How Andreas Widmann digitalised the advertising
Andreas Widmann is studying computer science in Heidelberg. He also likes to go out and dance with his girlfriend – and he just started his own firm, RoadAds interactive, in the MAFINEX technology center in Mannheim. The idea? Equipping trucks with ePaper displays to be used as advertising panels that can be digitally and centrally controlled. We sat down for a talk with the winner of the 2017 Mannheim start-up award, about the future of digital advertising and on why starting up is a good idea in Germany.
Andreas, how on earth did you come up with the idea to attach ePaper displays to trucks?
I had been toying with the concept for years. My father is part of the management team for a logistics expert. One evening we were talking about the fact that the current state of advertisement on trucks is not that great. The ads can’t be adjusted to where the trucks are on the road and especially in foreign countries this causes a significant loss of spread. So we started thinking about ways to improve the situation. The obvious idea is to use a screen and solve the problem digitally. Though at the time ePaper displays were not available in the required sizes and no one was interested in developing them.
Aren’t there other kinds of displays one could use?
Of course. But they all emit light. LCD displays are backlit and OLEDs are self-luminous. Anything that emits light is not allowed for use on vehicles for road safety reasons. There is a whitelist for stuff like blinkers, low beams, etc., but anything that is not on the list is not allowed.
Which is probably a good thing, I guess…
They have their reasons, sure! Sadly though the rules are very strict and anything that emits even the slightest amount of light will automatically be disqualified. ePaper displays don’t emit light, so they aren’t a problem. And they don’t need to emit light as they offer enough contrast. At night they aren’t as effective but once your headlights hit them they work fine. They also have the advantage that they don’t show moving images but only allow a transition from one static image to the next, which helps for acquiring permits for use. To be exact they aren’t displays in the classic sense. The technology arranges ink particles, which are the same one would use for printing on paper.
Do you have a trademark or patent for your work? Couldn’t a big fish come along and steal away your idea?
Our setup can’t be patented and ePaper technology is of course already protected. We buy the ePaper displays from our trusted partner Visionect. Though as we use the displays in their intended functionality there is nothing there for us to acquire a patent for. There are copycats, but Visionect will refer them over to us. This has led to several cooperations as we are one year ahead of everyone else with our research. Other firms will rather buy our tech as we also offer our platform and software services. We are currently pursuing a patent, which I can’t talk about right now. It concerns the way we deliver ads to the displays.
How did you get Mercedes-Benz as a partner?
They called us up and asked “if we needed anything?”. We said: “a truck would be nice!”. And they kept their end of the deal and set us up. That was a lucky coincidence as we had just found a partner for the displays in Visionect. We started work in February 2016 and Mercedes told us they would give us a slot at their full meeting for trucks in April if we could make that happen. We pulled through, though it was our very first prototype that we managed to finish up 30 minutes before the presentation. At least we had something to show though!
Having such a big name brand as partner is a good thing, no?
Very much so! They have excellent networks and can acquire info super fast. If Mercedes makes a call things tend to move along a bit faster. And they were very helpful with matters such as the power supply on the trucks and attaching the displays. I am new to the field of big trucks and had a lot of questions in the beginning. Our system uses a simple adapter and in the end it works very easily. We wanted the system to work noninvasively, so now all one has to do is attach them to the doors and plug them in. Everything else in built into the modules.
So whats the next step?
We set up the logistics firms trucks with displays and pay them for the surfaces. We take care of everything else. This model has received a lot of praise and many want to join in. It’s no extra hassle for the shipping firms and they can make some extra cash off of it. What limits our possibilities though is the fact that we have to pay for the displays ourselves.
So I assume you could use an investor? Mercedes maybe?
We’re on it. I can’t say much more at the moment. There are several parties that are interested. We wanted to keep up business as long as possible without bringing in investors and payed for everything using private funds and government grants. Though we have reached a point by now, that makes a change necessary. Which is fine, as we have something to show potential investors aside from a mere idea. The way we handled things made us really think about what we spent money on and what we really needed. When you’re spending your money, or your parents money, you really want to see the quality in things and want everything to be well planned – it’s not as much about fame and crazy marketing budgets. We always tried to make our product the best it could be.
Let’s get back to your business model!
We sell advertising space through our platform as well as through agencies. This allows us to serve two main segments of customers: local businesses and big brands. The way things are developing at the moment we will also begin selling the displays in the medium run – and also for other types of vehicles, such as busses. The bus companies are also better in understanding the relevance of advertisement compared to the shipping firms.
Were do you see business in five years?
I’d love to see our thing really catch on and come out on top. I think it makes a lot of sense. There are still many normal advertisement posters and digital displays all around, but things aren’t properly connected and controlled. The way our system works is in real-time. I upload the ad, press a button and boom – your ad is on a screen.
So you don’t limit your work to trucks and busses?
Exactly! We can adapt the tech to other applications. Any display can be hooked up.
So even conventional ad-spaces such as the advertisement boards along the roads in Mannheim could be equipped with displays?
Yes. Any so called „Out-of-home-Screen“ could be linked into our system. Most displays at the moment are not digitized. You have to connect with an agency, that will design something for your business and then get in contact with the people that operate the displays and so on. Instead of this process one could also easily design content from home and upload it to displays in ones city for a fracture of the cost. This opens up all kinds of new markets.
So digitization will kill the billstickers job?
Sadly I assume so. This is one of the problems with digitization. Though time has shown that a new job will usually arise in place of those lost. One will require service technicians for the displays for example. Though in Silicon Valley a depression has come about as their unbelievable belief in progress, their conviction that progress will always improve our lives, has been reduced to absurdity.
Could Germany be a good place for business as our rigid structures and our stability make for good innovation, flexibility and agility?
That’s right. The big companies alone make for a superb infrastructure. I don’t feel that this would slow things down. Maybe we can implement the progressive Silicon Valley cutter over here in Germany. We tend to be a few years behind things, but we have version 2.0! Mannheim feels like a good place to be.
Interview: Paul Heesch
Fotos: Ricardo Wiesinger