BrightSign’s Jeff Hastings on the State of Digital Signage

Note: This interview was originally presented on the 16:9 Podcast, May 31, 2023.

If you are going to the big InfoComm pro AV trade show, coming up very soon in Orlando, you’ll undoubtedly see a very busy BrightSign stand, and a crowd around Jeff Hastings.

I’ve spoken with Hastings a couple of times now for this podcast, but it had been a while … and I wanted to catch up and get his perspective on the state of the industry, as well as find out what’s new with his company and its little purple boxes.

The Silicon Valley company is pretty much its own category in terms of media players – as I hear and read about solutions providers weighing decisions on whether to use PCs, smart displays, set-top boxes … or BrightSign boxes. The company now ships about 1,200 units a day – based on its reputation for having a range of durable, reliable devices that hit different price points and meet needs from simple to sophisticated and powerful.

In this chat, we get into the state of the digital signage market (It’s growing across segments, but not at 2022’s pace), how the characteristics of end-user buyers has changed, and the role of AI in BrightSign’s business, and more broadly, for the industry.

Mr. Hastings, good to chat once again. We’ve done a couple of podcasts, but you’re a big shooter in this industry. I need to talk to you regularly. 

Jeff Hastings: I don’t know if you can call me a big shooter, but I’m definitely hooked on the world and live it seven days a week, but it’s good to check in with you, Dave.

I’m just sucking up. I’m not sure why, but I am. 

So where is the industry these days? I’m just curious because when I talk to people, they will uniformly say everything is awesome. While you can say that too, you’re different in that you’re supplying stuff to all kinds of different companies, so maybe you get a better sense of what’s really happening out there.

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, I think one of the things that we do that’s a little bit different is that BrightSign is really a horizontal platform, as I call it, so we work in pretty much every vertical market that has a display that’s used. So we see from the broad market what’s going on.

Last year was a great year of growth for us with over 20% growth. This year has honestly started off to be a little bit slow, and I think most people are reporting that. It’s definitely been a little bit slow at the start of the year. I think a lot of things are going on with the interest rates and people being a little bit cautious about the recession, but overall, the industry is still growing. It’s not growing as fast as I think most people predicted after last year. But it’s a very solid market. We see more and more what people call digital transformations, I’m not a super fan of that word, but essentially it means people are putting in more digital signage and retail continues to be a great segment. People investing in retail to create better experiences after the whole pandemic of people wanting to get back out and people see the investment in that kind of real-world experience paying off.

Yeah, I guess you could call it phygital. Another term that I would be happy if I never saw again.

Why do you think retail’s growing? Is it just simply that they understand the whole experiential thing and that you have to do more in a store? 

Jeff Hastings: I think a few points. First, the whole idea that we’re going to buy everything online and just stay in our house, I think most people realize, yeah, there’s a lot of things that work that way, and I can just have it delivered. But the reality is we are social animals. We want to interact with people, and just being stuck in our house is not what we like to do, and I think most people are now seeing that with the results of the pandemic that, being stuck in your house is we’re not built for that. It’s almost akin to being in jail. A lot of people comment on that.

So getting out is important for us as humans and having that social experiment and getting out and shopping and actually being in retail, part of it is actually physically buying the goods, but a lot of it is social. People just wanna be out in the environment. So now that you take that as a fact that people wanna be out in the environment, if you create a place where it’s exciting to be in, and there are other people that are there, guess what? More people’s gonna come to your establishment. So we really believe that’s the fundamental basis of why people are investing in retail. That’s the main reason.

If you look at a secondary reason. A lot of the big retailers, their businesses boomed. During the pandemic, a lot of people talked about how online boomed, but actually, a lot of the bigger retailers boomed and they got a lot of new customers. I think you look at folks like Walmart, lots of people come into the stores, but during the pandemic, they had a dramatic increase of people coming into their stores. As we start going back to the normal world, folks like Walmart wanna make sure that they keep those people coming to their stores. Back during the pandemic, maybe they were the only stores that were able to be open so they got new customers, and now what they wanna do is create an environment where they keep those new customers. So I think there’s a lot of that going on of stepping up their game. Before it was just about price. “Okay, we’ll just go there cuz it’s got the best price.” Now people are like, “Hey, I wanna go there and I wanna enjoy my experience.” So that is playing into this investment in digital science and kind of digital experiences in retail.

