How Digital Signage Fits into Unified Communications

EPISODE 74 | Guest: Sean Matthews, president & CEO of Visix, Inc.

Technology is approaching a more seamless experience for both users and communicators. The term unified communications (UC) can mean different things to different people, depending on whether they approach it from a technology or engagement perspective. Digital signage is a bridge between those two viewpoints.

New technologies and messaging techniques are emerging that will transform the way people interact with information and one another. By looking at what we use and how we got to where we are today, we can get a glimpse of the shape of things to come.

  • Understand what unified communications means in different contexts
  • Learn how unified communications differs from multichannel and omnichannel approaches
  • Explore how past technologies point the way towards the future
  • Discover how digital signage is a key element in emerging UC ecosystems
  • Hear how companies like Visix stay relevant to their clients in a constantly shifting market

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Learn more in our Masterclass Guide: Digital Signage Systems Overview Guide


Derek DeWitt: As technology becomes more and more commonplace in our day-to-day lives, including how and where and when we work, we seem to be almost approaching something like a technological singularity, in which everything all becomes kind of one thing. One of the ways to talk about this is through the term unified communications. We’re going to talk about what exactly UC is (’cause everything in business has an acronym) with president and CEO of Visix, Inc., Sean Matthews. Hello, Sean.

Sean Matthews: Hello, Derek. How are you today? I appreciate you having me on.

Derek DeWitt: Thanks for coming on the show and thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.

Okay, Sean, unified communications. What is it exactly? ‘Cause to me it seems like, I imagine a future in which everything is one thing. We all have a device, you know, Dick Tracy watch or whatever, and we’re not all using a whole bunch of different apps and things, we’re just using one thing. The System. Is this what this is or no?

Sean Matthews: Well, I mean, let me say this first, it used to be super easy to talk about unified communications because there weren’t a whole lot of technologies that sort of fit under this unified umbrella. But you know, today I’ll say that, as you sort of alluded to, this singular device in which, you know, all things can occur, whether it be collaboration or video or voice or text or whatever. That’s sort of the idea behind unified communications.

But of course, in the business communications realm, it’s a little more difficult to create that consistent, unified user interface and experience, you know, because we still have multiple devices and media types. So, it’s a really big category that currently today includes lots of different technologies, networks, software platforms and services.

And so, the ultimate goal is to unify voice, video, personal and team messaging, along with voicemail and content sharing under this one umbrella, and make it so that your experience is such that you don’t have to log in to all these various things in order to interact with, or communicate with, or pick up information from other people.

And there used to be this delineation between these communication technologies and collaboration technologies. But you know, certainly since this pandemic occurred, and the advent of products like Teams and Slack, you know, these things are starting to really become blurred. You know, it’s communication and collaboration, all in one thing. But nonetheless, all of these technologies fit under this large umbrella called unified communications.

Derek DeWitt: So you think someday we’ll just be, we’ll just be constantly plugged in. I mean, most people… I’m weird because I turn my phone off at night, but I know a lot of people, they don’t even turn their computers off. Like they’re constantly connected, all the time. So that’s just going to be how it is. We’ll be sitting around in our house and just muse aloud, gee, I wonder what won the Best Picture Oscar in 1960, and the house will tells us. Is this kind of where we’re heading, do you think? Or is it never going to really be that comprehensive because of antitrust laws and because of market competition and things like that?

Sean Matthews: No, I think that the reality is, if you just think about, you know, what happened to the web browser in the past 20 years. In the advent of that technology, remember there was just many different browsers out there, right? And they all had certain qualities that were better than the other. And you know, unfortunately, you know, we’re down to a singular browser basically, by and large. And I don’t say that flippantly, but other browsers do exist, but basically there’s one that pretty much does everything as it relates to the browsing world. And, you know, certainly there’s the potential for this to happen in the unified technologies realm. However, you know, in the browser era, it was a singular tool, whereas in the unified communications world, there’s many tools.

And you know, when you think about these many tools in the business world, they often refer to things as being enterprise technologies like Teams or Slack. And then there are other technologies that are more along the lines of audio and video conferencing technologies. There’s digital signage that fits under this umbrella.

