this is goofy, this is like 1985”, but that's the way they were. And you would think that being able to jack into a piece of equipment that spits out some basic readings on how it's doing, that being able to translate that kind of a sign or apply a sensor to, it would make a world of difference?

Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And then making the content more dynamic so it doesn't just go into a Power BI massive dashboard where you've got 8 million pieces of data on one screen, and it's just hard to read. You're pushing the most relevant content to the screen based on whatever it is. So if System ABC is down, that's what's coming onto the screen and it's not one tiny data point, to try to find amongst a million. 

Is it challenging in current environments, because you can't travel really very much at all, except locally, to get the word out about what you guys are all about?

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think certainly it's been somewhat challenging. Obviously, we were excited about exhibiting at DSE and all that sort of stuff. We made some real headway at ISE and DSE last year. So certainly from that perspective and just being able to get out and about, it is more challenging, but, with what we do in demoing software, that part, we can do virtually and, a certain part of our day in day out is more partner acquisition, and not always just in use, selling to the end-user. And that certainly has been staying fairly active over the last six months because, there's a cycle to that, people get to get in the system and learn it and test it and that's not always their first priority. And we've been able to make a lot of headway with respect to a lot of different types of partnerships. And not necessarily having to slow down so much, due to COVID, but no question, on the end-user side, and we still need screens to be deployed and turned on for licenses to be ordered and that certainly has been slower. 

Although, we see the activity picking up. We see a lot of people saying, “we want to start these projects early 2021”. So you know, that's good in terms of that activity. It's always going to be, what happens here with COVID is, obviously I can't predict that, but I'm hopeful that, we're in a stronger position or the world is, going into 2021, which will make all these conversations that we're having now come to fruition.

Are there partners who are better suited to what you do? I mean local and regional digital signage solutions providers who've been around digital signage forever, but I'm thinking because of your technical strength in the IoT side of things, that there are maybe integration partners who don't wake up in the morning, thinking purely about digital signage, they’re thinking about other elements, all the way to access control systems and things like that. 

Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right and that's been a struggle for us, finding who is our ideal partner. We can talk to a lot of more traditional AV integration firms, and if digital signage is the fourth or fifth thing that they sell and they're really more focused on, all those other things, Crestron/Extron blah, blah, blah, that's going to be tougher.

I mean, they always love the software, but it's hard for them to focus on, even building a digital signage recurring revenue business, that's just not what they do. They're more transactional in nature and so they're not waking up thinking about that, but there are other partners that are more boutique digital signage, this is what they do. And those are the partners that really understand our systems, understand the value of the time savings related to being able to do some things without having to custom code, and another system and bandaid all that stuff together. Those are the partners, I think they're naturally faster at getting it and starting to scale in terms of ordering licenses. 

Do you see much of an opportunity for just playing plain vanilla digital signage wherein you create some content, find a playlist, you schedule it, send it out and you're done? It strikes me as that's the sort of thing that's so easy these days to do that. I don't know that it's still going to have much relevance. 

Rod Roberson: I agree. I mean that's just going to be a price war at that point. I can argue that our system is elegant and it's an easy way to do that, and we still have customers, that's all they want to do. But it's very difficult to differentiate yourself in that sort of world. 

You mentioned Android, is that the primary platform you're working on for the hardware that you're using? 

Rod Roberson: No. I think that's really driven by our partners. I think we've got a really strong relationship with BrightSign. We're seeing a lot of new partners that are BrightSign-only partners and like our software and like to be able to do that in the BrightSign ecosystem. We've got some use cases that need Windows, but there are also the partners that say, “Hey, I want a cheaper box and, and I'm comfortable with Android and I'm selling to small businesses that don't have the security agitation that sometimes comes with Android.” So it fits for their business model. 

Now BrightSign is a special purpose box, PCs, or they seem to be turning into specialty applications in signage, just because of their costs and everything and the market seems to be moving into dedicated boxes and to systems on chips, where do you see things going?

Rod Roberson: That's a good question. When we built out our system on chip integrations with Samsung and LG, I thought that that's just where the market would go and take off, and we're seeing some of that, but we're still seeing a lot of people still stick to these dedicated boxes. 

I'm not as focused on the hardware. What we want to do is allow our partners and our end users to say, it doesn't matter, choose your hardware, whatever fits your budget and your use case, but run our software on it, and so we're focused on being able to perform on all those various different operating systems and hardware components. 

Rod, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Rod Roberson: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

Todd Hoffman, Krispy Kreme

September 30, 2020

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

The iconic doughnut chain Krispy Kreme has something of a cult status, with people flocking to their stores to get a fresh, warm, melt-in-your-mouth yeast doughnut.

There are Krispy Kreme stands and small shops, but a real Krispy Kreme store - the kind that gets people lining up - has the whole production line in view of customers, and shows the glazed doughnuts coming out of the fryer. It is experiential in its own way.

But the chain, based in North Carolina, wanted to really amplify the brand and experience for its new flagship store in New York, in Times Square. It opened recently, and it may be the most ambitious, experience-driven QSR operation on the planet.

There are giant LED visuals outside, 'cuz its Time Square. But inside, there are stacked video walls for branding and promotion, digital menu displays, interactive tables, and a scheduled projection-mapping show called Doughnut Theater.

I spoke with Todd Hoffman, the digital lead on the 4,500 square foot flagship store.

TRANSCRIPT

Todd. Thanks for joining me. Your company, Krispy Kreme recently launched something in New York City in Times Square. Can you tell me what that experience is all about and why it happened? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. It's an opportunity for an iconic brand to make a big statement out there, Times Square is kind of a crossroads of the world, with a great place to plant a flag, I guess we're in 32 countries with about 1400 shops and and it was time to put a big stick in the ground and say something major for the brand.

We do plan a big rollout starting in 2021, and also we're coming to New York in a big way. So times square just made sense. 

New York is the home of the, not the home, but there's a lot of Dunkin donuts there and a few Tim Hortons. Krispy Kreme wasn't really present in the market? 

Todd Hoffman: We had a shop in Penn station and years ago we had more shops, but we decided strategically that this was where we wanted to expand. And, this year we rolled out four shops, even before Time Square. We've got a couple more coming at the end of the year and then entering into Dwayne Reed, the world to expand our reach even further.

This one in Times Square, it's the whole nine yards where you're doing all the production right there and people can walk in and see what's going on in the whole theater piece of it? 

Todd Hoffman: Absolutely. It’s 4,500 square feet. So it's a big shop for us. We make donuts 24/7. So that's why you have a hot light that's always on top of the roof. 

And these are not regular donuts. These are the “melt in your mouth” ones? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we call them OGs (Original Glazed) but they're yeast doughnuts that take an hour to make from beginning to end, and we have a machine that can do 270 dozens an hour.

So this location is filled with technology, inside and out. You see this big LED screen as you're approaching it. Of course, it's one of the gazillion LED screens in Times Square, but it walked through everything that was done and the thinking behind it? 

Todd Hoffman: Sure. Sight lines were huge. We're at 48th & Broadway, and the goal is to be seen from 40th street all the way up to 55th. That's where we have the world's largest hotline on the roof, 15 feet, about 8,000 pounds that will be lit and truly you can see it from an even longer distance. We're using lights that are typically used on airport runways so that's one of the big pieces. We have a wraparound billboard, that's 110x35 feet. And then under that we have a ribbon of LED screens where basically you can see donuts just like they're on their conveyor, scrolling, and we could also put any kind of other messaging.

Trying to hit it hard from a distance. Everything we did, we wanted to stand out of the crowd, everybody wants to stand up the crowd, But, I think, I think we did, especially with something as simple as our big red hotline, just rotating slowly. With the pandemic that became somewhat of a beacon of hope and optimism. I mean, who doesn't like donuts? 

And even the opening of shops throughout the year, while other people might've been closing shops, and contracting, we've gone full speed ahead. 

And I believe this store was originally going to open earlier in the year, but then, New York kind of went into lockdown and that delayed it a little bit?

Todd Hoffman: It did, but, mid-July, you know, we're right in Times Square with 10% of its normal traffic, the decision was made that it was important for us internally, and we felt in New York externally to stay on track and so we opened in September. And, by the time we opened, let's say Times Square was back 30 to 40% of its average traffic, but we still hit our records anyway. Word got out. 

So when you say records, do you mean that in terms of record sales, foot traffic? 

Todd Hoffman: Both. For the opening day, we hit records and then for the opening week, also records. We opened on Tuesday always and then by Saturday, the word had gotten out to the suburbs into New Jersey and we had a big day on Tuesday, but even bigger days on Saturday and then Sunday.

And you kinda need sales records there because the cost of rent in a Times Square area is a couple of bucks? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. 

Not like being out in the suburbs. 

Todd Hoffman: No, and you know, profit is always an incentive, but making a big statement in Times Square that becomes our marker, that we've returned to New York.

We are in Harlem, where in the Bronx. We're down in the Financial district and we're going to open up shops in Brooklyn and the upper West side. 

If you're in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, you’ll have to be artisanal. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Well, we stick to our roots. We did introduce our first, let's say $10 donut, but a big Apple donut, which is our nod to New York, comes in a beautiful box with candy Apple coating. And, it's a donut that we were taking a big risk on, but we've sold hundreds and hundreds on days. You know big risk, beautiful products but it seems to have resonated with locals. We thought tourists would buy it, but there are no tourists.

So locals seem to gravitate. 

Yeah, they take it with them. And while, I guess they're not traveling either and nobody is? 

At some point that'll all change I'm sure. So outside, the big LED displays it's as much a branding statement as it is something that's going to generate foot traffic.

Obviously people are being attracted and when they walk inside, what do they see? 

Todd Hoffman: That's where all of our, I want to say razzle dazzle is, but that's where we've really turned up the heat with digital experiences and in the pandemic where you're not so able to have a full house, or give out samples, or really have the energy that a room full of people have, digital served an even greater purpose.

When you walk in, we've got two video columns facing opposite directions. So you start to see one that's a 53-55 inch screen stacked on each other. So you can see from the door, the pathway leads right to our donut theater, where we make the donuts march down the line. So the pathway was right to the donuts and that's where we took the concept of donut theater and Bravo media, the team, to them, it was obvious that we were on Broadway, we should put out a Broadway show. Initially we were just gonna do some corporate information on the back wall and simple projection, but David really challenged us and we've got four projectors plus a camera that helps us track individual donuts as they march down the line, and that's all, spectacular visuals for people to get their appetite. But, every 12 minutes, we have a show that's about 35 seconds long from the five shows that Bravo created.

And this is on the white tile, subway tile wall beyond the Conveyor that the donuts are moving along, right? And the workers are on the other side of that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, we didn't want it to take people's mind away from the donuts, which is why we only show it every 12 minutes and have these very short, spectacular shows, no words. It's really just spectacular entertainment and it has brought lots of energy to the room, to the point where there's a button in the back where you can advance these shows and when we feel a low energy in the room, boom, they kinda fire up one of the “Takeover” and it's projection on the back wall. They mapped to each individual tile, things that I didn't think somebody could do and then based on mapping to the tiles, all the different shows, you feel like, the tiles are coming off, the wall or sprinkles are coming down out of this ceiling, and then, there's another projector that projects onto our Donut glazed waterfall. And normally in our shops, it's about three inches tall here, it's three feet and, just to bring the focus on the original glaze, and then there's one that happens serendipitously where we've got sprinkles on the back wall and it looks beautiful and then one day the team members just started to poke at the sprinkles as they were exploding on the back wall and it looks like they're playing a video game with their hands, and when that takeover comes on, the donut maker stop what they're doing, they turn around and they start popping up a wall.

That has become a really spectacular show that says a lot about, I think the brand, cause we were loose enough to let it go, crazy enough to put all this stuff into our donut theater and then, let our team members, start to really interact with it. 

Is that part of the team member job description that you're required to do this when this particular show comes on or did that just organically happen? 

Todd Hoffman: It organically happened, but now we do require you do it. If you fear the first tone, then, somebody might come off the floor and one of the donut makers in uniform, and they love it and it's as if they're competing, how many sprinkles you're gonna explode in the course of 35 seconds? 

It’s a break in what they're normally doing. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. So that's our lead in, and when we first designed the shop, and being Times Square and being Krispy Kreme, we expected hour long lines, but the pandemic has changed that where we're only at our 25% capacity.

So we have this donut theater that people can see what their appetite, and then at the end of it, they're facing that digital column that kinda shows images of donuts, dozens of donuts, coffee, lattes, trying to help them think about what they're about to order before they hit any one of our five display cases and that's what they're there for. That's where the fun starts, figuring out how to fill the box with your favorite donuts. 

You run all the digital for Krispy Kreme, right? 

Todd Hoffman: I'm the digital lead. My day job is menu boards. That's what I signed up for. And then, what made it the best job in America was being able to do Times Square in the past nine months. Yep. 

When the ideation process was happening for this Times Square store and started floating concepts like the donut theater, I assume you had to sell that up to your managers and the executive team.

Did they go, “Hell yeah!” or did they look at your cross eyed, “You want to do what?” 

Todd Hoffman: I thought when we decided not to put messaging on the back wall, executive leadership would see it as a missed opportunity. But our COO, who really is the one who let Bravo do their stuff, which was a pretty amazing match. When he showed it to the executive team, our Head of operations, our president, they just loved it. 

Krispy Kreme as a whole, it's a very low key brand. We let our product say everything that it needs to say. We don't have an ad budget, we change up the donuts a lot, but it's really word of mouth. So we don't brag and this was a way for us to be on brand, and just entertain and make it a happy place. Where I thought it was crazy, cause I'm new to the brand, I grew up in the Northeast and really was only introduced to it when I started with Krispy Kreme. 

They were true to form, and it went over, I'd say very well across the executive team and they let go and we got to execute it.

Are digital menu boards standard to a Krispy Kreme store? 

Todd Hoffman: They are being introduced in every new store and we're testing in remodels. So eventually all the remodels will have them. The delicate balance is, we don't want people to see technology. The name of the game is, they see what they need to see, they get the information they want. We've met their appetite with some animation, but we really don't want them to feel like they're looking at TV screens, so we've stepped delicately. 

