The direct view LED market is crowded with companies that are all, for the most part, selling variations on the same things.
Because the technology remains unfamiliar to a lot of integrators, resellers and end-users, many companies have started selling LED bundles with fixed sizes and matched components, as an effort to simplify the products and the proposition.
A U.S. company called DetaiLED Solutions has gone down a different path – focusing mainly on custom solutions that fit the dimensions and contours of a space. They work with mainstream pro AV people, at times, but they also work with architects and firms that specialize in making built spaces visually interesting.
I had a good chat with Marc Van Eekeren, a founding partner and a guy who has been selling LED display solutions for almost 20 years, tracking back to his time with Barco.
We spoke about the company’s roots, where it is focused, and cover a lot of the current trends and thinking in LED these days.
Marc, thanks for joining me. Let’s start out by telling me what DetaiLED is all about or DetaiLED solutions?
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, thanks for having me, Dave. DetaiLED solutions as a company started in 2016 together with Steve Simard. We’ve been a LED business since the early days. In the meantime, it’s over 20 years or Steve actually, prior to Barco was even at Seiko, he started a little earlier and obviously, all LED and in the early days it was and still is an American company, Tektronix and you had Barco which was a Market leader. You had Lighthouse, you had Seiko and there were a few others. You didn’t have to have a vast amount of suppliers that you currently have in the world, and most of them are Chinese, as we all know. But since the LED manufacturing for the most part moved to China, obviously, and you’ve seen it as well, there are lots of “LED suppliers” out there nowadays. Not necessarily owning their own manufacturing machines and facilities and so we started with our own brand and what we aimed to do and still do for the most part is we are not just rebranding somebody’s panel. But in a lot of cases, we get involved in customized solutions.
Obviously, that is based on existing products and existing technology. But taking the smallest common denominator, making a design happen really as close as possible to the design, rather than trying to fit the design to a size of a panel and whether that’s dimensions, whether it’s its curves, whether it’s very creative solutions. So we’re not an incredibly large company, but we work with a lot of large corporate brands just because we have this experience and the knowledge, obviously being in the business for quite some time, really trying to fit the solution to the design that the designers and architects come up with.
So you’re the polar opposite of a trend that I’ve been seeing for the last year or so, I guess, with Direct view LED in that a number of companies, particularly some of the larger ones are those that have just added to what they already sell in terms of bundles.
So they’ve got fixed-size systems. For example, if it’s 182 inches diagonal, it comes with a mount, comes with a case, everything else, but it’s meant to be wheeled in and take the place of a big ass TV, where what you’re doing is the complete opposite in terms of custom designs for custom jobs.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, really that’s our core business.
Now having said that, it doesn’t mean that we cannot sell standard panels. But how do we really differentiate in that case? So we are looking at those solutions as well and I think the standard solutions. Now, if you look at between 0.9, 1.2, or 1.5, what there’s like is 110 inches, 138 inches, or 165, or something like that.
The packages that you’re talking about, we’re looking at introducing that as well. But I cannot imagine due to our size and if you will go to the Market and distribution channel that we’re going to be most successful there, but we’ll try to do that as well, to have that for certain people, because I do see, and I do think that a lot of these packages or LED in general is going to be replaced on the commercial side for now in any case, a lot of LCDs. So if anything, where we work a lot with designers and architects is, I just said, we do a lot of creative designs and solutions.
There’s still a lot of clients out there that are not that familiar with LEDs and just want to replace them, but they know about LEDs and they want a replacement for the LCDs that they have. So you’re not going to customize as much there if they’re not getting involved with the Genslers of this world or any other architect or designer. They’re more or less just wanting to buy a product that can replace their LCD.
David:. Right and dumb it down as one of those phrases, that’s a bit loaded and comes across the wrong way. But really what you’re trying to do is you’ve got some clients who just want something that’s very simple, so they can just put it to use, right?
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, and I do believe that’s a product that will go through a system integration channel more than really an LED supplier, so a lot of the custom jobs that we do, we actually designed the support structure as well. We share that with the clients and the designers and we provide that and we install it as well.
