TechDecisions: Managing your COVID-19 Response with Digital Signage

On this episode of the My TechDecisions podcast, Associate Editor Zachary Comeau talks to Sean Matthews, president and CEO of digital signage company Visix. We talk about how digital signage is evolving, and more urgently, how digital signage technology is helping organizations adapt to the COVID-19 crisis. Hopefully, you can find some ideas about managing your COVID-19 response.

Visix recently released touchless, voice-activated digital signage solutions that can help reduce points of contact and limit the rate of infection. According to Matthews, this technology would be beneficial in healthcare, corporate campuses and warehouses or manufacturing plants.

Matthews also talks about ways in which digital signage was evolving pre-coronavirus and how the technology will help us return to normal.

Zachary Comeau comes is a career journalist who covers technology for My TechDecisions

Zachary Comeau comes is a career journalist who covers technology for My TechDecisions. He joined the publication in 2019 and writes about technology that helps IT managers and end users across a variety of industries innovate and evolve in an increasingly technological world. Follow him @ZWComeau. 

TechDecisions is a trusted source connecting professional end users and technology decision makers with uniquely targeted and relevant content, industry information, news, tips and advice. Leveraging a close relationship with sister sites Commercial Integrator, Security Sales & Integration and ChannelPro, TechDecisions serves its audience by connecting them with integrators and service providers that will help make their technology goals a reality.


Zachary Comeau: So, Sean, yeah. How is digital is digital signage changing in the, in the age of COVID and how is it helping?

Sean Matthews: Well, I mean, obviously there’s pretty dramatic changes in the space, in particular where we serve. You know, we serve in institutional communication market spaces, healthcare, higher education, even corporate campuses. And you can imagine that, on the higher education space right now, there’s obviously not a lot of students on campus. In fact, there are almost none, depending on which state you’re looking at.

But in the healthcare market space and in even corporate campus environments – particularly when you think about manufacturing or in the food service markets where they’re producing large quantities of food, whether it be processed or frozen, or what have you – there’s a ton of utilization going on, particularly as it relates to metrics and what’s happening in those environments. So, not only is there sort of situational awareness and reminders about distancing and all the other things that we’ve heard about, but you know, also metrics and productivity and how that productivity compares to pre-COVID-19 environments and what they can do to even refine productivity, given the current constraints that they’re operating in.

And, as you can imagine, when you think about the healthcare space, you know, the advent of voice activated displays and other technologies associated with that allows users to interact with the messaging that’s on screen without actually having to touch the screen.

Zachary Comeau: Right. And you guys just came out with a voice activated display or a non-touch digital signage display.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. This is actually our second generation of this approach. I call it an approach because the initial approach was based on using AI technologies from Google and taking advantage of the upstream servers in the cloud so that we could basically start to learn communication languages as it relates to wayfinding and directories and stuff like that.

But, you know, there’s a cost associated with that, and there’s an ongoing cost when you start to use that AI technology to try to learn languages and very specific commands that are different than your home Alexa commands, for example. So the second generation is actually taking advantage of the speech recognition technology in the operating system that we use, which is a windows 10 IOT platform. So, we’re basically piggybacking on that speech recognition technology that’s been around a really long time for people particularly with, that need that for accessibility.

And, yeah, it’s actually been a very cool approach because all we did was, when you get down to it, was build in some structural command parameters in our playback engine and it’s listening for those commands to enact other behaviors on screen. So it’s a really cool approach.

Zachary Comeau: Yeah. And, was that developed – or that second iteration – was that developed as a response to the coronavirus or was it already in the works?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, actually, it’s funny. It really wasn’t. There were people in the healthcare market space already that had been asking for this type of technology for really several years, because they were always questioning the use of touchscreen displays in those environments, particularly with elderly patients, you know what I mean? You get it.

And we had done some work in some cancer wards in the past where they were asking for something other than physical touchscreens. So this was already on the roadmap and it was something that we were doing and we were planning on releasing at InfoComm this year. Of course, that got changed.

