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Cisco Launches the Spark Board

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Cisco Launches the Spark Board
    

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1 Feb 2017
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Cisco Launches the Spark Board

The industry most recent worst-kept secret is finally public.  On January 24, 2017, at a well-attended launch event in San Francisco, Cisco announced the newest addition to the Cisco Spark family … the Cisco Spark Board.

The event kicked off with a keynote by CEO Chuck Robbins who explained that Cisco was about to reveal a “new technology that will revolutionize the ability for teams to collaborate, innovate, and communicate.”  Robbins continued by explaining that this was the first product release in a long innovation pipeline that we will see in 2017.

A few minutes later, Robbins handed the stage over to Rowan Trollope, SVP and GM of IoT and Applications. 

As always, Rowan’s session did not disappoint.  According to Trollope, Spark Board was three years in the making and addresses a long-standing meeting room challenge: full-featured meeting rooms are too hard to use, and easy-to-use meeting rooms often lack key features.  For what it’s worth, we absolutely agree.

Then, after some additional fanfare, Rowan revealed the Spark Board.  In all seriousness, the picture below does not do the Spark Board justice.

At its core, Spark Board is a 4K touch display available in 55” or 70” sizes.  The Spark Board brings three key features to the meeting room; wireless presentation, digital white boarding, and high quality video conferencing.

But unlike many competing “board” products (e.g. Microsoft Surface Hub), the Spark Board is a cloud-powered device that is designed to be used exclusively with the Cisco Spark cloud service.  Viewed another way, the Spark Board is a physical manifestation or conduit into the Cisco Spark cloud.  WR refers to such solutions as cloud-attach offerings.

At last count, WR was covering more than 20 somewhat related collaboration devices from well-known or longstanding vendors (e.g. Microsoft, Oblong, Prysm, Smart, etc.) to relatively new players (e.g. Bluescape, Comm-Tec, etc.).  So what makes the Spark Board special?  In short, Cisco’s no-compromise, end-to-end approach.

In the audio, video, and web conferencing world, the conferencing product or service acts as a medium that brings people together virtually.  Success with these solutions requires the related technology to blend into the background, allowing the participants to interact with each other in a natural way.

Solutions like the Spark Board, however, are quite different.  Instead of blending into the background, these solutions are designed to empower a team collaboration experience.  WR refers to these solutions as “ideation” solutions, which today constitute a ~ $1.5B market segment. Success in this space requires a feature set and natural workflow that foster creativity.  Conversely, failure means the solution stifles creativity, forcing participants to arm wrestle with the technology in order to bring their ideas to bear.

This is where Cisco’s no-compromise approach comes in.  Unlike many competing solutions that use standard (inexpensive) touch technology, the Spark Board sports a full capacitive touch surface similar to that found on smart phones and tablets.  Based on our 15-minutes of hands-on testing at the event, we’d say Cisco nailed it in this area.  The Spark Board provides highly quality digital inking, using either the provided pen or your finger, that feels extremely natural to use.

Side note - according to our measurements, Spark Board’s inking latency is ~ 80 ms compared to 120 – 160 ms for other similar sized board solutions.  This provides a highly responsive, low delay experience.

Image result for cisco spark board

In the area of wireless presentation, the Spark Board also performed admirably.  The Cisco Spark application uses ultrasonic pairing (dubbed Proximity by Cisco) to find and pair the user’s device with a local Spark Board.  Once paired, presenting on the Spark Board requires just a quick swipe.  No cables.  No connectors.  No complex passcodes.  No need to pre-load any content.  It’s just that simple.

As a conferencing device, the Spark Board brings the power of a 4K 60 fps camera and a 12-element mic array to bear, offering extremely high quality video conferencing.

Starting a conference on a Spark Board leverages the same Cisco Proximity feature - participants use their mobile device to launch a call on the board itself.  In addition, users can transfer a call in progress on their mobile device to a Spark Board using a similar workflow.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t assess the audio performance on the trade show floor, but given Cisco’s track record we expect that Spark Board will perform well in this area.

Image result for cisco spark board

The icing on the cake is the power of the Spark Board’s connection to the Cisco Spark service which:

  • Simplifies device registration

  • Enables remote users (using the Spark app) and additional Spark Boards to participate in joint multi-location sessions

  • Allows participants to access and use existing content stored within the Spark service or within other cloud services (e.g. Box)

  • Automatically stores all created / shared content in the cloud in a highly secure manner

To enable these capabilities, Cisco added a number of additional features and hooks to the Spark service.

Side Note - Cisco has invested considerable time and effort into making Cisco Spark as secure as possible.  And while other vendors promote encryption “at rest and in transit,” within this environment all related content and media are encrypted locally (at the device) first, and then remain encrypted at all times.  Cisco has even incorporated a way for authorized users to search encrypted content without the need to decrypt the information.  This makes the overall Cisco Spark environment more IT / security friendly than some competing cloud offerings.

And finally, the Spark Board device itself is absolutely stunning.  As Cisco is fond of saying, Cisco collaboration systems have no back --- only a second front.  This holds true with the Spark Board, which was designed and engineered with attention to every detail.  We believe the Spark Board would be at home in any type of meeting room – including the Executive Boardroom.

So what’s missing?  What are the weak links?  Fair question.  And yes – there are a few items we’d like to see in future versions / releases.  For example, in its first release, Spark Board does not support …

  • Multiple simultaneously active virtual white board windows
  • Virtual white boards that are larger than the display itself
  • Annotation on top of existing content
  • The display of more than one content item at a time
  • The use of third party applications

To be fair, some of the above items could be categorized as Cisco design choices intended to keep the Cisco Spark experience easy and simple.  For example, by blocking 3rd party apps and APIs, Cisco protects the overall user experience.  Lest we forget that the iPhone was as a closed environment for its first few years on the market.

Finally, the need to connect the Spark Board to the Spark service to use the device may be an issue for some users. 

The Spark Board is priced at $4,990 for the 55” model and $9,990 for the 70” model.  In addition, customers must pay an additional $199 per month service fee per Spark Board.  This monthly fee includes software updates and unlimited data / video calls via the worldwide Cisco Cloud.

So what’s the market feedback on Spark Board?  The channel partners we spoke to before, during, and after the event were excited about the board, and rumor has it that pre-orders are very healthy.

Overall, we enjoyed the Cisco launch event and give Team Rowan kudos yet again for another well thought out, well designed, and beautiful product.  Our only question is: when do we get our Spark Board?

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