A Service Evolution

May 30, 2018

a story by Mikko Korpelainen

 

When I started with Valotalive five years ago it was a company of two founders who had just sold their first automated content (news if I remember correctly) "spot".

 

 

They had a vision of a web store through which customer companies could purchase URL links to put on their content management systems (CMS). This to automate the content on the screens. The company was mainly focused in selling digital signage (DS) and video conference solutions of another company.

 

 

One of the very first Valotalive "content spots", still (almost) functional today.

 

1st iteration - Content as a Service (CaaS)

 
It became apparent quite quickly that trivial spots, such as news, weather etc are not disruptive enough to build a business on. Also there were already solutions for those on the market. Something way more holistic and automatic was needed.
 

My first task with Valotalive was to create automatic content for a customer from their public Web page. The Web page was dynamic and loaded with javascript from a Sharepoint system so a request only returned an empty html page. I needed to use the phantomJS package to get the rendered page and parse the data from there. It worked, and against all my fears, is still functional today.

 

It opened my eyes to the fact that data is just data, may it be a tweet or a weather forecast or piece of news or translation of speak through a microphone or coordinates from a motion sensor or a Web page, we can handle it the same way. This led to the Sources concept that we can create and plug into our system. Later, Jukka would hone that into the SDK driven plug-and-play system we are currently using.

 
After studying the digital signage CMSs in the market for a while I also realized that managing your screens, getting the real time information and, most importantly, publishing your own posts, was really cumbersome. Also they seemed to have an unnecessary link to big screens. Something much simpler was needed.

 

I completed the demo for the first version of the final system in a tram while travelling to the meeting where it was presented. However, due to the steady income from other activities and the perceived barrier of entry to the digital signage market, our focus was not in our own service for some time. In fact, it took us nearly four years to complete the "managing your screens and getting the realtime information part" with the launch of store.valotalive.com.

 

The "publish your own content easily" part was first used in september 2013, done in less than a month. The central idea was always to make it easy for the content managers to publish content without learning a new system to operate a fleet of screens. To distinguish between content creation and technical operation. It worked out great :)

 

Now it has evolved into a loved Web app to distribute the content creation within an organization from central global content creation to local content creation by distinct parts of the organization ("semi-automating"). The entrypoint where everybody contributes, social media-like, we call the Valota Wall and the one where "fewer but still many" contribute we call My Content.

 

 

The first version of the Valota Wall (above) and the tram.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 30th of September 2014 we launched the first version of our online store, the

valotalive.com! It had a pretty sophisticated back-end to handle the different source types and configuring them to fit each customer and to automatically generate billing data from the requests.

 

 

 

 

But it had its shortcoming. The UI was laughable :) It also required basic html know-how to operate. Still, the worst part for me was that our system was only a part of the user experience for the end user. That means the customer first needed a CMS and working DS solution and only then they could come and purchase the URLs from us that they subsequently would schedule into their playlists.

 

The engineering-like UI of the old Valotalive was functionally very efficient

 

I feel there is always a need of tight user experience that starts from the need and ends with the solution in place in everything man consumes (Steve Jobs style). Also the testing for the multiple versions of multiple brands of browsers became a critical issue for us. There was just no way to scale with dignity using this approach.

 

 

Data integration & visualization

 

The term "display blindness" comes from the fact that if you feel that you know that there is nothing new or interesting on a display or it is only selling you stuff, you will not even glance at it. To overcome it, one must develop a kind of bond with the display similar to the one with their smartphones. This requires highly relevant information in a pleasant package. Publishing systems offered next to no help. The content creators attempted to tackle this with astounding graphics and augmented reality applications. That, again, suited for the retail, but not for corporate communications for example. Something fun was needed.
 
Our first real data visualization was the "Sales leaderboard" app in late 2014 with data from salesforce.com.
 
Simple enough app with some transitions and animations. We struggled with the backend, though. While salesforce.com provides a database structure that suits a wide range of use cases, most users tend to modify it with their own tables and links. This meant there would always be a lot of manual work involved when using this backend.
 
We have moved to the D3 library since to make it quicker to come up with animations based on data
 

We saw clearly that data transparency was a trend that would overcome the display blindness issue and also empower the employees.

 

Most of our customers have a database system that the others don't have. And usually that system is where the interesting data for the business resides. We created the file upload system (that really is an API to send data) to make it straightforward to get the data to us. For me the most valuable part of our system (and the main reason why our users love us) is the innovation that came from these integrations: Our ability to enable configuration of the system, from the data of the customer. Imagine an organization of 12 divisions, each having 10 teams. Through valotalive.com, we automate the display of each team to have the data that concerns that team. My interpretation of fun is to achieve something that is really hard. And we make it easy for the user! Sorry, that sounds a bit too much like marketing :)

 

Today our data visualization capability together with our data source integration

ability provides us a nice competetive edge over other solutions.

 

Iteration 1 and a half - The Story Engine

 
The whole DS industry came from retail background and the one and only use case seemed to be a playlist type timing of different advertisements. This suited poorly to other forms of communication in an era of social media. Something smarter was needed.
 

We had a project with a customer that required us to combine digital signage screens with content on mobile phones. Our content ran inside the app of the customer. It was a really interesting demo, but the main thing we learned was that we should use the same technology we use for our apps to control those apps and create an experience where all the content actually works together. We called it the Story Engine (also codename Eleven as it was our moon-shot), because it told "the story of your business" with methods borrowed from the movie industry. Again Jukka later developed the Flows from it.

 

Much like our current iteration, it used the information from the content to show what is relevant at the moment.

The Story Engine looked a lot like our current service

 

Iteration 2

 

After the story engine project we were at a crossroads. Before, we had only done R&D if there was a customer that would pay for it. That is a sure way of existing, but it is hard to gain thought leadership through that. So we took a leap of faith and started developing our own service that would make it pleasant to control fleets of screens, simultaneously put the same message to signage screens, intranet, mobile etc. Main requirement was also to minimize testing and that meant only one browser version at a time. We decided on ChromeOS.

 

To create such a service we needed a way to get some hardware to our customers, in order to have a full end-to-end self service that is required for any service to scale properly. Through our suppliers we have an out-of-the-box experience that only requires power and Internet to function.

 

The service (at it's current version) has run for a year now. There are a lot of things to improve, but I feel like we are on the right track to revolutionize the industry :)

 

See it live here

 

Cheers,
Mikko

 




 

 

 

Co-Founder & CTO, valotalive.com

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