Userful CEO John Marshall On How AV Over IP Is Getting Traction In Digital Signage And Beyond

February 23, 2022 by Dave Haynes

There has been lots of talk – particularly on the pro AV side of digital signage – about how traditional corporate AV and IT roles and needs are converging.

And there’s been a lot of discussion, as well, about the pros and cons of shifting from more conventional ways of moving content around screen networks – with dedicated hardware and cabling – to using the networking infrastructure of an end-user customer.

I had an interesting chat with John Marshall, the CEO of Calgary-based Userful, going back two or three years ago at ISE, when he was relatively new to the company. He talked at length, and in detail that was at times way the hell over my head, about the shift he expected to see with digital signage going to AV over IP solutions.

That’s now happening in a big way, he says, accelerated in part by technology advances, but also because of all the upheaval of the past couple of years – when video streamed meetings went from something done here and there to constant.

We spoke last week about where using networks to move informational content around is at, how it works and why you should care, and about a new partnership his company has developed with display giant LG.

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John, thank you for joining me. You’re in Calgary today, right? But you kind of cycle between the Calgary and San Francisco area? 

John Marshall: Back and forth every two weeks. But yes, I’m in Calgary today. 

How has that worked out in the last couple of years with travel restrictions and everything? 

John Marshall: It’s been an interesting challenge because I’ve had an opportunity to see different cities, different cultures, different reactions to the pandemic. And I’ve seen a lot of differences, but I’d say the overall trends, whether it be relating to work from home, return to work, accessibility for certain businesses and the likes, it’s fairly similar. 

We’re talking because your company recently announced, and I’m going to read this because that’s easier, “an end-to-end software-defined AV over IP solution that combines Userful’s visual networking platform and LG’s Web OS signage platform to optimize display network for control rooms, digital signage networks, corporate signage and video walls.” 

That’s a mouthful. I was saying before I hit the start button that I’m not that strong on AV over IP and I had to read the press release about four times before I started to get a grasp of it. What does all this mean in practical terms and why should people in the digital signage industry who would be listening to this, why should they care? 

John Marshall: I got my career started in Silicon valley at 3Com Corporation, then launched another company that was foundational in building broadband and the mindset of the IT industry, the mindset of the networking world is being able to access multiple nodes, being able to access a range of devices across the network. 

So this concept of network-based solutions is very powerful. It means I can get to almost anything anywhere, anytime. And when you shift over into the AV world, the traditional mindset is around quality of video. If we really look at making sure we’re going to deliver the very best quality video for advertising or for monitoring the safety of a situation through cameras and the likes. You’re always optimizing for quality and you don’t want to bring into play the interference that comes with a network: latency, security risks, and the like, but more and more as we move towards wanting to see more and more information, combinations of video and data from multiple sources around a company, around the globe, as we’re trying to do more with it, making sure it’s networked is valuable. You get access to more information. You can do more with more information. So you’re willing to make some trade-offs on quality to get more information from different sources and I think that’s where the AV industry is headed today. We’re looking at multi-source delivery of content to multiple displays and that just demands a network model.

Are some of the issues that were kind of barriers to adoption like concerns around latency and the buffering icon on the screen, or blocky/pixelated videos, has that largely been solved? 

John Marshall: I’d say that’s being solved, and part of the issue is we’re moving from an AV world that’s quality focused to a networked world that’s AV over IP, you have to address those things. 

Just like you described, how latency affects the availability of the video. That’s the swirling circle, right? Saying it’s buffering, or I’m trying to deliver a single vide  to many displays distributed around the globe. How do I do that without taking on massive costs of wide area network charges, right? Like the broadband delivery or the MPLS delivery of content by employees, or how do I chop it up so I can present it on a single video wall that’s composed of many TVs or many displays or multiple DV LED screens that are backed by multiple controllers and how do I lace all that together? 

