by Justin Cohen
This is an “iPhone” moment
If you look back at some of the big changes in our industry – the big challengers and innovators have continually challenged the status quo in how we use technology.
A perfect example of this is the iPhone. Until then we all thought keyboards, roller balls and scroll wheels were the answer. Smart PDA devices counted on using a pen to be accurate, and you needed an owners guide the side of war and peace to understand how to get things done.
Then comes this guy – Steve Jobs, who intuitively understood user interfaces. The guy just knew it. The interface was so clean, so natural and so easy – 2 year olds were picking up iPhones and using them like a part of their natural life. Scrolling feels very natural, and button presses are so precise even with big fingers. This crazy attention to user interface detail is what pushed our industry to the next step of mobile computing with the iPhone. Android existed – for some time but until Apple pushed the industry, the Android platform lacked continuous innovation, it was just another mobile OS.
If you go back and read my previous blog about video phones, I talk about how video phones are on the way out – but telepresence is here to stay and without question this is one of the proof positive moments of that.
We need to get past the disgusting world of “conferencing” and actually collaborate. Getting past the microphones sound horrible, echo, robotic voice, poor quality video, difficult to share documents, poor white boarding and high cost of simply collaborating in a basic manner.
In 2012 an international conferencing study found that on a typical conference call – 10 minutes is taken up by distractions. If you have 6 conference calls a day that is an hour wasted just trying to get work done.
Typical meeting room of today – we have a projector connecting to someone’s laptop, maybe a video endpoint, a white board that nobody on the conference can see and some kind of flip chart because we want to keep some of that stuff for later. Nothing talks to each other, and everything is disjointed. The costs of all of this technology isn’t cheap either and most rooms they sit dormant because they are too complicated.
Video systems are impossible to use. You literally need a techo-nerd in every meeting – many companies actually place an IT resource INSIDE the video room for executive calls to monitor the health of the system – that is CRAZY! Many IT departments send IT people to the room 15 minutes before the meeting to check on the equipment, and then setup the call for the participants. WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS HARD!?
Cisco Launches Spark Board
This is where difficult to use – is – OVER. Introducing the “Spark Board” a 55″ or 70″ device that you mount to the wall and do everything with – I mean everything. No more extra stuff, and everything works in a clean manner. This is a “huge iPad” type device for meeting rooms – and it is as intuitive to use – as a typical mobile tablet. No – it is easier than that. White boarding, video conferencing, screen sharing, calling, collaborating, it is all here. One device, simple design and dead simple interface.
High End Hardware Specifications
Cisco has spent time to make this product of the utmost quality. If you look at the MX series of end points, and the IX5000, Cisco was fanatic about design, everything was metal and glass and this is no different.
A 4K panel with 5.5ms response time and a VERY bright 300+ nits provides a bright picture even in well lit conference rooms. 4K video means quality presentations, video output and split screen capabilities. An amazing MIC array that allows beam forming and software audio normalization and optimization – with the possibility for speaker tracking.
The microphone system is so good, you don’t need table microphones or ceiling microphone arrays. According to FCC Filings the unit is powered by a NVIDIA Jetson TX1 – this means it has an NVIDIA Maxwell architecture with 256 cuda cores, and over 1 teraflop of performance. 64-Bit CPU’s, 4K Video encoders and a camera interface. If this is a standard Jetson, that would be 4GB of LPDDR4 Memory, and 16GB of onboard flash (but they could have added more somewhere). They are using the display and camera headers off the TX1 from what I can see.
The audio system is a 12-element microphone array with intelligent beam forming. The audio is 20Khz wide and includes acoustic echo cancellation, auto gain control, automatic noise reduction and “active lip synchronization”
The panel has a HDMI input, a Home Button, a Whiteboading Pen (Passive) and a 3.5mm mini jack audio out, and 2 USB 3.0 ports. The input resolution is 1920×1080 maximum.
The unit is capacitive touch using an optically bonded glass front, this means that touching the screen feels very natural, and the included white board pen simply sticks to the front of the unit using a magnet, and because of this optically bonded capacitive design, the pen is passive but maintains very high accuracy.
Network connectivity is an RJ-45 Gig Ethernet port, Wifi 802.11 ABGN + AC (2.4 and 5ghz), it is “Bluetooth Ready”, but not sure what the means.
The 55″ Board is 50 x 32 x 1.9 in dimension, and weighs 87.7lbs. Shipped it is 101lbs.
The Camera is 4K 60FPS – not because they want to send 4K video, but because this allows all sorts of future software processing, cropping, tracking. If you look at the IX5000 series, they use 4K cameras and then software process the 1080P frame they want. Same idea here. The Camera Specs for those interested.