I don’t think those packages need that kind of hand-holding, if you will, and I think it will be great to go through system integrators, but obviously, we will be one of many in that case who will do that. I mean it’s more about relationships, I would think, at some point and obviously, price as well. Although in my whole career, especially the LED part of it, we realized that price is important and we want to be competitive, but that’s never been the determining factor for somebody to choose us or not. I don’t think there’s a future in just selling on price, as we know, which is a very Chinese strategy.
So you would be coming up with products that you guys are doing the reference design for, and then you are by and large going to get the packaging and everything done either in Taiwan or mainland China or somewhere else, and then, and maybe do final assembly here, or how does all that work?
Marc Van Eekeren: Well, we don’t even know about the final assembly here. We basically work with a few partners where we say, “Okay, I know you have a range of panels, that’s great, and in some cases, we might be able to use those or partly use those, but let’s take these panels or let’s take these LED boards and let’s start changing those based on what this design really needs. So we do need some manufacturing partners that are more flexible, maybe than others, and we’re working with some of those and their engineering team works closely together with our engineers to come up with the right solution.
And it’s still not rocket science really, but it does help that we have an extensive background in LED and up to board level, know what the difference is, and can help with that. So to give you an example of somebody close to you I think, I don’t know if you Ben, he used to be the technical director for Solotech. He’s a great engineer and has been in the business for a very long time. He works with us, but also Robbie who used to be the CTO for Barco and basically the inventor of the LED in Barco. So I am most likely the least knowledgeable person in the company, which is a good thing, but we have quite some knowledge within the company to be able to work on the solutions.
You work both in the indoor and outdoor display?
Marc Van Eekeren: We do, although due to the work that we’ve done, the reference that we have, and the people we work with, we gravitate way more to indoor projects and really high resolution. When we started, 4 millimeters didn’t even exist and we started with the 14 millimeters, which they called the virtual seven, and then at some point a year or two years later, 6 came out and in another year, 4 came out and nowadays for us, 4 is low resolution for indoor, to be honest, even outdoors. We either are very high resolution, so whereby 4 is the lowest and then going down or it’s more creative and it really is a lower resolution at 30 or 80 or 50 not so much in the panel, but with pixel strings or strips or anything like that.
And what are some of the projects that people who are listening would know and have some top-of-mind familiarity with?
Marc Van Eekeren: Well, quite a few of our projects are with corporate clients, so they would know all of them immediately if they went in, but we’ve done almost all of the LED at the New York Stock Exchange, so we did custom arches there, the screen behind the balcony where the bells are rung. That’s our screen, which we’re gonna open and we’re actually, over the weekend, installing more screens in NYSE. We recently did a ticker at the new Krispy Kreme store in Times Square, which was a completely custom design ticker. There’s a very big board above it, which I think is an electronics display, but the more creative part, again, there is something we did. We work a lot with MasterCard for a lot of their offices, putting in a lot of screens there. We’ve put in screens at headquarters at YouTube, Instagram.
What we do as well, we do quite a bit of cruise line work, which in a way is a niche market, if you will, within the overall LED market. But we’ve done quite a few ships and a lot of times again, the indoor side, so a lot of the theaters, et cetera, and we recently, and the ship is not in operation yet, but we did the latest ship for Carnival Cruise, and when I can share that, when we have good pictures if you will, we will share it for sure. We’ve made complete custom displays that can rotate 100 to 360 degrees. They can move up and down and if they’re all coming together, they would completely cover the whole glass wall in the atrium. But at the same time, if they don’t use the screens, they can move away and it’s a completely big glass wall and people can see the ocean.
Yeah, I’ve seen a number of cruise ships lately that seemed to have this as kind of part of their wow factor and that this is the thing that gets their people excited about being on that particular ship versus another.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, it used to be: you needed to have a pool, and then they added it, ‘cause we did that, I think in 2003 already. We were the first ones to add an outdoor screen besides the pool. So they could have movies at night, pretty low resolution still in those days. But now if there is any Cruise ship, it will have a theater with a big backdrop, and it’s quite a production that they have and they have more and more creative solutions with LED in general on the different ships.
It sounds like you guys have found inroads into a lot of work by going through or working with some of the companies that you’ve mentioned, the architects, the visual space designers, like the Gensler’s and those kinds of companies. Is that being something that just happened or was it a strategy?
