Shane Vega Of Userful On Why The Time Is Now Right For AV Over IP In Digital Signage
July 25, 2023 by Dave Haynes
Using existing network infrastructure has long been talked up as an efficient way to manage and deliver digital signage solutions in large companies, but the concept has been clouded by concerns – like the cost of additional AV hardware and the impact of all that video on the company network.
But we now live in a world where companies support countless video conferencing sessions with piles of users, with little or no latency. Other technologies have also caught up, and computing just keeps getting more powerful.
Which is why I was interested in chatting with Shane Vega, VP of Marketing for the Silicon Valley software firm Userful, about his company’s AV over IP solutions. The company has its roots in Calgary, Alberta and still does a lot of the R&D work there.
Userful first showed up in digital signage circles talking about a different way, using software and endpoints, to drive video walls. But in the last few years it has been much more focused on a broader IP-driven solution that tends to start with control rooms and operations centers, but can also drive things like meeting room displays and digital signage around corporate campuses.
There’s been a lot of discussion about AV needs converging with IT interests, but from Vega’s perspective, that convergence is already firmly in place.
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Shane, thank you for joining me. Where are you today?
Shane Vega: I am in sunny Tampa, Florida, where although it’s not all that sunny today, we’ve got some rain, but that’s per the norm now.
Now, Userful is in Silicon Valley, but a lot of the developers are in Calgary, right?
Shane Vega: Yeah, that’s correct. All of our R&D, engineering team, and the like, they’re all up in Calgary, Canada.
So you’re missing the Calgary Stampede this week?
Shane Vega: I am missing the Stampede.
But you know what, I believe they deserve a bit of some good time because they spend the majority of the time avoiding the minus 30-degree weather.
Yeah, I spent a number of years in Calgary, and it’s an interesting weather city.
Shane Vega: Yeah. You know it’s bad when they’ve developed an entire infrastructure of walkways between buildings to avoid having to go outside.
Yeah, just like Minneapolis.
Shane Vega: Exactly.
All right, so we had a quick chat in the LG booth at Infocomm, and you explained what Userful was up to with its Infinity platform and AV over IP and AV as a Service and so on, and I’ve seen that. I will wholeheartedly admit I don’t totally get it, but how you explained it to me was very interesting, and I thought this would be useful for a lot of people to understand the infrastructure and distribution side of digital signage.
We spend so much time talking about the content and business strategy and all those sorts of things, but behind-the-scenes stuff is awfully important, and maybe we could start out by just explaining what Userful is and does and where you came from because when Userful first came out, it was presented to me as video wall software, and I had a hell of a time wrapping my brain around what it was all about. But I know you guys have evolved quite a bit.
Shane Vega: Yeah. I appreciate that, Dave. To answer your question, Userful has grown exponentially in the last 5+ years. John Marshall, our CEO came on board about 7 years or so ago. My timing might be a little bit off, and when he came into the organization, we were a perpetual software company, so we weren’t software as a service, we weren’t selling subscriptions. We were selling perpetual software…
You’d buy a license and then get that supported?
Shane Vega: Yeah, you’d buy a license then we support it for the duration of however long you wanted to use it, and the license for the software was pretty siloed, right? It was, “Hey, you can buy this operations center license.” Where, to your point, we were just managing content on a video wall.
And it was mostly control rooms, right?
Shane Vega: Mostly control rooms, almost exclusively for a time, and then we evolved into the digital signage world, and it was cloud-based digital signage exclusively. So what most folks are familiar with is hosting up in AWS, giving you some access to dynamic tools for creating templates and the like.
During Infocomm, what we’ve launched and from the time that I just mentioned until about, maybe two and a half years ago or three years ago, we’ve pivoted the company from perpetual to subscription-based software as a service, and that’s who Userful is. We are a software company, and we’ve been a software company tailored to the needs of the AV industry.
Most currently, we’ve just released our newest platform, and that’s really been the biggest evolution, which is moving away from application-specific deployments into more of a platform approach for AV over IP and that is really the biggest breakthrough development that we’ve had here, because in the older version of our software, we were a monolithic code base. Again, we were just selling either the operation center software or we were selling some digital signage. Everything was monolithic. It was difficult for our engineering team to manage updates, firmware, bug fixes, and the like.
