Opt-In Interactive Experience Are Going Touch-Free, Says Ameria’s Johannes Troger
July 13, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Health safety concerns that become top of mind for the whole planet back in March 2020 led to a lot of assumptions that the interactive display business was going to go touchless, with screens managed by mid-air sensors or perhaps by voice.
That only kinda sorta played out, as touchscreen companies did just fine through the pandemic. Staffing shortages and a desire to minimize staff to customer contacts led to widespread adoption of self-service screens used to order food and buy tickets.
But a German company that specializes in touchless technology suggests while consumers will use touchscreens to specifically get and do things in faster and easier ways, situations in which the screens are more about experience and discovery are going touch-free. Ameria argues that when a screen experience is opt-in, consumers are happier if they don’t have to touch the screen – for health safety reasons and also because of the age-old worry about the cleanliness of the people who used the screen before them.
Based in Heidelberg but selling globally, Ameria is focused on the software that create, enables and delivers touch-free experiences using optical sensors. I had an interesting chat with Johannes Troger, who runs business development for the company.
Johannes, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Ameria is all about?
Johannes Troger: Yes, thank you, Dave, for having me, and sure, I can give you a little rundown. So Ameria is originally a software company coming from software project development, and a few years back, we went into the brick and mortar retail space providing interactive solutions. We are all about bringing a great experience to the customer, and started providing a lot of touch free or touchless solutions to customers.
So this is one of the things we are doing, and we are also providing a cloud platform behind that to manage all the solutions, to bring out the contents and to collect the data.
And you’re based in Heidelberg, Germany?
Johannes Troger: That is correct. We’re based in Heidelberg, Germany. We’re founded here a few years back, actually by a couple of students from Heidelberg University who met there and found that there was a big market for software development, and yeah, that’s how it got started, and then after a few changes, we arrived at where we are at now.
Are the students still involved or has it kind of evolved from there?
Johannes Troger: So one of them is. He’s our CEO, and the other one left a few years back, but one of the founders is still heading the company and is still our visionary behind everything we do.
Okay, and you’re a private company, but you have outside investment?
Johannes Troger: Yes, we are a private company. It’s still mainly owned by the founder and his family, but we have some outside investors. So the biggest part actually goes to a crowd investing group. It’s a German platform called Companisto and we did a few rounds with them, which was a really great way for us to do it because it allowed a lot of people who also come from the industry to invest, and they didn’t have to go in with large amounts but they really became our marketing and PR crowd and then we have a few larger investors also involved, but it’s mainly in a family office space.
And what’s your role with the company?
Johannes Troger: So I’m really heading the business development and partner development part of the business, so on the one hand, I’m a lot out there. Now again, out there at trade fairs and conventions and so on, talking to potential customers, also working with a lot of our partners and also still have some accounts which I started developing when I started at the company, and where I’m still involved in projects, which is always really good because from once in a while to see what’s actually happening out there, that’s really good.
We met at Infocomm in Las Vegas two-three weeks ago, and I’m curious: was this kind of a first foray into the US to start to build out that market or have you been active in it for some time?
Johannes Troger: In the past, we had some projects in North America, but they were mainly driven by customers from Europe who we supported in projects with their companies in North America. So really Infocomm was the first foray we did into North America, also talking to potential customers there, to potential partners and getting a feel of the American market.
How would you describe the state of the business? Are you out there with active installations and everything else, or are you just building things up?
Johannes Troger: So we are out there with active installations. They’re usually not at a large scale yet, so we’re talking about a lot of pilots and a lot of small scale installations. So it’s about at this stage of the business, and I think we are on the verge of the first bigger rollouts with the Touch Free technology.
And is that the lead product now, Touchfree?
Johannes Troger: Exactly. That’s what we’ve been focusing on in the last two to three years. We actually had some touchless solutions already before the pandemic, and we used them mainly in retail for promotional campaigns. We used them at trade fairs for companies who wanted to basically get more attention to their booth. But it was a niche product. It worked really well in what it was supposed to do but people didn’t really see the need beyond that, and so with the pandemic hitting, a lot of companies realized that there are some companies out there in the market who are already doing solutions like this, and they came to us and based on their needs and requirements, and based on our experience and ideas, we started pushing those solutions, developing new options and re-augmenting our portfolio where it was needed. So that became really the focus.
It’s interesting, when the pandemic first hit, the conventional wisdom was that this was the end for physical touch screens, nobody was gonna use one ever again because of the contagions on the screen and the inability to keep them clean and so on, keep them disinfected, so to speak.
