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Exclusive: Brightsign CEO on the evolution of signage

Jeff Hastings on the evolution of digital signage, Covid's impact and BYOD

What inspired you to pursue a career in digital signage?
My experience in creating new technology started when I was undergrad. I worked full time in an ultrasound research lab. I started building software that would acquire the prototype ultrasound signals and create images from them. This got me interested in HW, SW and imaging. Over the years, my experience leading engineering departments for ReplayTV and Rio Digital Audio led me to working with Anthony Wood at Roku.

I joined Roku when the company was going through a fundamental change in their business with the introduction of the Netflix player. The new investors were very focused on the consumer market and didn’t want to invest into the commercial side of Roku. Anthony and I discussed the best ways to take advantage of the commercial market given this dynamic, and we decided to spin out the business as a separate company. I was inspired by the idea of creating a high quality product that was purpose-built for the emerging digital signage market.

What was your vision when you joined BrightSign?
I had a vision of developing a product that served the needs of this evolving market. I saw devices in the market that were basically being shoe-horned into the task at hand and not performing reliably or securely. Digital signage just isn’t worth the cost of implementation if there are blank screens or worse, the Windows “blue screen of death”. I knew I could lead a team to make something that just worked; something end-users could rely on. 

How has digital signage evolved since you joined BrightSign over 10 years ago?
Digital signage has evolved from a very niche market of screens showing images and video to an extremely innovative industry using the latest hardware, software and cloud technologies to enable immersive experiences in virtually every vertical market, as well as secure and reliable cloud networking features. At BrightSign, we’ve ushered along this evolution by delivering a product based on high quality and reliability and focusing on partnerships within the industry. With these two things, the business continues to grow in directions that we had never contemplated before and each year we grow into more of these new and diverse applications and projects. It keeps things exciting!

How has Covid changed the industry?
Covid has changed how the industry defines interactivity, leading to new solutions and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking. Touchless interactivity had been under consideration for a long time, but these solutions have been accelerated in today’s unique circumstances. Heightened hygiene awareness is likely to stick around for a long time after the pandemic, so touchless digital displays are definitely here to stay. It also seems that Covid has rolled out the benefits of digital to some businesses that we still sticking with traditional signage. Digital signage pivoted rapidly from offering promotional and marketing messages to become a vehicle for communicating critically important health and safety messages to patrons, employees and the public at-large. The ability to swiftly and remotely update content enabled organisations to keep pace with fast-evolving health regulations.

Are customers still happy to use touch screens – and what alternatives can the industry offer?
Understandably, given the public health warnings, there is increased caution amongst many customers about using touchscreens. The industry has responded by accelerating the roll-out of technologies that minimise or eliminate the need for contact. Many of these technologies are not new, but have been the subject of renewed focus. Sensors that recognise the presence of a hand in the field of vision can trigger responses from the content, and some can even register swiping motions for navigation of content. There’s also been more investment in BYOD solutions, where customers scan a QR code and interact with a digital display through their own device. Even self-service kiosks have been kitted out with buttons and sensors that don’t require physical touch and can be retrofitted into existing hardware.

During the pandemic, how important has BYOD been and how has technology evolved to improve access to signage from customer’s own device?
BYOD has provided a safe and fun way for customers to interact with digital signage. In addition, it has provided businesses with another safe means to re-introduce interactivity. BYOD solutions do not require internet connection or app, making them accessible for all businesses to make use of. We foresee that interacting mobile devices with displays will become much more popular in retail. We’re currently developing BrightSign Mobile, a product and mobile service focussed on connected retail applications, where brands cannot be on the retailer’s network, making cloud connectivity a challenge.

What professional achievements are you most proud of?
With regard to BrightSign, I am most proud of taking a business from loss to profitability and turning a niche product into something that is usable by the general audience and respected by the market. 

What is your broader vision for the digital signage industry?
I think the industry as a whole needs to focus on bringing ease-of-use and raising the bar for quality experiences and reliability. Lots of companies focus on new things but forget that the biggest problem in digital signage is blank screens or Windows “blue screens of death”. That must become unacceptable in order to advance the industry as a whole.