We’ve now moved to a distributed code base that has given us exceptional flexibility with how we develop our software for the various use cases and applications in the AV industry. So if you think about what you’ve seen in the conversations you and I have had, essentially, and you hit the nail right on the head, this isn’t just about fancy software managing content on a video wall. Can we do that? Of course, we’ve got feature sets for various different use cases, but there’s also the infrastructure piece, and this was my “aha moment” through a different lens at Infocomm.
AV over IP has matured through the years from IP addressable matrix switchers where everything was still very much centralized into IP addressable nodes, encoders, decoders, transmitters, receivers, and all the different AV manufacturers out there have now standardized on this proprietary hardware version of AV over IP, and I started to ask myself the question: what is their value proposition in doing that?
And I overheard quite a few folks during this past Infocomm talk about the value of this distributed architecture: enabling flexibility, scalability, augmenting workflows, the total cost of ownership being lower, and I sat there a little bit baffled because these are all the same things that we talk about at Userful and so it really opened up an area where I feel like we do need to evangelize a little bit more about how Userful do AV over IP differently, and that we don’t necessitate all of the hardware infrastructure. We truly are a software platform, but because of the IT protocols that currently exist, that’s how we developed our software.
So when you think about Userful, I’ve actually positioned us a little bit more as an IT solution than an AV solution, even though our entire solution is built around the AV industry and its needs. The reason I say that is because we’re literally a server, non-proprietary, and an endpoint, and that endpoint is software, so our uClient application.
In between the two is network infrastructure. There are no end encoders, decoders, transmitters, receivers, and the list goes on. Because we are able to transmit content and aggregate content, meaning we can pull in sources of visual information and audio information into a data library or data store that we manage on our server and distribute that information to any destination or any screen and we do that all with IP protocols.
The same IP protocols, by the way, and this is how I usually get people to have the “aha moment.” If we were having this over a Teams meeting, Dave, or a Zoom meeting, we would be transmitting video two ways. In many cases, multiple participants from multiple regions of the world share two-way audio and video. We would be able to share content from our local computers into that meeting, and nobody would have to go out and buy a proprietary encoder and decoder to make that happen. So using that same infrastructure or those IT protocols that are currently at work, IP protocols like WebRTC for instance, we’re able to build a solution that leverages those same advancements for the purposes of AV over IP.
It’s a bit of a mouthful, but that’s what we’re doing.
So you wouldn’t have been able to do some of that 10-15 years ago because the network infrastructure is a lot of larger corporations hadn’t really caught up with that, so you would flood a network if you were using a lot of video and so on, but things have changed.
Shane Vega: Things have changed substantially, and I would even say it’s been not even 10-15 years ago, just 5-10 years ago, and the reason I say that is because there are the laws of engineering and physics like Butter’s Law, Kryder’s Law, Moore’s Law, which talks about how rapidly the advancements of, let’s say, fiber optic networks, which are doubling every nine months, the amount of bandwidth that you can get between the fiber optic cable or the amount of processing speed that you can get out of a CPU and how fast these advancements are happening.
What we’re doing and the way that we’re doing it is taxing the CPU of that server. It’s also taxing the GPU of that server, the graphics card because those are the two major components that we use for our solution. If you think about just two years ago, Dave, our servers that we were deploying in the field were 8 cores of processors. Right now, I have a server that we’ve certified that’s 192 cores of processors, so we’re able to do exceptionally and exceedingly more on a single server, which is why we’ve actually built our solution to be a data center solution by and large, where you take a big beefy server, you put it in your data center, and you’re virtualizing all of the traditional hardware that you would need, and you’re managing a wide range of AV endpoints, whether it’s digital signage, meeting rooms, operations centers, or what have you.
Is there a baseline for what you need in terms of the network infrastructure?
I’m definitely not an IT Architect, but do you need a CAT6E, or can you do this over Wifi, I don’t know, and I suspect a lot of people don’t know.