Are you getting a sense from all the companies that work with you, that they’re starting to open up new verticals? I’ve wondered when healthcare was finally gonna start happening. 

Jeff Hastings: Oh all the verticals are growing. I don’t know of any verticals that are not growing right now. They’re all growing and some of them are growing faster. I think ironically, which I wouldn’t have predicted, the corporate sector is actually growing very rapidly right now. I think people are coming back to the office, maybe not a hundred percent, but they are investing in it the same way that retail is investing in the experience. People are realizing that an office is no longer a place where they have to come work, much like in retail, where you have to go there to buy a product, but you want to get people in that environment for the social aspect of it and the collaboration aspect and if you create a nicer environment, more people come to work. So there’s a lot of investment in that going on also.

And how does that manifest itself, like what are they doing? Big-ass video walls in the lobby or is it more kind of the operational side of it?

Jeff Hastings: It’s literally all aspects of it. One, they create an impressive environment. So lots of LEDs, and lots of video walls going into these places to create a more exciting environment versus just a bunch of cubes. Secondly, more communications which are just kind of standard displays, ways of communicating with employees and more, I don’t like the word infotainment, but infotainment, where they’ve got interesting things, are displayed to communicate with employees, but it’s also a bit fun. These are things of just celebrating employees. We see a lot of that going on and kind of recognize the employees’ communication about what’s going on in the company.

This whole idea of an intranet I think most people realize that, guess what, when they have an intranet, no one actually goes to that website. So that was a great experiment. I think a lot of money on intranet sites which ended up being a massive failure, so the ability to communicate with employees is very important, and what they’re finding is, guess what, if there’s a display up there, and it’s interesting, people will look at it and now you’re getting across a message, and that could be whether it’s a benefits program or you name it, you’re able to communicate with employees and engage with them in a way, especially with the younger crowd, that the younger crowd doesn’t want something kinda forced on them. They want to be able to kinda opt into it and the displays actually allow them to kind of opt-in in this passive fashion.

Has the buyer profile changed at all? We were chatting at some trade show or other, and you were saying how your guys are spending a lot more time talking to IT people than perhaps they did in the past.

Jeff Hastings: It’s very much changed. I would say when I look back 10 years ago, maybe 10% of the deals that we did involved the IT group. I would say today, any large deal, the IT group is involved with, and this has to do with understanding how they’re gonna maintain them because it’s now moved from whoever was wanting to “buy” the digital signage, whether it’s the marketing group or the HR group, that they’re quickly realizing that the IT group is gonna own these things in terms of making sure that they’re working every day, not putting the content on them.

So the IT group is now very much involved in that because they know they’re gonna own them, so understanding what the cost of maintaining them is gonna be. And then secondly, security is just an enormous thing today. I mean pretty much every large deployment we do we go through large amounts of security reviews. The great thing for us is that it is kind of the backbone of our product is security, and we’ve built our own proprietary OS. We have put in the ability that the security is super high. Our devices are used on navy ships on the most secure network in the world. So it’s a thing that actually benefits us, but just the interaction with the IT involvement, any large deployment goes through literally months of security review and if you can’t pass that, it doesn’t matter what the other organization from a content perspective wants to have, it’ll never make it.

When you’re dealing with IT and IS people, when you say it’s our own proprietary operating system, does that present a problem or are you able to say it’s derivative of Linux or whatever, and it’s fine?

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, so at first, a decade ago, we would say that, and it would just make the hair stand up on their back rise up. But now what they’ve realized is there are a lot of these devices really classified as IoT devices, and they now understand how they fit into the environment, and it’s not oh my God, we can’t maintain it unless it’s a Windows device. It’s interesting that they now are able to classify these devices as kind of IoT devices with proprietary operating systems and understand how to run them. It’s also that the larger corporations have now figured out how to understand the cost of a classic kind of PC. Not that’s what everyone uses them, but they now really understand that and most of the companies are now, they use a number of around $300 as the cost to just have a PC in the work environment. They now understand what a cost basis really is for maintaining these and for us, they’re giving much lower numbers in terms of being able to have one of these on the network.

And a lot of it has to do with the ability of these devices, if you’re using Windows or Mac, these things are constantly updated, and each time those operating systems get updated, there’s a percent of things that fail, and those are support costs. With our device, we don’t do that, so it actually saves them a lot of money operationally at the same time, keeping the security level high.