And then of course there’s the sort of social communication aspect of it, in which communication professionals sort of refer to unified communications as more of a strategy in sending unified communications across, you know, different platforms or channels.

So, there’s the various technology components that fit under the umbrella, but then there’s also the social communication aspect of it, which really, quite frankly, those people could care less about the actual technology, but the consistency of the message, you know, across various channels.

Derek DeWitt: Right. That’s the thing. It seems to be, I think consistency is the watchword here, because from the, say, content creator or communicator’s perspective, you do want your message to go out. It’d be great to have tools where I simply have to create it once, and then I can, you know, create an HTML5 viewer right now, or whatever the technology will morph into, and just send it out to multiple platforms, in multiple formats and aspect ratios and so on and so forth.

And then on the user side, and this includes in business communications, employees, managers and so on, that again, I have a fairly consistent user experience that I share with my colleagues. We all have the same experience, so we could actually talk about it, and we all know what we’re talking about. There’s none of this, you know, like somebody says, hey, why don’t you use Outlook Calendar? I hate Outlook Calendar and I’m never going to use it, and so I’m out of the loop for a lot of things with groups of people who use Outlook Calendar. But eventually this will just become kind of standardized for everybody.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And so not to deviate from that standardization and, you know, really this is sort of outside of today’s conversation, but often communicators will talk about, and really in the marketing realm, experts will talk about multichannel and omnichannel communications. And in the world of unified communications, basically, as it currently stands, it’s more of a multichannel approach.

You know, the corporation is at the heart of the communication string. And the corporation is pushing out communications to these various platforms or mediums, which is a little bit different than the omni-channel approach where the employee would be at the center of the communication conversation. And he or she would be accessing things or collaborating with whatever technologies he or she chooses.

But the reality is currently that omni-channel approach, that sort of seamless interaction across all platforms, so that that content that you described appears on all these various endpoints in a manner that is consistent in common, really doesn’t quite exist to this day.

Because if you think about mediums like text messaging or Snapchat approaches to conversation, it was designed for texts, and that’s what it does. It delivers text, right? It doesn’t deliver video well. But as you and I both know, you see all these social media platforms that maybe originally were just text only, expanding the number of characters or adding video or adding disappearing video, right?

So, it continues to progress towards this omni-channel approach, but right now, I’m of the opinion that unified communications as an umbrella still has all of these distinct channels that are not truly unified in sort of an omni-channel approach.

Derek DeWitt: Right. You know, it almost seems to me like we’re in this kind of technological proving ground period of things, where you’ve got a whole bunch of different things competing against one another and competing for attention and user experience and so on.

And it’s almost like survival of the fittest will win out. This element from this thing gets integrated here. This thing gets taken here. And so I think maybe the goal or the dream is that ultimately through this kind of almost cage fight between applications and software and technologies, eventually we’ll pick the best of each item. And that is where we’ll start to approach a more unified sort of offering.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I think if you think about, you know, some of these technologies, is it a communication technology, is it a collaboration technology? And how do the two begin to morph into one? You see that with products like Teams. You know, it started off more as a team chat product. There was lots of other team chat like products like WhatsApp and Viber and these other, you know, sort of chatting technologies that businesses were using.

But we also know that the experience can be richer than just text. And so products like Teams start to add video and file sharing and collaboration on files, you know, almost in real time; you know, you’re seeing the edits passed, back and forth. Which again, those technologies are very different than just a voice technology or a video technology. And the technology that you are now using right now is a combination of video and audio. And we’re just choosing to use one piece of this technology, or the technologies built into this platform.

So I guess where I’m going with that, that ultimately leads to where does digital signage fit in this unified communication platform? And that’s something I think we should, you know, obviously address.

Derek DeWitt: Absolutely. So, I mean, I think of digital signage, I think it’s already pretty variable in many aspects, you know. It’s gone from a television screen with a computer hooked up to it, and this is, you know, it started off back in the days that maybe laptops existed, but they were big clunky things and a cable just running PowerPoint slides. And now you’ve got, you know, interactive kiosks and voice user interfaces. And, you know, who knows where it’s going to go? Smell-O-Vision! Who knows, right? We can see over the last 20, 30 years, this technology has added in elements that are useful to its users and to the communicators who use it to push out their messages. How would you say it fits into this overall trend and this overall picture?