- Fixed Lens with Infinite Focus
- 4K P60
- Horizontal Field of View: 86 Degrees
- Vertical Field of View: 55 Degrees
- Camera is mounted tilted at 25 degrees.
The video resolutions are everything from 352×288 CIF,all the way to 1920×1080 30 frames (HD1080P) and anything in between
You literally mount this on the wall like a TV – and start using it in minutes. No need for external microphones or connections.
On the wall, on a stand, against the wall, many options exist for this platform to be placed anywhere. No additional crazy wires, ethernet and power. I can see organizations putting these on rolling carts in hospitals and educational facilities.
Good hardware has been around for awhile – but where this shines is in the software.
Changing The Way People Collaborate
Spark is now adding whiteboards – and what is cool is that after you leave a Spark room, just like today, all the content continues to be available within that Spark room including documents that have been shared, and whiteboard content.
This is a pretty big moment for collaboration rooms, everything has been simplified.
Cisco says “Trust us, but you don’t have to” – everything in Cisco Spark is encrypted, TLS and uses high end encryption – but – at your option you can even deploy your own key management server on your own site, and in that situation, Cisco doesn’t even hold the keys to your data. Nobody, not even Cisco has the keys to your kingdom.
How difficult does it need to be to simply make a call? With Spark Board – you simply walk into the room, and control the device from your mobile phone, or walk up and press the call button and you are talking in second.
If you are running the Cisco Spark App on your laptop or mobile device, the app will use Proximity to recognize you are in the room and you can simply place a call using the app instructing it to use the board.
Simple Content Sharing
With Cisco Spark Board – you can use the power of proximity – using a very tiny application on your laptop the board recognizes when people are present in the room and allows you to cast your screen to the board, and the meeting participants.
The Cisco Spark App automatically connects with room devices, if you are already running the Spark application, your device recognizes your proximity to the board and controls appear on screen – nothing to connect, it all works over WiFi. You can place calls directly from your laptop using the board or cast your screen.
No More Table Mess
What table mess? Nothing goes on the table. These days are over.
Powered In The Cloud
No more rack full of servers sitting there, waiting for you to use them, no more 100K projects to deploy video services systems. The Cisco Spark platform lives in the cloud, everything is there in redundant high availability data centers with high performance connections. Unpack – and go. This also means that organizations with 20 employees could use Spark and the Spark Board affordably. No more extensive expensive back end infrastructure.
This board is ridiculous value the 55″ at $4990 USD MSRP and $9990 USD for 70″ (Expect discounts) for the board, and $169 USD / month for the service the board is crazy accessible to almost every organization out there. Previously solutions like this would cost $40K in hardware, $40K in back end systems, and then another $30-50K in professional services. How Cisco has managed to reach this price point is beyond me. Even if you consider 3 years of Spark service at $169/month the board still barely tips the scales at $10K all in. (Spark user services are required)
Cisco Spark Interface Enhancements
The new interface launch is totally over shadowed by this new Spark Board launch – but the secret is in the software. To power this amazing new hardware platform, Cisco is overhauling the interface and adding new client enhancements and features. Go ahead and update your Spark app, and notice the changes.
The new layout provides instant access to the things that you need and want. Simple interfaces, with no user training necessary to get basic things done.
A new meeting layout that lets you focus on the meeting at hand and collaborate with those in the meeting. Even if you are on a mobile device the experience is optimized.
Even while sharing content – video continues, but the meeting content is visible – on the Spark Board, on your laptop or on a mobile device – the experience is platform optimized.
If this really is an “iPhone” moment for Cisco Spark, this could trigger a huge change in the “Video Conferencing” industry. I say that in quotes because nobody wants to “Video Conference” they want to work, they want to collaborate and they just want to get things done. This thing is so easy to use, the entire platform is super intuitive – something these systems have never been.
I remain puzzled why this thing is so inexpensive – they could have launched the board for twice the price – and nobody would have batted an eye. This is setting a new bar. Perhaps the intent here is to flood the market and gain significant market share for Cisco Spark. Cisco must be selling the board at close to or less than the cost to manufacture it.
Spark is sized for 20-2000+, this makes this kind of technology accessible to every organization of every size and at an affordable cost, this will reduce barrier to entry for many organizations.
When you look at the MX/SX platform as well, this means you can have rooms with Spark Board, and rooms with MX/SX all collaborating together. I question how many customers who have purchased SX10N or MX systems might have a little bit of buyers remorse. I could see some cool possibilities in the future for Spark Board – Cisco tells me “It isn’t over yet” and there are some ideas on the roadmap that sound pretty cool.
The future is looking up for Spark and Cisco. This will be one to watch.