What kind of played out is, touch screens actually had a pretty good couple of years through the pandemic because it was determined that separating one to one human contacts was safer using touch screens, even if you did have to wipe them down or do that sort of thing. So self-service became a big deal. So I’m curious because I thought that, okay, a lot of this is now gonna go to touchless and voice, but it didn’t, but what did you experience?
Johannes Troger: So what we experienced is that, pretty much as you described that at the start, a lot of companies believed that the day of the touch screen was over and what we experienced over the course of the pandemic is that, there is a kind of big divide between solutions which are, I would say more process based. So you mentioned self order kiosks, for example, in the QSR space, and then on the other hand, there are more experience based solutions which are more geared towards marketing and inspiring customers and so on, and so with those process based use cases, we really see that touch screens are big in business and I think it’s kind of got the, “You still have got to get where you’re going” thing behind it, right? So people really want their food, and as you mentioned, it feels safer to do it via the screen than to stand in front of a person at the counter.
So people use it and it’s quite funny because even before that everyone could see all the studies about how dirty they were and how people were not washing their hands, and so on. We don’t want to get into those kinds of unpleasant things, but it was pretty clear before that, but it didn’t stop people before that, but when you see on the other hand use cases where companies try to bring an experience to their customers, inspire them, acquaint them with probably new products they have or with new services they’re offering, there, we see that touch screens are not working at all. So if people don’t understand what they’re getting out of it, they’re not gonna start interacting with a touch screen.
So they’ll opt in when they’re hungry or they need a transit ticket or whatever, but if it’s for discovery of new products and promotions or accessorizing an outfit, they are less likely to want to touch something?
Johannes Troger: Exactly!
Okay, interesting. So one of the challenges that I’ve seen with touchless, and it goes back to the days when people were using Kinect sensors, gesture sensors, and so on, there was a learning curve and there was a problem with accuracy, and I’m wondering where that is at now?
Johannes Troger: Obviously, the technology has developed a lot, and I think the way it has developed this much more on the software side. So really the side from which we are coming, because we are not creating our own hardware sensors, we are really hardware agnostic in that.
So I think there are really some different things that happened. For one, the Kinect really worked based on creating a full body model, what is called the skeleton of the body and then tracked different joints and different points of the body, and that always meant there was some latency in it, and that always meant that you had to keep the interface with really large buttons and so on because it wasn’t very precise.
And you’re asking people to perform!
Johannes Troger: Exactly, and you usually have a certain distance from the screen and they have to make really big movements. So this was actually really the first solution we offered and we saw that it worked really well in any environment where people were in a kind of playful mood anyway, or where a lot of kids were involved and so on. So this worked really well or where you really wouldn’t ask, People not to perform too much in front of the screen, but they still had a good experience, and so what we do now, for one, you’re much closer to the screen so you can really work with an interface that you could also use on a touch screen. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s advisable to just display a website, right? Because even with touch, you wouldn’t just use a normal website, you would probably make the buttons larger and so on. But it’s precise enough now that after a bit of learning, you can actually even interact with a website without any trouble. So this precision problem, it’s really a thing of the past.
What we also do is that we give users basically visual cues, so they get a sort of cursor where we have a dot and a circle around it, and then they know, okay, if they move closer in and the two merge, then that’s when they do the click and they get a click sound. So it has become more intuitive, more precise, but at the same time, you can also help people to ease into it, and then regarding that whole latency problem, here we are really working with a combination. So it’s not only about modeling the hand, but it’s also about taking a lot of other parameters, like distance to the screen and so on and tracking objects in this kind of 3D space that we create and that really allows you to interact very fast.
So I assume the UX design is super important, like the workflow and that you’ve learned a lot through the years?
Johannes Troger: Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s next to the technology and to making it really precise on the software side, that’s really the key point and that’s also why we realized pretty early that we had to be involved in that process, at least at the start.
So, we really pass on our experience with that to agencies of our customers, we are really involved in the whole design process, and obviously it’s about a lot of things, I think some of the things also have to be considered when you talk about touch screens which you use in a public space, obviously the size of buttons and the positioning, so position them in places where it’s comfortable for people to reach and things like that, and a lot of those things, once you look at it, they seem pretty obvious but they’re not that obvious when you’re designing it, and when you’re in the middle of the process.
Do you have to tell people up front on the screen, so to speak, that you don’t need to touch this, or is it intuitive enough that as you reach to touch it, it’s gonna blink and give you a signal that, yeah you’ve done your action already?
