Fergal Ó Ceallaigh On Ryarc’s Long, Stealthy History, And Its Push To Use TV Transmitter Tech For Digital Signage

July 9, 2024 by Dave Haynes

I have been aware, forever, of an Australian digital signage software company called Ryarc, but through the years – and maybe a little because of the distances – I’ve never met or chatted with its founder and CEO Fergal Ó Ceallaigh.

It’s one of those submarine companies that kind of operates below the waterline and mostly out of sight, but Ryarc has been around for many, many years – and has done well despite its admitted marketing deficiencies, because the software is all about substance rather than sizzle. That has appealed to the IT people who get involved more and more these days in scaled screen projects.

I was reminded of Ryarc during InfoComm, when an industry friend mentioned on a panel a technology he’d come across that would and could use broadcasting technology to move around digital signage content, instead of broadband internet or  mobile data networks.

That sounded interesting, and I wanted to know more – as it sounded like satellite content distribution, but different. When I found out Ryarc was the company that was doing proof of concept trials in the U.S., I reached out to Fergal – now based in Seattle – and we had this chat.

Fergal, thank you for joining me. I’ve been aware of your company for a long time, but we’ve never actually spoken. For those people who don’t know what you do, what the company does. Could you give me the elevator pitch? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Thanks for inviting me on. RYARC was founded as a digital signage application, with the starting point of their need for a digital signage platform that combined enterprise capabilities with knowledge worker-level skills by the operator. So this was in an era when digital signage was moving from what was a highly specialized and fairly rare thing, to something where at least from our perspective, the requirement was going to be that digital signage was just going to be another tool in the armory of an enterprise and, as such, it would require rather than a specialized team to operate at a knowledge worker level. 

This goes back 20 years, right? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, it does. We divert a little bit into kind of my backstory. I worked for Microsoft in the 90s in Dublin and I had a fantastic time there.

It was Microsoft where the Nvidia of the day, Windows 95 was coming out. So it was a fantastic place to work, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start in my career, but I had an itch to try and start something of my own, and I happened upon digital signage. I could see the way trajectories were going in terms of connectivity. If you combine connectivity, availability, and cost & display, availability, and cost, two lines on a graph are going down and to the right and human labor is going up, and to the right. So those three factors combined to make it apparent to me that digital signage was going to be a thing.

If it was going to be a thing, it needed software to go with it. So I quit Microsoft, and I did my Asian odyssey backpack and thing, and I was actually writing the code for version one. I got so bored sitting on the beach in Thailand that I took to actually writing code. I’m serious.

That is dysfunctional. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: I guess. Yeah, it was extraordinary. I’m not a beach guy, which is, another strange story for someone who ended up in Sydney for as long as he did, but, yeah, so it was with that desire to have a go with that. 

Coming out of Microsoft, I felt I had a decent handle on usability and what’s needed for a knowledge worker-level software product, by which I mean a product that it became. It seemed obvious to me that digital signage was going to become a bigger thing and as a result, it needed to be a kind of a productivity-type app rather than some highly specialized thing that you’d need a broadcast engineer. I think the early software that was available did come out of broadcast if I’m not mistaken. I think that was Scala’s backstory. 

So, I managed to get my hands on one of those. I can’t remember exactly what year it was, but I was like, oh, okay, I can see how this works, but you’re not going to be able to give this to Joe in marketing and ask him to start operating it. So that was the kind of genesis of why I chose that particular route and why I started writing code to get there. But it took a few years, from building the thing in my apartment to actually launching the company. 

When did the business start, like when you were out there selling licenses and everything? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: I think the first license we sold was in 2006 but I had gone full-time about two years before that. 

So you’re pretty happy to start selling. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Oh, I was. But it’s funny. I was working for a company that was bought by Match.com in Sydney, and that was an interesting place to work at the age I was at the time.

But then, I met some folks there who are independently wealthy folks and the particular gentleman I approached is named Neil Gamble, a very well-known Grandi in the Australian business scene, South African guy, lovely man. But, a serious business guy who is running one of the largest software companies in Australia, such as they were back then. But he was chairman of the company I was working for, which was acquired by Match, and I pitched him my idea. I turned up in the boardroom office of this large software company at seven o’clock in the morning in Sydney. So I think it was 2003 or maybe 2004, it doesn’t matter, but I pitched him the idea, and he said, “Fergal, that’s brilliant, but fuck off and come back when you’ve got some customers.” 

