This week on the XLIVE Interview Series we sat down with Jameson Rader, founder of CUE Audio. CUE Audio is known for their white label, ultrasonic synchronization technology that creates experiences for fans and companies by sending data with ultrasonic audio. We spoke to Jameson about a number of topics from the opportunity he saw when founding CUE Audio, to how the technology works, to the types of data they can send with audio, and how he sees the company evolving over the next five years. Read the interview below!
For those who don’t know about CUE Audio, can you give us a brief overview of the organization and how you saw the opportunity to create this company?
In 2015, I officed in the basement of an arena in Omaha, Neb., as an econometrician for an amateur hockey team. Every weekend, the team drew in anywhere from 3,000-4,000 spectators for the game. I had seen footage from Coldplay and Taylor Swift concerts of fans using light-up bracelets to achieve amazing crowd-sourced visuals. After a quick Google, I was served an article about how the expense of the bracelets had almost bankrupted Coldplay. I mean, at $5 per wristband, even NHL teams could only afford to do this maybe for a single round of playoffs, if that.
My immediate thought was: “Why not just use everyone’s phone?” That is, a software — not a hardware — solution. I knew if this software could be developed, synchronized light shows would instantly become accessible to every crowd or even small group gathering – not just the Coldplays and Taylor Swifts of the world.
The next task was to develop the syncing mechanism. I knew Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell service could not be used, as traditional connectivity is irregular and unreliable in most stadiums and arenas around the world. The solution that seemed elusive, after tremendous thought, became clear: let’s develop our own transmission method by embedding data into sound itself.
My educational background was diverse, having majored/minored in economics, English and accounting at Northwestern, but it didn’t include coding. So, I bought four introductory programming books from Barnes and Noble and set off on a new challenge to make the idea a reality.
Two years later, CUE is the global leader in innovate live event technology and one of the world’s fastest growing data-over-audio technology companies across all industries. In fewer than 12 months, CUE enhanced live event experiences for more than three million fans for clients such as Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald’s, and NASCAR, NBA, NHL and NCAA Division I athletic teams.
Footage of the CUE Audio light show at a Purdue University basketball game
In a few sentences, can you tell everyone what ultrasonic synchronization technology is, and how you’re able to send data with audio?
Sound is a wave, just like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is a type of wave. The difference is the medium in which they propagate; traditional means of communication, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell service
are electromagnetic. As CUE engineers, our job is to, in a sense, translate tried and tested communication algorithms and protocols to the audible realm.
Can you compare and contrast ultrasonic synchronization technology with beacon technology?
Beacons require you to purchase hardware. They also require specialized talent to set up, maintain and (most importantly) program to sync with an app. In short, they are a hardware solution.
We are a software solution. We make any speaker — whether it’s a small $10 household speaker, your television/laptop speakers, or a six-foot tall amplifier at an outdoor concert – a beacon. We don’t require hardware. You just load the track and press play.
Is this a patented technology? What other companies or industries use ultrasonic synchronization technology?
Communication through ultrasonic audio itself is a concept and not a process. You can’t patent a concept and that’s how it should be. Instead, CUE has a specific method and protocol by which we transmit data over audio . This is a patent-pending.
While other data-over-audio providers struggle with the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the sound medium, particularly echoes, environmental noise, slow throughput, and signal degradation over long distances, our solution is state of the art in how it deals with all of these dilemmas.
We can transmit a signal over 150 feet from a MacBook speaker in an outdoor, noisy environment. The next competitor in the industry can transmit only up to 10 feet, indoors. Even crowd noise is not a factor for our protocol. We’ve successfully deployed our technology to a stadium of over 80,000 fans (at the 2017 Clemson vs Auburn football game) with extremely positive results. We’ve even been successful within NASCAR, where most people have to wear headphones due to noise levels.
You’re only 24 years old. How have you been able to find entrepreneurial success at such a young age?
There are limitless entrepreneurs out there who have been doing this longer and with much greater success than me, so, honestly, I’d recommend deferring to their advice. That being said, I will try to offer some tailored advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in that same 18- to 22-year-old age bracket where my insight might actually be useful.
Don’t be afraid of not being taken seriously, especially if your organization is tech-centric. In the earliest days of CUE, when I was just starting to have a production-ready product, I tried very hard to keep the sales cycle isolated to email only. I didn’t want to talk over the phone with a potential NCAA Division I college marketing rep and be immediately discounted because I sounded like a college kid.
Same applies for tradeshows. I went to TechCrunch with my mom because I felt like I needed an adult present just to get some respect from and face time with venture capitalists in attendance. I gave her a handful of opening lines to memorize, and she pretended to be a CUE sales rep.
If you’re young, take advantage of it. There are certain sectors and business opportunities only noticeable by a young demographic or with a good understanding of remote/inaccessible portions of internet culture.
Finally, you’re always going to need help. CUE only started to gain traction and market penetration once I had teamed up with CUE’s co-founders, Ira Akers and Blake Picquet. While there are advantages to a young, fresh and innovative perspective on the world, there is tremendous value in experience. Without Ira and Blake, and their ability to successfully navigate a corporate landscape, CUE would likely have ended up as neat software running on five iPhones, two Nexus devices, and 1 MacBook Pro – all sitting on my bookshelf.
