Cisco makes videoconference technology invisible

by Dave Michels

Last month Cisco announced two new room video systems called the Spark Room Kit and Spark Room Kit Plus. Behind these dull names are some impressive technologies never before seen in videoconferencing.

The room kits are nearly complete videoconferencing systems, but they don’t include the displays. Each system is a single all-in-one device with camera(s), microphones and speakers. The primary difference between the two models is that the Room Kit has a single fixed-camera and the Room Kit Plus has four fixed-cameras that can cover a larger room.

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These room kits follow Cisco’s Spark Board launched last January. There is some overlap in videoconferencing, but the products serve different markets. The Spark Board includes a touchscreen display for electronic whiteboarding and works only with Cisco Spark, a cloud-delivered collaboration service. The room kits are videoconferencing solutions that can be used with either premises-based infrastructure or cloud-delivered services such as WebEx and Spark.

Despite the advanced technologies, the room kits are positioned for small to mid-sized rooms. Videoconferencing is not particularly new, but according to Cisco, it has only penetrated some 5 percent of the total conference rooms (the high-end rooms). Cisco wants to see video expand into the larger market of general-purpose meeting rooms for up to 14 people.

Video technology has become pervasive. It’s on our phones, tablets, laptops and many desktops. But the technology hasn’t spread in conference rooms because of the cost and the complexity. Cisco’s solution to simplicity is more technology.

No moving parts

For decades, the best room video cameras have had pan, zoom and tilt. While that sounds nice, it adds complexity and distractions to a meeting. Even the automated solutions that use visual and audio cues to automatically switch and adjust cameras create distracting movements and sounds.

The new room kits offer this automation without any moving parts. It’s all done digitally thanks to super high-resolution 5K camera sensors. These sensors enable digital processing (virtual pan, tilt and zoom) without compromising the quality. Digital effects always result in some loss, but when you start at such high resolution, the resulting quality is effectively lossless.

Gone are the hassles, sounds and distractions of camera switching and framing, even with only one camera. There’s no need to manually adjust the cameras with the remote, and that’s good because Cisco eliminated the remote control. Remotes are trouble—they are intimidating, they get lost and their batteries die.

If you do need a remote, it’s on your smartphone, but chances are you won’t need one. The system automatically wakes up when people enter the room, and it identifies them (and their meetings) via smartphone app pairing. Forgot your smartphone? That’s OK because the system can also be controlled by voice.

Artificial intelligence

You can ask these new room kits questions (e.g., what time is it in a certain city) and ask to join or end a conference. These conversational aspects are delivered by a combination of cloud backend services and the Nvidia Tegra X1 chips that Cisco built into the kits. Nvidia’s products offer high levels of image and speech recognition, and they are used across a wide range of advanced systems, including Tesla cars and Facebook’s virtual reality headsets.

Cisco intends to use the technology for facial recognition. Today, the room systems see faces and automatically frame pictures. Telemetry data on conferences include the number of participants (or faces) in a conference. Administrators can validate room capacities against actual usage.

Cisco has previewed a planned feature that displays each participant’s name on screen. This will facilitate collaboration and improve analytics. For example, it may be possible to search recordings for a meeting with Stan and three others.

Room kits physical design

The room kits are also noteworthy for their physical attention to detail. Cisco’s video equipment, including the Spark Board, is designed in the company’s Oslo Design Center. All of these systems show impressive attention to detail. The room kits are not hard plastic but rather wrapped in a custom textile that Cisco claims is stain-resistant and optimized for sound.

Many video systems rely on the television’s built-in speakers, but Cisco wanted to minimize frustration associated with separate volume controls. Of course, including speakers in the same unit as 5k cameras creates a vibration challenge. Cisco’s solution was to use several small speakers pointed in opposite directions to balance vibration and maximize sound.

The design goal also included minimal wiring. The room kits are designed to be mounted above or below the displays. There’s no need for tabletop controls or microphones. Screen sharing, too, is done wirelessly via the application.

Multiple deployment options

The room kits can be deployed with either Cisco’s premises-based video solutions or as endpoints to Cisco’s hosted Spark service. When connecting to Spark, the Room Kit MSRP drops about 67 percent to $3,990. However, a connect fee of $100/month is required.

Final thoughts

2017 will be a good year for room video. Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Logitech are all targeting unconnected rooms with new offers. While the competition is increasing, the reality is the enterprise-wide conferencing application or service will narrow the options.

Cisco’s approach to this market is unique in two ways. First, Cisco intends to expand its market with advanced technology. That raises the initial cost, but it may also increase adoption and usability.

Second, Cisco sees its Spark service, a messaging-centric team chat service, as the next iteration of conferencing and collaboration. While there are numerous competitive services, none has custom, integrated hardware.

For organizations considering or using Spark (or WebEx), these new room kits and the Spark Board are compelling solutions. Subscribers can get the equipment with an initial upfront discount, too. Unfortunately, that implies a portion of the Spark connection fee is equipment subsidy. This adds potential complications to the long-term ROI. I prefer for equipment to be equipment and service to be service.

What Cisco has attempted to create, especially when paired with Spark, is a seamless meeting experience. The smartphone app makes starting and joining meetings a snap. The equipment is silent, yet automatically and seamlessly adjusts, switches and frames the video.

It will take a few more months to see if Cisco nailed this or not, but the intent and the technology behind the new room kits are impressive. The Spark Room Kit is available now, and the Spark Room Kit Plus will ship later this month.

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