So, I duly fucked off and I think he ruminated on the idea for a while and came back to me a couple of months later. I was still working as a contractor at the time so I was fine. He said, “You know what? I’ve met some other people who are doing certain things in the retail space, and what you said clicked even more. So I’m going to take a swing on this”, and so he put in just enough money to basically pay for me and some other young guy to take the code from what was something I could, demonstrate to something that we could actually sell and the first customer was Zimmer if you’ve ever heard of Zimmer Frame? 


Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: The Zimmer frame is kind of like that. It’s a mobility tool for people with generally older people. It’s like a walking frame. 

Unfortunately, maybe I’ll learn about that soon enough, but not yet. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Not yet. May it be many more years, but we put the website up and boom, that was the first one, and then, out-of-home started to take off in Australia and had a pretty decent clip, compared to other markets, and Neil was very well connected in the Sydney business scene. 

He started to open doors into places like I could get meetings now with people, and my experience of that, and again, maybe it’s reflected in our website and our kind of general low-key profile, generally, I found it, if I could get in front of a customer and showed them the product, we tended to do well. It was the getting the customers part, which was the trickier part for us, but Neil was instrumental in that, and that’s how we started. 

Back then it was trickier for everybody. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, it was. Coming from an engineering background, I found it quite interesting, the whole scene at the time. What you had was advertising guys who were in the billboards business and suddenly there was, foist upon them this need to transform into an IT company, and that created a particular set of issues at the time, I think, where you had companies that whose experience and interaction with IT was about, “fix the printer” and “why is my email not working?” So they weren’t tech companies in their DNA, they were marketing companies, and I tend to think of those years as like the cowboy years, by which I mean, there were an awful lot of platforms out there.

What I tended to see, although not uniformly, was a thing I noticed is that oftentimes, the decision makers because they didn’t have a mature IT section within their company, it wasn’t a traditional thing for them. It wasn’t integral to their business in the way it is now, you often had people making software decisions who didn’t really have the experience and wherewithal to assess software and what that led to properly, and I think this is partly what led to the massive proliferation of solutions out there was that the thing with digital signage is that it’s fairly straightforward to get a piece of software that will reliably get a flash file or a JPEG or a video from A to B.

And when the software assessments were being done by people who didn’t really have experience in enterprise software or edge management or remote device management, stuff like that, it was very easy for the smoke and mirrors guys to do well quickly, because no one was asking the boring questions about the plumbing. So that was something that took some adjustment for me with my background. 

I think it’s maybe part of what led to the proliferation of often these things. I don’t want to denigrate or be down on the industry or anything, but there were a lot of solutions out there that were really something that someone had put together in response to a request from someone and then they came up with a logo, and said, we’re a digital signage company, and often these solutions, if you ever got to peek behind, to look under the hood, as they say in North America, you’d be shocked at what was there, and I had several experiences in those early times of being Gesamt or someone with a fantastic sales pitch, which is something that no one would ever accuse us of. 

I was thinking these guys don’t know what they’re doing anyway. Anyway, I think that’s calmed down a good bit because you have to be sustainable and, eventually, if your stuff keeps falling over, that’s going to, with the best sales pitch in the world, that’s not going to last forever. 

Yeah. I think there were a lot of companies, for a whole bunch of years, who signed on with a service provider, some sort of software company, and then three years later moved on to another one after they learned what they really needed and learned about things like device management and scalability and all that stuff. But first go around, they were attracted by the pretty pictures and the WYSIWYG UX and all that stuff, and as a consultant, I saw it first hand where I would say this thing is boring and ugly, like a Subaru, sorry, Subaru owners, but they’re not the sexiest cars, but they just work, versus a Range Rover that looks sexy as hell, but it’s going to be a nightmare. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, that was it. And I guess it was inevitable. If you looked at the factors feeding into that, you had an industry that was being dragged, kicking, and streaming into the world of it and you had a lot of people who saw an opportunity and needed to go quickly, but I couldn’t believe some of the stuff that I saw pass muster, and I was because sometimes I get a peek under the hood and it was literally, The wizard of Oz, they’re furiously pulling levers to keep the thing up.

But we learned, I think, that the company that was the first major out-of-home company we thought was iCorp. 

