All A-Board, the Cisco Spark Board

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The world has no greater champion for making communication easy than Rowan Trollope.  The image above is of Rowan on stage at Cisco Partner Summit on November 1, 2016.  The contents of the wheel barrow he’s wielding represent the current equipment load of the average meeting room.  Take a look at what you see in there – the picture may be of potato quality but I’m sure you recognize many of the relics – two projectors, assorted infrared remote controls, a computer monitor, a computer tower, an assortment of network and video cables, some microphones and most notably, a whiteboard.  Rowan demonstrates, and I whole heartedly recommend, that you DUMP these devices in favor of a revolutionary experience!

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That revolutionary experience, of course, is the Cisco Spark Board.  Part whiteboard, part video endpoint, part large screen display, the Spark Board isn’t just going to change the way you meet, it’s going to change the way you work.  The idea behind the Spark Board is simple – remove the barriers to effective communication by making meeting and collaboration easy.  The minds at Cisco, and Rowan in particular, have correctly observed that there is tremendous room for improvement in the average meeting experience.  Although there has been great penetration in the video conferencing space over the last couple of years, there remain a very large number of conference spaces in the world that never made the cut for infrastructure-intensive and expensive video systems.  Worse still are the rooms that were over-“improved” with so many different complicated point solutions that only a single individual knows how to get a meeting started and pain is inflicted on all new comers.  The Spark Board aims to simplify your meetings by eliminating conference room sprawl and replacing it with a single, intelligent Spark powered device.

Let’s begin our dissection with the feature I believe is the most valuable in the Spark Board and where it derives its name – the ability to replace a whiteboard.  Whiteboards have seen a remarkable number of attempted disruptions all with limited success (I admit ignorance about the success of SMART boards in classrooms).  From old school chalkboards, to paint-on, whole wall whiteboards that are near impossible to erase cleanly, to the whiteboards Panasonic built that scroll a film for drawing and do an awful job of printing the things drawn on film with an attached thermal printer, to Cisco’s own digital WebEx whiteboard capability, there is a common adjective to describe them all – mediocre.  For physical whiteboards in a room, much like Vegas, the content drawn in the room stays in the room.  The only way whiteboard contents leave an environment is through individuals snapping pictures of the board with their cellphones (admit it, you’re guilty).

Spark Board overcomes this limitation (and others) by allowing the annotations drawn on the board to be shared in real-time directly with participants in a Spark room.  Not only can those participants see your annotations, they can also annotate all on their own at the same time.  You read that right, the experience that can be had by two people on other sides of a continent can be the identical to two people standing shoulder to shoulder in the same room.  With four different drawing colors it is possible to have up to four discretely identifiable participants making their mark on the meeting.  Adding to that power is the drawings and annotations are automatically saved to the Spark room associated with the meeting.  This means no more cellphone pictures of whiteboards that you struggle to read later on.  I’ve already had a taste of drawing like this with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and let me tell you, it is a very exciting thing – almost like the first time you sat in front of a high quality video endpoint and realized you had a new way to communicate that was going to make your life easier.

New content is easy to generate using the Cisco Spark Board marker, but what about sharing traditional content like PowerPoints and PDFs with your audience?  The Spark Board has done away with our wired past in a brilliant way, by pairing itself to a device, user and room through ultrasonic pairing in the style of Cisco Proximity.  Now, if you have ever used Proximity you know it has a fatal design flaw – the user who wants to connect must be on the same network as the endpoint.  This is a big problem if a customer wants to follow along from a paired cellphone or a contractor wants to use the feature to share a presentation.  The Spark Board overcomes this by drawing (pun intended) its sharing capabilities directly from the Spark room, which, of course, stores all its content in the internet accessible cloud.  For an individual to share content on the Spark Board, he or she need merely post the content in the room then the Board can load it directly.  This can be done from guest wireless without an issue so long as the internet is accessible.

These sharing capabilities are so simple, and so powerful it is easy to forget that the Spark Board is also a very capable video endpoint as well.  Having both a 4K 120 Hz display and 4K 60fps fixed-focal length camera, the Spark Board provides a strong video showing.  It should be obvious that it is no SX or MX unit, but super high quality video isn’t what it’s made for.  More impressive than the video experience is the innovative way Cisco is improving the audio experience by building the microphones into the Board.  Instead of relying on cabled overhead or table microphones, the Spark Board has an internal array of twelve (12) mics.  In a similar manner to how Cisco’s wireless access points use MIMO and some amazing math to reconstitute a data stream from one RF signal arriving at different times and orientations due to reflection and multipath, the Spark Board is able to intelligently process the noisy incoming audio streams (waveforms just like 2.4 or 5GHz signals) from each microphone and assemble a much cleaner audio signal that gets sent to remote participants.

The features I’ve described eliminate the need for a white board, a projector, remote controls, a dedicated PC, a video conferencing unit, table microphones, table-consuming starfish-style conference phones and extender mics, dongles, markers, erasers, spray cleaner or any other vestige of a traditional in-person meeting room.  With a single device providing such a compelling replacement for these things I think we’re about to witness a large culture shift in the way we collaborate.  Please watch my YouTube video which shows some simple usage for more detail. If you’d like to dig deeper, please reach out to your Presidio account manager.  If you don’t have, or don’t know, your Presidio account manager, please reach out to me and I’ll put you in touch!

Author: Paul Giblin

Paul Giblin is a Senior Solutions Architect with Presidio, a CCIE 24607, a renaissance man, tinkerer, machinist, golfer, chef, motorcyclist, hacker, backhoe operator, husband and father

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