Through This Ourglass, Watching TV in Public Is More Fun

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At the outset, Ourglass, based in Campbell, Calif., thought it was going to be selling hardware products to bars and restaurants. But why do that when you can give all that away and sell lucrative sponsorships? And how? By making the TV smarter of course.

“Making TV smarter” has been the mantra for many a failed startup over the years. I won’t go into the sad tale of AOL TV, which I helped build content for, and was in many ways a great interactive system ahead of its time… but let’s just say: easier imagined than accomplished. That said, Ourglass is approaching things a little differently: targeting TV out of home — a space that is growing rapidly — and looking to make public experiences with the tube more fun and useful.

Three-time startup vet and Ourglass CEO, Treb Ryan (who will be speaking at the Street Fight Summit in June), is leading the charge at the 1.5-year-old company, which currently has 10 employees and $500,000 in private seed funding. We pulled up a digital chair to get the scoop on the company’s product and rollout plans.

Where did the idea for Ourglass come from and when?
I built a sports bar in my basement and bought a shuffleboard table.  Instead of spending $1,300 for a scoreboard (yes I can’t believe a shuffleboard scoreboard costs over a thousand dollars), I decided to add a fourth TV and keep score while still watching the football game. Surprisingly, there were no systems out there that allowed me to overlay existing broadcast feeds so I went out and found open source hardware solutions and wrote my own code to do it. When the shuffleboard distributor saw it they went bananas.

Suffice it to say, it was much harder to build the whole system than we had originally thought. Mitch Kahn, my co-founder and CTO, came on to do the heavy platform development and architecture. We had to bring in some hardware folks and ended up designing a completely new system from scratch. And, of course, all of the cloud and mobile app portions had to be built. I am glad to say even today, every Ourglass box still can keep shuffleboard scores.

Give me the pitch — what’s this all about?
Ourglass is a cloud-based smart TV system that allows bars and restaurants to get much more use out of their existing TVs and mobile devices. It allows the proprietor to engage with their patrons so they will stay longer, buy more and come back more frequently.

For the patron, it provides a much better experience by integrating the TV with their mobile phone for much richer game-watching experience. And finally, for sponsors it allows them to hyper-target unblockable ads based on the demographics of the establishment, what is on TV while they are advertising and, most importantly, in places that patrons can buy their product. With the mobile app it even allows them to individually target ads on TV that can get an immediate “click-through” by the patron.

Are there TV/network licensing issues?
No, Ourglass works at the TV level not at the broadcast level. Since we don’t modify the broadcast stream we don’t fall afoul of DMCA any more than a video gaming system would.

How exactly does it work? is there hardware involved for the store owner?
Most of the Ourglass platform runs in the cloud. There is a small box that attaches to the satellite box to do the actual overlaying of the content. Think of it as a more industrial strength Apple TV type box designed to work in bars and restaurants. Usually there will be one box for each satellite or cable box in the venue and they are all given to the proprietors for free.

One of our initial core operating principles is “Ourglass should be able to be installed and used by drunk people.” All kidding aside, if you can install an Apple TV, you can install one of our systems.

What are the core functions of the app / TV product?
We break it down by proprietor and patron because there are distinct value each gets from Ourglass.
For the proprietor and staff, Ourglass functionalities are designed to improve efficiency and engagement leading to patrons staying longer, spending more, increasing visit frequency and recommending to their friends. Our initial Ourglass features include:

  • A smart channel changing feature gives staff the option to quickly and efficiently change TV stations to a game or show requested by a patron, using their phone or handheld device. (Side note: This was a “must have” feature for both proprietors and consumers that find this simple task frustrating and a waste of everyone’s time.)

  • TV dashboard feature that allows proprietors to select what Ourglass apps and social gaming will run on each TV e.g. a shuffleboard scoring app near the shuffleboard tables and a social gaming app on the TVs in the dining area. They can also control where on the TV screen Ourglass apps appear for optimal viewing of the broadcast sporting event or show.

  • The information ticker that runs on Ourglass-enabled TVs gives proprietors and staff a way to post venue-specific details like events, promotions, menu details and table wait list status. All of this can be updated on-the-fly via the Ourglass mobile app, so even a long-time patron’s surprise birthday message can quickly flash on the screen at the right time he enters.

  • The ability to get email and user info of their patrons to populate their social media feeds, their drip marketing systems and to tie into their existing loyalty systems.