I'd say we have 15 shops that now have digital menu boards and next year we'll do a big expansion, but Times Square was a deviation. It was a project and an aspiration, all its own. 

You talked about rollout. Is this a concept that's going to go elsewhere, like the Times Square donut theatre thing? 

Todd Hoffman: It may, but there may be one other location in the US where we go all in the way we did in New York. You might guess where that is. There are other places where we have a strong presence, England, Australia, Mexico, that may merit this kind of flagship shop. 

Yeah, you could do Lester square if you ever went to Dubai, Tokyo, places like that. I would imagine, you're not saying it, but referencing Las Vegas would be the one that would make the most sense.

Todd Hoffman: Further South, maybe it's Disney territory or such. We’ll see. (Laughter)

The only one I've seen in Las Vegas was in, the one which looks like a castle and all that. 

Todd Hoffman: I think we have a presence out there, but now it's where tourists from around the world congregate, and I was there to have fun family oriented. 

So with your standard, digital menu boards, have you had any sense of what they do? Do they make a difference operationally or in terms of sales or is it just a more efficient way of doing things? 

Todd Hoffman: I'd say the pandemic screwed this up because we can't really comp stores.

We've been opening new shops so that we can comp from the year before. And then the few remodels we did, we only had a couple of months to look at, but we are definitely thinking that it's driving drinks, grabbing beverage attachment, and the goal is maybe a higher average check or more dozens.

But we believe in the concept that it is having impact, and the drive through as well. So definitely, our belief that it's worth the investment is growing, but maybe we need more months and we need more comping to confirm that.

You sent me a list of all the various components involved and there's a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved. How did all this get pulled together? Cause I'm looking at it like a dozen vendors or something like that? 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. You know, it started with our design team working with an architect, who are the best of the best. They set the stage and put a lot of this activity in there, not knowing how to do it. I don't think they have much experience doing it, but they could envision what could be done with the digital columns or projecting and the donut theater.

They helped us take our icons and then the icons within an iconic brand, the hotline, the donut box, the waterfall, the donut line and build on them to the point where the whole place seemed to be a theater. So they set the stage. Then we had a major creative shop come in, partnered with a technology lead, which was Electro Sonic and they took the first stab at how we fill it in, with kind of interactive tables and projection during the theater and where the menu boards might go and digital columns, but then we took it and we just dished it out to specialists in each area. 

We used Stata Cash for menu boards. I don't think any other company could have done what we did with these menu boards or any other platform. We've got three layers of imagery that's on there. We've got an animation scrolling animation in the middle board. There's three boards together. We've got your basic, DOS connected menu board items. And then every 30 seconds we have these takeovers that wash across the three screens and it took hours and days for us to, I think we pushed their platform, we pushed the media players that we were using. We pushed their creativity, but, in time we were able to kinda get what we wanted because visually it seems simple, but executionally, it was a really big challenge.

So, kudos to those guys for sticking in there and giving us the vision that we wanted with the menu boards. 

And Strata Cash at least would drive through with some of their clients, they're doing things like AI driven, suggestive selling and menu optimization. Are you guys looking at that or doing it? 

Todd Hoffman: We will be. They are our shop of record, so that's the platform we're going forward with. You know, a lot based on how they presented, we looked at nine different options for menu boards this year, Strata Cash came out on top, partly due to our aspirations with drive-thru. We think we can make more money through drive-thru or have a greater impact digitally through drive-thru.

Then we can go inside the shop. So their expertise in that area and ability to personalize. Everybody had some angle on personalized when they're pitching us, reading license plates, geo-fencing, what have you, but, I'd say Strata Cash their work from McDonald's and others, gives the comfort level that they were the ones to go with for the long haul.

So we've probably done a few shops with them, including Times Square. 

I suspect there's a few vendors who come in and say, “yeah, we can do all that”, but when you push them on it, that has to do with whether they've actually ever done it, it's a different story. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there are some great outfits out there. The surprise to me, I don't know if you stay on a screen on a radio call, it's one of the few times where I thought the best of class was going to be out of our budget. And then when we looked at it, they were right there. So they were affordable and impressive, and continue to impress, but this isn't an ad for Strata Cash.

Yeah, they've done well. The idea of this store, obviously I haven't been there in six or seven months. I wonder about the sensory overload element of it. You've got audio, you've got the theater, you've got the LED displays. You've got all this stuff going on. Is there a balance you have to achieve so that it doesn't become overpowering to people when they walk in there?

Or do you just see and know, “That’s okay, I'm going into an attraction.” 

Todd Hoffman: It sounds like you were listening in on our meetings because of some of our great concerns leading up to opening. We had to get the sound levelled for background music and then, with the donut theater, the light, there's a light show and sound had to rise, but it couldn't rise so far that people couldn't talk so there's a lot of nuances, a lot of, I'd say over the next month, we're going to be doing some fine tuning, but I'm happy to say when we opened, we were pretty close to, in our mind perfect on the balance, bu, getting team member input, getting guests input is critical.

So when we're fine tuned in 30 days, we'll be able to do our best to make it work, but I don't think there's a feeling that we're over the top, yeah. 

Well, you are in Times Square, where everything else is. (Laughter)

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, there's a lot of leeway and so the only place we shouted was outside, that's where it's fair game.

And if you do shout, you know, you don't get heard. So we've tried to whisper with things like the hotline, going back in time, it looks like it's been there since the 1950s, even though we just fired it up last Tuesday, 

What's been the response of people coming in? 

Todd Hoffman: I have been there for the last 10 days and I would stop people in Times Square when I saw them sitting at a table, enjoying the donuts and they say they've been waiting for Krispy Kreme to arrive. We got a thousand pieces of media before we even opened, billions of impressions, so there was a lot of buildup, and a lot of anticipation and everybody I talked to, which are several dozens, seemed to be happy with what they saw.

Well, if they've ever had a Krispy Kreme donut, of course they're happy.

Todd Hoffman: Yeah. And it all comes down to this silly little, original glazed donut that's still warm in your hands. Once you've had one, you can't forget it. 

So before we returned to New York, you could get them in Penn station, but they weren't as fresh as they are when we're making them in a shop. 

They'd been shipped in from somewhere else. It's just different when it comes off that line. 

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, and they're always made fresh daily, but when it's in the fryer and then through the glaze only seconds ago, it's quite a treat.  

Technology is being applied in some retail environments to manage access control and capacity control.

I'm guessing you didn't have to really do that because you were already in a situation where you needed to have bouncers or some mechanism to limit how many people are in the store at a given time? 

Todd Hoffman: There are adjustments we did make for the pandemic. We have virtual queuing so you can make reservations in advance, and again, we didn't know how chaotic the lines would be going up Broadway and down 40th street. And that has helped a lot with the flow.

Mobile order pickup, that's been huge. We have a window on the street, a take-out window or and that's where you pick up your mobile order, and more than double of what we do in an average shop in terms of percentages are done through mobile order. And I'd say that's how we were able to hit our records. We can only have a certain amount of traffic inside the shop. Then when we have this walk up window, we're selling OGs and coffee, but also, picking those delivering mobile loaders, so that was a great add to what we've done. And line queuing inside, there's a lot of subtle technologies that we have used to do line management and we'll continue to optimize. 

Is there dispatch and recognition on that? Like Order #1-5 or Customer #1-5, you can come in now. 

Is that just done by text messaging or are you doing anything on screens?

Todd Hoffman: Yeah, it is. There's push messaging that'll tell you where you are in line and then tell you're third in line and then tell you how long until you need to be at the front door. 

The virtual queuing is definitely a work in progress. The company we went with hadn't done anything quite so complex or customized. I'd say the team that worked on that, which wasn't me, has done a great job of making it work to our needs. That has helped people in line who have been waiting for minutes, if not hours, there doesn't seem to be this issue of somebody walking up right to the door who had a reservation.

And we opened on a Tuesday but our reservations were booked till Saturday. That gives a hint that we were in for a pretty busy week. 

Wow. So last question. Engagement and experience are terms that get tossed around a lot and kind of lose their value in certain respects. How do you define “experience” when it comes to this place?

Todd Hoffman: So much of what our marketing team does - they almost police us - to make sure we're on brand. So we had to be on brand, color wise and with messaging, and yet we wanted to really push the envelope and make a huge statement and have people feel like they were coming to a flagship shop, especially anticipating international travelers who are our lifelong fans when they know there's a Krispy Kreme in Times Square, just like there's an M&M store or what have you, they're going to want to go and our experience, not just buying donuts, like getting to the donut cake and being in the room has to feel like you've arrived somewhere. 

And, I think we have. Our general contractor had a great line in that he doesn't think there'll be another shop like this for a few years, that has put so much into it, that has tried so hard to please its fans, its customers as we have and we've got pretty three racks worth of technology. Technologically wise, he had not handled anything that was this complex, but also, in the front of house with customers, he just felt like there was so much to see and do while you're in the shop, and he's done a lot of stores in Times Square, but he said we had hit it out of the park. So anecdotally, with just from word of mouth or reactions, we think we've done it. 

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

 

ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

ACE Roundtable: Making Connected Experiences Work Now, And Post-COVID

September 23, 2020

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

Advocates for Connected Experiences is an umbrella organization created several months ago, that pulls together the people and shared interests of a variety of organizations that deliver experiences to guests.

That can be in places like retail, in museums, commercial properties or theme parks.

The short form for the group is ACE, and it was pulled together and somewhat driven by the Digital Signage Federation - notably past and present board members like Kim Sarubbi, Beth Warren and Laura Davis-Taylor.

One of the early efforts from ACE has been a monthly series of online discussions about important topics, that pull together top people from member organizations. The most recent one was about connected experiences now and post-COVID, as we all all hope there is soon a post-COVID.

I was the moderator for the discussion, and this is the audio track, which is roughly one hour.

The panelists included folks from Shop!, SEGD, Geopath, the DSF, the Location-Based Marketing Association, Blue Telescope, The Experiential Designers and Producers Association, Retail Touchpoints and AVIXA.

There's a lot of voices and you won't always know who is saying what, but the content is worth any confusion you might experience.

TRANSCRIPT - skipping this episode ... too many voices to sort out who said what. Anything particularly brilliant was not me.

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

Dr. Erica Walker, Emma Mayes - ColorNet

September 16, 2020

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

If you have been around digital signage for a while, you have almost certainly heard a discussion at some point about accurate color reproduction on screens, and the problems big brands can have with that.

The example used most often is Coca-Cola Red, which is a VERY specific red.

It can be a problem at the display level, but it also has to do with the source. A small research team of academics and students at Clemson University in South Carolina are well down the path of sorting it out.

In their case, the problem was Clemson orange - a very specific shade of orange seen on 10s of 1,000s of shirts, hats and giant foam fingers during Clemson football game broadcasts. The orange shown on TV sets and replay boards is not, in some cases, the right orange.

A research project called ColorNet is using AI and neural networks to make real-time color adjustments on the fly to the broadcast signal - using an algorithm light enough that it can run on an off-the-shelf PC.

I spoke with Dr. Erica Walker and graduating student Emma Mayes about the project, and how the technology might be applied as a low-cost box in the back of digital signage screens - so that networks run by brands can really show their true colors.

The chat is a bit technical, but even I got most of it.

One other note - I THINK at some point I reference Clemson as being an SEC team. Wrong. It's in the ACC. I'm in Canada. Ask me about curling.

This is how you'd reach Walker - eblack4@clemson.edu

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Emma, Erica, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what ColorNet is all about? I know it's a university project that you guys presented at Display Week, going back about a month or so. 

Erica: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having us today. ColorNet is an artificial intelligence solution for brand colors to be displayed correctly on screens.

So not a color solution that would display all colors correctly, that solution already exists. This is specific to a brand color, and in this case, Clemson University’s orange and purple. 

That’s because you guys are working or studying out of Clemson, correct? 

Erica: That’s correct. And actually the solution could work for any color. We just happened to use the colors that we see the most on our own campus and in our athletics. 

Which is orange? 

Erica: That's correct. 

So this is a project coming out of the graphics communication department, or is it multiple departments? 

Erica: It actually includes a lot of different departments. Each of us on the project is from a different department. In fact, I'm from graphic communications. The students are from engineering and computer science, a variety of engineering degrees. And then my co-creator, or co-inventor, works in a multidisciplinary department with a focus on data science.

 Okay, so what's the problem you're trying to solve here?

Erica: Yeah, thanks for asking that. It is something that is very commonly talked about at Clemson Athletic games and probably at other universities as well. But, the orange is incredibly recognizable, our brand orange for Clemson fans. And when you watch a broadcast of the football game or basketball game or baseball game, the orange is always skewed. It's always normally skewed towards red. Now, obviously the settings can be impacted by the settings on your screen itself, but what if we could address this at the feed level, at the camera level, at the production level? 

And that would ensure that if Clemson orange is a Pantone color that is going to be color accurate, at least coming out of the feed?

Erica: Exactly. That's really that's the tipper right there is that we don't have control over other people's screens. Like the screen inside your home, we aren't trying to make any adjustments to that. That would be the homeowner or the screen enter the bar that would have to make those adjustments, but we can make adjustments to the screens inside of our facilities. So the big screen inside of the football stadium, we could adjust that cause we have control over it, but the main thing is just having a clean feed, having a feed where Pantone 165 is a recognizable color and it displays correctly.

And why is that a problem either, you know, if I'm a Clemson fan, I know my orange, but, if I'm a Syracuse fan, maybe it's a different orange who's going to know other than the Clemson fans? 

Erica: Right. So, that's a fair question. On any given Saturday, there are over 70,000 people in the stadium watching the game, and so that's a big audience, but in general, we just use Clemson orange as kind of a testbed, for this example. So it could be done for soccer teams, you know, in Europe, the big leagues. It could be done for major league baseball, it could be done for NBA finals. It could be done for really anything where brand color is recognizable to a fan of any team of any sport.

And again, you can't really control the final output, like on my TV, if the calibration is off, it's gonna show it to be orangey-red instead, or wherever. Will this help that at all? 

Erica: In my head, if the feed is better than more than likely, it will show better on your TV. Now that's not true if you've amped up your colors or if maybe, I know there are settings that are specific to gamers that they like, and so if you've changed the color settings on your TV, then that could be a problem, but one of the conversations we've been having with these screen manufacturers is what if we could address this at the screen level as well? But obviously, the goal of artificial intelligence is not to weasel our way into people's homes and make adjustments on their TV.