Sean Matthews: Certainly it has evolved, as you noted, from just being a messaging platform, right? And so the idea, as you noted, was putting up employee motivation statements or recognizing birthdays or those kinds of basic things. And of course, it’s always been about manipulating human behavior, unfortunately. Because what you’re attempting to do in these types of communications is bring about awareness to a subject and then cause people to react to, or respond to, whatever that subject is. So, you know, today, when you look at these sort of technologies, it’s even moved beyond just posting event schedules, and messages about things that are going on; informative messages.

But we’re delivering things like key performance indicators and other dashboard information in real time, so that we can motivate employees to be more productive or change their patterns of behavior to hit certain goals or objectives that we’re publishing on these displays. I mean, that’s just one facet of it.

Obviously employee awareness about events like insurance enrollment or, you know, safety initiatives or whatever, that’s still a messaging component, but the messages themselves have evolved to include other interactive elements, so that you can personalize your experience with that sign versus somebody who’s just passing by in the hallway.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Yeah. I always imagine like, you know, there’s an interactive digital sign and, like you say, insurance, oh, I got to sign up for the insurance; well, there’s a little button, I could tap it, enter in my employee number and I do it right then and there.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And beyond that, you know, you can use QR tags, Bitlys, other technologies as well, so that you can take that same information with you. So, as you pass by the sign and you want to know more about, you know, insurance enrollment, you can take it with you on your mobile device and reference it later if you choose to do so. So, creating interaction and the customized experience is an important part of where digital signage fits in.

But what I will say is that one of the differences between digital signage and some of the other technologies is that in the world of digital signage, as it relates to unified communications, the viewer doesn’t have to do anything to receive the information that’s being delivered. And what I mean by that is they’re simply walking down the hallway from the break room or some other part of a building and these displays appear at hallway intersections or other gathering places like elevator bays, what have you. And so information is being pushed to them without them having to do anything to go get the information.

Now they can take it with them if they would like. But one of the big differences, as I just noted, is that they don’t have to download an app, right? We don’t have to get them to sign up. We don’t have to convince them that they need to download this app, right? Which is different because it’s one of the few vehicles that just delivers, you know, information to passersby. Whereas all the other technologies require people to somehow either download, login, set up accounts or whatever, and they’re forced to interact with these other applications.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And I’d also say the more you streamline that process; you know, the fewer points of contact, the fewer places there are for it to, essentially, break.

Like I think back to, my wife and I went to the World Expo in Milan back in 2015, and they had this super cool app that allowed you to see what was going on in realtime; this performance is going on here, this place is doing this, this pavilion is closed during these hours, this one, you can reserve a ticket for it because it’s very popular. But you had to, then they had it sort of gated so that when you physically crossed the physical boundary into the grounds, the app would start up and start working. And it worked with the wifi, but you had to download that app before you stepped across that line. And the wifi wasn’t as good out there.

So, you know what I mean? That was this whole kind of, well, we had to wait, it took 10 minutes and we did it because we wanted to, but it was a pain in the neck. And I think the less we can have of that kind of interference in the seamlessness of the experience, the more we’ll see things really, truly become unified.

Sean Matthews: Well. And, you know, we have experiences like that ourselves, just even in the B2B realm that we live in. And we early on, you know, pioneered interior wayfinding, since we were already doing outdoor building wayfinding, but the idea of having beacons set up inside a building so that you would download an app and then you could make your way to the emergency room, let’s say, in a hospital, you know, using this app. Well, the idea that the entire demographic spread was going to walk into a hospital and download this app and configure it and put in a username and a password and an email address, like, it became unrealistic. And yet that’s some of what we have today.

I mean, digital signage by itself is more than just a screen. It’s basically any screen today, whether it’s a display mounted on the wall or touchscreen or video wall, even room signs. But the same material could be delivered to websites, desktops, tablets, mobile devices, which is all phenomenal. But that means we have to ensure that every employee, you know, uses the screensaver application or the pop-up messaging application, or, you know, is going to a particular URL or using an app so that they could see this material. It’s still a challenge.