So what happens when you do have a firmware update? 

Jeff Hastings: So on our system, the first thing you can do is you can test those, and most of our customers do actually test those to make sure that they’re not going to get a failure with their system. That’s very different from something that gets shoved down the pipe automatically to maintain your security level. So by doing that, it’s a very controlled rollout, and typically it’s a very rare exception on our platform that something has to go out because a security fix came out immediately. A lot of it is just because of how our operating system is first cryptographically signed, and secondly, that people can’t put random applications on our platform.

Those two things raised a security bar really high so that when you need an operating system update, a firmware update, you can be controlled about it, you can test it and roll it out, and that really is where a lot of the savings comes in, because most of these operating system updates, it’s not that the actual operating system is causing problems, it’s the whole ecosystem of applications that people use.

And one of those applications breaks, and guess what, they get hundreds of calls coming in to fix it. Each one of those has to be fixed and dealt with, and that’s where kind of the burden of cost really comes up, and if you think about digital signage, 99% of those new features in the operating system are never, ever used in digital signage. In fact, most of them are actually being defeated. People don’t want them. You don’t want a desktop in digital signage.

Yeah. Is digital signage with the people you’re dealing with now or your business partners are dealing with now, are they seeing it as a mission-critical application now?

Jeff Hastings: It’s definitely moving towards that. I wouldn’t say it’s completely there. Some of them are mission-critical. We have folks in the F1 world that use our devices and I will tell you, they view our devices as mission-critical. The Navy uses our devices. They view them as very mission-critical.

Some of the marketing folks, maybe they don’t view them as mission critical. They view them as very valuable, and anytime there’s downtime, it’s important to them. I’d say it’s moved from a place where people would be like, oh, displays always go down, and they don’t worry about it either.

Hey, those things should be working all the time, and that plays to our advantage.

Ten years ago when the first system-on-chip displays came out from Sony and Samsung and then LG and on, they weren’t very powerful, they didn’t do a hell of a lot. They could do the basics. They could show a menu, that sort of thing, but they’ve been around for a decade now. They’re pretty powerful. I hear people saying they’re pretty darn good. 

Do these smart commercial displays now present a challenge that perhaps they did in the past? And are you looking at embedded solutions? I know you already do that with Bluefin, and you did a little bit with NEC Sharp back in the day. 

Jeff Hastings: Yeah. So, the way I look at these is the range of devices that can create this experience. You can look at a $35 raspberry pie that’s going to do a bunch of powerful things. So the whole content side of it, I really focus less on that. We have a whole range of players from simple to very complex with the new XC product, and it’s interesting to look at the content, but what we see more and more from our customers is the ability to maintain these and control these because the long term cost is really what comes into play.

So it’s becoming less and less about. “Oh, can this play this piece of content?” Because that’s being more and more commoditized over time, and what we’re seeing is, as we talked about, like the IT organization, the ability to maintain these, the sustainability. There’s a lot in sustainability, what’s the power consumption, what’s the lifetime of a display? And one of the things that we actually see, which is a vulnerability in the built-in displays, is that their storage is fixed. It’s soldered down on the motherboard, flash memory is a consumable, and it has a limited lifespan. So that’s one of the things we’re seeing with our players, you can replace that media with a display that has it soldered down. Once that memory wears out, which it does, then you have to throw away the whole display.

So that means that all of a sudden you’re taking, instead of a tiny little SD card that weighs a few grams, now you’re going to throw away a whole display that’s going to go to a landfill. So we push a lot on sustainability. Clearly, in North America, it’s a little bit behind Europe, but in Europe, that is a big deal of sustainability.

The bottom line is that the built-in definitely has some advantages. The operational ability to deploy it is simpler, but it’s not the panacea. There are still lots of things out there. The manageability of it, the ability to update and control things remotely, and the ability to change the SD card when it wears out are very important. And I love to make jokes about that. If I bought a car that I couldn’t change the tires when they wore out, I’d be really bummed to have to throw away my car because I can’t replace the tires, and that’s the same thing with flash memory. It’s the same thing as a tire. It’s going to wear out. You’d hate to throw away your car.

So with the Bluefin, I know they have a range of displays now, and they’re not just little shelf-edge ones. They go up to, I think, 40-inch plus or something. In those cases, when you’ve got an embedded display that’s got a BrightSign inside, is it swappable or upgradeable? 