Marc Van Eekeren: No, that is a strategy and you’re absolutely right. We work quite a bit with system integrators, but in a different way than probably some of our colleagues do. A lot of times we get involved a little bit earlier, and we try to be as well within the design, so we can help with the design. We can make sure that even before they build the building, that everything is prepared for all the visual displays that go in there as well. So we do work quite a bit with the design teams and then in a way, we’re part of the project. We work closely together with system integrators. So lots of times we still go through a system integrator at that point, although the LED part, typically we still most of the time install that as well.
Is it a different ecosystem than the traditional pro AV ecosystem?
I’m thinking in terms of, first of all, obviously the architects and designers, like the Gensler’s and so on, they’re not really part of the same crowd as an InfoComm crowd. They may show up and all that, but there are also high-end AV consultants that aren’t really normal integrators are there that do museums and things like that. Are those the kinds of people you’re working with?
Marc Van Eekeren: We are at times, obviously not with all of them and that’s not by choice. It’s not like we don’t want to work with them, but at the same time, you do see certain system integrators taking on that role as well. System integrators that move more into the design aspect of a project or consultancy role. So we certainly work closely together with them. What we don’t do as much, and that’s not because we don’t want to, it’s we’re probably not very good at that yet is basically setting up a sales channel purely through distributors, whereby we say, “Hey, this is the list price, and you’re a gold partner,” the way Barco used to work in the old days with boxes moving with just products because we view what we do as more as a solution sale than a product sale, and so it makes it a little bit harder.
And if somebody’s a system integrator that’s large enough such as Diversified or anybody like that, they work with US partners as well, but they also work directly with the Chinese manufacturers and manufacturers from China will always be cheaper than a supplier in the US that actually gets their manufacturing from China.
It’s been my perspective that LED is getting mainstream to a level that you now have architects and people who think about designing a big space, they’re thinking about as an architectural finish. Is that an accurate perception?
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, I believe so. I see the same thing and I think we mentioned them, obviously, Gensler is by far the largest architectural firm in the world. They have all these different offices. They have what they call the DSD teams, digital experience design teams and although it’s not always only LED sometimes it’s other lighting aspects or other technologies, but technology is definitely an integrated part of architectural design that way.
And to give you an example, I started, at some point, before we started DetaiLED solutions, worked for a VER advantage solution there, which was basically the sales and fixed installation part of VER, and we work quite a bit through ESI design and Diversified was involved as well with a REIT, in a real estate investment company that would hire ESI to design visual displays into a building, spend whatever amount, it was a couple of million on it and then sold the building. So it was a 600 million building, maybe, or real estate can experts say between 500 million and a billion-dollar building, they would spend a couple of million in LED to make it nice, and they would sell the buildings. So it almost wasn’t an investment too, for them.
Yeah I’ve certainly heard from ESI and others, that it’s also a way to recruit tenants and a way to hang on to tenants if you’re not selling the building, it just like people want to be in this school space, and I think that still applies even with workplaces changing pretty dramatically in the past year.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, that will be an interesting trend to see what is going to happen. Obviously, people are going to buildings again, they are going to work together again, but employers have seen that people can actually work from home, that there’s maybe a healthy mix between going to an office and people working remotely. So I wonder what that means in the end for office buildings and such.
Yeah. I think the Class A office towers, the buildings that people really want to be in, that’s where they want to have their office to show off, even if it’s a third of the size they might have been originally intended to be, they’re still gonna want to be in those buildings.
And the property owners are still going to have to compete with things like flashy lobbies and everything else. But if you’re in a B or a C building then I would not want to be in the property business right now.
Marc Van Eekeren: No, or in retail for the matter. A few of our colleagues that focus a lot on the digital side and retail, I’m wondering if they have to pivot a little bit to some other markets.
LED’s been around for a whole bunch of years, obviously, but it’s really been in the last, let’s say three to four years when it’s really found its way into digital signage in a big way, and being actively used.
What are you finding in terms of Marketplace demand now, particularly for the interior stuff? I’ve heard the sweet spot is probably 2.5mm in terms of pixel pitch, but I’m curious if that’s changed.