So that's not the goal, but we do think that we could address it in, think of like large format displays. So if you go to the Coca Cola headquarters, they want their Coca-Cola red to display correctly on the screens that are scattered throughout their entire building or their manufacturing facility, or anywhere where they have the control over their screens.

So kind of thinking of it from the brand level, as much as from the consumer level. 

Yeah, it’s not really the business application here, I mean, you mentioned that there's a patent around it and the idea around that is for really super brand sensitive, color-sensitive companies like Coca Cola, and any number of other ones, that they have more of an assurance that the broadcast advertising is going to look in the color that is really important to them?

Erica: Right now, that's what we're looking at as brand applications. So, as I said, there are solutions out there to solve, like overall, you know, a correct profile so that your TV shows colors accurately. So we aren't trying to necessarily do it across all colors, we're trying to really focus on the brand colors. 

Right. So how does it work and how did you get started on this? This doesn't strike me as one of those things that you wake up in the middle of the night and go, “I must solve this.” 

Emma: Right, so the basic approach that our team took is that we were trying to make it where when you're color-correcting, instead of correcting the entire frame, instead, we're working more with image segmentation. So the current process with athletics is that, oftentimes, they have to pick something in the frame and color-correct to that, and just hope everything falls out. So with basketball games, they look at the court and they say, “okay, the Clemson paw print in the middle of the court has to be brand color. Everything else will just be what it has to be.” 

But we're trying to just get that right. The idea is that, well, what if we can make it so they don't have to compromise? So that way, it can be segmented, So we're color correcting the correct areas and frames as opposed to everything else. The idea was also to decrease the kind of manual burden on the technician when it comes to the color correcting, so we looked at doing image segmentation through machine learning by creating a convolutional neural network. 

I know what those are. 

Emma: (Laughter) Without getting into the nitty-gritty. We usually just look at the acronym CNN, so you don't even really have to know how to spell it, but what I’m saying is, just the gist of it that we basically looked at this game footage, we pulled it and we used Adobe Premiere Pro and the Lumetri color panel and we basically picked the range of colors we wanted to correct. So that way we can adjust it to kind of perceptually that natural approximation of what we're looking at for that color brand, and then we pass in the color incorrect and correct footage into the model and it creates a mask and it's basically just showing pixel by pixel what's the difference in color.

And so the whole idea is that our model is able to generate these masks and automatically generate exactly what those corrections are gonna look like. So once we created this data, we trained it, and then that way it learned how to color-correct to these brand specifications in these image segmentation.

So that way our grass is in a weird color, our court is in a weird color. We're just adjusting the jerseys and the Clemson football fan gear and the audience, so it's fixing the colors that need to be fixed and leaving alone what needs to be left alone. 

And is that because you're segmenting it and isolating certain elements of it, that's how you can do it in real-time or near real-time as opposed to doing it in post-processing?

Erica: What makes it able to do it in real-time is partially the hardware. You need hardware that can run on that. And it really just looks like a desktop computer, like a regular box that you're used to, but we do want it to run it in real-time. And so in order to do that, we try to make everything as slender as possible.

Some neural networks have just millions of parameters that they're checking on and we kept making things smaller and smaller so that it could run more efficiently. Now there is a point where it gets too small, and it runs too quickly and it's not as effective. So that's part of the research piece of this is that the students are learning at what point do we make adjustments to make this efficient versus to make it effective? 

I have this idea in my head, and again, as anybody who listens to me knows I'm not an AI scientist or anything close, is that there is some pretty serious computing hardware, a big server room full of computers doing the work of the neural network, but it's sounding like you're saying this is just like a box? 

Erica: Yeah, it can actually run on something as small as a raspberry pie, believe it or not. It doesn't run in the same frame rate that you'd want to run for an event, but we can run about 8-10 frames per second on a Raspberry PI. You don't need an entire room full of servers in order to process this in real-time, it's very doable.

I don't pick it up and carry it around, but, but you certainly could if you needed to. 

So this is not a million-dollar addition to a TV studio or something? It sounds pretty elemental in some respects. 

Erica: Absolutely, you know, really when it comes down to it and Emma can probably speak on this better than I can, but really all an algorithm is a text file that you have to train, like the real meat of it on our end is training it and making it effective and making adjustments because it is in a new area that you can't just go and Google, “Hey, I'd like this algorithm that can do this.” We're actually doing it and modifying it as we go. 

So for a Clemson football game, if you have, I don't know, 20-25 cameras, whatever it may be. Do you need a processing unit for each of those feeds or is a master feed funnel through one box?

Erica: We only need one. Actually, the way it works is, you're right, they do have like 20 cameras and range from little tiny GoPro cameras up to, you know, high-end broadcast cameras with 4K, and so those are all processing that color so differently.

 But it all comes into live, it's coming into a production studio. So if you watch a lot of athletics, like NFL or, even NCAA, sometimes they'll show you the trucks and inside of the truck, all of those feeds are coming in, and they are making those adjustments on the fly as the feed comes in. They choose which camera feed they want to show, and then it gets projected out and all of that's happening in real-time. 

And so we actually talked about different places that ColorNet can live within the system and the place where we landed it is that if we have it right inside of that production suite, you only need one device or you can have it on the other end of that production suite, and you still only need one device, but then you're only color correcting the feed that's actually going to get put out there, versus correcting all the different feeds on all the different cameras.

Is this a problem that's common to any live event broadcaster or is it defined by the quality of the equipment you're using, like would a local community cable operator have a much bigger problem than let's say Fox Sports?

Erica: The problem is pervasive anytime you have brand colors. I'm gonna show my age on this, but I don't know if you remember when Reese's Pieces was the product that was advertised in E.T. when E.T. came out. And so, you know, even in a Hollywood film, you have a brand and that brand cares about their colors.

And so it is pervasive everywhere, but the piece of equipment actually can run anywhere, it doesn't need a fancy studio, it doesn't need ESPN type quality. It could run at any small studio just as well as it runs here, because once you've trained it's really running on its own. It's capable of doing the work without a lot of manual input. 

So in theory, is this a box, like I could order it, in theory, on Amazon, pull it out of the box, plug it in, plug the feed-in and plug the output in and give it power and off you go, or is this a whole bunch of tweaking and software and behind the scenes to make it all happen?

Erica: To answer that really the box that we ordered, the box that this runs in, it was ordered off of Amazon. It is just like a plain old normal computer box, you know, like a desktop, but the magic happens inside of the training and inside of the algorithm and inside of the adjustment to the code, so it's not really the “special sauce,” so to speak really what happens, prior to receiving the box. 

Right. But do you train it? Let's say heavens forbid that another SEC school uses this, would that box have to be trained for the Crimson tide colors or whatever?

Erica: Yeah, I think you understand a lot more about this than you're letting on, but that is a 100% the case. We would have to train it each time, as needed per color, is our current structure, but I'm actually gonna let Emma jump in on what we're thinking about moving forward.

Emma: When we trained for Clemson orange and Clemson purple, the way our data was set up, it was that you're going to look for these ranges of colors around the brand color so that way, you know what kinds of areas you're going to be shifting to be correct. Our goal is to try and kind of generalize it.

So the idea is, we can give some kind of hardware to deliver to the shader and painter with these corresponding teams. So that way they can change what color it is. So we're going to come up with the new approach to it, where instead of looking for this range of colors, to then shift, we're going to look for these areas. So we're hoping to train so it can pick out the jerseys where the fan colors are and it's very adjustable considering what those colors are. So that way you could pick up this technology and plug it in for a different team and it could work that way instead of just being limited to a specific brand's color palette.

Right. Okay, so I'm a digital signage guy. This is a digital signage podcast. I wonder, of course, what the applications potentially are for the digital signage business. 

You mentioned, early on Coca Cola and how across its a corporate campus and its many corporate campuses really, if it has a signage network with the Coca Cola brand on there, if the output PC or PCs or media players are outputting nominally incorrect colors, this could be put in the middle of it?

Erica: Absolutely. So, that's one approach that we've considered. So let's say that let's use our Coca-Cola campus example. 

They want to ensure that no matter what footage is going on what type of screens, they may have multiple brands, I don't even know, that the Coca Cola red is always correct.

And so in that case, you actually would put ColorNet at the screen level, so we would want to pull it down to a much smaller device, more like that Raspberry PI size, so that you could actually just slap it right onto the back of each screen or each set of screens and have that screen Coca-Cola ready, you know? And so you can sell it that way to a brand owner versus having it at the live video remixed phase. 

Do you sense the addressable market for this has a whole bunch of brands in particular, who are that color-conscious or is it a subset that really cares and others who, you know, “our brand color’s blue” and that's all they say.

Erica: Actually, coming from my background, I was steeped in brand from a print perspective. And so from a print perspective, the tolerance of brand colors on your box or bottle or flexible packaging, is very small. It's measured in Delta Es and they say it's a 2 Delta Es.

Most companies don't want you to be any further off the brand color specs than Delta E. And that's basically just a measurement saying, this is as close as we are willing to purchase the product. Like if it goes over 2 Delta E, we don't want your printed product. And so coming from that background, all of the big brands care, all of them want their color to be correct. 

I know there's an argument going on right now, that might've stemmed out of that recent in AB and SID type conversation, from Display Week. But this idea that screens are actually changing our tolerance for brand colors and at some point, are we not going to care so much about brand colors? Because we are willing to accept them further apart, from the brand spec, because of the screen differences that we see. 

I still think that brands are willing to put money, time, and effort behind their branding in general and that they are going to care if their product looks correct because it is as much a part of their identification as any other part of their business. 

Yeah. That would make sense. I'm sure there'd be some reticence around spending thousands upon thousands of dollars per site to do that, but if it's, as you say, a Raspberry PI device that could just plugin via the HDMI feed or whatever into the display, then yeah, maybe they'd be happiest clients to do that. 

Erica: Yeah, especially for those big brands, I bet you and I've never sat in the branding room for Coca Cola, but both Coca Cola and Pepsi use a color of red, right? I bet you that their branding teams would just go to battle over making sure that all of their products are the correct color of red so that there is no confusion on the customer level of which product you're actually looking at.

Yeah, well, I've certainly heard those stories in the past when it comes to digital signage and Coca-Cola red and a few other colors that the Coca Cola people flip out if it's not right, and they had some big problems with early-stage video walls and things like that and there was a particular product that they really liked because of the saturation levels and everything that gave them as close to the print grant as they wanted to see, I don't know if it was that 2 Ease measurement or whatever you were talking about, but it was good. 

Erica: Yeah, and you know, some companies will have different Pantone colors for their print products compared to their screens. So for instance, Clemson has two different oranges, and when it comes down to it, the Pantone that they've chosen for screen and the Pantone that they've chosen for print products, so the difference between CMYK and RGB, those two oranges look the same. 

So it comes down to this perceptual thing. So it's not always about hitting the same Pantone and it's about the perceptual brand recognition of that orange, whether it's on a car, whether it's on a screen, whether it's on a Jersey, and so on.

Okay. So this is a combination product or initiative of a couple of professors, and I think four students, is that accurate? 

Erica: Yeah, that's correct. We had four students, and then we actually just added a new student this semester. So obviously the great part about students is that they have wonderful, fresh ideas coming into a project. The sad part is that they do graduate and go away, like Emma graduates in December. 

And so, there is kind of this rotation of students who have worked on the project over time. 

So where does it go from here at some point Does this become a company or does it get licensed or was that just so far off that it's hard to really kind of rationalize? 

Erica: Certainly from our perspective, our goals align a lot more with the research end and sharing what we find, but from a university level, we are involved with the university research foundation and their job is to help connect us with potential manufacturers or companies or lines of products that would benefit from us.

And so from the university level, they have a lot of interest in that. I'm not opposed to a company or partnering with an existing company. But certainly, you know, the students getting experience out of this and our personal research goals, our primary. 

In the conversations with the companies provide a lot of opportunities to, have funding and to expand, and to come up with new ideas of how this technology could perhaps be implemented. 

Is there an application as well for things like medical imaging and seismic imaging where life and death decisions or very expensive decisions are made based on the color of some high-resolution image?

Erica: Absolutely. We've been looking at expanding this out into some different applications and you really hit the nail on the head as one of the ideas that our team had bounced around is, what if this could be used to emphasize a lifeboat or something like that is lost at sea, you know, how could we make it really fast and really easy, despite all the reflections that waves make? And we've looked at it as an agricultural thing again, where it's emphasizing, if there are healthy plants or if there are weeds, so it really could be modified and used in a lot of different contexts, just like you're saying.

So what came out of SID in that presentation that you did? Did you have companies or other really smart people coming up or contacting you?

Erica: Yeah, exactly, but not so many from virtual conferences we've found, but when we've done some presentations in person and unfortunately, SID was not one of them this year, which I was super excited about that audience.

But when we have presented in person, it has led to lots of conversations with different companies and ideas of how it could benefit them and their customers. 

Okay, so if there are people listening to this who actually understand it fully, how would they track you down and how do they sort of get involved in this in some way, or get some questions answered?

Erica: We would love to hear from people. Again, it's so exploratory still at this phase, and so hearing what real companies with real customers, what they need, what is their pain point and how could we consider ColorNet as a potential solver of that pain point, just reach out to us. My email is at eblackor@clemson.edu. 

Okay, and you guys have a football team, right? 

Erica: (Laughter) We hope we have a good one again, fingers crossed. 

Is it a challenge because people think so much about Clemson as, you know, a big sports school, football school, when this is a totally gearhead kind of science project with AI coming out of Clemson, do they go, “Oh really, you guys do that too?” 

Erica: Well, we're hoping that we actually solve a problem for our athletic department. So fingers crossed, we've proved it out that it can be done. And right now we're just kind of taking a back seat to whatever Coronavirus brings for this coming season.

But our original intent was to be up and operational for our athletic department this fall, which we're capable of doing, but again, we're just kind of taking a back seat to all the decisions that they're having to make to keep their student-athletes safe and the fans and all of that. 

Which is a moving target right now. That's broadcast may be more important than ever for the next few months. 

