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Hey Spark, How Is Cisco Partner Summit?

Cisco this week is holding its annual reseller conference, Partner Summit, in Dallas. When Rowan Trollope, SVP & GM of IoT and Applications at Cisco, delivered his keynote today, the company unveiled its AI-powered voice assistant with the not so inventive name of "Cisco Spark Assistant." There is, of course, a veritable cornucopia of voice assistants out there, as we can ask Siri, Google, Alexa, Cortana or other popular AIs a question and get a prompt answer back. So why should anyone care about "Hey Spark"?

The reasons that communications and collaboration industry professionals should care is because the Spark AI is entirely focused on improving meetings. It may not be able to tell you the address of the closest gas station or who wrote the song "Funky Town," but it will improve the efficiency of meetings. And given how inefficient meetings can be today, the Spark AI assistant should have Cisco resellers excited about the potential to change the entire dynamics of meetings.

Some of the industry followers may remember Rowan demonstrating Monica at a Cisco event a couple of years ago and Jens Meggers, SVP & GM of Cisco's Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, saying "Hey Spark" on stage at Enterprise Connect last March, but this is a different product built on the technology from the MindMeld acquisition announced in May. (In an interesting bit of irony, with Jens' German accent, it sounded like he was saying "Hey Spock," which is the name of the Vulcan that was always giving people "mind melds" on Star Trek. That's not meaningful in anyway, but as Spock would say, it is "fascinating.")

The Spark AI will be made available first on the Cisco Spark Room series as well as on the new Cisco Spark Room 70 system, also announced this week at Partner Summit and shown below. The new room system will replace the widely adopted MX800 video system. Cisco does plan to eventually make the Spark Assistant available on other Spark software clients and hardware endpoints but the new Spark Room 70 is where it is getting its first breath.

Details of the new Spark Room 70 are:

  • 70" 4K, 1080p screens available in single and dual screen models
  • Quad 5k cameras, which is double the number of cameras of the MX800 in half the space. One camera captures the whole room for intelligent framing and the other zooms in on the speaker. The cameras are also used for facial recognition and to count the number of attendees in the meeting.
  • Similar look and feel to other Spark devices which have won several Red Dot awards
  • System can be registered on premises or to the Cisco Collaboration Cloud
  • Powered by NVIDIA Jetson GPUs. For those who don't follow the silicon space, NVIDIA GPUs are to machine learning and AI what Intel CPUs were to PCs. The Jetson processors should give Cisco plenty of overhead for more innovation and local data processing.


The Spark Assistant leverages other Cisco meeting room technology, such as intelligent proximity and speaker tracking, so it knows who people are, who enters or leaves a room, and who is talking.

As I mentioned, Cisco isn't trying to make the Spark Assistant do all things for all people. Instead, its sole purpose is to help with all those super boring tasks that need to be done in meetings. The product will be rolled out in phases, with the first phase being early 2018. Cisco provided a few of the capabilities we'll see in that first phase period. These include:

Start your meeting without any typing or dialing:

  • "Hey Spark. Join the meeting."
  • "Hey Spark. I want to start the meeting."
  • "Hey Spark. Let's get started."

Join WebEx meetings:

  • "Hey Spark. Call my meeting room."
  • "Hey Spark. Call Victor's PMR."
  • "Hey Spark. Call Michael's meeting room."

Call anyone in your company:

  • "Hey Spark. Call Sydney."

Control your Cisco Spark endpoint:

  • "Hey Spark. End the meeting."
  • "Hey Spark. Record this meeting."

The first phase will be a controlled release where Cisco Spark Assistant will use feedback from a select group of customers to make itself better. The goal is to make the assistant itself a valuable participant of every meeting where it can do other things like take notes, summarize meetings, assign tasks, and eventually kill us all as it becomes self-aware and decides all people do is make meetings inefficient.

Since Rowan Trollope joined Cisco, the Collaboration group has had a singular mission, and that is to create technology that delivers flawless experiences. And the Spark Assistant will be no different. To accomplish this, Cisco has loaded it up with technology such as speech recognition, natural language processing, dialogue management, question answering and machine learning from MindMeld. I expect over time it will add things like language translation, video analytics, and other features to further improve meetings.

There has been a lot of hype in the industry around machine learning and voice assistants. To date, most of the use has been for consumer purposes so it's good to see it now being used to help workers be more productive. We are at the very early stages of understanding what's possible so this should be an exciting area to watch over the next few years. Hey Spark, I'll see you at Enterprise Connect in 2018.

At Enterprise Connect Orlando 2018, coming March 12 to 15, hear directly from Cisco on its vision and product direction in a keynote address. Jonathan Rosenberg, VP & CTO of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, will take the stage on Tuesday, March 13 at 10 AM. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Advance Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

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