Johannes Troger: So we’ve been experimenting with a lot of different ways to make people aware, starting from not making them aware at all and just letting them find out themselves. But what we do a lot of the time is that we give them little hints, little popups and so on when they touch the screen that they don’t have to, in a nice way, and that it’s basically a nice service to them that they don’t have to touch the screen, but what we also do is that they still activate the button, even if they touch, right? So I think that’s important because we don’t wanna punish anyone for probably not getting it a few times.
At Infocomm, we had an app where the hint said in German, please don’t touch or you don’t have to touch. But it said it in German, and I was always joking. We do it wherever we are in the world. We do it in German because German is such a nice language for ordering people around. At the beginning we experimented with things like, if you touch the whole screen turned like flashing red and you would get MC Hammer’s Don’t Touch This song and stuff like this. But what worked is, and we have tried a few apps where the concept or the idea behind it is that people, not in a straightforward tutorial get made aware of it or get taught to do anything, but that they explore it for themselves and are drawn into this by realizing, oh I’m moving my hand in front of the screen and something is happening.
So for example, we have one case where it’s all about recipe inspiration in grocery stores and there you get drawn in by some audio visual cues to look at the screen, and then if you start moving your hand in front of it, and if you’re about 20 centimeters or 15 centimeters away from it, there’s this wooden cooking spoon on the screen, which starts moving with your hand, and so almost by accident, you realize, oh, I don’t have to touch, and I’m still doing something, and we also do this with start buttons, which follow around your hand when you move it in front of the screen. And so this kind of accidental realization that, this is a touch free solution that is working really well, and that’s what we can see in our data, and when we talk to users, which we routinely do, they usually say that’s probably the most satisfying moment that they feel when they found out for themselves that this is something new.
When you install something, is there an adoption period where you can see at first there’s lots of people physically touching the screen, but maybe a month later as you get repeat users, they get it?
Johannes Troger: So it’s probably not so much an adoption period over the whole group of users. What we see is that typically a larger proportion of the users get it right away. So what we do is we basically track all the movements that happen in this kind of 3D space in front of the screen, and we use this to also tweak our algorithms and to work on that, and we also track how many of those little messages pop up when people are actually touching the screen, and so at one point when we were checking the numbers, we thought, okay, there’s a hell of a lot of those messages, and we realized that they were restricted to very few sessions. So it seems that few people who don’t get it, they really don’t get it but the majority of people get it pretty much right away.
And this is optical sensing, right? So it’s like those old leap motion, little chocolate bar kinds of size things that create this physical space in front of a screen?
Johannes Troger: Yeah, exactly. So we usually work with multiple sensors so that we can attach them on the screen, so in a kind of kiosks solution, they’re built into that, but we also provide little boxes, which you can click on the sides of just a normal, old, passive screen that you have, and they basically from both sides, create this field and this multiple, camera approach also allows us to scale up in the number of cameras, which also allows us to, for example, in the retail solutions add a third camera, which is looking out and basically scanning the surroundings so that we can react to people walking past with the content in some audio visual ways.
So is there a little bit of AI and machine learning happening?
Johannes Troger: There is actually quite a lot of that happening, especially in the tweaking of the algorithms in regards to precision and to making it more intuitive, so one of the things on the roadmap is to use that to also be able to react to the way someone is interacting, so that after a couple of clicks we understand is this a power user, is it a regular user or is it a first time user? And then we can react in terms of the guidance that we give, and in that, there’s quite a bit of machine learning involved.
You said you’re a software company first and foremost, but you do sell hardware. Are you selling, kind of display totems that have this technology embedded in it? Because it’s just simpler to have a full package, as opposed to saying, “We can do this part now go find the other part”?
Johannes Troger: Yeah. This is what we do, obviously in the early stages, and it’s different for different use cases, right? So, for example, if it’s about retail, we have partners who built the kiosk Systems, there’s obviously a number of providers out there who custom build the kiosk to do what the customer wants, sometimes there’s more involved. So it could be like a printer to be added to print out the recipes or some card reader which would be included. So that’s where we work with the experts, but we can basically then deliver it end to end.
I guess what we’re planning when we get to larger numbers, this kind of partner ecosystem is obviously gonna grow and what we are also working on is to also have basically this kind of retrofit model we can use the screens you already have and just have an upgrade path.
So it sounds like you do hardware because you have to in the early days, but ideally you’re behind the curtain, so to speak, enabling other hardware manufacturers and solution providers to make this happen?
Johannes Troger: That’s really the goal, yes.
But you gotta get from here to there first, right?