Erica: I agree. There's no telling where all this is going to go, but we have our first football game on Saturday, and so fingers crossed, everybody stays healthy and well, and we can get that type of normalcy back for Saturdays. 

All right, Erica and Emma, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate 

Erica: This was a lot of fun. Thanks for inviting us.

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.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

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.

 

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

Nancy Radermecher, JohnRyan

August 26, 2020

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

Ask a digital signage provider about its target markets, and a hell of a lot of them will list banks among them. But only a small handful of companies are solely focused on the financial services sector, and the best known and most enduring of those is JohnRyan.

The Minneapolis-based company has been providing branch merchandising and messaging services to the banking sector, globally, for decades. It's also one of a few companies who can credibly says it was doing digital signage before the technology had a name that stuck.

I chatted recently with JohnRyan's President, Nancy Radermecher, who has been at the company for more than 20 years.

We spoke about JohnRyan's roots, but also about what's going on today. Bankers have long been in the midst of what they call digital transformation, but the pandemic has turned five-year plans into five month executions.

We talk about the evolution of retail banking, and how digital signage and interactive digital apply. We also speak about what kind of content really does work in banks, and why.

Nancy has a passion for data-driven content, and nerdy stuff like integrating systems. We dig into where she thinks platforms for business, like digital signage, are going.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, Nancy. I know JohnRyan pretty well. I'm thinking about a number of people maybe don't. So if they don't, can you give the elevator pitch about what JohnRyan is all about? And, we can also get into maybe how things have changed through the years. 

Nancy: Sure. We are historically a retail marketing agency, meaning that our clients are end-users, operating financial retail establishments, and we take a sort of strategic and all-encompassing approach to retail marketing. And within that portfolio, is digital signage. So over the years, digital has become a far more important and central product for us because people have moved a lot of their offline retail experiences into the digital world. And it's from that perspective that we entered the digital signage market. 

Yeah, it seems to me, I can remember that the first thing I knew about JohnRyan is that you had a legacy business where you were doing things like handling the compliance of all those brochures that would be in sleeves and bank branches and so on because somebody had to manage that otherwise the same stuff would be sitting in there for years. 

Nancy: Sometimes that even happens to digital signage, but yeah, you're absolutely right. And when we started in digital signage, it was because we were in the United Kingdom and passed a window of a building society and there they had a stand. On the bottom of that stand was a giant video desk, and then above it, there was a screen and they were making use of a firmware technology where you could actually superimpose changing text on top of a video background supplied by this video desk, which in its day was absolutely remarkable.

And so we thought, goodness, is there something to this multimedia approach to what we do today? And we began the exploration based on that. And in fact, one of the people involved in that project is still with the company today, the original building society project. So it was, oh my god, the early mid-nineties, I can tell you that the word digital signage didn't exist.

So we kept trying to find ways to explain what we thought this could be to one another before there was the terminology that you can apply to it.

I think we're all still struggling to explain what digital signage is to people. 

Nancy: Yeah. Fair enough. 

It's improved, but is the focus entirely on retail banking, or do you service any other sectors?

Nancy: Opportunistically we've stepped outside of retail banking. The company initially was focused on chain retail, conventional retail. We moved into retail banking quite early on and pretty much stayed there to this day. 

And is it just the big whale account banks in North America, or are you working globally and working with banks of all sizes?

Nancy: Yeah, we do tend to work with larger banks. The mega global ones are particularly attractive to us, of course, but we work with banks, say super regionals versus community banks. And we've worked in many different countries and still do today. 

Yeah. You used to have an office in, is it Spain?

Nancy: Yeah, we have a presence in Spain, but the, European offices are in London. 

And when you focus just on retail banking or primarily focused on retail banking, is that advantageous? I strongly believe that's the case that if you're going to be talking to very large companies, you sure as hell better know their business, but I see all kinds of companies who will go in and talk to anybody who is willing to take a meeting with them. And, I've been in some of these meetings and thought you guys don't know crap about this industry. 

Nancy: Yeah. I think there are probably two reasons why domain expertise is important in Banking. One is, I guess the obvious reason and the one you just referred to that, it's a good thing to understand something about the client's business situation, business challenges, business opportunities so that you can help them in relevant ways, but banking, I think imposes a second criterion, which is a very particular approach to security, as you can imagine in it and we would all hope to be the case. 

Why? (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. What on earth do they have that requires security? (Laughter)

So it has implications as to how the system is engineered and it has implications about how data moves and there's a high demand also for flexibility in engineering, which maybe you wouldn't expect, but banks may differ in how they approach their security regime. 

We've over the years had to be careful not to be too prescriptive, in how data is transferred, what kind of media player hardware is used because they have very specific ideas about that. So I think financial services is one where you actually really do need to understand the industry to thrive in it.

When you're in these kinds of meetings, is it more the case may be with a retailer, pure retailer, you're talking about what the system will do for you and with the banks you are talking about, what you can stop the system from doing or preventing it from happening? 

Nancy: Yeah, that's right. That's a very good point 

The other thing that's interesting, and what you just said is, I think, as an industry, I'm always surprised a little bit about how much of the literature that's published by digital signage companies, possibly even us, focus on the benefits of digital signage and the sort of basic understanding. And I feel like banking, probably like a lot of other verticals, really understands that, they know why somebody would do digital signage and the conversation is no longer at that level, “why would this benefit you?” No. 

Yeah, my eyes roll up into the back of my head when I go on a software company's site and see a little Chestnut of what is digital signage.

Oh God. 2020 guys. (Laughter)

Nancy: Yeah, exactly. And I think, the questions about business case ROI, I think those have all been answered for the industry. 

We were talking earlier about digital transformation and how COVID-19 has forced a very rapid acceleration of digital transformation plans. You were talking in terms of going from three to five-year digital transformation plans to things that had to happen in a matter of months or even weeks instead 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting, and I was just looking at some more industry literature yesterday, in the banking industry, they've all been pretty clear on the shape of things to come in terms of increasing levels of digital adoption on the part of bank consumers. And with that has come, a general understanding that as time goes on, the number of branches will decline, the nature of the activities that take place in those branches will move from the transaction on cash-based activity toward consulting activity.

And by and large, that was something the industry really wanted to see happen because it changes their cost dynamics quite dynamically for the good. So what's happened now is that there's been a really rapid acceleration of what everybody knew was gonna happen anyway. And in a certain way, that’s kind of welcome news for the industry in the sense of accelerating something that was desired. 

On the other hand at this level of speed, I think it's given people a lot of challenges in the very near term. 

So what's transforming in a retail bank? 

Nancy: Strategically, what's transforming is when and why customers are going to want a physical location. So, as I said a moment ago, it's really going to be far more of an advice and guidance proposition than a transactional proposition. But in the near term, what's transforming is the manner in which that advice and guidance proposition is delivered. So when your lobbies are not open and all the time, when people don't have free access, that's creating all sorts of logistical complexities about how do you let people in the branch, how do you manage appointment traffic? Nobody envisioned that they would have to answer all these questions all of a sudden in one big hurry, that has an impact on digital signage, of course, because it provides an opportunity to actually use digital signage to convey to customers new policies.

Obviously, there are opportunities to manage, customer check-in, and flow using digital tools. The screen's gonna be an important part of conveying where you stand in the queue and what's going out in the branch. In some senses, this is making digital signage a more integral part of a successful branch operation, which is good.

It's more than just a communications tool. And there were other examples of that. I think increasingly people are going to embed digital experiences in the onboarding process. We've all seen these bankers clickety clacking away on their computer terminals when we're opening an account.

Some banks now turn that screen toward the customer when they're clickety clacking. But I think hopefully it will be a full-on multimedia onboarding experience, so seminars and financial wellness or all sorts of things that are going to happen, as the branch becomes more of a center for health and guidance than a teller-counter.

Yeah, I go to a particular bank and it's just a suburban location, so there's not a lot of razzle-dazzle there, but it does have digital signage and it's the same bank I've been banking with for 30 plus years or whatever. So I don't see a lot of other ones, but there seems to be a standard feature set that I noticed there and in other banks in general, where there are displays behind the counter and there are displays in the seating area and maybe there's a display over the ATM bank, but it is generally just being branch marketing, “We're wonderful. We have this new thing. Here's the weather”, blah, blah, blah. And it's not terribly compelling and when I've seen banks of the future, in North America and, particularly in places like Dubai, I've seen things like virtual tellers and remote Financial service advisors, where they go into a little pod and you can discuss with somebody who's on the other side of the city or country.

And those things have been very “branch of the future” sort of things that I've never seen adopted, but I'm getting a sense from what you're saying, that the novelty of that will become much more an operational thing out of necessity. 

Nancy: Yeah, I think that's right. There are a lot of things in what you just said that interests me. To your first comment about the placement of screens inside a bank, you're absolutely right. Where you would typically see them as the areas you describe but what's happening now as banks are moving more toward almost a lounge conception of the branch where the bankers are now untethered from their desktops, and maybe can help you with that with an iPad and in a roving fashion, it really diffuses the problem of where to place your digital media, because now suddenly everybody is milling around in a kind of uncontrolled environment, and there are obvious focal points, dwell areas, sightlines, like there always were in the past, which is a challenge.

But then, on the level of the content and just compelling experiences, one of the things that we've learned over the years through mentors, many different experiments and trials and tests is that it's really important when you're thinking about innovative change to a bank branch that you don't lose sight of the fact that the consumer is seeking utility above all else.

So do you have a really cool idea of a touch screen? And I think we've all seen many of these in branches of the future. It might be cool from the perspective of the multimedia designer who gets to create it and win an award for it. But it's a real challenge to get banking consumers to decide what they want to prolong a visit to their local bank branch in order to interact with content that most people intuitively believe is available to them at home.

Anyway, it's tough to reign in the impulse to, I don't know, saddle a bank branch with all sorts of “cause you can” stuff without thinking long and hard about what customer utility is being imparted. So the example you gave of the video conferences is a perfect example of a high utility, high-value digital investment in a bank branch. And there are all sorts of reasons why doing something like that is valuable to both customers and to the bank versus some of the multimedia poster children that we've had. 

Yeah. Let's do something to connect and gesture and all that and embarrass the hell out of people. 

Nancy: Although you had on your podcast just this week, I think an article about one that made sense, but it kind of proves the point I guess.

Yeah, probably a $2 million popup event by IBM, and that's what everybody's going to do, but it was good. (Laughter)

What is the content based on all those years of experience that customers do want in a branch?

Nancy: This is interesting and actually this is my favorite topic, really. So one thing we've learned, and this will come as no surprise to you or to anybody, is that Financial services advertising on its own is not that commercial for people. And there's a very good reason to use sort of general interest communications in a bank branch as a way to get people used to view the screens at all.

So you mentioned the weather before. Our testing and results in time and time again, whether it comes up as the thing that people remember most and want the most. And it also happens to be very easy to deliver us as so if you can mix and match general interest information with bank information or place bank information in a more general interest context, and, an example that might be. If there's something happening in the mortgage market, tying your mortgage messaging to something that consumers are generally aware of and concerned about is a good thing. We've also seen some kind of interesting results that would suggest that if the ratio of bank messaging is a little bit lower than you might initially think you want, the recall of those messages goes up. And I think that's because there's more sustained viewership of the general interest information. People’s attention is more fixed and focused and for that reason, the bank messaging that crops up intermittent get more attention and more recall, which is really interesting. 

In my exposure to banks, I've certainly got a sense that they're very excited. The bank market is excited about being able to have some continuity between online and broadcast and other mediums and push that same campaign into the branches.

But you're saying that at that point, they're in the branch and they don't need to be sold and drawn into the branch cause you got them. 

Nancy: Yeah, and it can reinforce the value of your brand by providing helpful tips. There's a huge demand for financial wellness information right now, not just because of recent events, which has accelerated it, but also because a lot of younger consumers actually don't know much about money management and want to, so that kind of helpful guidance information is also something people like to see. Another thing that people really want, believe or not, is to see pictures or names of people who actually work in the branch. That is always a highly recalled type of messaging. 

Just casting back to something you just said about content creation for other mediums. I think where this is all headed in terms of digital signage, content production in banking is toward, more and more repurposing assets that were created for other digital channels and bringing those repurposed assets together and to constantly updating, constantly iterating news and information streams.

It’s less of a purposeful agency endeavor where somebody's building a 60s mp4 and more of rethinking it more as a large-format webstream, something like that. I don't know exactly the right metaphor. And I think banks will find that they don't have to spend a lot of money on content production to have a lot of really good locally relevant information on screens in their branches. 

That sounds to me back to the work I did with a very large bank. And, I sat at a meeting where we're talking about content with the agency and I became persona non grata, the devil, the antichrist by suggesting just that what was the point of a 60s spot in a window display that was going to cost a hell of a lot of money when you could be repurposing all kinds of other media assets and automating the content. And that did not go over well with the agency because that was their cash cow. 

Nancy: Exactly. It is interesting because, and I was thinking about this earlier this week that this is one of those rare instances, where to do it better, is also a way to do it cheaper. It's not like you're giving up anything, you're gaining something when you start thinking about digital signage content in a more disaggregated way, just snippets of bursts of information using static assets even that you have. And, our clients have huge repositories of assets and tips and all of these things are available aplenty inside of banks’ asset management databases. And mixing and matching these things creates a really low-cost way to build content, but also superior content, which is just such a great thing. 

Yeah. I assume that bank marketers are pretty savvy and understand this whole concept of Omnichannel and more so than let's say, “regular retailers” or all kinds of other potential clients in that, they have these digital asset management systems and everything else, and they understand automated and dynamic content based on data assets? 

Nancy: I think they do in all of their online applications, but it seems to me that they are generally puzzled by why they can't somehow better leverage their online assets to digital screens. And I suppose that's because maybe we in the industry have not rapidly embraced that model or educated the market to the model that actually, no, it is a logical thought to think that those other assets can be repurposed to digital signage. But you don't see a lot of it happening, right?

So maybe the digital signage industry too has been a little bit in the paradigm of the agency that wasn't so happy with you creating longer-form content, purpose-built for this media versus looking at an alternative way of doing it.