Shane Vega: Yeah, so it’s a good question. So again, because we’re optimizing for IT protocols, we’re able to do a lot, right? From the screen to the switch, we’re just really looking for that one-gigabit uplink, which is standard. Most folks are going to have that. From the server to the source to the server and all that infrastructure pulling into the server, we’re looking for the 10 gigabit uplink.
So there are some requirements for the network, but nothing that is outside the realms of standard network topology. The real intricacies or the real areas where we get into some deeper discussions are when they have multiple networks that we have to traverse. When you start getting into DOD environments where things have to be air-gapped and there’s no internet connectivity and when networks start to get a little bit more complex, that’s where we have to begin to get a little bit more intentional about how we design it.
Now that said, we haven’t yet met a deployment that we couldn’t meet the network requirements for, even though some of those were those complex ones.
There were two things that particularly interested me.
The first was, as you laid out earlier, that you don’t need all these encoders and other bits of hardware to layer into a network to make this happen. So you’re cutting out conceivably a lot of capital costs and a lot of potential fail points, and I guess the other thing that intrigues me, and you can talk about that next is or after.
The first question would be the idea that you can use this for multiple aspects. I suspect there are control room data dashboards, and software platforms out there, but one of the things you talked about at Infocomm is that you can cascade this out to do all kinds of different things from operation centers to experience centers off of the same platform.
Shane Vega: Yeah, exactly, Dave, and to answer the first question, you hit the nail on the head with one of my areas of confusion when I was at Infocomm, and I heard people talking about the low total cost of ownership, and they were tying it to these encoders and decoders.
We don’t require those things. So when I think about the total cost of ownership, I think about the hard work upfront costs that you don’t need to have and the additional BTU output from all of that hardware that you would normally need, that’s no longer going to be there, which is going to drive your HVAC costs, right? You don’t have all the power consumption. So for green initiatives and companies who are looking to do things, and this is a big one moving forward, folks want to be more green, and get green initiatives going like lower carbon emissions, lowering power consumption by not having all that hardware is yet another total cost of ownership benefit for Userful.
Again, our encoding happens at the one server that we require in that Nvidia graphics card. The decoding is done by a piece of software we developed called the uClient application. Now, where that uClient application resides, we give you tons amount of flexibility. We have integrated it into certain endpoints like Web OS or Tizen or Android. And that gives us the flexibility to be able to load that client application in various different environments and use cases, depending on the display type if it’s an LCD, if it’s a direct view LED, and how we manage that.
In some cases, we do have a small appliance that you might need at the edge, and that would be one additional piece of hardware per display, depending on the display type, and that’s an Android box that we load our uClient application onto if the display doesn’t have the ability to integrate with our software.
So if it’s a smart display that already has a system on a chip on it, conceivably you don’t need that Android box?
Shane Vega: Correct. So now what you’re left with, as I said, is just a server with software at the edge, and network infrastructure in between.
So ongoing maintenance costs are substantially lower. Initial hardware costs are lower. Your total cost of ownership around all the things I mentioned earlier is going to be lower. Therefore, your refresh costs are going to be lower. Because with hardware, every three to five years, in some cases five to seven years, you’re having to do a hardware refresh. It’s always tied to CapEx because it’s usually proprietary. They have to budget for CapEx renewals of all this hardware.
Because of Userful’s deployment model, we can take on an OPEX model for those folks who would benefit from that because your hardware refresh can be built into your standard IT refreshes because you own the hardware. In many cases, as many as we can possibly, push for, we don’t provide the server, we want the end user to provide the server, and that way, it gets built into your traditional OPEX refresh, and that way, the only recurring cost is the software.
To your next question about what we spoke about and the benefits of the platform. This is where our software really begins to shine, right? Because our platform is accessible through a web browser, so no proprietary software needs to be downloaded for a user to access it. You access our software through a traditional HTML5 web browser.
Once you access the software through a web browser, the first thing you’re going to notice is we have six applications that any user can take advantage of. In most cases, folks aren’t trying to eat the elephant hole, right? They’ll have a use case like digital signage, or they’ll have a use case like meeting rooms or experiential centers or what have you, and that’s one of the reasons why we are licensing the server. We’re licensing the CPU cores and the number of graphics cards that you need on that server so that if you have a smaller use case, your out-of-pocket costs are gonna be lower because you need a smaller server. But when you log in for the first time, you’re gonna see, “Oh, I got this for digital signage, but I didn’t know I could run my meeting room here.” or, “I didn’t realize that I can do these artistic video walls,” or “I didn’t realize I can incorporate these data dashboards from Power BI or Tableau as a native source and share those to any display that Userful is managing.”
