Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark

Mike Casper, Azumo

April 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I spoke with Azumo CEO Mike Casper.

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TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: So why would I want to do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Casper: Yeah, exactly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Casper: Exactly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Casper: Exactly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: How long has the company been around? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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