Zachary Comeau: So, what has the healthcare market been like? Are you seeing a lot of demand for, not only digital signage, but the touchless, voice-activated products?

Sean Matthews: Well, I mean to be fair, obviously our business is off as a company just because the demand for these types of on-campus or in-building technologies you can imagine is just not off the charts right now. And so, it has had a negative impact on us, but the positive impact is that we are seeing an uptick in markets like healthcare, where we would do some business, but it wasn’t the bulk of our business endeavor.

In fact, we primarily conduct most of our business in corporate campus and college campus environments. So yeah, people are definitely, we’re seeing a lot more activity in this space than we would normally see, particularly at this time of the year.

Zachary Comeau: And what have those use cases been? You know, what kind of solutions are you bringing to the healthcare market?

Sean Matthews: So, it’s multifaceted. One, we have the entire wayfinding approach that we’ve had for quite some time, the use of directories and the use of donor boards, particularly at charitable hospitals.

Of course, now there’s a lot more utilization and requests for creative tools or creative content related to just social reminders about what you should and should not be doing – sort of classic stuff. But we’re also seeing a lot more interest in our electronic paper signs to put information outside very specific rooms, even patient rooms where they have to be compliant with HIPAA rules, but there are certain pieces of information that can be easily displayed. And the data can already be extracted from patient records in the nursing station and be delivered to rooms, you know, not just necessarily in the ICU, but regular floors as well.

Zachary Comeau: Right. So, what other markets can digital signage help right now, you know, as we all try to adjust to the, to this new normal?

Sean Matthews: Well, I mean, again for us, we don’t really do a lot of the retail sort of things, even actually, we’re finding ourselves more involved in retail types of business at this point, because of the electronic paper signs and, you know, pretty cost effective to put promotional messaging on electronic paper versus full LCD or some other high risk technology.

But for us really, I mean the use case for us in manufacturing and production right now is pretty dang important. I mean, because all of these companies that are producing goods and materials for sale and distribution, you know, they’re looking to get as much volume as they can. In fact, most businesses have relied on volume metrics for impacting productivity on production lines, but you can imagine now it’s even more critical because they’re trying to squeeze as much as they possibly can, given the environmental work constraints that they’re operating under.

So as you know, a lot of these production environments were never designed for quote unquote distancing because, you know, it’s multiple people working together often in a very constrained environment. So, for them to track testing information and post-testing information in terms of test results on screen and keep people aware of what the result trend looks like, because they’re trying to flatten their own curves in their own environments, not just in the larger social environments.

Zachary Comeau: What specifically have you seen for digital signage that is, you know, I guess being developed just for that, for that response to the coronavirus?

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, as you can imagine, there’s lots of discussion right now about how much of the workforce in the United States in particular – we’ll just focus on that – will actually go back to office environments when they return. And, when you look at, what will that really look like? You know, obviously there are some evolutionary technologies that are being developed so that we can deliver the same kind of messaging to someone’s desktop, whether it be integrated in the platform that we’re using right now, or other collaboration technologies, Teams, and other products like Slack, for example. I mean, that’s certainly one approach.

Of course, the other new focused emphasis is on what will these work environments look like when people go back to work because people will go back to work as social creatures. Collaboration is a part of what we do, in that close-knit collaboration seems to work historically for human beings.

And so, when you go back into these office environments, hoteling and hoteling utilization could be far more prevalent. The use of interactive room signs to book rooms and track how the resources are being used in those rooms, because those rooms may be more prevalent, and they may be uniquely designed to provide greater distance between employees.

Just in general, because I think regardless of vaccines for this current disease, there’ll be a greater awareness for what the normal flu season looks like and what we should be doing in those environments and how you should be spacing yourself. I think there’ll just be a greater awareness of how you’re going to utilize the spaces and the guidance that those signs will provide in how you use the spaces. I think those are two real world scenarios that are starting to play out. Not only requests coming in from current prospects and existing customers, but also it’s having an effect on our developmental roadmap.

Zachary Comeau: Right. How has digital signage been evolving? You know, I guess, the coronavirus kind of maybe put a halt to a lot of it, but you know, what was evolving about digital signage before all this happened?