The value is seen almost immediately, and so what we do is try to help people understand the peripheral or parallel use cases. So I use digital signage quite a bit, and I gave you this analogy regarding airports at Infocomm, Dave, where at least half a dozen times in the last six to eight months, I’ve had conversations with various airports, and most of them are pulling us in because they have an operation center. Airport operations center, or security operations center, or what have you, and they’ll say, “Hey, we want the Userful software to run the content on these displays and video walls in the operation center,” and when we have these discovery calls, I’ll typically ask, “Hey, have you guys thought about the advantages of using our platform to help you with the signage?” And I’m usually shot down rather immediately, and most folks know Airports are convoluted in the way that they deploy their technology. They got various different groups. They’re typically siloed, but specifically the airport operations centers, I’ll just say, “Hey, look, I get that, but let me just throw this use case out there and see if it lands and hits you as showing value.”
You’re in an airport operations center. Wouldn’t you want to be able to manage the entire network of screens that are currently being used to show baggage, arrivals, departures, signage, and all your wayfinding screens? Would it not be valuable to be able to manage those as part of your airport operations, also, I’ve noticed in many cases, they’ll incorporate security into their AOC. Some of them have independent security operations centers, but in either event, I would tell them. What happens if you have an incident at the airport? Wouldn’t you want to be able to take over those screens from the command center that’s responsible for monitoring and sending strategic messages to people, depending on what the situation is? If there’s a fire, “evacuate.” If god forbids, there’s an active shooter, “take shelter in place,” and be able to send strategic messages to various screens all from within your operation center? Well, you can’t currently do that because you’ve got multiple systems driving all of these different AV endpoints.
If you had a single platform, it doesn’t just give you the ability to scale your deployment, it gives you the ability to scale your workflow and become more flexible to augment those workflows where I can send strategic messages to screens, I can manage arrivals and baggage from my AOC, if that’s such a thing that I need. In addition, we could help you with your meeting rooms. You can walk into a meeting room, and I can help you cast some content in a meeting room and have an impromptu meeting on a drop of a dime, as just a few use cases of what our platform can do.
Sometimes, when you have these platforms that say they can do, in your case, at least six different things, there can be compromises. In other words, “Yeah, we can do all these things. That’s just none of them are particularly deep, or maybe one of them is deep, and the other ones are so so.”
Do you get that question at all?
Shane Vega: Ironically, no. We don’t get that question. But it’s a question most people should be asking David, and I’ll tell you that when that does come up, and it’s only come up a handful of times, I’m always very candid about what we can’t do as well as what we can do. And there is truth in the fact that we are software as a service, and so there are certain applications that still have roadmap features, candidly, that we’re going to continue to augment and build them out.
If you could probably imagine the top three or four of our use cases would be: operations centers, digital signage, meeting rooms, and data dashboards. We do those very well. With experiential environments, we manage those artistic video walls very well. Now when you talk about experiential environments, there are some things that some folks might want to get involved with, but we might have to have some deeper conversations, right?
And that really is around interactivity. Do you want multi-touch video walls, like in a museum for kids or something like that? Where we have some roadmap items to help ensure that multi-touch is what people would expect, where you don’t want to have the lag, you don’t want to have any of those issues when people are trying to have that fun experience as a child or what have you.
So there are certain features that are still roadmap items, but what I will bookend that with is, before coming over to Userful, I worked with one of the larger AV firms globally, and while I worked there, part of my interaction with customers was, “Man, I wish I could do more of these things with a single solution, I have to farm it out to so many folks.”
But more than that, I would have feature requests for the stuff that was out there, and it was always in one ear, out the other. I don’t care which manufacturer it was. If I went to some of these larger manufacturers and I said, hey, you really would benefit if you did this or this. It just didn’t go anywhere, and then I had a similar conversation with the Userful back in about 2018 at a trade show, I said, look, your software is good, but it really needs these four or five things to really be a competitor in the space that you’re looking to deploy, which at the time it was operation centers.