And transformatting that is challenging. It’s very challenging, especially when a network is involved. So I think we’re on our way and I think this really is the year where we start to see that migration. 

Is that because technology has improved to a degree that it’s possible, like networking technology, or is it as much to do with an understanding of what’s possible?

John Marshall: I think it’s a combination, right? I think that we’ve started seeing the  interest, the demand for seeing multiple sources of data on screens. A good example, if I’m in a control room environment, I want to see a combination of security video feeds, I want to see production video feeds, but I also want to see that side-by-side with data, IOT fed data. I want to see AI, showing me the correlation between video productivity, factory floor production, and information about supply chains. I want to see it all on a single screen. And that’s my control room environment. 

If I move over to look at advertising or marketing, I want to see social media feeds in parallel with advertisement or video footage promoting a product. All of it goes hand in hand. And I think that’s what the consumers are becoming more accustomed to through consumer channels. 

I can gather a lot more information today through my computer, through my mobile phone than I can through my business-fed video stream or my business channels. So I really think we just have to keep moving at the pace of consumer desire for video, audio, data-fed content. 

You’re describing stuff that can be done right now, but I assume what you’re saying is the way it’s done right now may involve a whole bunch of different software components, a bunch of APIs, and a whole bunch potentially of hardware components to pull it all together, and you’re saying with a AV over IP, a lot of that can be stripped out of it and made more efficient, is that accurate? 

John Marshall: I think what I’m saying is that we’ve found ways in the past when we had a segregated AV department of a company to do it, according to the standards defined by the national association of broadcasters, that drive the highest quality video. But that really was more of a point to point driven solution. I’ve got one source device for one screen. 

Also that video content was so voluminous. How do I move it across a data network that’s only operating at 10 megabits per second? It’s hard, real hard. We’re now at a place where the encoding technologies have progressed. Data networks are now operating at greater than 10 gigabits per second. We’ve got communication networks that are flourishing both on the local area network and the wide area networks so distribution between facilities is more viable. We’ve got much more storage capacity, so we can load more video, digital video onto our networks and the compute, the availability of computers for CPU or GPU has progressed. Moore’s laws have taken us further. 

So if we look at the combination of all of those things, we’re now at an inflection point where all of them align and are matching up with that demand for more data, more video, more audio, all in parallel, and the stars are aligning.

So  in a typical corporate environment, how would this play out, if they were using the Userful solution, let’s say with the LG Web OS for digital signage? 

John Marshall: The first thing is that LG and Userful sat down and looked at which environment we need to standardize around and the first decision that was made was if we’re moving video onto IP or data networks, we really need to be focused on the standards, the protocols of the IT world.

And so prioritizing those codecs, prioritizing those streaming protocols. For example, our RTSP, real-time streaming protocol ensures that we provide for quality while making sure that we’re latency sensitive on those data networks and using those standards of the IT world makes the IT world comfortable bringing AV onto their network more so than ever before and I think that’s the core of what we’ve done, is we’ve focused on its standards. 

So what would that mean then? If I was, let’s say, a financial services company and I came to Userful and LG and say, I want to do this: 

I want to have KPI dashboards in all of my sales and customer contact areas. I want to be able to pull in a bunch of data from different business systems within the organization. What can you do versus what my AV solutions people are suggesting, which is as you said earlier, a point to point solution? 

John Marshall: They’re going to initially say, if I start from the point to point solution that I have to segregate that and isolate that solution on my network, and the IT department automatically doesn’t want to do that because more and more we’re consolidating in the data center or we’re consolidating in the cloud, so they don’t want to have all these islands all over the corporation where they have to send IT staff out to manage that island. 

So if I can now centralize that infrastructure, if I can centralize in the data center, it makes for a much easier solution. But the concern or the risk that they have is, I’ve now got all that AV traffic flowing back and forth across my corporate network, what’s that going to do to the rest of my data network? How does that adversely affect that? 

