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Cisco Acquires BabbleLabs for Noise Suppression Smarts
BabbleLabs, founded in 2017, today focuses on improving meeting quality through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. BabbleLabs offers noise suppression and speech enhancement technology, called Clear Edge, that is able to distinguish human voices and quickly mute out all of the non-voice background noise. A couple of examples that most people are likely familiar with are the loud typist and the potato-chip eater. Both are annoying and highly disruptive to meetings.
The need for this type of technology, particularly in the COVID-19-induced world where everyone is working from home, should be obvious. When at the office, most people can either close their door or go into a conference room when they want quiet for a Webex meeting. When working from home, everything changes. Barking dogs, landscapers mowing outside, vacuum cleaners, video games, kids crying, or a wide range of other noises can overshadow conversations during Webex meetings at home. While we’ve all become tolerant to these kinds of background noises, they’re still disruptions and can result in less-than-optimal meetings.
This video from the BabbleLabs website demonstrates how fast and effective Clear Edge is. As I saw a couple of years ago at an innovation day, Cisco has been working on this same sort of technology. In its case, as shown at the time, it was approaching the challenge by auto-muting the offending line. The acquisition of BabbleLabs accelerates Cisco’s activities here and brings some new capabilities. Clear Edge differs in that it removes the noise so that a meeting can keep on speaking with nobody none the wiser that a dog is barking ferociously in the background (see related post, “Sound Advice: Clean Up Your Noisy Meetings,” on No Jitter sister site, WorkSpace Connect.
The biggest difference between BabbleLabs and most other vendors that are working on similar technology is that most other solutions operate in the cloud. This might seem logical, as all the meeting systems are SaaS-based, but it is limiting. BabbleLabs can work in the cloud, but also in a software client, on a device, and even in a WebRTC client. This means Cisco could embed the technology into something like its Desk Pro desktop collaboration display and workers could enjoy the benefits even without using Webex. It’s possible a user could be doing a Zoom call on a Desk Pro and still have the ability to mute out background noise. This is consistent with Cisco’s strategy for built-in endpoint features, including background blur and virtual backgrounds. It also means Cisco can embed the technology into its conference phones and softphones that run on PCs and mobile devices. The local processing removes any concerns over the voice streams being sent to and from the cloud.
There’s also an interesting contact center angle here for Cisco. Contact center agents, not exempt from the WFH trend, often are dealing with customer calls from their living rooms or kitchen counters. The ability to ensure a customer call is of the highest quality and not interrupted by external noises could be the difference between a satisfied customer and one that leaves annoyed because they couldn’t hear the agent. Customer experience is the top brand differentiator now and an agent that presents well goes a long way into ensuring happy customers.
Similar to Clear Edge is Poly’s Acoustic Fence, which builds an invisible wall around a person, similar to Get Smart’s cone of silence. While the feature does eliminate all background noise, it doesn’t get rid of noises within the fenced area. So, if you’re on a call with that loud typist or a person playing the radio, that noise will still exist.
One interesting aspect is that this type of noise suppression technology could be used to make IoT devices more touchless. COVID-19 is going to forever change the way we interact with things. Instead of needing to turn on devices physically, a user should be able to speak to the endpoint to do so. This is feasible in a carpeted conference room, but what about factory floors, garages, schools, retail stores, and other environments with lots of background noise? Clear Edge can make interacting with these devices much easier and efficient.
While WFH brings immediacy to addressing the noise problem, I do like the long-term implications of this as well. As somebody who spends an inordinate amount of time on the road, I often find myself working from coffee shops, airport lounges, in food courts, and other noisy locations. As we return to whatever the future “normal” looks like, WFH will transition to work from anywhere. Businesses will allow people to continue to be remote but working from a home office day, after day, after day becomes monotonous. Sometimes taking a short walk down to Starbucks provides a badly needed change of scenery that keeps us sane, and with BabbleLabs I could work from there as effectively as I could from home.
This acquisition adds to a strong run of features Cisco has released for Webex in the past few months. Noise removal and speech enhancement tops off a list that includes virtual backgrounds, background blur, Webex Assistant, whiteboarding, real-time captions and transcriptions, and improvements to packet-loss compensation.
With this acquisition, Cisco is getting a very strong group of people to add to the collaboration team. When Cisco buys small companies, the acquisitions are typically as much about the people as they are about the technology. BabbleLabs co-founders Chris Rowan, CEO; Samer Hijazi, CTO; Raul Casas, chief scientist; and Dror Maydan, head of engineering; have over 100 patents combined. They’re four of BabbleLabs’ 33 employees.
This acquisition is expected to close in Cisco’s current quarter (Q1 FY21) and will become part of the Cisco Collaboration Technology Group, headed up by Javed Khan and reporting into member Jeetu Patel, SVP and GM, and member of Cisco’s executive leadership team.