I’d say if it was six months, it was a long time. So within six months, I got a call from the then VP of Sales who said, “Hey, I want to have a meeting with you, Shane. We’ve incorporated all of your requests into our software,” and that really pivoted my approach to looking at users as, alright, these guys are the future of AV and, little FYI, we actually got that award at Infocomm, the Future of AV award.
But the reason for that was, look, if we’re going to be software as a service, then we have to prioritize feature requests from our customers above our own market research or our own gut check, and so that’s part of my role here at Userful as VP of Marketing is that I’m also over Product Marketing, which is over the roadmap, and so I get involved in customer calls quite a bit, and I’ll hear some of these features that to your initial question is, “Hey, how do you go deeper with these applications?” I look for that feedback, and then I get to go back to the roadmap and go, “Hey, we need to prioritize this, this, and this feature. Push out the other features to the next release. Let’s get these done because it’s revenue dependent. We’ve got customers who would value this. Let’s get it done!”
We take that very seriously here at Userful, and we’re at four releases a year, so you’ll never have to wait all that long.
So you referenced Airports. I’m curious, in the context of third-party software development, if there’s a software company that works in the Airport realm but isn’t doing digital signage or some of the things you do, but they want to visualize information on displays, is there an API or something that they could develop to work with Userful or does it have to be Userful development to add that capability on?
Shane Vega: We have an entire program around API. So we do have our own API, currently, it’s A REST API, so we can receive tons of different messages and calls to trigger certain reactions within our software.
But additionally, that’s got its own roadmap in and of itself. So we have our software application roadmap, and then we have our API roadmap where we’re going to be developing even deeper integrations and capabilities including, but not limited to, even wanting to create possible easy configuration tools for customers who can use our API to do whatever they want, onsite.
Are control rooms and operations centers the gateway for the initial point of contact, the thing that gets people interested, and then other things cascade out of that?
Shane Vega: That has been our experience. We call that our land. So we’re land and expand through our platform. Let’s find the use case. Let’s land where it makes sense, and then let’s show the power of our expansion, and just because of how the company has evolved, operation centers have been kind of the tip of our spear, and it makes sense because operation centers will use two or three of our applications out of the gate, right?
They’ll use the operation center software, they’ll use meeting rooms for war rooms or situation rooms. They’ll also use our trends for dashboards and Power BI integrations, depending on what type of operation center it is, so they usually get value from several of our use cases and applications out of the gate. And if it’s a large enough organization and we’re typically targeting LDOs (large distributed organizations), they’ll have multiple operations centers, which gives us multiple points of connection and interaction and engagement to open up opportunities to talk about the meeting rooms beyond your war room and situation room, or some operation centers are fishbowls, where they want to bring folks in their data center and they just want to use it as a showpiece to show their customers how well they manage their data, and so they might have welcome screens outside, and we’ll let them know, “Hey, we can manage those welcome screens for you as well,” and that evolves into a larger digital signage strategy, corporate communications, so on and so forth.
These large organizations, do they have separate AV and IT departments, or are they pretty much hiving into IT now?
Shane Vega: So more and more, IT is taking over, but what’s happening is it used to be that they have AV specialists on staff, and by and large, it was for the meeting rooms, and in some cases, the digital signage where they had AV technicians or AV specialists on-site, and those were the guys were the gatekeepers to decide what technology gets deployed.
Yeah, and get everything working before the meeting starts somehow.
Shane Vega: Exactly. “Who’s got HDMI? Who’s got DVI?”
So to that point, people keep talking about the convergence of AV and IT, and I don’t know why. That convergence happened years ago. People are now starting to realize that because of that convergence, the IT organization or the IT departments within these larger organizations are going to be the ones holding the budget and are going to be the ones responsible for managing any AV resources on the network.