So what we see today is that they’ll typically still start icing, they’ll create that island, but then they’ll see how they can start to pull portions of it back into the data center or how they can manage it from the data center remotely, even though it’s still an island. And that’s what our AV over IP architecture provides. It’s a platform, a software defined solution that allows for remote manageability from ITs central on that island that’s remote, using all of those network management protocols, having security and policy, enterprise policy in place like role-based access control, security provisions that they’re familiar with that keeps it secure across the network, and then as they grow more and more familiar and comfortable with that island, they can pull it fully back to the data and/or then start deploying more and more from the data center. 

That’s the trajectory we’re seeing already today at least at Userful. We’ve seen that from the last 10 customers that we’ve deployed at.

In doing that sort of thing, are you stripping out hardware components and therefore lower in capital costs? Or are you having to also upgrade the networking components to handle that, with all the 4k video files that are now streaming? 

John Marshall: I’d say yes to both of those. So the three anchors there are: first, we come from a world where you’re putting a PC behind a display that can decode the encoded video that was sent from the given source, whether that’s a full fledged PC, or whether that’s a thin client. We also have options like zero clients out there today. All of these different technologies are basically available for decode. But what you don’t have is you don’t have the manageability. You don’t have the security profile that you would ideally like. So what we’ve done is we’ve come in and created a software based solution that allows for you to load basically a soft client that can be loaded onto the display that allows for it to replace that hardware that traditionally sat behind that display.

So you remove hardware there, you lower carbon footprint, you lower energy consumption. It’s much more beneficial, but the other side of it is that you increase manageability, Because now you’re actually directly managing the endpoint. You’re managing the display and you’re not having to manage both a device that’s behind the display and then try over just that HDMI connection over that CEC link. You’re not trying to manage the display with the older HTMI technologies and CEC technologies that we had from the AV world. You have more of the network management tools that the IT world’s familiar with. 

So you’re putting the software client on the smart display, the LG Web OS system on chip device that’s embedded in the display, right?

John Marshall: Correct and we’ve done this very successfully with all of the digital signage displays from LG. We’ve done this with all of the video wall displays from LG. We’ve done those with all of the DV LED solutions from LG and it runs beautifully, but to get there, we had to actually work with LG, to do some redesign and some upgrades to their media engine within that system, within the Web OS displays and ensure that then on top of that, that media engine, it could support our RTSP and then support our application in kind. So it did take some rewiring for a networked latency oriented AV world that’s running over IP and that’s a challenge. 

So if I’m an end-user and say, “Hey, I’m interested in this. We have a network already in place, but we’re using Samsung smart displays that are running Tyzen or we’re using Sony or Phillips or Sharp or whatever that’s running Android, can we do it?” 

What do you tell them? 

John Marshall: We say absolutely yes. So Userful already developed our soft client for Web OS and deployed that with LG successfully. We’ve already developed it for Tyzen, for Android, for Linux. We have a client for each. 

So what’s the distinction then between what you’re doing with LG versus some of the other guys, because the press that came out, you said that some of the other guys were a bit behind. They failed at some of the things that needed to be done. 

John Marshall: I’d say it’s one thing for Userful to go develop a soft client that can be loaded onto a display. We can deliver content to that display regardless of manufacturer, regardless of the OS, however, if you want to make sure that you’re providing for a real-time streaming protocol, that protocol has to go right into the heart of that smart display and manage it’s media engine, it’s pipeline. 

And not everyone has been able to successfully integrate RTSP and so therefore they’re not going to be as latency sensitive as say, an LG Web OS display that can provide for gaming quality latency, less than 50 milliseconds of latency. That’s impressive across a corporate network. So if you want to get to that level, you really need to collaborate and look at those IT protocols in a new way. 

So it’s a distinction between, “we can do it” and “we can do it better”? 

John Marshall: Correct. And I would say that also applies to security.

If you want to put certain security standards in place that will make the IT industry comfortable, you have to do that not just in the app. You just can’t load an app onto the display. You have to actually look for AV, how that flows through the rest of the system. 

