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Cisco Loads Webex Up With New Innovations

This week, Cisco is holding its virtual WebexOne 2021 event. Although the company has had a consistent set of features over the past 18 months, it used this event to unveil several new Webex Suite innovations.
 
While Cisco was caught flat footed when the pandemic began, it’s been getting its collaboration portfolio ready for the era of hybrid work. Hybrid work will no question be the way moving forward, as people want the flexibility to come in the office when they want but work from home at their discretion. Most meetings will have at least one virtual participant and likely more than one. Cisco has been working towards this blending of in-office, home office, and remote working, which they punctuated at WebexOne. Below are the key innovations announced at WebexOne.
 
Webex Hologram
Cisco made plenty of news but none bigger than Webex Hologram. The best way to envision how this works is to compare it science fiction shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Star Wars, where people meet with photo-realistic holograms of remote participants. Cisco shipped me a wireless headset, and I was able to experience it myself, and the imagery of the person I was collaborating with was outstanding.
 
In addition to being able to “see” the other person, we were able to share and manipulate physical content. During my demo, I pulled up a virtual car and was able to spin it, zoom in, and even stick my head inside the window and see the vehicle's interior.
 
While I don’t expect people to be walking around the office wearing 3D VR headsets any time soon, this could be applied to several use cases and industries today, including the medical industry, manufacturing, education, and entertainment.
 
I first saw this about two years ago on the Cisco campus, and Cisco has made significant progress in taking the concept of a hologram from vision to reality. Webex Hologram is currently available in pilot only with no release date yet. This has been the stuff of science fiction, but with Webex Hologram, it is now close to being available as a mainstream collaboration tool.
 
Device Innovation
While it’s fashionable to be software only, hardware still matters. Cisco has used its ability to control the end-to-end experience as a differentiator, like the way Apple goes to market in consumer electronics. Over the past year, it announced several new devices such as the Webex Desk Pro, Desk, and Desk Hub. It added to this lineup with the below:
 
  • Webex Desk Mini —This adds to the new lineup of desktop devices, which include the Webex Desk Pro and Desk. The new mini is a slick, smaller unit with a 15.6-inch, 1080p display atop a base that acts as a speaker and a stand. The Desk Mini is meant to be portable and has a handle on the back, so an at-home worker could easily take it from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom or wherever else they are working. For the first time, Cisco is offering multiple color options, including: First Light, Carbon Black, Woodland Green, Nordic Blue, and Desert Sand. It will also be bringing these colors to its recently released Webex Desk. Different color options are important to people, as many workers would like to match their device to their home's décor. The Webex Desk Mini has a starting price of $995 and will be available in early 2022.
  • Enhanced camera intelligence — Cisco is adding to its People Focus camera capabilities with features that will provide better clarity and an optimized view of in-room attendees’ facial gestures and body language. These AI capabilities are built into the camera and can be used on any meeting service, including Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
  • Webex Whiteboarding — Whiteboarding innovation is critical to hybrid work, as people need to ideate but still share information with remote participants. Webex Whiteboarding enables meeting participants to create, find, edit, and share whiteboards with anyone, including outside people, on Webex touch-enabled devices and mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. The new Webex Board Pro features integrated video, dual 4K cameras, directional audio, and two active styluses. Two versions — a 55 inch for $8,995 and a 75 inch for $14,995 — will be available in November 2021.

The Webex Desk Mini
The Webex Desk Mini
 
Hybrid Work Capabilities
At WebexOne, Cisco announced several new capabilities to power inclusive hybrid working, which include:
  • AI-powered audio intelligence — Cisco has added a new “optimize-for-all-voices” feature, which equalizes voices to ensure all participants can be heard, regardless of how far they are from the microphone. This can help with people at a distance or for people who are just naturally quieter than others. New Speaker selectivity can eliminate background voices for when people are in environments like airports and coffee shops
  • New people management features — Beating burnout and improving engagement has been a focus for Cisco, as the pandemic caused an overuse of meeting products. A new “Connections” feature in Collaboration Insights keeps track of the top 10 people users you collaborated with weekly. This data can be used to streamline meetings instead of over meeting. Cisco has brought well-being and cohesion features to Personal Insights to give teams an anonymous view of work patterns, sentiment ratings and focus time goals. Managers can use this data to coach workers that might be close to burnout.
  • Asynchronous video communications — The previously announced Vidcast is now open to public beta and will be integrated into Webex next Spring. This lets people record, send, watch, and comment over video.
In addition to the above, Cisco announced Webex devices can now be used with Zoom, Microsoft, and Google meetings and over 60 partner integrations such as Smartsheet, Miro, Mural, Thrive Reset, and more.
 
Lastly, Cisco and Bang & Olufsen have partnered to deliver the Cisco 980 luxury headset. Cisco 980 has all the features one would expect in a device like this, such as adaptive noise cancellation and crystal-clear audio. It also has a certain “wow” factor, given the high-end image B&O has in consumer electronics. The suggested retail price of $549 seems very reasonable given the price of premium headsets.
 
The Cisco 980 headset
The Cisco 980 headset
 
The Webex group was reeling 18 months ago, as it lacked many of the core features needed for remote work. Since then, it’s come roaring back, closed the feature gap, and is now outpacing the rest of the industry in almost all areas of collaboration. It’s fair to say Cisco lost the work from home battle, but it’s now focused on ensuring it wins the hybrid-work war.