Australian company. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: That’s right, and they were also based in Sydney, and so we, very quickly, felt their pain when things would go wrong and that was an excellent kind of learning curve for us. But what helped embed in the company was this engineering mantra that we had, which was, if it can be avoided, never have the software operate In a manner where if a truck roll can be avoided, it’s not avoided. 

There’s this focus for us on remote manageability so it’s different. I know some people in the early days tried to use browsers for digital signage, but that failed for reasons that we don’t need to get into, but when there’s a huge difference between an application and this even goes all the way up to major, big sticker stuff like Microsoft, an application which leaks memory or does something like that and, yeah, it’s annoying when you have to kill the browser and restart it, after a few hours, which used to be the case a while ago, but that kind of level of tolerance for unattended execution, you could see it didn’t exist. 

It’s different if the program falls over and you ring Mark in IT, and he says, yeah, just reboot the machine. But if you’ve got three-quarters of a million-dollar screen in an airport, that’s a really expensive proposition and the failure is immediately public and embarrassing. That helps embed for us that learning experience we had with out-of-home, of the importance of just reliability at the edge and going on from reliability to manageability. So we spent a lot of time finding bugs in Microsoft Core DLLs, that’s just through the usage scenarios we had, they just weren’t common enough even for Microsoft to have identified some of these issues with things that will leak a little bit every time they’re used. It’s a software term. If the software isn’t carefully crafted every time it runs through a certain given set of routines, it can capture a bit of memory and then fail to release it, which isn’t a problem if you’re closing your laptop at the end of the day but if you’re wanting to run 24/7 in twenty feet up in airside and an airport, it’s a different proposition. So anyway, that was all a learning curve, but it helps embed for us this fanatical focus on stability and manageability. 

You talked about the people in the meetings in the early days, the visual merchandisers and people from the marketing department, business communicators, those kinds of people, but that’s changed, right? The people across the table now, quite often, are IT people. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, they are, and I think that’s just an inevitable consequence of the pain of failure to not do that. It was like Mad Man so the whole focus was on the flashiness of the advertising and the creativity and all that, whether it’s on a billboard or TV or whatever. But now they were in a new world where boring stuff like Enterprise IT management was crucial, a factor in their ability to succeed.

It was cruel as well because of any failures they had. If you’re even running a service and your website goes down, maybe some people would notice, maybe someone won’t, but if you’ve got a big screen downtown, and then your customer is there showing his friends or their customers, say, look, check out our ad down in some public place when it goes wrong, it’s really bad because it’s so visible, so those two things are combined. So I guess they had to learn quickly and yes, I think it’s certainly, it’s no longer the situation where you’ve got someone from Marketing making IT decisions. 

So describing your product mix or suite now, what would it be, and is there a particular market that you focus on?

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah. I remember before I started the company I read how to write a business plan, and one of the things was identifying your customer, and I thought, wow, there are so many, anybody who wants to display a message somewhere publicly…

Anybody with money. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah. That was the prerequisite. Going back to what I was referring to with the learning curve in the early days, it became apparent to me that there’s only so much gilding of the lily you can do in terms of the content management side. I sometimes bristle when we get described as a CMS, because really most of the value of what we do is it’s fuller than that.

Content management is its raison d’etre, but it needs to do an awful lot of other stuff, and I always believed that for us, that was a strength of ours in our kind of relentless focus on manageability and Edge device management. I saw it just again, through the growing pains of helping an out-of-home company get through the early days of it. That’s really where we needed to focus on managing the device and just being absolutely bomb-proof when it came to reliability. 

What that has led to, I would say organically is: so are we a digital signage company? We are, but we’re other things too. So what this hundred of man years of effort, of the device management side and the remote manageability side of things, we have customers now, who don’t use us for digital signage at all. They’re using us as a remote management platform for devices, and that has led us, over more recent years, probably since the time I moved from Sydney to the West Coast here into IoT, into Edge AI, into sensor management, and device management. 

So I guess what I’m trying to say is what started as an organic reaction to needing remote manageability and not saying to your customer, yeah, you have to fork out an extra 15 bucks a month brand point for some other tool that’s going to help you manage the device. That led to that side of the application becoming so developed that it could stand on its own even for folks who didn’t need digital signage. So we’re on lots and lots of things, where we’re not controlling the screen, but rather they’re using us as the plumbing, right?