You mentioned earlier that AV is its own department in some larger corporations or historically has been and IT is obviously its own department. There’s been lots of talk for the last five, really 10 years about AV and IT converging. 

Is that actually happening now and are AV departments IN larger companies going away and becoming just part of IT?

John Marshall: We, at Userful, see that happening faster and faster. I think the pandemic has helped facilitate that, right? There’s a whole sector called unified communications and we all are zooming or Microsoft Teaming, or whatever it is. We’re using AV for core business meetings and communications. We can’t get away from it anymore.

And so when you’re using unified communications, that is AV, you just happen to be using Web RTC as a protocol, right? But did Web RTC come out of the AV world, the national association of broadcasters? No. 

When we look towards other AV technologies, sharing content from our PC onto a screen in a huddle room, as we return to work. Huddle rooms, war rooms, collaboration areas that’s becoming more and more AV driven, and that’s something that the IT world’s getting more familiar with and it’s becoming core. So that’s exactly where we see it headed as well. Making sure that we’re adopting the right protocols to match those emerging standards for the post-pandemic business operations. 

Userful came into the digital signage ecosystem marketing a product that was all about video walls and a different approach to doing video walls, as opposed to very hardware focused. This was much more software defined but you’ve shifted, maybe into AV over IP as being your core focus. Is that accurate and why did that happen? 

John Marshall: It’s absolutely accurate. I joined the company in 2018 and I arrived with that perspective. I’m a networking guy but not just a networking guy. The last several companies I was involved in were IOT companies and I saw, square on, more and more businesses, doing more and more with video but they weren’t doing it just to see the videos, they were doing it with a business purpose in mind, for example, worker safety or analyzing employee performance, look at truckers in transportation industry, wanting to monitor even the eyelids of the transportation workers to make sure they were staying awake on long haul deliveries and making sure that they could correlate that video with data for safety. And as I saw more and more data accumulating and more and more use of video, I said, we’re headed on a trajectory where video’s gonna come right to the heart of business operations and I think that’s what we’re seeing. 

More and more startups I’m seeing out of Silicon valley are using video to analyze and create better performing business operations. And so what I started realizing was how are we going to take that data from companies like Palentier, create a dataset, create a rule set, create AI and guide us towards managed visual operations. Who’s doing that? Who’s working on that underlying platform that brings all the data, the video together? And I didn’t see anyone. 

So it was a former board member of mine who said that they believed that just like the iPhone or Android phones would get larger and larger tools to be the size of an entire wall. And we’d be using walls like you see in the movies, right? Data dashboards, the assertion was that there would be an underlying business glue that operated off of video and there was an opportunity for some company to come forward and create that kind of platform.

They actually recommended that I take a look at this company, Userful based in Calgary, Canada because they had done a lot of the work to bring those AV protocols together with the IT protocols. So that was the story back in 2018. 

So you joined the company and had to look at things and said, this is a much more opportune market than staying purely focused just on video walls? 

John Marshall: That’s absolutely right. What is the hardest problem to solve? Where do we start this AV over IP problem? And our initial thesis was that we start in control rooms because control rooms are where you’re pulling in video feeds, you’re pulling in data. You’re trying to manage the network. You’re trying to manage security. You start there and it’s an aggregation point for multi-source and multi-display. So if you can solve the control room problem, the emerging modernized control room problem, then you’ll be able to address any of the AV over IP challenges that a corporation might be able to face. Naturally, they’re very concerned about the timeliness of what they’re seeing, since it’s real-time monitoring so choosing the right protocols mattered. 

So that’s where we began and we focused on control rooms and then have evolved towards corporate signage, call centers, logistics centers for data metrics, dashboards, and are continuing to expand into meeting rooms and the like.