And I think that most communicators are trying to use every medium that they can and sort of that multichannel approach. It would be wonderful if you could just produce it once and send it to everything, but it’s still a realm that doesn’t exist at the most dynamic level. And particularly when you start interjecting, you know, video and audio communications, and getting that to all the various endpoints. That still becomes a bit of a challenge.

Derek DeWitt: There’s a definition out there of unified communications that said it’s about providing consistent unified user experience across all these different devices and media types. It seems to me that digital signage, the growth of that technological communications method is hand in hand with that. It seems like the two ideas are growing up together in many ways. The idea of unified communications and it’s becoming more and more fine-tuned as time goes on. And at the same time, digital signage is kind of independently kind of just doing that as well.

Sean Matthews: And I think, you know, earlier you noted these competing technologies and platforms and, you know, there’s no clear winner. Then for most of us in the digital signage space, what we’re really providing communicators with is the ability to centrally manage visual communications. And of course, it’s basically the idea there is that you create content or material that you create it once and you can deliver it to multiple different platforms.

But the digital signage platform itself is not the end-all, be-all platform for managing all communications from a single, you know, hub and delivering it to every possible other, you know, endpoint.

So again, we were talking about the singular device earlier, the sort of Dick Tracy watch, you know we’re still a good ways away from that singular device that really does it all. And some people would argue, no, my iPhone does that today. Well, it does, but you have to sign up for all of those things that you want to use.

Derek DeWitt: Plus, you know, you drop it in the toilet and wow, there it goes.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. There went your communications. You just flushed it away, right?

Derek DeWitt: Oh man, now what am I going to do? I have a meeting in 15 minutes!

Sean Matthews: Right. My Dick Tracy watch just fell in the toilet.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. If the Dick Tracy watch fell in the toilet and it’s on your wrist, you have bigger problems.

Sean Matthews: Correct.

Derek DeWitt: But you know, it’s interesting, I know the word that you used earlier was enterprise. And that’s a word that to me really just kinda says it all. Enterprise means this kind of wide-ranging, very flexible system that can be used for a number of things and can easily be adapted to changing environments, changing tastes, changing technologies. You know, like it’s much more comprehensive than just say, you know, I don’t know, a local bagel place’s Facebook page. It’s a whole thing that is in many ways approaching unified.

Sean Matthews: Well, yes. I mean, if you think about where we are at this stage, you know, it used to just be in the building with digital signs. Now it’s meeting room signs and collaboration areas, meeting areas, classrooms, conference rooms. And then you have people that are working or studying from home. Now you’re delivering some of the same material to webpages or internets or even things like Microsoft Teams. And then of course, beyond that, the mobile device, anything that we publish in HTML5 formats ends up being a responsive playback, you know, element on any of those mobile devices.

But, you know, certainly the unification of all of these technologies under this unified communication umbrella, you know, it is becoming easier and more efficient for communicators to deliver a singular message across many different platforms and endpoints.

And it’s one of those things where, you know, I think in the end, if you reflect on how some of this really started, you know, back in the day, if somebody sent you a message at work, if you weren’t sitting at your desk, you didn’t receive the call, right? Now that call can immediately be rerouted to some other place, right? And, you know, if they do leave a message, you know, you don’t have to be at your desk to pick up a message. In fact, it appears as an email message in your inbox, you know, as an attachment or some other thing. So, that, to me, is a great example of unifying two discretely different technologies and, you know, rerouting how they get to the end consumer.

We’ll see more and more of that occur as the years evolve. And in fact, you know, what we’ve seen in the past five years is the complete unification of unified communications and collaboration into one thing. So you’re seeing those two blend very, very quickly, and we’ll continue to see that sort of meld of technologies certainly in the next five years.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I liked something that you said once. You said a lot of the things that this kind of communications, and including digital signage, it lets you cross both geographical and technological borders, and I think that’s a very interesting way to frame it.

Sean Matthews: Again, I think the big takeaway for those of us that are responsible for communications inside organizations, the one big thing that we always have to remember about digital signage in this offering is that it is the one that doesn’t require the user to do anything, right? It just magically appears, you know, as you pass by,

Derek DeWitt: I mean, Visix has been in the digital signage game for quite some time; you guys are kind of the OG of digital signage. And I kind of feel like your company has frequently, if not always, been kind of ahead of the curve.