Yeah, you get the sense that even regionally sizes and certainly national and international banks, they are in the thrall of probably multiple agencies and it's in their express interest to control the thinking really, and certainly the budgets of these bank marketers. There's no incentive for them to say, “Hey, you don't need to do all this really expensive stuff. Just do it this way, and we'll surrender to that $5 million.” 

Nancy: Exactly. But I'll tell you what. I think with declining levels of traffic and branches and the general stressors that banks are facing now, in terms of justifying marketing investment at the point of sale, that's going to prompt a change. 

One of the things that gets batted around a lot these days is the whole idea of “interactive” in a bank setting and other retail settings. Is it safe to touch things and all that... 

You know, banks have ATMs, there's just no way around. You can't do voice control, or at least I don't think you can, or I wouldn't want to use that. So you go into a bank, you're already conditioned that, “Yeah. I'm going to use a touch screen and I'll whip up my notes advisor and everything will be fine”. Is there antsiness at all around introducing more interactivity to reduce the one-to-one contact with staffers? 

Nancy: For sure. I'm hearing a lot of focus on touchless experiences, and so trying to figure out how to clone interfaces to people's personal devices or bypass the need for them, that's a huge issue the industry is trying to address because, as you mentioned earlier, video tellers, video conferences, these things are really important to the branch of the future because they become the only kind of financially viable way to deliver certain services to certain branches in the network. So they're essential to the value proposition and will only become more essential. 

So yes, I think there's a lot of work being done and a lot of time being spent on how to make those interfaces appealing and acceptable to people in some of the ways I described. I think on the level of our business, digital signage, thinking back on the concept of utility touchscreens roles for marketing purposes has been very difficult to implement successfully. You've probably seen Microsoft, like those surface tables in bank branches, they came in and then they went away, interactive kiosks came in and then they went away. We've done a lot of things with touch through bank windows, we've done QR codes, we've done scannable brochures, that launch interactive experiences, printing brochures on demand, and all of them face the same challenge that they require a customer to prolong their visit in the bank branch and they're not delivering really clear apparent utilities. So it is just at the level of the basics. The tougher problem with all that, I think, is not just managing people's concerns about hygiene today but just the use of it at all. 

Yeah. It's not as private as going on a touchscreen to look up some health issues, but, if you're going to be doing loans, calculators, mortgage calculators, and things like that on a screen then other people can see.

I don't know if it bothered me all that much, but I'm sure a whole bunch of other people would be very concerned about anybody seeing that. 

Nancy: It's not just that, but you're also likely having in your hand a device that does exactly the same thing, So you can use your phone to do these things when and where you want to do that versus standing at a kiosk, so it's an interesting challenge. 

In terms of banks. you’re focused on retail banking, but there's a whole bunch of bank office space and giant office towers full of banking people and even with work from home, that's not going to totally change, those office towers are not going to clear out.

Have you guys done much work in terms of the back-of-house digital signage for banks? 

Nancy: Yeah, that is actually how we got our start. Our first network was a 900 branch training network within the UK, delivered by satellite because that's all there was, daily kind of huddle and corporate communications. So we've done a lot of that, more focused on the branch and then the corporate headquarters. But the technology as that you would know well drives one versus the other is exactly the same. 

Is it hard to crack the larger opportunity on the back of the house side? 

Nancy: I think it didn't use to be. We got our start prior to things like the internet and email and podcasts and websites. All of those become really viable corporate communications vehicles for the sort of information that we were imparting through our digital networks. So the case needs to be made that multimedia delivery of some of these messages is a superior form for those messages than plowing through an intranet.

And I think that the case can be made, but given all the other things that banks have to contend with in their overall digital transformation, I don't think that's going to make the top of the heap. 

I know that you've spent a lot of time thinking about where all of this goes and you have the benefit, so to speak of working in an already demanding vertical where the security demands are a lot higher. Where do you see things going or do things like PCs and media players and all that will start to go away? 

Nancy: Yeah, definitely there's a move afoot in the world around us toward, edge solutions, and there's no reason to think that digital signage wouldn't be an edge compute solution. What we hear from corporate customers a lot is that they're very frustrated by the proliferation of point solutions in their branches. They'll have a solution for digital signage, they’ll have a solution for POS, solution for managing appointments and on.

And each of these solutions is vertically integrated. It contains a monitoring component. There's a service plan that they have to have with somebody for it. And this kind of really adds up a lot of complexity. So this future of bringing these disparate point solutions together in a sort of commonly managed edge environment, I think is very real and the sort of streamlining that clients that we deal with would really like to see.

So I think those of us who provide digital signage solutions should be hunkering down and really focusing on our software and imagining that it might be deployed in a manner like that in the future. 

So this is a couple of steps beyond the recent and prevalent question of, “Do you have an API?”

Nancy: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah. 

A few months ago now, I think, you guys were acquired by AU Optronics out of Taiwan, a company that had already acquired ComQi, which does digital signage. How is that going? 

I know the AUO people and they're from Taiwan, so they're super nice and super smart and all that, I assume this was a good event for you guys. 

Nancy: Yeah. It's interesting because we remain a very entrepreneurial, agile company as JohnRyan. We're operated pretty much autonomously from the other units in the group. So from a day to day experience, it's actually just the same.

But on top of that is something very nice, which is a huge resource for engineering and the number of patents. I think they have 29,000 patents. There's a lot of people that can answer tough questions within that company. Access and understanding of the really detailed aspects of display technology both now and in the future.

I mean, it’s really a great thing to have that sort of resource available to us and obviously an incredibly strong financial group as well. So that opens up opportunities for subscription-based deals with clients and all manner of things. So it's been going well.

Yeah, there have been instances in the past of hardware companies, display companies, buying software companies, and you just go, “Oh boy, this is just going to meander into nothing.” And that's what happens. But, I've certainly got the sense from Stu Armstrong, who is now overworking with you guys, came from ComQi.

The ComQi experience was just that. They have certainly mentored them and had their back and everything else, but left them alone to do what they needed to do. 

Nancy: Yeah. And I think the interesting part of that might be that in some of these acquisitions by hardware companies buying digital signage companies, they might be viewing those digital signage companies as routes to market for their hardware.

In this case, I think it's almost the reverse where AUO was interested in closer to the customer, more solutions-oriented businesses in order to provide feedback to it about where it is going. And so that's a great role for us to play. We're obviously interacting with people every day on the level of their business challenges and we have good and meaningful insight, I think for them.

So it's a two-way traffic and AUO supplies some display panels, but they're also a supplier to the other manufacturers who produce digital signage displays and other displays. And so there is no agenda that our goal is to sell AUO products in particular only when they get the solution.

Right, but it does give the opportunity. If you're looking at a bank deal that's 1100 branches and 10,000 screens or whatever. You don't necessarily have to buy from a consumer or commercial brand, you can go directly to a manufacturer and cut some of that cost out, which is going to be attractive.

Nancy: Yeah, affordability is really going to be a very big factor for our business going forward. It's going to be interesting to see how people reformulate their offers and streamline them. We talked about content earlier. I think there's going to be a lot of interest in that sort of content approach. Now, when there really isn't the luxury to do it any other way, and that's going to affect every aspect of our business. We've been spending a lot of time over the summer looking and kind of reinventing digital signage. There's some stuff that we're going to be putting out in the weeks months to come, but not taking anything as a given, right? Let's look at the hardware. Let's look at the connectivity. Let's look at how content is created. Let's look at how maintenance is done and just across the board, trying to emerge from all that with a really streamlined, focused approach. 

All right. that was great. Thank you for spending some time with me.

Nancy: Well, it was nice to catch up. Thanks.

 

Bobby Marhamat, Raydiant

Bobby Marhamat, Raydiant

August 19, 2020

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

A seemingly oversaturated ecosystem has not stopped more and more companies from entering the digital signage market with their own software solutions.

I get lots of email pitches from companies, and admittedly, I do a mental sort, with a bucket for no-hopers, and a different one for those I find interesting in some way. Raydiant is a VC-funded start-up in Silicon Valley that's interesting to me for a few reasons.

Their CEO came from the executive team of Revel Systems, one of the upstarts that has changed the look of point of sale systems in small retail. Think of iPads, card taps and digital signatures instead of those big,  old-school POS machines that ate counters.

I was also intrigued by the company's partnerships, which go off the normal, well-traveled path, and instead feature integrations with companies that do things like restaurant menu management, KPI data screens and video conferencing.

I also thought these guys are doing a better marketing and messaging job than a lot of software companies, who are often just re-telling versions of the same old stories. The industry and its customers don't need another "What is Digital Signage?" page.

Raydiant produces a lot of content, including podcasts that are more than just the sales guy talking to the product manager.

Bobby Marhamat, who joined Raydiant about a year ago, joined me for a good chat.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Bobby, thanks for joining me. I know very little about Raydiant and I gather it's a reasonably new company in the digital signage ecosystem. Could you give me the background on the company? 

And it would be really helpful to explain what sets you guys apart from the many other companies who are doing digital signage software.

Bobby: Absolutely. First of all, thanks for having me. Just to give you a quick glimpse into what Raydiant is and what we're up to. I've been personally a part of the company for the last year, leading the company, prior to this. The company has been around for about two and a half years and in the last year, we've really done a couple of different things. 

One is, really we did a rebrand from the name Mira to Raydiant, and a part of that also is that although we're digital signage platform and advancing the digital signage side, we noticed that the companies that we work with want something a lot bigger, and that is really creating, phenomenal experiences in brick and mortar locations. So for the last year, we've been focused kind of talking to these customers and figuring out what that means and how we can create experiences on our platform. 

And the part that's really, I'd say, relevant to the brick and mortar operator and what we've started to build is tying in these different things that happen in different locations. So whether you're a retailer or restauranteur. And maybe as a restauranteur, you want your point of sale system to talk to your digital signage, you want certain music to play at a certain hour, you want certain promos to be on the screens. We basically enable all of that and then put all of that together to really create a phenomenal experience for your customer and what that does, of course in turn is, it creates more loyalty with your customers. It increases your revenue. And you're able to use that to be able to create this experience that people will remember as they leave your location. So in a nutshell, that's what we do. 

Okay. How would you describe the breadth of the solutions and product offer?

Bobby: I'd say, we have eighteen different industries that we work in right now but we're really focused on the six or seven industries that most of our customers sit in. We're a very customer-centric company and of those six or seven industries, we really try to bring in best of breed solutions that tie into our platform and what our customers demand and what they want in their locations.

It’s primarily contact management software? 

Bobby: Primarily, but tied into other things, like music, videos, all these other elements in the store.

And a lot of companies are saying, “We can do soup to nuts for you. We can do front end consulting. We can take you all the way through to deployment, ongoing management, and so on.”

Would you describe yourself as turnkey or are you more focused on the software and the experiential side? 

Bobby: Our goal is to be a turnkey through software, right? To be as turnkey as possible. And actually, I was trying to explain this to my six year old the other day. The same way he gets iPhones now, so my whole thing was the same way that you receive your iPhone, you can download five or six or ten apps and create that personal experience on your phone. We'd like to think of ourselves as the same. You unwrap our hardware, you tie it into your TV, and you can look at the different solutions that you can tie together on our platform, to be able to create that experience that you're looking for.

So very turnkey, but using software to make it very simple. So SMB customers can configure things out, tie things in quickly. Cause, they're focused on a lot of other things in their business. So creating that enterprise experience that you can create in larger stores and making it simple enough for an SMB customer to be able to deploy. 

When the company started, was the mission and charter the same as it is now, or has it pivoted?

Bobby: No, it's expanded. From the time that we started, it was to create one very easy to use digital signage platform, simple to deploy in a few minutes so you can go on your way to put messaging on a screen and that's it transformed into.

And since we've been listening to our customers, that's transformed into how do you take that a step farther? And you take that a step farther by what we call creating an experience platform. And that's why we're focused on that.  

I would assume that your customers have also told you that, “Guys, we must have been visited by 30 companies selling software that's easy to use, friendly, all those sorts of things.” So I suspect when you came into the business, you looked at it and looked at the competition and said to yourself, we need to do a better job of differentiating ourselves. 

Bobby: Absolutely. One of the things that’s really interesting is that when the company started, a lot of people asked me when I got involved, whether I think it was good and what did I think that we have to do differently to be able to listen to our customers? 

And the part that I think we did really well is we built a very strong product and had great support. We have the highest NPS. If you look at the G2Crowd and Capterra, as far as product standpoint goes in the cloud in the cloud segment.

But the thing that was missing or the thing that we needed to transform the company into is more of listening to what our customers’ needs are as far as being able to differentiate themselves, comparable to their competition. And that's a lot of what inspired us to transform our platform to be able to create a lot of stuff for them. 

Bouncing around your website, It looks like a lot of the focus, particularly in terms of your marketing and case studies, and “thought leadership” is around retail. Has that always been the case or is that because you as the CEO come out of retail in your past life with a point of sale system?

Bobby: No, our largest base of customers are in the retail segment. Our second largest set is in the restaurant segment. And with that, we're trying to make sure we give them the tools to be able to thrive. And, I'd say third and fourth industries for us are our banking and real estate, and we're trying to also focus on those as well, but you're right to note that because our largest customers and segment of customers are really retail and restaurants, our content and what we've been able to provide in a lot of our marketing has been centered on that.

Because you came from a point of sale, from Revel Systems. Did you have, what you would consider, a better sense of how retailers operate and what they really need versus what software developers think retailers need? 

Bobby: Absolutely. You know, a lot of people ask me, you got out of the brick and mortar with, basically exiting the Revel business, so why'd you get back into it? And I really fundamentally love the brick and mortar world. I love restaurants and retail for better or worse. I know right now we're going through tough times across the board for those segments. But, if we can be helpful in creating solutions, that's what makes me happy and content. And that's a large portion of what got me back into making sure that I stay within the industry and can continue to be helpful. 

Those two industries in particular are distressed right now. I wouldn't say they all are, but you would imagine a hell of a lot of them are because of the pandemic and lockdown capacity controls and everything else.

How do you sell into them right now when they're just trying to hang on by their fingernails?

Bobby: Yeah, so the beginning of when we went into the pandemic, a large portion of what we tried to do was that we tried to help these segments figure out what to do with their digital signage, to be able to continue to attract customers, educate customers, and basically put in use cases that help them use their digital signage to continue on and carry on with their business.