For example, for AI and stuff like that. It can identify a Coke can versus a Pepsi can or whatever it might be. But how do you deploy that model to 16,000 different endpoints and how do you collect information at the edge about how you do AB testing? How do you manage the versioning of AI models at the edge? All that kind of stuff. So there’s lots of sleep-inducing, boring, but absolutely critical stuff where the product focuses. And yeah, that’s on device management, and we’re also used to deploying other kiosk-style applications. So the person interacting with the device could be a piece of software running there. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s RYARC that is forming the plumbing that enables all that to work and go together. 

Back at Infocomm, a few weeks ago, I hosted a little discussion panel where we talked with three people, both attendees, and executives, about what they saw and everything else, and I asked one of the guys who is actually from an LED company. What he saw that he thought was interesting, I thought he would talk about some other LED product or whatever, but he started going on about this idea that you could use datacasting to distribute content, and he bumped into a company that was doing that, and described it, and I thought, that’s interesting but I’m not sure who he’s talking about. So I asked him after the fact, who was that company? Eventually came around that it was RYARK. I thought, oh, interesting!!!

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Those guys are still around? 

There was that too because I don’t bump into your name very often, but can you explain what he was talking about this whole idea of ATSC and using datacasting to move content around? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, sure. The ATSC thing, so the whole TV industry is they’ve gotten together and they’re pushing the ability of the traditional broadcast channels to be able to carry data. The ability to push data across has been around for quite a while. 

Yeah, it happened when when TVs went from analog to digital, right?

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Right, but the ATSC 3.0 upgrade, which was the thing that was being marketed and pushed, just greatly expanded the ability and the bandwidth available to push data across. Again, I think this is likely to be limited in some respects globally because of the ubiquity and cheapness of being able to push data across cellular, right? So in other areas, cellular is the cheapest chip, right? If you go to places like Korea or India or Singapore or countries that have recently developed, they tend to get saturated with cellular very quickly.

The situation in the United States is that cellular data is significantly expensive compared to the rest of the world. Canada, it’s the same story, right? What pertains in North America is a situation where it is so expensive that alternatives are becoming more attractive. Anyway, that’s not really a signal to what ATSC three is all about, but essentially, working with some of the hardware and software providers in the broadcast industry. We’ve been able to plug into the broadcasting software and hardware side of things such that in addition to using our software, you can use our cloud service or install our software on your own infrastructure if you want to do that.

But in this case, in addition to publishing it to the cloud, which is what happens when you create campaigns and do that kind of thing, we can also add another pipe to the mix, and that pipe is the broadcasting station. So when someone clicks the publish button, it’s seamless from the user’s perspective. But if it’s set up in such a way, in addition to pushing stuff to the cloud and having it dribble down over cellular that way, we can also have these files broadcast. So that’s a kind of one-to-many, very effective way of getting data across that doesn’t require large bandwidth bills.

We’ve worked with some companies with large numbers of devices. It was another example of us learning by doing, where their cellular data bills were a huge factor. So, we worked pretty intensely to make the handshake and everything else in our software super parsimonious. I think with 20 megs a month, I think what the chatter that our software has in maintaining connectivity with the server. So we worked relentlessly and got that down. 

But anyway, that’s all to show how much of a factor the data cost is, and that’s that was the impetus that led to wanting to see if we can offer customers a much cheaper way of getting data across and it works seamlessly. We had a working example at that show at Infocomm. I wasn’t there, but I think it was an EV station or something like that, which would allow them to do all the heavy lifting so that they’ve got video and stuff like that. You can push that over the air.

So what’s at the far end of it? Is there a receiver or special hardware? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, TV tuner. 

It’s like a cable box. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: What we’ve been working on over the past year is ensuring that our software can run on these tuners. So you’ve got the prospect now of not having to buy an ARM or an X86 chip and put it in a computer running Windows in the back at the back of the TV, but we can squeeze our stuff now onto many of these tuner devices. So you have a small but capable box, that started life as a tuner, but we can have our software running on there. That’s a big step in terms of cost-per-unit reduction. 

For customers, the main difficulty, I think, with the ATSC 3.0 thing is that it’s very easy to go to a Verizon or whomever and be able to estimate what your data cost is going to be. If I need to push across three gigs a month to 11,000 devices. I can work out how much that’s gonna cost me. The data cost element in the broadcast space isn’t quite as commoditized yet. So there’s still some ambiguity there and, perhaps, lack of clarity, and I think the cellular companies are awake to this too. It has the potential to eat into or take up a lot of the enterprise pushing off large amounts of data, and there are many industries that can use that, but digital signage is certainly one of them.

