09 Feb Cisco Takes Spark Collaboration To A New Level With Spark Board And Spark Meetings

The business collaboration, meetings and video space is hot right now, and huge companies like Microsoft, Google, Cisco Systems, HP Inc. and Intel and startups like Vidyo and Slack are introducing new technologies and platforms to take advantage of these shifts. While this term initiates my gag reflex, “digital transformation” is at the heart of it. Businesses are finally realizing they need new ways to work, collaborate and meet and the new video and productivity experiences are now being produced to meet those needs. One great example of this is Cisco’s new Spark Board. I attended the launch event and analyst meetings and share some of my takeaways.

During their keynote in San Francisco, Cisco Systems unveiled what they’re saying will revolutionize the world of workplace collaboration: the Cisco Spark Board, their first all-in-one meeting room product. I haven’t spent enough time comparing to Google’s Jam Board, Microsoft Surface Hub and Skype Room Systems or Intel Unite, but I can say these kinds of products will revolutionize work. Just getting the projector to work would be a miracle.

Also unveiled Tuesday was a companion app, Spark Meetings—but more on that one later. CEO Chuck Robbins led off the keynote with some introductory remarks on the age of digital transformation, emphasizing that with the explosion of IoT inter-connectivity, it is imperative that not only things are connected, but that humanity’s creative minds are also connected. While expressed quite loftily, I agree wholeheartedly with Chuck Robbins on this. The theme of collaboration well in place, Robbins then introduced Rowan Trollope, SVP & GM of Cisco’s IoT and Applications Division to make the big announcement of the day.

Trollope led off with an anecdote—the construction of the Golden Gate bridge (which actually inspired the Cisco logo). Originally dubbed the “bridge that can’t be built,” due to the high winds and currents in the location, many engineering firms turned down the project. He segued back, by saying that “every industry has something like this,”—a seemingly impossible task. Cisco’s “Golden Gate”, he said, was getting their workplace collaboration technology into outdated conference rooms across the world—where currently they are only in about 5% globally. Most conference rooms are cluttered with old, outdated, frustratingly incompatible devices and technology, and Cisco set out to create an all-in-one product that was easy to use, and does everything you need it to do—enter the Spark Board, a project 3 years in the making.

My favorite part of Trollope’s spiel was him walking out on stage with a wheelbarrow full of old, gross, meeting equipment and dumping it all on stage. Pretty much everyone watching could relate to that big pile of steaming garbage.

Cisco Spark Board: “3 devices in 1”

First off, let me just say that the device looks great. It’s sleek, simple, and aside from the power-cord/RJ45, it’s completely wireless. It comes with a 55-inch multi-touch LED display (70-inch to come later this year), and the only button on the device is the home button. Trollope aptly described the design as “Scandinavian minimalism meeting Californian approachability,” explaining that they wanted to create a product that people want to walk up to and touch. Cisco intentionally chose a design that closely resembled a tablet, because they wanted something that was easy and unintimidating for new users. On that front, I’d say they succeeded. It’s thicker than I anticipated after coming back from CES 2017 and seeing smart 4K HDTVs as thin as my iPhone, but I’m sure it has more usability, too, given NVIDIA’s Jetson platform inside.

But onwards to functionality: the Cisco Spark Board has three principal uses. First, it is a wireless presentation device, that is accessible to everyone, everywhere, from the conference room, to those working remotely on their mobile devices. Users can walk up to Cisco Spark Boards (whether its theirs or not), pair with one click, and start sharing content, without WiFi or Bluetooth required (it makes use of new ultrasound wireless pairing technology). It is versatile, with the option of being controlled via PC, Mac, tablet, or mobile phone. Spark Board makes screen-sharing look effortless, which historically has not been the case.

The Cisco Spark Board’s second function is as a state-of-the-art digital whiteboard. This seeks to solve problems associated with traditional whiteboards—primarily the fact that it is very difficult to share and save whatever you’ve been working on. Digital whiteboards have been attempted unsuccessfully before by other companies, but Cisco’s technology looks to be a considerable cut above past attempts. Cisco Spark Board automatically saves your work, so that the team can access, modify, and pick up right back where you left off after lunch break. Another cool feature is that anyone in the meeting can make their mark on their white board with the Cisco Spark application, even if they’re working remotely on the other side of the globe. Since oftentimes these whiteboard presentations contain highly sensitive material, security is absolutely imperative—every single mark made on the board is secured through Cisco Spark’s end-to-end encryption technology.

The third main function of the Spark Board is a “theater-quality” conferencing device. It boasts a built-in 4K fixed-lens camera, with an 86-degree wide field of vision. The camera is discreet, so even the most camera-shy users should feel more at ease when conferencing. It also has a built-in 12 microphone array hidden inside the bezel to amplify audio quality—also wireless and unobtrusive. Cisco says the microphones have the power to cover a room with 8-10 people. They also claim that the Spark Board will adjust to people’s volume and position within the room, with a technology they’re calling VoiceTrack (essentially a zoom button for audio). Obviously an on-stage demo isn’t a guarantee—but I’ll attest, from what Trollope showed us, it both looks good and sounds good. I’m hoping I can actually get one to try it out for myself.