Jeff Hastings: Yes. So there are a few things about those displays.

So the first is that it uses the same architecture. So we’ll use an SD card as the storage mechanism so that you can do that. Secondly, it’s actually slotted. You can open up that display and can actually replace the player.

So it’s like the Sharp NEC ones going back Five years or something?

Jeff Hastings: Exactly, and so we standardized on a different kind of connector to really make the form factor very small. So both the media is replaceable, and the player is replaceable. We’ve even had some customers already do that, upgrading their platform from an earlier one to their next-gen, and they’re all backward compatible, so they’ll fit into the same slot, and you get the newer performance.

So yeah, we see that, as a market there’s a class of customers that want to see more and more people, and at every show, if you stop by, we have more and more people who are doing the BrightSign built-in, and you’ll see that trend continue. You’ll see it continue as more and more people realize that’s a really good solution. The platform, the ecosystem, the upgradeability, and the remote management are really important, and they want to add that to their displays.

And it’s a little thing, but the simple fact that if you can put up a display in an hour instead of 90 minutes or something if you’re doing a big rollout, it adds up.

Jeff Hastings: It does add up, and like I said there’s the upfront and then the ongoing. So yeah, there are absolutely benefits to it, but you have to make sure that you don’t end up with a car that you can’t change the tires on.

What about Apple TVs? There are three or four companies, at least CMS software companies, who heavily market Apple TV as their solution.

Is that not a concern, but do you see it as real competition or almost like a novelty?

Jeff Hastings: I see it mostly as a novelty. It’s on the border of a consumer kind of operating system. It’s a little bit different. But still, you’re dealing with many of the same things.

You’re fighting the platform. Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire, they’re essentially all very similar. They’re built for consumers. They’re not built for commercial use, and what that means is that you’re kind of fighting the platform. I routinely see people using the Roku TCL TVs, and they have their little digital signage application, and then when it reboots, it comes back to the home screen, and people are trying to beat that.

So if you look at large-scale deployments, that’s where you get into this manageability and controllability, and those things are not optimized for that. It’s not like I’m saying it, they’re worthless. It’s just in large deployments, it’s difficult to deal with the little idiosyncratic consumer devices.

It’s interesting when you talk about Roku because I don’t think that many people know that BrightSign is, in effect, a spin-out of Roku, right? 

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, the BrightSign business was originally part of Roku, and in 2009, we spun out for them, and actually the core operating system is still very similar between the platforms, although we’ve taken it in the digital signage direction and added a lot of features and capabilities in digital signage and obviously the Roku guys have taken in their direction of streaming. But yeah, at the core of it, yeah, that’s where the technology came from.

Is there still any kind of sharing of ideas or anything between the companies, or are they very much different tracks and you share DNA but that’s about it?

Jeff Hastings: It’s really that we share DNA and that’s about it. I’m still on the board of Roku, so I actively participate in their business, but yeah, there’s no official sharing. But yeah, with me being on the board, we get kind of informal sharing.

Yeah, I mean, you’re sitting there actively listening and they say, we’re developing this, and you’re thinking, “Yeah, that’s interesting. Maybe I could apply that.” 

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Some of the stuff that we work on is pretty interesting, as we do a lot of out-of-home advertising. Their model is built on a big advertising model in-home. So there are definitely things we share that also.

You have high-end players that can go up to 8k. Are there customers using 8k or are they just buying those boxes with the idea of, okay, we’re future-proofed?

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, the way I think about those players: 8k is a feature. It’s not the only thing that you can buy those for.

Most of the people are not using 8k, and honestly, it’s just a marketing thing because very few people actually use 8k. Most people buy them for the power of the experience. So very high-end experiences that people would’ve classically used PCs, for now, can get our device with the reliability of our operating system and maintainability, yet the power of a PC. So that’s kind of what we see most people buy 8k for. The applications that we’re seeing right now are kind in two sectors. One is people with consumer manufacturers of consumer TVs that wanna create an 8k experience that has all this interactive and all the great features they use. They’re using our products and that, and then LEDs. So LEDs are probably the biggest area where we’ve seen the 8k as a single output. Those are very interesting cases because as the density of LEDs has come out and, folks like Nova Star now have 8k sending units, we can now plug in ak and instead of having multiple boxes of content rolling in, they can just have one big 8k pallet that they can split out to anywhere they want on the screen. That’s a big market.

