Cisco adds some Spark to meetings

With Spark Board, Cisco removes the barriers that make in-person meetings painful and integrates that experience with virtual participants

Cisco adds some Spark to the in-person meeting experience
Credit: Cisco

In the technology industry, we like to swing pendulums too far one way or the other and make general statements like “everything is moving to the cloud” or “everything is connecting over wireless,” and those statements are, of course, false. There are still more on-premises workloads than cloud ones, and there’s a huge world of devices that are connected with wires.

The collaboration industry is no different, as there has bee a significant rise in the number of tools to improve virtual meetings. We have web conference platforms, audio bridges and advancements in video. And recently there has been an explosion in the number of team messaging products. All of these products help workers conduct virtual meetings.

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But what about physical meeting spaces? People still get together and have in-person meetings. There are always workers in conference rooms, huddle rooms and meeting spaces collaborating to get stuff done. Why has there been no innovation here? Physical spaces badly need some innovation because the experience (pardon my French) absolutely sucks. 

Physical meeting spaces are a cornucopia of disjointed, inefficient stuff. ZK Research data shows that on average, 15 minutes of meeting time are wasted doing things such as looking for dongles, loading slides on to a PC, taking pictures of white boards, repeatedly asking “who just joined the bridge?” and fiddling with the video system that no one can seem to use. It makes one wonder is there a better way? Well, now there is. 

Spark Board features

Today, Cisco announced the Spark Board—an all-in-one meeting room product in a display form factor. The new collaboration tool is a powered from the Spark cloud and provides all of the technology to facilitate meetings in one screen. While it may look like any other in room display, the Spark Board has the following features:

* Wireless presentation device. Connecting a laptop to an in-room display is much harder than it should be. This is something that should take no time at all, but because of dongles, cables, video formats and wireless protocols, this can often be a frustratingly long process.

Cisco has simplified this down to the point where the user literally has to do nothing except walk up to the board and have it greet you by name. Give it a tap, and start the meeting. There is no requirement for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other network service to enable on the device. Instead Cisco has built something it calls “ultrasound wireless pairing technology” into the Spark platform. As long users are running the Spark app, the screen sharing will automatically work from a PC, Mac, tablet or mobile phone. Cables, remotes, dongles and frustration should be a thing of the past with the new Spark Board.

* Interactive digital whiteboard. I find white boards to be like kids. They’re great and you love them, but they drive you nuts. Whiteboards are often when the best work gets done. We go into meeting spaces, roll up our sleeves and scribble a bunch of great stuff down. But then what? Some people try to copy everything down, but that’s filled with errors. Others will take pictures with a mobile phone; that works OK, but then someone needs to distribute the images and be able store it in a place for retrieval later. 

The Spark Board makes the content editable and shareable for not only people in the room, but also remote workers through the Cisco Spark app. Participants can even be on the phone in the app and still contribute via the whiteboard function.

Another cool whiteboard feature is that it automatically saves the work to a Spark “room” that the whole team can access. That means people could collaborate and save the content after a meeting. When the next meeting starts, the team could pick up right where it left off. No paper to unfold or images to print. Also, if that’s the only display in the room, it could be used as both video conferencing endpoint and interactive whiteboard at the same time.

Lastly, consistent with the way Cisco has built other products, the Spark Board is highly secure. Security-sensitive companies that might worry about pen strokes being captured can rest easy, since pen-to-board communications are encrypted. 

* High quality audio and video. The Spark Board has an integrated microphone, speakers and 4K video camera for theatre-like quality. Cisco embedded a full microphone array into the board, as well as VoiceTrack technology, to ensure crystal-clear audio and video. No more external cameras or conference room phones on the table, as it’s all built into the board.

 The Spark Board is available in two sizes. The 55-in. version lists for $4,990 and will be available at the end of the month. The 70-in. version will $9,900 and will be available later this year. Both boards will be available through Cisco channel partners. Customers will also need to pay a $199 monthly subscription fee per board, which includes the cloud service, help desk and software upgrades. The $199 per board seems high to me, particularly for a company that buys multiple boards. 

The hardware prices are very reasonable, though. As a comparison, the 55-in. Microsoft Surface Hub has a list price of $8,999, and the 84-in. version is $21,999. 

While the board is the cool new, sexy thing that people will want to play with, it’s just one component of what Cisco now calls Spark Meetings, which encompasses the full lifecycle of meetings. Most people I know are really good at the “in meeting” part of the lifecycle and are mediocre with pre-meeting tasks such as preparing for the meeting and having the information they need readily available. Then there’s the post meeting process, which is abysmal in most organizations. When the meeting is over, participants generally have to run off to another meeting, so minutes are sent out late or not at all and half of the follow-up items fall through the cracks. 

Cisco Spark Meetings use the Spark platform to help businesses be more effective across the meeting lifecycle—before, during and after. Cisco has added some of the features of WebEx into the Spark app, enabling it to be used to manage the meeting. 

Spark Board use case

To better understand how Spark Board works, consider the following scenario:

  1. A meeting is scheduled in the Spark app, and participants are invited.
  2. The agenda, documents, images and other content are placed in the Spark room for all participants to access.
  3. Prior to the meeting, participants can chat, share more content and have ad hoc calls.
  4. The meeting is conducted with in-room participants using a Spark Board and remote participants using the board feature in the app. All content created is automatically saved in the room.
  5. The meeting concludes, and post-meeting comments, action items and meeting notes are saved in the Spark room.

The meeting room is not dead—far from it. The key is for unified communications vendors to remove all of the barriers that make in-person meetings painful and integrate that experience with virtual participants. And it appears Cisco has done that. It’s able to create this experience by bringing together hardware, software and the cloud and leveraging the strengths of each.

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