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How Cisco Is Driving Inclusiveness Via Webex


Clapping hands
Image: Tartila -
From a societal perspective, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the “great reset,” a time when many of us looked at our lives and reevaluated our priorities. Organizations large and small took an inward look as well, reassessing how they handled social issues. Cisco is one example of the latter.
For years, Cisco was the company that enabled us to “work, live, play and learn” better because of the network. But in response to the pandemic, social justice, sustainability, and other factors, Cisco decided to pivot its mission statement. As introduced in June at Cisco Live 2020, the company’s new driving force is: “powering an inclusive future.”
The ability to power inclusiveness has many meanings for Cisco. The network brings connection and therefore better education to all parts of the world, democratizing the learning process. Its Webex collaboration suite also plays a key role in inclusiveness, particularly in a world in which we must remain socially distanced for the immediate future.
Country, state, and local borders are shrinking, and more people are meeting virtually at an unprecedented rate. As No Jitter readers are well-aware, advanced collaboration tools, like Webex, ensure that every person can participate in a conversation regardless of their geographic location. But digital collaboration tools can also help with physical disabilities, or even a low comfort level with technology. These are some of the ideas behind Cisco’s all-new Webex (see my previous post on the new Webex here).
From the start, Cisco designed Webex to be an inclusive tool, although it has had certain limitations. We can look to the education experience as one case in point. Any student who has sat through a real-time video class can relate to feeling left out at one point or another. Including every student in a conversation within a short timeframe is unrealistic with a traditional UC product. But thanks to AI-powered gesture recognition, teachers now have a way of knowing whether students are engaging during virtual classes.
Cisco’s new in-meeting gestures feature reads body language and displays that on screen as a pop-up emoji so participants can more visibly express themselves. In a virtual classroom scenario, this can be a useful tool for students to provide feedback — by showing a thumbs-up or applauding — without need to press any buttons. Students who raise their hand instantly alert the teacher with an icon that pops up, along with a beep. Cisco said it developed this feature to mimic the classroom experience, which feels more natural than clicking reaction emojis.
Early elementary school students have an especially difficult time participating in distance learning. The gestures tool can be a gamechanger for younger children who can’t yet read or use a mouse. The same goes for remote workers with different technology comfort levels or introvert types who prefer nonverbal engagement.
Since gestures aren’t universal, Cisco is localizing the tool to reflect cultural norms in different countries around the world. Cisco foresees gestures being a valuable tool that people will use in every Webex meeting, rather than being just some esoteric new feature.
This isn’t just for schools either. During an all-hands meeting, a CEO could get immediate feedback from all employees, not just the tech-savvy ones, via clapping, thumbs-up, or thumbs-down. Without the gesturing capabilities, the speaker would have no inkling as to how people are receiving the message.
AI is the key element driving Cisco’s inclusivity roadmap. Cisco has been offering automated transcription and real-time closed captioning for some time. Both features deliver an inclusive experience to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have various other communication needs. Transcription utilizes AI-powered voice technology to capture speech-to-text and closed captioning lets meeting participants follow along on the screen.
Starting in February, Webex users will have the option to view live closed captions in more than 10 languages, including Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Dutch, and Japanese. Each meeting participant will be able to select their language of choice without impacting other users. Localizing real-time meetings in native languages is an opportunity for organizations to include people who couldn’t participate in the past.
Cisco recently made other changes in Webex to improve video for remote workers. Considering not everyone has the luxury of working in a separate room or a quiet space, some remote workers stay muted during meetings. Home environments are full of distractions and background sounds, which is why Cisco introduced noise reduction and speech enhancement. Webex employs deep learning speech algorithms to produce clear speech. It also automatically detects and suppresses common noises, boosting participants’ concentration. Parents, for example, no longer have to shy away from partaking in videoconference calls when their kids are home during work hours.
In the works are Webex enhancements aimed at providing an inclusive, intuitive meeting experience. Cisco said it is laser-focused on developing future AI-based collaboration applications, as the technology matures.
In society, we often over-rotate to the issue of the day, as magnified by the media. But Cisco didn’t just focus its “inclusive” efforts merely at race or equal pay — though CEO Chuck Robbins has been vocal about these topics. Rather, Cisco is including anyone who is at a disadvantage, be that because of disability, age, or an aversion to tech. Cisco’s goal should be to democratize all Webex features and make them so easy to use that everyone can access them, and really every collaboration vendor should do the same for their portfolios. This would create a level field in the business world and society, which in turn would mean a better world for us all.