Cisco Spark Meetings

Trollope then introduced Jonathan Rosenberg, VP of Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group to the stage to make another product announcement. Rosenberg led off with the acknowledgement that there wasn’t going to be a Cisco Spark Board in every conference room overnight, and that Cisco needed to find a way to make meetings better everywhere. This was a good acknowledgement that I appreciated because it represents reality.

He iterated some of the major “pain points” with the current corporate meeting model: to name a few, the difficulty of catching a new member of a conversation up to speed, the time consumed trying to escalate a chat into an ad-hoc meeting, the difficulty of knowing when it’s time to switch meetings.

In their press release, Cisco Systems stated “the meeting itself is one point in a longer series of interactions,” and that the modern workplace needs tools that “support this whole flow” of processes that happen outside the conference room. Their answer to that is Cisco Spark Meetings—software designed to streamline these processes. Cisco is hailing Spark Meetings as “your Spark Board in your pocket”—you can use the app to schedule a meeting, create a team space, get people involved, chitchat, and share content. You can even use it as a digital whiteboard—even if nobody involved in the meeting has a Spark Board. Users can also post follow-up action items and notes into the same space, ensuring easy, continued collaboration after the meeting. Again, I like what Cisco is saying, but I need to use it myself in tandem with a Spark Board.

Cisco Spark Board Solutions

For me, the most impactful part of the event were the solution vignettes shown after the main stage show. These vignettes were vertical and horizontal examples of how the Cisco Spark Board could be used for more than just the meeting room.

Cisco showed off:

  • Movie Production – a live artist finished drawing alternate endings for the Three Little Pigs to pitch the next animated feature film to studio execs
  • Fashion Designer- real-time interaction and collaboration between designers, manufacturers and even customers. Think of your favorite fashion brand.
  • Math Classroom- math teacher working with local and distant students on a math problem
  • Music Classroom- same as math but for composing a new piece of music
  • Product designer- like fashion designer, only for hard goods. Think Frog Design.
  • Kitchen design- like fashion designer, but for consumers looking to put together kitchens. Think Lowes.

These vignettes got me thinking that Cisco Spark Board were for more than all those boring meetings we attend but front and center in customer, supplier, distributor, channel interactions.

Futures

While you don’t want to sell what’s not available, you do need show that there is a future in any platform. While Cisco couldn’t say a lot about futures, based on their hardware they chose, it does tell a story. Cisco chose NVIDIA’s TX1 platform “Jetson” released at the end of 2015 but now embedded, two of them, to power the Spark Board. This tells me that we could likely see some local AI capabilities in this in the future. Local AI could help in meeting transcription, security, sizing and measurement, and other cool tricks.

I’m sure Cisco isn’t done either with the ecosystem. While Spark has an impressive array of data partners, it doesn’t necessarily have the capability to work on the same “app” at the same time aside from the Cisco apps like white-boarding.

Pricing

At the end of this month, the 55-inch Spark Board will be available for $4,990 (suggested price), with a monthly subscription (covering the cloud service, help desk, and software upgrades) will cost an additional $199/month. The 70-inch version will be available later in the year for $9,990 (suggested price). The Cisco Spark Boards will also be available to purchase through the Cisco Spark Flex Plan. Compared to what you get with legacy meeting equipment, this is a steal. Others in the industry are not asking for a service fee but I don’t see that as the killer. Forward-minded enterprises will gladly pay that if they really believe their companies are much more productive. I also think the service fee is negotiable as everything is in IT when there are strong alternatives.

Wrapping Up

Productivity, collaboration, meetings and video are on a collision course and Cisco is right in the middle of it. The company held a compelling launch event for the new Spark Board and Spark Meetings. Getting a Cisco Spark Board into every conference room and getting Cisco Spark Meetings onto every mobile device, Cisco’s desire, is a tall order, but I like BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) as they energize the employee and channel base.

All this starts with having a great experience and bringing something new to the table and I like Cisco’s “giant tablet” approach, even though it’s thicker than I expected. I haven’t actually used Spark Board in my workflow yet and I like what I see so far, but I have used Spark in my workflow and it “feels” good, quite natural. Having an easy-to-use, all-in-one device (and the software to supplement and support it) could be one of the keys to solving this industry’s “Golden Gate Bridge” dilemma. I think most workers would just be happy to reliably connect their computer or tablet to a projection device, so anything beyond this is a huge deal.

The biggest thing I am thinking through is how a Microsoft Office 365 shop deals with this. For instance, what if I want to collaborate on a PowerPoint or Excel spreadsheet? Do I have to export as a PDF to markup on it versus just making the changes real-time? Maybe. What does that mean to productivity and collaboration? I’ll be assessing that in the future.

Time will tell whether it ends up being the game-changer Cisco expects it to be, but after watching the keynote and demonstrations, I think Cisco is on a good track.