Marc Van Eekeren: We do a lot more 1.2 and between 1.2 and 1.8. So 1.2, 1.5, 1.8. We haven’t done a lot of 2.5 or 2.9 or anything like that. We’ve done some of them, but it seems the higher the resolution gets in terms of the offering. So now we’re looking at 0.6 already 0.7, 0.8, 0.9. Even though it does not necessarily make sense, not from an economic perspective, and also not what the client wants to do with the LED, they’re still the trends where they say, “Oh, I want a higher resolution.”
“What’s your content going to be? Where are people going to watch it from, etc. so you really don’t need this resolution.” They’ll say, “No, I want a higher resolution.” And we see and granted, we might not be the market leader there, but we see a stronger and stronger push to higher resolutions and it probably makes sense, especially if you start looking on the commercial side, if LCD is going to be replaced more and more with LED, you need to go to higher resolutions, obviously to at least try and match the resolution somewhat.
Are you seeing much demand for super-high-resolution stuff like microLED?
Marc Van Eekeren: It’s starting to come, yes. People were talking about a 0.9 and it was out there, and we’re starting to install 0.9 now, and then 1.2 over seems to be a standard resolution. 1.2 is still SMD. 0.9 becomes micoLED or miniLED or anything like that, and I see a trend going in that direction, yes.
And do you think that all the buyer interest based around resolution is really a function of how LED has been marketed for the last two, three years where everything seems to be a race around pixel pitch, as opposed to some of the other things that are arguably more important?
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, I think so. I would agree with that. I think that in combination with the fact that there’s more and more 4K content out there as well, and if somebody is going to invest in a technology that has a pretty long life span, that they say, “okay, then I might as well immediately go to 4K rather than focusing on the 2K that I currently have maybe, but because I know a year from now, two years from now, all our stuff is going to be 4K”, and obviously, it’s not just with LED, that’s a lot of peripheral technology around as well, which is going to 4K. So I think that’s part of it as well.
One of the revelations I had at the last trade show I went to, which was way back in ISE more than a year ago now, was bumping into an old industry friend, actually yet another Barco person, and having a chat with him and seeing a display, maybe 40 feet away and asking him, what is that? Is that like a 1.9 or 1.5 or something like that?
And he said, no, it was a 4 millimeter, and I said, Whoa, and he explained that it was all around the video processing, and he worked for a company that had custom video processing software and boxes that did that stuff. Is that a hidden, somewhat forgotten, important element of large format, video walls?
Marc Van Eekeren: I still think that the content part is still on the value. A lot of times people focus on the LED and the cost of the LED and the resolution, and obviously the size without having a comprehensive plan on how to use it and in the end, as we both know, I’d rather have really good content on a bad quality LED than the other way around because content makes it look really good, and I’m pretty sure, with respect to resolution and pixels that you can play with, as soon as you can create your content in the exact pixel resolution of the display you have there, whether it’s not an, exactly a 1080P or 4K, but if you can create your content exactly in the resolution that’s there, so no downscaling or upscaling, it will look like a higher resolution screen. It will look really good, and that’s why a lot of times people are focused on the highest resolution. But with the right processing and with the right content, you absolutely don’t need that.
Yeah. I see a number of offers, whether they’re just using a regular media play-out box, and then you’ve got this oddball resolution and everything, and I’m just thinking, “is this really optimizing what you’ve got?”
Marc Van Eekeren: Obviously not. They probably spent their money on the screens already, and not always, but a lot of times we still see it’s an afterthought on what to use, what to use the LED screen for, and what you’re going to use to put content on the LED screen and you spend a million dollars on LED and then you’re not getting the right front end equipment and it’s not going to make your LED screen look better.
Yeah, you’re scouring around your computer directory looking for a file, a video file to run on the thing.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, exactly. Or we repurpose some of the commercials or the ads we already have, some of that content we already have.
Yeah, though the shape is wrong. One of the trends that I’ve seen in recent years, and I’ve had some good long discussions with folks, is this idea of how you protect the displays, if they’re in an indoor environment and they’re within reach of human beings, and there, there were these glue onboard displays or what NanoLumens more effectively coined as engineered coatings, what protects the displays are, what do you guys think of that stuff? Are you using it?