Then the last segment that we see AK being used in is having content that spans over video walls. So if you think about a four-screen, 4k LED wall, right? 8k is perfect for that, and with the hiring unit, it’s got four HDMI outputs. So you can just plug four TVs and adjust the bezel compensation, and now you’ve dramatically simplified having a video wall. So those are the areas we see people using our XC product which does 8k.

I can’t open an email list or go to any kind of technology site without seeing a couple of stories or a couple of pitches about AI.

How do you see AI fitting within what you guys do?

Jeff Hastings: So first, AI is super interesting, and especially with ChatGPT coming out, I think there are a lot of areas that you’re going to see AI, at least in our world. So I see it as one, on the internal side, so helping our developers become more efficient. When you’re writing software, there’s a lot of what I would call mundane writing software that is done, whereas now, that can be automated. Actually, there’s GitHub CoPilot that generates a lot of software inside Visual Studio for doing simple things.

Then using ChatGPT to do some of the basic frameworks that work really well. So those are tools that I can see, and maybe on the support side, being able to use AI to get a much better quality first-level support request. So I see those things as on the operational side of the business.

And then, when I look at the digital signage side, what are things that are going to be changing the world on the outside of digital signage? I think the biggest one that I see is content generation. I don’t know if you’ve played with any of the tools on content generation. Let’s be real. Many people need just kind of simple videos and imagery, and with these new content tools, you can tell it what you want. I was playing with one the other day and said, “Hey, I want an image with a hamburger in a retro look”, and it generates an image for me. If you think about what that would’ve cost to have a graphic designer, do that., I think the package I’ve paid for, it’s 10 bucks a month. That one image would’ve probably cost a few hundred dollars for a graphic artist to do. So I think the content side is coming up there, and then the last part, which we’re working on a little bit, it’s still early, is for our integrators to be able to describe the experience they want and create a presentation out of it.

So that is one that I think is, it’s the same way that you think about, giving our programmers and our software engineers a big head start, I think this is going to be the next step. So an integrator, instead of having to say, how do I use which tool to create this? They basically put this into an AI and say, here’s what I want it to do, and it gives me the experience back. And at the simplest level, it’s already working, which is, for doing some simple presentations, not that it’s an enormous amount of work, it’s just the learning curve. We’ve got it working where you can just tell it for a simple presentation, it’ll put it together for you. So I think, and we’re just at the early stages of AI, so I think it’s going to have, over time, a profound impact on basically making digital signage easier and lower cost to do a lot of things.

Yeah, I’ve been saying to people that, yeah, the generative AI stuff is cool, and the ability to generate images from prompts, as you were describing, is really interesting. But I think where this is really going to get used is behind the scenes for things like you were saying with coding, generating marketing materials, doing smarter monitoring, all that stuff that an end-user customer may never see, but is going to, as you say, make doing this business easier. 

Jeff Hastings: When you just look at it, all of these things lower the barrier to entry to having a deployment, which is just good for our industry, and I think the AI tools are just at the early stage of creating these experiences and content that just lowers the cost of doing it. So all of them are exciting for us.

So you’re going to be at InfoComm, which by the time this runs will be imminent. It already is, but what are you going to be showing? I know you’ve got new players, new Series 5 players. 

Jeff Hastings: Yeah, we’ll have the whole lineup of Series 5 players. They’ve been dribbling out since the end of the year. So yeah, we’ll show the new XT5 for the first time in our booth, which will complete our whole Series 5 lineup. So all of them will be on display.

We’ll have more of the, as we talked about, BrightSign built-in displays in different form factors. Some interesting ones will be there. If anyone’s out there, stop by our booth, the new XT product will be out there, and it will be exciting, and more of these built-in displays will be there. That kind of plays in that segment of the market.

What’s your booth number?

Jeff Hastings: I don’t know our booth number.

I knew you wouldn’t, but I had to ask. 

Jeff Hastings: Those things are not on the top of my list. We’re in the digital signage section, and you’ll see the power of purple being out there.

Just look for the crowd? 

Jeff Hastings: Exactly.

All right. Thanks, Jeff. 

Jeff Hastings: Dave, thanks so much, and good chatting with you.