I have to admit that this was one of my favorite ConferenceCast interviews so far. Christopher Jaynes (the founder and CTO) of Mersive comes from a computer science background. He takes an academic approach to creating technology that fits, "the human's center of need and not the technology-driven needs" which is just one of the many reasons the industry has recognized Mersive. Chris and his team at Mersive have always been on the bleeding edge of content sharing, and I think you will find his perspective on the future of meeting spaces interesting in this episode. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
For anyone out there that's not familiar with Mersive, could you give us a little bit of background on your company and what you're best known for?
We're a little bit unique. We came out of computer science, so we're not a traditional AV company in that sense. I was a professor of computer science when we founded the company to focus on how to make displays better and cheaper. That research allowed us to see the AV landscape from a unique perspective. I would have dialogues with our customers who had bought a 25-million-pixel wall, and often they would say, "How do I get content onto that screen? How do I walk into the room and make that easy?" And I'd have to tell them, "Well, you got to go learn about this AV market and buy these big analog video switchers." And they cost tens of thousands of dollars, so we realized early on that there was a massive opportunity to allow users to cast media from any device wirelessly to a display.
The National Science Foundation bought into that vision and funded the initial research program. The US Intelligence Community jumped in and said, "Hey, we have a really important meeting. We want to be involved as well." It turns out their meetings are important, but they’re no different than four students in a Huddle Room at a university or wherever it might be. So, we built a product around that capability, the ability to send media wirelessly from any device easily; it's called Solstice.
The Solstice entered the market about three and half years ago, and it's been a massive hit. It's been one of those things where the tailwinds of the market and all the changes towards Huddle Rooms and ease of use and making things much easier than what a cable has done for us in the past has pushed the company to a really exciting place where we've got customers now who are helping define how we build this product, because it's really a nascent market. The ability to send video this way it’s only been the last six years it was even feasible. So that's who we are.
That’s a really interesting story! We noticed that you won two industry awards at Infocomm this year, can you tell us a little about the winning solutions and what AV pros love about them?
When we founded the company, we had people look at us a bit cross-eyed saying, "Wait a minute, are you going to sell what is basically software through the AV channel?" And we proved everyone wrong. The AV channel has been awesome for us. Our partners couldn't be better. It's mostly the reason we've been successful, and I think seeing those awards come in is almost like the market recognizing its own ability so that when AVIT convergence is here, to then sell software effectively.
So, why did we win those awards? From a product perspective, I think it's because we have enterprise support like nobody else. My heritage and our computer science background allowed us to focus heavily on things like enterprise, greater security, centralized management, dual network access that's secure so guests can come into a room and throw media onto a screen are usually the corporate users. And then all these, what I would call not really sexy, but are super important features like VLAN tagging, the ability to attach a device to multiple VLAN ends simultaneously so you can route data to it or really sophisticated log capture, and that's why we launched the Kepler product to really take that to a whole new level for analytics and understanding how these workspaces are now evolving.
So, I think there's that recognition on the enterprise side, but it's a yin-yang. It's enterprise, but it's also an end-user. If you get all the enterprise boxes checked and deployment is easy, maintenance is easy, and upgrades are easy, you still need to have users fall in love with using your product when it's time to have a meeting. So, you have to make sure that that meeting start-up time - you know, we measure a thing called "time-to-first-share" - that has to be way less than what the video cable gave people. So we're doing that, and then our UX has to be simple enough that a user - I came out of academics, and I knew professors that would still use overhead transparencies - so if you're going to have that going on, you have to allow your user just to launch the app or type something into a browser and click a button and their stuff is on the screen. But, we're different than other products because we believe that it goes farther than that. And you need to make sure that the UX embraces those higher end capabilities and the cable goes away. And I think we got that user experience right. So, it's that yin-yang. And I think that's why we tend to get recognition along the lines of those kinds of awards.
You guys really cover all your bases which is great. One thing we come back to on almost every one of our podcasts is user-friendliness. It's just so important.
I agree. We spend probably 50% of our time in user experience design with users. It all starts with the customer, and if you read my blog, you'll see I talk a lot about how we interact with customers because that's part of my job. I'm on the phone with my customer counsel, or I'm flying out to the customer sites and seeing how they use the product and we're digging in deep on what has to happen next to make your meetings more effective. So that's where all that data comes in, and I think it does pay off in the user experience world.
Can you give us an idea of how your products compare with other content sharing devices?
I'll try to stay at a high level because I'm not a big fan at all of feature versus feature, check this box versus this box isn't checked because I don't think that tells the story at all. We hinted at it because we were talking about user experiences, and that's key. Here's what makes us unique. We believe that when the video cable left our meeting spaces - because that's happening rapidly now. I remember three years ago I was meeting with a financial that said, "Ah, we'll keep the cable around," then a year later I heard them saying, "We'll hide the video cable into a drawer so if people want to use it they can find it." That same customer doesn't inspect video cables in meeting spaces anymore. So that's evaporating quickly. The question is - and this is where I get excited as a technologist - when a capability like that almost used to be a barrier to human expression and human interaction when that goes away, what new capabilities emerge?
So, I’m not interested in just replacing the video cable. I think a lot of other products are focused on that. You know, how do I get somewhat close to frame-rate video over Wi-Fi or maybe four posts at a time. That's interesting, but that's a four-input video switcher. For me, it's about what's the future of meetings. When you pause a minute and envision meetings 15 years from now, millennials are now 45-50 years old, and they've got a whole new generation of workers in there, what does that look like? And what would they say that meeting space should look like?