How does this technology help with fan engagement at live events, and how does it improve the experience for fans?
Live events are all about connecting people, whether it’s at a sporting event, concert or a conference. In all of these venues, screens are everywhere. There are video displays, ribbon boards, scoreboards, sometimes even screens in the men’s restrooms … the screen is literally everywhere.
Now, the second screen is everywhere. It seems everyone (Pew Research says it’s at least 77 percent of U.S. adults) has an iPhone or Android device in their pocket. Live events, at times, have had a combative relationship with the second screen. The question is: how do we connect Screen One to Screen Two?
All that we have to go on is a video file, or some live feed of the lead singer or point guard on the big screen. A video file has two layers: one for audio and one for video; there is no Bluetooth layer. CUE has solved that problem. By embedding ultrasonic, inaudible metadata into the audio itself your smartphone can treat a video file as if it had a Bluetooth layer.
Everyone hates it when you’re at a concert, and you can’t see the artist because everyone is raising their phone in the air, recording low-quality footage that literally no one will ever see. Now fans can raise their phones and synchronize in real-time to the performance, video displays and ribbon boards around them. No additional hardware required.
Which industries do you work with most, and which industries have been quick to adopt ultrasonic synchronization technology?
The sporting world has been an early adopter of this new technology. Sports teams are always looking to give fans a reason to show up to the venue rather than stay at home and watch the televised broadcast. We’ve made a huge impact in the collegiate world, with a significant percentage of Division I colleges now being CUE clients, in addition to the NBA and NHL.
Concert venues, touring artists, and the music space, in general, have been quick to follow suit. Fans want to be part of the show. Before CUE, the only viable option for a fan to participate was for the artist to foot $5/attendee, inevitably inflating ticket prices to cover cost and provide the ROI that promoters are looking for. CUE is putting an end to that. By providing a software solution, the decision to provide a crowd-sourced synchronized light show can be made quickly, with only a few days notice, and at a fraction of the price. Software moves quickly; hardware moves slowly. We travel at the speed of sound. Light-up wristbands travel at the speed of FedEx.
What are the benefits of white labeling your product?
CUE is a protocol – we are a transmission method. CUE offers the leading data-over-audio in the industry, transmitting signals over 5x further than the next leading provider. Would you want Wi-Fi to be a brand? We want to offer our solution to the world and solve problems that were literally unsolvable with previous technology. If that means, at times, you use our services to improve your day-to-day life or enhance your live event experience but don’t see our logo, we go to bed happy.
That famous quote from Arthur C Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” rings true for CUE. I can’t tell you (literally due to NDA) how many high-profile magicians have reached out wanting to use our transmission method as a mind-reading illusion. The thing is, we’ve never licensed to a magician. Disguising our tech isn’t what we’re in the business of doing. We’re about transmitting information and knowledge in ways and mediums never thought possible – not hiding and obscuring our discoveries.
What’s the most challenging part of your job, and what brings you the most joy?
Most challenging: we’re dealing with unexplored territory. It’s harder to think of industries that can’t benefit from CUE technology than it is to think of industries that are fine with the status
quo. When your tech can improve every web browser in the world by seamlessly connecting to your smartphone with no pairing process; can enable every network television studio, radio broadcast, and YouTube content creator to deliver custom content not only to your TV and desktop but also simultaneously to your smartphone; can allow you to text your friend across the aisle of a jet while both of you are in AirPlane mode; can literally light up every live event experience across the globe, whether it’s a UNC vs. Duke basketball game or an elementary school program – there is no shortage of work to be done.
Here at CUE, we’re working tirelessly to provide these solutions and raise awareness that new things are possible. Every CUE employee puts in 50+ hours per week because we’ve developed something special, something that provides utility to anyone with a $3.50 microphone, and we won’t stop until the world knows about it.
Most Joy: Coming “face to face” with early adopters in the wild, be it in person or on the internet. When a Purdue fan messages me on Reddit and tells me how unbelievable their game day experience was, that is fuel in my tank. To many people, what we do is magic [see above #8].
Where do you see this technology and CUE Audio over the next 5 years?
CUE is very much an internet-based, global company, with employees in Brazil, Thailand, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. As such, I foresee CUE continuing to enable engineers worldwide by providing a toolset they didn’t know they had access to, and enabling users to consume more data without racking up a “data” bill with cellular providers. We enable our users to consume more information with less cost; no expensive additional hardware required or data limits imposed.
Of course, live events have been a critical part of our growth cycle, and we anticipate CUE will continue to gain popularity in the live event space. We have partnerships launching with some of the largest fan engagement and live event production companies in the world, which will make our technology commonplace at sporting events, concerts, and large gatherings across the globe.
We are also in conversations with brands in the retail, hospitality and broadcasting verticals to provide a gateway for communication, content sharing and customer service through CUE’s data-over-audio technology.
And really, that’s just our 12-18 month plan. Five years, who knows?