Cisco’s Spark Board looks like an iPad – and acts like one

Cisco's Spark Board has tight integration with iOS devices (Image: IDGNS)

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25 January 2017 | 0

The Spark Board meeting device introduced by Cisco Systems is not so much a whiteboard or a videoconferencing screen as a giant tablet that everyone in the room can share.

There is even a ‘home’ button in the centre of the bottom bezel that takes you back to the main menu. If Apple did not have a partnership with Cisco, one might even expect it to accuse the networking giant of copying the iPad design.

But Apple and Cisco are in fact working together, so closely that iPhones can work with the Spark Board a little more smoothly than other phones do. And in developing the new all-in-one device, Cisco focused on simplicity and ease of use, which have not exactly been hallmarks of the networking giant’s products up to now.

Familiar and new
“For this product, we needed something that was familiar. We needed an experience that was obvious,” said Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of IoT and applications, as he introduced the product in San Francisco.

Rather than a peripheral for a meeting leader’s PC, the Spark Board is a full-fledged client designed specifically to run Spark, Cisco’s cloud-based collaboration service. Users can draw on it with their fingers or with an expensive-looking black aluminium pen meant to simulate a dry-erase marker, and the screen even has a pinch-to-zoom feature like phones and tablets do for blowing up small details.

Like the first iPhone, the Spark Board is three things in one: a presentation display, a whiteboard and a videoconferencing system. These come in the form of a 1397 or 1778mm (55” or 70”) 4K touchscreen display with a camera, microphones and speakers. They cost $4,990 (€4,653) and $9,990 (€9,314), respectively, plus $199 (€186) per month for software. Cisco says these can match the quality of dedicated room systems. It was hard to verify that claim under the demonstration conditions at Cisco’s event, but the ease of starting up meetings and shifting between video chats and whiteboarding was convincing.

Streamlined
Things are even more streamlined for Apple users. The Spark Board is tightly integrated with iOS, said Jonathan Rosenberg, a Cisco Fellow and vice president and CTO for the company’s collaboration business. For one thing, it can use the iPhone’s native Contacts database to automatically create entries for dialling in to Spark Board sessions.

The Spark Board is just a first step toward what Trollope sees as a new mode of computing that will be shared instead of personal. The idea is that people who share workspaces and content shouldn’t have to work through computers designed for individuals. Cloud computing, which powers everything the Spark Board does, at least for now, helps to make that possible. There is more to come on this vision, but ease of use is the starting point, Trollope said.

Horsepower
For example, the Spark Board has enough computing power, thanks to a pair of Nvidia Jetson TX1 chips, to use face recognition to tell which participants are missing a meeting, Trollope said. Cisco has many more features in mind and will choose which to implement based on data it anonymously collects about how customers use the Spark Board, he said.

Some new security options are on the way, too. All inputs shared in a Spark Board meeting, such as drawings on the interactive whiteboard, are encrypted on the user’s device before being sent to the cloud, said Jens Meggers, senior vice president of cloud collaboration. The keys to encrypt and decrypt that data come from a global cloud and are discarded as soon as they’re used.

In the next few months, Cisco will offer alternatives to meet strict security and privacy needs, Meggers said. Customers will be able to have keys generated in their own region of the world or on their own premises instead of in Cisco’s global cloud.

“This product isn’t done,” Rosenberg said in a press briefing at the launch event. “This is the beginning.”

 

 

IDG News Service

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