Forget the technology...when you layer in that new space, you say "Ok, what are the technical challenges to support that kind of behavior?" That's how we approach product design. That's why you'll see things like the dock where you can move content out of view and back into view. We found very early on one of the barriers to the cable was content switching. If you look at meetings in the 70s before PowerPoint took over the planet and VGA cables emerged everywhere, and you had to plug them in to talk, those meetings were more collaborative.
Once in a while, I'll give a talk somewhere, and I have this funny photo where you got a bunch of people around a table with a 3D model of an architectural design, you've got paper on the table, you've got blue charts in the room, you've got people taking notes on, and they are all interacting. That's not the picture that happened in the 90s and the 2000s because it all became powerpoint, one person at a time. And that's not natural. I think that that was a sideshow for a while that the technology drove us there. Now that that's gone, I think we should return to fact content switching, open sharing, throwing as much content into the doc as you want, and I think that's what sets us apart.
I was just at one of our bigger customers' site where they're replacing all their CNN screens in their cafeteria with Solstice pods because their employees love to share content even before they go upstairs to get work going. And I went to a meeting and discovered those users are sitting down and sharing their laptops and moving them into our dock, this little sidebar off the screen, and waiting for that meeting to get started, so as soon as everybody says "Hey, everybody's here, let's go" no matter what, somebody could drag content in on demand and show what they need to show and it makes those meetings smoother. It's become part of their culture. So, I'm pretty excited about that because you start to reveal the human's center of need and not the technology-driven needs.
That was actually my next question for you is, "what does Mersive believe the meeting space in the future is going to look like" since you've been on the bleeding edge of content sharing for so many years.
That's a great question, and it can go in any direction. You can talk about how people want to interact with other people or what technology barriers will fall so that new capabilities arise. I lately have been thinking closely about how our spaces will embrace collaboration. Not necessarily from an architectural perspective, but I've had a couple observations recently. One is that the Huddle space is so tremendously valuable now that it itself is causing pressure on other spaces. So, if you think about the traditional meeting room or even about the very high end enabled room, then the traditional meeting room became more valuable, and now Huddle space is with soft codecs wandering in and out of those are becoming really valuable.
But what's happened is, and I've seen this at customer sites, personal offices are now becoming Huddle rooms because Huddle rooms are so utilized people will say, "Hey, let's just go into Chris's office and do a 15-minute stand-up, and get this figured out." So, we've got our eye on that because I think products in this category need to respond to that. Our calendar, for example, on the display is set up to be a room resource calendar. You point to your delegation server in exchange, and then I can show you on the display in the room what the meeting schedule looks like. But that doesn't fit the use case. If it's the wall in my office. I don't care that my room is busy when it's my meeting all day, right? Instead, it's my personal calendar that I want to display. So, we're thinking through what the workflow will look like when the screen in the office is a personally owned one that's somewhat shared versus the public space, so that's one.
The other is transitional spaces. So, if you take that even farther, you now have meetings that I've seen happen in hallways where - you know - typically it happens with millennials who are comfortable having meetings outside of calendar invites, but there will be these meetings that happen right after a meeting. Like, you walk out into a hallway, and someone will say, "Hey, you know what? That was interesting. Do you have two minutes? I want to follow-up with you on what the next steps are going to be." And that meeting happens in an actual hall. This is the motivation for our new digital signage feature. Because we think that those signage screens that you're wandering past in your lobbies and hallways should be opportunities for collaboration. So that could pause, take out my tablet, show something in a 3D model and sketch out, spin it around, disconnect, and now that screen goes back to signage. So that's a dual-use case that allows the pod to act as a signage player.
We didn't start from the idea of "Gee, it would be cool if we could do signage." We started from really from that place where we realized that transitional meetings were starting to occur, and we want to support them. And if you think about it, the ultimate vision of this is that all of your displays are shared communication infrastructure. And I see that happen now. I mentioned that customer that's replacing their CNN screens; they don't view displays anymore as one-way view portals into CNN, it's really about that's a piece of real estate that allows me to share content and collaborate anytime I'm near it from any device. So that to me is the north star where this market will go.
You have a very great way of catching on and figuring out spaces and what's going on in the industry. And I feel like that's what sets you apart and why we love carrying your products so much. So, if there's anything else you think I missed, I'll give you that time right now.
The one thing I would add is there is this other dimension I've become interested in, and I'm going to talk about it when I'm in Philly this week. It's about engagement. You know, I came out of academics and in that community, student engagement is just a massive topic of discussion because it really leads to better performance, better tests scores, and actually, if you want to be cynical about it leads to year over year student enrollment which means revenue from tuition, right? Because if you have attrition, the students don't feel engaged and that's a bad thing. So, deans track it, CTO's at universities track it. I think engagement is going to be the next big thing in corporate.
Because it's the same set of challenges. You want your employees to feel engaged in meeting spaces. So, I'll give an example of how our product can help them. I previewed it at Infocomm, Annotation. And our approach to Annotation is very different than all the finger painting tools that exist out there today. And it's centered around using your mobile device as sort of a magic wand that lets you highlight and augment scenes as you interact with other people in the room. And the reason we went down that path is that kinesthetic learning and kinesthetic engagement has a massive research history that shows that if I have to move my arm around in the room, even if it's slight, you're more engaged in that space. And if you feel like you can use your own tools to do it, all the better. So, that's another example of things that I think are important are trends, but how we're trying to respond to them with our products.
It sounds like you are going to continue to be on the bleeding edge of all of this exciting content sharing, but just the AV industry in general. So, looking forward to what you guys continue to do!