For patrons, Ourglass aims to improve on-premise consumer experience and build loyalty. Simply stated, make every visit to the venue worth their time and money. Today, Ourglass offers:

  • The ability to interact with the Ourglass TV ticker by checking to see what’s on or even post their own messages.

  • Venue-specific games such as apps for scoring darts, pool and shuffleboard that patrons can manage and interact with on their mobile device and view on the bar or restaurant’s TVs.

  • Miracle Ear, an audio app that delivers the TV broadcast sound on a patron’s mobile device when the TV may be muted or located too far away to hear.

  • Wait List, a table reservation app that displays on Ourglass-enabled TVs the status of patrons waiting and also can deliver an alert to guests via text to their phone when it is time to be seated.

  • Venue locator to find Ourglass-enabled bars and restaurants nearby.

What is the goal for Ourglass?
Ourglass is addressing one emerging trend and one long term intractable problem that plagues the television industry.

The Emerging Trend: The out-of-home TV market has exploded. Gone are the days that you had to go to a sports bar to see a TV.  Now every place you go including airports, health clubs and even retail locations have TVs; plus, sports bars have as many as 60.

The Intractable Problem: Though TVs look great, TV ads are just as dumb as they were 50 years ago. Not only do they provide no level of interactivity for either the bar or the patron, they show ads like it’s 1967. Even cable’s attempt to localize ads is not very localized. TNT has been showing ads during this year’s NBA playoffs for Sonic drive-through. There are like five Sonic drive-throughs that I know of in all of California. Much less the fact that Coors Light is constantly advertising in bars that don’t sell Coors Lite.

We are going to fix all of this by making TVs smarter.

We are modernizing and expanding the way out-of-home TVs are used to allow proprietors to do more than just show the game. Ourglass allows businesses, initially bars and restaurants, to [change] their existing TVs to enhance engagement and entertainment with patrons that result in improved loyalty and increased revenue. Second, as a hyper-local digital advertising platform, Ourglass gives brands visibility at the point of purchase with a platform that allows you to choose where you sponsor, who you sponsor too and even what is on TV during the sponsorship.

What interactive games can be played on the Ourglass-enabled TVs?
Games and apps are chosen by the business from the Ourglass app gallery so it varies by venue. For bars and restaurants, they can choose from apps for keeping score of games patrons typically play at these establishments including darts, shuffleboard and pool.  Also, we have plans for social games like trivia and football squares along with event-specific games that tie to major sports and holidays (e.g., March Madness, Oktoberfest, Super Bowl).

In addition, we will be open-sourcing the platform at release to allow any number of developers to extend their mobile apps or create new ones.

Who’s the target market right now?
Our initial market focus is bars and restaurants where TVs are ubiquitous and the challenge to create a ‘wow’ factor is constant. Bars and restaurants face one of the highest failure rates and it all comes down to patron experience — something we aim to improve.

Where are you on Ourglass rollout?
We have done alpha testing at four locations, but we are just doing our first wide availability of beta systems in mid-June. Street Fight Summit in Brooklyn on June 12th will mark our public debut and release of our beta product.

Like many local initiatives, we will initially be focusing on getting critical mass one metro area at a time.

We plan to start our rollout in our backyard — Silicon Valley. We expect Brooklyn/NYC will follow soon after along with major U.S. cities and college towns.

Where is the money made?
Most of our revenue will be made on the sponsorship ads that will be displayed on the Ourglass-enabled TVs and via the mobile app. The systems themselves, all the software and the mobile apps, will be completely free to our proprietors.

What are some things you’re planning next for the product?
The three major additions to the system between beta and the first production release in Fall.

  1. A fully online ad buying capability.  All the sponsorships are tracked and distributed through our cloud back-end now, but with the full release you’ll be able to self serve the purchase and tracking yourself if you’d like.

  2. Additional gaming apps for bars and restaurants.  Lightweight fantasy and trivia apps will take the lead.

  3. Open sourcing of the platform for outside development of custom apps or apps released through our Ourglass Store.

From a market expansion, we believe the health and fitness industry is a natural extension. Today, TVs are standard equipment in these venues and the explosive growth of exercise tracking and social sharing, presents some interesting ways clubs could improve on-premise member experience with Ourglass.  We are already in discussion with some large players in the space.

RickRRick Robinson is SVP of Product for on-demand roadside assistance startup He is also an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @itsrickrobinson

Join Ourglass’ Treb Ryan and hundreds of other top local companies and brands at The Best Street Fight Summit Ever — a three-day extravaganza in Brooklyn on June 12-14. Click here to register now!