I'd say, fast forward to now where these businesses have been going through the pandemic for a few months, how we really capture and talk to them is we really look at the use cases that can be relevant to them. These days, to give an example, we have an outdoor package that helps restaurateurs really put menus on the screen, put messaging on a screen, tie it into a mobile phone so that people can get the menu, and be able to order at table and stuff like that. So we're really focused on what solutions we can push out there to be helpful to our customers and this pandemic has been tough for us, tough for them in the sense of that we had to pivot in our marketing and our messaging and how we go to market to be able to help them, and that's been hard for us as well. 

I have found since COVID-19 really broke out that a number of companies have introduced very specific technologies that they have packaged up as solutions to the problem facing retail and small business in general. And, I've sat on a number of podcasts and Zoom calls and everything else and presentation. My concern about these things are that they are just things in a lot of ways. There's a thermal screener, there are hybrid screens and hand sanitizers, hand sanitizing dispenser, and so on. 

And I just wonder if the retail market is really interested in buying a “thing” or do they want to talk to somebody who can provide a solution and maybe the solution is something that already exists, just like software and a screen that's as you say, putting the menu up on a screen so that you don't have to print menus or you don't have to wipe down plastic menus and assure people that they're wiped down. 

Bobby: Yeah, we were actually just talking about this in the morning with one of our customers and they were asking us, what technologies do they buy during this time to piece together the curbside stuff and all the other stuff that they're dealing with. 

And what we start with always is we tell them to start from the beginning. Who is your customer? What are you trying to do? What's the long term strategy? Putting all that together. Then we either come out with, here are the solutions that you want to tie in, whether they're with Raydiant or other solutions that you can tie into Raydiant, or, honestly, in some cases, we're not going to be the right fit for you for the next six months or a year as you rebuild and do that. And then we can be helpful at that point. 

So we take a more consultative approach and help figure out, who's your customer, what are you actually trying to achieve? And then piece together technology. Because one of the biggest things that we always say is, just turning on technology to turn on technology and tying in different technology pieces together where you' don't have a strategy, you don't know who you're actually trying to attract what your customer is. With those fundamentals you're not doing yourself or your business any good. 

You mentioned earlier the value of having integration with other applications, again, coming out of point of sale and kind of with Revel, they turned the whole idea of point of sale on its head by going from big iron, big bulky machines to using iPads and things like that.

And, part of the answer I suspect with Revel was, we are were in a world now where we can easily integrate with different systems and inventory management systems and everything else. 

It’s the same sort of thing applied here. If you're going to be relevant in the B2B market for retail and restaurants and so on, you need to be able to easily tie in with other systems.

Bobby: Yeah. A big part of the strategy at Revel was, point of sale is the central nervous system of a location, but what happens outside of that is all these other dispersed technologies that you're trying to use and trying to manage. And so a large portion of our success there is, listening to our customers and them saying, “Hey, I'm using these five solutions in my store, none of which talk to each other, but I'm using them to try to get 1% out of each of them so I can advance my business.” 

And part of our success was tying those together and really making that a cohesive system for them, whether it was tying in like a loyalty partner, gift card partner, and all that good stuff into one platform that talks to each other. 

Part of our success at Raydiant is very similar in the sense that, right now, when you walk into a location, whether you walk into a location or whether you want to walk into a location, that experience from the beginning is important and how those things talk to each other is important. As an example, there are lots of cases wherein the restaurant world, in particular, I run out of something on my POS and a simple thing of that not transferring over to the digital signage board, where that item gets listed off the menu and it's still on the digital signage board and customers come up and ask me about that. That's a simple thing, right? 

But tying those two things together, it makes it a lot better of an experience. I can push out promos a lot easier. I can do things a lot easier when these things are talking to each other. And so that's a large part of what we've seen our customers have success with.

You're working with some things like a menu system to simplify that process. Was it a case of those companies coming to you? I'm thinking of Trabon Menu Net, did they come to you or did you see this as a need to integrate with that sort of thing?

Bobby: I can tell you it was mutual. A large portion of our larger customers were using the Trabon system and in using the Trabon system, there were also adopting Raydiant. And, we came together as two companies and said, oh, we have this many mutual customers and to give you a little bit of a glimpse of what Trabon does, Trabon is the largest print manufacturer of menus in the US for enterprise customers. And, they're in mid-market and SMB as well, but they really focus on enterprise at a high level. And the biggest part of that is now, as we may make any sort of, menu changes or we make any sort of planogram changes, or we make any sort of print, design changes, we can push that out on digital signage and it could be better for our customers, better for the environment, better for all that. So we came together and created this combined solution. 

You still have to compliment that with their solution. You still have to compliment print with digital but it's more cost-effective for their customers. It's a better experience for their end-users and ties in together really well. 

You have since then, or maybe concurrently integrated with a number of other, different kinds of systems. I've written in the past about postering my wall and done a podcast with them, so it's content templates, but you're now integrated with like Blue Jeans for video conferencing and a company called Hoopla, can you tell me about that? 

Bobby: Absolutely. So Hoopla is actually very interesting. We have a new virtual room product that we just launched about a month ago and that virtual room product ties in videoconferencing content and services on top of that. And when I say services, it's music and other services that are tied in into one platform. And one of the biggest asks from our customers was, “Hey, we have the video conferencing, we have the whiteboarding, we have the content all in one place. What's missing is if I could go and put KPIs for my sales team on the screen as well as I'm having that video conference, or if I could go put company KPIs on the bottom of the screen for all my team to know”, and especially relevant during these days of the pandemic where people are working from home, it's been very relevant.

So tying that in together. So we went out to search and realized that Hoopla is the best of breed product out in the space. And so in having a talk with their management team decided that the two companies come together and what's happened out of that also has been a lot of other use cases that have come from that. We are working on tying in other solutions for the office environment, which only happened because we went into the pandemic. Otherwise, our focus has always been kind of brick and mortar, but what we created for the brick and mortar side has been very relevant to the office side, and integration with Hoopla completely sets that productivity tool. 

So what's the primary thrust behind virtual rooms? 

Bobby: So what happened initially though, I'll start from the beginning is initially we had brick and mortar operators come to us and say, “Hey, listen, I own a hardware store, and in the middle of my lumber aisle, I want to put a virtual agent type setup where customer can walk up and hit a button and they can interact with someone sitting in my corner office that knows all about lumber, and can basically be the expert there because I can’t have a lumber expert at every store. 

So, given that, that's what initially sparked our virtual room product. Being able to go on and have on-demand video tied into the content. So if I say, “Hey, go to aisle six and get that lumber.” I can also put some specifics about that lumber on the screen as well as I'm interacting with that customer, and I can also tie in a QR code on the bottom of that if they want to, scan that and learn more about that lumber or purchase on their phone or whatever the case may be. 

So that was the initial, I want to call it “burst” of our virtual room product. Again, what's transformed into these days of, going into COVID and the pandemic has been offices saying, “Hey, my team is not remote and I want to mimic that same, in-office experience, even though we can't be in the office.” 

So our virtual room product is a perpetual video product that's always on. And with that, we've created an office product tied into Hoopla where you can be in different rooms and interact with different people as if you're in the office. You can get content pushed back and forth. You can double click on someone and go have a personal meeting and then come back into the main room as if you're in the office and all that tied in together to productivity and motivation, stats and KPIs that Hoopla provides on top of that.

So at that point, you're starting to compete with the Zoom companies of the world that have quasi digital signage products as well, right? 

Bobby: Zoom is actually a partner. We haven't put this on the site, so you're hearing this first, but we started with Blue Jeans and Zoom is now a partner as well.

So no, we're not trying to be a video conferencing player by any means. We're actually trying to embed video conferencing into our product and I know zoom also has a very light digital signage product. But the virtual room product essentially works completely different where you have content on the screen and you can basically slice up the screen in different zones. So, content on the screen together with video conferencing. I can do news flashes and push out information to my team, talk about happy hours if I wanted to. So putting that all together is basically your productive tool for the remote world. 

And your platform is built around something called a Screen Ray, which by the looks of it is a Linux-based PC stick, is that right? 

Bobby: You're correct. Yep. Absolutely. 

Those things have been around for a number of years. I've always been intrigued by them. I know a few companies that use them, but I've always worried that they're kind of cheap and dirty and will last and everything else, but I've seen enough companies using them that they seem to be happy with them. 

How much of a journey was it to come across something that you guys could put out there and say, okay, this is the mothership and this is what we're going to use?

Bobby: Yeah, our hardware is only the enabler to our software really and yet a good number of companies use the Intel sticks. We're actually in the works of creating our own proprietary sticks that still use Intel’s processing and all that good stuff, but it's more proprietary so we can control a little bit more of it. We can have that built-in and all that good stuff. We are envisioning and we are in the build mode of getting that out to the market. But, the Intel Sticks have been very reliable, and a lot of what our secret sauce happens in the cloud, in our software. So the hardware is really the enabler and it's been very consistent for our customers.

Now for companies such as yours, I would say broadly, those who are chasing retail in particular, small to medium business retail, and other similar kinds of businesses that get public foot traffic, they tend to be SaaS companies that are at a certain price to an end, it’s sometimes referred to as the race to the bottom or commodity pricing.

I looked at your pricing and it's not like that at all. If anything, it's up. I would say it's on the high side. And I'm curious about that, how that resonates with people. And my gut tells me it's probably not a problem. 

Bobby: It's not a problem for the customers that really truly believe in building experiences in their location. If you simply want to put a picture on a screen or put a flyer on the screen or whatever the case is, there's a lot of solutions out there that you can go get that are gonna be cheaper than ours. But we want to work with customers to create experiences and our platform for creating that experience is actually relatively very affordable, but our focus is really those customers that understand that experiences are paramount to having longevity in retail and restaurants and all the brick and mortar type industries. 

One of the other things that struck me in banging around the site was you have a lot of content on there. A lot of self-generated content. You have your own podcasts, a presentation. I listened briefly to one of them, so you're spending the money on content and effective marketing, is that just how it works when you're out in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, that it's part of that DNA that's what you do? 

Bobby: I think it's a part of the DNA of what I believe in, which is being very helpful to your customers and I think that'll payback and help us grow as a company, and so a large portion of what we do is exactly what you said. And even during the pandemic days, we took more of a focus on that, accelerated a lot of the content we pushed out there, accelerated a lot of the interviews that we're doing for the podcast. to be able to give relevant information back to our customers. We think that's going to pay dividends back. 

How do you get known? 

Bobby: That's tough, right? It's tough especially because we rebranded again about a year ago, but a large portion of our business, at this point at least, I would say is through referrals. So us pushing out the content, us pushing gaps, and being helpful in the space has paid dividends in the sense that we're getting customers to come to us. We're getting customers to buy from us. We're getting customers to talk to other customers about it. 

And that is one of those things that day in and day out, we're focused on continuing to do, to be able to build more of that brand because there's of course legacy providers in the space that are well-known brand names. You know, no one gets fired by bringing on a well-known legacy provider but what you don't get is you don't get the innovation. You don't get things working as fast as we do. And so we're really focused on building the brand focused on what our customers want.

I'm curious, about a year ago when you were looking at joining the company, I suspect you would have either not known very much about digital signage or maybe you did, but did you look at the marketplace and wonder, okay, this is awfully crowded. There's a lot of people saying essentially the same thing, do I want to get involved in this? 

I always wonder how much of a struggle it is for startups to cut through. 

Bobby: Yeah, that's a great question. So a year ago, to answer your question, I did not know almost anything about digital signage. I was very new to the industry. But as I looked at the industry, you're right, there are a lot of companies providing digital signage solutions, but as you think deeper, taking my experience from the Revel days and hearing what I heard with restaurants and retail specifically, and doing a good amount of research.

And I actually, before I even, took the role here, I did speak to 50 customers that are using digital signage. Not all were Raydiant customers, but all across the board. And then talking to them, I heard the same common theme: there are solutions out there, but there is no one solution that brings everything together into one experience.

And that's when the “aha!” moment went off in my head and I thought, if we can create this really phenomenal experience and do it at a very low cost and be able to help these brick and mortar operators, basically create the same shine that they can do online. You know, you can go online and create websites and social and all that good stuff, why can't we create the same thing in store? And so that's what intrigued me with joining the company. 

How much coaching do you have to do to your customers? Because there are lots of people who make investments in technology, and then, it just kinda sits there. And I've been involved in this for a long time and I don't know how many retail environments I've walked into and looked at the screen and I thought, “oh dear God, why did they bother?” And yes, you have all these templates from PosterMyWall, and access to other content, but do they use it? And how do you get them to use it?

Bobby: That's a great question as well. You know, on the backend, we can see how often these screens are being updated and it’s not like all businesses don't have to always update screens, but we can see that and our customer success team actually takes this up very seriously in the sense of reaching out and saying, “Hey, can I help you create maybe a summer special?” or whatever the case may be depending on the business.

So that's one of the areas that we do focus a lot of our time on. We do have integration with PosterMyWall, which is great. They have 150,000+ templates, a lot of templates to choose from, but the content is the hardest part of digital signage. And that's the part that either you have a full department doing it, or you have one or two people focused on it or to your point, you never get to it and you just have that one thing that you put up there when you first started the business and you're never updating. 

So we make it our problem to be able to, again, reach out and make sure that they always update content if they want to and make it very relevant to the messaging they want to push out to their customers.

You're in the land of venture capitalists, and I know that you're VC funded. You had a 7 million round last fall. Is it easier because you're out there to tap into VC funding or is it actually harder because there's a lot of competition? 

Bobby: It's a lot harder. And digital signage is not sexy to investors.

We are fortunate in that what we're creating is an experience platform. We are attracting investors that we typically wouldn't if we were just focused on a digital signage segment if that was our only kind of focus area. So it is harder in the Valley, especially because there are so many pitches going on with so many companies, like you said, in the digital signage space, particularly, but with what we're doing, we're actually in the next few months are going to go talk to new investors about our next round of funding. And I think they're going to be impressed with what's happened to the business and continue to grow. 

With COVID-19 being a bit of a wildcard in terms of how long this is going to last, and certainly creating a lot of trepidation for business operators, where do you think you're at in six months to a year?