Like you said, you guys were doing outdoor and outside wayfinding, and then you thought, well, why don’t we just do interior wayfinding? And then pretty soon there are a whole bunch of other companies doing that.

You guys said, hey, we should integrate with this. And then a bunch of other people did this. You had that desktop messenger thing way back when, and now we’re starting to see people actually use things like this, you know? Now you’re doing this voice user interface, and now we’re starting to see other companies come up with that as well. How is it that you guys are so kind of plugged in that you’re always just a little bit ahead of the common curve?

Sean Matthews: Well, I think, you know, obviously we can contribute a lot of that to the people on our staff who are very engaged with our client base and really thinking outside the box when talking to our clients. But, you know, not only are we plugged into our client base, you know, we have the opportunity to look at what other people are doing in other technology areas and determining how those technologies might be applicable to our space.

And for example, we pioneered alerts communications or alert notification in the digital signage realm, you know, more than a decade ago. But you know, what we were seeing is that there was a demand in, you know, the post 9/11 world to try to communicate to people in the event of emergencies. And, you know, we of course thought that, wow, we have this platform that’s already installed in buildings and structures, and text messaging was only so reliable. So, you know, we just saw an opportunity to integrate other technologies in a world that was demanding a particular response to incidences, for example. And so, you know, for us, it’s all about staying relevant and, you know, without evolving, you know, your relevance, certainly goes away. There’s many, as you know, technology companies in the past that have gone away despite their ability to pioneer, you know, certain things,.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Napster! Where’s Napster?

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, you think about, you know, it’s interesting when people talk about, like, Blackberry. And Blackberry is still around, but it’s a very different thing. And, you know the hardcore Blackberry people said no one will ever use something other than a QWERTY keyboard, right? And that just wasn’t true.

As we look at all the technologies that are out there. Again, it’s important for us to be relevant and stay current with what our clients are expecting, what the market is expecting, what our integration partners are expecting, along with the consultants that often specify technologies like ours. So, you know, our job is basically to be aware and in tune with what the world really wants from these types of technologies.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. And that of course leads to engagement. I mean, literally, you know, the old saying, give the people what they want. If you give them what they want, then they say, yay. And then they want more.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And the only way you’re ever going to know, of course, is if you ask. And that’s what our team is tasked with on a daily basis, is asking what do they need and what do they want?

Derek DeWitt: So, perhaps it’s all coming to a head, as it were. Someday, it’ll all be unified into a single thing, tech blob, who knows, maybe we’ll even have stuff implanted in our heads. (I know there’s been some talk of that in some of the science literature.) But for the time being, we have the technology we have, and yet we’re starting to see a lot of things kind of come together into a much more cohesive whole, especially when it comes to the way that people communicate with each other, the way that organizations communicate to their clients, to their customers, and to their employees and managers.

Sean Matthews: Yes. And at this stage we are in right now, our objective, along with many in this space, is really to further centralize the management of visual communications and then ultimately deliver a seamless visual communication experience across the multiple channels that exist. And, you know, that’s one step before this, you know, magical experience where it’s just completely seamless across the board.

Derek DeWitt: Sure, absolutely so. And digital signage is a key element, I think certainly for any organization, even smaller ones, frankly, with more and more people working remotely and so on; this technology helps push us closer towards that unified goal.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And, of course you would want the experience to be the same for the person in a building as it is for those, you know, in remote locations, whether they be home or in satellite offices or, you know, other places around the world. And of course, that’s our goal to make it as similar as possible, so that no one misses out on the same delivery experience and you know, that’s certainly part of digital signage and its role in unified communications.

Derek DeWitt: Absolutely so. All right. Interesting stuff, you know? The future is not here yet, but it’s a-comin’!

Sean Matthews: For sure.

Derek DeWitt: All right. I’d like to thank Sean Matthews for talking to me today. Thank you, Sean. You know, interesting stuff, as always. I’m always, like, trying to prognosticate and see what the future’s going to hold.

Sean Matthews: All right. Thank you, Derek. I enjoyed it and look forward to our next conversation.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Thank you everybody out there for listening. Don’t forget. You can subscribe to this podcast, and you can also access a video version on our YouTube channel for Visix, Inc.