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, we are. I have a few thoughts on that.
#1: We started selling LED in 2000 then I think in 2002 or so, you got the SMDs and the indoor displays. Off the top of my head, in 20 years, I cannot remember anybody really breaking an LED wall that was installed in a public place even SMD, and mind you, if people really wanted to break something, it almost doesn’t matter what you do to the screen because vandalism is vandalism. The only thing I’ve seen is we’ve put screens for the Blue Man group and they throw blue paint during the show and they throw it all over the LED wall and they didn’t realize that wasn’t a good idea. (Laughter)
But having said that, we’ve got some GOB displays as well, and we’re not really doing that anymore because it’s very hard. It’s not that hard to have a good GOB display and have the coating on there for smaller displays. As soon as the display becomes larger, it’s very hard for manufacturing to maintain a very uniform overall quality of the coating, and some of the leaders in our technology, for instance, will tell you to say that they didn’t go through with that either anymore, because of the difficulties and the larger quantities to get very even uniform coating.
Yeah, they could use it for that anybody if you use it for temporary or live events.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, all the rental, exactly, which is thrown around every day, every week, and the second thing is: When we installed it, and that was a little bit at some point with the Sony cLED as well, but as soon as you have or any coating, it’s not so much about Sony or any other company. If you put a coating on there, it becomes very reflective, and if you have a darker or lower brightness content on there, or you cannot control the light around you, or there is some daylight coming from one section, it looks horrible.
The screen might be great, and if you have it on full brightness and a lot of bright colors, you don’t see it. But the reflection is pretty high, which doesn’t make it typically a good-looking screen. Obviously, the next thing is that you can use is miniLED as well, which doesn’t really have coating like GOB, but it’s already a lot stronger, and then the next thing that people will say, “Oh, what about a chip on board?” That’s even stronger without the actual coating and everything like that.
So I think there are stronger and stronger solutions. I think that the biggest problem always was with SMD and with the small chips is during install, that if you put them down wrong or people didn’t have them carefully put panels next to each other, that you would pop out an LED.
Once an LED is installed in a public place, I have not seen a lot of vandalism and I’m sure somebody can tell me, “Hey, Marc. We’ve had it here or there.” I believe you, but I have not seen a lot of vandalism. I don’t think any of our clients has ever called us and say, “Hey, people broke our screen!”
I’ve seen it but it’s a special circumstance. I’ve seen it surrounding an ATM machine in a transit station that gets a hundred thousand people a day and just inadvertent bumps and scrapes and everything it’s got beat up.
But I worry about things like public concourses, where you’ve got a 60-foot stretch where this big, long video wall and people walking along with their roller bags and everything.
Marc Van Eekeren: Yeah, but that typically and even in corporate hallways, a designer or an architect would build in something that would protect it, maybe a little bar along the side or anything like that, because it’s the same in corporate buildings. They get cleaned every day and at night, they come by with the vacuum cleaners or whatever equipment they use and they can bang into these walls as well if they’re not careful.
All right. So the last question, when you are working with a new account or a new prospect account, what’s the first question that you ask them? Other than “do you have a budget?”
Marc Van Eekeren: No, we don’t. really even ask “do you have a budget?”
We typically ask them what they’re trying to do exactly with the LED screen and what they’re trying to accomplish and what their goal is with the design and also how they want to use it because that will allow us a lot of time to consult on resolution and technology et cetera. And from there, we can then come up, and obviously, there’s the front access to the space that is there, et cetera, because as I said we design a lot of times the structures for the displays as well.
So that’s typically the question that we ask somebody, and when we have those answers, we can tailor our proposal, and obviously, we’ll find out pretty quickly if somebody has a budget or not. It’s typically the people that come to you and say, “can you give me a price for anything from a 1.2 to a 10 millimeter?
Then we know that they don’t have any idea about what they want, what they’re trying to do yet. That’s typically the client or the project that doesn’t move ahead because they have no idea about what the costs are or even what they want to use.
All right, Marc, that was a great conversation. I really appreciate you spending some time with me.
Marc Van Eekeren: Absolutely. Thank you.