Bobby: I could tell you, just very candidly, pre-pandemic, we were growing at 200% to our numbers. During the pandemic, we’re right on par witH 100-110% to our numbers. So we slowed down for sure, but we have not gotten to a place where we think that Anything is detrimental to our business. We continue to work with our customers, continue to provide value there, and kind of taking it day by day, to be very honest with you, as things change where we're trying to be very helpful. 

Yeah. I've certainly heard from a number of software companies, if they operate on a software as a surface basis, they've had N number of small businesses, small restaurants, and so on and saying, “Hey guys, we're not open. We need to trim back our costs. Anyway we just skip paying our subscription until we actually need it?”

How have you handled that?

Bobby: Yeah, there's been a percentage of our business that's gone through that, especially in areas where they're completely closed or continue to be closed or opened back up and then got closed again. So I'd say some percentage of our business has paused but at a high level, there are other ways to use this where signage should be very helpful. Like in your windows signage is one way, outdoor signage is another, so there are multiple ways depending on the business to be able to still provide a lot of value with digital signage and we help our customers to fire that out. If they are at a place where they need to pause, we, of course, allow them to do that.

Okay. All right. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. Just one final question. If people want to know more, where do they go online? 

Bobby: Oh, sure. they can come to raydiant.com. And I always say this and people say, why are you giving out your email? But you know, if anyone ever wants to contact me, I’m at bobby@raydiant.com, and I’m always happy to provide any information that I can.

Okay, great. Thanks again.

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. 

DCBolt, IMERZA - Water Street Tampa

DCBolt, IMERZA - Water Street Tampa

July 22, 2020

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

 

Real estate developers have long used scale models, drawings and photo-realistic visuals to help market their projects, but a massive new urban development in downtown Tampa kicks things up several notches to help lease everything from condos to office space.

 

The marketing center for the Water Street development is selling a $3.5 billion project that covers 56 acres of prime West Coast Florida property. When prospective buyers walk in, the lights come up on a presentation that blends projection mapping, visualized, real-time data and interactive digital signage.

 

The centerpiece is an elevated table that has some 450 3-D printed scale-model building, very specifically illuminated by a halo of a dozen laser projectors.

 

Instead of sales people walking clients through the space, and then heading to a meeting room to talk details, a custom iPad app controls what people see on the model - all drawn from real-time data sets.

 

I spent time recently speaking with Devin and Caitlin Wambolt, the D and C (I assume) in DCBOLT, the solutions provider that did the projection mapping. They were joined by Dorian Vee of IMERZA, which developed the custom program, sitting on top of 3D gaming technology.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

All right, so I have three of you on a podcast. I don't think I've done that in the past. We've got folks from DCBolt and Dorian from IMERZA. 

DCBolt’s Caitlin and Devin, can you tell me a bit about the company background and how you got to where you are now in terms of what you're doing?

Caitlin: Sure thing. So back in 2012, we started DCBolt, Devin and I were actually in Chicago. We were both going to 3D animation school, 3D animators nerds met in the classroom. From that point, we did our first project, we started DCBolt but our first project which was a nightclub in Chicago, where we designed a custom projection map stage, we did custom LED all throughout the nightclub. And from that point on, we were like, we're hooked. 

Projection mapping was our baby. And we started getting into more of the custom content aspects of immersive design. Then we slowly found ourselves in Orlando, which is currently where we're based, where we're working with the parts  doing a lot of custom animation, immersive media, things like that. And the rest is history.

Devin: Yeah, and this is Devin from DCBolt. Just to piggyback on that a little bit. My personal history and experience and background leading up to the 3D animation school was working for and with a couple of really key large AV integrators up in the Northeast region. So I essentially was getting my schooling on the world of AV and how systems worked, how to design them on a hardware level, the infrastructure requirements, how to run large projects. 

At the same time, I was using that knowledge and experience to pay for the schooling needed to do the graphic element, learn the programs, learn the 3D world. And then around 2010-2011 is when projection mapping just started on the radar of people who were kind of familiar with both worlds of how projectors work, how to use them, and also how to make some custom graphics. We were able to start connecting dots and we started seeing some really really cool and interesting, one of a kind projects cropping up on the internet and YouTube. And I had actually just moved to Chicago, freshly in, I don't know, my second apartment, maybe I had a bunch of boxes leftover. 

And I was either going to have to break the boxes down, throw them out, or I had just seen this really, really cool. It was actually a facade of a cityscape, projected onto these boxes. I forget exactly what the advertisement was, but it was an advertisement for something. And I remember being very wowed and in awe of this amazing video that I just witnessed on YouTube. And this is back before we had advertisements. This is back in the day and, and so I took the boxes that I had in my living room and I stacked them up in my apartment and I covered them in white paper. And I made my very first attempt at 3D projection mapping just using Photoshop and a projector that I happen to have leftover from a project. One thing led to another and before we knew it...

Caitlin: We were creating content for those boxes.

Devin: Yeah, we were using that project. I brought that project to the school and we started using it for all the different students to make content for. It was just a fun new thing, a new medium that people hadn't experienced yet. So one thing led to another, we ended up doing a couple nightclubs, made a bunch of videos and then eventually made our way down to Florida to help work on Harry Potter World.

Okay, yeah, that technical background is really important. I have run into motion graphic designers who have found their way into digital signage-ish projects, and they're obviously very good at the creative side of things, but they were just completely lost in the woods, when it came to some of the technical things, and particularly going back 9-10 years to the early days of projection mapping, it was really super complicated then.

If you didn't know what you're doing, you'd be total deer in the headlights.

Devin: Yeah, a lot of it was trial and error, and there weren't a lot of tutorials or people out there to reach out to for help. 

Caitlin: No Point cloud.

Devin: But that was the fun of it, really, you know, it was raw. And, you know, shortly thereafter, more and more software started becoming available to help with mesh warping and alignment tools and different things like that, which essentially evolved to the point where we were able to do something like we did in Tampa Bay with Dorian and his team. So the brief answer to your question as a background, DCBolt, we really found ourselves in the niche where we speak the language and can really speak to and understand all of the things that a content media team needs to know in order to do their jobs. But we also speak the language and understand all the variables and different aspects involved with the infrastructure that comes along with making these systems. 

A lot of people go and do a show or go and do an event and it has to be up and running for 6-12 hours and then they can break it down. When we design a system, we want it to be running 6-12 hours a day for up to 10 years. So there's a lot of different variables and redundancies and different things that we take into account as far as what brands that we choose to use and what kind of equipment we use, what's doing the video processing, the routing, the power backups, remote control, all of that comes into play. And then we can also relate all of those technical details to immediate team or to someone like Dorian’s team who has an amazing team of programmers, and they know everything they need to know about the video game world and we were able to converse with them and go back and forth and figure out the common ground of how to make get them what they need to get us what we need, so we can project on this city.

Right, and I would imagine that while you could probably get some gigs here and there in Chicago. If you want steady work with substantial budgets, you really ought to be in a place like Orlando or maybe Las Vegas, something like that, where these are the kinds of shows that as you said, may run for 10 years as opposed to one night for a brand launch or something.

Devin: Definitely and never to take away from those. There's just as much work and effort and talent for creating those productions. You know, it's just from our niche standpoint, we really specialize in installations that are meant to be permanently installed, at least or semi-permanently installed and used on a regular basis. We go for bulletproof design. So that's kind of where we set ourselves apart from most other companies that are similar to us.

Caitlin: We have the experience of the live show world, but we definitely prefer the permanent installation world.

Devin: The integration world, yeah.

So, Dorian tell me about your company.

Dorian: Hi, I'm Dorian Vee. I'm the co-founder and CTO of IMERZA, an experiential software company with primary focuses in the real estate and real estate development world. And our roots actually grew out of an architecture firm. In addition to a merger, we also have a design firm that's based in Sarasota, Florida. That's been around 30+ years and does a wide range of work from master planning through complex urban mixed use stuff. 

And what happened was, a little shy of 10 years ago, we started to look towards interactive, real time 3D tech to really change the decision making process internally. And so we started writing our own software on top of game engines to go through any level of decision you can think of whether it's entitlements and approval decisions or finished selections and things like that. And then we started pulling in all sorts of different data and being able to visualize data in these yet to be physically built environments in the game engine. And what happened was our clients started dragging their potential buyers into our office and ultimately selling million-dollar residences out of our work room, which is, as you can imagine, by no means a residential sales center. 

And it happened enough times that we realize there's obviously something there for sales and marketing. And we set out to build out this platform for both real estate developers but also real estate marketing. And actually, Devin and I met several years ago through a mutual friend in Boston. And he introduced me to Devin and we had in mind, for one of our architecture projects, this badass projection maps experience for this interior courtyard of this building. And we brought Devin down to consult on it and see how we could do it. Unfortunately, the Client ultimately wound up not doing it. But what was interesting on the Tampa project, Devin was approached by strategic property partners to consult. 

And at the same time, they had approached us for our experiential tech to help them through development decisions. And then when the RFP finally went out, we realized Devin was consulting on it and gave him a call and said, why don't we team up for this? This is just a slam dunk. If we mix what you're doing with what we're doing, it'll be something that's never been done before.

All right. So you guys have referenced the Tampa project, so can you give me information on what that was all about? It's up and running now, correct?

Dorian: That is correct. The Tampa project is a marketing center. It is the marketing center for a multibillion dollar real estate development in downtown Tampa, Florida. The development itself consists of about 56 acres of privately owned real estate downtown. And the company that's doing it is Strategic Property Partners, for which one of the major partners is Jeff Vinik, who is the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their marketing team has seen some cool projection map city stuff done in other cities worldwide. 

They had this idea and they said, “Hey, we want to do something similar to that, but wouldn't it be cool if we could actually just show all of these data sets in real time, whether that be market data, real estate market data, whether that be demographic data, or even traffic data, things like that.” And  nothing like that had been done before in a projection mapping scenario. These were things that we were doing with our technology, just on the game engine side of things. And they wanted to make this the centerpiece of their marketing center. So the concept was that we would 3D print a 16-foot diameter scale model of downtown Tampa, put in all of the buildings they're currently designing, build it modularly so that as their second and third phases get designed, we could then easily replace those buildings. But then projection maps all of this information and data and color and content onto that scale model, while at the same time showing related content on the surrounding video walls to that scale model. 

Devin: Yeah, we did about a three month discovery process with SPP directly just to help define an eyesight and determine what is the map boundary going to be, what section of Tampa is going to be, even just to determine whether it was going to be a square versus a circle, you know, how large is this model going to be in the physical room. And then we worked with them and the architects to work backwards from the physical restrictions of the size and height of the ceilings in the room to essentially design a system and find all the proper lensing that we knew would be able to cover this entire model and all of its intricate little surfaces from 360 degrees. 

Because their goal was to have people to walk all the way around this model, mitigating as much shadow casting as possible. So we went through a three month process discovery for that, and essentially determined the best approach and the most efficient approach for covering the surfaces from all the different angles with the least amount of projectors needed, but enough to give us the level of detail that we needed, while also doing the best to mitigate as many shadows as possible.

Caitlin: Right and it's a fine level of detail.

Devin: A very fine balance between the number of projectors, distance of image throws, lensing selections, and then how we kind of use the mapping software to merge that entire world together from the game engine, which Dorian's team worked on. And then we actually developed some custom bits of software to make the game engine talk directly through the projector mapping software. 

Dorian: One of the other interesting things was that most projection mapped experiences, at least that I've seen, are meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 10 feet away. Whereas this is a table that you sometimes upwards a room full of 50 people are surrounding and are directly on top of and looking at and because of that it had to be a very, very fine detail of these models.

Caitlin: That dual construction of this is really fascinating to me as well because obviously this is a development where things are changing, there are phases that are already on the docket. We're talking about lots of changes. So down to the building, the individual building construction, that was a huge criterion for the client and down to the table being modular. So everything is really designed with room for growth, with room for those changes that we foresee.

Devin: Ties right back into us. We really like doing projects that have a 5-10 year shelf life and we enjoy the challenges that are brought forth by making sure we're designing with the future in mind. As the city evolves and develops physically, you look out the window, you see a new building, well, we are prepared with IMERZA to completely update everything both digitally and physically when it comes to the scale model as well.

Dorian: Yeah, and that's one of the super cool things about real time rendering, and what really gets me excited about it is if this were to be done, with traditional offline rendering and traditional media capabilities, that would have meant, if one of those buildings gets redesigned, which will inevitably happen, all of that content would have had to have been re-rendered. And then, you know, of course paid for and that would have gotten just extremely pricey. And being able to do this and push through all of this content, in real time at runtime was just such an enormous cost savings to the client then what other traditional media companies were proposing.

So when I've seen scale models of new developments, and admittedly I have not had a lot of cause to see many of them, but in my travels, I have bumped into them. They would most typically just be described as a scale model of a set of buildings that may be nested in a larger urban area. 

And you can look at it from different angles and see the ones that are colored differently. And the other ones are kind of beige or whatever so you know these are the new buildings. With the property developers who said that's not enough, we need to do more than this to actively sell, is it about sizzle?

Dorian: It's about telling a story and showing data and showing how Tampa as a city is growing and the movements of people and where Millennials are settling, how the nearby buildings are performing over time both from a rent perspective, but also like an occupancy perspective. 

One of the things that I found pretty interesting and that was a total surprise to me on the data side of things is once we started pulling in these data feeds, and we could then visualize them in a 3D form, not in you know, tabular, Excel sheets and that sort of thing, you start to see things that you wouldn't necessarily have expected, like, naturally, I would have expected that the buildings along the waterfront would have had a higher rent growth year over year. But then when we visualize it on the table, you could see that it actually it's the buildings that are in the downtown core that are actually having higher rent growth. And that's something that you absolutely couldn't do with the traditional scale model. And that was critical for them to be able to get the high priced rents they're looking for.

So when you're doing a sales presentation, in a more typical marketing center, you would take the prospective tenants into this area and show them the scale model and show them some elevations and everything else and then go to a meeting room and then run the Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks that show all the different data components that you want to pitch versus this where, I guess, you could do the whole meeting just around the scale model, right?

Devin: One of the really great benefits of having the entire model and basically the entire section of the city that's being discussed in this gaming environment as well is that this is as close as we can get to an actual hologram going on and in front of them. 

