Cisco Has a Secret

by Dave Michels

Cisco has a secret it can’t wait to tell. It won’t be much longer though – the cat comes out of the bag in a few weeks on January 24th.

But, the writing is on the wall.

That’s because Cisco employees and executives, even the @WebEx account are tweeting clues:

  • Watch live when @CiscoSpark makes its mark. Learn more & register: @CiscoSpark #teamwork
  • A better way for teams to create together is coming Jan 24 2017. Learn more & register: @CiscoSpark #teamwork

If you go to the URL, which will presumably be active for only a few more weeks, you will see a landing page with multiple inked lines and a what appears to be a Cisco Spark branded stylus.

Cisco Make Your Mark

Cisco even sent out a stylus or two – though not to me. Evidently, Matt Grech at got one in a package that “included as what I presume to be a pretty large touch screen stylus – this isn’t meant for your everyday iPhone games. The stylus is the size and shape of which resembles a dry-erase board marker, adorned with a soft tip designed to gracefully interact with a touch screen.” Though Matt isn’t sure what the stylus goes to, he believes it is too big for a smartphone.

A whiteboard is not a ridiculous guess. Why? Because it’s the new, new-thing in video. Microsoft has its Surface Hubs (which evolved from the prior gen of Lync Room Systems (LRS)), Zoom has Zoom Room Touchscreens, and Google has the Jamboard.

The whiteboard was left behind when web and video conferencing finally figured out how to share e-content to remote participants. It’s about time that the video companies discovered the other (and first) collaboration device in the room.

This might even be big. Cisco doesn’t release new video hardware very often. We have to go back to December 2014 and the IX5000 for anything significant. At the 2014 Collaboration Summit, Cisco unveiled its new IX5000 and Cisco Spark. Both being products of the Trollope Administration. Since he arrived, Rowan has been harping about user experience and small details. A big part of the IX5000 was the part you aren’t even supposed to notice – the back of the unit. Cisco called it “the second front.” Cisco’s new attention to detail is to extend beyond the obvious – Telepresence meets Scandinavian design (again).

In addition to the “Second Front,” the IX5000 also sported a universal connector to eliminate dongles and a “whiteboard mode.”  SVP Cisco Collaboration Jens Meggers recently tweeted “One of these days we’ll have dongle-less meeting rooms… maybe Jan 24th.”

“Whiteboard mode” leveraged the 4k video camera with a 1k video stream so it could perform ‘lossless’ image processing pre-transmission. Ideally a room’s whiteboard is mounted directly in front of a camera but that’s often impractical. An indirect angle distorts the board, so Cisco developed de-skewing capabilities as what now appears to have been an interim solution. De-skewing a whiteboard skews everything else, so whiteboard mode zoomed-in on the de-skewed board. It wasn’t a bad approach, but the whiteboard remained an analog device in an otherwise digital environment.

Video room systems are maturing. We know how to set them up, and there’s been great progress in making them more accessible in terms of price and simplicity. However, e-whiteboards are a relatively new category. We don’t have enough experience with these yet to know what features we really want. Here’s my starter list of topics to consider:

  • Should the board be the room system or a peripheral to a room system? This is a complex issue. All-in-one systems offer simplicity, but also literally put a camera centimeters from a face.
  • Should the board require a stylus? The alternative is a finger. Fingers are harder to lose than a stylus, but lack accuracy. Speaking of writing utensils, what happens when someone uses a real dry-erase marker on a an e-whiteboard? Will it be the crisis of a Sharpie on a whiteboard?
  • Content save and security/privacy of the saved content needs to be addressed. Someday we will tell our incredulous kids that we took photos of whiteboards. The ability to save content is not a yes/no feature: Will it save iterations? Will it playback creation? What apps are supported? How secure is that save? Can the next user somehow access/view content from a prior meeting? If the board is connected, is it secure? Can the NSA (or your boss) view erased content?
  • Remote Participation: A remote stylus can be the difference between a remote attendee and a remote participant. If you forget to cross a T – can someone else do it for you? Speaking of remote peeps, how much control do they have over what they see? Can they adjust their own window size? Is there remote P/T/Z? and can the remote participant control if they see people or content?
  • Should a whiteboard be white? The presenter can turn into a silhouette if there’s a white screen in the background.
  • Connections? Boards tend to be on walls. The people that I meet with tend to be ‘off the wall.’ How many wires need to run where? The old whiteboard had none – the new e-whiteboard may need power, network, and connections to computers (USB3, HDMI, USBC), connections to video systems, connections to room system controllers, connections to external mics and cameras, and who knows what else.
  • Credentials? Does use of the board require login credentials? If you start a meeting and leave early will other users have access to the board and/or access to private information? Can the board be used locally, in the room without credentials? Can someone write on the board something like “please help yourself to surplus T-shirts” and have it stay, or will it auto erase or reboot? Can visitors (such as accountants camping in the conference room during an audit) use the board without credentials?

These are some of the questions I will be asking Cisco – assuming they announce a board. Though I can’t say I yet know the desired best answers.