Johannes Troger: That’s always when you bring in something new and when we were talking about the content and about designing the the UI and so on, I think if you bring out something new, you are always required to do much more than what you probably consider the core of your business, and of your innovative capabilities. I mean, if you do passive digital signage or you shoot a TV commercial or something, they’re out there. There are thousands of agencies who understand the channel, who understand how it works and who can tell any customer perfectly how it works. But when you come to some new channel, which it really is, then there is no agency out there who has a whole desk full of best practices, and that’s what we are seeing a lot of the time.
For example, with one customer, we were working on a solution, which is placed in petrol stations, and before that they had passive screens there and they obviously have what they do online, which is the only stuff they know how to do interactively, and so somewhere in between that, we had to find a way where the brand’s people said, yeah, that’s fine, that’s along our guidelines because they didn’t have guidelines for that channel. So it’s really about developing concepts for a whole new channel, and that’s the same really with the hardware. So we talk to the hardware producers, to the kiosk producers and manufacturers, and we discuss with them how to best mount the sensors and how to bring it together.
So yeah, that’s the fate of anyone who brings in an innovation, but I have to say, it’s also the fun of it, right? Because it allows you to not only see this very narrow field in the value chain, but to also learn and understand about many other areas and become a more rounded business person for that.
Is it just the software that creates this field and does motion capture and all that? I believe you’ve got composer software that allows the end user to fully design the experience that their customers or their users are gonna see?
Johannes Troger: Exactly. We have a cloud software suite also behind that, so part of that is a composer software, which allows you to build the content. So you basically just upload the assets and activate them, and the other part is the, it’s called the CX manager, the connected experience manager, and that really takes care of all the content distribution scheduling but also taking in the data that is created because other than a touch screen, we also have a lot of data that tracks what happens before someone starts interacting with that outward looking camera, ao we know how many people walk past, stop to look at the screen and so on, and it’s really for monitoring the hardware, and it’s really a system we started building a few years back and it’s really geared towards being a central hub for all sorts of different interactive customer experience solutions that you have out there. So it also runs augmented reality car configurators which we did for a customer. It also runs beacon systems and mobile apps for customers.
So the idea is really everything that you bring out there for your customer experience or for creating customer experience can be run via that centrally.
Interesting. I noticed on your website that you referenced beacons and I thought there’s a technology that had its moment and didn’t seem to get much in terms of broad ranged adoption, but you’re using them. How are you using them?
Johannes Troger: So, with beacons, it’s use case where is really in the automobile industry, and It works in a way that the beacons are placed in the cars, and then if you have the manufacturer app you can step next to the car, and it displays all the facts about the configuration and about the car you’re standing in front of
On a smartphone or…?
Johannes Troger: Yeah, on a smartphone.
So the idea behind that is really to provide information and then to allow people to take this information, and for example, then include it into their own configuration that they probably have done online and that they have stored in the app, and so that there really is a kind of exchange between the physical experience of the showroom and the digital experience they probably started at home.
If somebody stops you and says, who’s your big client? What’s that reference case that you like to talk about? What is that?
Johannes Troger: So, in automotive, the most work we have done is with Porsche, so for a long time they were our largest client and they were the most innovative ones really when it came to how to deliver more experience or more digital experience to their customers. In retail and consumer goods, the longstanding client and the most innovative one, and the one we were able to try and learn the most with this is definitely LEGO, and I think one part of that was really that they obviously understood the kind of playfulness of it right from the start, and what we are seeing is that really the retailers themselves that’s something that really only has happened for the last two or three years.
I think, five years ago, a lot of the retailers still felt okay, the whole digital stuff in brick and mortar, that’s mostly gadgets and let’s just hang up a couple of screens and that’s fine, if they even did that, but now for the last two or three years even in grocery, retail and so on, I’m hearing a lot of managers saying, okay, we know that we have to move and we know that we have to do a lot to be ready for the future, and I think the exciting thing at the moment is that other than, if you wanna build an online shop, there are a lot of people out there who can tell you that’s how you build an online shop, but when you come to digital in the brick and mortar space, there’s no one who can tell you those are the two or three recipes, that’s how you build it, and that’s it, right?
So probably passive digital signage is about the only thing that people by now know how it works, and you can find someone who does it for you and executes it nicely, and that’s fine. But anything beyond that, it’s still a lot of trial and error of finding out what is it really, what the customers want? What do they need? How can we attract them to use something?
All right, this was great. If people wanna know more about the company, how do they find that out? Where do they go online?
Johannes Troger: Obviously, the first point is our website, so it’s www.ameria.com
Okay, perfect. All right, thanks again for spending the time with me.
Johannes Troger: Thank you, Dave. Thank you for a really interesting half-hour with you.