We've also been able to cater very special presentations in different storytelling modes depending on who the viewer is. So if it's a sales meeting versus if there's someone who maybe is interested in buying a condo or something at this top level of the new edition building, versus someone who owns the stadium right there and they want to see... 

You know, Coca Cola comes in and they want to know, how is my branding going to look in the city? Well, you know, the immersive platform, we can upload a Coca Cola logo, and then they can visualize it on the model in front of them and all the renderings everything happens in real time. And you know, so depending on who the viewer is, we have many different modes that the presenter can go through to tell the story and they also have the ability to kind of shoot from the head. If something comes up, they can point at a building on a map and it will highlight directly on the model in front of them. They can drop the viewers almost anywhere and show them the view at certain times of a day and stuff that you just couldn't do in any other kind of working environment.

Caitlin: Right. Isolating floor levels too, and giving them that first person perspective of what it's going to be like to live in this building or what they're going to see. It’s huge and it makes for a really compelling sales tool. 

Dorian: Yeah, and we have just been talking about the super cool part, which is the scale model but as part of the overall deliverable, there are also two touchscreens kiosks that users could navigate this future version of Tampa themselves also in the room, but yeah, just like Devin and Caitlin were saying, it's an incredibly flexible tool for storytelling. 

They do have different teams. They've got a commercial team, that's all they care about, and their focus is commercial leasing. And then they have different real estate agencies that are interested in selling different residences. And then they've got a whole advertising team because obviously the stadium is right there. And we wrote a system that allows them to basically take a package of assets of billboards of digital signage, actual video mp4 files, and drop that into the content management system. And what it will do is, it will automatically ingest all of those assets and apply them to what Devin had mentioned, every specific billboard where it's supposed to go and suck in all of those video assets and do it all on the fly.

And it is controlled just off a tablet?

Dorian: It is off of a custom iPad controller that was written for the project.

So who manages the day-to-day? Obviously, you've mapped the data tables and everything, so that's okay. But as you described, you want to put in assets from Coca Cola or whatever, is that a managed service that you guys or one of your companies does or are the people at the real estate company doing that?

Dorian: We built a whole content management system that they can themselves upload new content to, they can create their own tours where they can say, I want to play this content then I want to see this on the table and I want to see these videos on the screens. So they can arrange all of that themselves. We haven't quite turned that over to them yet. We're still the gatekeepers on it for the first few months. But once everything's totally solidified, we'll turn that over to them and they will be running it on their own.

Devin: And on the systems side we've also built in a bunch of presets on the programming of the actual infrastructure so they can choose lighting presets, audio presets, there's some lighting under the table, they have control of so they can really choose and set select any specific presets they want. That ties back into the video game engine, so when they choose one thing, everything in the room is going to react to it. The lights go down, the sound comes on, the AV system itself integrates seamlessly with it.

Dorian: Yeah, for instance when they are talking about the parks and nearby parks, the soft under lighting glow of the table can turn green and you can hear birds chirping in the audio. It's very subtle, but definitely very effective things, creating that overall immersion and experience.

So how does your client measure that this is working and that the investment in time and money that they put into this is doing a better job?

Dorian: When you see 50 people enter the room and the system is off, everyone comes in, they all surround it. They're all milling about. Everyone's seen the scale model before and then the sales director hits the on button and the lights go dark and that system goes on. And 50 people at once go “whoa!” and start whipping out their phones. It was a pretty good proof of concept for them.

Yeah, sure, but there's a CFO in that company who's going to be saying, okay, that's all very nice, I'm glad people are excited, but is this selling more real estate for me?

Dorian: Yeah, I mean that is something that will get uncovered over time. Obviously, tools like this are going to be required in the near future. That's exactly why IMERZA as a company was created. The need to explain projects more in depth and the time of just being able to sell off a plan is gone. People expect to be able to experience the future and this project is on a whole nother level.

Now six months ago, pre-pandemic, people would have looked at this and said, “okay, this is the future, this is how commercial real estate is going to be sold”, but then pandemic hit and huge swathes of the population started working from home and companies started announcing we're just going to let people work from home forever now and commercial property groups started thinking, “Oh dear god, our leasing rates are going to drop to the floor.” So how does this fit into the “new normal”?

Dorian: Yeah, there's a lot of that going on and it's been pretty interesting on the real estate market to see how the pandemic has affected it. Interestingly, the housing markets actually picked up traction, at least in Florida. With the commercial leasing side really, it's not so much that anything has slowed down, they're just rethinking how you design your elevators and how you design the communal areas. 

We have not seen from our side any bit of slowdown really even on the investment side. Since COVID hit, we've landed six new projects and surprisingly, we totally expected it to slow down but if anything it's picked up. It was absolutely unfortunate for the SPP guys that the month after this amazing marketing center opened, COVID hit and they had to shut it down but they are open again and they're starting to give presentations again. Fortunately, because a lot of these tools were written in software, they could, during that couple months period where they were down, they could give remote presentations to people that couldn't be there in the marketing center. They could still see the content. They just couldn't see it in person.

Go ahead, Caitlin.

Caitlin: I was just gonna say yeah, if nothing else, this pandemic has just given so many people all the time they needed to be more creative and more expressive and creating more immersive experiences that will really sell the idea so I feel like, just like IMERZA, DCBolt really hasn't slowed down and now we're seeing even more interest because people have more time to really put more thought into solutions like these. So just piggybacking off of what Dorian said, I think, yeah, if nothing else, the time has been really helpful for a lot of companies to think up more creative solutions.

Devin: To be completely honest. Having the little break in time actually gave us the time we needed to get a breather. We were pedal to the metal to get the Tampa project done on the timeline we had and so we feel so blessed that we actually had it done and launched before the timeline.

Dorian: Which was a ridiculous timeline by the way. (Laughter)

Devin: I forget the total number of 3D printers but at one point, we had over two hundred 3D printers going at the same time for different locations across the country.

Caitlin: But it was worth it.

Devin: Yeah, it's been a nice breath of fresh air for us. We certainly have many things coming out of this and it doesn't feel like it slowed down, but I'm scared to think of how fast we'd be going right now without the COVID pumping up the brakes. 

I'm just looking for the silver lining but I feel like everything's gonna pick back up. I don't think that this is going to be a permanent new world that we're living in and people are always going to want to continue to develop real estate and come up with new marketing centers and new ways of conveying new ideas. 

Just by that short pre-COVID one month that we had, we saw so many people get excited in ways that they haven't been excited before about real estate and visualizing data even. A lot of times these are boring conversations that people have in conference rooms looking at spreadsheets, and now they're standing around them actually getting excited about a boring topic like restaurant revenues and things like that, that normally people don't care to even discuss but now they can visualize it. They can say, “Oh, that's where my friend lives down that street. There's a great restaurant. There’s a new footpath there” and it's kind of literally stepping outside of the box gaining a new perspective on, in this case, the entire city, and all the people who are city planning, making big decisions, it gives them the opportunity to look at it from a different perspective, literally walk all the way around it if they want to, and discuss it with everybody in the same room. And I don't think that the value in that is ever gonna go away.

Dorian: I think another and it's not related to COVID but more so than the Tampa project, we pushed a lot of technological limits. And there was an enormous amount of innovation that happened on this project both from just the the projection mapping point of view and pushing all of this real time content at the pixel density that we were doing that to just how do you get multiple real time computers with high end GPUs in their frame locked running at 90 frames a second and all of this sort of stuff. 

So there was a heck of a lot of innovation that happened, that, that we can carry through into new projects. And what I do find interesting and some of the conversations that we're having with companies is, you know, just these types of experiences are ones that can be enjoyed by people that are standing 5-6 feet apart and shared, immersive experiences. So I do think we'll actually see a bit more of this type of content, whether it's projected onto a table or outward onto the walls or something like that. These types of experiences, I think, we're gonna see more of them.

Alright guys, thank you very much for your time. I'm sorry to cut you off there but we try to keep it to 30-35 minutes and I'm sure we could have talked for three hours.

Frank Olea, Olea Kiosks

Frank Olea, Olea Kiosks

July 7, 2020

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

I love kiosks when they serve a real purpose - making it faster, better and easier to do something.

Olea Kiosks does just that - making high-utility but also good looking kiosks that exist to make something easier - like speeding you through an airport or checking in at a hotel or health care facility.

The company started decades ago as a moonlighting woodwork shop, through Frank Olea's grandfather. It grew into a thriving business doing a ton of work on trade show exhibits. Over time, those exhibits added more and more technology, and gave Olea a lot of direct experience with electronics and software.

Now the company is squarely in the kiosk business - with standard lines and a fair amount of custom work.

Olea grew up in the family business and eventually took over as CEO. We spoke recently about what his company is doing, the challenges presented by a pandemic, and how even when touching things can seem scary, a kiosk makes more sense than one to one contact with people you don't know are healthy or contagious.

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Jeff Rushton, Media Resources

Jeff Rushton, Media Resources

June 17, 2020

Some LED display manufacturers have made a mark in the digital signage and digital out of home industries by making a lot of noise and having splashy booths at trade shows.

Media Resources has taken a very different approach - plugging along pretty quietly and building up a solid book of business in the US and Canada that's based on its technology and end-to-end experience.

The company has an unlikely home base in leafy, very upscale Oakville, Ontario, which is in the immediate orbit of Toronto. It started many years ago as a pure sign company, and has used decades of experience in all the engineering, paperwork and politicking of putting up billboards as a distinct advantage.

LED is now 60 per cent of what Media Resources does, and that's growing.

I spoke with CEO Jeff Rushton. We get into the state of the business and why he's investing heavily in an automated manufacturing facility in Canada, doing work that's normally offshored to Taiwan or China. Lots of companies do design and final assembly over here, but get components built in Asia. Rushton's will be doing the whole nine yards in Oakville. 

We also talk about SITELINE, which is described as Light Trespass Mitigation technology. What it does is hugely reduce light pollution from roadside billboards - so nearby homes aren't flooded in light and media companies get their new billboards approved by local authorities. 

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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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Rick Mills, Creative Realities, Inc (CRI)

Rick Mills, Creative Realities, Inc (CRI)

May 13, 2020

Creative Realities is a solutions provider heavily focused on retail, an industry that has been pretty much shuttered in the United States and everywhere other than Sweden because of COVID-19.

These are rough times for store operators for the people who run them, the people who work in them, and the industries that support retail, like digital signage.

While CRI's CEO Rick Mills agrees it's a dark period, he also has a lot of optimism - particularly for the retailers who have the fundamentals to be around when doors are allowed open again, and for service providers who have the tools and know-how to help address what will be new norms.

Mills and I chatted last week about what CRI is doing, as well as about new pandemic-focused tools like thermal sensing screens that his company has started marketing. We spoke, as well, about his company's outlook, including thoughts of acquiring one or several of the companies who are competitors right now, but might not come out of this situation in one piece.

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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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Chris Riegel, STRATACACHE (2020)

Chris Riegel, STRATACACHE (2020)

April 1, 2020

These are some of the oddest, craziest, scariest moments many of us have ever experienced.

If you're sick, you'll hopefully recover quickly.

But the global economy is now very much under the weather, so to speak, and it is not at all clear when it will get better. Businesses are shuttered and many won't open again, or if they do, they'll probably come back in a different way.

The digital signage and digital out of home sectors are hit just like everything else, and this virus is going to take out companies the way it is indiscriminately taking out 100s and 1,000s of people.

I wanted to spend some of  the next few episodes talking to smart industry people about what they're hearing and seeing, as well as what they're doing.

First up is Chris Riegel, who runs what is now the STRATACACHE Group of Companies. We've spoken in the past, but I wanted to speak with Chris because he's very smart, well-travelled and connected, and always has an ear to the ground.

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Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

Mark McDermott, ScreenCloud

March 25, 2020

ScreenCloud has been around for five years now - a pure software startup that aimed to bring web technology fully into digital signage.

Now the London-based company has roughly 100 staffers in the UK, US and Thailand, and is evolving from having an SMB focus into servicing enterprise business.

I've spoken to co-founder Mark McDermott in the past for this podcast, but I wanted to catch up for a couple of reasons.

First, I wanted to know why such a relatively young platform was completely re-architected recently.

But I also wanted to dig into some thoughts from Mark I saw online about workplace communications and digital signage more generally, in a time when a pandemic has left on-premises screens unseen, and many to most workers doing their jobs at home.

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George Clopp, RMG Networks

George Clopp, RMG Networks

February 19, 2020

RMG Networks has been doing workplace communications and employee engagement since the days the Dallas company was known as Symon Communications.

There have been some interesting twists and turns in the story of RMG - like a curious spell as a digital out of home media company that ALSO did the legacy Symon stuff. But the management team is now squarely focused on the high opportunity workplace vertical.

I had a great chat with George Clopp, the Chief Technology Officer for RMG, about where the company is at, the evolution of its Korbyt CMS, and how what it does differs in the marketplace.

Among the particularly interesting things - content decisions that are determined and automated, using machine learning, or AI. Have a listen.

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David Nussbaum, PORTL

David Nussbaum, PORTL

January 29, 2020

David Nussbaum has years invested in the whole idea of creating what are called holograms - but aren't - for high profile concerts and other events.

If you remember seeing video of the Coachella festival a few years ago, and rapper Tupac “coming back to life” to perform, that was done, and many similar events that followed, using a very old visual trick called Pepper’s Ghost.

Nussbaum was part of the company that bought the patents right after the Tupac event, and he had a hand in nearly all the holograms that came after it for the next few years. Nussbaum then went on his own, creating a company that does that same sort of thing, but in a very different way, and a very different business model and proposition.

He took transparent LCD display technology most commonly used for grocery fridge marketing, and tweaked the hell out of it to create more, better light and visuals.

The result is a company called PORTL and product he calls Holoportl, which does what he calls single passenger holoportation.

That sounds way too Star Trek-y for me, but in simple terms, his company has developed a process to capture people on camera and show them in lifelike size on one of his closet-like display display units.

The idea is that someone - let's say a politician - could make a personal appearance, talk and field questions, without going there.

There are a bunch of potential applications for this sort of thing, and while this is not pure digital signage, one of these units could absolutely find a home in a flagship store.

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