This is reminiscent of the late 2000s or mid-to-late 2000s with satellite and multicasting through satellite. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Oh, yes, I remember that. 

Is this the same idea, or is this different? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: The similarity I suppose would be in its one-way communications and you need a back channel to be able to do the other stuff.

So you still do with this? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: You can deploy with just broadcast, so we could get the software running so that there’s zero coming back. The obvious thing with that is that you don’t know if a meteor struck the sign, right? But it is similar to satellites in that it’s one-way.

One of the things that we do actually—I don’t know if we know—is we do a lot of in-store music. So we use the CMS side of our product suite to organize what is essentially a radio station template and the thing about audio is you can get away with having six ads running for a week on a sign, right?

But if you play three Alton John and five others in a retail environment, the staff in the shop, they’ll climb ladders to rip the speakers out of the roof because it’ll drive them crazy and that’s understandable. So ironically, MP3s are fairly small, but you need thousands and thousands of them.

So we often found, for the in-store audio deployments we were doing, we had to work with that. We did Woolworths in Australia, which was the largest retailer, I’m not sure if they are anymore, but they’re one of the big two there, and we did all their in-store music for years and that was all via satellite, which was really painful actually. But this seems to be working. It’s a lot easier and it’s a lot better as you would expect, it’s nearly 20 years down the line from that. 

So is it the same feed, so to speak, the same set of files that you’re sending to everybody, or can it be addressable by location, setting different things?

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, we’ve done some work on that. I can’t get too deep into the way our product works because most people won’t be familiar with it, but essentially, in our software, we’ve got this concept called a channel and a channel is an abstract entity that represents an endpoint somewhere or multiple endpoints. We have an engine that will categorize those things. 

Let’s say you want a national rollout. Now like a lot of other things in the United States, the broadcast market is really quite fragmented. It’s not like the UK or Europe, where you’ve got a single national broadcast or a few commercials and you can go live everywhere. You’ve got a real kind of mix right across the country. 

So obviously you don’t want to be pushing, essentially what I’m getting into here is that we know where the data needs to get up. So there’s a layer in the software that will go, okay, you need to go to station X, you need to go to station Y and I guess broadcast, but once it just gets pushed out, right? And it’s the same kind of files, and again, from the user’s perspective, when they’re using our software, if it’s being set up and configured in the back, in the backend to utilize ATSC 3.0 broadcasts that all happen seamlessly under the hood. So they’re just clicking a publish button, and in the case of where they use an ATSC 3.0, instead of it just going to the cloud, it’s also going to the broadcast station where we work with the some of the ATSC 3.0 technology companies, goes into their queue and then gets broadcast out and then it goes down to the tuner and then we’re sitting on the tuner too, so we can watch the files come in and do whatever assembly and decryption that we need to do, at the edge and playback.

So is this something that could be done or are you supporting active networks that are now using this? 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: They are all at the POC stage. I alluded earlier to it being early days as well from the people wanting to utilize this, I think the industry is still working out how to package this and sell it.

If they’re successful at that and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be, it’ll be great for North American enterprise because there’s finally a competitor out there to cellular. I don’t know what the word is, a triopoly? But yeah, the situation, that a reason why data is so expensive in North America.

We could talk for a very long time. We’ll probably have to do this again at some point, but that was super interesting and great to finally meet you. 

Fergal Ó Ceallaigh: Yeah, I’m happy to talk, and I’m happy to do it again if you think there’s more interesting stuff we can chat about. I am probably at risk there doing a lot of reminiscing, but, I feel entitled to that now. I’ve been in the industry for a while. 

Exactly. All right. Thank you. 

  1. Rein says:

    I’ve been waiting to see someone come around to this. Years back I was involved in ATSC equipment, as well as DVB and other world standards. This approach has a lot of efficiencies. Better yet, with a proper single frequency network, it’s a great way to deploy mobile displays. You can even hybridize with satellite and get a huge ‘channel’ foot print into rural areas.
    The big efficiency advantage is that this is essentially a multicast, v.s. a huge number of individual streams clogging up conventional IP networks.

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