Yeah, I think it’s been really interesting in the last two, three years that you’ve started to see pretty broad understanding that the control room environment, as you say, aggregates all this information, there’s so many other environments all the way out to manufacturing floors and customer contact centers and so on, they all have a need for a dashboard of some kind, because it’s the most opportune real-time way to communicate to the people working there.

John Marshall: I couldn’t agree with you more. And I think the interesting thing for us, now if I shift back to the AV or the digital signage space, digital signage is more accustomed to single sourced, single output. But as we move more and more towards that operations mindset, we’re looking at multi-source, so how do you do that without looking across a network? 

It gets a lot harder. So it’s a whole mindset shift, right? Multi sources is a whole new paradigm. 

Is this a situation that obviously in some respects is disintermediating some of the hardware components that are on a traditional point to point digital signage network. What does it mean for those companies and those end-users who are using CMS software solutions, traditional digital signage monitoring, and management solutions. 

Are they also not necessarily needed in this model or they’re something that plugs in? 

John Marshall: I looked at some fairly credible research recently, and I think that there’s always going to be a need for traditional digital signage. That market’s strong and growing and there’ll still be demand for single source to single display application, but as we evolve more and more, I think that we see by, I think the data suggested by 2026-2027, a third, maybe more than a third of the market’s really shifting towards a software defined approach and I think that’s a pretty fast migration, especially when you’re doing more and more multi-source, just a standard matrix switchers not going to get you there. You really need to look at network based solutions. So when you look at companies like Netgear, right? Let’s talk about Netgear very quickly.

I think Netgear is quickly evolving, taking traditional IT networking, they’re taking 10 gigabit switches and they’re introducing an AV mindset into those switches by creating profiles, AV profiles that you can match up the right source device with the right display, without having to know all about AV standards. They’re integrating the two in a solutions mindset that I don’t see other networking or traditional networking companies doing. They’re taking a very unique AV approach to network topologies. 

But I think as we move in that direction, Netgear is a really good example of a hardware based company that’s adapting and bringing that software defined mindset into their hardware products. So I think that will happen. I also think there will be hardware companies that have traditionally just taken source material and coded it and put it out through a given interface, they’re going to have a lot more to learn. And partnering with companies like Userful or Netgear would be advantageous for them. I just think now is the time to get on that train.

Did Cisco kinda miss the mark on this? 

They were in digital signage 10-12 years ago selling hardware devices and doing all that, you would think they would have been perfect for this sort of thing. 

John Marshall: I think Cisco’s really far out in front of many. They have a firm grasp around the right protocols for video, they’re strong with other technologies like multicast, they’ve got the full portfolio there, but I don’t know if Cisco’s quite yet seeing this migration of the AV segment of the market migrating on to corporate networks. And I don’t know if they are watching or studying the evolution of the industry and the implications for corporate networks in the same way. But I think that they’ll see that probably in the next year or two years. 

You mentioned the next year or two years. What might people more broadly see out of Userful going through 2022 and beyond? 

John Marshall: I think that one of the key growth opportunities for Userful is recognizing that moving to the data center for a private cloud or enabling AV from either private cloud or public cloud is an important move for the IT department and as AV moves from being an AV department nto IT, we have to be mindful that it is a much larger organization with different responsibilities. So there’s an applications group within most IT departments that are responsible for application selection, then once an application is selected, there’s an infrastructure operations group, and that’s typically where we’re seeing AV move because it’s an infrastructure or operations play.

We’re seeing that that’s an area that needs consideration. The security department, the security team within an IT department has a say. So all of these different areas have high relevance, but what we’re seeing is that as more and more sharing of resources become relevant and as AV becomes a shared resource, a multi-source, multi-display resource that will happen through I&O, infrastructure and operations.

And so we’re recognizing the need to move from islands to data centers and we have several offerings for private cloud and public cloud that will be announced later in 2022, and that will help facilitate that move. 

All right, John, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I even understood some  of it.

John Marshall: Thank you for making the time to hear what we had to say. 


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