And so, we have intentionally built our product to cater to those IT stakeholders in the organization. When you say things like, “Hey, you can centrally monitor the entire platform from a web browser,” they really get that right. When you say, “We’re an IT solution, we’re not an AV solution, which means we’re not going to put all this IP addressable hardware on your network,” a lot of the walls come down from their security concerns. You then begin to tell them that, look, you can augment your roles-based access control, and integrate with LDAP. Plus, we give you tools that are IT specific to help you monitor things like, what is the impact on my network? What is my current CPU utilization, or what’s my current GPU utilization on the server that we’re licensing? We give them all of those tools built into our software. So it’s not just AV end-user tools that we’re giving. We’re also giving those IT tools that help the IT stakeholders manage deployments because we recognize these are going to be larger in scale. They’re going to be responsible for a lot. Let’s make it easy for them.
When you talk about AV as a service, it’s a term I’ve heard for a while, but you guys go at it quite a bit differently from what you’re saying.
Shane Vega: Yeah, we do, and Dave, I struggle with that, because we were flirting with the term AV as a service, and we started to use it quite a bit. But I know, coming from the integration world, that AV as a service historically meant we’re going to just finance this stuff, right? We’re going to get a leasing program, and we’re going to build in the hardware, the software, the services, whatever we can into a monthly payment that makes it nice and easy for you guys.
We approach it differently by saying, we are software as a service that’s for the AV industry. Therefore, we are AV as a service, meaning, we don’t have all that hardware that you have to purchase. You’re truly able to deploy all of these AV use cases and manage an entire host of AV applications from within our platform. And we are a software that you pay for based on subscription, typically three-year plans.
That’s what we mean when we say AV as a service. It’s exactly that. It’s a software as a service, which is which is the actual term, which is software as a service for the AV world.
This strikes me as something that probably has a learning curve, as every software platform does, but it is almost something you kind of have to ease your way into?
Shane Vega: Believe it or not, not really, and I think that would be more pertinent if somebody was wanting to say, “Hey, I want to use your entire platform right now.” But as I said earlier, most folks are saying, “Hey, I want this operation center,” and they’re familiar with Operation Center softwares. They know what they want. They know they want to be able to build custom layouts. They want to manage big, beautiful video walls. They want to be able to interact with sources with soft KVM functionalities so that they’re not just visualizing the sources but they can engage with them because they’ve got tools, right? They got video management tools, and they’ve got access control, what have you, and so that software that we’re providing isn’t going to look and feel a whole lot different than a lot of the other softwares they’re used to using.
Now, we do it differently. So the real benefit, rewinding all over to the beginning of this conversation, is, yes, we’re giving you all these software applications and features, but it’s the infrastructure that really differentiates us.
Along with removing different hardware components from this kind of a network, you’re also removing potentially different software applications that you’d also need because you’ve got this stack of different things you can do?
Shane Vega: Yeah, exactly.
To that point, Dave, when I showed this at Infocomm, when I gave my demos there, typically when you deploy an AV solution, let’s call it digital signage, that’s the background that you’re most familiar with.
In digital signage, let’s say, you use it for corporate communications; you’ll have screens all over the office. In some cases, they’ll want to be able to integrate that digital signage into their meeting rooms as well, and when the screens are in standby mode, they want to be able to have some of those corporate communications as part of the digital signage strategy, managing those meeting rooms. But when you go into the meeting room, they’ll typically need some type of infrastructure to support those meetings and local collaboration. Usually, it’s a network of AV infrastructure, HDMI cables, or what have you, go into some form of a matrix switch that’s going to be some type of tablet controller that can give you the ability to manage what laptop is being viewed on what screen.
With Userful, because the software does so much, the screens that we manage are not tied to any one specific application, and that’s really the beauty of it. So I can walk into a room where they’re showing corporate communication. I can sit down, open my laptop, and immediately start a meeting by screencasting whatever’s on my laptop onto the screen in that room without connecting a single AV cable. I could then open up my operations center software on that same screen and turn it into an impromptu war room or situation room where I’m pulling in multiple sources and building out customized layouts, and navigating through a crisis. So there are a lot of things that we can do, and it’s not dependent on the screen, and, to your point, we’ve reduced not just the hardware need but the software as well.
All right, Shane, that was super interesting. I know much more about this space than I did half an hour ago.
Shane Vega: It’s been great talking to you, Dave. I appreciate it.