Sean Matthews: Yeah. So some of the big things that were happening again in organizational type communications, you really have two schools of thought. You have one school of thought, which is sort of a classic billboard where you’re just posting information at hallway intersections and places where people gather, you know, break rooms and things like that, water fountains that sort of classic billboard posting.

And then there was a different school of thought, which was providing a much more viewer-centric experience where people were engaging with the sign. So they were looking at productivity information, they were manipulating what screens they were looking at and what pieces of information they were looking at on screen. So instead of doing it just on your phone, you know, it’s present right there in front of you. So, if you want to interact with the sign to learn about what the weather looks like outside or the forecast, or you want to know information about other donors and who’s contributed, you know, wayfinding, food service menus, even in cafeterias in corporate campuses.

I mean, the interactive experienced was quickly changing and moving away from that sort of classic billboard approach. But I will say there is still a lot of utilization and the sort of billboard technique that a lot of people still deploy.

Zachary Comeau: And what’s the use case for that interactivity? You know, why would an organization want that kind of solution?

Sean Matthews: Well, one of the case scenarios is the organization is looking for feedback on particular events or information that’s being displayed. So, if they’re pushing a blood drive, let’s say this next Friday, and there’s an entire campaign that leads up to the blood drive, not just in digital signage, but also in email, intranet, printed posters, like there’s an entire campaign leading up to this blood drive, but they really start focusing on the content that’s related to the digital signage delivery and adding interactive components to it.

Things like, you know, simple polls, have you signed up for the blood drive? Do you intend on participating in the blood drive, even thumbs up, thumbs down. Then it creates graphs and charts that illustrate how effective our blood drive campaign is. And, you start to get this crowd mentality of like, “Hey, man, I guess I need to sign up for that, or I need to think about putting that on my calendar”. So they’re looking for building a more interactive experience to inspire change in the population that they’re trying to reach.

Zachary Comeau: Yeah. It seems like digital signage is becoming more of like a data gathering tool rather than just an electronic sign, for lack of a better word.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. That’s a valid observation. And, you know, it’s not only the data gathering point, but also the display surface where that data is being presented. So that, again, you’re trying to affect human behavior. It’s a powerful tool for doing that.

Zachary Comeau: Right. Great. Yeah. Sean, anything else that you wanted to talk about? I think that answers all my questions.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I think that, you know, for a company like ours, we’re excited about the opportunity to come out of this change and do some things differently that maybe we weren’t considering, but we’ll be forced to do obviously now.

But we’re excited about what does the business environment look like in commercial buildings and campus properties and manufacturing plants. What does it really look like and what are people going to really expect? Because I think we’re early in understanding what people are going to want to see from digital signage simply because they’ve been so focused on surviving the current business climate, you know, and getting to the other side. But for us, it’s compelling to want to know and learn what it is it’s going to look like when this is all said and done.

Zachary Comeau: Right. I mean, I’m not surprised that you guys are seeing more in healthcare than you ever have. I guess one last question. What are some innovative ways that healthcare is using digital signage to help them fight this pandemic?

Sean Matthews: Well, again, I think that the individual techniques that they’re using, they span a lot of subject matter pieces. Some of it is the same techniques that they were employing before, you know, providing directional information without having to walk to a counter and talk to somebody. A lot of groups have streamlined the way the information appears on screen, so that the obvious directional information is there, where to find the emergency room, where to find the pharmacy, the gift shop, the cafeteria, that kind of stuff. So, they’ve streamlined the delivery of what that information looks like.

Obviously, there are social reminders that appear on screen. But you know, I think that the big thing is now really the request to us is how do they take advantage of voice activated commands to improve the interaction without having to touch the screens.

And then the last piece, of course, putting more information outside of patient rooms that adheres to HIPAA rules, but yet conveys information about what the status of that particular patient might look like, and using data and delivering that data to those patient room endpoints in real time.

Zachary Comeau: Great. Sean, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

Sean Matthews: Great. Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.